One Sunday in October 2017, a crowd gathered outside Our Lady, Queen of Polish Martyrs church, in the eastern Warsaw neighbourhood of Grochów. They were there to see the unveiling of a commemorative plaque: ‘In Memory of the 200,000 Poles Murdered in Warsaw in the German Death Camp KL Warschau.’ Flanked by two soldiers, the plaque was sprinkled with holy water by a priest and then saluted by an army officer, who laid a wreath. The crowd sang the national anthem. In a country littered with memorials to its own suffering, where public life is punctuated by commemorations of the fallen, the ceremony would have been unremarkable were it not for the fact that there is absolutely no evidence that two hundred thousand Poles were murdered in KL Warschau.
As with all good conspiracy theories, there are some elements of truth to the story. There was a camp in German-occupied Warsaw called Konzentrationslager Warschau or KL Warschau, where many thousands of Polish citizens died. Located on the edge of what became the Warsaw Ghetto, it was known in Polish as ‘Gęsiówka’ after the street on which it was located (ulica Gęsia, or Goose Street). Previously a Polish military prison, it was commandeered by Himmler’s Reich Main Security Office after the capture of Warsaw in 1939 and later turned into a concentration camp. After the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, the camp was populated mainly by Jews from elsewhere in Europe who were used as forced labour to clear up the ghetto’s ruins; it also contained extermination facilities and a crematorium. Most of its surviving inmates were transferred to other camps in July 1944 but 348 remained and were liberated the next month by the Zośka battalion of the Polish underground Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising (in a twist of fate of the sort common in Polish history, members of the Home Army were imprisoned in the camp by the NKVD after the Red Army took control of the city).
Around twenty thousand people – Polish Jews, non-Jewish Poles and non-Polish Jews – are estimated to have died at Gęsiówka. But some Polish nationalists have long argued that the camp was in fact only the nucleus of a network of facilities established by the Germans to exterminate the city’s non-Jewish population. The argument was first developed in the 1970s, when Maria Trzcińska, a judge who served on the communist government’s Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland, alleged that there had been a camp complex in Warsaw’s western suburbs. Her most controversial claim was that the road tunnel on Józef Bem Street that runs under the railway line near Warsaw West station had been converted into a giant gas chamber where up to two hundred thousand mostly non-Jewish Poles had been killed. This is the source of the claim on the plaque in Grochów.
You can read my essay for the London Review of Books about the KL Warschau controversy here.