Massacres in Piaśnica

The massacres in Piaśnica were a set of mass executions carried out by Nazi Germany during World War II, between the fall of 1939 and spring of 1940 in Piaśnica Wielka (Groß Piasnitz) in the Darzlubska Wilderness near Wejherowo. The exact number of people murdered is unknown, but estimates range between 12,000 and 14,000 victims. Most of them were Polish intellectuals from Gdańsk Pomerania, but Poles, Jews, Czechs and German inmates from mental hospitals from General Government and the Third Reich were also murdered. After the Stutthof concentration camp, Piaśnica was the largest site of killings of Polish civilians in Pomerania by the Germans, and for this reason is sometimes referred to as the "second" or "Pomeranian" Katyn.[1] It was the first large scale Nazi atrocity in occupied Poland.[2]

Background: Intelligenzaktion Pommern

After the German invasion of Poland, the Polish and Kashubian population of Gdańsk Pomerania was immediately subjected to brutal terror.[3] Prisoners of war,[4] as well as many Polish intellectuals and community leaders, were murdered. Many of the crimes were carried out, with official approval, by the so-called "Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz", or paramilitary organizations of ethnic Germans with previously Polish citizenship. They in turn were encouraged to participate in the violence and pogroms by the Gauleiter of Danzig-West Prussia, Albert Forster, who in a speech at the Prusinski Hotel in Wejherowo agitated ethnic Germans to attack Poles by saying "We have to eliminate the lice ridden Poles, starting with those in the cradle… in your hands I give the fate of the Poles, you can do with them what you want". The crowd gathered before the hotel chanted "Kill the Polish dogs!" and "Death to the Poles".[5] The Selbstschutz participated in the early massacres at Piaśnica, and many of their members later joined police and SS formations which continued the massacres until the Fall of 1940.[5]

Organized action aimed at exterminating the Polish population of the region however, began only after the end of the September campaign, with the Intelligenzaktion in Pomerania (Intelligence Action Pomerania), a part of an overall Intelligenzaktion by Nazi Germany aimed at liquidating the Polish elite. Its main targets were the Polish intelligentsia, which was blamed by the Nazis for pro-Polish policies in the Polish corridor during the interwar period. Educated Poles were also perceived by the Nazis as the main obstacle to the planned complete Germanization of the region.

As a result, even before the Nazi invasion of Poland, German police and Gestapo prepared special lists of Poles which they regarded as representative of Polish culture and life in the region, who were to be executed.[5] According to official criteria, the Polish "intelligentsia" included anyone with a middle school or higher education, priests, teachers, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, military officers, bureaucrats, medium and large businessmen and merchants, medium and large landowners, writers, journalists and newspaper editors.[5] Furthermore, all persons who during the interwar period had belonged to Polish cultural and patriotic organizations such as Polski Związek Zachodni (Polish Union of the West) and Maritime and Colonial League.[5]

As a result, between the fall of 1939 and spring of 1940, in the Intelligenzaktion Pommern and other actions, Germans killed around 65,000 Polish intellectuals and others. The main site of these murders were the forests around Wielka Piaśnica.

The executions

Piaśnica digging of the graves
Digging the graves
Piaśnica before execution
Victims before the execution
Piaśnica execution
Mass execution in Piaśnica
Execution in Piaśnica forest
Moments before the execution
Piaśnica bodies of victims
Bodies of the victims

Piaśnica Wielka is a small Kashubian village located around 10 km from Wejherowo. The forests around it were chosen by the Germans as the site of the mass murders because it was easily accessible by bus and truck, it had a nearby rail line, and at the same time it was located far enough from other villages and centers of population.

The most commonly accepted time line for the beginnings of the executions is late October 1939. However, the date of the first execution is uncertain and disputed among historians.[5] According to Zygmunt Milczewski, this happened on 21 October. Prof. Andrzej Gąsiorowski states that the first person to be killed was the priest, Father Ignacy Błażejewski, on 24 October.[5] Prof. Barbara Bojarska gives the date as 29 October. Former prisoners and witnesses likewise give various dates at the end of October, and even the first few days of November.[5]

The victims were transported to the execution sites by cars and trucks. Usually they were forced to strip and on some occasions to dig their own graves. They were then lined up on the edge of the ditches they had dug and machined-gunned down, although sometimes regular rifles and pistols were also used. Some of the wounded were finished off with blows of rifle butts, as is documented by the broken skulls that have been exhumed from the graves. Estimates and records suggest that a single platoon of the 36th SS Regiment Wachsturmbann "Eimann", named after its commander Kurt Eimann, involved in the massacres was capable of killing around 150 people daily.[6] Witnesses report that on numerous occasions, prior to the executions, the victims were tortured and children in particular were treated with utmost cruelty, and often killed by having their heads smashed against trees by German SS soldiers.[2]

