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Survival attempts

Very few Jews survived to tell the tale of their horrific experiences at concentration camps across Germany. P. SUBRAMANYAM meets one such survivor on his tour across Poland.


A picture of Father Kolbe is preserved in a church in Poland.

FROM 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power, till the death of Nazism in 1945, Germans unleashed a reign of terror, cruelty and barbarism hitherto unknown in the history of mankind. In various concentration camps in Europe, the Secret Service (SS) soldiers treated prisoners with utmost cruelty, their behaviour worse than animals. In the beginning of the war years, once the Germans captured an area in its quest for Lebensraum or "living space", as Hitler mentioned in Mein Kampf, the Nazi doctrine, the SS Gestapo would round up all politicians, intelligentsia and the Jews to hand them over to the camps. In the camps, several thousand staff, mostly members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande (Death's Head Troops) were specially trained for service in concentration camps. It was said that this barbaric squad was recruited from the former ranks of criminals and murderers and specially brainwashed to behave with utmost brutality as the Nazi dictum claimed the rights of "the superior" (that is, the Germans) to dominate the "inferior": namely Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and others.

Heinrich Himmler's propaganda slogan read: "Ein Reich, ein Volk ein Führer" meaning the German nation as one state, one nation and one Führer. The Jews were the first to fall in this doctrine and category. With a series of discriminatory laws, regulations and terror in the concentration camps, Jews were compelled to leave Germany. In 1933, Germany had a Jewish population of five and a half lakhs, which was reduced to two lakhs at the outbreak of war in September 1939. Soon after Poland capitulated to Germany in the early days of the war, the Nazis began deporting Jews and Gypsies from Germany to occupied Poland since this area was considered "living space".

Besides the Jews, about 12,000 Russian prisoners of war were brought to Auschwitz in the winter of 1941-42; barely 150 were still alive six months later. Apart from them, Ukrainians, Cossacks and Caucasians were sent to Auschwitz, suspected for "political unreliability". In all, about 20,000 were rounded up and forced to work at Birkenau, which was then in the process of construction in 1941-42. No food and extremely hard labour drove them to madness. Wagon-loads of corpses drove into Auschwitz every evening to be cremated in mass graves and half-dead men unable to bear the torments any longer, crept of their own accord into wagons and were "bestially murdered".

In various camps, the SS soldiers adopted a system of self-governing and imposition of total discipline. To this end, they recruited among prisoners, Jews, who acted between the camp authorities and the prisoners. Special detachments of Jews, who were called Sonderkommando were forced by the SS to remove corpses from the gas chambers and burn them. They were given special food rations and Vodka. They carried out their duties silently but were kept away from other prisoners to retain total secrecy of the gas chamber's functions. After a few months of work, they received the same fate in the gas chamber or were killed by firing squads.

To survive, they carried out grisly tasks, such as shaving the dead women's hair, removing gold teeth, emptying the clothes of valuables from freshly arrived Jews in the camp and cleaning the chambers. They wanted to finish the work quickly as they could find fresh food and cigarettes from the clothing of the gassed victims. Although they were given special additional allowances, they could often be seen shifting corpses with one hand while "they gnawed at something they held in the other". Again, when they were engaged in digging out and burning corpses buried in the mass graves, "they never stopped eating". Rudolf Hoss mentioned that he once saw a Russian hitting his fellow countryman with a stone to kill him and grab his piece of bread.

Amid all these atrocities and the inexplicable sufferings when medieval methods of torture were used, there was a noble sacrifice by a missionary priest. On April 23 and on June 17, 1941, two prisoners attempted to escape when they were caught and shot. However, for each escaped prisoner, ten were selected for death by starvation. They were taken to Block 11 and once they were there, they received neither food nor water. The tormented would perish to death slowly. During such a "selection" in August 1941, Maksymilian Rajmund Kolbe, (Nr 16670) a Franciscan missionary-priest, from Niepokalanow, well-known to Polish Catholics before the war, voluntarily stepped forward from the ranks of prisoners and requested that he may be tortured and killed to save the life of one other prisoner, named Franciszek Gajowniczek, (Nr 5659) — a man with a family — who was condemned to death by starvation.

