Pawiak prison museum, Warsaw

  - darkometer rating:  7 -
A museum in the partly reconstructed basement of a former prison building, which today is one of Warsaw's most important monuments to the Polish resistance during World War II because it was used by the Nazis during the German occupation, in particular for holding political prisoners and members of the resistance. 

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: The original prison was built in 1835 and had already served a grim purpose under Russian Tsarist rule, but during its final five years it was used by the Nazis as the largest political prison in Poland during the occupation of Warsaw in World War II. In effect, the prison was something like an inner-city concentration camp.
It is estimated that about 100,000 to 120,000 prisoners passed through Pawiak, mostly members of the underground resistance army AK and other political prisoners. Some 37,000 prisoners were executed and another 60,000 sent on to concentration camps in Germany and Poland, especially to Auschwitz.
Prisoners were frequently transferred to the Gestapo headquarters at al. Szucha for brutal interrogation. Internment at the prison itself wasn't much better, given the overcrowded conditions and general mistreatment. This included the deliberate malnourishment of inmates, which was only partially alleviated by the extra provisions that relatives could deliver once a month during visits … until 1942, that is, when Trawniki took over and conditions deteriorated even more.
During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, Pawiak prison served as a base for the crushing of the resistance, and as a place of indiscriminate killing. The outrage this caused was marked by frequently applied graffiti in the city which simply said "we'll avenge Pawiak".
In the course of the crushing of the general Warsaw Uprising in 1944 (see Warsaw Uprising Museum), Pawiak prison was finally liquidated: the last few remaining prisoners were executed and the building blown up on 21 August – i.e. it was razed to the ground like much of the rest of central Warsaw.
Thus today's museum is housed in only a small part of the former basement of the prison, the walls of which had survived up to a height of three to five feet (the rest of the cellar was reconstructed). The museum and the outside memorial site were opened in 1965 (and further developed since). The site is administratively part of the Museum of Independence, which also has branches at the Warsaw Citadel (see Warsaw) and at al. Szucha.   
What there is to see (and hear): The open-air part of the memorial site consists mainly of the outer wall of a low concrete building constructed over the remains of the old Pawiak's basement below, which now houses the museum inside.
In front of the entrance there's a courtyard, bordered on one side by the low concrete wall of the museum building, along which memorial stones have been set, each recalling the name of the various concentration camps that inmates were sent to – almost the entire grim list of infamous names is represented. Part of the courtyard is surrounded by a concrete wall with holes cut into it ... they're made to look like ruins through which you can peek inside.
Opposite the main entrance is a small fragment of the original gate to the prison complex, including a stretch of barbed-wired bars overhead. The most astonishing feature, however, is a tree – or rather a bronze model of a tree. The original tree which used to grow here, and which had survived the prison's destruction, had become a place of remembrance. Martyrs' obituary plaques were affixed to its trunk. When the tree finally died a few years back, it was decided to replace it with an artificial copy, a kind of tree sculpture. This now continues to serve as a place for obituaries and for laying down flowers.
Inside, the museum's exhibition is subdivided into various sections. Once you've come to the bottom of the entrance's stairs, the largest exhibition room opens up to the left. This is the most museum-like part Pawiak and recounts its entire history from 1835 onwards. It does so through a range of artefacts, photos, drawings and texts – some quite literary (poems, especially), so that a knowledge of Polish would probably be an advantage here. But you can also get a decent impression without that, as English translations are provided.
Naturally, an emphasis is placed on the years 1939 to 1944, i.e. the time of the Nazi occupation and the prison's grimmest and final chapter. Apart from artefacts retrieved from the rubble of the blown-up prison building, it is the inmates' stories that are the most gripping.
The Polish museum wardens are keen (despite their rather broken English) to usher visitors into a special room where an audio tape of such prisoners' accounts, read out by actors, is played back (available in a range of languages including English). During playback lights change to show different parts of the room's contents, consisting mainly of bars, throwing grim shadows on the walls.
The wardens are equally keen to have visitors sign the guestbook, which itself thus makes an interesting exhibit to browse through …
The rest of the museum is taken up by a long corridor with reconstructed prison cells from various periods of the prison's history. One section is devoted to the history of that tree standing outside the Pawiak entrance – and it is here that you learn it's a recent reconstruction that just looks like a dead tree.
There are also a few books and brochures for sale, including a bilingual Polish/English museum guide  – the Polish/German version also contains an interactive CD-ROM.  
Location: west of Warsaw's Old Town, right in the former ghetto area, less than a mile from the Rynek (the Old Town's central square), and about a mile and a half north-west of Warsaw's central landmark of the Palac Kultury. It's at 24/26 ul. Dzielna, off the corner about two-thirds up the long boulevard al. Jana Pawla II.
 Google maps locator: [52.2461,20.991]
Access and costs: fairly easy; and free.
Details: walkable from the Old Town, the Warsaw Uprising Monument at Plac Krasinskich, and even easier from the sites of the Warsaw Ghetto Trail just to the north. Or get one of the various trams that go up al. Jana Pawla II (e.g. from down by the central station). Bus No. 112 provides a connection to Palac Kultury and Marszalkowska.
Opening times of the museum: Wednesday to Friday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. – closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Admission used to be free until recently, but now they charge 8 zloty (concession 5 zloty); however the ticket also includes admission to the Szucha former Gestapo HQ museum.
Time required: roughly an hour, possibly more – depending on whether you want to read all the texts provided, including the rather literary (as opposed to informative) ones, and whether you sit through the recorded tapes. The persuasive museum wardens may give you little say in the matter, unless you really want to fend them off with determination.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see Warsaw – several sites of the Warsaw Ghetto Trail are quite near, to the north, in particular the Monument of the Ghetto Uprising and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews on Plac Bohaterow Getta. The Warsaw Uprising Monument is also within a walkable distance to the east, close to the Old Town.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see Warsaw – the prime mainstream attraction of the city, its reconstructed Old Town, is not too far, a bit less than a mile to the east. And the quieter, nicer, less commercialized Nowe Miasto district is just to the north of the Old Town.
  • Warsaw - Pawiak 1Warsaw - Pawiak 1
  • Warsaw - Pawiak 2 - martyrs treeWarsaw - Pawiak 2 - martyrs tree
  • Warsaw - Pawiak 3 - concentration camp memorial plaquesWarsaw - Pawiak 3 - concentration camp memorial plaques
  • Warsaw - Pawiak 4 - concrete wall with holesWarsaw - Pawiak 4 - concrete wall with holes
  • Warsaw - Pawiak 5 - view through hole in the wallWarsaw - Pawiak 5 - view through hole in the wall
  • Warsaw - PawiakWarsaw - Pawiak


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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