Górczewska Street memorial at the location of railway embankment where up to 10,000 people were shot and then burnt between 5 and 8 August 1944
|Date||5–12 August 1944|
The Wola massacre (Polish: Rzeź Woli, "Wola slaughter") was the systematic killing of around 40,000–50,000 people by Nazi German troops during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Between 5 and 12 August 1944, tens of thousands of Polish civilians along with captured resistance fighters were indiscriminately shot or killed in organised mass executions throughout the Wola district of the Polish capital Warsaw. The action was designed to crush the Poles' will to fight and put the uprising to an end without having to commit to heavy city fighting. However the Germans soon found that the atrocities in Wola only stiffened Polish resistance. German authority across the city was only achieved after more than two months of heavy fighting and the total destruction of Warsaw.
Two days after the start of the fighting on 2 August, SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was placed in command of all German forces in Warsaw. By then several parts of the city were held by units from the Polish Home Army. Following direct orders from SS-Reichfuhrer Heinrich Himmler to show no mercy, his strategy was to use terror tactics against all inhabitants of Warsaw to decisively end the uprising and crush the fighting spirit of the Poles. No distinction would be made between Polish insurgents and civilians. Prof. Timothy Snyder, from Yale University, wrote "the massacres in Wola had nothing in common with combat" as "the ratio of civilian to military dead was more than a thousand to one, even if military casualties on both sides are counted".
On 5 August, three battle groups started their advance westward along Wolska and Górczewska streets toward Aleje Jerozolimskie, the principal east–west road through the city center. The German forces comprised units from the Wehrmacht and the SS Police Battalions, as well as the mostly Russian SS-Sturmbrigade RONA and the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger, an infamous Waffen SS penal unit led by Oskar Dirlewanger. British historian Martin Windrow described them as a "terrifying rabble" of "cut-throats, [foreign] renegades, sadistic morons, and cashiered rejects from other units".
Shortly after the advance had started towards the centre of Warsaw, the two lead battle groups Kampfgruppe "Rohr" (led by Generalmajor Günter Rohr) and Kampfgruppe "Reinefarth" (of Heinz Reinefarth) were halted by heavy fire from Polish resistance fighters. Unable to proceed forward, some of the German troops began to go from house to house carrying out their orders to shoot all inhabitants. Many civilians were shot on the spot but some were killed after torture and sexual assault. Estimates vary, but Reinefarth himself has estimated that up to 10,000 civilians were killed in the Wola district on 5 August alone, the first day of the operation to crush the uprising in Warsaw. Most of the victims were the elderly, women and children.
Most of these atrocities were committed by troops under the command of SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger and SS-Brigadeführer Bronislav Kaminski. Research historian Martin Gilbert, from the University of Oxford, wrote:
"More than fifteen thousand Polish civilians had been murdered by German troops in Warsaw. At 5:30 that evening [August 5], General Erich von dem Bach gave the order for the execution of women and children to stop. But the killing continued of all Polish men who were captured, without anyone bothering to find out whether they were insurgents or not. Nor did either the Cossacks or the criminals in the Kaminsky and Dirlewanger brigades pay any attention to von dem Bach Zelewski's order: by rape, murder, torture and fire, they made their way through the suburbs of Wola and Ochota, killing in three days of slaughter a further thirty thousand civilians, including hundreds of patients in each of the hospitals in their path."
The next day, the Polish resistance storm force, comprising the elite Batalion Zośka and two captured Panther tanks belonging to a unit commanded by Wacław Micuta, managed to capture a part of the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Warsaw concentration camp. This newly liberated area became one of the main communication links between the Polish fighters holding Wola and those defending the Warsaw Old Town. On 7 August 1944, the German ground forces were strengthened with tanks. To enhance their effectiveness, the Nazis forced civilian women onto the armoured vehicles as human shields. Within two days, these tactics had helped the Germans fight their way to the Plac Bankowy and cut the Wola district in half.
German units also burned down two local hospitals with some of the patients still inside. Hundreds of other patients and personnel were killed by indiscriminate gunfire and grenade attacks, or selected and led away for executions. A large share of killings took place at the railway embankment in the area of Górczewska Street as well as in the two factories along Wolska Street (a filia of Ursus Factory at Wolska 55 and Franaszka Factory at Wolska 41/45) and in the Pfeiffer Factory at Okopowa 57/59. 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.
On 12 August, the order was given to stop all indiscriminate killing of Polish civilians. SS general von dem Bach-Zelewski issued a new directive that stated captured civilians were to be evacuated from the city; often they were deported to concentration camps or to Arbeitslager labor camps. Some Polish civilians were formed into Verbrennungskommando ("burning detachment") by the SS and forced to hide evidence of the massacre by burning victims' bodies and their homes. The men put to work in such groups were later executed.
Up until mid-September, the Nazis were shooting all captured insurgents on the spot. After SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach arrived in Warsaw (7 August 1944), it became clear that atrocities only stiffened the resistance and that some political solution should be found, considering the limited forces at the disposal of the German commander. The aim was to gain a significant victory to show the Polish Home Army the futility of further fighting and make them surrender. This did not immediately succeed, but from the end of September on, some of the captured Polish fighters were treated as prisoners of war and civilians were spared, and in the end the districts of Warsaw still held by insurgents capitulated on 3 October 1944.
No one belonging to the German forces who took part in the atrocities committed during the Warsaw uprising was ever prosecuted for them after the end of the war. The main perpetrators of the Wola and Ochota massacres were Heinz Reinefarth and Oskar Dirlewanger. Dirlewanger, who presided over and personally participated in many of the worst acts of violence, was arrested on 1 June 1945 by the French occupation troops while hiding under a false name near the town of Altshausen in Upper Swabia. He died on 7 June 1945 in a French prison camp at Altshausen, probably as a result of ill-treatment by his Polish guards. In 1945, Reinefarth was taken into custody by the British and American authorities but was never prosecuted for his actions in Warsaw despite Polish requests for his extradition. After a West German court released him citing a lack of evidence, Reinefarth enjoyed a successful post-war career as a lawyer, becoming the mayor of Westerland, and a member of the Landtag parliament of Schleswig-Holstein. The West German government also gave the former SS-Obergruppenführer a general's pension before he died in 1979. In May 2008, a list of several former SS Dirlewanger members still alive was compiled and published by the Warsaw Uprising Museum.
- Ochota massacre, atrocities committed by troops led by Bronislaw Kaminski between 4 and 25 August 1944 in Warsaw's Ochota district.
- Military history of the Warsaw Uprising
- Nazi crimes against ethnic Poles
- List of massacres in Poland
- THE SLAUGHTER IN WOLA at Warsaw Uprising Museum
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- "Syn warszawskiej Niobe". polskatimes.pl. 31 July 2009. Retrieved 6 December 2012.
- Odkryta kartoteka zbrodniarzy, Rzeczpospolita, 17 May 2008.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wola Massacre.|
- Witness testimony on German massacre of Polish hospital patients
- Witness testimony on German massacre of Polish civilians in Wola
- (German) Nacht über Wola, Der Spiegel 1962