Firlej – a place of horror and a place of memory
Today, multitudes of places of memory illustrate the sheer scale of German crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War. Generations of Poles gather at the sites of mass executions, in cemeteries and at individual graves, paying homage to the victims of the Nazi terror. But we should keep in mind that before the War the majority of these locations – present-day sites of martyrdom – were nothing of the sort. They were places where everyday life went on with a regular and mundane tempo.
In retaliation for assisting “Hubal”
One such location is Firlej, from 15 March 1984 a district of the city of Radom. Previously, as we may learn from entries in the nineteenth century Geographical dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and other Slavic countries, it was a bustling village in the commune of Wielogóra. Until the outbreak of the Second World War, it was known for practically one thing – the “Firlej” Industrial Plant, which had been set up and initially operated by the Beckerman family. In the interwar period, the areas adjacent to Firlej were used by the army administration as a firing range.
During the German occupation, however, these lands – located in close proximity to settled rural and municipal areas – became one gigantic execution site and home to the mass graves of people murdered throughout the Radom district. Data gathered by employees of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland indicate that the first killings could have taken place already in October 1939. Nevertheless, the history of Firlej as the site of mass crimes is closely associated with a slightly later period. We know for certain that the first executions took place here towards the end of March 1940. They were conducted in retaliation for the assistance purportedly given by residents of the village to the Polish Army Special Detachment commanded by Major Henryk Dobrzański, pseudonym “Hubal”.
In the course of these operations, the Germans shot dead at least 69 residents of the village of Stefanków (presently in the commune of Chlewiska, district of Szydłowiec, Mazovian Province), 43 inhabitants of the village of Gałki (presently in the commune of Gielniów, district of Przysucha, Mazovian Province), and at least 26 people from other villages located in the districts of Końskie, Opoczno and Przysucha.
All of the executions were carried out on the so-called sands, located approximately 0.5 km east of Firlej. In the early morning of 4 April 1940, a detachment of German soldiers arrived at the location and dug 5 or so pits; the victims were transported to the location in the afternoon of the same day. Next, they were led to the holes in groups of 12–15 each and killed with machine guns. The wounded were finished off using small arms.
But even though the execution site was located some distance from human habitation, the Germans failed to maintain their crime in complete secrecy. Witnesses to the tragic events survived the War. One of them was Adam Lipiński, a resident of Firlej, who remembered the course of one of the executions thus: “The first execution that I witnessed took place in Firlej on 4 April 1940. That day, a dozen or so trucks and motor cars, accompanied by a few motorcycles, arrived in the village from Radom. The vehicles turned towards the sands. The trucks were covered, but looking through the windows you could see that they carried a human cargo. Next, I saw people being led from the vehicles in the direction of freshly dug pits, whereafter the Gestapo men cut them down with sub-machine guns or machine guns, for I heard bursts of fire. The victims fell right into the holes”. According to estimates, the March and April executions of residents of the village accused of assisting “Hubal’s” soldiers took the lives of more than 140 people.
But this was only an introduction to what was to come. In May 1940, at least two executions were carried out at the site, and no less than 98 people perished. The victims, transported from the prison in Radom, were accused of illegally storing and possessing firearms, or of engaging in acts of sabotage. In all probability, some of the murdered people had been detained under the AB-Aktion. One of these executions was witnessed by Jan Makowski, a resident of Wincentów. After the War he recounted: “On 16 May 1940, while I was grazing my horse near the sands, I saw preparations being made for an execution. Specifically, I saw a killing site being readied. Next, 10 people were brought up. They were led behind the hillock, towards a hollow. I counted 11 groups of 10 prisoners each. There were only men. Each group was escorted by 4 Germans. The victims had their hands tied. At the very end, there were 5 women; they were led singly. The men were killed with sub-machine guns and finished off, at least some of them, with revolvers”.
The firing range of death
Firlej was used as an execution site throughout the German occupation. The killings intensified in the years 1942–1943. Residents of nearby villages stated thus: “In 1942 and 1943, people would be executed in Firlej on average a few times a month.The standard group of victims would total some 10–20 persons”. During this time, the Germans also brought in the bodies of people who had been killed in Radom and other locations in the region. This is what happened, for example, following the murder of 3 women and 7 men on 15 October 1942 in a public execution at Warszawska Street in Radom. According to witness testimony, their bodies were collected and taken to Firlej, where they were buried.
