Crimes in Poland. Volume 1. Central Commission for the Investigation of
German Crimes in Poland. Warsaw, 1946
[Note on Source Material. The text contains numerous inaccuracies of spelling and of grammatical usage, which have been left as in the original. Page numbers precede text.]
One of the most shameful examples of German barbarity during the second world war was the way in which they treated Soviet prisoners-of-war. Their cold-blooded cruelty was the more repulsive as it was deliberately premeditated, and practised on valiant soldiers who deserved the enemy's respect. The prisoners were kept in so-called "Prisoners’ Camps" in the open air, on the bare ground in cold and rain, without boots, overcoats, or blankets; they were starved, inhumanly treated, beaten and murdered for the slightest disobedience, or for falling out on the march. The aim was undoubtedly the wholesale murder of the prisoners-of-war. But not of them alone. Male civilians caught by Germans trying to retreat with the Soviet Army to the East, and boys and men from the age of 16 to 60 who were caught on occupied territory, were treated in the same way as the prisoners-of-war, especially in the first stage of the war.
This behaviour of the Germans cannot be put down exclusively to the impulse of hatred expressed by Hitler in his speech of October 3, 1941, where he referred to Soviet soldiers as "beasts and animals", but was clearly due to instructions issued by the German High Command.
The attitude of the Germans towards the Soviet prisoners of-war, was clearly revealed in the trials of persons accused of atrocities, lately held in White Russia, Latvia and the Ukraine. For our part, we should like to add a small amount of first-hand information regarding the treatment of prisoners-of-war in the early stages of the Russian campaign, when German cruelty towards them probably reached its climax. Intoxicated with their initial successes, the Germans felt certain of victory, and equally certain that they would never be brought to book.
As the war, however, went on and on, their attitude underwent a change, specially noticeable after their defeat at Stalingrad, when the German High Command had to count on the possibility of Soviet reprisals.
The evidence which we give here is based either on facts reported by eye-witnesses from among the population, or else on German information, contained in the instructions of the German High Command, and numerous letters written by German soldiers.
During the occupation, Polish military organizations carried on intense intelligence activity among the Germans. With the assistance of Poles working in the German East Post Service (Deutsche Post Osten), soldiers, letters were systematically intercepted and read, and revealed many interesting facts concerning - among other things - the treatment of Soviet prisoners. Unfortunately, only a small part of this material was saved, the greater part having been burnt during the Warsaw Rising in 1944. A large collection of photographs (about 700) from prisoners’ camps, showing really blood-curdling scenes, was also totally destroyed. These snapshots were taken by German soldiers on duty in camps and the prints came into Polish hands through the photographers who developed them.
Still, even the extant material, fragmentary though it is, casts a glaring light ,on the German attitude towards the Soviet prisoners-of-war. The German behaviour in these camps, and their acts ‘of deliberate cruelty, were aimed clearly at getting rid of the prisoners in a manner hardly conceivable by normally thinking individuals. First of all the Soviet prisoners were so starved as not only to render them quite useless for work, but actually, in many cases, to cause their deaths. Political hatred was in these cases stronger than the immediate practical interests of the Reich, which needed workers.
In the summer and autumn o f 1941 Warsaw saw thousands of Soviet prisoners-of-war driven barefoot through the town,
wrapped in torn blankets, staggering with exhaustion. They were followed by trucks, into which those who collapsed and could no longer walk were thrown like sacks. The escort did not allow the public to assist these unfortunates in any way.
Here is an eye-witness’s report:
"On October 13, 1941, two parties o f prisoners were driven along the streets of the Embankment. The prisoners, pale and bare-footed, knocked about and struck by the German guards with the butt-ends of their rifles, were in a state of collapse from hunger and exhaustion. Any Poles who attempted to throw them food and cigarettes were fired on by the Germans".
We quote below the instructions of the German High Command concerning the treatment of prisoners, translated from the original German text:
"Instructions for guarding Soviet Prisoners-of-War."
Original German text of the
[English translation included in the original document -ed.]
"The Bolshevik soldier has had a political training. Every German is his deadly enemy. The Bolsheviks consider every method fair in war: hedge warfare, sabotage, destructive propaganda, and murder. It must be remembered that the prisoners-of-war have received instructions concerning their behaviour when in captivity. It is therefore necessary for the guards to preserve, when dealing with them, the utmost watchfulness, greatest care and sharpest mistrust.
"The following instructions in particular are to be strictly observed:
1. Every German soldier will keep strictly aloof from the Soviet prisoners-of-War. Any intercourse with them is strictly forbidden. Only quite indispensable official instructions are to be communicated to them.
Any intercourse between the prisoners and the civil population must be prevented - if necessary by armed force, directed if need be even against the civilians. Smoking is forbidden on the way to work and back, and also during work hours.
These instructions were a direct and shameless transgression of all international legal provisions. Moreover, the second sentence of Para 2, forbidding any arbitrary or abusive treatment of the prisoners, was disregarded, as will be seen from the letters quoted hereinafter, this being probably the real intention of the German High Command.
