Losses of the Church During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944
Student Stefan Wyszyński committed to memory a sentence spoken in 1919 by his lecturer at the Włocławek seminary: “The time will come when you who are present here will have nails driven into your tonsures”. Twenty years later, the words of Prof. Father Antoni Bogdański became grim reality. The suffering of the Polish clergy began with the outbreak of the Second World War, reaching its apogee during the Warsaw Uprising.
In September 1939, as a result of artillery shelling and air raids carried out by the Germans, 12% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed, including numerous religious buildings. Among places of worship that suffered damage were St. Peter and Paul’s Church on Emilii Plater Street, the Church of the Holy Cross on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, and the unfinished Church of St. Stanislaus Kostka in the Żoliborz district.
The German occupier introduced the reign of terror and commenced extermination of the clergy. Catholic priests were killed since the first days of the war in Greater Poland, Silesia and Pomerania, where they were arrested and subsequently shot in executions conducted by the Wehrmacht and the Selbstschutz – paramilitary forces of Germans who lived in the Second Polish Republic. On 3 October 1939, a wave of arrests aimed at intimidating the clergy swept through Warsaw. The priests were incarcerated at Pawiak prison and in the jail on Daniłowiczowska Street, and released several days later.
Starting in the fall of 1939, the Germans systematically carried out arrests of selected Polish priests who were known for their social or political work in Warsaw. They would be arrested under the pretense of infringing German orders, for instance for singing patriotic songs during mass. Next, these priests were sent to the concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz, tortured at Pawiak or murdered together with laypeople in Palmiry and other execution sites. Such was the fate of Father Marceli Nowakowski, an eminent social and political activist and a friend of General Władysław Sikorski. Father Nowakowski was arrested for the second time on 8 December 1939, and thereafter subjected to a brutal investigation and executed by shooting on 22 January 1940. Father Antoni Chrościcki, who served as a parish priest in Włochy near Warsaw, managed to survive both the prison and the Dachau concentration camp. Released in 1942, he resumed his pastoral work just before the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. He took part in organizing help for Varsovians escaping from the burning city and documented losses incurred by the Church.
However, torture and murders were just a prelude to what befell the Warsaw clergy during the Uprising. During the Second World War, 82 priests died at the hands of Germans and German military forces in the Archdiocese of Warsaw.
The destruction of monasteries and convents
Before 1 August 1944, there were 64 churches and chapels in Warsaw, as well as about a dozen monasteries and convents. During the Warsaw Uprising, the churches served both as havens and points of fierce resistance put up by insurgents, but they were also used as sites of mass executions perpetrated against the laypeople and clergy of Warsaw.
After the commencement of fighting in the Mokotów district on 1 August, the Jesuit monastery on Rakowiecka Street found itself between the insurgent and German positions; however, it was excluded from military operations. But on the early morning of 2 August, both the church and the monastery buildings came under German fire from Pole Mokotowskie. Then the SS men stormed into the church in search of insurgents, accusing the priests that shots had been fired from the premises: it was a pretext for the destruction of the monastery and the murder of all the residents. Superior Father Edward Kosibowicz argued that there were only civilians in the building; apart from the Jesuits, there were a dozen or so laypeople in the monastery, who hid there at the outbreak of fighting. Father Kosibowicz was led out of the church and murdered in Pole Mokotowskie. The remaining friars and civilians were robbed of all valuables and gathered in one small cell. Then the SS men began to murder the defenseless victims: they hurled grenades into the cell and finished off the wounded with machine guns. About 40 Poles were killed: 8 priests, 8 friars and over 20 laypeople. The course of events is known thanks to a few people who managed to escape the massacre despite sustained wounds. After the war, it was impossible to identify all the victims because the SS men set the cell on fire in order to obliterate all traces of their crime. The Jesuit Church was set aflame several times during the Uprising.
On the night from 5 to 6 August 1944, German soldiers entered the premises of the Redemptorist monastery on Karolkowa Street in the district of Wola. On that day, the Wola Massacre began – the largest slaughter of civilian population during the Second World War. The Redemptorist monastery gave shelter to both the residents of Wola, who were trying to escape death at the hands of the Germans, and about 30 clergymen: 15 priests, 9 friars and 6 seminary students. The Germans ordered everybody out to the street and formed a column, with Redemptorists marching at the front, and the men and women with children walking separately. When the captives reached St. Adalbert’s Church on Wolska Street, the Germans carried out a selection: the women and children were herded into the church, while the friars and the remaining men were divided into groups. At dawn the Germans began to take these groups one by one to the other side of the street, to the premises of the Kirchmajer and Marczewski agricultural machinery depot at Wolska Street 81. There the victims were executed by shooting. An eyewitness who managed to get out from under the pile of corpses testified that the Germans had placed people in a row and dispatched them with a single pistol shot. The massacre claimed the lives of all the Redemptorists who were in the Warsaw monastery at the time.
