Massacre in Palmiry. Poles did not know until the last moments that they would die

Palmiry has become one of the symbols of German crimes committed in occupied Poland. Between 1939-1941 the Nazis murdered there almost 1800 people. Among the victims were former Speaker of the Sejm Maciej Rataj, and Olympic champion in 10,000 meter run Janusz Kusociński.

The first mass executions in a forest clearing near Palmyra were carried out by the Germans as early as 7 and 8 December 1939. In the following months death transports arrived there many times, mainly from the Pawiak prison.

Mass graves were dug by Hitlerjugend

In his monograph on the place of execution Władysław Bartoszewski stressed that it was in Palmiry, already in the first year of the war, that “many of the most active representatives of our political, social and scientific life were murdered.

In the mass graves rested both “boys as young as 16 and 17 on the day of their martyrdom, girls of junior high school age, aged women and 73-year-olds.”

In the early days of the occupation, the Germans had not yet carried out public executions on a mass scale. They tried to hide their crimes. This is exactly what happened in Palmiry, where before each murder mass graves were prepared in advance. Even Hitlerjugend youth was used to dig them.

The occupant wanted the victims not to know until the last moment what was waiting for them. In this way the unfortunates did not resist. In order to convince the convicts that they were not going on their last journey but to a concentration camp, they were allowed to take their documents, personal belongings, and provisions. Then they were packed onto trucks and the convoy set off in the direction of Modlin.

Also, a harrowing account of a Pole who survived his own execution.

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Executions with machine guns

Only when the column of vehicles was approaching Palmyra prisoners started to realize what was waiting for them. Some of them threw away various trinkets hoping that someone would find out about the crime.

As we read in a book by Mariusz Nowik entitled Palmiry. To kill all Poles one of the unfortunates threw away a photo of his daughter, on the back of which he wrote “Witold Karnawalski shot in Palmiry on 17th July 1941”.

When the cars finally reached the clearing intended for the execution site, the prisoners were taken out of them. Some of them had their hands tied and their eyes blindfolded. At the same time, Władysław Bartoszewski emphasizes that:

“However, the luggage brought from the prison was not taken, nor were the documents and trinkets, if the condemned had them with them. The Jews were given armbands with the Star of David, and the sanitation workers were given armbands with a red cross on their coats or clothes.

The condemned were led by the Germans in groups to a clearing and placed over the edge of the prepared pit, planned, tightly next to each other to save the work of collecting and burying the corpses.

A police or SS platoon carried out the executions with machine guns. After the salvo, the wounded were shot with pistols. Others, who were still alive but no longer gave obvious signs of life, were buried alive.

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Attempts to cover up traces

In order to improve the murdering technique, the Germans sometimes held long poles or ladders behind the backs of convicts standing over a pit. When a volley was fired, “the support was lowered, allowing the bodies to fall into the grave”. Then the next group was brought in and the whole ghastly procedure was repeated, the bodies of the murdered forming another layer.

After shooting the entire transport, the executioners would mask the execution site. The mass graves were carefully buried, and then needles, moss, and even pine trees were placed on them. The occupier hoped that in this way no one would find out about the executions.

The truth came out quickly

However, news about the mass murder in Palmiry quickly reached Warsaw and the authorities in exile. People from neighboring villages and forest service workers saw transports entering the Kampinos Forest and heard the cannonade. Despite the danger, they also tried to observe the execution sites.

As Mariusz Nowik writes in his book “Palmiry. To kill all Poles”, gamekeeper Adam Herbański came up with an effective way of marking mass graves. He used rifle casings left behind by the Germans, which he hammered into nearby trees. Among other things, they helped to discover after the war 24 mass graves in which almost 1,800 people were buried.

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