Chronicles of Terror, a novel project organized and administered by the Witold Pilecki Center for Totalitarian Studies, combines academic research, historical popularization and the broadly defined culture of remembrance. Our mission is to create the largest ON-LINE collection of civilian depositions relating to the period of the Second World War.
The on-line testimony database created for the purposes of the project provides access to the Second World War accounts of Polish citizens, who suffered immense hardship at the hands of the German and Soviet totalitarian regimes. These depositions reflect the personal experiences 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 nationals who following the War testified before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland. On 17 September 2017, we shall commence the regular publication of testimonies relating to Soviet crimes, which were submitted by soldiers from General Anders’ Army and civilians who escaped the Soviet Union. Chronicles of Terror works to further knowledge of the dual occupation of Poland and memorialize the victims of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism.
Polish history in the global memory
Even though the Polish experience of confronting two totalitarianism systems constitutes a crucial element of world heritage, the nation’s voice is barely heard in international discussions on 20th century history. Translations of source texts are few and far between, the achievements of Polish science and culture are sometimes overlooked, while blatant errors appear in public statements about the country's role 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 accounts of General Anders’ soldiers and the civilian evacuees who experienced deportation to the Soviet Union firsthand were submitted both during and after the War at representations of the London-based government, however they were available only in Polish. These personal narratives paint a shocking picture of the policy of totalitarian terror implemented in the occupied country. It is high time for them to receive the notice they deserve – in Poland and around the world.
Until recently, these testimonies were scattered and locked away in archives. Only now have they been made available to a wider body of readers, allowing them to uncover family and local histories. Needless to say, these documents are also of immense interest for scholars, journalists and people of culture. And, since they are being translated into English, we are in a position to successfully promote their international dissemination, thereby furthering knowledge of the dual occupation of Poland and serving to memorialize the victims of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism.
Flesh-and-blood 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, and mass executions of the Polish intelligentsia in Palmiry and other locations around Warsaw. We also publish the testimonies of prisoners of Pawiak and Gęsiówka, and of those who underwent brutal interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters in Szucha Avenue. Some of the depositions were made by Polish Jews who survived the horrors of the death camp of Treblinka. Finally, we share the accounts of Varsovians who experienced the Wola Massacre – a campaign of genocide implemented by the Germans during the first days of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
Chronicles of Terror is an on-going project, and the database is expanded continuously to feature testimonies from all parts of Poland. We are particularly interested in providing access to accounts submitted by the residents of small towns and rural areas, where the memories of the Second World War and the German occupation are still alive, but have not yet attracted broader attention.
Each deposition included in Chronicles of Terror has been described in detail in order to facilitate the identification of witnesses and the locations of events, as well as their time frame. Thanks to a full-text search engine and tags, users can quickly find specific accounts.
The depositions are supplemented with private photographs, documents, letters, memoirs, and assorted memorabilia associated with the witnesses and other participants of the events to which they pertain. Simply put, we want to show people’s personal histories complemented by the emotions and feelings that accompanied their daily lives. The Center is also conducting a collection campaign under the catchphrase “Share your memories!”, appealing to individuals in Poland and abroad to share memorabilia from their private archives. Following digitalization, these will supplement and enrich our on-line testimony database. Ideally, this will allow us to gather resources valuable not only to scholars, but also to anyone who wants to learn about and comprehend the tragic fates of people swallowed up by the totalitarian machine.
Postwar justice and its limitations
The Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, set up in 1945, documented German atrocities committed during World War II, conducted investigations and published the results of its activities. It operated in all parts of the country through a network of district branches. The evidence that it gathered was used to convict a number of German criminals, including Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Reichsgau Wartheland; Ludwig Fischer, Governor of the Warsaw District of the General Government; and Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp. In 1949, due to the necessity of ensuring friendly relations with the newly-formed German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the phrase “German Crimes” was replaced in the Commission’s name with “Hitlerite Crimes”. The Commission worked with varying intensity – it was most active immediately after the War and in the 1960s, when the danger arose that German crimes would become statute-barred. Witness testimonies were collected until the 1980s.
The Commission functioned in a totalitarian state, and the reality was that the People’s Republic of Poland was more concerned with defeating the anti-communist underground than with prosecuting and trying German crimes. The fate of Heinz Reinefahrt, the SS Gruppenführer responsible for the 1944 genocide in Wola, a district of Warsaw, stands as a symbol of the post-war injustice to which this stance gave rise. After the war, he became mayor of the town of Westerland on the island of Sylt and served as a deputy to the Schleswig-Holstein Landtag; he also worked as a barrister. The authorities of the Polish People’s Republic were unable to secure his extradition from the Federal Republic of Germany. There were not many convictions for German crimes or collaboration, whereas soldiers faithful to the Polish Underground State would frequently be tried as “fascists”. Witnesses testifying before the Commission had to take all this into account, and as a result they often omitted details that could have led to them – as well as their friends and relatives – being victimized by the Communist apparatus of terror.
The Commission’s tasks, their scope expanded to include Communist terror, were taken over by the Investigative Division of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) 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
The accounts of Poles – both soldiers and civilians who left the Soviet Union with General Anders’ Army – were gathered with greatest intensity from 1943 on, following the discovery of the Katyń graves and the severance of Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations. These depositions aptly document the Red Army’s invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939, the atrocities committed by the Soviets during the two initial years of their occupation, and the tragic fate of Poles deported to the USSR. These testimonies were gathered in order to expose the crimes of Communist totalitarianism before the entire world.
They constitute a heart-wrenching record of what the inhabitants of the Eastern Borderlands of Poland were forced to experience during the Second World War, and include many accounts of people who had been arrested by the NKVD as “enemies of the people” and tortured during interrogations, receiving long-term sentences in the Gulag. 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. Finally, these testimonies paint a picture of a dramatic race against time, when following announcement of the amnesty the Polish deportees made a superhuman bid to get to the recruitment posts of General Anders’ Army.
After the Second World War, their accounts were deposited with the American Hoover Institution. The Polish Government-in-exile, fearing that these priceless documents could be destroyed or seized by the Communist authorities, considered it imperative to find a safe place for their storage. The Hoover Institution came to be viewed as the surest location, most importantly because it 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 the materials over to Communist Poland. Thus, some 30,000 testimonies given by Polish citizens were reposited in Stanford.