Hospitals and redoubts
The Congregation of the Sisters of the Resurrection became actively engaged in helping the insurgents and city residents. The sisters had three houses in Warsaw: on Mokotowska, Chłodna and Krasińskiego streets. On 1 August, the house at Chłodna Street 35 was opened to soldiers of the Home Army and all people in need. The sisters organized a field kitchen, and the convent provided shelter not only to the nuns, students and postulants, but also to the local residents and insurgents. On 2 August, a barricade was erected in a nearby street, and fierce fighting took place in the area from the very first days of the Uprising.
On 6 August, the panic-stricken residents of Wola reached the basements of the destroyed convent, bringing news about the massacre of civilians. Then the sisters and their charges decided to hide in the basements. “Whenever the word was out that the Vlasov Army soldiers were approaching, everybody fled in panic, leaving their houses to their fate, just so as to escape their hands,” testified Maria Okońska, who was hiding in the convent at the time. On 7 August, a group of nuns and young girls miraculously escaped the burning ruins of the house. They got through to the Norblin factory on Żelazna Street, and left Chłodna Street among the last escapees.
On 1 August, the convent and the school run by the Sisters of the Resurrection on Krasińskiego Street in the Żoliborz district were converted into a field hospital. The sisters had been warned about the outbreak of the Uprising and prepared the premises to receive the wounded. Throughout the occupation, the convent served as a resistance center, and clandestine teaching was taking place there. The fighting in the area began before the “W” hour, which alarmed the Germans and caused them to conduct a search of the convent. At first, the hospital run by the sisters was recognized by the occupier, and the first wounded to receive treatment there were the German soldiers.
On 3 August, a systematic bombing of Żoliborz began. The Germans also opened fire on the convent and the school from the Dworzec Gdański station. The area was manned by soldiers from the “Żyrafa” [Giraffe] Group of the Home Army. Barricades and tunnels connecting the buildings were erected in Krasińskiego Street. On 17 August, the insurgents defending the convent captured a column of German trucks carrying ammunition and explosives along Krasińskiego Street. It was a great success, one that made possible a long defense of the convent and Żoliborz in general. On the following day, due to violent German attacks, the hospital was evacuated and converted into an insurgent redoubt. Not far from the sisters’ home, there was a manhole to the sewer leading from Śródmieście and the Old Town under Stołeczna Street (now Popiełuszki Street). In the middle of August, this sewer was used by soldiers of the Home Army and the People’s Army who came to the convent from the destroyed Old Town. Thanks to the tenacity of the insurgents, the so-called Redoubt of the Sisters of the Resurrection did not surrender until the fall of the Uprising in Żoliborz.
A tragic fate befell civilians who sought shelter in the churches of the Old Town. The church and convent of the Benedictine Nuns of Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament were of key importance from the very beginning of the Uprising. The cloistered nuns had been warned about the “W” hour because the Old Town commanders correctly assumed that both the church and the convent might play a major role during the fighting. Shortly after the outbreak of the Uprising, the insurgents asked the nuns to open the gates of the convent: first for liaisons and units passing to the defended Rybaki Street, then for the wounded, and finally for all people in need. Prioress Mother Janina Byszewska gave her permission, and the sisters – who had led a cloistered life ever since the congregation was established in the 17th century – opened the gates for the first time in history. Starting on 6 August, refugees from Wola and the neighboring streets began to arrive at the convent, and on 10 August an insurgent hospital was moved to its basements.
On 12 August the Germans localized the hospital, and thereafter the convent was systematically shot at from the direction of the Vistula and bombed from the air. Fires starting in various parts of the building and the church itself forced the nuns and the civilians, including the wounded, to hide in the basements. It soon became evident that the antique structure could collapse any minute, so the nuns, those of the wounded who could move and the residents who were hiding there left the convent in search of another shelter. The entire Old Town had already been cut off by the Germans. After a failed attempt at leaving the Old Town or finding another hideout, the nuns decided to return to the basements of the destroyed convent, and the refugees and the wounded followed suit. During air raids, they all hid in the vault of the church, praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. On 31 August, the Germans presented the surviving civilians with an ultimatum: either they would leave the insurgents and join the Germans, or they would be killed in a bombardment. Both the nuns and the residents, including the wounded, decided to remain on site. As a result of the last German shooting, the ceiling of St. Casimir’s Church collapsed, burying the nuns and about a thousand civilians under the rubble. Only a few nuns survived the destruction of the convent.
