April 16, 1947, was the hanging-date of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss.
Not to be confused with the Rudolf Hess, the Nazi party defector held by the British in lonely confinement in Spandau until 1987, Höss was true to the swastika from beginning to end.
A World War I survivor, our guy joined the right-wing Freikorps paramilitaries and scored NSDAP party number no. 3240 in 1922 — soon thereafter proving a willingness to shed blood for the cause by murdering a teacher suspected of betraying to the French the Nazi martyr figure Albert Leo Schlageter. Höss served only a year in prison for the crime.
Come the time of the Reich, he joined the SS and was “constantly associated” (his words) with the camp networks — beginning in the very first concentration camp, Dachau, followed by a two-year turn at Sachsenhausen.
In May 1940, he was appointed to direct the brand-new Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland, a position that, excluding a few months when he was relieved of duties for having an affair with a camp inmate, he held until the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945.
Initially “just” a standard Reich prison camp with a mix of regular criminals, political prisoners, and Soviet POWs, Auschwitz earned its place as the Holocaust’s preeminent metonym in the subsequent years as it evolved into one of the primary killing sites of the Final Solution.
Höss himself is even “honored” as the namesake of Operation Höss, a deportation and extermination project targeting Hungarian Jewry that claimed 420,000 souls just in the last months of the war. It was one of the most efficient slaughters orchestrated by Nazi Germany, though even these were only a small portion of the crimes that stained Höss’s soul. In his postwar testimony at Nuremberg, Höss
estimate[d] that at least 2,500,000* victims were executed and exterminated there [at Auschwitz] by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3,000,000. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries. Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens (mostly Jewish) from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries.
It wasn’t the Nuremberg court that noosed him, however; that duty fell to Poland’s Supreme National Tribunal. It had him executed on a gallows set up adjacent to Auschwitz’s Crematorium 1.
Höss’s grandson, Rainer Höss, has been an outspoken voice for atoning his family’s role in the Holocaust.
* Höss later revised this “2.5 million” estimate down, claiming that he had that figure from Adolf Eichmann but “I myself never knew the total number, and I have nothing to help me arrive at an estimate.” After tabulating the larger extermination actions that he could recall (including the 400,000+ from Hungary), Höss came up with the lower and still incredibly monstrous figure of 1.1 million: “Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive capabilities.”
On this date in 1943, Piotr Jarzyna was shot at Auschwitz for his activities in the Polish resistance. He was fifty years old.
Jarzyna, a wheelwright, was born to a peasant family in the village of Polanka Wielka near Oswiecim, the town that would become known as the site of the Auschwitz Camp. He moved to Krakow, the nearest big city, in 1938.
Under the German occupation of Poland he joined the peasant resistance movement using the pseudonym “Jacek”, working as a courier and a soldier in the Peasant Battalions in the vicinity of Auschwitz. One of his tasks was providing covert aid to the prisoners in the camp.
Aid to Auschwitz prisoners took various forms. It consisted above all in furnishing them with food, but also with medicine and bandages. In the winter, people attempted to get warm clothing and underwear to the prisoners. However, the help was not confined to the material sphere. It was equally important to make it easier for the prisoners to stay in touch with their families, usually by helping to deliver illicit correspondence, but there were also cases in which arrangements were made for prisoners to have face-to-face meetings with their loved once. People helped prisoners who had escaped from the camp, and even played a role in organizing the escapes. Local residents’ organisations also received documents from the prisoners that revealed the crimes being committed by the SS, and forwarded this evidence to the headquarters of the Polish underground movement.
In 2009, the Auschwitz Museum published People of Good Will, which provides information about more than 1,200 Polish people from the vicinity of Auschwitz who helped the prisoners. Piotr Jarzyna is one of those.
While continuing to live in Crakow, he frequently sneaked into the vicinity of the camp, carrying various items including copies of the underground press, but most of all medicine for the prisoners, including valuable, highly specific preparations. Reaching the area of the camp involved the great risk of crossing the border between the General Government and the Third Reich, since Germany had annexed the Land of Oswiecim.
