ADSS 3.1.33 Report on conditions in Warsaw, October 1939

ADSS 3.1.33

Reference: Report number 203 (29108) AES 7769/39

Location and date: Berlin, 23.10.1939

Summary statement: Observations of Carlo Colli, staff member of the nunciature, recently returned from Warsaw.  City is desolate. Priests dead in the bombing.  Destruction of Catholic institutions. Gestapo arrested around 300 priests.

Language: Italian


I have the honour to report to your most reverend Eminence the information from Monsignor Carlo Colli, counsellor at this Apostolic Nunciature who has returned from a trip to Warsaw. (1)

From the first day of hostilities German military forces attacked the city of Warsaw.  In fact, on the morning of September 1, when the first shots were fired in Danzig and the Corridor against Polish troops, a flight of German planes suddenly bombed the military airport of Ochota (Okęcie) near Warsaw, seriously damaging Polish army units.

From that day German air raids over Warsaw became a daily event and always with increasing intensity, with no respite until the last day of the battle.

On the last day of the aerial bombing, the military authorities spread an artificial cloud over the city; the airplanes roamed unseen and undisturbed over the capital, suddenly and rapidly descending through the cloud over the capital, dropping their bomb, and then climbing up and disappearing, leaving behind ruin and death.

Truthfully, I must acknowledge the admirable behaviour of his Excellency, Monsignor Stanislaw Gall, titular archbishop of Carpato, currently vicar general of the archdiocese.  Immediately, from the first day of the war, he ordered all parish clergy to remain in place, and he himself set the example.  In fact, he remained in Warsaw throughout the battle, and despite his 76 years, he showed apostolic courage and manly firmness. (2)  His pious example served to ensure that all the clergy, as far as we know, remained faithfully at their posts and their duties.

At first Monsignor Gall lived in the archbishop’s palace, the residence of the archbishop, until the day when six bombs ripped apart the building, leaving only the outer walls.  He then moved to a private residence near the Cathedral which had been rendered unusable because of the bombing.  In fact the cathedral had been closed for worship because of it was too dangerous to enter.  The roof was pieced by a bomb which set fire to the building and the upper part of the façade was demolished, the floor is completely broken because of a bomb that exploded in the middle of the church; the organ is destroyed, as was all the stained glass that adorned the large windows of the cathedral.  The high altar was also damaged, but no so much that the beautiful altarpiece of Palma il Vecchio could not be saved.  The canvas was detached from the frame by the force of the bombs but is still in one piece.  Monsignor Gall prudently removed the Blessed Sacrament to a chapel adjacent to the Cathedral for the duration of the battle of Warsaw, another sign of the personal courage of the archbishop.

Adjacent to the Cathedral stands the Jesuit Church [of the Mother of God] (3) which suffered minor damage: only the dome was damaged by an incendiary bomb that had fallen on the burning cathedral.  Because of the courage of two brothers, the building was saved from the fire.  Those two brave brothers went onto the dangerous roof of the church and with buckets of water and sand bags were able to confine the fire in the dome, thus saving the rest of the building.  Now the church serves the faithful of the area since the cathedral is closed.

His Excellency, Monsignor Antonio Vladislao Szlagowski, titular bishop of Irenopoli in Cilicia, auxiliary of the late Cardinal Alexander Kakowski also remained in the city during the bombardments and fortunately remains unharmed.(4)

The diocesan seminary, located next to the major arterial road in the city, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, was badly hit by the bombing.  The seminary community live in the basements where they have improvised classrooms, dormitories, refectory and chapel.  On the 20 September a bomb pierced the roof and penetrated all floors of the building to the ground floor and through the ceiling of the basement where the seminarians were gathered, killing on the spot two deacons and five clerics, and hurting, though fortunately, not seriously the head and back of Monsignor Sigismund Kaczynski, canon of the cathedral and director of the Catholic Press Agency.

The diocesan authorities, having lost the seminary building, and not wishing to postpone the life of the seminary and with ingenious and bold thought transferred the seminary to the headquarters of Catholic Action in the central part of the city. The well-appointed building was erected under the late Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski in an important point in the city, near the central station.

Among the ranks of the clergy of the archdiocese of Warsaw the war has created some sorrowful gaps.  So far, there has been news of four priests who died during the bombing:

Fr Riccardo Paciorkowski, Bialynin parish, Skienewice deanery;
Fr Jozef Wierzejski, Mszczonow parish, Mszczonow deanery;
Fr Vladislaw Goledowski, Mszczonow parish;
Fr Viktor Rostkowski, canon of Warsaw cathedral, who was killed in a direct hit from a bomb one morning at about 8 o’clock, as he crossed the square behind the Cathedral on his way to celebrate Mass in the Cathedral.

