Iconic Warsaw building that bore witness to one of history’s darkest moments given prestigious ‘historical monument’ status
First built to serve as the seat of the Ministry of Religious Denominations & Public Education, one of Warsaw’s most iconic institutional buildings has been recognised as a historical monument after a request issued by the Ministry of Culture & National Heritage was approved.
Approaching its centenary, preliminary sketches for the building at Al. Szucha 25 were first drawn-up in 1925 by Zdzisław Mączeński, a prominent architect whose credits had previously included a string of churches – over the course of his career, Mączeński designed approximately 70, among them Limanowa’s striking Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows.
Yet it was his project on Szucha that would ultimately define him and, in fact, the institutional architecture of the Second Polish Republic.
Breaking ground in 1927, it was completed in 1930 and consecrated by Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski with the ceremony attended by the Minister of Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment, Sławomir Czerwiński, and Prime Minister Walery Sławek.
Nine years later, Sławek would earn notoriety after killing himself just steps away at Szucha 19 in response to being increasingly marginalised from politics.
From the outset, the building thrilled due to its grand dimensions and high quality finishes – later, it would be hailed as the first example of ‘stripped classicism’ in Poland.
Known also as Grecian Moderne and Starved Classicism, it was a style that sought to use 20th century Classicism as its inspiration, only to eliminate the decorative frills associated with the latter.
Notably similar to the architecture then trending in Fascist Italy, the building was characterised by its immense double-pillared portico, an almost dehumanising effort topped with a carved Polish eagle.
However, it was not just the exterior that garnered applause. The work of Wojciech Jastrzębowski, a professor at Warsaw’s School of Fine Arts and, also, the Director of the Ministry’s Department of Arts, it was on his behest that some of Poland’s boldest, brightest talents were recruited to execute his vision for an Art Deco space.
Embellished with intricate panels and fabrics, his design for the building saw it filled with elegant furnishings and lighting arrangements designed to resemble flowery bouquets.
There, the story should and would have ended were it not for the outbreak of WWII. With Warsaw falling, on October 1, 1939, the 4th Operational Group of the Gestapo entered the building at 6.30 a.m. and set about the task of transforming the building into their office for the Warsaw District.
Cabinet files and desks were emptied and thrown down into the internal corridor and the library’s collection looted. But though the rest of the interior was left largely untouched, far worse was to come.
Forming a central part of what would become ‘the police district’, Al. Szucha was rechristened Strasse der Polizei in 1941 – a fitting title given the presence of a police station and police living quarters. To fulfil the needs of the area’s new German population, further down the road a medical clinic was opened, and so too a casino and brothel.
But although the street was only fenced off with barbed wire in 1943, it had already assumed a fearsome reputation that struck fear into Poles.
As early as 1940 the windows at No. 25 were barred – and in some cases bricked-up – and the basement reconfigured to host 10 ‘isolation’ cells and four for collective detention. These would come to be known as ‘trams’ on account of their forward-facing bench seats.
With a permanent staff of around 300, the facility was capable of holding around 100 interrogations each day; twice-daily, prisoners were transferred here from, in the main, Pawiak Prison. Occasionally, they would be hauled in straight from a street round-up.
Having waited their turn in silence, prisoners were then led away for ‘research’, a sick euphemism for torture. Conducted in both the basement and the upper floors, this entailed whippings, burnings, suffocation, hanging, beatings and electrocution.
According to survivor testimony, those that failed to crack under these methods would then see the ante upped with the Gestapo dragging in their closest relatives.
Thousands passed through here, and these included the scoutmaster and legendary resistance figure Janek ‘Rudy’ Bytnar (a.k.a. Rudy), nurse and Home Army courier Wanda Ossowska (who was tortured here 57 times), and Jan Piekałkiewicz who was held in solitary confinement for two-and-a-half months before dying from his injuries.
Also interrogated here was Antoni Kocjan, an outstanding pilot and agent who played a crucial role in determining the workings of the V1 and V2 rockets – he would die in Pawiak after his beatings in Szucha – and Irena Sendler, a nurse celebrated by Yad Vashem for saving 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto.
Unlike many, she survived her stint at Szucha thanks to a generous bribe paid by the Żegota aid organisation.
September 1944 saw the Nazis finally vacate Szucha 25 and move their operations to Sochaczew, but not before scores of prisoners were shot in the courtyard.
Understanding the magnitude of its dark role in Polish history, in peacetime the authorities moved quickly to preserve the basement and on July 25th, 1946, a resolution was passed to ensure it was kept intact as a place of martyrdom.
Although the first visitors filed through in 1947, it was in 1952 that the Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom 1939-1944 was officially inaugurated.
Still featuring inscriptions carved into the walls by prisoners awaiting torture, an accurate recreation of the duty officer’s room, cells, and implements of torture recovered after the Gestapo had fled, today it represents one of Warsaw’s bleaker sites.
Yet despite this grim history, the building also continued its governmental duties after the war, acting as the seat of the Ministry of Education.
Entered into the Register of Monuments in 1972, it has now been further safeguarded after a Presidential Decree was granted and signed by President Andrzej Duda.
Awarded only to those places deemed to have a “supra-regional significance, and high historical and artistic values”, the distinction was handed out, according to a government statement, to: “preserve a building which is an exceptional example of the public architecture of the inter-war period and a symbol of the martyrdom of the Polish nation”.
Something of a rare honour, Szucha 25 has become only the 117th place in Poland afforded such a status, and only the fourth in the capital after William Lindley’s water treatment facility, Powązki Cemetery and the so-called Royal Route running from the Old Town to Wilanów Palace).