Varouj Vartanian

The Holocaust’s Wola Massacre: Legacy of the Azerbaijani Legion

Memorial candles projected on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 2023); AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

The Wola Massacre is one of the forgotten massacres during the Holocaust that we must remember today. The brutal massacre of 50,000 Polish and Jewish civilians began on August 5, 1944 – 79 years ago today. Between August 5 and August 12, 1944, German Wehrmacht soldiers and Azerbaijani Legion soldiers collaborated to “kill anything that moves” in Wola, Poland. The infamous quote from the previous sentence was uttered by Adolf Hitler as the Nazis approached Warsaw.

“The Holocaust was the worst crime in human history. To learn about the dark chapters in history only to allow torture, massacres, and hate at any level still thrive in the 21st century is a tragic betrayal of the lessons we should have learned.”

“Azerbaijan’s strong association with massacres and human rights crimes over a span of more than 100 years is the elephant in the room that the international community is hesitant to address due to geopolitics. But this needs to be addressed if we are to build a more peaceful and moral future.”

When the Warsaw Uprising sparked on August 1, 1944 to defend the nation from Nazi forces, Adolf Hitler and Nazi leadership commanded their troops to not hesitate firing at anyone, regardless if they were soldiers, elderly, women, or children. As the Nazi collaborators advanced from Wola to the city center of Warsaw, a heinous crime occurred that we must not let future generations forget. Martin Windrow is a leading military historian from the United Kingdom who reported that these Nazi units in Wola were specifically composed of “terrifying” and “cut-throat sadistic morons” who had been rejected from other units. During the Wola Massacre, it is reported that the Germans and Azerbaijanis of the Nazi forces went door to door, executing families, while many children and women suffered rape and other acts of brutality. Aside from the tactic of going door-to-door to execute Polish and Jewish civilians, the Azerbaijani Legion battalions and Special Group Bergmann (unit of the German Abwehr) infiltrated the Saint Lazarus hospital and executed doctors, patients, and staff, before burning the hospital to the ground to ensure that no one survived the massacre.

A column of female civilians with children being escorted as Nazi forces occupy surrounding Warsaw districts. Bundesarchiv Bild: German Federal Archives, 1944

On August 5, the first day of the massacre, about 10,000 civilians had already been executed, including women, children, and seniors. The killings that began on August 5 spared no souls in Wola, Poland. Polish historians Szymon Datner, Piotr Gursztyn, Kazimierz Leszczyński, Maja Motyl, and Stanisław Rutkowski have documented the methods of torture and executions that existed from the beginning. Civilians who survived machine gun fire were stabbed with bayonets, while others were buried alive or barred inside buildings to die from smoke inhalation. The heads of babies were smashed with rifle butts while other children were thrown inside burning buildings. The Nazi forces showed no mercy, killing even the most innocent and helpless. At the Orthodox orphanage on 149 Wolska street, up to 100 orphans were killed, some in barbaric ways in order to save ammunition. Witnesses reported that the piles of corpses were as long as 35 meters long and 2 meters high due to the crimes of August 5.

On August 6, 10,000 Jewish civilians were systematically massacred in Wola, which is an estimation supported by WW2 historian Antoni Przygoński. Most of these civilians were captured during the looting and chaos on the streets of Chłodna, Leszno, Towarowa and Żelazna. Any woman or child captured during the looting of these streets were forcefully relocated to the St. Wojciech church to be killed en masse. Later in the day, 2,000 civilians were brought to the Kirchmajer and Marczewski factory on 79/81 Wolska street to also be killed systematically. By the late afternoon, German and Azerbaijani battalions entered the Karol and Maria Hospital on Leszno street to kill every patient hospitalized there. The victims included at least 20 children, and approximately 200 civilians, including surgeons, physicians, nurses, and additional hospital staff. To erase any evidence of their crimes, the joint German and Azerbaijani battalions selected 100 young and strong Polish men to bury the corpses. While most of these Polish men were immediately killed after being forced to complete this task, some managed to escape and share their testimonies after the war ended.

On August 7, reinforcements from Germany were sent to Warsaw to prepare for the Polish resistance fighters who were making their way to the Wola District to liberate the civilians. In an attempt to work towards their goal of genocide, the remaining civilians of Wola were rounded up by the Nazi units and executed at the Franaszka Factory and Ursus Factory (Wolska Street) and Pfeiffer Factory (Okopowa Street). A third mass execution site was later discovered near the railway on Gorczewska Street, but in total up to 15 mass execution sites in Wola were discovered.