The most detailed accounts of one of the executions come from witness accounts regarding 11 November, (Polish Independence Day). On that day, Germans murdered around 314 Polish and Jewish hostages in Piaśnica. According to the testimony of former Gestapo and later, Smersh agent, Hans Kassner (alias Jan Kaszubowski), made in 1952, the executions on that day lasted from early morning until three in the afternoon.[1] Men and women were led in fives to the previously dug graves and shot. Some of the victims were buried alive.[1][2] One of those killed was Sister Alicja Kotowska, the head of the convent in Wejherowo.[5] Witnesses report that as she was being transported from the prison to the execution site, Kotowska huddled and comforted Jewish children who were also being taken to be executed at Piaśnica.[5] During the post-war exhumation, Alicja's corpse was not identified but a grave was found containing a rosary of the kind worn by sisters of her order. The grave where the rosary was found is presently the site of a memorial. In 1999 Alicja Kotowska was beatified by Pope John Paul II along with 107 other martyrs.[5]

The area around the forests where the massacres were taking place was surrounded with police and paramilitary groups in order both to prevent any victims from escaping and also to preclude access to any potential witnesses from the outside.[1] Despite these arrangements, the local Polish and Kashubian populace was able to observe the numerous transports going to the forests and could hear the sounds of gunfire.[1]

The last transports to the site were seen in the spring of 1940 and contained mostly patients from mental hospital from within the Third Reich, in particular from Stettin (Szczecin) and Lauenburg (Lębork).[7]

The total number of victims, killed in an area around Piaśnica of about 250 square kilometers is estimated at between twelve and sixteen thousand, including women, children and infants.[6]

The victims

Puck tablica piaśnica
The prison in Puck where victims were held and tortured before being shipped to Piaśnica, along with a plaque

Due to the fact that in 1944, the Germans exhumed and burned many of the corpses in an attempt to hide the crime, the exact number of victims is not known, nor are many of their names and national origins. From investigations carried out after the war, three different groups of victims can be identified:

  • The first group of about 2,000 persons, mostly Poles and Kashubians from Gdańsk Pomerenia, arrested in September and October 1939 and subsequently held in prisons in Wejherow, Puck, Gdańsk, Kartuzy, and Kościerzyn.[1]
  • Second group, the largest, of 10,000 to 12,000 people, consisted of Polish, Czech and German families who had been transported from other areas of General Government and the Third Reich. This group also included many Polish workers who had migrated to Germany for economic reasons in the interwar period. The estimated number is based on the mass graves that had been found and on eyewitness reports by railroad men who observed the arriving transports.[1]
  • The third group included about 1,200 (some sources give 2,000) mentally ill patients, transported from hospitals in Stralsund, Ueckermünde, Altentreptow and Lauenburg (Lębork).[2]

Investigations carried out so far have established the names of about 600 of the 12,000 to 14,000 murdered.[1]

The perpetrators

There were three groups which were primarily involved in carrying out the massacres:

  • Einsatzkommando 16, under the command of the chief of the Gdańsk Gestapo SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Tröger[5]
  • Special units of the Wachsturmbann "Eimann" from the 36th Regiment of SS[5]
  • Local ethnic Germans from Wejherowo, members of Selbstschutz, led by the German mayor of Wejherowo Gustaw Bamberger and the county director of the Nazi party Heinz Lorentz.[5]

The headquarters of the command in charge of carrying out the ethnic cleansing were in a villa on Krokowska St. in Wejherowo.[5]

Attempts at hiding the murders

After the extermination action was ended in the Spring of 1940, the organizers and perpetrators began the process of covering their deeds.[8] Trees and bushes were planted on the site of the graves, and German police restricted access to the area in the following years.

In the second half of 1944, during the Red Army's offensive, Nazi authorities anticipated the evacuation of German military and civilian personnel. During this time, an organized action was undertaken to destroy evidence of the massacres. Thirty-six prisoners from the concentration camp KL Stutthof were chosen and brought to the forests in August 1944.[5] Chained and bound, they were forced to dig up the graves, remove the bodies and burn them in specially prepared forest crematoria. After six weeks of this work, the prisoners were murdered by the SS troops which supervised them, and their bodies burned as well.[5] Local German civilians participated in further covering up any traces of the burning of the bodies.[5]

