The vital importance of Vrba-Wetzler Report can only be appreciated when one understands how many others attempted to report on the concentration camps in general and/or the persecution of Jews in particular. Nearly all attempts to blow the whistle on the Holocaust, prior to the Vrba-Wetzler Report, were met with disbelief.

TWO CATHOLICS

According to a Gestapo report dated March 18, 1942, Father Karl Golda, a monk from a monastery near Auschwitz, was arrested by the Gestapo for compiling details on conditions in Auschwitz before it was fully transformed into a high-functioning factory for murder. At age 28, as a member of the Order of Salesians (founded by St. John Bosco, 1815-1888), Father Golda was sent to the camp and died there on May 14, 1942, presumably put to death by the camp authorities. [Source: Berichte des SD und der Gestapo Rber Kirchen und Kirchenvolk in Deutschland, 1934-1944, ed. H. Boberach (Mainz, 1971)]. But Golda was not the first person who tried to provide written reportage on Auschwitz.

St. Maximilian Kolbe was canonized as a martyr in 1981 by Pope John Paul II who had lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Maximilian Kolbe Memorial

The Maximilian Kolbe Memorial in same the room in which he and  nine other prisoners were starved to death.

Another non-Jewish religious figure and writer who became noteworthy in Holocaust history was Maximilian Maria Kolbe a Franciscan of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (OFM Conv). He was also a publisher. Born on January 8, 1894, he helped his Friars publish pamphlets, books and a daily newspaper (Maly Dziennik). His monthly magazine reputedly grew to have a circulation of over one million. With 650 Friars, he oversaw the largest Catholic retreat in Europe. As someone who also studied Buddhism, he was considered dangerous by the Nazis. After the appearance of a book called Christian Martydom and Political Violence, he was arrested by the Gestapo [created in 1933] for sheltering Jews on February 17, 1941 and taken from Niepokalanów to Warsaw for several months of interrogation.

After Kolbe was shipped to Auschwitz on May 25, 1941, he was often beaten savagely by guards who resented his deep faith, equanimity and dignity. In July, after one of the inmates escaped from the camp, the the Deputy Commander of Auschwitz ordered ten inmates from the same block to be starved to death in an underground bunker. As prisoner #16670, Kolbe volunteered to die in place of a man he didn’t know (Franciszek Gajowniczek) because he learned the man had a wife and children. Gajowniczek survived and ultimately reunited with his family in Poland. He was present when Kolbe was eventually beatified as Confessor of the Faith in 1971. Visitors to Auschwitz will find a plaque in an underground cell that recognizes Kolbe’s sacrifice. Most do not know that the monastery that Father Kolbe founded on a mountainside on the outskirts of Nagasaki during the early 1930s (before he returned to Poland in 1936) survived the atom bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945.

Kolbe is now rightly revered for his self-sacrifice but few know his bravery, at the end of July, 1941, was not unprecedented. On April 23, 1941, in response to an escape, the SS commenced their practice of picking ten prisoners from the Block in which the escapee had lived and sending them to a bunker without food or water, to die of starvation.  A Polish physics teacher in Block 2, Marian Batko, born in 1901 in Cracow, volunteered to be taken in order to spare the life of his 16-year-old pupil, Mieczysław Pronobis, from Tarnów (prisoner # 9313). Batko (prisoner #11795) died in the punishment Block 11 four days later. He was the first of the ten condemned men to die. His sacrifice is commemorated as Polish Teachers’ Day of Remembrance and Peace, annually on April 27th.

TADEUSZ WIEJOWSKI

According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, the first person to escape from the first rudimentary camp at Auschwitz was a Pole named Tadeusz Wiejowski during its first month of operation. Born in Kołaczyce on May 4, 1914, Wiejowski was a professional shoemaker. He was arrested by the Germans in a group of 728 prisoners that were sent to Auschwitz on June 14, 1940. He escaped, disguised as a labourer on July 6, 1940, when he accompanied members of the Polish resistance movement employed in the camp as “civilian workers.” The Museum has told the story thus:

Tadeusz Wiejowski

Tadeusz Wiejowski, the first person to escape Auschwitz, was recorded as prisoner #220. (click)

“He was assisted by Polish civilian workers (electricians) employed by a German construction company carrying out works on the camp premises. Wiejowski was born on May 4, 1914 in Kołaczyce. He was brought to Auschwitz on June 14, 1940 in the first transport of Polish political prisoners. During registration in the camp he received number 220. On the day of the escape the workers, with whom he had established contact beforehand, provided him with civilian outfit and a green armband they were obliged to wear. When the working day was over, Wiejowski put on the clothes he received and left the camp with the civilians. Together with them he reached the train station, from where he managed to leave in a freight train. After some time he reached his home village of Kołaczyce, where he remained in hiding for over a year.

