Auschwitz became an instrument of terror for the population of the areas occupied by the Third Reich. For understandable geographical reasons, it aroused a particular terror in Polish territory. The vision of being sent to Auschwitz terrified and paralyzed millions of Poles. The Germans punished various acts of disobedience by sending them to the death camp. In this article, we will examine the largest of such an undertaking, the deportation of Warsaw residents to Auschwitz, the deportation caused by the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising.
The first part of this article will serve as an introduction to the issue and will give the reader an idea about the situation of Warsaw and its inhabitants on the eve of the uprising as well as a look at the German policy towards civilians. The second part will talk about the transitory camp in Pruszków and the horrible fate of Warsaw residents deported to Auschwitz.
A few words about Warsaw before the Uprising
Until the outbreak of World War II, Warsaw was inhabited by over 1.3 million people (including, apart from Poles, also over 300 thousand Jews), which constituted about 4% of Poland’s total population. The city was the seat of the highest state authorities, an important industrial center, and a transportation hub.
After losing the defensive war in 1939, Warsaw lost it’s status as a capital city. The General Government created by German authorities had its capital in Krakow. Despite its size, Warsaw became a provincial city.
The people of Warsaw got well acquainted with the taste of Nazi occupation. In the city itself, German authorities established a ghetto, and thousands of Polish residents experienced Nazi terror in the form of roundups, mass executions, and deportations to Auschwitz. It is estimated that about 60 thousand inhabitants of Warsaw and its surroundings were transported to concentration camps. 13 thousand of them went to Auschwitz and the rest went to camps: Gross-Rosen, Stutthof, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and others.
Horrible consequences of the Warsaw Uprising
On 1st August 1944 in occupied Warsaw, there was an uprising against German occupants, started by the Home Army (AK) that was supported by other armed groups (together about 50 thousand soldiers) and civilians. During the uprising, 16 thousand insurgents and about 150 thousand civilians were killed, while more than 500 thousand were forced to leave the city by the Germans.
Shortly after the capitulation of the Uprising, along with the looting of everything that had any value, the planned destruction of the city began, carried out by German „clearing units”. In total 75% of buildings were demolished and burned, which made Warsaw almost completely extinct until 17th January 1945. Warsaw, in any case, was planned to be destroyed by the Germans and only a patch of Praga was to be preserved as a railroad station and „worker settlement” for transports heading east. The defeat of the uprising only accelerated the plan to destroy the city.
Authorities of the III Reich planned from the beginning bloody and merciless suppression of the uprising. It was confirmed by Hitler’s order from 1st August 1944:
Every inhabitant must be killed, no prisoners must be taken. Warsaw must be razed to the ground, and in this way, a deterrent example is to be created for all Europe…
One of the manifestations of the ruthless execution of this order was the large-scale deportation of Warsaw inhabitants to Auschwitz and other camps.
Himmler’s terrible orders
It was most likely on the evening of August 5th, SS-Obergruppenführer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski arrived in Warsaw. By Himmler’s order, he was appointed supreme commander of all the German formations fighting in Warsaw, to quickly suppress the Uprising. From August 6th von dem Bach led to easing the extermination policy of the authorities of the Third Reich, forbidding the murder of women and children. Captured civilians were to be expelled from Warsaw and sent to concentration camps.
As early as August 15th 1944, about 400 thousand people from Warsaw were planning to arrive at the camps, with the demand for this amount of prison clothing. On August 26, Heinrich Himmler issued an order to this effect:
The mass of able-bodied men and women will be used for work in the concentration camps, so in principle, only women with small children will be accepted as Polish workers by the chief plenipotentiary for the mobilization of labour forces. […].
On September 9, in turn, Himmler addressed the following order to von dem Bach:
Only men who have fought actively or who are to be counted as such should be sent to concentration camps. Those who surrendered voluntarily with women and children should be sent to work in Germany.
These orders became the cause of hell for thousands of Varsovians. For logistical reasons, they were first sent to the transit camp in Pruszkow. This is also what the second part of this article will talk about.