The murder of Lwów professors

German unpunished crime (July 1941)

Among those murdered in Lwów by German troops in July 1941 were eminent mathematicians, pioneers of modern medicine, engineers, and university rectors. The murder of Polish scientists has become a symbol of fanaticism and hatred.

by Piotr Abryszeński


The destruction of the Polish intelligentsia

On 28 September 1939, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union concluded a treaty on borders and friendship, thus dividing the territory of the Second Polish Republic between themselves. Starting the war against Poland in September 1939, the Germans had a precise plan to destroy the Polish intellectual, social and political elite. The Soviets acted in a similar way.

By order of Reinhard Heydrich, as early as in the summer of 1939, i.e. before the outbreak of the Second World War, the German security police had a list of names of distinguished Poles printed in the book titled Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen. Only a small proportion of the over 61,000 people on this list survived the war. The criminal plan was carried out by the Einsatzgruppen, groups operating at the rear of the German army, whose primary objective was to apply terror within the framework of Operation Tannenberg – the planned destruction of the milieu of Polish leaders.

Wehrmacht soldiers are preparing to kill polish hostages in Bydgoszcz, 9 September 1939

The Inteligenzaktion was the first mass extermination operation of World War II carried out by the Third Reich. It targeted the Polish intelligentsia, which the Germans understood as the ‘life force’ of the nation. They attempted to carry out this operation in a systematic manner – well aware of the role the intelligentsia played in the life of society, its significance both during the period of struggle for the nation’s freedom, as well as after Poland regained its independence. They rightly assumed that the intelligentsia constituted the leadership tier, thus only its destruction could contribute to gaining domination over the entire nation, and turning the survivors into slaves with no aspirations. Historians estimate that, during this operation alone, at least 50,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia were shot, and another 50,000 sent to concentration camps, where the vast majority perished.

When Polish affairs ceased to interest public opinion in Western Europe, Governor Hans Frank demanded an immediate solution to the ‘problem’ of the Polish intelligentsia. The result of this demand was the notorious Sonderaktion Krakau: on 6 November 1939, 183 professors from the Jagiellonian University and other universities were arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Some of them died.

In May 1940, Frank said to his colleagues: ‘We cannot burden the concentration camps of the Reich with our affairs. It is impossible to describe how much trouble we had with the Krakow professors. Had we settled this matter on the spot, it would have taken a completely different course. I therefore earnestly request that you do not send any more people to concentration camps in the Reich, but either undertake liquidation on the spot, or impose the prescribed punishment. Any other course of action would be a burden for the Reich, and an additional hardship for us (…). Efforts must be made only to remove the leadership tier, while the working population must be directed to useful occupations under German supervision, exercised by responsible persons.’ Frank stressed that even if peace was made with the Western Allies, the firm anti-Polish policy would not change. The German aim was the complete extermination of the Polish elite, while workers and peasants were planned to be used for some time.

Hans Frank (photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 121-0270 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)


The Germans enter Lwów

On 22 June 1941, the Third Reich invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviets quickly retreated before the advancing German army, but still managed to murder thousands of prisoners in Lwów alone. Roman Rencki, a professor at the John Casimir University and specialist in haematology and gastroenterology, survived the massacre and was held in an NKVD prison. His fate was sealed several days later, when he was arrested by the Germans, and subsequently executed together with a group of Lwów scholars.

The Germans entered Lwów on 30 June 1941. Groups of youth enthusiastically greeted the new occupants and dragged Jews out of their homes. Slogans in German and Ukrainian appeared in the city reading ‘Long live Adolf Hitler and Stepan Bandera – death to Jews and communists’. On the same day, the Nachtigall Battalion, consisting of Ukrainians and Germans, appeared in Lwów, and members of the Bandera faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists proclaimed Ukrainian independence. The first SS-inspired pogrom against Jews began. The Ukrainians murdered part of the town’s Jewish intelligentsia on the basis of previously prepared proscription lists. It is estimated that, in the first days following the entry of the Wehrmacht to Lwów, at least 2,000 Jews were killed.

On 2 July, the Einsatzkommando zur besonderen Verwendung, commanded by Eberhard Schöngarth, entered the city. This formation had been created just a few days before the Third Reich attacked the Soviet Union, with the aim of ‘cleansing’ the area of Polish scholars, social activists, people of culture, teachers, and Jews. Action was taken immediately, first at the Lwów University of Technology at the office of Kazimierz Bartel, former rector and five-time Prime Minister of Poland. Several SS officers led Bartel to the pre-war building of the Municipal Power Engineering Works on Pełczyńska St, which had, not long before, housed the NKVD headquarters – now its place was taken by the Gestapo. Bartel’s wife and daughter were driven out of the villa, antiques stolen, part of the valuable book collection burnt and the rest, mainly scientific papers, taken to Berlin. The house was taken over by Gestapo officers.

Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów (photo: NAC)

Bartel’s arrest was only a prelude to the crime. The windows of his cell overlooked Herbutów and Kadecka Streets. In mid-July, he wrote to his wife: ‘All day long’ I look for you there, I often see Kuryłła and Turner, never you. Now I will look every day at 9 and then 5 o’clock. […] Be sure to show yourselves to me on the path’ and, a few days later, having learned that the Germans had occupied the house, he forbade his wife from sending overly large food parcels, fearing that she herself would not have enough to eat. While in prison, he suffered from poor hygiene, hunger, and numerous illnesses, but, unlike other prisoners, he was not initially tortured – perhaps they were trying to exploit him for propaganda purposes? According to the account of fellow prisoner, Antoni Stefanowicz, with time they began to treat Bartel brutally. In order to humiliate him, he was ordered to clean the shoes of a Ukrainian from the Hilfsgestapo


Proscription letters

SS units entering Polish cities had lists of people to be arrested and immediately shot. The murderers had Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler’s permission to act freely. SS units were not subject to courts or prosecutors, and any form of interest in their actions was punishable. The list of professors in Lwów, together with their addresses, was most likely provided by Ukrainian students. Why these particular scholars were chosen remains a mystery.

Not all of them proved to be up to date, and it appears that they may have been written much earlier. Troops drove up to the designated addresses, from where the relevant persons were led out. The operation began during the night of 3 – 4 July. Anyone found on the spot was taken away – not only professors, but also their families and servants. The apartments were ruthlessly robbed of valuables. The detainees were taken to a building that had belonged to the former Abrahamowicz Educational Institute, which was now located between the Gestapo headquarters and the Einsatzkommando barracks. They were not permitted to take medicine or underwear with them. This meant that their fate was sealed.

Franciszek Groër, a paediatrician and professor at the John Casimir University, was the only one of those arrested to be released. Perhaps this was determined by the fact that he had studied and worked at German and Austrian universities, including the University of Vienna. Groër was married to an Englishwoman, Cecilia Cumming, so it cannot be ruled out that the Germans were afraid of the murder case being publicised in the West. After the war, he gave an extensive account that sheds some light on the drama that unfolded in Lwów: ‘They made us lower our heads. If anyone moved, they were hit on the head with a butt or a fist. Once, when a new group of detainees was introduced, I tried to turn my head away but, having immediately received a blow with a butt, I did not try it again. It was maybe 12:30 at night, and I stood still like that until about 2:00 a.m. Meanwhile, more and more professors were brought in and placed next to me. Roughly every 10 minutes a shout and the sound of gunshots would come from the basement of the building, and one of the Germans guarding us would say after each shot: “Einer weniger”, which I thought was rather an attempt to intimidate us.’

View of the Adam Mickiewicz monument in Lwów, Poland before the outbreak of WWII, 1939 (FORTEPAN / Vojnich Pál; CC BY-SA 3.0)



During the interrogations, the Germans shot Prof. Adam Ruff’s son because he had an epileptic fit. In the early morning of 4 July, the Germans began to take the detained scholars and accompanying persons to Wuleckie Heights. According to witnesses, they were lined up in fours over a pit that had been dug earlier, facing the slope. Then German soldiers would fire shots and all four would fall inertly into the pit.

The professors killed that day included the last rector of Lwów University, the eminent lawyer, Roman Longchamps de Bérier, the prominent literary critic and translator, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, one of the pioneers of modern dentistry, Antoni Cieszyński, the precursor of Polish plastic surgery, Władysław Dobrzaniecki, the internist Jan Grek, co-founder of the Lwów mathematical school, Antoni Łomnicki, the specialist in tumour pathology, Witold Nowicki, surgeon and art collector, Tadeusz Ostrowski, chemist, Stanisław Pilat, paediatrician, Stanisław Progulski, forensic specialist, Włodzimierz Sieradzki, the former rector of the Lwów Technical University, Kasper Weigel, and others. The oldest was Adam Sołowij, who was 82 years old at the time of his death. In total, 21 professors were shot, along with 16 people who accompanied them – including their wives and sons. Several others were murdered over the following days.

