Unbelievable tale of children born and imprisoned in notorious Gestapo prison retold in harrowing new book
Jan Herburt Heybowicz was just three months old when he was imprisoned in Pawiak.
For him, this place of unimaginable horror and the largest Gestapo prison in occupied Poland was simply his home, his backyard and his playground.
In extreme and dramatic circumstances, his mother Janina put to one side the daily fear of torture, brutal interrogation and even execution to care for her little boy, an example of heroism in wartime that equals that of any soldierly feats on the battlefield.
In a damp, cold cell that was choked full with other mothers with small children, each day was a desperate battle to provide Jan with even the most minimum level of childcare.
The prison’s starvation diet made breastfeeding difficult. Jan was often sick. Cleaning nappies was a constant torment. During cold nights, Janina would dry them on her own body, sacrificing her own warmth for Jan’s comfort.
This daily ordeal took place under the noses of degenerate German guards who were capable of murdering children of Jan’s age by breaking their skulls against a wall.
Jan’s tragic story is one of eight accounts of children who spent part of their childhood in the German prison in Warsaw that author Sylwia Winnik has gathered together in her new book Dzieci z Pawiaka (The Children from Pawiak).
Some of the stories that Winnik, whose previous book The Girls from Auschwitz was a bestseller, included in her new book have never been told fully before. Their stories may have existed in museum archives but this is the first time many of them have received a wider telling.
Winnik told TFN: “Researching these stories, what struck me most was the incredible solidarity and love that existed between people at that time.
“There are many types of heroism, and these stories show that no matter what the danger, there were people who would help others - family, friends and even complete strangers by for example delivering secret messages,” she said.
Before the second world war, Pawiak was a huge prison on Dzielna street in Warsaw. It was built in 1830-35 as one of the most modern prisons in Europe and a model for others. Pentonville prison in London borrowed some of its innovations.
At the start of the war, the Germans turned it into the largest Gestapo prison in occupied Poland. Between 1939 and 1944, around 100,000 inmates passed through Pawiak, of whom about 37,000 were murdered.
Around 60,000 were sent in 95 transports to concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, Gross Rosen and Majdanek. For Poles, Pawiak became a symbol of German cruelty.
Among the prisoners there were many children. These included teenagers who even at a young age were already involved in the underground.
“Sometimes children were taken as hostages to find their fathers, especially if the father was an officer or in the Home Army,” Winnik explained.
However, there was another group of children who were there because they were with their mothers or because they were born there. According to Winnik, twenty five children were born within the prison walls. Some of their stories are included in the book.
Jan Herburt Heybowicz, who tells his story in chapter two, wasn’t born in Pawiak but he was just a few weeks old when he arrived there.
He was arrested with his mother on 5 December 1940. “Everything changed that day. Our war started,” he says in the book under Winnik’s pen.
They were caged in Pawiak shortly after Jan’s father Bolesław was arrested around 3-5 October the same year. On 5 April 1941, Bolesław was sent to Auschwitz and according to camp records he died on 9 November either in front of a firing squad or by lethal phenol injection.
Jan spent two years in the Gestapo prison. “Pawiak was my natural environment. The cell was my home, the only one I knew, the only one I would ever have known if I had been shot with my mother on the prison square.”
One of the recurring themes of Winnik’s book is the exceptional bonds of love that existed between families and prisoners at the time. In his testimony, Jan wonders where his mother derived the strength to provide him with such love and care.
Being herself cold, hungry, exhausted and terrified, she still managed to provide Jan with the very basics that he needed, like the nappies she would dry on her body.
“If she could she would have taken all that evil unto herself. This for me is the definition of a mother.”
According to Winnik, the Germans gave the children no half measures. “When there was an interrogation, when the Germans wanted to know something, they took the kids for interrogation.. They were sometimes 10, 12, 15 years old,” she said.
Interrogations would take place at the Gestapo headquarters on Aleje Szucha. Prisoners were beaten and tortured terribly.
The most common method of torturing prisoners, both men, women and children, was to beat them all over the body with whips, hooks, rubber truncheons and steel bars. Some of these implements can be seen today in the museum on the site of the former prison in Warsaw. Other methods included pulling out fingernails and burning with cigarettes.
For Jan and his mother, danger was a constant presence. Even when the threat of being sent for interrogation had passed for at least one day, danger still lurked in the form of the prison’s sadistic guards. One particular degenerate was SS sergeant Franz Bürkl.
Always drunk and known for his bestial cruelty, he was said to have murdered babies by smashing their skulls against walls.
On one occasion, Janina had to sit in terrified silence as Bürkl decided to take little Jan for a walk along the corridor giving the boy his beating stick to hold and placing his SS-man’s hat on his head.
“Though I was small I remember the situation exactly. Like a painted picture, I can see it before my eyes (…) he emanated evil and evil takes root deep in our psyche,” he recalls.
Other dangers were ever present. Because of Jan’s frequent illnesses, including pneumonia, sinusitis, scarlet fever and ear infections, the prison administration wanted to send Jan to a civilian hospital.
Janina resolutely refused as without his mother Jan would have been a prime target for Hitler’s Lebensborn programme in which Polish children were stolen to be germanised and handed over to SS families.
Jan was finally released from Pawiak after his uncle organised for him to be bought out by paying the colossal sum of 50,000 zlotys.
Freedom, though, was not easy for Jan. He recalls arriving in Kraków and thinking how big the cells were in his grandmother’s apartment. He also mistook the trees for cell bars.
After the war, when his mother finally returned from her backbreaking journey after Pawiak, which took her to Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and Buchenwald, Jan refused to accept that she was his mother and addressed her as Pani, as if to a stranger.
In July 1944 as the Red Army approached Warsaw, the Germans prepared to close Pawiak down. The final transport of prisoners took place 30 July 1944, two days before the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. 1400 men and the remaining 400 women were sent to Gross-Rosen and Ravensbrück.
One wagon was set on fire on a siding in Skierniewice near Warsaw killing everyone inside. On 31 July, 200 prisoners were released, including some women with children.
On 13 August, the remaining 107 prisoners were taken to the ruins of the ghetto and shot, including two women just after giving birth together with their new-borns.
On 21 August 1944, the Germans blew up the whole prison complex, leaving just the one pillar of the entrance gate and an elm tree, which are now memorial symbols.
The shadow of Pawiak has hung over Jan throughout his life and despite being there at such a young age he says he can actually remember certain images. “Sometimes from the back of my mind I can extract my earliest memories”
He says that at school he found it hard to make contact with other children. Even after a successful career as a professor of cardiology, he says that he feels uncomfortable in groups of five or more people.
At eighty years of age, Jan is still a practicing doctor. Closing his chapter in the book, he says: “Today, I treat people in private clinics. Because despite the bad things that we encounter, life goes on and we should live it beautifully.”