Monday, 1 August 2016

The Wola massacre - Rzeź Woli

Since 1989, when communism in Poland ended, and the hand of the Soviet Union delving in to Poland's affairs  ceased, Poles became free to remember their real history .  Poles became free to commemorate the Warsaw uprising, previously forbidden under the rule of PZPR (Polish United Workers Party) and their Soviet overseers.  

Forbidden, because to do so truthfully would be to reveal that the Soviet army sat over the other side of the Wisla river, doing nothing to help as Warsaw burned  and Poland's AK army fought the Nazis. To do so, would be to expose Stalin's refusal to allow Britain's Royal Air Force, (RAF) access to Soviet held airfields to supply the Polish army.  

To do would also expose that whilst the Red army sat doing nothing to help, they complicitly aided the Nazis to eventually defeat the Polish army and insurgents. During that same period ,the NKWD (KGB predecessors) ran riot through Warsaw's eastern suburbs and Praga, rounding up and imprisoning/torturing/executing Polish AK members, opposition and anyone else who they found disagreeable.  

In the meantime at ul Twarda 22 in Warsaw's centre, some plotted another vision of Poland, the creation of Krajowej Rady Narodowej  - the National Council. A political body which set out a plan to create a self proclaimed parliament which allegedly represented Poland and allegedly was authorized to act on behalf of the people and control its fate until the liberation from occupation.  In essence the establishment along Soviet lines of a Polish communist state. 

The ruins of ul Twarda 22

Strangely no plaque or monument stands on the site of ul Twarda 22, today, now the car park of Spektrum tower.

As all this chicanery, espionage, obfuscation and dark deeds occurred  at the hands of the Soviets and their puppets, Warsaw fought the Nazis , it burned, bled, and for 63 days struggled for freedom until forced to surrender.   

After the war, Poles were forbidden to publicly commemorate the uprising , and no books discussing the subject seriously were published before 1980.  No monument to Poland's AK army soldiers was erected until 1989. 

Post war, AK soldiers and officers were captured, executed , many sent , hundreds if not thousands of miles to camps in the East, senior officers imprisoned and tortured in basements of buildings in Warsaw's Praga and Wlochy suburbs.

Monument in ul Strzelecka to AK prisoners held + tortured here

On the 1st of August every year, Warsaw and Poland commemorate the fight and sacrifice of their capital city,  at  Godzina W (Hour W) 17:00. 

Memorial stones at the many execution, and atrocity sites are cleaned by local school children, flowers and candles  are placed at each one with the Polish red and white flag and the symbol of the uprising. In Powaski cemetery and the park of remembrance where the graves of 200,000 plus Warsovians and soldiers lie, candles flicker, as Red and White Polish flags billow in the breeze. 


At 17:00 the sirens sound, the city comes to a complete standstill and silence, not a car or tram or bus stirring. All public transport carrying the red and white flag of Poland and the Yellow and Red flag of Warsaw. 

For all the commemoration in Warsaw and Poland, since 1989, this was a subject  which was mainly hidden from Western eyes, post war. A subject not written about in truth until the 1980s, and still many atrocities,  stories and accounts have still not been told in English. Communism and the Polish language  prevented the world from seeing the true horror of what unfolded in Warsaw for 63 days in 1944. 

It is important that the world knows what went on in Warsaw in 1944, it is vital that the tragedy, atrocities, and inhumane acts carried out by the Nazis are recorded and shared so the memory of those murdered, tortured, raped and barbarically killed are not forgotten or lost in vain.

The Warsaw uprising itself has since been documented by the BBC, and the battles shown in Miasto 44 and The Piano Player feature films notably.  Whilst surviving insurgents and  proud families of the fallen are now able to publish pictures, memories and memoirs of the battles and their bravery, the fate of Warsaw's civilians in 1944 is a story rarely told in the West, and exceedingly rarely in languages other than Polish. 

Every year I translate and write real life history of Warsaw uprising battles, and stories from the official testimony of the participants and witnesses. I do so to share Warsaw's bloody tragic past with the world , to educate, to show what hatred, intolerance, and war does.

