Warsaw Concentration Camp


Warsaw Concentration Camp

The Warsaw concentration camp, more commonly known as Gesoiwka, because it stood at 45 Ulica Gesia was established in the summer of 1943 on the ruins of the former Warsaw ghetto. After the deportation of the last of Warsaw’s Jews, the Jewish quarter was to be made inhabitable. The Jewish uprising in the ghetto during April and May 1943, had led to the Germans adopting ‘scorched-earth’ tactics to break the resistance, under SS-Brigadeführer  Jurgen Stroop, the SS Higher Police Leader – Warsaw District, and the ghetto area had been reduced to rubble. Jurgen Stroop in his report to Friedrich – Wilhem Krüger, Higher SS and Police Leader in Nazi – occupied Poland, proposed that ‘the Dzielna Prison be changed into a concentration camp and to use the prisoners to strip down and collect the millions of bricks, scrap iron, and other materials for further utilization.’

The Germans also expected to uncover large caches of secreted valuables hidden by the ghetto inhabitants. Furthermore, clearance of the rubble would facilitate the efforts of the German forces to uncover the hiding places of Jewish fugitives, who were hiding in cellars and bunkers. It was also in the Germans interest to erase all traces of their brutal liquidation of Warsaw’s Jews. Reichsführer- SS Heinrich Himmlerendorsed Jurgen Stroop’s proposal and in June 1943, he ordered Oswald Pohl’s SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA) and the Security Police in the General Gouvernement to erect a concentration camp on the site on the site of the destroyed ghetto. It was Himmler’s wish not only to salvage bricks, scrap metal and other building materials from the rubble of the former ghetto, but also to seal all underground hideouts, flatten it to the ground, and plant a park in its place. Responsibility for the implementation of this plan was delegated to Hans Kammler, chief of the WVHA’s Office Group C.

The Warsaw concentration camp was officially established on 19 July 1943, with 300 prisoners. German inmates from Buchenwald concentration camp, both political opponents of the Nazis and common criminals, who would in time become the camp’s de facto administrators. In April 1944, the camp was annexed to the Lublin concentration camp, and thus assumed the new name of Lublin Concentration Camp – Warsaw Labour Camp. The camp’s first commandant was SS-Obersturmbannführer  Wilhem Göcke, who was transferred in September 1943 to establish a concentration camp in Kovno; after his departure the camp was headed first by SS-Hauptsturmführer  Nikolas Herbert, and then by SS-Obersturmführer Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert, the commandant of the camp, who came from Lublin, when it was evacuated in July 1944. Four German construction firms – Merckle (Ostrow Wielkopolski), Ostdeutscher Tiefbau (Naumburg), Berlinisches Baugeschaft (Berlin), and Willy Keymer (Warsaw) – were contracted to execute Himmler’s order with the assistance of the German Eastern Railway (Ostbahn).    

Jewish male inmates from Auschwitz concentration camp constituted the prisoner labour force incarcerated in the Warsaw concentration camp to complete this work. Two series of transports of Jewish prisoners arrived in Warsaw. On 31 August 1943, 500 Jewish prisoners are transferred to the Warsaw concentration camp, and on 7 October 1943, a further 1,151 and the following day 1,032 are sent to Warsaw. On 27 November 1943, a transport of 1,000 Jews left Auschwitz for work in the Warsaw concentration camp. After mid-May 1944, an estimated 4,000-5,000 Hungarian Jews replenished the inmate population in Warsaw concentration camp. To the Germans, the key criteria in the selection of these prisoners were their good physical condition, since the work was very hard and physical, and their non-Polish origins, because the Germans did not want the Warsaw camp inmates fraternising with the Polish civilians employed in the same locations. Command of the Polish language would be an invaluable asset in the event of escape and survival. Thus the Germans deliberately selected Jews from Western and Central Europe and Greece for prisoner labour in Warsaw. In the November 1944 transport, the Germans were forced to include 50 Polish Jews, because there was not enough non-Polish prisoners available to fill the quota. A couple of thousand paid Polish civilian workers and dozens of salaried German technicians augmented the camp’s Jewish labour force.

The bulk of the Jewish prisoners were assigned to the demolition of the buildings in the former ghetto area. They recovered the bricks lying on the ground, and they also demolished the unstable walls of dilapidated buildings, cleaning the bricks by scraping off the mortar and stacking them in piles for conveyance by trucks, driven by Poles, to the waiting trains. The prisoners were forced to perform this task mostly by the use of their bare hands, although occasionally primitive tools like picks and shovels were also used. In the spring of 1944, the use of dynamite was introduced to raze the remaining buildings. This was dangerous and back-breaking work and many prisoners were killed or injured. The bricks were heavy, especially for men suffering from fatigue and malnutrition. Prisoners frequently fell from the heights of buildings earmarked for demolition. The Germans forced the prisoners to work at a brisk tempo, and they harshly disciplined prisoners who could not maintain the pace. In spite of the above the prisoners did a remarkable job, as by June 1944, they had demolished an area of approximately 10 million square meters and collected 34 million bricks, 6,000 tons of scrap metal, 1,300 tons of iron ore, and 803 tons of non-ferrous metals.

