Warsaw concentration camp
|Operated by||Nazi Germany|
|Commandant||Wilhelm Göcke (June 1943 – September 1943)|
Nikolaus Herbet (September 1943 – July 1944)
Wilhelm Ruppert (July 1944)
|Original use||Gęsiówka prison|
|Inmates||mostly Jews from countries other than Poland (Greece and Hungary in particular)|
|Number of inmates||8,000–9,000|
|Liberated by||Home Army during Warsaw Uprising|
The Warsaw concentration camp (German: Konzentrationslager Warschau, also KL Warschau, KZ Warschau, Gęsiówka concentration camp, and Warschau Main Camp) was a Nazi concentration camp built on the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto, around Gęsiówka prison. A minor camp, the Warsaw camp is absent from most standard Holocaust accounts. Over the course of its operation an estimated 8,000–9,000 prisoners were engaged in slave labor of whom 4,000 to 5,000 are estimated to have died in the camp, during the death march from the camp, the Warsaw Uprising, and hiding after the uprising.
The camp, which has little coverage in mainstream historiography, has been at the center of a conspiracy theory that asserts that a giant gas chamber was built in a tunnel near Warszawa Zachodnia station and that 200,000 mainly non-Jewish Poles were exterminated at the site.
In February 1943, Heinrich Himmler ordered that local Jews should be placed in a camp to help clear the Warsaw ghetto following its demolition. However, fierce fighting during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising foiled this plan. Following the defeat of the uprising in April, surviving Jews were deported to camps in the vicinity of Lublin, sent to Treblinka extermination camp, or summarily killed. The concentration camp was established in July 1943, but Jewish prisoners were not from Warsaw but rather from other concentration camps in Europe. The camp was located at the Gestapo prison (Gęsiówka), which was the only building left intact in the ghetto.
By May 1944 the camp became a subcamp of Majdanek concentration camp, and was named "Lublin concentration camp–Warsaw labor camp" (German: Konzentrationslager Lublin–Arbeitslager Warschau). According to some sources, it came due to deportations of prisoners to other camps as well as the approach of the Soviet army to Warsaw. Bogusław Tadeusz Kopka claims, however, that widespread corruption among the camp's personnel forced SS authorities to arrest camp commandant Nikolaus Herbet, transfer whole guard company back to Germany and, consequently, to strip the camp with its independent status.
Originally planned to close on 1 August 1944, in light of the Soviet advance the camp was closed in July. In July 1944 most prisoners, some 4,500, were sent on a death march to Kutno (the first organized Nazi death march in the war), walking some 30 kilometers a day with many murdered on the way. From Kutno, they were crammed onto a train (100 men to a boxcar with no food rations) bound to Dachau concentration camp; some 4,000 survived the journey to Dachau. Around 200 of the most exhausted prisoners were killed prior to the march and 300 prisoners volunteered to remain to dismantle the camp.
Some 350 Jewish prisoners remained during the August Warsaw Uprising and were liberated on 4 August 1944 by Polish forces. They included dozens of Jews (including 24 women) who were imprisoned in Pawiak and transferred to the camp on 31 July. The vast majority of released Jewish prisoners took part in the uprising, many of them dying during the fighting. Those released were mostly Greek and Hungarian Jews, with some Czechoslovakians and Dutch Jews, who knew very little Polish. Morale among Jewish fighters was hurt by displays of antisemitism, with several former Jewish prisoners in combat units killed by antisemitic Poles,: in particular those associated with the National Armed Forces. After the defeat of the uprising, survivors fled or hid in bunkers, there were some 200 Jewish survivors (former prisoners as well as Jews who hid on the "Aryan" side) when the Soviets entered Warsaw on 17 January 1945. The book "The Bunker" by Charles Goldstein, a camp inmate, recounts his experiences in the camp and survival.
In executions in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto (around and in the site of the concentration camp), Bogusław Tadeusz Kopka estimates that the Germans killed some 20,000 people including camp inmates, Polish Jews caught hiding on the "Aryan side" of Warsaw, and Polish Political prisoners. Also, the Jews who were hiding in the ruins of the ghetto and were discovered (and subsequently shot) during the demolition works, are counted among the KL Warschau victims.
The Institute of National Remembrance estimates the number of Poles murdered on site of the camp and executed in its vicinity at 10,000. In the foreword to the Kopka's monograph about Warsaw concentration camp Jan Żaryn wrote: "In the years 1943–1944 in the venue of the camp were murdered – as it seems – at least 20,000 prisoners, among them around 10,000 Poles".
Demolition and salvage
Prisoners were tasked with clearing 2.6 million cubic meters of rubble, in order to convert the former ghetto into a park, and in order to salvage building materials (mainly scrap metal and bricks) for the German war effort. The demolition and salvage work were hard and perilous labor, carried out at a brisk pace with no regard to loss of life of the prisoners. By June 1944, 10 million square meters were demolished, with some 8,105 tons of metal and 34 million bricks salvaged.