“In the autumn of 1941, he was arrested and incarcerated in prison in Jasło; during interrogation he was not identified as an escapee from Auschwitz. According to the account of one of the guards, Wiejowski was supposedly transported with other arrestees to prison in Gorlice. However, he never reached this institution and was probably shot in one of the inactive oil wells near Jasło. After Wiejowski was reported missing in the camp, the prisoners were lined up for the roll call which lasted from 6 p.m. to about 2 p.m. the next day-without interruption, without any food. They had to stand at attention or squat with their hands on the nape of their neck. Each movement was punished with beating by the SS men and prisoner functionaries. Another form of punishment was the prohibition to leave the row in order to satisfy physiological needs. Numerous prisoners were not able to withstand this situation and relieved themselves as they were standing, which constituted a pretext for further harassment. The evening of July 6 and the forenoon of the next day were sunny and hot, while the night exceptionally cold. Some prisoners suffered sunstroke, others experienced skin burns or swelling; many of them passed out or had a nervous breakdown.

“During the roll call, those prisoners who worked or were accommodated together with Wiejowski were called in for questioning by the functionaries of the camp Gestapo. As a result of the investigation, combined with beating and tortures, five civilian workers and eleven prisoners accused of providing the escapee with assistance were arrested and incarcerated in the basement of Block 13 (11 after the change in numeration). Rudolf Höss, commandant of the camp, initially requested them to be shot. However, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler sentenced the civilian workers to flogging–75 lashes. After the punishment was executed, they were to be incarcerated for the period of five years in the concentration camp. [Instead] The prisoners received the punishment of 25 lashes and a transfer to a different camp for three years. Eventually, the first group was incarcerated in Mauthausen, while the second in Flossenbürg. From the group of five workers only Bolesław Bicz survived the camp, but he died shortly after the war, whereas the majority of the eleven prisoners lived to see the liberation.”

JAN KARSKI

Jan Karski

Jan Karski (from Instytut w Rudzie Śląskiej)

What we do know for certain is that a courageous Polish infiltrator named Jan Karski (born Jan Kozielewski) reached London in November of 1942 and described to senior British authorities, including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, how Nazis were murdering Jews all over Europe. Although he was a non-Jew and his reportage did not specifically apply to Auschwitz, his reports of “cold and systematic extermination” of Jews were  taken seriously, partly because they were crafted by the Budapest-born polymath Arthur Koestler. BBC broadcasts for Karski’s news were delayed until June of 1943. Koestler would also publish one of the first Holocaust novels, Arrival and Departure, in 1943, a little-known pamphlet called Terror in Europe and an article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “On Disbelieving Atrocities” in January of 1944, in which Koestler reported that an opinion survey revealed nine out of ten American citizens believed that the alleged atrocities committed against Jews were propaganda lies.

Report Cover

First official government-documented alert about the Holocaust and genocide of Poles 1942

Trained in law and diplomacy, Karski had joined the Polish army, was imprisoned by the Soviets, adopted the last name Karski in Soviet captivity, landed in German custody due to a prisoner exchange, escaped from the Germans POW camp in Radom and made his way to Warsaw where he joined the Polish underground resistance movement. Karski witnessed the loading of Jewish victims onto a train in the Izbica transit ghetto, in Poland, by donning a police uniform and being guided through the railway station gate by an Estonian guard of the Gestapo. As a “very modest, unassuming, rather aristocratic Pole” (according to Koestler), Karski described the process for the mass murdering of Jews with chlorine gas after 120-130 Jews per freight train car were crammed into cars designed to hold 40 soldiers and several horses. He recalled:

“The details of how they die are simple and revolting. The chlorine of lime on the floor has the property of developing chlorine gas when coming into contact with humidity. The people jammed into the trucks for many hours are compelled, at some time, to urinate, and this (on the lime), instantaneously produces a chemical reaction. Death must in the end be welcome, for whilst they are dying by the chlorine gas their feet are being burned to the bone by the chemically active chlorine. As I said, the number executed in one death train is about 6,000 at a time.”

Jan Karski and Colin Powell

Jan Karski and General Colin Powell at the 1993 opening of the US Holocaust Museum. Karski was made an honorary citizen of Israel before he died.

Having also made two clandestine visits to the Warsaw Ghetto, Karski was eventually taken for a face-to-face meeting at the White House with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on July 28, 1943. Their exchange reportedly lasted for one hour and twenty minutes. Karski–who could be regarded as the first major whistleblower of the Holocaust–published Story of a Secret State (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1944) to limited effect.  Newspapers across the U.S. mostly preferred to bury the Holocaust on their back pages, if they paid any mind at all. To borrow a phrase from a Jack Nicholson movie, America couldn’t handle the truth.

In 1977, the French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann made contact with Karski and he agreed to be filmed at his home for two days in 1978. In Shoah (1985), Lanzmann used 39 minutes of the Karski footage. Born in Lodz, Poland, as Jan Kozielewski on April 24, 1914, Karski died in his hometown of Washington, D.C. on June 24, 2000, having taught international relations and Polish history at Georgetown University for decade. In 2010, having revisited his interview footage, Lanzmann made a second film, far less known, called The Karski Report. It was shown on the Franco-German channel, Arte. See Karski discussing his fruitless interview with Roosevelt here. 

ZAREMBINA & OTHER REPORTERS

Arrival and Departure

Arrival and Departure (1943) by Arthur Koestler is one of the first Holocaust novels. 

The Camp of Death

Death Camp (1942) by Natalia Zarembina is one of the first Holocaust chronicles (Click to see her photo.)

