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Pawiak Prison took its name from that of the street on which it stood, ulica Pawia (Polish for "Peacock Street").
Pawiak Prison was built in 1829–35 to the design of Enrico Marconi and Fryderyk Florian Skarbek, prison reformer and godfather to composer Frédéric Chopin. During the 19th century, it was under czarist control as Warsaw was part of the Russian Empire. During that time, it was the main prison of central Poland, where political prisoners and criminals alike were incarcerated.
After Poland regained independence in 1918, the Pawiak Prison became Warsaw's main prison for male criminals. (Females were detained at the nearby Serbia Prison.)
Following the 1939 German invasion of Poland, the Pawiak Prison became a German Gestapo prison, then part of the Nazi concentration – death-camp system. Approximately 100,000 men and 200,000 women passed through the prison, mostly Home Army members, political prisoners, and civilians taken hostage in street round-ups. An estimated 37,000 inmates were executed and 60,000 sent to German death and concentration camps. Exact numbers are unknown, as the prison archives were never found.
On 19 July 1944 a Ukrainian Wachmeister (guard) Petrenko and some prisoners attempted a mass jailbreak, supported by an attack from outside, but failed. Petrenko and several others committed suicide. The resistance attack detachment was ambushed and practically annihilated. Next day, in reprisal, the Germans executed over 380 prisoners. As Julien Hirshaut convincingly argues in Jewish Martyrs of Pawiak, it is inconceivable that the prison-escape attempt was a Gestapo-initiated provocation. The Polish underground had approved the plan but backed out without being able to alert those in the prison that the plan was cancelled.
The final transport of prisoners took place 30 July 1944, two days before the 1 August outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. Two thousand men and the remaining 400 women were sent to Gross-Rosen and Ravensbrück. Subsequently the Polish insurgents captured the area but lost it to German forces. On 21 August 1944 the Germans shot an unknown number of remaining prisoners and burned and blew up the buildings.
After World War II, the buildings were not rebuilt. Half of the gateway and three detention cells survive. Since 1990 a surviving basement has housed a museum which, with the Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom, forms the Museum of Independence.
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