Jarzyna was often accompanied on these expeditions by his young daughter Helena. Fortunately he was alone when he was caught by border guards in the autumn of 1942, carrying precious doses of medicine. He was able to dump some of his stash before his arrest, but when they searched him they found several vials of anti-typhus serum meant for Auschwitz inmates.
The Nazis sentenced Jarzyna to serve a term in Monowitz, one of Auschwitz’s three main sub-camps, where inmates did slave labor for I.G. Farben. After three weeks, he was able to escape and made it back home to Krakow.
Amazingly, this experience did not deter Jarzyna from his resistance activities: he went right back to smuggling stuff over the border into Auschwitz. In January 1943, doing another medicine run, he was caught a second time, and this time Helena, then just fourteen, was with him.
People of Good Will states,
The Germans took them both to Wadowice, and then transported them to Gestapo headquarters in Bielsko. They underwent brutal interrogations there, before being taken to the prison in Mylowice. The Germans then committed Helena to the Gestapo jail in Bielsko, while sending her father to Auschwitz. The Gestapo summary court in the camp sentenced him to death, and he was shot on October 22, 1943.
Helena survived. After the war, her father was posthumously decorated with the Order of the Cross of Grunwald, Third Class, due to his heroics during the Nazi occupation.
On this date in 1941, less than two months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they executed the Hassidic Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam along with his son, Rabbi Moshe Aaron, three of his sons-in-law, and a number of other Jews.
Born in Galicia in 1874, Ben Zion was the son of Grand Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in the village of Bobov. After the father’s death in 1905, the Chassidim elected the son Grand Rabbi in his place.
During World War I, the Bobever Rebbe fled to Austria, but he returned to Poland once hostilities ceased and founded a highly regarded yeshiva. During the mid-thirties he lived in the town of Trzebinia in south central Poland, and developed a following of thousands of disciples.
He was a farsighted man and in 1938, when Germany expelled its Polish-Jewish minority, he wrote an open letter to the Jews of Poland explaining the terrible situation and asking them to help their displaced brethren. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Haberstam fled to Lvov,* which was under Soviet control and relatively safer. He hid there in a disciple’s house, and his followers tried and failed to get him papers to travel to the United States.
In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By June 30 they’d reached Lvov, and by July 25, Rabbi Halberstam and several other members of his family were placed under arrest and marched to the Gestapo prison.
Rabbi Ben Zion [he was 67 years old by then] was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Ben Zion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.
They were a mere 19 kilometers from the future site of Auschwitz.**
Although the Halberstam family suffered significant losses during the Holocaust, at least one of Ben Zion’s sons survived, and so their dynasty did not die out. There exists today a community of Bobover Hassidim in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam in the center, pictured during his time in Trzebinia. The bare-faced youth directly over the rabbi’s shoulder is Moshe Aaron Halberstam, the son who would eventually be shot at the rabbi’s side.
* Called Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German; the city is at the heart of Galicia, and has changed handsrepeatedly between these countries. Right now it’s Lviv.
** Although the smaller Auschwitz I camp for political prisoners existed from 1940, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Reich’s metonymical extermination facility, was constructed towards the end of 1941.
On this date in 1944, Jakob Edelstein, his wife Miriam, their twelve-year-son Arieh and his mother-in-law Mrs. Olliner were shot to death at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. They had been inmates in Auschwitz since the previous December; Jakob had been in an isolation cell the whole time while the others stayed in the so-called “Family Camp.”
For two years prior they’d lived in Theresienstadt (also known by its Czech name, Terezin), a the former Czech fortress town that had been turned into a city just for Jews. Jakob Edelstein was named Eldest of the Jews and was nominally in charge of the place, but in practice he had no choice but to cater to the whims of the Nazis. He was assisted by a deputy and a council of twelve.