Photo taken in Wola, days after the massacre began. Miasto Nieujarzmione, Warszawa: Iskry, 1957.

By August 8, Nazi SS leadership had modified plans and requested to not kill any Polish male civilians. Such decisions like these are often brought up by Nazi apologists and Holocaust deniers to claim that Nazis only targeted insurgents, but this is a flagrant lie. The purpose of this decision had nothing to do with empathy, but the sadism lied in capturing able-bodied men in Poland to use them as slave labor to continue genocidal goals for the Third Reich. While this modification was being made, the SS-Hauptsturmführer Alfred Spilker headed a special commando unit to capture any remaining survivors from the streets. The Main Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation estimated that 2,000 civilians were killed, while other testimonies estimate that up to 5,000 were killed on this day alone in Wola. While the massacre was ongoing, the Red Cross flag was hoisted on 54 Bema street, but later the Nazi forces ruthlessly brought 100 children and pregnant women to this building specifically to be burned to death.

From August 9 to August 12, any civilian who had managed to survive attempted to flee with the help of the Polish Underground State. In total, about 50,000 civilians were massacred in a span of eight days at the hands of the German Wehrmacht, Schutzstaffel, and Azerbaijani Legion battalions.

A recruitment propaganda poster of the Azerbaijani Legion during World War II. Dilqəm Əhmədin Archives, c. 1943

Such brutality such as torturing children, raping and killing pregnant women, and exterminating the sick and disabled who were hospitalized at Wola’s hospitals is hard to imagine. We continue to teach about these wicked and unforgivable acts from history so that this level of depravity and hatred won’t continue in the future, yet this monstrosity of racial and social hatred persists among humans today. While Germany’s government has denounced their dark history and has sought to eliminate racism, Azerbaijan’s government has refused to comment on the actions of the Azerbaijani Legion that collaborated with the Nazi squads during the Wola Massacre. Ironically, the United States Department of State, Human Rights Watch, Lemkin Institute, Amnesty International, and other relevant sources have reported about Azerbaijani soldiers beheading, mutilating, and raping Armenian elderly and females captured during and after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. These are not just recent occurrences, but the Azerbaijani state has engaged in the massacre of Armenian civilian populations since the years following the 1915 Armenian genocide (e.g. September Days, Agulis Massacre, Khaibalikend massacre, Shushi Massacre, Sumgait pogroms, Kirovabad pogroms, Baku pogroms, Maraga Massacre). Azerbaijan’s strong association with massacres and human rights crimes over a span of more than 100 years is the elephant in the room that the international community is hesitant to address due to geopolitics. But this needs to be addressed if we are to build a more peaceful and moral future.

Azerbaijan’s state sponsored racism has been monitored since the 1990s and the international community has yet to see any improvement in a progressive direction. In addition, the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Council of Europe Commissioner For Human Rights, and European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance have extensively investigated and reported on Azerbaijan’s continuation of propagating ethnic hatred against Armenians, as well as the repeated acts of “ill-treatment, torture, decapitation, mutilation or other forms of despoliation of dead bodies, indiscriminate or disproportionate use of force to extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions”.
As early as 2020, Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, Forbes, Chicago Tribune, Jerusalem Post, Newsweek, and RollingStone have published articles bringing attention to the fragile situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and the risks of a second Armenian genocide. If the West truly believes in democracy, human rights, self-determination, and liberal values, Europe and the United States must take a stand against Azerbaijan’s government instead of giving the dictatorship a pass to commit these crimes. Otherwise, the hypocrisy is deafening and it is clear that the liberal rhetoric is arbitrary.

The Holocaust is said to be the worst crime in the 20th century, but after extensive research and reading in my years in academia, it is my strong belief that the Holocaust was the worst crime in human history. The most depraved, sadistic, evil, and monstrous events occurred during the Holocaust, and the years of 1939 through 1945 specifically showed us how barbaric and inhumane humans can truly be. To learn about the dark chapters in history only to allow torture, massacres, and hate at any level still thrive in the 21st century is a tragic betrayal of the lessons we should have learned. Still, we continue to perpetuate a cycle of cruelty that history promised to extinguish with the death of fascism.

About the Author
Varouj Vartanian is a political scientist who completed his bachelor's degree at the University of Pittsburgh and his master's degree at Harvard University. His academic interests include European history, political theory, and economic/social inequality. His activism includes bringing attention to anti-Semitism in the United States and genocide prevention.
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