Harrowing exhibition examines perpetrator behind one of the Warsaw Uprising’s most notorious massacres
Coinciding with the 78th anniversary of the Wola Massacre, a new exhibition organised by the Warsaw Rising Museum has opened examining the role of its primary perpetrator, Heinz Reinefarth, and his subsequent escape from justice.
Speaking to TFN, the museum’s Deputy Director, Paweł Ukielski, said: “I would not hesitate to attribute the word ‘genocide’ to this event. This was a very well organised and methodical action.
“In fact, in some ways, I do not like using the term ‘massacre’ as it suggests something wild and spontaneous – on the contrary, this was very well planned.”
Infuriated by the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising on August 1st, 1944, Hitler and Himmler jointly decided that it should be completely suppressed – to do so, the Polish capital would be razed and its inhabitants killed. The Wola Massacre was a direct consequence of this decision.
Then a working class, industrial district of 85,000 people, Wola’s western geography put it in the crosshairs of the Nazi war machine. Under the charge of Heinz Reinefarth, a combat group advanced into Wola on Saturday, August 5th.
Moving along Wolska and Górczewska streets, their objective was to breakthrough in this direction so as to link up and liberate the German command that had been cut off in the area of the Saxon Gardens – in the process of realising this task, they were to simultaneously execute all those residents living in between.
Undoubtedly the most brutal and horrifying chapter of the entire Uprising, what followed was a bloodlust that would result in the execution of between 30,000 and 40,000 people. “Taking place over the course of just a few days, this death rate matched the very worst death camps in its ‘efficiency’,” says Ukielski.
Street-by-street, house-by-house, Reinefarth’s forces combed the area for civilians, rounding them up before marching them to pre-arranged execution sites in cemeteries, parks, courtyards, factories and suchlike.
Having cleared the cellars with hand grenades, no-one was spared regardless of their age, gender or occupation: priests, nuns, women and children, hospital patients were all apprehended before being escorted to their death.
After being mown down with machine guns, the atrocities were then covered-up by special ‘burning detachments’ that would check the corpses for any signs of life before setting light to them on pyres.
Seeking to personalise the anonymous cruelty of this fate, the exhibition presents some of the individual stories relating to both the survivors and victims. Visitors will see, for example, keys and a fragment of a pair of glasses rescued from one pyre by the daughter of one woman that was shot.
Equally jarring is the white hospital shirt of Edward Trepczyński. Shot by a railway embankment, Trepczyński regained consciousness hours later and found he had just been wounded. Crawling to safety when dusk fell, he somehow survived and later donated his bullet-marked shirt to the Rising Museum in 2006.
He was one of the few that could count themselves lucky. Such was the scale of the Nazi fury that Reinefarth himself famously complained in a telephoned report dated August 5th: “what should I do with the civilians? I have more prisoners than I have ammunition.”
This was, indeed, a problem for the Nazi leadership. “Although probably not formally, the orders to execute everyone were to some extent withdrawn after a few days,” says Ukielski. “The commanders realised that it was impossible to conduct mass extermination whilst simultaneously engaging in a battle as they simply did not have enough manpower or equipment.”
Having pacified Wola, Reinefarth then took part in the battle for Old Town, as well as other Warsaw districts such as Powiśle. Later, as the Eastern Front collapsed, he was placed in charge of Festung Küstrin, but rather than defending it to the last man he withdrew his troops as the Red Army’s noose tightened.
With these last few months of the war defined by their chaos and confusion, accounts differ as to Reinefarth’s next movements, however, many agree he was at one stage arrested by the Nazis for his failure to hold Küstrin with some even suggesting he was sentenced to death. However, this penalty was never carried out and he survived the war.
Settling in West Germany, he embarked on a judicial career and even on a career in local politics – in 1951, he was appointed the Mayor of Sylt. Calls for his extradition, meanwhile, went largely unheard and were not pursued as aggressively as they should have been.
“For the authorities in Poland, the Uprising was an inconvenient problem,” says Ukielski. “This was, after all, not just a military action but a political one. Communist propaganda had built a narrative that the Uprising was the work of a criminal leadership that bore the responsibility of a massive loss of life.”
As a consequence, bringing Nazis involved in the Uprising to justice was simply not important and as such, no German was ever persecuted by the post-war government for their actions during the 1944 insurgency.
“Moreover,” says Ukielski, “it actually suited the Communist leadership that people like Reinefarth were in office in West Germany – it gave them an opportunity to show that the West was still full of Nazis.”
For all that, between 1961 and 1967 efforts were made in West Germany to uncover the horrors unleashed by Reinefarth and these were led by the public prosecutor’s office in Flensburg. Interviewing more than a thousand witnesses, they nonetheless faced an uphill battle.
“His role was effectively whitewashed,” says Ukielski. “Reinefarth’s former subordinates denied everything and covered for each other.” Effectively, the authorities found themselves facing a wall of conspiratorial silence, manipulated testimony and collective amnesia.
Nonetheless, prosecutors could count on a historian by the name of Hanns von Krannhals. Having published in 1962 the first German-language monograph addressing the Warsaw Uprising, he was recruited by the Flensburg office to help dig into the history of Reinefarth.
Able to speak Polish, he visited Warsaw in 1962 and compiled a detailed report and tracked down as many sites of execution as was possible.
Survivor testimony was collected, and 35 pictures were shot by the photographer Stanisław Turski to supplement the report. Displayed at the exhibition, these extraordinary images show Warsaw’s sites of execution as they appeared in the 1960s.
As valuable as all of these were, as the years rolled by prosecutors continued to struggle to build a watertight case against Reinefarth.
“The problem was, what was gathered was enough for us to judge him in a historical sense, but not enough to judge him in a legal manner,” says Ukielski. “We also have to remember, that during this period West Germans were beginning to turn a blind eye to war crimes so as to allow themselves to rebuild their country.”
Under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s focus had shifted – rather than de-Nazification, stability and economic success became the priority, and in a not-so-tacit admission that many former Nazis would escape further scrutiny, Adenauer himself famously said: “One does not throw out dirty water so long as one does not have clean water.”
Finding it impossible to definitively link Reinefarth to the execution of civilians, the case was ultimately dismissed in 1967. Although the negative press coverage was enough to see Reinefarth lose his Mayoral post, he continued to work as a lawyer thereafter and enjoy the enduring respect of the local community.
Unrepentant, he never acknowledged his role in war crimes and instead complained about the stress that his family had been placed under as a result of the investigation. “He denied his role to the end,” says Ukielski, “and that was one of the reasons we decided to organise this exhibition.
“The Wola Massacre in general is still relatively unknown around Poland, and the fact that we were able to source – with great help from the Pilecki Institute – previously unseen materials such as the photographs that we present, cemented this decision.”
Likewise, the war in Ukraine also played a role. “This is a story without a happy ending,” says Ukielski. “It’s also a lesson for the future. If there is one thing that is worse than a crime, it is a crime that goes unpunished. We strongly believe that this needs to be remembered in the context of Russian crimes in Ukraine.”