Despite the attempts by the Germans to cover up the massacre, photographs of the events survived. Two local Germans, Georg and Waldemar Engler who ran a photography studio in Wejherowo took part in the massacres as part of the paramilitary organizations. The younger Engler, Waldemar, made a photographic record of the massacre. Both of them were tried and sentenced for war crimes after the war.[5]

Punishment and responsibility

In 1946 a National Tribunal in Gdańsk, Poland, held Albert Forster, the Gauleiter of the Gdańsk Region and the Nazi administrator of Pomerania and Western Prussia, responsible for the murders at Piaśnica, as well as for other war crimes. He was sentenced to death and the sentence was carried out on 28 February 1952, in Warsaw.[5]

A German court in Hamburg in 1968 sentenced SS leader Kurt Eimann to four years in prison for his participation in killing of the German mentally ill at Piaśnica (but not the Polish intellectuals and citizens also murdered there).[5]

Richard Hildebrandt, Higher SS and Police Leader in Pomerania, was sentenced to death by a Polish court in Bydgoszcz for his part and role in organizing the murders.[5] A British military court in Hamburg in 1946, sentenced Max Pauly, the former commander of the Stutthof Concentration Camp and also commander of the Neuengamme concentration camp to death for war crimes. During the proceedings, Pauly did not reveal that he had also taken part in the executions at Piaśnica, Stutthof and other places in German occupied Pomerania. The sentence was carried out at Hameln Prison in 1946, by Albert Pierrepoint. The occupation mayor of Puck, F. Freimann, was also sentenced to death by a court in Gdynia.[5]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Grzegorz Popławski, "Piaśnica – pomorski "Katyń" " (Piaśnica – Pomeranian Katyn), Dziennik Baltycki (The Baltic Daily) (in Polish)
  2. ^ a b c d Tadeusz Piotrowski, "Poland's holocaust: ethnic strife, collaboration with occupying forces and genocide in the Second Republic, 1918–1947", McFarland, 1998, pg. 25.
  3. ^ Jerzy Lukowski, Hubert Zawadzki, A concise history of Poland, Cambridge concise histories, Concise Histories Series, Cambridge University Press, 2001, pg. 228.
  4. ^ Johen Bohler, "Zbrodnie Wehrmachtu w Polsce" (Warcrimes of Wehrmacht in Poland), Wydawnictwo Znak, Kraków, 2009, pg 183–192 (in Polish)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w Elżbieta Grot, Biblioteka Publiczna Gminy Wejherowo im. Aleksandra Labudy w Bolszewie "Ludobójstwo w Piaśnicy z uwzględnieniem losów mieszkańców powiatu wejherowskiego." ("Genocide in Piaśnica with a discussion of the fate of the inhabitants of Wejherow county") Archived 9 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine, Public Library of Wejherowo. (in Polish)
  6. ^ a b Elżbieta Maria Grot, "Ludobójstwo w Piaśnicy jesienią 1939 r. ze szczególnym uwzględnieniem losu mieszkańców Gdyni" ("Genocide in Piaśnica in the fall of 1939, with a discussion of fates of inhabitants of Gdynia"), Państwowe Muzeum Stutthof, oddział w Sopocie (National Museum of Stutthof, Sopot Division) (in Polish)
  7. ^ "Euthanasia". Retrieved 11 January 2016.
  8. ^ Ewa Michalkowska-Walkiewicz (4 August 2008). ""Tajemnica Piaśnicy" (The Mystery at Piaśnica)". Polish News (in Polish).

Coordinates: 54°40′40″N 18°10′34″E / 54.67778°N 18.17611°E

Andrzej Gąsiorowski

Prof. Dr. hab. Andrzej Gąsiorowski (born in 1950) is a research scientist at the Stutthof concentration camp Museum in Sztutowo, Professor in the Institute of Politology, Faculty of Social Sciences of the Gdańsk University, awarded the title of profesor zwyczajny by the President of Poland Bronisław Komorowski. He served as President of the Regional Commission of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in Gdańsk and, at present, is the President of the Scientific Advisory to Instytut Bałtycki. Gąsiorowski specializes in World War II history of Poland, with focus on the anti-Nazi resistance in Pomerania. He is the author of books and monographs on this subject including genocidal operations against Poles by Nazi Germany such as the Intelligenzaktion and the massacres in Piaśnica.

