In the late 1820s the authorities came to the conclusion that there was an urgent need to erect a new prison in Warsaw. On July 6th, 1829, the construction project was accepted and two months later the government purchased a square surrounded by Dzielna, Ostrożna and Pawia Streets, the last of which gave name to the prison, which started to be referred to as “Pawiak.” The construction works commenced in 1830 and lasted, with some breaks, until 1834. The first prisoners were incarcerated one year later. Towards the end of the 19th c. it was found necessary for a separate prison for women to be built. For this reason a nearby court building was taken over. This building, which had housed a hospital during the so-called Serbian war, 1877-1878, was over time started to be called “Serbia.” The prison complex covered the area of ca. 1.5 ha. The area was fenced with a high wall with barbed wire on top of it. The guard turrets were built to facilitate supervision. The 12x155 m four-story “Pawiak” building could house about 700 prisoners. Little prison cells were situated on both sides of the corridor. Some windows were covered with wooden and metal blinds. The 2-story “Serbia” building was much smaller and accommodated ca. 250 women. “Pawiak” and “Serbia” were separated by a wall with a gate. Besides these buildings, the prison infrastructure included also other buildings, such as garages, workshops and laundries.
From the beginning criminals, political prisoners – revolutionaries, activists of independence and social organizations were put in the “Pawiak” prison. Some of them were Jewish. Among the most famous Jews imprisoned there before 1939 were Rosa Luxemburg, Feliks Kon, Maksymilian Henryk Horwitz, Bronisław Grosser, Alfred Lampe and Paweł (Pinkus) Finder.
After Warsaw was seized by the German army “Pawiak” did not change its function and became the prison of Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) and Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) of the Distrikt Warschau (District of Warsaw.) The first prisoners were taken there as early as the beginning of October in 1939. Later on, “Pawiak” was subordinate to the Nazi Penal Facilities Administration Office.
In the fall of 1940 the Nazis displaced residents of several nearby tenement houses on Dzielna St. Over time, the prison became part of the ghetto.
During WWII “Pawiak” became a place of torture for ca. 1,000 Poles – mostly Warsaw inhabitants, but there also prisoners sent from police stations near Warsaw. Also the foreign citizens that were captured on the territory of Poland were taken there. Among the imprisoned were those suspected of belonging to underground organizations or of their support, hostages, those captured during round-ups and at home during sudden police raids (so called “kocioł” in Polish.) There were also fugitives from POW camps, smugglers and dealers. Jews were also prisoners of “Pawiak”, including Emmanuel Ringelblum, a chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto. Moreover, as a result of “Hotel Polski “ action, some Jews were cunningly trapped and later taken to the prison. Regina Domańska in her book entitled “Pawiak—kaźń i heroizm” (“Pawiak – martyrdom and heroism”) presents the experience of Jewish prisoners of Pawiak in the following way: “Also many Jews, both men and women (oftentimes with children), were imprisoned there after having been trapped in the ghetto or outside it. Jews, who in the first years of the occupation were rarely taken to Pawiak, were transported there in large numbers from the moment the ghetto was closed , dissolved as well as at a later date. Initially, like the rest of prisoners, they were registered. They shared the cells with Poles and were sent to concentration camps or execution places together with them. From 1942 on, under a decree issued by the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Head Office) Jewish prisoners became subordinate exclusively to the so-called Jewish division in the Gestapo department. It was connected with the final “solution of the Jewish problem“ that commenced that year. In July 1942, during the first ghetto’s dissolution, an incredibly large number of Jews was taken to the Pawiak. It was at that time that massive and large-scale arrests were being carried out. The detained were being imprisoned as hostages, who guaranteed that the extermination campaign would run smoothly and without any problems. After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was suppressed on May 16th, 1943, the Germans focused on Jews hiding on the so-called Aryan side. They were being captured and imprisoned at Pawiak. No record was kept of them, they were merely anonymous prisoners, commonly referred to as “pluses.” They were thrown into separate death cells in Department Eight.
These cells, whose walls were not plastered, were totally unequipped. They had once been used as a storage room for potatoes. Every few hours or days at the most, when a bigger group of Jews was gathered, they were murdered in the ruins of the ghetto. These executions were carried out almost each day."
The guards treated Jewish prisoners much worse than others. They were not allowed to use a prison hospital. Regina Domańska points out in her book entitled “Pawiak-kaźń i heroizm” (“Pawiak – martyrdom and heroism”) that executions of Jews were extremely cruel. She quotes a statement of one of the guards: “About 150 Jews, men, women and children, were brought to the Pawiak (…) The next morning they were taken out. At the gate of a house at 25 Dzielna St. a single shot was fired at each of them. When they were falling, fire was set to the straw lying at the gate. Many of them could not stand the pain any longer so they stood up and started to run, resembling living torches. Then the execution squad soldiers would chase and finish off the running prisoners with shots.”
Also Poles accused of aiding the Jews were thrown into the Pawiak. They included Irena Sendlerowa .
The conditions at Pawiak were extremely poor. Most cells were packed with people whose quantity should normally be a few times smaller. Jail cells were also dirty, damp, cold, murky, full of bedbugs and fleas. Covered little windows did not let in enough oxygen. Prisoners slept on plank beds or straw mattresses that were folded during the day. A filthy crude can put inside the cell was used as a toilet. There were no cleaning agents whatsoever, including the most basic ones. The confined were continuously undernourished or even starving. The meals prepared by a prison kitchen supplied only a few hundred calories per day. There were numerous cases of the prisoners falling ill or starving to death. Maltreatment by the guards including serious beating, disciplinary gymnastics, forcing prisoners to walk or crawl on glowing cinder and setting dogs on them was a daily practice. Disobedient ones were locked in unbearable solitary confinement cells. Deaths or ad hoc murders were not uncommon in the Pawiak.