 But this year there is no writing of battles, it is time the story of the Wola massacre was told. 

Wola massacre monument

 It is grim reading, no parts have been censored or changed, nothing held back, just the harsh truth, of what war, prejudice, hatred does. To show what fascism and Nazi''s enacted on the streets of Warsaw to Poles.

The Wola massacre ( Rzeź Woli, ) was the systematic killing of between 40,000 and 50,000 people in the Wola district of  Warsaw by  German Nazi troops and collaborationist forces during the early phase of the Warsaw uprising.

From 5th to 12th August 1944, tens of thousands of Polish civilians along with captured Home Army resistance fighters were brutally and systematically murdered by the Germans in organised mass executions throughout Wola.  The Germans hoped that these atrocities would crush the insurgents will to fight and put the uprising to a swift end. However, the ruthless massacres in Wola only strengthened Polish resistance.

On 3rd August SS General von dem Bach-Zelewski was placed in command of all German forces in Warsaw. Following direct orders from Himmler to suppress the uprising without mercy, his strategy was to include the use of  terror against the inhabitants of Warsaw. No distinction would be made between insurgents and civilians.

Himmler's orders explicitly stated that Warsaw was to be completely destroyed and that the civilian population was to be exterminated. 

On 5th August, three German battle groups started their advance towards the city centre from the outskirts of  Wola, along ul Wolska  and ul Gorczewska. The German forces consisted of units from the Wehrmacht, SS Police Battalion, as well as the mostly Russian SS Sturmbrigade RONA  and the SS Sturmbrigade  infamous Waffen SS convict unit led by Oskar Dirlewanger . British historian Martin Windrow described Dirlewanger's unit as a "terrifying rabble" of "cut-throats, renegades, sadistic morons, and cashiered rejects from other units".

"It was a clear hot summer day, that 5th of August, not at all a time to be thinking of death, let alone of the sort of hideous slaughter awaiting the innocents of Warsaw.

The units of Dirlewanger had begun assembling for their first major counter-attack in the early hours of that sultry morning. The target was Wola; Dirlewanger's 1st Battalion took up a position south of the main street, Wolska Street. Meanwhile in Ochota, the southern area of Wola, some 300-400 Polish soldiers were to face 1,700 of Kaminski's men under the command of Major Frolov, a turncoat Russian.

The fact that the Poles stood firm and prevented Kaminski from moving more than 300 yards was not due solely to Polish battle skill.  Kaminski's men did not want to attack until they were assured that they could loot and plunder to their heart's content. Although SS Command in Warsaw had fixed the attack deadline for 0800 hours, it proved quite beyond Kaminski to keep it. Indeed he was not ready for another 90 minutes.

Wola Massacre memorial at ul Gorczewska

It was but a small delay for Warsaw. What happened once Kaminski teamed up with Dirlewanger should perhaps not have surprised or shocked anyone. It was as if the subordinates of Himmler had actually stayed their hand until then, waiting to unleash against their hated foes a vast holocaust of terror and cruelty, the ferocity of which had been kept in cold storage. 

Himmler's two morally abysmal executioners went to work . On 5th August, Dirlewanger's SS convicts managed to advance about 1,000 yards. Their concern was not solely getting to grips with Polish insurgents. Fuelled by vodka, and amphetamines like demented men, they stormed into the houses they passed on or near the battle-line.

Inhabitants were ordered to leave. There were promises of "evacuation". But the fate that awaited them was to be herded into cellars, cemeteries, gardens, backyards, factory forecourts and squares. Then the murder squads set to work on men and women and children, often assembled in their nightclothes and with no time to remove the sleep from their eyes. The prisoners were burned alive, the babies impaled on bayonets and stuck out of windows like flags, the women were hung upside down from balconies in rows. The purpose, Himmler had told Goebbels, was that the sheer violence and terror of repression would extinguish revolt "in a  very few days."