This is how these instructions were carried out at the Prisoners-of-War Camp at Chelm:
Letter from Sergeant (Obergefreiter) F. P. (Field Post)
06100 Bz, Chelm, October 6, 1941 t o Corporal (Gefreiter) F. P. 95150 "We have here an enormous Prisoners’Camp. In Lagers 1 and 2 in the town alone there are 90,000 of this gang. In Lager 3 there are 60,000 including all ranks, from non-commissioned officers to chief commanders. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to write everything".
F. P. 00102 A, Chelm October 14, 1941:
"In the local Camp some 150,000 Bolshevists prisoners are laid up. Of course, we are not petting them. If they have to stay here during the winter, half of them will die."
F. P. 37813 E Chelm, October 14, 1941, to F. P. 27884:
"Jewish prisoners are shot at once, but first they are made to dig holes for themselves. Then they are tied together in fives and shot so that they fall into the ditch. There are from 300 to 400 such executions daily".
The following report was given by a Pole who was allowed direct access to the Prisoners’Camp:
"At first there were some 150,000 prisoners in the camp. The conditions in which they lived were dreadful. The marl soil on which the camp stands turns after rain into thick mud, in which the prisoners must sleep, without even a handful of straw. Food is worse than poor. The prisoners are actually dying of hunger and eat grass, straw and odd bits from the refuse heap. An epidemic of dysentery is spreading alarmingly among them. They are black with dirt, and eaten up by lice. No medical attendance is available. Their treatment is barbarous. The German guards torture them, beating them with the butt-ends of their rifles or with whips, and stabbing them with bayonets. Persecution goes on in broad day-light, before the eyes of the people living in the neighbourhood of the camp. Naked prisoners are fastened to the fence surrounding the camp in such a way that they have to stand on their toes. Their hands are tied behind their backs and fastened to the fence. A string is passed round their necks under their chins and fastened to the fence. A man cannot stand long in such a position; he gradually sinks down, his arms turn round, and the string tightens round his neck and slowly strangles him. Such scenes may be observed every day. Prisoners are dying at the rate of 400-500 daily. Every day some 500, under pretext of delousing, are driven to a special hut, where they are gassed. The bodies are then carried to the forest on carts drawn by parties of prisoners dropping with fatigue. On each
cart some 50 or 60 corpses are piled at random, with legs and arms sticking out. In the forest the bodies are thrown like rubbish into a large hole, which when almost full is covered with a thin layer of earth".
What happened in Chelm happened also in other camps. St. Grabowski, F. P. 29322 writes on October 6, 1941 to F. P. 35185 A:
"The Russians perish before our eyes like cattle. We are just about to shoot 4,000 Russian hedge-riflemen (Heckenschützen) [snipers -ed.]. A mass grave is being dug. We do not know yet how it will be done - with machine-guns or rifles". A sergeant (name unknown) F. P. 06686 writes on October 12, 1941, from Biala Podlaska to Berlin:
"I was at the Prisoners-of-War Camp on Sunday. I wanted to take snapshots, but my nerves got the better of me. Too much misery and abomination. Almost every night some 200 or 300 of them die".
And here is another fragment of a letter. The same F. P.6686 writes on October 12 from Biala Podlaska:
"Our comrades in the East are having a very hard time, but we are not much better off, guarding the prisoners. They are always escaping, throwing themselves wildly in the line of our machine-gun fire, or throwing stones at us. It is a dreadful nation. You complain of air-raids, but its is better for our nation to suffer from hundreds of air-raids, than to be overrun by these savages."
Two days later, on October 14, 1941, a soldier F. P. 05405 writes from Biala Podlaska to Berlin-Neukölln:
"You cannot imagine what is going on here, Every day many train-loads of wounded arrive. Every day also prisoners are unloaded, collapsing from hunger; among them boys of 13 to 15. Yesterday, when unloading, we found eight dead bodies, and we shot ten prisoners who tried to escape".
The facts referred to in German letters are confirmed by the reports of the local inhabitants. One of these says:
"On October 1, 1941, in the camp, which is in fact simply a vast field enclosed with barbed wire, there were some 150,000 prisoners, military and civilian, among them thousands of old men and boys of 13 to 15. Some 200 to 300 of them are dying daily of hunger, cold and dysentery. The prisoners try now and then to escape. Crowds of them, stones in hands, throw themselves against the barbed wire and the guards, who try to restore order by using hand-grenades and machine-guns."
The Prisoners-of War Camp at Biala Podlaska was transferred to Deblin. On this occasion some of the prisoners, including several under age, were murdered, as appears from a letter written by an unknown German soldier, F.-P. 06686 on October 12, 1941, saying:
"The local Prisoners’ Camp is to be transferred to Deblin. Already some 5000-6000 prisoners are leaving daily. The Jews however, and the Heckenschüzen are segregated and guarded by SS-men, who tell us that among these hardened criminals (Schwerverbrecher) are many boys of 15."