Prisoners were usually interrogated in the building on Szucha Avenue. A car, commonly referred to as “buda” (Eng. kennel), arrived normally twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon, to take selected persons to Szucha Avenue, where they were locked in small prison cells, commonly called “tramwaje” (Eng. trams.) Through a bar that separated them from a corridor they could hear ongoing interrogation and could also see tortured victims. Interrogations at Szucha Avenue were known for their brutality. In order to force arrested people to testify, they were punched, struck with bats, whips with iron weights at their ends, they were strangled, they went through near-drowning. Nazi oppressors pulled out the nails and broke fingers of the prisoners, whom they also kicked all over the body and burnt with searing iron or teased with electric current. Cigarettes were extinguished in their wounds. Tortures were often conducted in the presence of close family members. Homicide during an “examination” and deaths caused by severe beating were not uncommon at all. Some interrogation processes were conducted at Pawiak.
For the best part of the prisoners Pawiak became a stop preceding deportation to concentration camps in Auschwitz, Ravensbruck, Stutthof, Majdanek, Sachsenhuasen, Buchenwald, Gross-Rosen. Prisoners were chained and transported in trucks to the railway stations in Warsaw, where they were next locked in cattle cars. They journey in overcrowded cars no food and water took oftentimes a few days.
Thousands of Pawiak prisoners were executed by the Nazis. Executions were initially carried out in various locations of the city. At the end of 1939 the Kampinos forest, more precisely a glade near a road leading to Pociecha village, became a place of execution. The Nazis felled the trees to enlarge the area. The executions were to be kept secret. Before the prisoners were transported, the neighborhood had been patrolled and strangers had been chased away. Meanwhile, Arbeitdienst (Reich Labor Service) workers from Łomna or Hitlerjugend members from a nearby camp dug oblong holes up to 3 meters deep. After executions, on the top of a mass grave moss and trees were planted. The persons that were to be executed were being intentionally deceived that they were going to a concentration or labor camp. Back at Pawiak there were woken up early in the morning and given food, documents, baggage and personal belongings that had been placed in a prison safe. Only after diverging from the main road in the forest did the prisoners realize the dreadful truth about the final destination of their journey.
Władysław Bartoszewski in his book entitled Palmiry” gives the following account of executions that were carried out in the Palmiry forest: “Cars stopped in the forest, near a glade. The prisoners were ordered to get out, sometimes they were handcuffed and blindfolded. However, they retained their baggage, documents or less valuable objects if they had taken them from the prison. Likewise, armbands with a Star of David worn by Jews and those with Red Cross worn by ambulancemen remained on the sleeves of coats or other clothes.
The groups of convicts were led by the Germans to the glade and later brought into line on the edge of an already dug hole, shoulder to shoulder, right next to one another, so that little effort was put into dragging the bodies to the grave afterwards. The military police or SS squad carried out the execution by means of machine guns. After a salvo some victims were finished off with single pistol shots. Others, still alive but giving hardly any signs of life, were left on their own. The peculiar need of having everything in order made the criminals implement various technical improvements. For instance, the prisoners were placed over the grave with a long pole or ladder behind their backs, which, after a salvo, were released letting the bodies to fall into the grave. The next group was executed in the same place, after which a new layer of bodies formed.”
Executions were also carried out within the ghetto. There are recorded cases of executions opposite the prison, in the yards of tenement houses on Dzielna St. as well as in a camp on Gęsia St.
At the end of July 1944, as a result of appearance of the Red Army at the foregrounds of Warsaw, the Nazis began a hasty dissolution of the prison. On 30th July 1944 the majority of prisoners was taken out and loaded on railway trucks in Stawki St. After a few hours of waiting, the train moved in Western direction. As a result of crush and exhaustion many people died on the way. At the station in Skierniewice, Germans ordered to lie the corps in one carriage. Subsequently, the bodies were poured over with petrol and burnt. The men finally reached Gross-Rosen concentration camp on 3rd August 1944. During this time, only once did they receive a cup of water per person. The journey of women to Ravensbruck took another three days.
After this tragic deportation, a certain number of people still remained at Pawiak. Out of this group, about 200 persons, including the prison medical staff, were released whereas the remaining ones where shot to death in the ghetto ruins. A few of ill prisoners were kill by means of phenol injections. On 21st August 1944, the Nazis blew the prison buildings up.
At present, in Dzielna St. in the place of the destroyed correctional complex, operates the Museum of Pawiak Prison, a branch of the Museum of Independence in Warsaw. Only a fragment of the entrance gate and parts of walls have survived out of the former buildings. At the side of Dzielna St. there remains an old tree which grew here during the war. Its trunk has been covered with numerous plaques commemorating the prisoners. After the war in 1960s, a few cells were reconstructed and an exposition, devoted to history and Pawiak victims, was opened. In the courtyard of the Museum there was erected a monument in the form of obelisk, designed by Zofia Pociłowska. On the other side of Jan Paweł II St. a metal plaque commemorates the building of women’s prison called “Serbia”, which used to be situated at that place.
The Museum of Pawiak Prison
24/26 Dzielna St.
phone/fax: 22 831 92 89