Chronicles of Terror

Chronicles of Terror are one of the largest collections of civilian testimonies from Nazi-occupied Europe. In an online digital repository created for the purposes of the project, the Witold Pilecki Center for Totalitarian Studies publishes witness depositions of Polish citizens who testified before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland after World War II. These testimonies reflect the experience of thousands of Polish victims of Nazi terror, and of their families and loved ones. In the future, Chronicles of Terror will also hopefully include testimonies concerning Communist crimes.

The Polish experience of confronting two totalitarianisms is a vital part of world memory. However, the Polish voice is barely heard in international discussions on the history of the twentieth century. Translations of source texts are few and far between, the achievements of Polish science and culture are sometimes overlooked, and blatant errors appear in public statements about the role of Poland in World War II. Depositions made before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland have long remained unknown to foreign researchers and creators of culture. Meanwhile, the personal accounts of thousands of Polish citizens paint a terrifying picture of the German policy of terror carried out in occupied Poland. It is high time for these voices to sound in Poland and all over the world.

Until recently, these testimonies were scattered and locked away in archives. Today, for the first time, they can reach a wide audience, facilitating the discovery of personal and local histories, and inspiring scholars, journalists and people of culture. Thanks to their translation into English, they also inform international academic knowledge about the German occupation of Poland and perpetuate the memory of victims of totalitarianism.

Our database of depositions currently includes more than 1300 testimonies (of which more than 900 have been translated into English). They concern Warsaw and its surroundings. These include accounts of German terror in the occupied capital: street executions, round-ups, daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, executions of the Polish intelligentsia carried out in Palmiry and other places in the vicinity of Warsaw. We publish testimonies of prisoners of the Pawiak and Gęsiówka, and of those brutally interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters on aleja Szucha. Some depositions were made by Polish Jews who survived deportation to the death camp at Treblinka. We share the accounts of Warsawians who survived the Wola Massacre – a systematic genocide carried out by the Germans during the first days of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Chronicles of Terror currently stands for over 130,000 pages of analyzed case files and approximately 5,000 pages of published source material. Each testimony is described in detail to facilitate identification of witnesses and locations of events, as well as their timeframe. Thanks to a full-text search engine and tags, users can quickly find relevant testimonies.

We are still in the process of expanding the database of testimonies. Chronicles of Terror will soon feature testimonies from other parts of Poland. We are particularly interested in testimonies from small towns and villages, where memories about World War II and the German occupation are still alive but have not attracted much attention.

We are supplementing depositions with private photographs, documents, letters, memoirs, and other memorabilia pertaining to witnesses and other people mentioned in the testimonies. We want to show people’s personal histories and emotions, but also their daily lives. The Witold Pilecki Center is conducting a collection campaign, “Share Your Memories!”, appealing to individuals in Poland and abroad to share memorabilia from their private archives. Following digitalization, they will complete and enrich our online digital repository. We hope to collect resources that are valuable not only to scholars, but also to anyone who wants to learn about and understand the tragic fate of people caught in the wheels of a totalitarian machine.

The Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, set up in 1945, documented German crimes committed during World War II, carried on investigations and published the results of its activities. It functioned in all parts of Poland thanks to a network of district divisions. Evidence collected by the Commission was used after the war to convict German criminals, including Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Reichsgau Wartheland; Ludwig Fischer, Governor of the Warsaw District in the General Government; and Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp. In 1949, due to the need to ensure friendly relations with the new German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the “German Crimes” in the name of the Commission were replaced with “Hitlerite Crimes.” The Commission worked with varying intensity – it was most active immediately after the war and into the 1960s, when there was a risk that German crimes would become time-barred. Witnesses testimonies were collected until the 1980s.

The Commission operated in a totalitarian state more concerned with defeating the anti-communist underground than with prosecuting and trying German crimes. The fate of Heinz Reinefahrt, an SS Gruppenfürer responsible for the 1944 genocide in Wola, a district of Warsaw, stands as a symbol of this post-war injustice. After the war, Reinefahrt became mayor in the town of Westerland on the island of Sylt and a deputy to the Schleswig-Holstein Landtag; he also worked as a barrister. The authorities of the Polish People’s Republic were not able to obtain his extradition from the Federal Republic of Germany. There were not many convictions for German crimes or collaboration, and sometimes soldiers faithful to the Polish Underground State were tried as “fascists.” Witnesses testifying before the Commission had to take all of this into account. They would often omit details that could result in repressions by the Communist apparatus against themselves, their friends and relatives.

The Commission’s tasks, their scope expanded to include Communist terror, were taken over by the investigative division of the Institute of National Remembrance. The files handed over to the archive of the Institute, including witness testimonies, take up 3,500 running meters.

Information

All documents in the repository of the Witold Pilecki Center for Totalitarian Studies come from the holdings of the Institute of National Remembrance (their originals are stored in the Institute of National Remembrance archive) and are made available to the public under the provisions of the Act of 18 December 1998 on the Institute of National Remembrance – Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation.

The repository features the depositions of witnesses who, after World War II, testified about crimes committed by the Germans during the occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945. The depositions were held by the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland and its legal successors.

The testimonies record the experience of Polish victims of Nazi terror. Many testimonies contain graphic details, and therefore minors should use them under adult supervision.

Documents available in the repository should be interpreted in accordance with the methods and tools of historical research. The contents of the depositions were affected by the circumstances in which they were made as well as by the various intentions of interviewers and witnesses. Sometimes human memory also proved fallible. Not all cases in which witnesses were heard ended in conviction.

We welcome all your comments and remarks regarding the material published in the repository. We wish to obtain detailed information about the people and events mentioned in the testimonies in question. We also want to obtain a comprehensive knowledge of all relevant source material recording the experience of Polish victims of Nazi terror. All the remarks should be sent to the following address:

Witold Pilecki Center for Totalitarian Studies Foksal 17 00-372 Warszawa
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