Edelstein, a Czech Jew born in 1903, had been a leader within the Jewish community in Prague and had had papers for himself and his family to emigrate to Palestine. But when the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, Edelstein and the other Zionist leaders decided it was their duty to stay and do what they could for the community during this time of crisis.
He became a liaison between the Germans the Jewish community and tried to facilitate immigration to Palestine. From 1939 to 1941 he made several trips back and forth between Czechoslovakia and Palestine, with permission from the Germans, trying to find ways for more Jews to emigrate.
Theresienstadt was a strange place: neither concentration camp nor ghetto but something in-between, it was billed as a “paradise” and a “gift” from Hitler to the Jewish people.
Elderly Jews were sent there, as well as Jews who were “prominent” for some reason or had Aryan connections (such as Jews who had a non-Jewish spouse). It was advertised as a luxurious resort community where they could live out the rest of their lives in ease and plenty.
Residents were allowed to receive food packages from the outside, and send postcards (one per month, limited to 30 words, and censored).
Many people believed the propaganda and were persuaded to go there voluntarily, signing all their possessions and assets to the German government in exchange for what they thought would be a comfortable and peaceful retirement.
The 500-ish Danish Jews who weren’t evacuated to Sweden by the Danish Underground right after the Nazi invasion of Denmark were ultimately sent to Theresienstadt. Many talented artists, actors, musicians and scholars lived there. The Nazis would ultimately make a propaganda film about how wonderful life was in Theresienstadt, and a Red Cross delegation toured the place and came away satisfied.
As you might have guessed, living conditions within the fortress city didn’t exactly live up to what it said in the brochures.
It’s true that it was possible to survive in Theresienstadt for an extended time period, even for the duration of the war. There were no gas chambers and relatively few executions. Certainly it was worlds apart from, say, Auschwitz or Treblinka. But that was as close to “paradise” as it got.
Yes, there were stores, more than a dozen of them, but their stock consisted of “goods the Nazis had originally confiscated from the residents and later found they didn’t need or want.”
Theresienstadt, like the Lodz Ghetto, had a bank and its own money, but there was nothing to spend it on. “The ghetto crowns,” Berkley says, “were used mostly like Monopoly money in playing cards and other games. Still, the bank staff kept themselves busy balancing their books, and auditors arrived regularly from Berlin to ensure the accuracy of the bank’s essentially fictitious accounts.”
Theresienstadt’s population, at its peak, was 58,497, in a town which before the war had a population of less than 10,000. Nearly everyone had lice, toilets and taps were scarce, and disease was rampant.
Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children each residing in different barracks.
“Horrendous as Theresienstadt housing conditions may have been,” Berkley says, “they were not the residents’ chief source of daily suffering. Food, or rather, the lack of it, weighed on them much more heavily.” The menu, he explains,
consisted chiefly of bread, potatoes, and a watery soup. Some margarine and sugar — about two ounces a week of the former and less than one and one-half ounces of the latter — were sometimes included. The residents were also to receive up to four ounces of meat, mostly horseflesh, and up to eight ounces of skim milk a week, though many a week would see less or none of those foodstuffs available. No fruits were ever officially distributed, and turnips were the only vegetable to show up with any regularity.
Estimates of total per capita calories provided daily ranged from 1300 or less, to 1800, with the lower figure being more frequently mentioned. This should be compared with the “Special Regime” given the worst offenders in the Soviet labor camps which provided about 2,000 calories.
According to modern nutritional guidelines, to maintain a healthy weight, the average adult with an average level of physical activity needs 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. At Theresienstadt all inmates between age 14 and 70 had to work long hours, many of them at strenuous jobs. In addition to being calorie-deficient, the Theresienstadt rations lacked essential vitamins and minerals. It’s no wonder that one survivor later recalled, “After three months in Theresienstadt, there was only one feeling left in my body: hunger.”