A couple thousand of Polish civilians, who were paid, also worked alongside the Jewish prisoners, as did dozens of German technicians. German constructions firms operated on contract to carry out salvage: Berlinisches Baugeschäft (Berlin, Willy Keymer (Warsaw), Merckle (Ostrów Wielkopolski), Ostdeutscher Tiefbau (Naumburg). The Ostbahn railway company assisted them.
The first transport of some 300 hundred prisoners came from Buchenwald concentration camp, who were German political prisoners and criminals who would be tasked with day-to-day administration of the camp as kapos. The German kapo prisoners, in particular those imprisoned as criminals, intimidated the Jewish prisoners and acted towards them with cruelty, seeing them as expendable.
The prisoners were mainly Jewish males from Auschwitz concentration camp, who were selected on the basis of decent physical condition for hard work and not being Polish. Lack of knowledge of Polish was deemed key by the Germans to prevent escape attempts and limit contact with Polish workers who were also employed, though in the November 1943 transport some 50 Polish Jews were included to meet the 1,000 transport quota. From August through November 1943, four transports of 3,683 Jews were sent to the camp from Auschwitz, many of them Greek Salonikan Jews. In May and June 1944, some 4,000 to 5,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to the camp, to replenish the prisoner workforce that at that point numbered approximately 1,000 and the Germans considered to be depleted.
A minor camp, the Warsaw camp is absent from most standard Holocaust accounts. Over the course of its operation an estimated 8,000–9,000 prisoners were engaged in slave labor, of whom 4,000 to 5,000 are estimated to have died in the camp, during the death march from the camp, the uprising, and hiding after the uprising. Successful escapes were rare, and those caught in the attempt were hanged in front of the assembled prisoner population. Hundreds died due to executions, cruelty, and exhaustion from labor. Following a typhus epidemic which decimated the prisoner population in January through February 1944, only a third of the inmates survived. Survival on the meager rations provided was impossible, and prisoners survived by locating valuables in the rubble and selling them to the Polish civilians who worked alongside them. As such finds became rare late in the camp's operations, many prisoners resorted to extracting gold fillings from their teeth for sale.
The camp was first commanded by Wilhelm Göcke until September 1943, then by Nikolaus Herbet and finally Wilhelm Ruppert who commanded the evacuation in July 1944. The Schutzstaffel (SS) force guarding and operating the camp was approximately the size of a company. The original SS unit was gathered from various other camps, including Trawniki concentration camp and Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and following the attachment to Majdanek in May 1944 they were replaced with SS personnel from Lublin.
The SS personnel mainly guarded the perimeter of the camp and were brutally violent towards the Jews, viewing them as enemies of the state.
Following the war, eight SS men from the camp were executed for their role in murder; three were sentenced by a Polish court and five by a German court. Walter Wawrzyniak, who was initially sentenced to death in 1950 by an East German court, had his sentence reduced on appeal to a life term. In July 2000, Theodor Szehinskyj, who immigrated to the US, had his US citizenship stripped as a US court found that he had lied in his initial visa application about his SS past.
Executions in ghetto ruins
Camp inmates, Polish Jews caught hiding on the "Aryan side" of Warsaw, Polish political prisoners (Pawiak inmates) and Polish hostages captured during the street roundups were executed in the ruins of the former ghetto (which surrounded the camp) in 1943-1944. It is impossible to determine the exact number of victims of executions in the ruins, however historian Bogusław Tadeusz Kopka estimates that some 20,000 people were executed in the period. These included camp inmates, Polish Jews caught hiding on the "Aryan side" of Warsaw, and ethnic Poles. The ruins of the ghetto supplanted previous execution sites, which were in the countryside around Warsaw, such as the Kampinos Forest (the site of the Palmiry massacre). Proximity of the Pawiak prison and the isolation of the former ghetto from the rest of the city, made them – from the German perspective – a far more suitable place for mass killings.
Individual and mass executions of the hostages and prisoners of Pawiak were conducted in the venue of the camp or in his proximity. Members of KL Warschau personnel, along with the members of other SS and Ordnungspolizei formations in Warsaw, were among the executioners. Furthermore, a special "death detachment" composed with the Jewish prisoners of the KL Warschau was used to dispose the bodies of the victims. At the beginning bodies were burnt in open air pyres, later, in the camp's crematory.
Post-war use of the Warsaw concentration camp
Red Army entered Warsaw on January 17, 1945. Very soon the former Nazi camp was taken by the Soviet NKVD who retained the ready-made facility as a prison for German prisoners of war, as well as for the soldiers of the Armia Krajowa (the Home Army) loyal to the Polish Government-in-Exile and other persons suspected of opposing the Soviet occupation. NKVD operated the camp from January to May 1945. Prisoners were held in harsh and unsanitary conditions and, according to the Armia Krajowa’s reports, many of them were executed by the Soviets.
