The Wola Massacre marked the start of the Reich’s counterattack against the Warsaw Uprising, the heroic and suicidal rising mounted by the Polish Home Army as the Red Army’s summer offensive brought it to the banks of the Vistula.
Aiming to claim some foothold upon which to influence events in the soon-to-be Soviet-occupied Poland, the Home Army enjoyed initial success in the first days of August. But German reserves from the Replacement Army — the vehicle by which the Valkyrie plotters had attempted their coup against Hitler just days before, and now as a consequence answering directly to Heinrich Himmler — were quick to the scene and would turn back the rising in weeks of bloody urban warfare. Himmler’s authority in crushing the Warsaw Uprising would also allow him to give rein to his SS for a campaign of atrocities intended to cow the populace into speedy submission.
Himmler wasn’t a battlefield commander, of course. Chief on the scene would be Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski; for this purpose he would enlist some of the more notorious units on the eastern front, such as the lawless Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger and the “Russian National Liberation Army” of Bronislav Kaminski. They were just the types to implement Himmler’s brutal orders* for a city they were soon to lose anyway:
- Captured insurrectionists shall be killed whether or not they fight in accordance with the Hague Convention.
- The non-fighting part of the population, women, children, shall also be killed.
- The whole city shall be razed to the ground, i.e. its buildings, streets, facilities, and everything within its borders.
The outcome rates as perhaps the largest battlefield massacre of World War II.
On August 5, Bach-Zelewski’s forces began a coordinated push into the western suburb of Wola. Himmler’s orders were implemented immediately, as attested by numerous civilian witnesses and lucky survivors:
I lived in the Wola district at No. 8, Elekcyjna Street. At 10 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1944 a detachment of SS-men and Vlassov’s men entered. They drove us from the cellars and brought us near the Sowinski Park at Ulrychow. They shot at us when we passed. My wife was killed on the spot: our child was wounded and cried for his mother. Soon a Ukrainian approached and killed my two-year-old child like a dog; then he approached me together with some Germans and stood on my chest to see whether I was alive or not – I shammed dead, lest I should be killed too. One of the murderers took my watch; I heard him reloading his gun. I thought he would finish me off, but he went on further, thinking I was dead. I lay thus from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. pretending to be dead, and witnessing further atrocities. During that time I saw further groups being driven out and shot near the place where I lay. The huge heap of corpses grew still bigger. Those who gave any sign of life were shot. I was buried under other corpses and nea rly suffocated. The executions lasted until 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. a group of Poles came to take the corpses away. I gave them a sign that I was alive. They helped me to get up and I regained sufficient strength to carry with them the body of my wife and child to the Sowinski Park, where they took all the dead. After this sad duty had been performed they took me to St. Laurence’s Church at Wola, where I remained till next day. I cannot state the exact number of the victims, but I estimate that those among whom I lay amounted to some 3,000 (three thousand). I met a friend in the church who had gone through the same experience as I, having lost a boy of 8, who had been wounded and died calling for his father. I am still in hospital and the image of death is constantly before my eyes.
On August 5, 1944, between 12 and 2 p.m., I saw from a window on the first floor of Wola Hospital Germans dragging women out of the cellars of No. 28, Plocka Street. They shot them in the courtyard with machine-guns. Almost at the same time, I saw in the courtyard of No. 30, Plocka Street the hands of more then 20 people raised and visible over the fence (the people themselves could not be seen). After a volley of shots these hands fell down: this was another of the executions in Wola.
And the agonizing testimony of Wanda Lurie:
I stayed in the cellar of No. 18 until August 5, when, between 11 and 12 noon, the Germans ordered all of us to get out, and marched us to Wolska Street. This march was carried out in dreadful haste and panic. My husband was absent, taking an active part in the Rising, and I was alone with my three children, aged 4, 6 and 12, and in the last month of pregnancy. I delayed my departure, hoping they would allow me to remain, and left the cellar at the very last moment. All the inhabitants of our house had already been escorted to the “Ursus” works in Wolska Street at the corner of Skierniewicka Street, and I too was ordered to go there. I went alone, accompanied only by my three children. It was difficult to pass, the road being full of wire, cable, remains of barricades, corpses, and rubble. Houses were burning on both sides of the street; I reached the “Ursus” work’s with great difficulty. Shots, cries, supplications and groans could be heard from the factory yard. We had no doubt that this was a place for mass executions.
