Wola massacre

Coordinates: 52°14′N 20°58′E / 52.23°N 20.96°E / 52.23; 20.96
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Wola genocide
Part of Generalplan Ost and Nazi crimes against the Polish nation
The Wola Genocide Memorial on Górczewska Street at the location of the railway embankment where up to 10,000 people were shot and then burned by the Germans between 5 and 8 August 1944
LocationWola, Warsaw
Date5–12 August 1944
Attack type
Perpetrators Nazi Germany
MotiveWarsaw Uprising suppression

The Wola massacre (Polish: Rzeź Woli, lit.'Wola slaughter') was the systematic killing of between 40,000 and 50,000 Poles in the Wola neighbourhood of the Polish capital city, Warsaw, by the German Waffen-SS and fellow Axis collaborators in the Azerbaijani Legion, as well as the predominantly-Russian RONA forces, which took place from 5 to 12 August 1944. The massacre was ordered by Heinrich Himmler, who directed to kill "anything that moves" to stop the Warsaw Uprising soon after it began.[a]

Tens of thousands of Polish civilians along with captured Home Army resistance fighters were murdered by the Germans in organised mass executions throughout Wola. Whole families, including babies, children and the elderly, were often shot on the spot, but some were killed after torture and sexual assault.[2] Soldiers murdered patients in hospitals, killing them in their beds, as well as the doctors and nurses caring for them. Dead bodies were piled up to be burned by the Verbrennungskommando ("burning detachment") to destroy the evidence of the massacre;[3] [dead link] though first, dogs were let loose to find survivors to be killed. The operation was led by Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, though its main perpetrators were the Dirlewanger Brigade and the "RONA" Kaminski Brigade, whose forces committed the cruelest atrocities,[4] drawing criticism from Bach-Zelewski himself.[5]

The Germans anticipated that these atrocities would crush the insurrectionists' will to fight and put the uprising to a swift end.[6] However, the ruthless pacification of Wola only stiffened Polish resistance, and it took another two months of heavy fighting for the Germans to regain control of the city.


The Warsaw Uprising broke out on 1 August 1944. During the first few days the Polish resistance managed to liberate most of Warsaw on the left bank of the river Vistula (an uprising also broke out in the district of Praga on the right bank of the river but was quickly suppressed by the Germans). Two days after the start of the fighting, SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski was placed in command of all German forces in Warsaw. Following direct orders from SS-Reichsfűhrer Heinrich Himmler to suppress the uprising without mercy, his strategy was to include the use of terror tactics against the inhabitants of Warsaw.[6] No distinction would be made between insurrectionists and civilians as Himmler's orders explicitly stated that Warsaw was to be completely destroyed and that the civilian population was to be exterminated.[b]

Professor Timothy Snyder, of Yale University, wrote that "the massacres in Wola had nothing in common with combat ... the ratio of civilian to military dead was more than a thousand to one, even if military casualties on both sides are counted."[7]

Polish civilians murdered during the Wola massacre in Warsaw, August 1944

On 5 August, three German battle groups started their advance toward the city centre from the western outskirts of the Wola district, along Wolska and Górczewska streets. The German forces consisted of units[which?] from the Wehrmacht and the SS Police Battalions, as well as the mostly Russian SS-Sturmbrigade RONA[8] and the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger, an infamous Waffen SS penal unit led by SS-Oberführer Oskar Dirlewanger,[9] which included the Azerbaijani Legion (part of the Ostlegionen).[10] British historian Martin Windrow described Dirlewanger's unit as a "terrifying rabble" of "cut-throats, [foreign] renegades, sadistic morons, and cashiered rejects from other units".[11]

A column of Polish women with children being led by German troops along Wolska Street in early August 1944

Shortly after their advance toward the centre of Warsaw began, the two lead battle groups – Kampfgruppe "Rohr" (led by Generalmajor Günter Rohr) and Kampfgruppe "Reinefarth" (led by 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.[2] 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.[12][unreliable source?] Most of the victims were the elderly, women and children.[13][page needed]

The majority of these atrocities were committed by troops under the command of Oskar Dirlewanger and SS-Brigadeführer Bronislav Kaminski.[4] Research historian Martin Gilbert, from the University of Oxford, wrote:[14]

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 insurrectionists 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.

Two hours before midnight on 5 August the Azerbaijani soldiers and Bergmann Battalion attacked St Lazarus hospital, executed hundreds of patients, doctors, and nurses, before burning it down.[15]

Ashes of 4,000 Wola massacre victims murdered at the Franaszek factory buried in a hole in the ground and commemorated by provisional cross

On 5 August, the Zośka battalion of the Home Army had managed to liberate the Gęsiówka concentration camp and to take control of the strategically important surrounding area of the former Warsaw Ghetto with the aid of two captured Panther tanks belonging to a unit commanded by Wacław Micuta.[citation needed] Over the next few days of fighting this area became one of the main communication links between Wola and Warsaw's Old Town district, allowing insurrectionists and civilians to gradually withdraw from Wola ahead of the superior German forces that had been deployed against them.[citation needed]

On 7 August, the German ground forces were strengthened further. To enhance their effectiveness, the Germans began to use civilians as human shields when approaching positions held by the Polish resistance.[16] These tactics combined with their superior numbers and firepower helped them to fight their way to Bankowy Square in the northern part of Warsaw's city centre and cut the Wola district in half.[citation needed]

German units[which?] 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.[17] The greatest number of killings took place at the railway embankment on Górczewska Street and two large factories on Wolska Street – the Ursus Factory at Wolska 55 and the Franaszka Factory at Wolska 41/45 – as well as the Pfeiffer Factory at 57/59 Okopowa Street. 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.[citation needed]