Women and children being "evacuated by Germans on ul Wolska 1944

Witness testimony

Record No. 60

On August 7, 1944, about 9 p.m., at No. 15, Gorczewska Street, the three and four-storeyed Wawelberg blocks were surrounded by Germans (SS-men). They threw hand-grenades inside, surrounded the houses with machine-guns, and set them on fire from all sides. Any persons who tried to get out were killed. People in flames ran to the windows. Nobody could escape from the fire; they were all burnt alive. It was a miracle if someone escaped. I know of one woman who jumped from the second storey and thus succeeded in saving her life. The front entrance was full of the bodies of those who had tried to escape from the flames. I saw among them women with babies at the breast. The houses were completely surrounded, and I suppose there must have been about 2,000 people living in them. No one came out alive unless by miracle, as in the case of the woman I have mentioned above."
The corpses were piled in large heaps, phosphorous powder or petrol was poured over them and they were set on fire. The killers covered over ashes and bones with the rubble of ruined houses. Buildings that remained were burnt down.


Witness testimony 
Record No. 59

On August 5, 1944, at Warsaw at about 4 or 5 p.m., the houses Nos. 105,107, 109, Wolska Street immediately behind the railway bridge, the so-called Hankiewicz houses, were suddenly surrounded from all sides by Germans, who threw hand-grenades and set then on fire by means of some white powder, which they carried in bags. There were many inhabitants there and lots of people had come here from town. No order to leave the houses was given. After the Germans had surrounded them no one left them: everyone was burnt alive or else killed by hand-grenades. No one could escape. Only those were saved who had left the houses at some earlier hour. It was said that the Germans burnt all the houses in which insurgents had stayed. In the Hankiewicz houses some 2,000 people or perhaps even more found their death."

But this was not the end of the suffering .

Dirlewanger's men stormed into the hospitals in Wola and Ochota area. The sick and wounded were shot in their beds. Sadism ruled that day and it was turned on nuns, nurses, doctors and voluntary helpers.

The Curie-Skiadowska Radium Institute, containing women suffering from cancer, suffered the worst. The patients were dragged from their beds. The drunken drug crazed mercenaries raped them and their nurses. Nazis ran amok in an orgy of murder, pillage and the 'collection' of rings and jewels, watches, and gold. The Police units joined in the general dance of death to stiffen wavering ranks of Dirlewanger in a strange alliance of traditional enemies united by their taste for cruelty and violence.

Wola Massacre memoria at Szpital Wolski

Hundreds of other patients and personnel were killed by indiscriminate gunfire, flamethrowers  and grenade attacks, or selected and led away for executions. The greatest number of killings took place at the railway embankment on ul Górczewska (ul is street in Polish )and two large factories on ul Wolska. The Ursus factory at ul Wolska 55 and the Franaszka Factory at ul Wolska 41/45 - as well as the Pfeiffer Factory at 57/59 ul Okopowa Street. At each of these four locations, thousands of people were systematically executed in mass shootings, having been previously rounded up in other places and taken there in groups.

Ashes of 4000 Wola massacre victims murdered at the Franaszek factory
buried in a hole in the ground and commemorated by provisional cross

Between 8 and 23 August the SS formed groups of men from the Wola district into the so-called Verbrennungskommando (burning detachment ), who were forced to try to hide evidence of the massacre by burning the victims' bodies and homes.  Most of the men put to work in such groups were also later executed.