Six months after his arrival, Edelstein and the Council of Elders made a difficult decision about the food problem, as Berkley records:
It became apparent that an even distribution of the food supply would not allow the ghetto to survive. Those doing heavy work needed more than those doing normal work, and the latter needed more than nonworkers. In addition, children required extra rations, for they represented the Jewish future…
Thus, heavy workers … began to receive a little over 2,000 calories of food a day. Children were to get 1,800 and regular workers a little over 1,500. But the daily intake for nonworkers, which included most of the elderly, fell to less than 1,000 calories.
This terrible choice, however necessary to the population’s long-term survival, consigned thousands of people to death.
But even though starvation and disease took many lives, the most deadly aspect of life in Theresienstadt was deportation.
Contrary to what the propaganda messages said about people living out their lives in Theresienstadt, it was largely a transit camp. Most people who arrived would be sent on “to the east” sooner or later; some of them lasted only a few days in the fortress city before being deported.
Although certain classes of people, such as decorated World War I veterans, “prominent” people and those over 65, were in theory exempted from deportation, in practice anyone could be sent away and just about everyone ultimately was.
Approximately 145,000 denizens passed through Theresienstadt during the course of its existence, most of them from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria. About a quarter of these inmates died within Theresienstadt itself. Another 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other camps in the East, almost all of them dying there. Out of about 15,000 children who passed through Theresienstadt, less than 2,000 survived, and some estimates put the number in the low hundreds.
When the camp was liberated, it had a population of about 17,000, and most of those had arrived in the during the final months of the war.
Jakob Edelstein didn’t know about the gas chambers when he became Eldest of the Jews at Theresienstadt in December 1941, but he knew that conditions in the East were very bad and realized that, in order for the community to sustain itself, as many people as possible had to remain within Czechoslovakia.
As a committed Zionist, he hoped that the young people in the camp would survive and go on to colonize Israel. Like most otherleaders of Jewish communities throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, he made the decision to cooperate with the occupiers in hopes of saving lives.
And as far as that goes, he failed, as the numbers quoted above indicate. But if he failed, so did everyone else.
Unlike many Jewish officials in the Nazi ghettos, he wasn’t corrupt and he wasn’t a toady to the Germans. It’s worth noting that he had many opportunities to flee the country with his family, even after the war started: all he had to do was not come back to Europe after one of his trips overseas.
But he stayed, because he felt he had a responsibility to his beleaguered people.
Edelstein did the best he could with what he had to work with, which is all you can say for anybody. He worked tirelessly, making himself available at all hours, and under his leadership the camp developed a welfare system as well as many cultural and sports activities.
His job as Eldest of the Jews in Theresienstadt, trying to play the balancing act between advocating for his people and not pissing off the Germans, was always extremely stressful, difficult and dangerous.
But things really started to go downhill for him after the city’s first commandant, Siegfried Siedl, got reassigned to Bergen-Belsen in July 1943.
Siedl’s replacement, Anton Burger, hated Czechs and took an immediate dislike to Edelstein as a result. He replaced Edelstein with Paul Eppstein [German language link, as is the next], a German, and demoted Edelstein to first deputy to Eppstein. Benjamin Murmelstein, an Austrian, became second deputy.
This wasn’t enough for Burger, however, as George Berkley records:
As leader of the Czech Jews, [Edelstein] naturally bore the brunt of Burger’s hatred for them. The new commandant had not only deported many of his countrymen and his chief aide … but had also moved Germans and Austrians into key positions formerly held by Czechs. Burger had apparently also stirred up his own superiors against him for during the fall some bakery workers, looking out the window, saw and heard Eichmann sharply dressing down Edelstein and even threatening to have him shot.
The incident alarmed Edelstein’s many loyal followers and the next day the leaders of Hechalutz, the largest Zionist organization in the camp, met with him to urge him to flee. They said they could help him escape … But though he suspected a Nazi scheme to get rid of him, Edelstein refused to run away.
In the end, the Nazis didn’t need to trump up any charges of insubordination or sabotage against their former Eldest of the Jews: they found some real “crimes.” It seems that Edelstein had been saving people from deportation by allowing them to remain in Theresienstadt, off the books, and adding the names of dead people to the transport lists to make the numbers match up.
