House of horror where secret police tortured hundreds to become museum in memory of victims
A house of horror which was the centre of the largest mass murder of civilians in Europe after 1945 until the Balkan wars in the 1990s has been sold to the Pilecki Institute.
The building in the centre of Augustów in north-east Poland was used by the NKVD and the Communist secret police to hold and interrogate victims of the 1945 Augustów Roundups, known as the little Katyń.
In July that year, units of the Red Army and NKVD officers supported by the communist Security Office conducted a huge manhunt for hiding Polish underground activists in the Augustów region.
Around 45,000 Red Army soldiers combed the Augustów Forest in search of soldiers of the Home Army, the National Armed Forces (NSZ) and other formations fighting for Poland’s independence.
Soviet troops would surround local villages, arresting inhabitants suspected of having contacts with underground partisans. Over 7,000 people were detained, and imprisoned in over 50 places.
The Soviets set up filtration camps where the detainees were tortured and interrogated, keeping them tied up with barbed wire in pits flooded with water under the open sky.
Some of them returned home after the interrogations, but the fate of the remaining victims has never been properly ascertained.
According to Russian documents, around 500 people were handed over to the Lithuanian security services. Another 592 people identified as soldiers of 'Home Army bands' were loaded onto military trucks and taken to an unknown destination and most likely murdered.
The fate of another 900 people is completely unknown, but it is assumed that Smersh military counter-intelligence officers murdered them in an unknown location.
Describing the events, Prof. Grzegorz Hryciuk from Wrocław University said: "[It was] the largest mass crime committed against civilians in Europe between the end of the Second World War and the outbreak of the Balkan Wars. Although brutal communist pacifications were commonplace, none was as bloody."
Despite the efforts of families and historians, the place where the victims are buried remains unknown to this day.
One of the main sites for holding and interrogating victims was the Turk’s House in Augustów, a tenement house built in 1900 at 3 Maja Street. Cells were in the basement, while offices were above ground.
In the interwar period, it housed a patisserie run by Kamil Tiakosz, an immigrant from Bosnia, called ‘the Turk’ by locals.
After the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, the NKVD took over the building and used it as a detention centre, where ‘enemies of the people’ were kept.
For several years the building was in the hands of the Germans, and in 1944, the Soviets took it over again. In January 1945 it became the headquarters of the Augustów District Office of Public Security.
In 2006, a decision was made to return the building to its pre-war owners. It was then sold and the new owners planned to turn it into a shopping centre, a move which was blocked by veterans’ groups.
The building was finally sold to the Pilecki Institute which commemorates and honours people of merit for the Polish nation in the summer this year.
Now a museum is to be built in the Turk's House to commemorate the victims of the Communist secret police and the Soviet manhunt.
The Museum of the August Manhunt will be a branch of the Pilecki Institute. Dr Wojciech Kozłowski, the director of the institute, said: “This is an important moment for the institute, for the inhabitants of Augustów and Suwałki and for everyone who cares about reliable knowledge and wise remembrance of the Augustów Manhunt.”
For many years, those affected by the crime were afraid to talk about it. Now, the Pilecki Institute is appealing for people who can share memorabilia and documents related to the Augustów Manhunt, and for those who were witnesses to come forward.