The people who stood at the entrance were led, no, pushed in, not all at once but in groups of 20. A boy of twelve, seeing the bodies of his parents and of his little brother through the half-open entrance door, fell in a fit and began to shriek. The Germans and Vlassov‘s men beat him and pushed him back, while he was endeavouring to get inside. He called for his father and his mother. We all knew what awaited us here; there was no possibility of escape or of buying one’s life; there was a crowd of Germans, Ukrainians (Vlassov’s men), and cars. I came last and kept in the background, continuing to let the others pass, in the hope that they would not kill a pregnant woman, but I was driven in with the last lot. In the yard I saw heaps of corpses 3 feet high, in several places. The whole right and left side of the big yard (the first yard) was strewn with bodies. We were led through the second. There were about 20 people in our group, mostly children of 10 to 12. There were children without parents, and also a paralysed old woman whose son-in-law had been carrying her all the time on his back. At her side was her daughter with two children of 4 and 7. They were all killed. The old woman was literally killed on her son-in-law’s back, and he along with her. We were called out in groups of four and led to the end of the second yard to a pile of bodies. When the four reached this point, the Germans shot them through the backs of their heads with revolvers. The victims fell on the heap, and others came. Seeing what was to be their fate, some attempted to escape; they cried, begged, and prayed for mercy. I was in the last group of four. I begged the Vlassov’s men around me to save me and the children, and they asked if I had anything with which to buy my life. I had a large amount of gold with me and gave it them. They took it all and wanted to lead me away, but the German supervising the execution would not allow them to do so, and when I begged him to let me go he pushed me off, shouting “Quicker!” I fell when he pushed me. He also hit and pushed my elder boy, shouting “hurry up, you Polish bandit”. Thus I came to the place of execution, in the last group of four, with my three children. I held my two younger children by one hand, and my elder boy by the other. The children were crying and praying. The elder boy, seeing the mass of bodies, cried out: “they are going to kill us” and called for his father. The first shot hit him, the second me; the next two killed the two younger children. I fell on my right side. The shot was not fatal. The bullet penetrated the back of my head from the right side and went out through my cheek. I spat out several teeth; I felt the left side of my body growing numb, but I was still conscious and saw everything that was going on around me.
I witnessed other executions, lying there among the dead. More groups of men were led in. I heard cries, supplications, moaning, and shots. The bodies of these men fell on me. I was covered by four bodies. Then I again saw a group of women and children; thus it went on with group after group until late in the evening. It was already quite, quite dark when the executions stopped. In the intervals between the shootings the murderers walked on the corpses, kicked them, and turned them over, finishing off those who still gave any sign of life, and stealing valuables.
German soldiers too recorded wholesale executions in their diaries and correspondence; while the accounts above are all specifically attributable to the 5th of August, those that follow are undated snapshots of environment:
Policemen with rifles under their arms trudged along. All of the police from occupied Poland came together there to show off their bravery and also to enrich themselves on the side. I did not see this activity, but others did. They saw how these policemen executed those from the procession who could not keep up, those who were sick and lagging behind, and right in front of their compatriots. What was particularly troubling about this misery is that unlike in Russia what was occurring was not a matter of a completely poor, and in any event already moaning, mass of people; rather these were people of our own social class, women in fur coats, cute children who up until two days before had been fully cared for. This memory has always caused me anguish during my short stopovers in Warsaw: the look from so many hostile eyes, people of our culture, who knew exactly what I knew. For that reason I was always glad never to have been deployed in the West. And now I stood beside these people in bitter agony, and I was shocked.
Now we arrived at the command post of the SS-commander. There were two buses parked on the right side of the street. We reported to the SS-commander, a medium-built stringent man with a sharply chiseled face. With a cold glance at the procession of women and children that was passing no farther than 10 meters from us, he said, “You see, this is our biggest problem. These refugees! I don’t have enough ammunition to kill them all!” He said this quietly and with a remorseful shrug of the shoulders, this elegant officer with the Iron Cross and pleasant manners. Meanwhile tears fell down my cheeks. What kind of human being was he?
