A Bloody Night in Wawer
The atrocity committed by German occupation authorities during the night from 26 to 27 December 1939 against representatives of the community of Wawer (and also other people living in its vicinity) was not the first such show of strength on their part. However, the scale of the tragedy far exceeded that of previous acts of terror, such as those carried out in Bydgoszcz during the first days of the September Campaign and in Bochnia on 18 December 1939. And, when looked at in perspective, the massacre referred to in the title – the victims of which were 107 inhabitants of what at the time was no more than a township bordering on Warsaw – appears as a model example of the policy applied by the Nazis to the population of the General Government.
It was evident from the very beginning of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 that the occupation of territories annexed from the II Republic of Poland would have a diametrically different course than that of the so-called Kingdom of Poland, which had been captured in its entirety by the Central Powers in the First World War. Actions then undertaken by the German and Austro-Hungarian administrations centered primarily on the exploitation of natural resources, and for this reason the inhabitants of the occupied lands did not in general have to fear for their lives; indeed, they were even allowed to organize patriotic manifestations.
But it would have been simply impossible for the German National Socialists to proceed in the same way. The Germans showed no interest whatsoever in winning favor with the Polish population. Already in the course of preparations for the invasion of Poland, Hitler had demanded that his generals “[…] kill without mercy or pity every man, woman and child of Polish descent”. As a matter of fact, the majority of them eagerly fulfilled the Führer’s instructions. In this context it would be most apt to cite Stefan Kisielewski, who stated that “[…] the Nazis were a different kind of Germans”.
Thus, the atrocity committed in Wawer was fundamentally concordant with the spirit of German policy towards the population of the General Government. The tenets of this course of action remained practically unaltered until the very end of the German occupation, while its implementation grew steadily more drastic and repressive. Poles, viewed as “racially inferior” to the Germanic nations, had to recognize their new position in a German-controlled Europe. Just as in Bochnia a short time before, the occupation authorities made use of a pretext in order to apply collective responsibility. We should add that this was in violation of the IV Hague Convention, which had been undersigned, among others, by Germany.
The Pacification of Wawer and Anin
The incident that resulted in the massacre of the residents of Wawer, Anin and neighboring communities occurred in the evening of 26 December 1939, when two representatives of the local underworld – Stanisław Dąbek and Marian Prasuła (who had availed themselves of the turmoil of war and escaped from Święty Krzyż correctional facility) – refused to leave a snack bar at Widoczna Street 85. The proprietor of the establishment, Antoni Bartoszek, decided to summon the local police. Arriving on the scene, officer Rozwadowski recognized the troublemakers and immediately requested support from the German 538. Construction Battalion, which was stationed in Wawer. The policeman’s call was answered by two non-commissioned officers of the reserve, described in the subsequent report as being “somewhat advanced in years”. It soon transpired that the bandits were in possession of firearms, which they were fully prepared to use (incidentally, a dozen or so hours earlier they had seriously wounded a policeman in Otwock). During the shootout which then took place, one of the Germans was killed by the convicts on the spot, while the other died en route to hospital. The wife of the proprietor of the bar, Zofia Bartoszek, was also wounded. Some German soldiers – chance passers-by – and policemen from the nearby narrow-gage railway station attempted to give chase. However, their intervention was limited to a few chaotic salvos fired in the direction of the perpetrators.
It was not long before German “law enforcement” reacted. Just before 11.00 p.m., policemen from the 31. Ordnungspolizei Regiment (also known as Polizei-Regiment Warschau) arrived in Wawer and Anin. On the basis of an order issued by Lieutenant-Colonel Max Daume, who was the unit’s acting commander, the Germans ignored the assurances given by representatives of the local community to the effect that they were prepared to support the police in their attempts at apprehending the two bandits. Furthermore, although Daume was fully informed of the course of the incident and the identity of the perpetrators, he instructed his subordinates to arrest the men living in the two abovementioned townships. Some of them were in Wawer and Anin temporarily, having traveled there for Christmas. The majority, in many instances aroused from sleep, had no knowledge at all of what had just happened. Janina Przedlacka (a resident of Wawer) remembers the course of events thus: “Six of them [German policemen – annotation by PM] entered the flat. They ordered my husband and both sons to dress quickly. When asked where they were being taken, they replied that to the headquarters […]. We started begging them to leave at least the younger son […]. Finally, they consented. They therefore left with my husband and our older son”. According to one of the few survivors, the detainees, numbering some 120 in all (aged between 16 and 70), were gathered before the local police station. The Germans would then select three men at a time for interrogation at the headquarters. When they were exiting the building, policemen would hit them with their rifle butts.
