The Mass Executions in Palmiry
The village of Palmiry occupies a special place in Polish history. It has become the symbol of the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany on the Polish nation during the Second World War. The 21 executions carried out at this location resulted in the murder of 1,700 people, of whom only 577 have been positively identified. For although we also know the surnames of 485 other persons regarding whom it has been determined that they undoubtedly perished in Palmiry, an analysis of the exhumed remains has not led to their recognition. The cemetery that was established at the location after the War is the final resting place of exactly 2,115 people – murdered both in Palmiry and in the nearby villages of Laski, Wydmy Łuże, Szwedzkie Góry and Stefanów in the Chojnowskie Forest.
The Genesis of the Crime
Why Palmiry? In order to answer this question, we must go back to the year 1929, when the Polish Army commenced building work on a complex of warehouses – planned as a branch of the Main Ammunition Depot No. 1 in Warsaw – on the forested area located between the villages of Kaliszki, Janówek, Sieraków, Pociecha and Palmiry. This depot, popularly known as the “powder magazine”, was connected with the capital by means of a railway line that ran to the Warsaw-Gdańska station. The fragment of land on which the facility was located, with an area of a few hundred hectares, was separated from the rest of the forest by a fence and gates. It underwent considerable leveling in order to provide space for the railway tracks and warehouse buildings. The depot was intended to function as a reservoir of ammunition for Warsaw and the fortress of Modlin; when the War broke out, the “powder magazine” by and large acquitted itself of this role.
In the first days of September 1939, the depot in Palmiry was included in the list of facilities to be bombed by the Luftwaffe. A few of the warehouses were hit, however the majority survived and continued to serve their purpose right until 21 September, when the garrison, commanded by General Mikołaj Bołtuć, left the facility and proceeded in the direction of Warsaw.
Before they invaded Poland, the Germans had drawn up a list of persons who in their opinion were critical of Germany before the War and constituted a threat to the new order that the invader intended to establish on Polish territory. Amongst them were former participants of the Silesian Uprisings and of the Insurrection in Greater Poland, local government activists, civil servants, politicians, and also writers and journalists. These people were placed under arrest and subsequently sent to concentration camps or murdered. The Germans carried out the first executions in Warsaw already in October 1939, in the gardens of Parliament. Since, however, the occupation authorities were preoccupied with maintaining secrecy, they decided to move their murderous activities to the grounds of the former ammunition depot. The “powder magazine” turned out to be appropriate for two reasons. First of all, it was situated in the immediate proximity of Warsaw – a city which throughout the occupation teemed with clandestine operatives and other persons for whom the Germans anticipated only physical elimination, while secondly it was a location where one could murder hundreds of people without any witnesses.
The Murders Commence
We know that the first executions were carried out in Palmiry towards the end of 1939 – on 7 and 8 December. The number of people murdered was 80 and 40, respectively. Unfortunately, we have been unable to determine the surnames of the victims. In total, only 8 of the 46 residents of Pruszków who perished during the third execution, held on 14 December, have been identified, including the local headmaster, Stanisław Kalbarczyk.
The first execution about which we have more information took place in February 1940. On 24 February 1940 the Germans, using the assassination of the German mayor of Legionowo, Reinhold Marilke, which was carried out by unknown perpetrators (it is highly probable that this was a German provocation), as a pretext, arrested a number of people from Legionowo (including the prewar mayor, Mikołaj Bożym, and his son Józef), Zegrze, Jabłonna, Żerań and other nearby townships. Two days later, on 26 February 1940, the 190 arrestees were executed in Palmiry. Lucyna Podlaska, the wife of one of the victims, Wincenty Podlaski, recalled: “During this time I read in an underground paper – I do not now remember the title of the publication – that the hostages arrested in retaliation for the murder of the mayor of Legionowo had been murdered and buried in Palmiry”.