The monastery and church of the Dominicans on Freta Street were also converted into an insurgent hospital. The monastery served as headquarters for the command of the “Północ” [North] Group of the Home Army and for Colonel Karol Ziemski, nom de guerre Wachnowski. From 19 August on, the church was under mass German attack, which consisted of heavy shelling and aerial bombing. The monastery was almost completely destroyed during the battle for the Old Town, and over a thousand people were killed in the basements where the hospital was located and where the civilians had sought shelter.
A tragic fate befell the priests who were taken into German captivity together with insurgent units. Two of the best known Catholic priests who were killed by the Germans during the Uprising worked as chaplains in Home Army units.
Father Michał Czartoryski, a Dominican and an aristocrat, found himself in the Powiśle district at the outbreak of the Uprising. Cut off from his confreres from the monastery in the Służew district, he volunteered as a chaplain for the “Konrad” Group. He celebrated mass for the insurgents and civilians, comforted them, and dedicatedly tended to the wounded in an insurgent hospital set up in the basements of the Alfa-Laval factory at Tamka Street 3. On 6 September, before the German assault on the premises, Father Czartoryski was presented with an opportunity to change into civilian clothes, blend in with the crowd of the city’s residents and escape from the hospital. He didn’t take it – according to the witnesses, he said that he would neither shed his scapular nor abandon the wounded who couldn’t be rescued. Having captured the hospital, the Germans murdered all people who had remained within its walls. The Dominican perished together with those in his care.
Father Józef Stanek, nom de guerre “Rudy”, a chaplain of the “Kryska” Group of the Home Army, also worked with great devotion. Father Stanek performed ministerial services in the Czerniaków district, and showed great courage carrying the wounded out of the line of fire. Similarly to Father Czartoryski, he had an opportunity to escape the annihilation of Czerniaków. He was offered to change into civilian clothes and escape to the Praga district on the other bank of the Vistula. However, Father Stanek wanted to stay with the surrounded Poles and serve them to the very end. He was killed by the Germans on 22 September together with the insurgents who had been taken captive at Solec Street 53; he was hanged by his own scarf. He was abused and beaten before his death, because he was still wearing his cassock.
After the fall of the Uprising, Warsaw was systematically destroyed by the Germans. Special units of the Räumungskommando transported all valuable items out of the ruins of the capital. An arson column made rounds of the city, as well as groups armed with flame throwers and explosives. Those Warsaw buildings which survived the Uprising – including almost all the churches – were plundered and set on fire. Some of them, especially those in the best condition, were mined and blown up.
Information on the subject can be gathered from the account of Feliks Skowroński, who together with Father Julian Chrościcki organized help for the populace of Warsaw in the parish of Włochy. On the initiative of Father Chrościcki and Antoni Szlagowski, the suffragan bishop of Warsaw, an attempt was made at saving Church monuments and treasures that survived in the deserted city. With the consent of the head of the Räumungskommando, Feliks Skowroński was granted permission to take the vestments, liturgical objects, and civil status registers from Warsaw churches. The Germans forbade him from saving works of art, paintings, altar cloths, sculptures, book collections, antique liturgical objects, and valuables – these items were stolen and transported to Germany.
Skowroński made trips to the ruined city together with priests from individual parishes in October and November 1944. They took the rescued items away on carts, trying to reach as many churches as possible. The process was supervised by German gendarmes, who – in violation of the agreement – robbed also the items that were supposed to be retained by the Church. The escorting troops and the SS men searched the carts and took the more valuable liturgical objects for themselves.
During his work, Skowroński witnessed executions of Poles who remained in Warsaw after 2 October. He also saw the churches of the Savior, St. Barbara and St. Charles Borromeo blown up; St. Barbara’s Church was destroyed even though the Germans had promised to spare it. The Germans also stole all the valuables and money from the Church of St. Alexander in Trzech Krzyży Square. Nevertheless, the greatest material losses were suffered by the cathedral and the Museum of the Archdiocese of Warsaw, which were plundered by the Germans; the seminary’s library was likewise pillaged. The Church of St. Stanislaus on Bema Street was converted into a stable: the Germans used banners and copes as horse blankets. In the Church of St. Anne, the Germans parked their cars.
The symbol of the suffering of the Church during the Warsaw Uprising was St. John’s Cathedral in the Old Town. In August 1944, the front line ran through the middle of this most important church in Warsaw. The insurgents defended the vestry, while the Germans attacked from Świętojańska Street: fierce battles were fought inside for each meter of the floor. The cathedral was razed to the ground in November 1944.
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Jakub Gołębiewski – a historian from the Institute of National Remembrance, he elaborated a collection of documents entitled Aparat represji wobec księdza Jerzego Popiełuszki 1982–1984, t. 2, Śledztwo w sprawie uprowadzenia i zabójstwa ks. Jerzego Popiełuszki (Warsaw 2014).