Explore touching stories of Polish citizens victims and witnesses of totalitarian crimes

Pawiak Prison

Aleksandra Król


In the 1820s, the Tsarist authorities came to the conclusion that a new prison was needed in Warsaw. They therefore purchased an allotment and commissioned the architect Henryk Marconi to design the facility. The prison complex was erected in the years 1830–1835 between Dzielna, Ostrożna and Pawia streets. Its unofficial name – Pawiak – was derived from the last of these, Pawia Street, where its entrance gate was located.

The facility, which occupied some 1.5 ha of land, could accept approximately 700 male prisoners. The enclosing wall was buttressed by two guard towers and topped with barbed wire. Next to it stood the courts building and structures housing the laundry, garages, and workshops. It is worth noting that the prison building itself had a chapel. In the 1920s, acting upon a motion of the Association for the Support of Prisoners (Tomchej Asurim in Hebrew), a prayer hall was officially opened for Jewish inmates. It could well be, however, that such a hall had already been in existence earlier.

After 1863, Pawiak was converted into a political prison, with a separate women’s ward. Towards the end of the 19th century, this ward was relocated to the former courts building, which during the war fought in 1877–1878 between Turkey and the coalition of Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria functioned as a military hospital. For this reason, the women’s prison – which could accept some 250 convicts – became popularly known as “Serbia”.

In the second half of the 19th century, Pawiak was the place of incarceration of insurrectionists from the Uprising of 1863, activists of workers’, peoples’ and nationalist parties, and participants of the Revolution of 1905. When Poland regained independence, it continued to be used as a criminal and political penitentiary. Its prisoners included, amongst others, Communist activists.


The German Occupation

In 1939, following the occupation of Warsaw by the Germans, Pawiak became a prison of the Justice Department of the General Government. From March 1940 it was used as the custody suite of the Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei) and the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst) of the district of Warsaw. During the Second World War it was the largest political prison on the territory of occupied Poland.

The first new prisoners arrived in the beginning of October 1939. It is estimated that some 100,000 inmates, mainly Varsovians, passed through Pawiak, although some of them were sent in from police stations around Warsaw, while a number were citizens of other countries who had been detained by the Germans on the territory of occupied Poland. At any given time, there would be approximately 3,000 inmates, of whom around 800 were kept in Serbia[1] and around 2,200 in Pawiak[2].

Typically, the inmates of Pawiak and Serbia would include people suspected of engaging in underground activities[3], participating in clandestine teaching, illegal trade, persons detained during round-ups, sweep operations and ambushes[4], and also hostages. Amongst those imprisoned in Pawiak during the Second World War were Hanka Ordonówna, Agnieszka Dowbor-Muśnicka, Irena Sendlerowa, Lidia Wysocka, Hanka Czaki, Jan Stanisław Bystroń, Zbigniew Sawan, Leon Schiller, and Roman Palester.

Pawiak, which from the end of 1940 was located within the boundaries of the Ghetto, was also used for the detainment of Jews. It is not known how many people of Jewish descent passed through the facility, however they included Janusz Korczak, Emanuel Ringelblum, and the actress Klara Segałowicz. During the so-called Grossaktion Warsaw, conducted in the summer of 1942, the personal belongings of Jews deported to the Treblinka II extermination camp were gathered in Pawiak. Jews captured during the “Hotel Polski” operation in the summer of 1943 – after the collapse of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – were also sent to Pawiak. The Jewish inmates of Pawiak received considerably worse treatment than those of other origins. For example, they were refused access to the prison hospital. They would also be murdered with particular bestiality.


The Fate of the Prisoners

From amongst the 100,000 prisoners who passed through Pawiak, some 37,000 were murdered during interrogations or in the course of executions, or died in the prison hospital. Thousands of inmates were simply shot. Initially, executions would be held in the gardens of Parliament and on the premises of the University. From December 1939 to July 1941, the Germans carried out mass executions on the outskirts of the Kampinoska Forest, near the village of Palmiry. Former detainees of Pawiak who were subsequently shot in Palmiry include Maciej Rataj, Janusz Kusociński, Mieczysław Niedziałkowski, Dawid Przepiórka and Stanisław Kohn. From the autumn of 1941, arrestees would also be murdered in Laski, Szwedzkie Góry, Wólka Węglowa, the Kabacki Forest, Stefanowa in the Chojnowskie Forest[5], Magdalenka, and also in Bukowiec near Jabłonna. The last executions, carried out in the spring and summer of 1944, took place on the grounds of the former Ghetto[6].