Also dead, as a result of injuries sustained during the bombing, are the following priests:

Canon Fr James Dabrowski, parish of St James, Ochota.  On the morning of 1 September, the first day of the war, during the first air attack, which as I described above, the German air force attacked Ochota.  The good priest had sheltered in the basement of the new parish house, which was under construction.  The basement was covered with a slab of reinforced concrete about 70cm thick.  But a bomb broke through the slab, penetrated the basement and wounded the priest in the leg.  After a few days of suffering, the poor priest died as a consequence of gangrene.

Fr Francis Gasiorowski, St Stanislaw, bishop and martyr, parish in Wola, Warsaw;

Monsignor Casimir Kobrzynski, retired priest who lived in the seminary.

There was no lack of victims among the religious orders.  It appears that a bomb fell on the Infant Jesus Hospital, close to Warsaw, and near the water treatment plant, that had been a frequent target of bombing raids.  Of the daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, who operate the hospital, there have been 17 reported deaths, of whom 8 have been extracted, the others are still under the rubble.

Two Ursuline sisters were killed and six wounded.

Particularly pitiful is the case which occurred in a few of the churches of Posnan by German troops as many of the priests and religious of the region fled, seeking shelter in Warsaw.  Some of the refugees, believed to be 8 or 9, went to take refuge in the basement of a house in Miodowa Street, in the city centre.  In short, the house was hit by bombs, which reduced it to a heap of ruins, and the poor clergy who were in the basement were buried in the rubble.  Until now, the rubble has not been removed and it is not known exactly how many victims there are.  It is believed that a Benedictine father from Posnan is among the victims.

Almost all the churches of Warsaw were damaged.  Among those hit are: the Cathedral, St Anna, Holy Cross, the seminary church, All Saints, St Adalbert in Wola, St Hedwig, Our Lady of the Rosary, Corpus Christi, Christ the King, St Andrew Bobola and St Mary Magdalene.  The Church of the Infant of Prague suffered a little and the great basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, were hit by bombs but were not as badly damaged as other Warsaw churches.

In the archdiocese of Warsaw various parish churches were also damaged and set on fire.  There is no precise information so far, but it is believed that at least twenty churches were damaged by bombs.

Meanwhile in the Polish capital it is believed that the State Secret Police (Gestapo) have begun an action against the clergy.  Immediately after the first day of the occupation of Warsaw by German troops, about 300 priests were detained without any reason given.(5)  Among the priests detained were many of the parish priests of the city and members of religious orders and congregations.  Some of these clerics were imprisoned in their homes, while others were caught on the street and taken to police stations were they were detained.  On the 15th of this month, when Monsignor Colli arrived in Warsaw, the greater part of the imprisoned priests had been released, about a dozen remain detained and may have been arrested.  Monsignor Colli went the same day to speak about the matter with the Reichskommissar for Warsaw, a medical colonel, Dr Otto, who had been mayor of Dusseldorf (6).  On his own initiative Monsignor Colli sought the release of the imprisoned priests;  he said that he went to the prison in the morning, gathered the priests together and speaking in French and German told them that if they promised not to meddle in political affairs, he would see that they were released immediately.  Monsignor Colli asked counterpart why not all of the detained priests had been released and why a dozen were still in prison.  He made a strong representation to the Reichskommissar for their release.  The Reichskommissar said he would take a personal interest in the case and promised to do all he could to free the remaining priests.

Among the incarcerated Warsaw priests included Monsignor Eubius Brzeziewicz,, the venerable 81 year old parish priest of St Aleksander, and Monsignor Sigismund Choromanski, canon of the cathedral and chancellor of the diocese.  Both priests were released before their fellow prisoners because of their health.