In the middle of 1945 the authority over the camp was transferred to the Polish communist Ministerstwo Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego (MBP, the Ministry of Public Security) who organized there a camp for German prisoners of war. It was named Centralny Obóz Pracy dla Odbudowy Warszawy ("Central Labor Camp for the Rebuilding of Warsaw") and its prisoners were used as the forced labour force during the construction and demolition works in the ruined Polish capital.
In the years 1948–1949 the majority of German POW’s were released. In November 1949 the camp was renamed Centralne Więzienie – Ośrodek Pracy w Warszawie ("Central Prison - Labor Center in Warsaw"), also known as Centralne Więzienie Warszawa II Gęsiówka ("Central Prison Warsaw II Gęsiówka"). Common criminals, as well as the people sentenced by Komisja Specjalna do Walki z Nadużyciami i Szkodnictwem Gospodarczym (the Special Commission for Combating Misappropriation and Economic Sabotage), were imprisoned there by the MBP and forced to work, mostly in manufacturing of construction materials which were later used for rebuilding of Warsaw. The camp was finally liquidated in 1956, as the consequence of de-Stalinization.
According to the authors of publication Lista osób zmarłych w więzieniach polskich w latach 1944–1956 ("List of people who died in Polish prisons in 1944–1956") altogheter 1180 prisoners died in the NKVD and MBP prisons at Gęsia street. According to Bogusław Kopka number of victims reached 1800 persons.
The fact that the former Nazi camp was taken and run by the communist authorities was the main reason why in 1947 Chief Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland was forced to cease its investigation at "Gęsiówka".
Ruined Gęsiówka prison was demolished in 1956. No single element of the camp facilities was preserved. Currently, in the venue of the Warsaw concentration camp there is a garden square, residential buildings, as well as the building of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Extermination camp conspiracy theory
Despite basic research being available on the camp, a legend or conspiracy theory developed in Poland around the camp. This was first advanced by judge and author Maria Trzcińska in the 1970s and is promoted by Polish nationalists who espouse the "Polocaust" notion. The legend/conspiracy theory claims that the camp was much larger, and functioned as an extermination camp for the non-Jewish population of Warsaw, killing 200,000 mainly non-Jewish Poles. The alleged killing used a giant gas chamber supposedly constructed in the Józef Bem Street tunnel (near Warszawa Zachodnia station) Supporters of "Polocaust" resent the attention the Holocaust receives since they believe the Holocaust to be an exaggeration by Jews. Therefore, promoting a theory that the Germans constructed a gas chamber to kill non-Jews, coupled with the killing of as many as 200,000 additional victims of the Warsaw Uprising (for a total of 400,000 non-Jewish victims in Warsaw), would create a parity between Jewish and non-Jewish Poles, and would make the Holocaust less unique.
The nationalist daily Nasz Dziennik has promoted this conspiracy theory and the camp as a symbol of Polish martyrdom, advocating introduction of material to school curricula and the construction of a museum. Unlike other concentration camps that are extensively covered in historical literature (e.g. the Auschwitz concentration camp), the Warsaw concentration camp is nearly absent in mainstream historiography, allowing Nasz Dziennik to break ground on a "new continent".
In 2010 the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) commissioned a report from historian and aerial photography specialist Zygmunt Walkowski. Walkowski states that his report, seven years in the works, thoroughly refutes all aspects of the conspiracy theory; as of 2020 the IPN is yet to publish it, and continues to refer to earlier work by Bogusław Kopka. Subsequent to his report, Walkowski has received anonymous threats to his life.
According to journalist Beata Chomątowska, the dynamics of the debunked conspiracy theory surrounding the Warsaw concentration camp are similar to the conspiracy theories surrounding the Smolensk air disaster, and Havi Dreifuss, Jan Grabowski and Gideon Greif relate it to government intervention in the field. Historian Daniel Blatman sees the gas chamber story as Holocaust denial: "one of numberless stories that Holocaust deniers around the world are posting online".
An English Wikipedia article about the Warsaw concentration camp was first drafted in 2004. Starting at its creation, the article presented the now-discredited Trzcińska's research as a mainstream view for 15 years, despite the theory being debunked by mainstream scholarly publications by 2007. The erroneous information was fully removed in August 2019, and this was publicized in the media in October 2019, which labelled the erroneous information as "Wikipedia’s longest-standing hoax". In discussing who is to blame for the distortion of history, Blatman writes that Wikipedia is the "truly guilty side" because it is not dealing properly with people who distort and deny the Holocaust.
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