Barbara Bojarska

Barbara Bojarska is a Polish historian, prize-winning author, and former long-term research scientist at the Western Institute (Instytut Zachodni) in Poznań, where she received her doctorate for the work about Massacres in Piaśnica. Her books are devoted almost entirely to history of Pomerania with special focus on the World War II atrocities committed against ethnic Poles by Nazi Germany during Operation Tannenberg.Bojarska began her scientific career at the Institute, as the research aid to Professor Karol Pospieszalski in 1958–1966, director of the Research Department of History of Nazi Occupation of Poland (Zakład Badania Dziejów Okupacji Hitlerowskiej w Polsce). She was traveling between Potsdam and Magdeburg, collecting data about the fate of Poles during the genocidal Intelligenzaktion Pommern. Since then, she wrote numerous publications on the subject widely cited by Polish as well as German historians. Her first ground-breaking research into the Massacres in Piaśnica was published in 1964 when still little was known about it. Her subsequent Piaśnica monograph was released by Zakład Ossolineum in Wrocław in 1978 and since reprinted several times.


During World War II, the Nazi German Einsatzkommandos were a sub-group of five Einsatzgruppen mobile killing squads (term used by Holocaust historians) – up to 3,000 men total – usually composed of 500–1,000 functionaries of the SS and Gestapo, whose mission was to exterminate Jews, Polish intellectuals, Romani, homosexuals, communists and the NKVD collaborators in the captured territories often far behind the advancing German front. After the outbreak of war with the Soviet Union with Operation Barbarossa, the Red Army began to retreat so rapidly that the large Einsatzgruppen had to be split into dozens of smaller commandos (Einsatzkommandos), responsible for systematically killing Jews and, among others, alleged Soviet partisans behind the Wehrmacht lines. After the war several Einsatzkommando officers were tried, in the Einsatzgruppen trial, convicted of war crimes and hanged.

As a military term, the German Einsatzkommando (Operational Command) is roughly equivalent to the English task force and is still in use for German paramilitary organizations, such as SEK and Einsatzkommando Cobra.

History of Pomerania (1933–1945)

History of Pomerania between 1933 and 1945 covers the period of one decade of the long history of Pomerania, lasting from the Adolf Hitler's rise to power until the end of World War II in Europe. In 1933, the German Province of Pomerania like all of Germany came under control of the Nazi regime. During the following years, the Nazis led by Gauleiter Franz Schwede-Coburg manifested their power through the process known as Gleichschaltung and repressed their opponents. Meanwhile, the Pomeranian Voivodeship was part of the Second Polish Republic, led by Józef Piłsudski. With respect to Polish Pomerania, Nazi diplomacy – as part of their initial attempts to subordinate Poland into Anti-Comintern Pact – aimed at incorporation of the Free City of Danzig into the Third Reich and an extra-territorial transit route through Polish territory, which was rejected by the Polish government, that feared economic blackmail by Nazi Germany, and reduction to puppet status.

Intelligenzaktion Pommern

The Intelligenzaktion Pommern was a Nazi German operation aimed at the eradication of the Polish intelligentsia in Pomeranian Voivodeship and the surrounding areas at the beginning of World War II. It was part of a larger genocidal Intelligenzaktion, that took place across most of Nazi-occupied western Poland in the course of Operation Tannenberg (Unternehmen Tannenberg), purposed to install Nazi officials from Sipo, Kripo, Gestapo and SD at the helm of a new administrative machine.On the direct orders of Adolf Hitler carried out by Reinhard Heydrich's bureau of Referat Tannenberg along with Heinrich Himmler's SS-RSHA (Main Security Office), Poles from among intelligentsia and elites were rounded up, and executed without any due process by the SS-Einsatzgruppen in dozens of remote locations such as the forest massacres in Piaśnica and the cavernous Valley of Death. Starting right after the invasion in September 1939, with a second wave in the spring of 1940, these actions were an early measure of the German Generalplan Ost colonization.

Katyn massacre

The Katyn massacre (Polish: zbrodnia katyńska, "Katyń crime"; Russian: Катынская резня Katynskaya reznya, "Katyn massacre", or Russian: Катынский расстрел, "Katyn execution by shooting") was a series of mass executions of Polish military officers and intelligentsia carried out by the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD ("People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs", aka the Soviet secret police) in April and May 1940. Though the killings took place at several places, the massacre is named after the Katyn Forest, where some of the mass graves were first discovered.

The massacre was prompted by NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria's proposal to execute all captive members of the Polish officer corps, dated 5 March 1940, approved by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, including its leader, Joseph Stalin. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000. The victims were executed in the Katyn Forest in Russia, the Kalinin and Kharkiv prisons, and elsewhere. Of the total killed, about 8,000 were officers imprisoned during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, another 6,000 were police officers, and the rest were Polish intelligentsia the Soviets deemed to be "intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials, and priests". As the Polish Army officer class was representative of the multi-ethnic Polish state, the killed also included Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Polish Jews including the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, Baruch Steinberg.

