Coming Face to Face with Torture

February 3, 2012

Pawiak Prison Museum in Warsaw Poland
Pawiak Prison Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Pawiak Prison Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

During the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II Pawiak was the largest political prison in the country – approximately 100,000 prisoners passed through its cells.

37,000 of those men and women died in Pawiak – many under interrogation by the Gestapo. Another 60,000 were sent to German concentration camps. Very few survived the war.

The museum is most famous for the bronze memorial tree fixed with mourning plates commemorating the lives of some of those who died inside. The tree was the last surviving relic of the prison yard.

When the tree died in the 1980s the Polish government filled it with concrete. This bought it another 10 years but it continued to deteriorate and was finally replaced with a bronze replica. It is an extraordinarily affecting monument.

The Nazis blew up the prison itself during their retreat from Poland – presumably to erase any evidence of their crimes. Now only the basement of one building remains and its cells house exhibits about life in Pawiak under Nazi occupation.

In a small exhibition space at the end of the basement cell block you find a series of displays about the prison’s history. Most of the inmates were held there because the Nazis suspected they had ties to the Polish underground.

The inmates had information the Nazis wanted and they weren’t inhibited about using any method they could think of to get it. As the museum guidebook puts it:

“No law was respected inside prison.”

I came across sketches made by former prison inmates of interrogations conducted by the Gestapo and was stunned to see two scenes in particular that resembled the enhanced interrogation techniques approved by the Bush administration for use on suspected terrorists.

In the first picture a prisoner lies huddled in a ball on the floor of an office while two dogs tear at his clothes, a third dog is being held back in reserve by a uniformed Nazi. The image irresistibly calls to mind Abu Ghraib:

comparison 1

In the next picture an inmate lies strapped to a board while two Nazis pour water down his throat. Although the method differs slightly, it is an all too familiar variant of the waterboarding technique used in CIA black sites on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

comparison 2

Now, I want to be very clear – my point is not to equate the War on Terror and the Nazi occupation of Poland. I do not think that is a comparison you can make. However, the two coercive techniques depicted in the Pawiak museum were used deliberatively by US personnel and that should make every US citizen feel very uncomfortable.

In an election season in which aspirant Presidential candidates can – without any apparent backlash – express support for the reintroduction of interrogation techniques like waterboarding, it is instructive to consider how these techniques are perceived by others around the world.

So, the next time someone tells you that waterboarding isn’t torture, think of the inmates of Pawiak Prison. They knew torture when they saw it.