In December of 1942, journalist Natalia Zarembina (1895-1973), in occupied Warsaw, published anonymously what is often cited as the first book about Auschwitz, Obóz śmierci, based mainly on reports from three former inmates. The following year it was published from London as Auschwitz: The Camp of Death and soon appeared in six other languages. It was available in New York as of March, 1944.  Zarembina was active in the Polish Socialist Party and the “Zegota” Council for Aid to Jews. She fled Poland in 1946 but returned in the late 1960s and died in Warsaw.

After a famous escape from Auschwitz on June 20, 1942, when four prisoners managed to dress in SS uniforms and drive out through the gates in a vehicle belonging to the camp’s second-in-command, one of those escapees, prisoner #918, Kazimierz Piechowski, did make a little-known report to the Polish Home Army about what he had seen and experienced in Auschwitz as a Polish political prisoner since his arrival in 1940. [There is more information on this escape further down the page.]

As well, the Polish government-in-exile issued a brochure about the Nazi death camps, The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland (1943) to disseminate the text of “Raczyński’s Note of 10 December 1942”, a diplomatic note from Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Raczyński’ that was sent to the foreign ministers of the Allies. With the findings of Jan Karski, it identified Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor as extermination camps, making it the first “official diplomatic note” on the Holocaust.

Halina Krahelska

Halina Krahelska

Kurt Gerstein

Kurt Gerstein

First hand testimony about the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women was rendered by Halina Krahelska, before she died there on 19 April 1945, only eleven days before the liberation of the camp. Born in 1886 in Odessa, she was twice arrested as a socialist revolutionary (in Kiev) before being sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia (as Halina Sleszyński). There she relied on the support of her first husband Jozef Grabianka, who travelled to Siberia, until they could return to Europe during the tumult of the Russian revolution. After her husband died of typhus in 1919, she proceeded to become one of Europe’s most effective and enduring feminists until the Gestapo arrested her for socialist activities in 1944.

The lone Nazi Waffen SS officer who attempted to alert the world, Kurt Gerstein, has been well-publicized as the subject of a biography, A Spy for God (1971), a Costa-Gavras film, Amen (2002) and a play by Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, Either Or (2007), that debuted in Washington, D.C. Having witnessed the gassing of 3,000 Jews at Belzec as well as mass murder at Treblinka on the day following, Gerstein–already appalled by the murder of his sister-in-law in keeping with a Nazi euthanasia program for the mentally ill–reported Holocaust atrocities to a Swedish diplomat in Berlin, Goran von Otter, but the Swedish Foreign Ministry failed to pass along these revelations to the Allies. Gerstein also pleaded in vain with the Dutch underground to send his reportage to London. You can read parts of The Gerstein Report here. 

POLISH ESCAPEES, PILECKI & TABEAU

Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki

Jerzy Tabeau

Jerzy Tabeau

Polish prisoners could escape more easily than Jews.  Witold Pilecki and Jerzy Tabeau were the most noteworthy.

The extraordinary Holocaust hero Witold Pilecki (pronounced Piletski in English) was possibly the only person who ever volunteered to be captured in order to infiltrate Auschwitz. If Rudolf Vrba has any rival for “most extraordinary Holocaust hero”, it’s Pilecki. Having already fought as a Polish cavalryman in 1920, he adopted the pseudonym Tomasz Serafiński and allowed himself to be captured during a street roundup in Warsaw on September 19, 1940. After two days of torture and interrogation, he succeeded in being transported to Auschwitz where his goal was to instigate a rebellion by the inmates. As Auschwitz prisoner #4859, Serafiński/Pilecki is credited with co-founding the camp resistance. He then succeeded in sending secret messages to the Polish government-in-exile in London. In his foreword to Witold’s Report from Auschwitz (2016), Mariusz Blaszczak, Minister of Interior and Administration of the Republic of Poland, states, “Pilecki smuggled out several brief reports from Auschwitz in 1940, 1941 and 1942, and after his escape in 1943. He describes his own entrance to Auschwitz as the moment when he ‘left behind everything he was familiar with on earth and stepped into somewhere beyond it.’”

Pilecki's original manuscript

Pilecki’s original manuscript

The stories of how Witold Pilecki’s Auschwitz chronicles reached the outside world are also remarkable. According to Józef Garliński in Fighting Auschwitz, a 1974 account that tends to glorify Polish resistance to the Nazis, Pilecki’s first report about Auschwitz was delivered orally by an unnamed “released prisoner” (no details) in November of 1940. An unnamed courier then took a written version of the report, ‘The Camp at Auschwitz’, to the Anna base in Stockholm; this reportage was then sent to the VIth (Sixth) Bureau of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London on March 2, 1941. The gist of its contents were then made known to the British as well as the FDR administration of the still-neutral United States. Garliński further states that Pilecki eventually received confirmation that his reportage had reached London from Polish prisoners who arrived at Auschwitz from the Pawiak prison in Warsaw, thereby emboldening Pilecki to continue is efforts in the underground resistance.

Pilecki was able to survive inside the original Auschwitz I camp for a month as a male nurse in the camp hospital. Initially, in 1941, it was still possible for relatives to successfully gain the release of prisoners. Garliński states that Pilecki persuaded a young boy named Tadeusz Burksi to relay reportage after his sisters had successfully gained his release at the outset of February in 1941; more significantly, Wladyslaw Szpakowski was able to smuggle out an extensive, written report from Pilecki on March 7, 1941 after Szpakowski’s had obtained his release through the Swedish consulate.