He was immediately arrested. It was November 9, 1943, the fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Edelstein was kept in custody in Theresienstadt until December 18, when he and his mother-in-law, his wife, and his young son were sent to Auschwitz with a transport of 2,500 others. The transport became part of the Auschwitz “Family Camp”, joining 5,000 Czech Jews who’d arrived there from Theresienstadt in September.
Edelstein’s family was allowed to join the Family Camp. Edelstein himself was put in the punishment block and subjected to interrogation although not, apparently, tortured. He gave nothing away.
In March 1944, the residents of the Family Camp who’d arrived in September were gassed. The December group was allowed to stay alive for the time being.
On June 20, an SS officer went to Edelstein’s cell and told him he’d been sentenced to death. While the condemned man (who’d become quite popular in jail) was taking leave of his fellow inmates, the SS officer got impatient and snapped, “quickly, quickly.”
Edelstein replied, “I am the master of my last movements.”
He was driven to the execution site and then the car went away to fetch Miriam, Ariah and Mrs. Olliner. Miriam had measles and had to be brought on a stretcher. The Nazis forced Jakob Edelstein to watch as his wife, child and mother-in-law were shot to death. He was the last of them to die.
The remaining residents of the family camp were gassed in early July 1944.
Paul Eppstein was executed in Theresienstadt in September. Murmelstein became Eldest of the Jews in his place and actually managed to survive the war. Because he had lived, he spent the rest of his life under a cloud of distrust and suspicion as a possible collaborator.
Siegfried Siedl was hanged for war crimes in 1947. Anton Burger escaped Allied custody (twice) after the war, assumed a new identity and died of natural causes in Essen in 1991. His true identity wasn’t discovered for years after his death.
After the war, the city of Theresienstadt reverted to its former name of Terezin, and the fortress became an internment camp for ethnic Germans, who found themselves quite unpopular in the newly liberated Czechoslovakia and were expelled from the country in droves. The internment camp closed in 1948.
The modern town of Terezin has a population of 3,500 and is noted for its manufacture of knitwork and furniture. Tourists from all over the world come to learn about its important role in one of the most tragic events in modern history.
She was a victim of the Nazis’ racial laws: anyone with even one Jewish grandparent, even if they themselves did not practice the Jewish religion, could be considered a Jew. Nemirovsky, born to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family in what is now the Ukraine, had converted to Catholicism in 1939 — sincerely, insofar as anyone can discern.
Irene Nemirovsky fled Russian territory after the Bolshevik Revolution and spent a short time in exile in Finland and Sweden before eventually settling in France. There she married a banker, had two daughters, and published her first novel in 1930.
The book, called David Golder, was about a ruthless businessman (described by modern readers as “a Bernie Madoff of her time”) who in old age and poor health begins to regret the way he lived his life. It was a success and was made into a 1930 film.
Although she was widely acclaimed as a writer in France, even by anti-Semites, she was denied citizenship in 1938. By then she had lived in the country for twenty years.
Following the German invasion of France in 1940, Nemirovsky’s books were pulled off the presses and she was required to wear the yellow star. If she and her family had succeeded in obtaining French citizenship, this would have provided some protection; the French were reluctant to deport their own Jews, filling the cattle cars with foreigners instead. Irene was instead classified as a “stateless person of Jewish descent” and the high-ranking Nazi official Ernst Kaltenbrunner called her a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony.”
The “stateless” Irene was arrested on July 13, 1942. She had time to write a letter to her family, asking them not to worry about her, before she was deported to Auschwitz four days later.
Although she survived the initial selection and was tattooed with a prisoner number, it was reported a month later that she had died of typhus, a common and deadly disease in the concentration camps. However, later investigation showed she had in fact been sent to the gas chamber. Her husband was also gassed in Auschwitz in November of that year, but their two children survived the war.