Of course, the prisoners were fed and treated in just the same way at Deblin as before, as is shown by the following report, dating from the end of October, 1941:
"A train-load of Soviet prisoners has arrived. The Germans first threw out the bodies of those who had died on the way. On top of these corpses they then threw those who were dying, and finished them off with hand-grenades. The remainder were taken to the camp. Whoever was too weak to walk was killed with a blow from the butt-end of a rifle, or shot. In the camp the hungry prisoners eat grass. The guards arrange shooting matches just for fun, aiming at the prisoners. Many of the latter try to escape, and those who are caught are shot:"
A Polish witness reports as follows about the Prisoners’Camp at Blizin, near Skarzysko:
"The camp consists of four huts, situated in the fields near the village, so that everything that happens there can be
observed by the neighbours. Train-loads of prisoners which arrived here had taken over a fortnight to reach the new camp, and were without food or water. Each wagon when opened contained scores of dead bodies. The sick who could not move were thrown out. They were ordered to sit down on the ground near the station and were shot by SS-men before the eyes of the rest. The camp contains about 2,500 prisoners. The average daily death-rate is about 50. The ,dead bodies are thrown out on to the fields and sprinkled with lime, often lying some days after that unburied. The bodies in the field were seen by the villagers, who stated that some of them had been shot through the head. They were sick prisoners whom the SS-men had finished off. Such cases occurred frequently, especially at the morning roll-call, when those who were too weak to stand were shot. All this could be observed by the Polish population. The prisoners received l/4 kg (1/2 lb.) of bread made of horse-chestnut flour and potato-skins, and soup made of rotten cabbage. The prisoners were well aware that in any case they must die, so every night they tried to take refuge in the neighbouring forests, where they were shot by heavy machine-gun fire from the watch-towers, if the guards succeeded in giving the alarm in time by signal rockets.
A witness describes the conditions prevailing at the camp in Karolowka near Zamosc, containing about 20,000 men:
"The prisoners live i n the open air. At the camp the hunger is so terrible that 2 km (a mile and a half) away they can be heard groaning and shouting "Food". They eat grass. Dozens die from starvation. The dead are thrown into a large ditch quite close to the camp, and are sprinkled with lime. The ditch is constantly open. Used as they are for the hardest labour, the prisoners collapse like flies and are shot by the guards. The guards fire at those who attempt to give the prisoners food".
As winter approached, the situation of the prisoners grew more and more tragic. This is well depicted in a letter written
by a non-commissioned officer F. P. 16265 on December 12, 1941, to Elisabeth Hedergott, Primanerallee 19, Berlin N. O. 55.
"Spotted typhus is raging in the Prisoners’ Camp. Out of the 6,000 prisoners transferred to us in October only 2,500 are alive. Appalling misery. Medical staff - one doctor and three assistants - also sick. Lack of people for carrying out the dead. They are scattered everywhere among the sick, on the berths, on the ground, on the threshold, in a word - on every available spot. Medicines are entirely lacking. Every week cases of cannibalism are reported. Of late three dead bodies have been eaten".
The attitude of hatred towards the Soviet prisoners shown by the Germans on every occasion, (by murdering them and by the cruelty with which they treated them) appears also in the correspondence of the German soldiers.
The following fragment of a letter dated October 6, 1941, addressed by a corporal of unknown name F. P. 38354D to private F. P. 19045, is typical:
"I have been ordered with my 38 companions to organise a Prisoners’ Camp. During 2 days 10,000 prisoners arrived. The huts are not yet complete. You cannot imagine what is going on here. This gang is terribly exhausted and famished. Recently we got another transport - these were indeed mad savages. One evening they tried to raid the kitchen. They even attempted to burn the building. They did not succeed however, and six of them were shot. When clearing the debris of the house they got a thrashing, and in the evening when driven home another, so that they had to give up all further excesses. Anyhow, they demolished one of the buildings. This is a nation of nothing but criminals. You would hardly believe what is going on here. Anyone who is not here on the spot would think us crazy, if we ever told what we were doing. We often have to fire at the prisoners. It is a gang of utter savages, only to be mastered by force. What would become of our cities and o f our women if this horde ever
succeeded in invading Germany? Fortunately, our Führer has foreseen everything and will prevent this evil".
No wonder that in such conditions, where the prisoners faced inevitable and terrible death, they constantly tried to escape. These attempts were welcomed by the Germans as a pretext for large-scale massacres. Thousands perished, but still a certain number managed to escape. Those who did so hid in the forests and villages and worked for the Polish peasants on their farms. The Poles sheltered and fed them. As a result of this, the Warsaw Governor Fischer issued an order on September 27, 1941, holding whole rural communities collectively responsible for the concealment of escaped prisoners. The penalty was death or long-term imprisonment. An order issued by Governor-General Frank dated October 23, 1941, forbade any intercourse with the prisoners. Prison with hard labour was the punishment inflicted on all those who helped prisoners to escape - by hiding them, providing them with clothes and food, or giving them information. Upon communities whose inhabitants disobeyed the above order the local Governor was authorised to impose additional collective or individual fines, up to an unlimited amount.
In spite of the above drastic measures, the Poles helped escaped prisoners, Soviet, British, or French, as far as they could. Hundreds of Poles - men and women - lost their lives in the common cause - the struggle for freedom.
Document compiled by Dr S D Stein