Led by Pilecki, the underground managed to establish a radio receiver hidden under the linoleum floor of the office of a German SS doctor. According to Garliński, “the aerial was joined to the telephone wires connecting Block No. 23 and Block No. 28… At night, after the SS-men had left the camp, communiques were listened to from the distant fronts.” Garliński later claimed that according to “oral evidence” provided by a underground member Henryk Bartosiewicz, “The monitoring service in the hospital worked efficiently and Pilecki, with his nearest co-workers, received the latest radio news every day.” [According to the Auschwitz Musuem, it was also Bartosiewicz who somehow smuggled in a small Christmas tree for room 7 in Block no. 25, for Christmas of 1941, whereupon Witold Pilecki adorned it with a White Eagle carved from a turnip.]

Pilecki further expanded the underground resistance when he was transferred to work within the Carpenter’s Workshop, then within the Tannery Workshop. Due to the dreadful consequences for failed escape attempts, Pilecki wrote, as follows: “At the time we, as an organization, took up a definitely negative attitude to escapes. We did not organize any escapes and we condemned any step in this direction as a sign of extreme selfishness, until the position altered fundamentally in this respect. For the time being all escapes were ‘wild-cat’ affairs and had nothing to do with our organization.”

Nonetheless, in May 16, 1942, Pilecki’s underground co-worker Stefan Bielecki succeeded in escaping from the sub-camp of Harmeze and delivering a report written by Pilecki. It is seldom noted that Bielecki escaped with Wincenty Gawron, a graphic artist, who was born on January 28, 1908 in Stara Wieś near Limanowa. The men split up but neither were caught. Gawron eventually came to Canada before settling in Chicago where he established the Józef Piłsudski Museum of the Polish Army in his home and wrote a memoir, The Auschwitz Volunteer, dedicated to the memory of Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki.

More famously, on June 20, 1942, three Poles and one Ukrainian – AK soldier Kazimierz Piechowski, Second Lieutenant and underground member Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, and Father Józef Lempart of Wadowice, as well as a Ukrainian mechanic, Eugeniusz Bendera – stole the luxury Steyr 220 car alleged to have belonged to Auschwitz commander Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, but, according to Garliński, it was the vehicle used by SS Captain Kreuzman. The armed quartet drove it out the main gate, with two of them fully dressed as members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande. Seeing the uniforms, the SS-man at the gate omitted the formality of checking for passes and quickly lifted the barrier pole, saluting and shouting Heil Hitler. Jaster carried Pilecki’s detailed report as the luxury vehicle made its way through the local village, crossed the bridge over the Sola River and headed north. When the foursome reached the neighborhood of Stary Sacz, they changed into civilian clothes and Jaster went his own way, heading for Warsaw to deliver Pilecki’s report. The audacious escapees were never recaptured.

The SS-men got wind of the radio transmitter, searched for it furiously in the summer of 1942, but never found it. The set was dismantled by Pilecki’s underground associates in the autumn of 1942 because, by then, it was determined that too many prisoners in the camp knew about it. By then they had established an alternate radio system. Eventually, Witold Pilecki himself escaped with Jan Redzej and Edward Cieliczko in April of 1943. They did so at night by over-powering guards, taking their papers and cutting telephone wires. A few days later Pilecki reported to the Polish resistance and presented his plan to attack Auschwitz. His plan was rejected by his military superiors but his reportage on Auschwitz had crucially reached the Polish government-in-exile in London, thereby empowering them to pressure the government of Winston Churchill to take action well before the Vrba-Wetzler Report. It is worth noting, however, that details from Pilecki’s reportage on Auschwitz were published by the underground representatives of the Polish government-in-exile in Warsaw within their bulletin, Informacja Bieżąca, so the true nature of Auschwitz was not a secret to many individuals in two major European capitals.

Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki. Photo from this document Pilecki’s Report

Pilecki participated in the Warsaw Uprising and was a P.O.W. at Lamsdorf & Murnau camps, only to be executed by the Russians in Warsaw in 1948. His place of burial remains unknown. His reportage known as Pilecki’s Report was finally published in 2000, reconstructed by Adam Cyra for his book Rotmistrz Pilecki. Ochotnik do Auschwitz. An English version was released in 2012 as The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery. Jan Redzej, who escaped from Auschwitz with Pilecki, made his own report that is seldom cited.

[Born in Kiev (in Poland/later Ukraine) in 1913, the historian Józef Garliński was in Auschwitz for six months (starting in May of 1943) before he was transferred to Neuengamme. Before he was captured by German army, Garliński had been active in the resistance forces in 1942 when he received a report of a young man who had been released from Auschwitz. Garliński later recalled: “In 1941, in spring about 80 young men were released from Auschwitz, sent back to Warsaw. Later on they stopped this… One of them has [had] written a report [on] what’s going on in Auschwitz. I had the report in my hand in 1942, end of 1942… I didn’t believe this report although I [had] spent already two years under German occupation… What [did] Germans want to achieve? Cruelty to people, starving them to death, doing thousands of idiotic things without any sense and without any advantage for themselves, without achieving anything.  In the second part of the war in each concentration camp there are armament factories. They started to use prisoners as workers. This had sense. But to be cruel to thousands of people, asking them to do idiotic jobs, behaving like animals, starving them to death, sounds rather nonsense. It was a mental asylum. When I arrived in Auschwitz I didn’t believe my own eyes [that] this is possible.” Garliński was interviewed in England in 1989; the U.S. Holocaust Museum acquired a copy of the interview from Imperial War Museum in 1995.]