Successive executions took place in the spring of that year. They were connected with the first large-scale betrayal in one of the clandestine pro-independence organizations, PLAN. Following the arrest and subsequent escape from the Gestapo building at Szucha Avenue of one of its leaders, Kazimierz Kott, the organization was decimated by arrests. The majority of PLAN’s activists perished in Palmiry. Amongst those murdered were Tadeusz and Helena Emich, their son Stefan, Zbigniew Rawicz-Twaróg – PLAN’s Chief of Staff, Karol and Andrzej Drewnowski, Stanisław Legotke with his sister, and Maria Brodacka, who had hid Kott in her flat.
The mother of Henryk Kuligowski, who was murdered on 2 April 1940 along with other members of PLAN, has a vivid memory of the tragedy: “My son […] was a graduate of the Mickiewicz secondary school. At the time, numerous alumni of this school were members of the organization set up by Kott. A great many of them were hunted down and arrested along with my son. […] out of my son’s entire class, which numbered 42 students, only 16 survived. The class tutor, Professor Drewnowski, was also killed, reportedly with his entire family. All this happened in the same period. On this basis I surmise that my son could have been involved with Kott’s organization”. A year later, in September 1941, Zofia Kuligowska-Lewandowska received her son’s death certificate, written in German. Some of the families of the victims of Palmiry were given similar documents, which however did not specify the actual circumstances in which their loved ones had perished.
Towards the end of March 1940, the Germans initiated the so-called AB-Aktion (German Ausordentliche Befriedungsaktion – Extraordinary Pacification Action) in the General Government. This name, which of itself revealed little, was used to denote a large-scale anti-Polish operation under which the invader conducted mass arrests, deportations to concentration camps, and executions of persons connected with the resistance, with particular emphasis on the social elites, i.e. political and social activists, the clergy, the intelligentsia, civil servants, and research workers. It should be noted, however, that the immediate reason for implementing the AB-Aktion at that particular time were the preparations of the Third Reich for the invasion of France. For, since the Germans had commenced the transfer of the majority of their armed forces to the West, the authorities of the General Government considered that the liquidation of persons considered as leaders of the underground would ensure relative calm in the potentially unstable Polish lands.
The Gestapo struck swiftly, strongly and accurately. As part of the AB-Aktion, the Germans carried out a number of executions in Palmiry, of which two were exceptionally large. These are in many ways special. First and foremost, we know the surnames of all the victims. We owe this to a Polish employee of Pawiak prison, one Janina Gruszka. Secondly, the victims of the executions were publicly known and therefore instantly recognizable, for before the War they had occupied important positions in government and society.
The first execution, which lasted two days (20–21 June 1940), resulted in the murder of 362 people, including 64 women. According to the account of Janina Gruszka, the prison received a list of persons earmarked for deportation just two days before the execution. The official reason for the move was that the arrestees were to be transferred to camps. Before they were loaded onto trucks, the prisoners were given back their personal belongings (which had previously been placed in the depository), and also bread. How did the deportation take place? Here is what Gruszka had to say: “The Gestapo ordered the prisoners figuring in the list to divide themselves into three equal groups; the first was to depart on 20 June at 6.00 a.m., the second on the same day at 11.00 a.m., and the third on 21 June at 6.00 a.m. No orders were given concerning the segregation of arrestees; to the contrary, mixed male and female transports were allowed. On 20 June at 6.00 a.m., the prisoners from the first group were fully prepared to depart. The vehicles arrived at around 7.00 a.m. These were so-called Black Marias – trucks with tarpaulin covers. Our attention – that is of the prison employees – was drawn to the fact that the escort was exceptionally large, for it comprised some seven vehicles conveying what turned out to be the execution squads”.
This execution took the lives of, among others, the Speaker of Parliament, Maciej Rataj, Member of Parliament Mieczysław Niedziałkowski, Senator Helena Jaroszewicz, Olympic athletes Janusz Kusociński, Tomasz Stankiewicz and Feliks Żuber, the Vice-President of Warsaw, Jan Pohoski, national activist Tadeusz Fabiani, and Władysław Gintowt-Dziewałtowski, an eminent lawyer. In her testimony given before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes, Helena Karśnicka recalled the circumstances of the death of her brother, Zdzisław: “In his last letter […] my brother wrote that he was being deported, probably to agricultural labor, and that we should not worry. That was on 20 June 1940. I received the piece of paper at 08:00. On that very day I went to the Prisoners Care Committee and was told that many of the people removed from the prison were being shot by the Germans in the Młociński Forest. I later learned that on the said day, 20 June 1940, a mass execution was carried out in Palmiry. I think that my brother was murdered together with Speaker Rataj and Member of Parliament Niedziałkowski, for he had notified us previously that both Rataj and Niedziałkowski were with him at Pawiak. […] All I can say is that I did not receive any more messages from my brother”.
