No. XXI (1995)

The Warsaw Prison Conspiracy 1939-1944 (Contribution of Polish Prison Staff)

Krystian Bedyński
Centralnym Ośrodku Szkolenia Służby Więziennej w Kaliszu

Published 1995-07-22


  • Warsaw,
  • prison conspiracy,
  • 1939-1944,
  • Warsaw prisons,
  • the Pawiak prison,
  • prison staff

How to Cite

Bedyński, K. (1995). The Warsaw Prison Conspiracy 1939-1944 (Contribution of Polish Prison Staff). Archives of Criminology, (XXI), 191–220.


Taken over by the Nazi in September 1939, Polish prisons became not only the gallows of many thousands of Poles but also the site of heroic struggle against the invaders ‒ a struggle in which both the inmates and the Polish prison staff were involved.

Warsaw prisons, especially the Pawiak prison, became symbols of martyrdom of the Polish nation and of persistent struggle fought by soldiers of the underground Polish State. The Polish prison staff were obliged to stay in service during the Nazi occupation of Poland for two reasons. The first one resulted from the Nazi authorities’ order that all Polish employees should resume work; acts of sabotage carried severe sanctions. The other reason was related to the policy of the Penal Department, revived by the invaders in the territory of Nazi-occupied Poland and renamed the Central Prison Administration in 1940. Its rudimentary powers included, among other things, the staffing of prisons in the Warsaw district. In October 1939, the institution summoned the prison staff to resume work: this staff policy was designed to improve the psychological situation of inmates, to facilitate material assistance to prisoners, the political ones in particular, and to help create in the future, basing on the Polish staff, the structures of prison intelligence service of underground organizations.

The actual decisions of individual members of the prison staff were prompted by a variety of motivations: a fear of the consequences of sabotaging the Nazi orders; a sense of being subordinated to Polish prison administration; and a need to secure one’s own source of maintenance. Many functionaries were also ideologically motivated: by a wish to help imprisoned Poles or subordination to suggestions or orders coming from persons involved in the arising structures of anti-Nazi conspiracy.

Having made up his mind to work in a prison under Nazi administration, each and every member of the prison staff faced the problem of defining his attitude towards prisoners in general, and political prisoners in particular. Under Nazi occupation, the actual contents of the notion of “political prisoner” did not correspond with its former statutory definition. The need for a different attitude to political prisoners, against the prison regulations and the orders of Nazi authorities, resulted from the situation of occupation, the ever-intensifying terror, the Nazis’ attitude tu prisoners and to Polish staff, the pressure from society, and the cxpectations formulated in this rcspect by the first underground organizations.

In this situation, most of the Polish prison staff developed a protective attitude to political prisoners, aimed at the greatest possible liberalization of provisions of the prison rules and, to an extent determined by reasons of their own safety, actually sabotaged Nazi instructions. Such attitudes could be found as early as October 1939 in a prison in Daniłowiczowska street and in “Serbia” (women’s ward of the Pawiak prison); they persisted till the closing of Polish prisons, whatever the restrictions imposed on Polish prison staff during the occupation.

The most widespread form of assisting prisoners was to pass on news from inmates to their families or other persons and vice versa. The staff also secretly supplied inmates with food, medication, cigarettes, and books. Also religious practices were permitted against the regulations, and imprisoned priests could say masses and render religious assistance and services to their fellow inmatess.

This attitude of Polish prison staff was reinforced by the activities of newly- formed underground organizations which tried to get in touch with the inmates by winning over the Polish staff members.

Organized intelligence in Warsaw prisons started in early November 1939 when the Headquarters of Poland’s Victory Service were notified by a prison staff member of the imprisonment of the Mayor of Warsaw Stefan Starzyński in the Daniłowiczowska street prison. Having received this signal, an Headquarters oflicer Emil Kumor started winning over the staff of the succession of prisons in which the Mayor of Warsaw was kept.