The priest survived for almost two weeks in the bunker of Block 11, while the deaths of his comrades took place. He was eventually put to death with a phenol injection to the heart on August 14 in the basement of the infamous Death Block. Father Kolbe's heroic attitude deeply moved his fellow prisoners and was often commented upon at the camp. Former prisoners narrate incidents as to how Father Kolbe would share his ration of camp food with others, often with comrades-in-suffering whom he did not even know before. He became an enduring symbol of sacrifice, heroism and resistance. The Polish prisoner, whose life was saved by the father, survived the war and died in Poznan in Poland a few years ago.


Maria Wojciechowska, a survivor of the Holocaust, with the armbands given to her at the concentration camps.

Dr. Adelajda Hautval (Nr 31802), a French prisoner, with a great deal of courage refused to work together with an SS doctor, Dr. Eduard Wirths, in conducting criminal experiments on female prisoners in Block 10 of the main camp. She boldly gave her reason: "Such activities were not in keeping with her oath and conscience as a doctor."

This correspondent had the opportunity of visiting a church in Trzemeszno, about 70 km from Poznan, which was burnt down during the war. This church has now been rebuilt and a picture of Father Kolbe occupies a prominent position there. From this church with the help of a contact, I was able to meet and interview Maria Wojciechowska, (her maiden name was Maria Matuszewska), now 81 years old, who spent nearly 18 months in Ravensbrook and Buchenwald concentration camps in Germany. She was a young 21-year-old underground activist working for the Polish resistance movement and acted as a runner/messenger. She was caught early during the war by the SS and had to spend the next three and a half years in a forced labour camp in Ahrensbook in Germany. Later on, she was transferred to the concentration camps mentioned above until the Germans fell to the advancing Russian army. She was liberated in 1945 and trekked back to Poland, still cold and starving but with a one-way ticket to Warsaw.

Maria narrated her experiences in the camps where she had to live virtually on scraps of breadcrumbs and under appalling conditions. She was constantly ill because of severe wintry cold conditions and according to the camp authorities, once certified by the German doctors as ill, she would have been sent automatically to the gas chambers. Luckily, the doctor in charge kept on giving her a chit that she was fit and able to work although she was not. Thus, her life was saved.

The Polish government honoured Maria for her bravery and she also received a medal in 1991, as one of the survivors of these camps for 50 years, called the Holocaust Medal. She has preserved the brown envelope the camp authorities gave her some 60 years ago when she was captured and imprisoned. Maria has two daughters and spends her time visiting schools and colleges giving lectures of her experiences under the tyranny of the Germans during the war, and she is a celebrated person in her town.

During the war years, it was always questionable whether the local Polish were aware of such heinous crimes committed by the SS in Treblinka, Majdanek, Lodz, Lublin, Warsaw and many of the camps. A few Jews who escaped sent full details to the BBC and in particular to the British Government; regular news bulletins from England highlighted these crimes. But, because of the strict censorship in Germany, no one could imagine that such gory crimes and killings would take place. However, almost all of Poland knew something to this effect was happening and the villagers, who were moved from and around Oswiecim, because of the stench and the constant smoke from the chimneys strongly suspected that genocide was taking place on a large scale. Moreover, Polish workers and others who delivered food, materials, daily postal services and such other ancillary workers were gossiping among themselves. As luck would have it, Maria through the local church introduced me to Stefan Lewandowski (born in 1925) and his wife, Genowefa, (born in 1926) who happened to live in the same village. This writer met the couple in their home. Stefan admitted he was, like many other Poles, were fully aware of what was happening around that time in various camps. Also, Stefan confessed that he worked for the Germans for survival/economic reasons and they would punish him for small mistakes or for stealing potatoes or turnips or taking rest during work which included digging, laying trenches, constructing roads and fencing — all hard labour. However, he now lives with his wife peacefully in their own house, and has his own farm.

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