Illegally Sentenced by an Unlawful Court
The first victim of the massacre was the proprietor of the bar in which the shooting had taken place, the aforementioned Antoni Bartoszek, who – severely beaten – was hanged by the police before the entrance to his own establishment. Just before 5.00 a.m., a bizarre “summary court” convened at II Poprzeczna Street 3: the surnames of the 114 arrestees were written down and – without being allowed to provide any explanations – they were all sentenced to death. Substantiating their actions, the German officers repeatedly stated: “The Poles perpetrated the killing, and the Poles must suffer the consequences”. For obvious reasons, this clarification aroused consternation amongst both those detained in the round-up, and their families and friends. Stanisław Piegat (one of the survivors) mentioned the shock experienced by local residents. For although the majority of the inhabitants of Wawer and neighboring townships were aware of the atrocities committed by the German army during the September Campaign, these had after all taken place in the course of military operations (which fact, of course, cannot serve as justification). In the present case, the deaths of the two soldiers from the Construction Battalion were attributable directly to the fugitive bandits, and thus the repressions applied by the Germans can be justifiably described as a manifestation of unprecedented barbarity. The witness cited above observed: “At the time hardly anyone was aware that this was what the German occupation would look like…”.
The “trial” was presided over by Major Friedrich Wilhelm Wenzel, the commander of the two companies that took a direct part in the operation. The instigator of the whole undertaking, Lieutenant-Colonel Daume, was also present; during his own trial, which was held in March 1947, he tried to make light of his role in the atrocity committed in Wawer. The execution was preceded by a most curious event. Amongst those sentenced to death was one Gering from Wawer. Three times, the Germans gave him 15 minutes to think things through and declare that he was a German, thereby avoiding death. Finally, he responded as follows: “I was born a Pole and I shall die a Pole, and I do not really care how my death will come about”. He was executed along with the others. It was later determined that Daniel Gering, an employee of Bank Gospodarstwa Krajowego, was indeed of German descent, and fluent in the invader’s language. We may assume that those commanding the operation were afraid that they were dealing with a distant relative of the Chief of the Luftwaffe, and for this reason – as witnesses later testified – they made an effort to play it safe.
The Execution and its Epilogue
Initially, the Germans had planned to execute 100 men for each German killed. During the operation, however, this figure was lowered to 60. The victims of the nightly round-up were led through a tunnel running under the local narrow-gage track to the square between Spiżowa and Błękitna streets, which was illuminated with headlights. In order to further humiliate the arrestees, they were ordered to take off their caps and kneel with their backs to an impromptu machine-gun position. According to witnesses, however, the condemned refused to be bowed, and an atmosphere of patriotic elation could be sensed by those nearby.
The execution was carried out at around 6.00 a.m. As Janina Przedlacka recalled, one could hear patriotic shouts, salvos being discharged from automatic weapons, and the groans of the dying. The German bullets killed 106 of the 113 detained men (one managed to escape while being led to the execution site). Seven feigned death and survived. There are testimonies to the effect that the Germans subsequently finished off the wounded, which would imply that the number of those who survived the shooting had been greater. The relatives and neighbors of the murdered men wanted to take their bodies, however the German policemen forbade this. Pursuant to an administrative decision issued by the occupation authorities, they were buried in a temporary joint grave. Only towards the end of June 1940 was an exhumation ordered, accompanied by a full identification. One hundred and six of the victims were recognized (including Antoni Bartoszek, previously hanged); the identity of one person could not be established.
It is telling that even representatives of the German authorities voiced unequivocal assessments of the tragedy that had occurred in Wawer. The massacre was touched upon, among others, by General Johannes Blaskowitz, who at the time was the Wehrmacht’s Commander-in-Chief East. In a report dated 6 February 1940, he mused: “This execution […] has deeply angered the Poles, for the murder [of the two soldiers – annotation by PM] had no connection at all to the civilian population; the motives for this crime were entirely criminal in nature”.
The massacre of the residents of Wawer and neighboring communities reached its epilogue only after the War. Max Daume, identified by the Americans, was turned over to the Polish authorities and tried before the Supreme National Tribunal – a judicial body established in order to try, among others, German war criminals. Pursuant to a decision issued on 3 March 1947, Daume was found guilty of the crime committed in Wawer and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on 7 March in the Warszawa-Mokotów Custody Suite at Rakowiecka Street. Four years later, Friedrich Wilhelm Wenzel was also sentenced to death.
Bijata Jan, Wawer, Warsaw 1973.
Borodziej Włodzimierz, Terror i polityka. Policja niemiecka a polski ruch oporu w GG 1939–1944, Warsaw 1985.
Michalski Czesław, Wojna warszawsko-niemiecka, Warsaw 1974.
Pawłowicz Henryk, Wawer: 27 grudnia 1939 r., Warsaw 1962.
Szarek Jarosław, Zbrodnia w Wawrze, “Nasz Dziennik” 27–28 December 2014, no. 299.
Tyszkiewicz Jan, Egzekucja ludności cywilnej w Wawrze 27 grudnia 1939, Warsaw 2010.
Wawer, “Biuletyn Głównej Komisji Badania Zbrodni Hitlerowskich w Polsce” 1951, vol. VI, elaborated by Stanisław Płoski, pages 101–103.
Wierzchowski Henryk, Anin – Wawer, Warsaw 1971.
Przemysław Mazur – born in Lublin, he graduated from the Institute of History at the University of Warsaw. He has authored a few dozen articles, which were published – among others – in “Przegląd Humanistyczny”, “Mówią Wieki”, “Focus Historia” and “wSieci Historii”.