The government of Nazi Germany announced the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest in April 1943. When the London-based Polish government-in-exile asked for an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Stalin immediately severed diplomatic relations with it. The USSR claimed the Nazis had killed the victims in 1941 and it continued to deny responsibility for the massacres until 1990, when it officially acknowledged and condemned the perpetration of the killings by the NKVD, as well as the subsequent cover-up by the Soviet government.An investigation conducted by the office of the Prosecutors General of the Soviet Union (1990–1991) and the Russian Federation (1991–2004) confirmed Soviet responsibility for the massacres but refused to classify this action as a war crime or an act of genocide. The investigation was closed on the grounds the perpetrators were dead, and since the Russian government would not classify the dead as victims of the Great Purge, formal posthumous rehabilitation was deemed inapplicable.In November 2010, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for ordering the massacre.

Ludolf von Alvensleben

Ludolf Hermann Emmanuel Georg Kurt Werner von Alvensleben (17 March 1901 – 17 March 1970) was an SS functionary of Nazi Germany. He held positions of SS and Police Leader in occupied Poland and the Soviet Union, and was indicted for war crimes including the killing of at least 4,247 Poles by units under his command.


Selbstschutz (German: Self-protection) is the name given to different iterations of ethnic-German self-protection units formed both after the First World War and in the lead-up to the Second World War.

The first incarnation of the Selbstschutz was a German paramilitary organisation formed after World War I for ethnic Germans who lived outside Germany in the territories occupied by Germany and Austria-Hungary following the conclusion of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The purpose of these units was to protect local ethnic-German communities and, indirectly, to serve German security interests in southern Ukraine. Another iteration of the Selbstschutz concept was established in Silesia and aimed at returning Polish-inhabited territories back to Germany following the rebirth of Poland. In 1921, the units of Selbstschutz took part in the fights against the Polish Third Silesian Uprising.

The third incarnation operated in territories of Central and Eastern Europe before and after the beginning of World War II notably in Poland, the Free City of Danzig, Czechoslovakia and Ukraine. This Selbstschutz organization took on the character of the Nazi-era in which it was formulated and organized.

In 1938, a campaign was started by local Selbstschutz in the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland in order to subjugate the local Czechs prior to the Munich Conference. During the Invasion of Poland of 1939, a number of similar units conducted sabotage actions directed by the emissaries trained in Nazi Germany. These groups were officially merged into one organization, the ethnic German Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz (Self-Defense Force) of more than 100,000 men. They took part in fighting the Poles as the Fifth Column, but also served as auxiliary forces of the Gestapo, SS and SD during the early stages of the occupation of Poland, and helped the Nazi administration in the newly formed Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia and Reichsgau Wartheland. They served as local controllers, informers, and members of execution squads particularly active in the wave of mass murders of Polish intelligentsia during Operation Tannenberg and other more local and vengeful atrocities. The killings of Poles and Jews ascribed specifically to members of Volksdeutsche Selbstschutz is estimated at the minimum of 10,000 men, women and children. The force was disbanded in winter 1939/40 and the majority of its members joined the German SS or Gestapo by the spring of the following year.

Wielka Piaśnica

Wielka Piaśnica [ˈvjɛlka pjaɕˈnit͡sa] (German: Groß Piasnitz; Kashubian: Wiôlgô Piôsznica) is a village in the administrative district of Gmina Puck, within Puck County, Pomeranian Voivodeship, in northern Poland. It lies approximately 14 kilometres (9 mi) west of Puck and 46 km (29 mi) north-west of the regional capital Gdańsk.

Zygmunt Milczewski

Zygmunt Milczewski (1 October 1905 – 2 June 2001) was a Polish historian associated with Pomerania, a community leader in the Second Polish Republic, and World War II resistance fighter in the underground Home Army (Armia Krajowa) with the postwar rank of Lieutenant (porucznik). During the darkest years of Stalinism in Poland he spent three years in prison as the so-called enemy of the state in 1949-1952 along with thousands of other political prisoners persecuted by the communist Urząd Bezpieczeństwa.Milczewski is best remembered for his research into wartime history of his beloved province, with special focus on the attempted genocide of ethnic Poles of Pomerania in the course of Nazi Operation Tannenberg, known as Intelligenzaktion, including massacres in Piaśnica among various atrocities and expulsions.

Massacres of ethnic Poles in World War II
Pre-war Polish Volhynia
Eastern Galicia
Present-day Belarus
Present-day Lithuania
Present-day Russia
Present-day Poland
Flaga PPP.svg Polish self-defence centres
1st – 11th century
12th – 19th century
20th century
21st century

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