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The Polish medical student Jerzy Tabeau, prisoner #27273, was registered in Auschwitz under the pseudonym Jerzy Wesołowski (Wesełowski) on March 26, 1942. He escaped from Auschwitz on November 19, 1943 with Roman Cieliczko, prisoner #27089, and Kazimirez Halori by short-circuiting an electrified barbed wire fence before cutting through it. He went to Zakopane and onto Kraków, where he contacted the Polish underground. Between December 1943 and January 1944, Tabeau compiled a document that would be misleadingly dubbed The Polish Major’s Report when it reached Switzerland and was duplicated with a stencil machine in Geneva in August of 1944.

This 19-page document was included with the Vrba-Wetzler Report for The Auschwitz Protocols, the whistleblowers’ compendium that finally convinced the outside world it could no longer entirely ignore the extent of mass murder in Auschwitz. Tabeau became a medical professor and a well-known cardiologist in Kraków. He died in 2002. Tabeau’s unprecedented reportage estimated the death toll at Auschwitz was 1.5 million by the time he escaped. This estimate jives with with Vrba-Wetzler estimate of 1.75 million made in April, 1944. Tabeau’s colleague Cieliczko (or Ciesielski) wrote a separate report that was far less influential. Click here to read Tabeau’s testimony to the Kraków District Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in 1947.

OTHER ESCAPES

A cumulative history of Auschwitz escapes remains a global work-in-progress.

On June 10, 1942, fifty prisoners tasked with digging a drainage ditch attacked their SS guards; simultaneously, other prisoners ran towards a nearby forest. Some thirteen prisoners were shot, thirty more were recaptured–but nine managed to escape. This story was validated by Zenon Rozanski in his memoir, Caps Off . . .: A Report from the Punishment Company (SK) of the KZ Auschwitz, (first published in Hanover in 1948, later translated by Christine C. Schnusenberg in 2013).

A similar scenario occurred in October of 1942 when Russian prisoners were sent outside the prison confines to help the SS search for an escapee. This afforded the captive Russians to overthrow one of the guard towers and flee into the woods. Thereafter, the procedures by which the Auschwitz Birkenau guards searched for prisoners were subject to much stricter protocols. Search parties with Alsatian dogs caused far less trouble and were far more effective.

Vinzent Daniel

Roma escapee Vinzent Daniel joins one of a rising number of Auschwitz inmates who has had prison registration photos colourized and posted on the internet.

According to the Auschwitz Museum, 23,000 Roma were transported to Auschwitz at the behest of Himmler. Some 2,000 were murdered without entering the camp; 19,000 more died of disease or were murdered in the gas chambers. One of the few Roma (gypsies) known to have escaped was Vinzent Daniel who was arrested in Prague and brought to Auschwitz in April of 1942. About a month later, he escaped by running through a drainage pond and disappearing into some woods, stripping off his prison clothes as he ran, vanishing into the trees in his underwear. Daniel’s fate remains a mystery.

Some of the other earliest escapees included the Polish trio of prisoner #918 Kazimierz (“Kazik”) Piechowski, his fellow Boy Scout Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster and priest Józef Lempart along with the Ukrainian mechanic Eugeniusz Bendera, who worked in the Hauptwirtschaftslager Kommando [HWL-main SS garrison equipment repository], and escaped in stolen SS uniforms within the fastest car in Auschwitz, a Steyr 220, supposedly belonging to Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Hoess, but actually belonging to a different SS official, on June 20, 1942.

Kaziemierz Holon and Irene Holon Grave site

Kazimierz Holon is buried with his wife, Irene Holon 

As prisoner #20687, Kazimierz Hałoń, gained the distinction of being the first person whose escape from Auschwitz Birkenau was coordinated by the camp’s Polish underground. Born on May 5, 1915 in Brzeszcze as the son of Piotr and Maria (nee’ Malinowska) Hałoń, he grew up in a working class family, apprenticing as a coal miner at age 15, then hoping to become a locksmith before he was called for military service in February of 1937. He was first captured by the Nazis in 1939 while fighting as an artilleryman alongside his countryman Jozef Cyrankiewicz, during a march to Romania. After Kazimierz escaped from prison, he returned to Brzeszcze, then made his way to Krakow where the Polish Socialist Party supplied him with new identity papers as Kazimierz Wrona.

In the Shadow of Auschwitz

In the Shadow of Auschwitz by Hałoń

While en route to Sosnowiec, he was re-arrested by the Nazis in the summer of 1941 and sent to Auschwitz where he once more crossed paths with Cyrankiewicz. The Polish underground made plans for the pair to escape with wigs and workman’s overalls until the Nazis recognized Cyrankiewicz was politically dangerous and made him wear the letters I.L., short for Im Lager, and his movements were restricted inside the camp. Hałoń subsequently escaped alone on February 10, 1943 and provided important reportage to the Krakow Socialist Party. He secretly published six articles in the secret socialist journal Wolność and eventually released a 1996 autobiography, In Work and Struggle – Memories before he died on August 26, 2000 in Krakow. The older brother of social activist and academic Edward Hałoń, he is buried at the Batowice cemetery alongside his wife Irena Hałoń née Korzeniak (July 7, 1926 – March 18, 2018).