Witness testimony 

Record No. 506
I was taken from Dlugosz Street (as a civilian) at 6 a.m. on August 6, 1944, and led to Sokolowska Street to the so-called Arbeitskommando head-quarters. Next day I volunteered for work with 50 other thinking that in this way I should be better off. We were sent to a house opposite St. Adalbert’s Church in Wolska Street, where about six hundred bodies of men, women and children were lying in heaps. Near by were a few dozen more, which we added to the heap. Then we went to No. 60, Wolska Street, where, on both sides of the courtyard lay the bodies of more than 100 men, as far was we could judge, victims of a mass execution. In the garden of this same house we found in a thicket the bodies of more than a dozen women, children, and babies, shot through the back of the bead. We carried out from the house at the corner of Plocka and Wolska Street (a large yellow house) several dozens of bodies of men, women and children, partly burnt, who had been shot through the back of the head. From a house in Plocka Street, between Wolska and Gorczewska Streets, we carried out about 100 bodies. In one of the houses we found the half-burnt body of a man holding two children in the arms. When we returned to No. 60, Wolska Street, we made a wooden platform on which we laid the dead; and then we cleared the ground of all traces of the German crimes, such as documents, clothes, or linen, which we placed on the pile of dead, sprinkled with petrol, and set alight. While we were thus burning the bodies, a drunken SD officer arrived in a car. He picked out three men of about 20 or 30 from a group of refugees passing by. He shot them through the back of the head in the course of a "friendly" conversation. After having murdered the first man he ordered us to throw him on the burning pyre before the eyes of the remaining two.

On Aug. 8, 1944, they led us to the yard of the "Ursus" works in Wolska Street. The whole courtyard, about 50 metres (55 yards) square was strewn with dead bodies so thickly that it was impossible to pass without treading on them. Half of them were of women with children, often with infants. All the bodies bore traces of robbery. Their position showed that they had each been murdered separately and in an especially bestial way. The number of bodies burnt there amounted, as far as I could estimate, to more than six hundred. Their clothes and suit-cases showed them to be refugees. When we were transporting bodies from neighbouring houses I found a great number of corpses in a flooded cellar in a house at the corner of Skierniewicka Street. We could not get out more than a few dozen of them, as the water was too high. I suppose they had been thrown in here after having been murdered in the courtyard, where we still found more than a dozen bodies. Then they took us to th e "Franaszek" works in Wolska Street, where we burnt in the same way as before about the same number of bodies as in the "Ursus" works, mostly of women and children. On one of the following days they took us to work in Sowinski Park, where again the bodies were mostly those of women and children; I found even pregnant women. The position of these bodies lying in a row seemed to be proof of a mass execution. We then burnt more than a thousand on two pyres. They made us search the bodies and give fall valuables to the SD-men. As to paper money, we were ordered to burn it, together with all other evidence of the crime. "

On 12 August, the order was given to stop the indiscriminate killing of Polish civilians in Wola. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski  issued a new directive stating that captured civilians were to be evacuated from the city and deported to concentration or labour camps.

200,000 Poles died in the Warsaw uprising, 25% of these during the Wola massacre, in  7 days, 10,000 in one day alone. Civilians, men, women, children, babies, not soldiers.

Just innocent victims

The perpertrators of this vile outrage were never brought to justice, Dirlewanger died in a French prison, and Reinefarth retired on a general's pension in Germany and died in 1979.

The Warsaw uprising museum published a list of the surviving perpertrators and their addresses, to date none has been prosecuted.

Monuments ensure the victims are not forgotten, and their sacrifice never will be, especially now their stories are known to the wider world.

Memorial stone in ul Wolska

72 years later, Wola is rebuilding, and developing, it was always Warsaw's industrial area. 

Today new workplaces, offices, skyscrapers, new flats and residential, retail development abound. Amongst the development stand the few remaining original buildings in ul Zelazna, Chmielna, Panska, Bema, Wolska and Gorczewska like silent witnesses to the tragedy of the past.

Today and yesterday's Wola ul Grzybowska view from Plac Europejski

But Warsaw and Wola thrive and I sit writing  in Warsaw's former Jewish ghetto, 300 meters from ul Twarda where the Polish communist conspiracy commenced, and 500 meters from where 500 people were shot and burned at Hala Mirowska food market. Today Poland is a member of the UE and has a thriving economy,

The fact we all live here , work here and make business here and this city ticks over and hums with human life, the beat of its pulse is proof humanity triumphed over barbarity. 

The fact Warsaw is rebuilt like a phoenix is a big one fingered reproach to communism and fascism. 

Warsaw spire on ul Towarowa