One of Nemirovsky’s books, All Our Worldly Goods, was posthumously published in France in 1947. However, for sixty years following the war this once-famous author was largely forgotten.
In 2004, however, she became a literary sensation when a previously undiscovered manuscript, Suite Francaise, hit the press. The “suite” consisted of two books out of a projected five, titled “Storm in June” and “Dolce”. Irene had written them while in hiding in 1940. When she was arrested she gave the manuscripts in a suitcase to her daughter Denise, who safeguarded them all those years.
The book was received to great acclaim and became a bestseller, and publishers blew the dust off her novels from the 1930s and brought them back into print. In 2007, another of Nemirovsky’s works, Fire in the Blood, was published. The book was a companion to Suite Francaise — and like Suite, Nemirovsky had worked on it while in hiding during the Nazi occupation.
Nemirovsky never escaped controversy, in her life or after her death. Several critics and scholars have accused her of being an anti-Semite, a “self-hating Jew,” as detailed in this article from the Australian publication The Age.
Novelist Paul LaFarge charged her as “a Jew who disliked other Jews.” Primo Levi‘s biographer wrote of her, “She has taken on board the idea that Jews belong to a different, less worthy ‘race’, and that their exterior signs are easily recognizable: frizzy hair, hooked noses, moist palms, swarthy complexions, thick black ringlets, crooked teeth…”
There is evidence to support this assertion.
Some of her books were serialized in anti-Semitic magazines, and during the occupation Irene also wrote a letter to Marshal Petain, head of France’s collaborationist Vichy government, to say she disliked Jews and shouldn’t be classified as a Jew, racial laws notwithstanding. Her husband wrote a similar letter to the German ambassador after her arrest, saying his wife “did not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever.” The ambassador never bothered to reply.
Irene, however, also has her defenders in this matter: “She didn’t dislike Jews,” said one. “She disliked some Jews. Big difference.” Patrick Marnham, who wrote the introduction to the reprinted David Golder, argued that, “Her choice of an unsympathetic Jewish character [in the book] does not make Nemirovsky anti-Semitic; any more than Robert Louis Stevenson was anti-Scottish because he created the diabolical figure of Ebenezer in Kidnapped.”
You could argue that if she appeared to be anti-Semitic it was because she was trying to conceal her own Jewish origins and thereby protect her family from the deadly consequences. Her daughters believed this was the reason for her assertions that she hated Jews.
In any case, whatever Irene may have said or thought about her religious origin did not save her life. She was just one of many thousands of Christian converts who fell victim to Nazi Germany’s madness.
Irene’s younger daughter, Elisabeth Gille, who died in 1996, wrote a novel titled Shadows of a Childhood which was based on her parents’ disappearance. She had only been five years old when Irene was arrested. In 2010, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt published the first major biography of Irene, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, 1903-1942.
He was twenty-five years old and had been caught attempting to escape.
Sim Kessel (called “Sam” in some accounts), a French Jew who boxed professionally, had been at Auschwitz for two years — a staggering period of time where the normal lifespan of a prisoner was at most three months — and had already escaped the gas chambers on two occasions.
The first time, he was in the infirmary recuperating from a severe beating and torture at the hands of the SS (one of his fingers had been cut off), and a Nazi doctor judged him incapable of recovery and took his number down. Then, a miracle: somehow, his chart was misplaced.
Four days later Kessel was selected again and this time actually marched to the gas chamber with other hopeless cases. As they were lined up, naked and shivering, waiting their turn to die, an SS man happened to pass on a motorcycle and stopped to have a look at them. Kessel recognized something in him:
Unmistakable. The stigmata of the ring. He also had muscular shoulders and a springy way of walking. I hesitated for a second and then thought, oh, what the hell!
Naked and shivering I walked up to him. I don’t know if it was a dim hope behind my overture, or some irrational kinship felt by boxers the world over, across all boundaries. I simply blurted out in German:
He didn’t wait for an explanation, he understood. […] “Get on!” he bellowed.