Born in Kiev on December 20, 1905, Stanisław Chybiński was a co-owner of a construction company in Warsaw. He was captured and imprisoned in Jasło, then in Tarnów, after he had attempted to escape across the Slovak boarder, hoping to reach France. Sent to Auschwitz in December of 1940, he became prisoner #6810 in December. He was involved with two other prisoners, Kazimierz Jarzębowski and Józef Rotter, in a successful escape (May, 1943) that required an SS guard to be drugged with sleeping pills and vodka. Chybiński wrote a report entitled Snapshots from Auschwitz.

In Fighting Auschwitz, Jozef Garlinski’s 1974 book about the virtues of a Polish resistance movement within Auschwitz, a claim is made on page 229 (of the British paperback version) that so many Poles escaped from Auschwitz that 21 ex-prisoners of Auschwitz served as a single partisan unit in the vicinity of Auschwitz. This claim is now being repeated as truth on the internet even though few of the alleged 21 escapees are named. The leader of this partisan unit that operated in the Auschwitz vicinity, code-named Garbnik (also the name of a village in northern Poland), was Lt. Józef Barcikowski who had escaped from Auschwitz with Zdzislaw Walczak on October 23, 1944. They had done so largely because discipline and morale within the ranks of the Auschwitz guards was in rapid decline. By late 1944, when Barcikowski escaped, Himmler gave orders for the tell-tale gas chambers to be blown up prior to the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. Barcikowski was a rare survivor of the infamous Block 11 punishment block largely due to efforts of his co-escapee, Zdzislaw Walczak, prisoner #39543, who had been apprehended in Krakow on June 10, 1942. Walczak succeeded in bribing a block supervisor and then integrating Barcikowski into a surveying unit that took them both beyond the gates. By this stage, most guards were more concerned with plotting their own escapes from culpability rather than maintaining strict codes of SS discipline.

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Listen to the Jerzy Tabeau Interview here.

Click here to read the facsimile of The Polish Major’s Report excerpted from the much larger report, “German Extermination Camps,” declassified in 1964.

You can read the the complete German Concentration Camps Report here, from the FDR Library.

Look at the PDF of the booklet, “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland,” published on Behalf of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the Polish government-in-exile) in 1943.

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Who was Dionys Lenard?

Zilina Jews obeying orders from Hlinka Guards

Žilina Jews obeying orders from Hlinka Guards. Jewish businesses were Aryanized (forced to accept non-Jewish owner/management). In September of 1941, the “Jewish Codex” further limited civil rights and movement, men were apprehended for forced labor and all Jews had to wear a yellow star.

Lenard’s parents and sister managed to illegally enter Palestine, only to be sent back to Slovakia by the British. His sister Rachel would survive by joining an agricultural commune in Denmark and transiting to Sweden, but his parents were deported to concentration camps in the spring of 1942 and did not survive.

Majdanek crematoria 1945

This is what the ovens of Majdanek looked like when Russian soldiers liberated the camp. 

Every transport of Jews from Slovakia to Auschwitz passed through the town of Žilina, located 169 kilometres northeast of Bratislava. Initially, its mayor and town council objected when an abandoned military barracks on Rajenka Road was selected as the site for a transit concentration camp as of March 21, 1942. A different military barracks was selected, surrounded by an electrified, barbed wire fence, but, with a very limited water supply, up to 1,200 prisoners would be held in cramped and unsanitary conditions. There was one small latrine. A survivor named Alex Hochhauser would recall, “poverty, filth and desperate faces of starving people… Fleas and lice and atrocities from the side of the HG [Hlinka Guard] were preconditions of hell in Auschwitz.”

Some 300 others could be detained in nearby horse stables. Bribery of guards was common. The deportation lists could be altered for a price. If the well-to-do could pay to be released, more Jews could be rounded up to replace them for a scheduled shipment. In this way the local Jewish Council could collaborate with the camp command, adjusting the lists of names. Juraj Klein was the main liaison between privileged Jews and the Nazis. Klein would be hanged for collaboration and profiteering after the war. It was this degree of corruption and deceit that would lead Rudolf Vrba to conclude that many Jewish Councils had been complicit during the Holocaust—an assessment that was so alarming that Vrba would be deep-sixed by most establishment historians in Israel and at Yad Vashem for daring to speak the truth.

Most of the 19 transports that left Žilina went to Auschwitz; seven went to the Lublin region. Usually these trains left at 3:20 a.m., for obvious reasons, and reached the border town of Cadca about an hour later. Adults were allowed to take up to 50 kilograms of luggage onto the trains. The HG [Hlinka Guard] relinquished control of the prisoners to the Nazis at the border. It has been recorded that 26,384 Jews made this journey under the cover of night until the Žilina camp was liquidated on October 24, 1942. Thereafter, Jews who were detained would be transferred mainly to the camps at Sered or Novaky.