For many prisoners, Pawiak was only a stop on the road to a concentration camp[7]. They would be transported from Pawiak in trucks, handcuffed, to various railway stations in Warsaw, and from there deported in cattle wagons to the camps of Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, Stutthof, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Gross-Rosen, and Majdanek. The journey in the crowded railway cars, without food or drink, would often take a few days[8].

The living conditions in Pawiak were atrocious. The majority of cells – damp, cold and dark – held a few times more prisoners than their original capacity; bugs and fleas were rife. Prisoners slept on plank beds or pallets that would be folded up for the day. Even the most basic articles of hygiene were unavailable, and inmates had to relieve themselves in their cells. They suffered from malnutrition, and frequently starved. It was normal for the guards to harass detainees – beat them, force them to perform penal physical exercises, or to walk or crawl across hot cinders, set dogs on them, and lock them up in punishment cells[9]. On occasion, the guards would murder someone “by accident”.

Prisoners would be interrogated in the Gestapo building at aleja Szucha. Twice daily – in the morning and evening – a truck, commonly known as the “Black Maria”, would collect some of the inmates. After they were transported to aleja Szucha, the detainees would be locked up in small cells popularly called “trams”. Only iron bars separated them from the corridor, and they could both hear the gory sounds that accompanied interrogations and see the brutalized victims. The interrogations conducted at aleja Szucha, called “examinations”, were characterized by exceptional barbarity[10]. In order to force the arrestees to confess, the Germans would beat them with fists, truncheons, iron-tipped whips, strangle them, and also submerge them in water. The torturers did not hesitate to break fingers and rip off fingernails, kick people all over the body, burn them with searing irons, apply electric shocks, or put out cigarettes in open wounds. Sometimes – in order to pressure arrestees – the Germans would bring their family members to interrogations. It was common for people to die in the course of “examinations” or later – savagely beaten – in their cells. Some of the interrogations also took place in Pawiak.


Obliterating all Traces

Towards the end of July 1944, following the Red Army’s advance to the outskirts of Warsaw, the Germans proceeded to hastily liquidate the execution site. On 30 July 1944 the majority of the prisoners, that is some 1,400 men and 400 women, were led out of the complex and loaded onto wagons waiting at Stawki Street. Many hours later, the train departed westwards. The crush of bodies, coupled with extreme exhaustion, caused many people to die along the way. At the station in Skierniewice, the Germans ordered that the corpses be arranged in a single wagon. These bodies were then doused with petrol and set alight. Only on 3 August 1944 did the men arrive at the camp in Gross-Rosen; through the entire journey they had received no more than a cup of water. The women’s voyage to Ravensbrück lasted a whole three days longer.

Following this tragic deportation, a relatively small number of prisoners still remained in Pawiak. Some 200 from this group – and among them the prison’s medical personnel – were freed, while the others were shot dead in the ruins of the Ghetto. Gestapo men killed a few of the sick with injections of phenol. On 21 August 1944 the Germans placed charges and blew up the prison buildings of Pawiak and Serbia. Only one original fragment of the gate and a section of wall have survived to our times.

In 1965, the Pawiak Prison Museum was established on the grounds once occupied by the facility. The location of the former women’s ward, Serbia, was marked with a commemorative plaque.



Czuperska-Śliwicka Anna, Cztery lata ostrego dyżuru. Wspomnienia z Pawiaka 1940-1944, Warsaw 1965.

Domańska Regina, Pawiak  kaźń i heroizm, Warsaw 1988.

Domańska Regina, Pawiak. Więzienie Gestapo. Kronika 1939–1944, Warsaw 1978.

Pawiak był etapem. Wspomnienia z lat 1939–1944, introduction, selection and elaboration by Regina Domańska, Warsaw 1987.


Aleksandra Król – a historian, graduate of the Institute of History at the University of Warsaw. She is the author of a number of academic historical texts for the general public, and also collaborates with the Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN.


[1] Cf. the accounts of Jadwiga Jędrzejowska and Jadwiga Lauterbach.

[2] Cf. the account of Leon Wanat.

[3] Cf. the account of Waleria Szymańska.

[4] Cf. the account of Stefania Maria Błońska.

[5] Cf. the accounts of Bronisław Tomaszewski, Aniela Tomaszewska and Franciszek Skibniewski.

[6] Cf. the account of Ludwik Berezowski.

[7] Cf. the account of Bohdan Chomentowski.

[8] Cf. the account of Stefania Maria Błońska.

[9] Cf. the account of Marcela Skrzypińska.

[10] Cf. the account of Emilia Genowefa Lewandowska.