Between 8 and 23 August the SS formed groups of men from the Wola district into the so-called Verbrennungskommando ("burning detachment"), who were forced to hide evidence of the massacre by burning the victims' bodies and homes.[3] Most of the men put to work in such groups were later executed.[citation needed]

On 12 August, the order was given to stop the indiscriminate killing of Polish civilians in Wola. Erich von dem Bach issued a new directive stating that captured civilians were to be evacuated from the city and deported to concentration camps or to Arbeitslager labour camps.[citation needed]


The Monument to Victims of the Wola Massacre, displaying a list of execution sites across Wola and estimates of the number of victims at each site
A close-up of a detail of the Monument to Victims of the Wola Massacre listing some of the Wolska Street execution sites

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 Second World War.[citation needed] The main perpetrators of the Wola massacre and similar massacres in the nearby Ochota district 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 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.[18][19][20] In 1945, Reinefarth was taken into custody by the Allied 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[21] before he died in 1979.[citation needed]

In May 2008, a list of several former SS Dirlewanger members who were still alive was compiled and published by the Warsaw Uprising Museum.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to evidence given by Erich von dem Bach at the Nürnberg trial, Himmler's order (issued on the strength of an order from Adolf Hitler), read as follows: 1. Captured insurrectionists shall be killed whether or not they fight in accordance with the Hague Convention. 2. The non-fighting part of the population, women, children, shall also be killed. 3. The whole city shall be razed to the ground, i.e. its buildings, streets, facilities, and everything within its borders. Wroniszewski 1970, pp. 128–129.
  2. ^ "[...] The Führer is not interested in the further existence of Warsaw [...] the whole population shall be executed and all buildings blown up. Madajczyk 1972, p. 390


  1. ^ Bartrop, Paul R.; Grimm, Eve E. (2019). Perpetrating the Holocaust: Leaders, Enablers, and Collaborators. ABC-CLIO. pp. 12–13. ISBN 978-1440858963.
  2. ^ a b Zaloga, Steven J. & Richard Hook (1982). The Polish Army 1939–45. Osprey Publishing. p. 25. ISBN 0-85045-417-4.
  3. ^ a b "Timeline". Warsaw Uprising. Archived from the original on 3 August 2018. Retrieved 3 February 2009.
  4. ^ a b "Warsaw Uprising of 1944: Part 5 – "They Are Burning Warsaw"". Poloniatoday.com. 5 August 1944. Archived from the original on 28 January 2008. Retrieved 3 February 2009.
  5. ^ Borowiec, Andrew. Destroy Warsaw!: Hitler's Punishment, Stalin's Revenge. p. 101.
  6. ^ a b The Slaughter in Wola Archived 21 August 2009 at the Wayback Machine at Warsaw Uprising Museum
  7. ^ Snyder, Timothy (2010). Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Bodley Head. p. 304. ISBN 978-0224081412.
  8. ^ "Warsaw Uprising: Rona, Bronislaw Kaminski". warsawuprising.com. Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 13 September 2020.
  9. ^ Lukas, Richard C. (2012). The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German Occupation, 1939–1944. Hippocrene Books. p. 197. ISBN 978-0-7818-1302-0.
  10. ^ Rolf Michaelis Die SS-Sturmbrigade „Dirlewanger“. Vom Warschauer Aufstand bis zum Kessel von Halbe. Band II. 1. Auflage. Verlag Rolf Michaelis, 2003, ISBN 3-930849-32-1
  11. ^ Windrow, Martin & Francis K. Mason (2000). The World's Greatest Military Leaders. Gramercy. p. 117. ISBN 0517161613.
  12. ^ "The Rape of Warsaw". Stosstruppen39-45.tripod.com. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 3 February 2009.
  13. ^ Lukas, Richard (1997). Forgotten Holocaust. The Poles under German Occupation 1939–1944. Hippocrene Books, New York. ISBN 0-7818-0901-0.
  14. ^ Gilbert, Martin (2004). The Second World War: A Complete History. Owl Books. p. 565. ISBN 0-8050-7623-9.
  15. ^ Richie, Alexandra (2013). Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Himmler, and the Warsaw Uprising. Macmillan. pp. 292–293. ISBN 978-0-374-28655-2. Archived from the original on 9 November 2023. Retrieved 1 February 2021.
  16. ^ "1944: Uprising to free Warsaw begins". BBC News. 1 August 2002. Archived from the original on 14 July 2007. Retrieved 19 June 2007.
  17. ^ (in Polish) Służba sanitarna w Powstaniu Warszawskim: Wola Archived 10 January 2014 at the Wayback Machine, SPPW1944
  18. ^ Walter Laqueur, Judith Tydor Baumel (2001). Dirlewanger, Oskar. Yale University Press. p. 150. ISBN 0300084323. Archived from the original on 29 October 2013. Retrieved 24 June 2012. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  19. ^ Wistrich, Robert S. (2001). Who's Who of Nazi Germany: Dirlewanger, Oskar. Routledge, p. 44. ISBN 0-415-26038-8.
  20. ^ Walter Stanoski Winter, Walter Winter, Struan Robertson. Winter Time: Memoirs of a German Sinto who Survived Auschwitz. 2004. p. 139. ISBN 1-902806-38-7.
  21. ^ "Syn warszawskiej Niobe". polskatimes.pl. 31 July 2009. Archived from the original on 11 June 2016. Retrieved 6 December 2012.
  22. ^ Odkryta kartoteka zbrodniarzy Archived 8 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine, Rzeczpospolita, 17 May 2008.

External links[edit]

52°14′N 20°58′E / 52.23°N 20.96°E / 52.23; 20.96