At war’s end, the Slovak who had been appointed by the HG to manage the concentration camp at Žilina, Rudolf Marcek, a former teacher, admitted in National Court hearings that bullying, intimidation and physical abuse were rampant within his administration—and bribes were common. He admitted bribes commonly ranged between 500 and 20,000 Ks [Kroners]. HG guards could be bribed with liquor to facilitate an escape. Consequently, rich Jews could frequently save themselves. At 17, Rudolf Vrba was no fool. He knew that 1. deportation was life-threatening, 2. the Jewish Council was prone to collusion and 3. rich Jews had an advantage. Hence, he had announced to his mother that he would refuse to follow orders and allow himself to be deported like cattle.

A memorial book by Haim Gordon, The Rise and Decline of the Jewish Community of Žilina (Slovakia), published in 2013, provides the names of the approximately 2,500 Jews from Žilina who were killed in the Holocaust. Only 214 Jews from Žilina returned after the war.

Tibori-Szabó cites Canadian John S. Conway, a close friend of Rudolf Vrba, for citing Dionys Lenard within The Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry. Essays, Documents, Depositions edited by Randolph L. Braham (Boulder, CO: Social Science Monographs, 1986), p. 18. If Conway saw fit to cite the existence of Lenard as a Slovakian escapee, he would have surely consulted his close friend Vrba on this matter, given that Lenard would have been a countryman of Vrba. The extent to which Dionys Lenard succeeded as a whistleblower is not clear. He did not escape from Auschwitz, as alleged by Tibori-Szabó, but he was interviewed by the Bratislava Working Group. Hence it was Dionys Lenard who provided the first eyewitness report of murders in Nazi concentration camps to Slovakia.

The extent to which the reportage of Dionys Lenard could have influenced the subsequent actions of Rudolf Vrba cannot be determined.

To learn about the history of Jews in Žilina, click here

LENARD & MAJDANEK

“The daily routine was as follows: we were woken at 4.30 in the morning; roll call was at 5; at 7 we got the order to form work details and at 7.10 we set off for work. That lasted until 12 noon and then we returned to the barracks. Lunch went on until 1 and then we set off again for work. We worked until 6 and then returned to the huts. Roll call lasted from 6 to 7 or 7.30. After that there was a cold meal. Lights out at 9… The day began when the gong was struck […]. Everyone got up in a hurry and then made for the lavatories. The latrines were constructed out of planks of wood with a roof above. There was room for 50, though there were 3,150 of us men in the first section. Then prisoners from every barrack were sent to collect the breakfast. […] All hell broke loose when the coffee and food were being given out. That was hardly surprising, for in these sorts of situations people of whom it would never have been expected revealed negative character traits. The prevailing conditions turned human beings into animals. Nobody showed concern for anyone else. People lived by the principle: ‘Push forward and shout and you’ll get to the food faster.’ We tried various ways of sharing out the food fairly, if it is even possible to use such terms, but we never managed it.” [From D. Lenard, Flucht aus Majdanek, Dachauer Hefte 7 (1991), p. 150]

The representations of grim relations between prisoners themselves was not limited to their responses to obtaining food. He also wrote, “Because of the appalling living conditions and following the ongoing mistreatment, people were so frightened that I regretted telling some of my escape plans. ” Originally, Lenard had intended to escape with two others but decided to go solo at the eleventh hour when his colleagues became hesitant and evasive. “I concluded then that they did not want to escape or that they were simply afraid.” Fearing possible reprisals, the others tried dissuade him. “I was indignant and angry,” he recalled. “I was saying harsh words to them. […] I told them that they were coming to terms with their destiny as slaves.”
The importance of Majdenak as a murder factory is often overlooked.

The superb erenow.net site  is well worth consulting in this regard:
“Majdanek in the General Government was the only other KL, apart from Auschwitz, which also operated as a Holocaust death camp. Its conversion followed a rather similar trajectory. Just as in Auschwitz, mass deportations of Jews began in spring 1942, initially to replace Soviet slave laborers for the projected SS settlements. In all, around 4,500 young Slovak Jews came to Majdanek between late March and early April 1942. One of their first tasks was to flatten the mass graves of Soviet POWs who had died during the previous months—a grim harbinger of the Jews’ own impending fate. Over the coming months, thousands more Jewish men arrived from Slovakia, as well as from the General Government, occupied Czech territory, and the German Reich.137 Majdanek now grew at a rapid rate. On March 25, 1942, the camp had stood almost empty, with little more than one hundred prisoners, none of them Jewish. Just three months later, on June 24, 1942, some 10,660 men were held inside, almost all of them Jews…

Prisoners like Dionys Lenard were forever tormented by hunger and thirst. The food in Majdanek was as disgusting as it was meager, consisting mostly of thin soup with weeds. There was barely anything to drink, either, since inmates were initially forbidden to use the only well, which stood right next to the overflowing latrines and was said to be contaminated. The desperate water shortage also meant that prisoners could only clean themselves once a week. Lenard did so more often by using the warm liquid (so-called coffee) prisoners received in the mornings: “one could not use it for anything else, anyway.” Fleas and lice spread everywhere, and half the inmates, Lenard observed, were suffering from diarrhea. And then there was the dirt. As soon as it rained, even a little, the whole camp was submerged in sludge. “Anyone who has not seen the mud in the Lublin camp, has no idea what mud really looks like,” wrote Lenard. He could barely walk across the soggy fields without getting stuck with his wooden clogs. A slip could be fatal. Once, an old Slovakian Jew tripped and brushed the trouser legs of a passing SS man, who instantly “drew his gun and shot him.”