The second-largest execution in terms of the number of victims was carried out on 17 September 1940 and claimed the lives of 200 human beings. Amongst those murdered was Father Zygmunt Sajna, the parish priest of Góra Kalwaria (posthumously beatified), Lieutenant-Colonel Eugeniusz Chwalibóg-Piecek, a recipient of the Virtuti Militari medal, and Doctor of Medicine Sebastian Chorzewski, a Silesian insurrectionist.
The pace of the executions carried out in Palmiry gradually fell; this was due among others to the termination of the AB-Aktion. The second and no less important reason was that the citizens of the capital had by now become aware of what was going on in Palmiry. Meanwhile, the sentence carried out on 7 March 1941 by soldiers of the Underground Polish State on Igo Sym, a well-known actor who gained infamy as an informer and traitor, caused a sensation in Warsaw. Sym’s assassination had particularly serious repercussions for theater circles. In the wake of Sym’s assassination, the Germans conducted another execution in Palmiry, on 11 March. A total of 21 men were shot dead, amongst them the chemist Józef Bardadin and Kazimierz Zakrzewski, a Professor of History at Warsaw University.
The last confirmed execution took place in Palmiry in July 1941. From then on (until 1943) the Germans would murder their victims in the forest of Wydmy Łuże, in Laski, and in Szwedzkie Góry. The course of successive killings was identical. People would be brought to the place of execution in trucks from Pawiak prison, along the Warsaw–Modlin road. They always had their personal belongings, which were given back to them from the depository to allay potential unease. The Germans would surround the area, while at the spot itself there would be pits, previously dug by the Hitlerjugend or Arbeitsdienst, approximately 3 m deep. Some of the victims were blindfolded. The shots would be fired by a German execution squad, invariably from rifles chambered for 7.92 mm cartridges. Next, the bodies would be covered with earth and the pits concealed, among others by planting shrubs and trees over them. The majority of executions took place in the Palmiry forest clearing, where today there is a cemetery, and in the immediate vicinity.
Disclosure of the Crime
Even though the Germans prepared for the executions with great care, they failed to maintain them in complete secrecy. The underground authorities gained access to photographs taken in Palmiry by the perpetrators themselves, which showed the victims moments before they were killed. Furthermore, the ban on entering the forest during executions would be violated by Polish rangers, who became the most important witnesses to the crime. Their system of marking the death pits made it possible to find many of the graves after the War and conduct exhumations.
Work on the disinterment of bodies was commenced on 25 November 1945 and lasted until 1946. It was performed by the Polish Red Cross acting on the initiative of a prewar actress, Jadwiga Boryta-Nowakowska, and the parish priest of Łomna, Father Edward Gregorkiewicz. The first victim to be successfully found and identified was Józef Hernes, a well-known industrialist.
In 1948, a cemetery was set up in the Palmiry forest clearing. To date, it serves as a stark reminder of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany against the Polish nation during the Second World War. In the 1970s, a museum was opened nearby. Its role is to disseminate information concerning the atrocities perpetrated in Palmiry. In 2011, the institution was moved to a new building and adopted the name “Palmiry Museum and Place of Memory”.
Bartoszewski Władysław, Palmiry, Warsaw 1976.
Wardzyńska Maria, Był rok 1939: operacja niemieckiej policji bezpieczeństwa w Polsce „Intelligenzaktion”, Warsaw 2009.
Zawilski Apoloniusz, Bitwy polskiego września, Kraków 2011.
Bartłomiej Grudnik – a graduate of the Institute of History at the University of Warsaw. Working as a journalist, he came to specialize in modern history, authoring a number of articles and television programs. He is currently an employee of the Palmiry Museum and Place of Memory, and also collaborates closely with Polish Television.