The civilian population in the Warsaw Uprising
Heavy insurgent fighting in Warsaw began on August 1, 1944. “W” Hour caught many Varsovians away from their homes. Separated from their families, they were often unable to contact their loved ones. It was practically impossible to move freely around the streets, which fact hindered acquisition of the basics necessary for survival. The situation of the civilian population was significantly worsened by the German bombardments that began on August 3 and lasted without letup until the end of the Uprising. Varsovians sought shelter from the air raids in basements, where there was quickly a shortage of drinking water, bandages, and medicines – while there were ever more people who were sick, wounded, or suffering from burns. Incredible crowding and appalling sanitary conditions encouraged the spread of contagious diseases such as diarrhea, typhus, and dysentery. Varsovians hiding in such shelters also constantly feared being buried alive.
The policy of the Nazi occupational authorities towards the civilian population was unambiguous. The verbal order issued by Adolf Hitler, made upon news of the battles in the capital, was for all the inhabitants of Warsaw to be murdered and for the city to be flattened. Mass executions of the civilian population in Warsaw began at once on August 1, 1944. The results of the Germans’ policy of terror were felt most strongly in the Wola district, where from 50 to 65 thousand people perished in mass executions. Acts of genocide also took place in Ochota, for instance in the Zieleniak vegetable market area – as they did in Mokotów, in the vicinities of Olesińska, Puławska, and Belgijska streets, and in the Jesuit monastery on Rakowiecka Street. Such crimes were also committed in the southern part of the downtown (Sródmieście), in the vicinity of the Security Police headquarters (Sicherheitspolizei) on Szucha Street and in the ruins of the Armed Services General Inspectorate building in Ujazdowskie Avenue.
The policy towards Warsaw’s civilian population changed when on August 5, 1944 General Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski took command of the units responsible for suppressing the Uprising. A decision was taken to compulsorily deport the inhabitants of Warsaw and create a transit camp in Pruszków – this was Durchgangslager 121. The mass executions ceased – of women, the elderly, and children as of August 5, and from August 12 of men as well. This change was mostly dictated by economic considerations. The intention was to select those refugees who were capable of working and deport them to the Third Reich as unremunerated labour. Those incapable of work (and these included the elderly and mothers with children) were to be sent to farms located in the German-run General Government.
The deportation of the capital’s population was carried out methodically up until the end of the Uprising in early October 1944 and encompassed the areas of the city that were being successively taken by German units. Upon the signing of an “Agreement on the cessation of hostilities in Warsaw”, the Germans commenced their plan to completely depopulate the capital. The civilian population still remaining in the city was directed to camps set up just south of Warsaw – in Pruszków, Ursus, and Piastów – while insurgents were sent much further south to Ożarów, and then to Stalag and Oflag camps in the Third Reich. The mass exodus of Warsaw had begun. The manner in which this operation was to be carried out was one of the main points in negotiations for the capitulation of the Warsaw Uprising, which were held in Ożarów Mazowiecki between the Polish Home Army representatives – Colonel “Jarecki” (Kazimierz Iranek-Osmecki) and Lt-Colonel “Zyndram” (Zygmunt Dobrowolski) – and General Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski. On the basis of the agreement signed on October 2, the German side undertook to conduct the evacuation of the civilian population “at a time and in a manner so as to avoid unnecessary suffering by the populace”. However, these assurances were often broken.
German forces started looting the emptied city. Stolen goods were shipped to the Reich, while plundered buildings were set alight. Between October and December 1944, German Technische Nothilfe units demolished Warsaw, block by block. Once the German units had withdrawn, most of pre-war Warsaw, including its historic monuments and buildings of great cultural, religious, and economic value, had been destroyed. The numbers of civilian inhabitants of Warsaw who died during the 63 days of the Uprising was, according to varying estimates, between 130,000 and 180,000.