Warsaw is a picture of desolation; there is no gas, no electricity, not even drinking water, so the people must survive on the water from the Vistula, with serious dangers for public health.  Warsaw is a city isolated from the rest of the world:  the trains do not function, because the railway lines are damaged in many places, the signals are devastated; in the city there are no trams, no public automobiles, no postal service, telegraph or telephone services.  The streets, especially in the centre of the city, are covered by streams of people, most of them women, and all the people walk in the middle of the street, because it is dangerous to walk on the footpaths where there is the continuing threat of collapsing buildings and there is the threat of being hit by the rubble of the ruined houses.  Everyone looks sad; their eyes are fixed, dazed, a people who still have before their eyes visions of terrifying scenes; many of these unfortunate souls have terrible fears about the fate of their loved ones: noting in fact is known of [Polish] soldiers: were they killed? Injured? taken prisoner?  Were they taken to Germany?  or perhaps to Russia? And then there is the great number of unknown dead who are lying under the rubble.  When they are removed, how many more dead will there be?

A very moving scene in almost all the squares, especially in the centre of the city, are the flowerbeds and gardens located in the middle of the squares which have been turned into makeshift cemeteries.  Many were dug at night to bury the bodies of the victims of machine gunning. (7) Now people come every day to pray and lay flowers on the mounds.  On each mound stands a humble and rough wooden cross on which people have written the names of the dead, but on many crosses is written: Nie znany (Unknown!)

Many homes are destroyed, especially in the city centre where there are numerous and extensive ruins, with entire streets destroyed; Nowy Swiat, Krakowskie Przedmiescie, Marszalkowska, the main arteries of the city offer, at certain points, horrific scenes.  Some streets seem intact, such as Trauguta Street, but if you go further you find that all the buildings are only a curtain of a façade, masking the complete ruin of the interior.

Not even the buildings of embassies and legations were spared; the most damaged were the embassies of the Holy See, France, Hungary, the Soviet Union, Germany, Lithuania; the embassies of England, the United States of America were also damaged; on one of the last days of the bombardment the Italian embassy was hit by a bomb that ruined the entire building fromroof to ground floor.

Before returning to Berlin, Monsignor Colli was made aware of another piece of grave news:  the vice rector of the Warsaw seminary, which, as was said, had been moved to the Catholic Action building, near the church of St Barbara, was informed that the German authorities had seized the treasures of St Barbara’s parish.

His Excellency, bishop Gall, vicar general of the archdiocese had expressed to Monsignor Colli his concerns for the future of the city; winter is approaching, even if it cannot be said to have already started, because it has already snowed in Warsaw.  Thousands of people are homeless, the city is short of food; business and shops were destroyed by artillery fire and bombing, commerce is devastated and closed, shops and warehouses were looted, since the start of the bombing all the glass in windows is broken and unrepaired; gangs of looters are everywhere.  In this state of affairs workers, employees, merchants do not have the possibility of work or make money.  It should be added that the population of the city is in such a state of spiritual confusion; we do not know when it will be able to resume a normal life with some enthusiasm.  In this sad state of affairs His Excellency Monsignor Stanislaw Gall respectfully requests, if it is at all possible, in this moment of extreme need of the Warsaw Poles, to ask of those who live in North America, to give quick and effective help in food and financial aid; I do not know if the government will permit it.  Finally, I have the honour to enclose, in Italian translation, the text of a short and moving pastoral letter that the same most excellent archbishop, Monsignor Stanislaw Gall, in his zeal for his flock, has requested be addressed to the clergy and laity of the archdiocese in these sad moments of trial.

(1) Carlo Colli left Berlin on 14 October, on a train supplied by the German government for diplomatic missions accredited to Berlin to go to Warsaw.  He arrived on 15 October and returned to Berlin on 17 October.  The mission was strictly limited to check the status of nunciature buildings and the archives.  Colli had lived in Warsaw from 1924 to 1932 before transferring to Berlin.  (Orsenigo to Montini, Report number 191 [29029] 21.10.1939. AES 7689/39)
(2) Stanislaw Gall (1865-1942), Auxiliary Bishop Warsaw 1918-1942. He had been Vicar Apostolic of Warsaw since the death of Aleksander Kakowski (1862-1938).
(3) The Jesuit Church and the Cathedral of St John were completely destroyed by the Germans during the Warsaw uprising in 1944.  Both have since been rebuilt.
(4) Antonio Vladislao Szlagowski (1864-1956). Auxiliary Bishop Warsaw (1928-1956).
(5) Warsaw surrendered to the Germans on 28 September after nearly three weeks of siege.  The Germans entered the city on 1 October 1939.
(6) Dr Helmut Otto was mayor of Dusseldorf 1937-1939.  Between October and 5.11.1939 he was the German-occupation appointed mayor of Warsaw.
(7) Thousands of people in Warsaw died from the indiscriminate and deliberate strafing of civilians.

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