Kessel’s savior, whose name he never knew, took him back to camp and to the infirmary, where he made a full recovery from his injuries and rejoined the working prisoners. The two men never saw each other again. Kessel had no illusions about the character of the man who had saved his life:
This act of mercy which he had performed in the name of boxing meant something totally different to each of us. Obviously to me it was everything; for him, nothing at all. I was like a worm that one doesn’t step on at the last minute.
In December 1944, Kessel and four Polish prisoners tried to escape. He reflected later on that “the strategy could have succeeded despite its apparent idiocy.”
The idiotic strategy will be familiar to high school delinquents the world over: they casually walked out of camp together, in broad daylight, acting as if they had a legitimate destination in mind, and no one tried to stop them.
Unfortunately, they were caught the next day and sent back to Auschwitz. A public execution was the only punishment for escapees, and so the five were lined up on the scaffold in front of a crowd of some 25,000 prisoners. They each had to take their turn to die and Kessel was the last.
And then the rope broke.
Not that I knew it; I didn’t realize a thing, having lost consciousness from shock. I didn’t even know they had hanged me. […]
I came to. Or partly came to. It was as if I were in a dream, still unable to realize what was going on around me, aware mainly of the excruciating pain in my neck and back.
In some countries, if a person survives an execution they’re granted a reprieve and allowed to keep their lives. Not so in Auschwitz: you were simply hauled away and shot, this time without ceremony.
Kessel was left to the tender mercies of Jacob, described as “the camp’s official killer.” He knew his executioner’s reputation in camp and also out of it, for Jacob was also a professional boxer and had helped train the famous German champion Max Schmeling. Having nothing to lose, and remembering what had happened before, Kessel argued with him:
So I appealed to him, half in German, half in French. I argued that one boxer could not kill another boxer. That he, a former champion, a sparring partner of Schmeling’s, could not degrade himself by simply slaughtering me in cold blood.
Jacob listened and then walked away without a word. When he returned he carried a new camp uniform. Kessel was to put it on and simply rejoin the mass of prisoners outside.
Officially, Kessel was dead, and someone else’s body would be put in the crematorium ovens in place of his own. Certainly there were many bodies to choose from.
It probably wouldn’t have worked were it not for the fact that the Third Reich was in its death throes. The Wehrmacht was on the run, besieged by the Russians on one side and the Americans on the other, and within days Auschwitz would be evacuated.
Kessel survived two death marches and other dangers before he was liberated on May 7, 1945, five months after the rope broke.
On or about this day in 1944, Malka “Mala” Zimetbaum and Edward “Edek” Galinski were executed in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp after a failed escape attempt. Mala was 22 or 24; Edek was 20 or 21.
Mala, a Belgian Jew of Polish descent, had been living in Auschwitz for two years and had a privileged position because of her linguistic skill; she could speak about five languages and worked as an interpreter and courier. The staff trusted her and she had permission to go everywhere in camp. She often used her position to help the inmates.
Mala fell in love with Edek Galinski, a Polish gentile prisoner. He was also a longtime inmate, having been in Auschwitz since 1940. He also had the freedom to go anywhere in the camp in his capacity as a mechanic.
Sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1944, they escaped together. What they planned to do afterward is unclear; there are some stories that Mala carried documents from the camp and planned to tell the world what was happening there. How they were caught is also a bit of a mystery. According to some accounts, only one was arrested and the other went voluntarily so they could die together.
Their subsequent executions have been the subject of legend, and lives large in many memoirs by survivors of the camp. Among those who wrote about it were Primo Levi, Sara Nomberg-Przytyk and Fania Fenelon. A witness, Raya Kagan, also testified about it at Adolf Eichmann‘s 1961 war crimes trial.