Before each daily operation I reported to the SS commander. During one visit I witnessed an event, which sickened me to my very core. The SS officer’s office was on the upper floor of a building and had a balcony that overlooked a large courtyard. The SS had lined up near a wall about 40 or so Polish men, women, and children of all ages. I distinctly recall a young woman holding hands with two small children. It was clear to me what was about to happen. I confronted the SS commander as to why these people were about to be shot. His reply was that they were being executed as a reprisal for the Germans that had been killed in the Uprising. He informed me that it was also none of my concern. Shortly, thereafter the hostages were shot before my eyes. I was disgusted by what I had witnessed and after 60 years later it still haunts me.
I was setting explosives under big doors, somewhere in Old Town. From inside we heard Nicht schiessen! Nicht schiessen! (Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!). The doors opened and a nurse appeared with a tiny white flag. We went inside with fixed bayonets. A huge hall with beds and mattresses on the floor. Wounded were everywhere. Besides Poles there were also wounded Germans. They begged the SS-men not to kill the Poles. A Polish officer, a doctor and 15 Polish Red Cross nurses surrendered the military hospital to us. The Dirlewangerers were following us. I hid one of the nurses behind the doors and managed to lock them. I heard after the war that she has survived. The SS-men killed all the wounded. They were breaking their heads with rifle butts. The wounded Germans were screaming and crying in despair. After that, the Dirlewangerers ran after the nurses; they were ripping clothes off them. We were driven out for guard duty. We heard women screaming. In the evening, on Adolph Hitler’s Square [now Pilsudzki Square] there was a roar as loud as during boxing fights. So I and my friend climbed the wall to see what was happening there. Soldiers of all units: Wehrmacht, SS, Kaminski’s Cossacks, boys from Hitlerjugend; whistles, exhortations. Dirlewanger stood with his men and laughed. The nurses from the hospital were rushed through the square, naked with hands on their heads. Blood ran down their legs. The doctor was dragged behind them with a noose on his neck. He wore a rag, red maybe from blood and a thorn crown on top of the head. All were lead to the gallows where a few bodies were hanging already. When they were hanging one of the nurses, Dirlewanger kicked the bricks she was standing on.
A much larger catalogue of atrocity accounts awaits at warsawuprising.org.
The massacre at Wola would run on to about the 13th at which point Bach-Zelewski abated the civilian massacre order as counterproductive: too many soldier-hours needed for focused bloodbaths were being squandered orchestrating gratuitous ones. Nevertheless, weeks of hard urban warfare lay ahead, and policy continued to embrace the summary execution of captured fighters and of all fighting-age men, resistance or no. Some 200,000 civilians are thought to have died during the Warsaw Uprising.
One legacy was eerily and unknowingly captured by a LIFE magazine photographer in 1948, of a young girl in a school for disturbed children in Poland. Her face a scramble of innocence and madness as it peers into the lens, she illustrates her “home” as an incoherent chalk vortex. It wasn’t known until many years after this photo became emblematic of a generation wracked by horror, but “Tereska” — Teresa Adwentowska — was an orphaned survivor of Wola.
* Per Bach-Zelewski’s evidence to the Nuremberg tribunal. By dint of cooperation, he saved his own life from the Nuremberg gallows.
On this day..
- 1843: Sarah Dazley - 2020
- 1678: Thomas Hellier, "Groans and Sighs" - 2019
- 1939: Las Trece Rosas - 2018
- 1549: The Clyst Heath massacre, during the Prayer Book Rebellion - 2016
- 2008: Jose Medellin, precedent - 2015
- 1943: Red Orchestra members, in the Nazi Paradise - 2014
- 1993: Joseph Paul Jernigan, Visible Human Project subject - 2013
- 1623: Daniel Frank, the first hanging in the USA - 2012
- 1909: Georges-Henri Duchemin, matricide - 2011
- 1775: Maharajah Nandakumar, judicially murdered? - 2010
- 1864: Romuald Traugutt and the January Uprising leaders - 2009
- 1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt - 2008