In September 1943, the Germans commenced preparations for liquidating all evidence of the mass crimes that had been committed in Firlej. At the time, the number of executions that they carried out decreased. Some of the residents of nearby villages were evicted, and the “sands” screened and secured with guard posts. The pits were then dug up and the bodies exhumed. They were subsequently incinerated, and the ashes scattered over the area or transported towards the nearby river. The incineration of such an immense quantity of human remains was in all probability carried out in a previously erected mobile crematorium, or in furnace pits. It may also be that the sheer number of corpses forced the Germans to employ both methods. When asked about this period, those residents of the village who had not been deported invariably remembered the smoke that rose steadily above the “sands”. In January 1946, Jan Makowski – previously quoted above – described the events as follows: “In the autumn of 1943 the Germans evicted some of the residents of Firlej, Zyła [original wording] and Wincentów, screened the sands from the side of the highway with straw mats, set up guard posts around the area and placed warning signs informing that trespassing would be punishable with death; then they started burning the bodies. I did not see how the incinerations progressed, but I did observe smoke rising above the sands, and also fire; what is more, you could smell the stench of rotting human flesh. First, the bodies were burned in the gully just on the edge of the sands, which is most distant from the Warsaw road. Next, the Germans moved the fire nearer to the road, to an area surrounded by acacias. During the first few months of this operation, you could see the fire throughout the day and night”.
The burning of the bodies was brought to a close in the spring of 1944. But the executions were resumed and continued until the end of the year. Adam Lipiński – previously quoted – observed: “Some three weeks after the incinerations were brought to a close, the executions – which had been temporarily stopped – commenced afresh. They reached their greatest intensity in July 1944, when the Germans started fleeing following the collapse of the eastern front. During this time, the executions were conducted on a mass scale. A few truckloads of victims would be brought in each day”.
The site in Firlej was also used to bury the bodies of people murdered in other townships of the region. This fact was mentioned in his account by Bogusław Ryczkowski, who after the War gave witness testimony at the District Court in Radom. He stated: “In July 1944, apart from the executions carried out in the sands of Firlej, the Germans must have also been shooting Poles in another part of Radom, for bodies were brought in to Firlej that were still completely fresh [the exact wording of the original]. One of my friends witnessed the burial of these bodies. At the time, the Germans brought in 60 corpses”.
The scale of the crimes committed in Firlej in the years 1939–1945 is difficult to quantify. According to estimates, the number of persons killed ranges from 6,000 to as many as 15,000. After hostilities drew to a close, the area was secured and turned into a war cemetery, while towards the end of the 1960s three crosses were erected in its central part to symbolize the martyrdom of the murdered victims. Grave mounds were also built. Some time later, in the mid-1970s, a monument was erected. Initially, it comprised three pillars and five solids at the base, and was decorated with a plaque with the following words: In memory of those murdered by the Hitlerite invader in the years 1939–45. The citizens of Radom – 1975. In 2005, the monument was modified and remains unaltered to date, with crosses affixed to the soaring pillars. Finally, in the mid-1970s it was decided that Firlej would become the site of a municipal cemetery. Presently it is the largest necropolis in Radom.
Chlebowski Bronisław, Firlej,in: The geographical dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and other Slavic countries,vol. 2, ed. Filip Sulimierski, Bronisław Chlebowski, Władysław Walewski, Warsaw 1881.
Franecki Jan, Radom w okresie II wojny światowej,in: Radom. Dzieje miasta w XIX i XX w., ed. Stefan Witkowski, Warsaw 1985.
Jankowski Andrzej, Pacyfikacje i miejsca masowych straceń na ziemi radomskiej w latach 1939–1945,Radom 1978.
Rejestr miejsc i faktów zbrodni popełnionych przez okupanta hitlerowskiego na ziemiach polskich w latach 1939–1945. Województwo radomskie, Warsaw 1980.
Sekulski Jerzy, Firlej,in: Encyklopedia Radomia, elaborated by Jerzy Sekulski, Radom 2012.
Robert Piwko – a graduate of the Jan Kochanowski University of the Humanities and Natural Sciences in Kielce (general history). Since 2010, he has been working at the Archives Department of the Branch Office of the Institute of National Remembrance in Kielce. His research interests include the functioning of the Union for Armed Struggle-Home Army Command in Sandomierz and the history of the Democratic Party in the Kielce Province in the years 1945–1975. He has authored the monograph Obozowe Drużyny Bojowe w Sandomierzu (1944–1946). Działalność organizacji Bronisława Sokołowskiego „Franta” oraz represje komunistyczne wobec jej członków (2016), and also acted as a member of the group elaborating the archival resources of the Military District Court in Kielce (2014).