All the accounts contradict each other; practically everything about the execution is disputed. Contrary to what the Wikipedia entry says as of this writing, we don’t even know whether it really took place on September 15; other dates have been suggested, including August 22. (Curiously, September 15 is also the date given for Mala’s arrival at Auschwitz in 1942.) Edek was apparently hung in the men’s camp, possibly alongside several other prisoners; Mala was executed in the women’s camp that same day. Edek supposedly tried to jump into the noose before the SS guard could finish reading his sentence, in defiance of protocol. His last words may have been “Long live Poland.” Everyone agrees that Mala slit her wrist with a hidden razor blade as she was standing before the crowd of woman prisoners waiting to be hanged. When the SS guards tried to intervene, she slapped one of them. They bound up her arm to keep her from bleeding to death. She may have been trampled to death at the execution site, but most accounts state the guards ordered some prisoners to cart her to the crematorium and throw her in alive. Several reports state that she either died on the way there, or was shot or poisoned by an SS guard who took pity on her.
According to some accounts, Mala’s last words were directed at the guard she hit: “I shall die a heroine, but you shall die like a dog!” Others say she addressed the crowd of prisoners and told them liberation was in sight, or urged them to revolt. We will never know what her final words truly were, but their meaning is clear enough.
Witold Pilecki as an officer (top), imprisoned in Auschwitz (middle), and at his fatal trial (bottom).
A former cavalry officer turned Home Army figure,* Pilecki authored one of the Great War’s most daring (and oddly obscure) covert escapades. In 1940, he volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz — whose operations were then largely opaque to the Polish resistance — and allowed himself to be rounded up by the Gestapo.
Pilecki spent 31 months in the notorious concentration camp, organizing an inmate resistance network and shipping intelligence about the camp’s operations to the Polish resistance and (through them) the western Allies.
Though his pleas for a raid to liberate Auschwitz were in vain, Pilecki’s report catalogued the today-familiar horrors of the camp.
One bit, as it turned out, was a bit of foreshadowing.
The fourth and most heavy kind of punishment was an execution by shooting: death effected quickly, how much more humane and desired by those undergoing torture. “Execution” is not the right term; the right one would be “shooting dead,” or just “killing.” … The butcher Palitsch** — a handsome boy, who did not used to beat anybody in the camp, as it was not his style, was the main author of macabre scenes in the courtyard. Those doomed stood naked in a row against the Black Wall, and he put a small calibre rifle under the skull in the back of their heads, and put an end to their lives.†
Pilecki escaped Auschwitz in 1943, rejoined the Home Army, and had the good fortune to wind up in Italy at war’s end.
Instead of retiring to write his memoirs, he slipped back into Poland to spy on the postwar Communist government … but the man who had lived through Nazi internment couldn’t pull the same trick on the reds, who were in the process of rooting out anti-Communist resistance elements.
Polish Prime Minister (and fellow Auschwitz survivor) Jozef Cyrankiewicz provided testimony against Pilecki in his show trial (Polish link) on espionage and arms charges.
Pilecki was executed May 25, 1948, at Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison just as he had seen so many killed at the Black Wall — with a single shot to the back of the head.
Pilecki was posthumously rehabilitated by the post-Cold War Polish government, and honored with the country’s highest decoration
* Pilecki co-founded an early resistance organization, the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, or TAP), subsequently absorbed by the Home Army.
** Gerhard Palitsch — or Palitzsch — was a notorious SS roll-call man thought to have personally executed some 20,000 people in the manner described by Pilecki.
An illustration of Gerhard Palitsch executing prisoners at the Black Wall, by Polish inmate Jan Komski
Disliked by camp commandant Rudolph Hoess, Palitsch’s proclivity for taking inmate mistresses eventually got him busted for race defilement, whereupon he himself landed in the camp’s confinement, obliged to “[beg] inmates who used to tremble before him for bread.” (People In Auschwitz)
He was not for the ovens or the Nuremberg trials, however, and instead found himself mustered to the eastern front, eventually dying in action against the Red Army in Hungary. This page (in Polish) assembles various inmate recollections of Gerhard Palitsch.
† As the translation in the cited source is a tad uneven, I’ve taken the liberty of cleaning it up a bit.