Regular activities towards the building of prison intelligence structures were started late in November 1939 by the head of Information and Propaganda Department of Poland’s Victory Service Warsaw Headquarters, Zygmunt Hempel. In each of the prisons, he managed to win over an officer of the prison staff; sworn under the organization’s bylaws, those officers, were charged with the task of forming prison intelligence networks in their respective institutions. A special stress on the building and functioning of this type of network for communication with inmates was laid in the Pawiak prison, a security police jail. The prison intelligence network included internal network (function holders among the inmates, members of prison staff); external liaisons (prison staff); and external network (persons in charge of contact points, liaisons). This communication network was io acquire information about the circumstances of detention, the course of inquiry, the degree to which the entire organization was endangered, etc. Instructed by the organization, the intelligence network members among the prison staff passed on information, supplied food, medication (poison in some cases), things to help organize an escape, and underground press. They also prepared copies of lists of new admissions and of persons transported to concentration camps, executed, or murdered. They warned prisoners against Nazi agents and other dangers, and facilitated contacts between partners.

Till mid-1942, there operated in Polish prisons, the Pawiak prison in particular, numerous structures of communication between inmates and underground organizations; they were independent of one another and varied as to the degree of organization. Acting as their liaisons were many a time the same members of prison staff; many of them only learned after 1945 for which underground organization they had been working. Beside performing the organizational tasks, those same functionaries often undertook, for humanitarian reasons, to establish illegal contacts with individual prisoners upon request of those persons’ families.

Ultil mid-1942, the underground communication with inmates was spontaneous, largely improvised, and chaotic, and those involved in it tended to ignore even the basic principles of safety.

Nazi counteraction took place as early as July 1940 when the first group of prison staff were arested and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. They were accused of helping the prisoners and involvement in the underground activities of one of the organizations that struggled for the country’s independence. Thereafter, the prison staff were more and more often put under surveillance, searched, and detained. In the winter of 1941/1942, the Nazi succeeded to introduce their agent, Józef Hammer, into the prison intelligence structures of the Armed Struggle Union. Hammer established co-operation with a group of the most ideologically motivated prison staff; through their activity, the Nazi intelligence gained access to materials possessed by underground organizations.

As a result of this activity, 33 functionaries of the prison staff were arrested in March 1942; most of them were subsequently killed in concentration camps. In April, furher 9 officers were executed. The repressive measures towards Po1ish prison staff continued in 1943, when further arrests and executions took place, and in the early half of 1944 when Polish functionaries were dismissed (the Pawiak prison). The staff of prisons in Daniłowiczowska and Rakowiecka streets were much less affected by the Nazi repressions as there were practically no political prisoners in  those two institutions.

On 30 June 1942, the death penalty imposed on Józef Hammer in an underground trial was executed; it took the counter-espionage of the Home Army  Headquarters a mere several weeks to clear his associates of the charge of intentional co-operation with the provocateur. Instead, it was manifested in an  inquiry that the men  had been completely devoted to the cause of struggle against the invaders and motivated by patriotic reasons.

The underground movement’s battle against the Nazi for channels of com- munication with prisoners finally won, the period of consolidation of the prison  intelligence headquarters started, especially in the Pawiak prison. As a result of actions undertaken by the Home Army Headquarters, the whole of this sphere was taken over by its counter- espionage division. By way of the sole exception, the Home Representation of Polish Ęmigr Government were permitted to organize their own network for communication with prisoners.

Starting from mid-1942, the internal and external networks were reorganized and adjusted to new conditions resulted from Nazi policies, reflected first and foremost in intensified repressions of Polish prison staff.

Heads of the Home Army Headquarters counter-espionage division compared the participation of that staff in anti- Nazi prison conspiracy to going to the front; they stated at the same time that the prison staff actually encountered a more dangerous situation. In their case, the enemy was the Nazi political  police; they paid with their own life and health for any mistake, unguarded moment, or forgetfulness of dangers. If we take just the staff of the Pawiak prison into consideration, 62 of its members were arrested, l0 of them were executed , and a few only of the 45 confined to concentration camps managed to survive the gehenna.


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