Officers of the SS unit assigned to the Warsaw concentration camp, which amounted to a company, were transferred from various other camps, including Sachsenhausen and Trawniki. After the annexation of Warsaw concentration camp as a sub-camp of Lublin in April 1944, SS personnel from Lublin concentration camp replaced the original SS unit. The primary function of the SS in Warsaw was to guard the periphery of the camp. In the Warsaw concentration camp, SS violence was prompted further by prospects of personal enrichment, the guards were enticed by the plunder of valuables discovered by prisoners in the debris of the former ghetto and as a reaction to the deaths of SS men caused by the Jewish Uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, all this served to intensify the ill-treatment that was inflicted on the inmates. SS brutality aside, the German prisoner-functionaries, the Kapo’s, who essentially ran the camp, dispensed most of the daily humiliation and degradation that the prisoners suffered. The Kapo’s took pains to intimidate the Jewish prisoners under their control with wanton cruelty and force. This was particularly true of the criminal elements among the Kapo’s, whose feral instincts were directly opposed to the prisoners ‘ welfare, to them the Jewish prisoners were expendable, they were more concerned with their own survival.

Hundreds of Jewish prisoners died from sheer exhaustion, ill-treatment and executions, in the winter of 1944, a typhus epidemic devastated the inmate population. Starvation rations and primitive sanitation helped create conditions conducive to disease. Lice spread quickly through the camp in the winter of 1943-1944, and as a result typhus struck the camp with a vengeance in January and February 1944. Prisoners suffering from the disease were placed in an isolation barrack, where they just lay on soiled pallets, receiving no medication or increased rations, until they either recovered or died. The epidemic created a legion of walking skeletons. These prisoners just apathetically waited for death. By March 1944, approximately 75 percent of the camp’s Jewish prisoners had died, and only approximately 1,000 men were still alive. Since the former ghetto’s demolition was not completed, the Germans decided to replenish the camp’s depleted workforce with additional Jewish prisoners from Hungary in June 1944.

Successful escapes from the camp were rare, since escaping prisoners had to overcome two sets of guarded walls- the wall surrounding the camp itself and the ghetto wall. Those caught were hanged in the presence of the entire camp population, in an effort to deter others from contemplating flight. Since escape was impractical, survival depended on scavenging through the rubble for abandoned objects of value which could be bartered for food. There was modest cultural activity among the Jewish prisoners, such as praying in the barracks. Jewish classics found in the rubble were smuggled into the camp and passed from person to person, or read aloud in the barracks. Jewish prisoners from Greece found fellowship among themselves, not only because they felt different from their fellow Jews, but also because they shared a distinct cultural and communal tradition.

Although the Germans planned to complete the demolition of the former ghetto area by 1 August 1944, the Soviet advance to the eastern bank of the Vistula, forced the camp to close in late July 1944. The Germans decided to evacuate the prisoners westward in the first of the large wave of ‘death marches’ undertaken in the last few months of the war. Before the evacuation the Germans killed a couple of hundred of the most debilitated prisoners whilst approximately 300 prisoners volunteered upon request of the camp’s authorities to remain after the evacuation to complete the dismantling of the concentration camp. On 28 July 1944, the Germans evacuated approximately 4,500 of the remaining prisoners under heavy SS guard in the direction of Kutno, which is located about 75 miles west of Warsaw. The Germans shot any prisoner who fell behind. The prisoners marched off in the scorching summer heat, tortured by thirst on a march that lasted three days. On 2 August 1944, the surviving prisoners were loaded into boxcars on a train to Dachau concentration camp for a journey of almost 466 miles. Conditions in the boxcars were abysmal, with approximately 100 men crammed into each wagon, without any rations. Scores of prisoners died en route from suffocation and hunger. This ‘train of death’ reached Dachau concentration camp on 6 August 1944, with almost 4,000 survivors.

In Warsaw itself, the Warsaw Uprising erupted on 1 August 1944, and four days later on 5 August 1944, the ‘Zoska’ battalion of the Polish Underground Home Army (AK) liberated the Warsaw concentration camp. In a fierce skirmish on the first day of the Uprising, Polish fighters freed a group of 50 Jewish prisoners toiling outside the perimeter of the camp. Of the approximately 350 Jewish prisoners freed in the camp by the AK, dozens, including 24 women, had been transferred on 31 July 1944, from the Pawiak prison. The vast majority of liberated prisoners volunteered to fight in the Uprising and served the revolt in various capacities. A special Jewish fighting platoon and a Jewish brigade to construct barricades were formed from those liberated from the Warsaw concentration camp. These units sustained heavy losses. The morale of the former concentration camp prisoners was corroded, however, when anti-Semitism reared its ugly head in the fighting units. Anti-Semitic Poles even killed several liberated prisoners, who volunteered to serve in the combat units.

With the defeat of the Polish Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising, by superior German forces on 2 October 1944, the surviving Jewish fighters were compelled either to flee or go into hiding in underground bunkers, which was a gruesome ordeal. When the Red Army finally entered Warsaw on 17 January 1945, only 200 Jews, among them former inmates from the Warsaw concentration camp were able to emerge from their bunkers as survivors. Of the 8,000 to 9,000 inmates who passed through the gates of the Warsaw concentration camp between the summers of 1943 to 1944, some 5,000 of them perished during the operation of the camp, its evacuation or the battle for it and Warsaw.

There were several post-war trials of camp personnel, for example in the late 1940’s eight SS men were executed for the murder of inmates in the Warsaw concentration camp. In addition Walter Wawrzyniak, the camp’s initial orderly, was convicted in a German criminal court in Leipzig, but on appeal his death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.  


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Photograph: USHMM Archive

© Holocaust Historical Society 2014