Kazimierz Bartel – the first of the Lwów professors arrested by the Gestapo – was the last to die, on 26 July 1941, upon the personal order of Heinrich Himmler. He was shot in the same courtyard of the Bridgettine sisters’ monastery where the bodies of prisoners murdered by the Soviets had recently been found. The Prime Minister’s widow learned that, in prison, her husband had been offered the opportunity to form a pro-German, collaborationist government. He had refused.

Prof. Kazimierz Bartel

These executions by no means ended the repression. In the following months and years, several dozen members of the Lwów scientific community were killed – doctors, economists, historians, musicians, and mathematicians. Their flats were occupied by the Gestapo and systematically plundered – witnesses recalled seeing officers with pockets full of looted valuables.

In the autumn of 1943, faced with the prospect of defeat on the eastern front, the Germans began an operation to cover up traces of the crime (Aktion 1005). As part of the operation, the remains of the Lwów professors and their families were exhumed, taken to the Krzywczycki Forest, and, subsequently, together with two thousand other bodies, placed on a huge pyre. They burned for several days until only ashes remained. The people hired to dig up the corpses, search for valuables, and transport and burn the bodies, were mostly Jews murdered after the operation.



Countess Karolina Lanckorońska, a Ravensbrück prisoner who miraculously escaped death, gave an extensive account of the circumstances of the murder of the professors in Lwów. She had acquired this knowledge thanks to the boasting of Hans Krüger, the SS-Hauptsturmführer in charge of numerous crimes against the Polish population, who told her about his culpability in the operation. He was convinced that Lanckorońska would be murdered anyway. Fortunately, he was wrong.

Karolina Lanckorońska in officers uniform of Polish II Corps of Polish Armed Forces in the West

The commander of the extermination operation, SS-Brigadeführer Eberhard Schöngarth, was brought before the British Military Tribunal in Enschede for the murder of an Allied prisoner of war in November 1944, and hanged. He was not tried for his other crimes. The Einsatzkommando member Walter Kutschmann, another of the operation’s commanders, fled to Argentina after the war. Tracked down by Simon Wiesenthal and first arrested in 1975, he was released for lack of evidence. Ten years later he was arrested again, but died in prison without being extradited to West Germany. Hans Krüger was captured by the Dutch in 1945. He was not recognised, so he was released and lived a prosperous life in Germany for several years. In the 1960s, he was arrested and tried, but only on a charge of genocide against the Jews of Stanislau (now Ivano-Frankivsk). The German courts refused to examine the case of the murders of Poles. Krüger was released in 1986.

It is difficult to speak of justice in the context of Dutchman Pieter Menten. He had lived in Poland before the war, so he was well acquainted with private artwork collections. He visited, inter alia, the homes of several Lwów professors who were later murdered. His family connections helped him; his brother was the Dutch consul in Poland. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a member of the SS, took part in numerous crimes, and looted numerous valuables.

After the war, the Dutch authorities refused to extradite him to Poland. Menten became a well-known art collector, owning, for example, paintings by Nicolaes Maes and Francisco Goya. He was one of the richest people in the Netherlands. It was not until the end of his life that he was arrested, although his trial could hardly be called satisfactory. He spent several years in prison before being released for good behaviour. Menten was never charged with complicity in the murder of the Lwów professors. His fortune was not recovered, and the collected artworks have not been returned to the families of the victims to this day.

None of the criminals was tried for the murder of the Lwów professors.

Monument to Polish professors murdered by the Germans in 1941 in Lwów (photo: PAP/Maciej Kulczyński)


Post mortem

This crime appears completely senseless and incomprehensible. The scientists arrested by the Germans were not a threat to the Reich, they were not Soviet collaborators, and their knowledge could have even been useful to the occupant. Nor can one speak in this case of a policy of terror directed against specific groups, which was characteristic of the German occupation, since the crime was kept strictly confidential.

After the war, Lwów found itself within the borders of the Soviet Union and the surviving members of the city’s academic community were sent to various academic centres in Poland, chiefly to Wrocław and Gdańsk. In an attempt to cover up the truth about Lwów’s past from public opinion, the communists used a euphemistic term to describe the Polish scientists who had perished during the Nazi occupation. The first monument dedicated to the victims of the murder of the Lwów professors was erected in Wrocław only in 1964. After the fall of communism, it was not until 2011 that the idea of building a monument on Wuleckie Heights in the now Ukrainian city was pushed through. The monument has a simple but meaningful symbolism – a gate built of concrete blocks symbolising the Decalogue with the Fifth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill). Unfortunately, the monument has been damaged several times by local nationalists.


Author: Piotr Abryszeński – PhD, employee of the History Research Office of Institute of National Remembrance
Translation: Mikołaj Sekrecki