Chronicles of Terror
Chronicles of Terror, a novel project run by the Witold Pilecki Center for Totalitarian Studies, combines academic research, historical popularization and the broadly defined culture of remembrance. Our goal is to create the largest collection of civilian testimonies from occupied Europe, which is available ONLINE.
In the online testimony database created for the purposes of the project we publish the accounts of Polish citizens who suffered immense hardship at the hands of the German and Soviet totalitarian regimes during World War II. These testimonies reflect the experience of thousands of Polish victims of totalitarian crimes, and also of their families and loved ones.
The majority of the accounts available on our portal are witness depositions made by Polish citizens who testified before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland after World War II. On 17 September 2017, which marks the 78th anniversary of the Red Army’s invasion of Poland, we plan to publish the first testimonies concerning Soviet crimes, submitted by the soldiers from Anders’ Army and civilians who escaped the Soviet Union. Chronicles of Terror promotes knowledge of the double occupation of Poland and helps preserve the memory of the victims of totalitarianism.
Polish History in the World Memory
The Polish experience of confronting two totalitarianisms forms a vital part of world heritage. However, the Polish voice is barely heard in international discussions on the history of the twentieth century. Translations of source texts are few and far between, the achievements of Polish science and culture are sometimes overlooked, and blatant errors appear in public statements about the role of Poland in World War II. Depositions made before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland have long remained unknown to foreign researchers and creators of culture. The testimonies of Anders’ soldiers and the civilians who experienced exile in the Soviet Union were deposited abroad after the war, but they were available only in Polish. Meanwhile, the personal accounts of thousands of Polish citizens paint a terrifying picture of the German policy of terror implemented in occupied Poland. It is high time for these voices to sound in Poland and all over the world.
Until recently, these testimonies were scattered and locked away in archives. Today, for the first time, they can reach a wide audience, facilitating the discovery of personal and local histories, and inspiring scholars, journalists and people of culture. Furthermore, their translation into English makes them available on an international level, thus informing the world of the double occupation of Poland and helping perpetuate the memory of the victims of totalitarianism.
The Voices and Faces of Witnesses to Totalitarian Crimes
We began the development of our database with the publication of testimonies concerning Warsaw and its environs. These include accounts describing German terror in the occupied capital: street executions, round-ups, daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto, executions of the Polish intelligentsia carried out in Palmiry and at other locations in the vicinity of Warsaw. We also publish the testimonies of prisoners of Pawiak and Gęsiówka, and of those who were brutally interrogated at the Gestapo headquarters on aleja Szucha. Some depositions were made by Polish Jews who survived deportation to the death camp at Treblinka. Finally, we share the accounts of Varsovians who survived the Wola Massacre – a systematic genocide carried out by the Germans during the first days of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
We are still in the process of expanding the database of testimonies, as we want Chronicles of Terror to feature testimonies from all parts of Poland. We are particularly interested in testimonies from small towns and villages, where memories about World War II and the German occupation are still alive but have not attracted broader attention.
Each testimony included in Chronicles of Terror is described in detail in order to facilitate the identification of witnesses and the locations of events, as well as their timeframe. Thanks to a full-text search engine and tags, users can quickly find the relevant testimonies.
We are supplementing the depositions with private photographs, documents, letters, memoirs, and assorted memorabilia pertaining to witnesses and other people mentioned in the testimonies. We want to show people’s personal histories and emotions, but also their daily lives. The Witold Pilecki Center is conducting a collection campaign, “Share Your Memory!”, appealing to individuals in Poland and abroad to share memorabilia from their private archives. Following digitalization, they will supplement and enrich our online testimony database. We hope to collect resources that are valuable not only to scholars, but also to anyone who wants to learn about and understand the tragic fate of people caught up in the wheels of a totalitarian machine.
Post-War Justice and Its Limitations
The Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, set up in 1945, documented German crimes committed during World War II, conducted investigations and published the results of its activities. It functioned in all parts of Poland through a network of district branches. Evidence collected by the Commission was used after the war to convict German criminals, including Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Reichsgau Wartheland; Ludwig Fischer, Governor of the Warsaw District in the General Government; and Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp. In 1949, due to the need to ensure friendly relations with the new German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the “German Crimes” in the name of the Commission were replaced with “Hitlerite Crimes.” The Commission worked with varying intensity – it was most active immediately after the war and in the 1960s, when there was a risk that German crimes would become time-barred. Witness testimonies were collected until the 1980s.
The Commission operated in a totalitarian state more concerned with defeating the anti-communist underground than with prosecuting and trying German crimes. The fate of Heinz Reinefahrt, an SS Gruppenfürer responsible for the 1944 genocide in Wola, a district of Warsaw, stands as a symbol of this post-war injustice. After the war, Reinefahrt became mayor in the town of Westerland on the island of Sylt and a deputy to the Schleswig-Holstein Landtag; he also worked as a barrister. The authorities of the Polish People’s Republic were not able to obtain his extradition from the Federal Republic of Germany. There were not many convictions for German crimes or collaboration, and sometimes soldiers faithful to the Polish Underground State were tried as “fascists”. Witnesses testifying before the Commission had to take all of this into account. They would often omit details that could have led to them, as well as their friends and relatives, being repressed by the Communist apparatus.
The Commission’s tasks, their scope expanded to include Communist terror, were taken over by the investigative division of the Institute of National Remembrance in 1998. The files handed over to the Institute’s archives, including witness testimonies, are 3,500 running meters long.
Saved from the Soviet Hell
Testimonies of Polish citizens who had left the Soviet Union together with Anders’ Army were collected with greatest intensity from 1943, following the discovery of the Katyń graves and the severance of Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations. The personal accounts of Poles document the Red Army’s invasion of Poland of 17 September 1939, the atrocities committed by the Soviets during the two-year occupation, and the tragic fate of Poles deported to the Soviet interior. The accounts were gathered in order to expose the crimes of the Communist terror to the entire world.
These testimonies reflect the heart-wrenching wartime experiences of the inhabitants of the Eastern Borderlands of Poland. They include accounts of people who had been arrested by the NKVD as “enemies of the people,” tortured during interrogations, and sentenced to many years in GULAG camps. Forcibly deported to the Soviet Union, they recount the weeks spent traveling in cattle wagons, the harsh conditions of life in exile, how they were worked beyond their strength on starvation-level rations, and how they had to cope with the deaths of loved ones. The testimonies paint a picture of a dramatic race against time, when – following the amnesty – these Poles made every effort to get to the recruitment posts of Anders’ Army.
After World War II, the testimonies were deposited with the American Hoover Institution. For fear of their destruction or seizure by the Communist authorities in Poland, the Polish Government-in-exile sought to find a safe place in which to keep them. The choice of the United States and the Hoover Library was determined by the fact that the institution was situated in distant California and had always been favorable to the cause of Polish independence. Moreover, as a private institution, it was believed to be less vulnerable to possible pressure to hand these materials over to Communist Poland. In effect, some 30,000 testimonies given by Polish citizens were placed for safekeeping in Stanford.