Lenard was one of a small number of registered Jews who survived Majdanek in 1942. Most succumbed to neglect and abuse; that year, more than fourteen thousand registered Jewish prisoners died in the camp, as well as around two thousand other inmates. As a WVHA official noted after an inspection in January 1943, the two incinerators in Majdanek could “barely keep up” with all the dead. Many prisoners were murdered after SS selections in the infirmary and the main compound. As typhus spread in summer 1942, for example, thousands (mostly Slovakian Jews) were isolated and shot by the SS. In a secret message dated July 14, 1942, following the mass selection of some 1,500 prisoners, a Polish inmate noted that the victims had been driven to a nearby forest, shot, and buried. “This is how the typhus epidemic is fought in Majdanek,” he added.

“I think that any animal had more value than us.”

Anyone eager to learn more about the fascinating life of Dionys Lenard, aka Dionýz Lénard, aka Daniel Lenard, is urged to consult a superb investigation of his life that was prepared by Ján Hlavinka, of the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, entitled Dionýz Lénard and Leo (Ladislav) Junger – Escapees from the Lublin District and their Effort to Inform the World About the Mass Killing of Jews. Hlavinka presented his paper in 2015 at a conference called Uncovering the Shoah: Resistance of Jews and Efforts to Inform the World on Genocide that was held in Žilina, Slovakia, August, 25-26, 2015. As an escapist, Dionys Lenard is on par with Vrba. He, too, attempted to blow the whistle on the Holocaust. He escaped from both the Sered labour camp and the living hell of Majdanek. “I think that any animal had more value than us,” he wrote.

Lenard is revealed by Hlavinka as a would-be singer and poet. Incorporating letters written between Lenard and his sister in Denmark, Rakhel Anschel, both Zionists, Hlavinka reveals that the peripatetic Lenard, when recaptured, was deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then onto the Ohrdruf auxiliary camp, south of Buchenwald, in early 1945, until both sites were liberated by American troops in April. Lenard’s name appears on a list of Buchenwald survivors but Hlavinka (surely the world’s foremost expert on Lenard) concludes that the would-be poet must have died of sickness or exhaustion soon after he regained his freedom. His sister died in 2009 and never learned of his fate. The last letter she received from him was dated August, 11, 1944. In 1961, it was an Israeli historian named Livia Rothkirchen who arranged for the publication, in Hebrew, of the whistleblowing testimony of an “unknown young Jew” testimony who has since been identified as Lenard. Both Vrba and Lenard passed through Novaky, Majdanek and Žilina.

Some other escapists…

It was much easier for non-Jews to escape from one of the approximately 50 sub-camps in the vicinity of Auschwitz. Here is a terse summary from the Auschwitz Museum.

“On July 3, 1944, nine prisoners escaped from an Auschwitz sub camp “Eintrachthütte” through a tunnel under the fences: a Pole – Władysław Rutecki (no. 175641), Polish Jew – Leib Ziziemski (vel Zizmemski, no. 98143), Russians – Luka Didenko (vel Lizniow, no. 175582), Jakob Wiszniewskij (no. 125038), Iwan Vasiukov(no. 175728), Sergiej Michalevskiy (no. 175769), Nikola Titow (no. 175696), Nikolaj Iwanenko (no. 129985), Fedor Ryschynovytsch (vel Griszanowicz, vel Riszanowicz, no. 175681). In the spring of 1944 a dozen prisoners, mainly Russians, as well as two Poles and one Jew, started preparations for the escape directly from the sub-camp premises. Escape plan presupposed drilling a tunnel from the unfinished barracks to the ditch outside the fence, used by the SS men as an air-raid shelter. On May 2 the prisoners began digging the tunnel. Due to its limited dimensions, one prisoner was able to do the work at a time.

“The tunnel was not protected by stanchions, as the ground in this place turned out to be hard. On the other hand, it made the work more difficult. Only the rasp smuggled from the steelworks, converted into a chisel, facilitated the drilling process. The earth which was dug out was spread under the floor of the already mentioned barracks. As it was standing on high foundation, the results of their work were not visible from the outside. Finally, after two months the drilling of the tunnel, which was about 25 meters long, was finished. On July 3 at night the prisoners got to the shelter. Around 1.00 a.m. they started going out in the groups of three. When the third group was leaving the tunnel, a guard on duty on the nearby tower heard some suspicious noises and started shooting. Other guards followed.

“However, the escapees shrouded in darkness managed to leave the area around the camp and then they parted. Władysław Rutecki, Fedor Ryschynowytsch (Griszanowicz) and Luka Didenko (Lizniow) were marching at night in the eastern direction, provided with assistance by the Poles met on their way. In the vicinity of Zawiercie they crossed the border of the General Government and after 15 days from the beginning of the escape they reached Pilica, where they joined partisan units. They fought in their ranks until the arrival of the Red Army. Two other escapees were captured and incarcerated in Auschwitz again. Leib Zizmemski was captured on July 13 near Bielsko and Sergey Michalevskiy on August 8. The fate of the rest remains unknown.”

 

Next: LEDERER WAS FIRST


Witold Pilecki and family.