Explore touching stories of Polish citizens victims and witnesses of totalitarian crimes

The SS garrison at KL Auschwitz

Joanna Lubecka


8,502 people. That is how many names are in the database of the SS men who worked at KL Auschwitz. Who were the people responsible for creating hell on earth?


Enemy behind the wires

The world sees the former camp of Auschwitz as a symbol of genocide and extermination. For Jews, Auschwitz was a death factory systematically realizing a plan of maximum exploitation of human beings, ultimately leading to death. The Auschwitz garrison subjected prisoners to the most horrible torture and debasement. They were starved, cold, forced to carry out inhumane work, beaten and harassed. The camp physician, Dr. Heinz Thilo, called Auschwitz the “anus mundi” (rectum of the world). It was established by the Germans in mid-1940 on the outskirts of Oświęcim. At first, it was supposed to serve as a concentration camp for Poles, but in 1942 it also became one of the places that carried out the “Endlösung der Judenfrage” (the final solution to the Jewish question). New tasks warranted the expansion of the camp garrison. In 1941 it consisted of about 700 SS men, while in the last 6 months of the camp’s existence – of about 4,480 SS men and over 70 female overseers. For four and a half years, the garrison was headed by three commandants who answered directly to the Concentration Camps Inspectorate in Sachsenhausen: Rudolf Höß, Arthur Liebehenschel and Richard Baer. The camp personnel consisted of the members of SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Heads Units) – units created by Theodor Eicke, an extreme anti-Semite and ruthless butcher who was a fanatical supporter of Hitler. Soldiers of these units had to be mentally tough, totally obedient, and disciplined. This is what Himmler himself said about them: “their main task is to be on guard at concentration camps in time of peace and to keep the scum of Germany – criminal elements which in other nations walk around freely – locked up.” Emphasis put on the obligation to always be on duty was part of what made these units elitist and indispensable. Rudolf Höß had a similar view of their role: “The SS needs only tough, determined individuals who blindly follow orders. They do not wear the death’s head and keep their weapon loaded at all times for nothing! They are the only soldiers who even in peacetime have to constantly face the enemy – the enemy behind the wires.”


The social composition of the KL Auschwitz garrison

The SS-Totenkopfverbände recruited men between 17 and 22 years of age, unmarried and therefore not bound by family obligations. It follows from an analysis of materials available in the camp SS database that most of them, as many as 5,981 (about 90 percent), were born between 1895 and 1925, so they must have been 15–45 years old in the year when KL Auschwitz was established. The youngest, born in the years 1925–1928, were obviously recruited towards the end of the war, when they were 17–18 years old. Data concerning the level of education of the SS men is available only with regards to 1,543 people:[1] 1,066 (about 70 percent) had received an elementary education, 12 described themselves as illiterate, while 66 had a higher education (about 4.2 percent). As many as 58 members of the garrison (out of 2,534) had received a higher medical education. They were mainly physicians (37) and dentists (11). It is worth mentioning here that the so-called medical experiments were carried out in the camp on a large scale. As “occupation”, the great majority of SS men specified jobs connected with agriculture. Partial data suggests that only about 10 percent of the Auschwitz garrison were members of the Nazi party (NSDAP). Membership in the party was not obligatory for the SS, but this relatively low percentage is surprising, especially in comparison with the entire adult population of Germany (about 20 percent). This was probably due to the fact that being a member of the SS was elitist and guaranteed enough privileges. The largest ethnic group was the so-called Reichsdeutschers, that is ethnic Germans. Apart from them, members of the Auschwitz garrison included Austrians and Volksdeutschers from countries siding with Germany and those occupied by the Reich (Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Poland). According to data concerning 2,030 SS men, as many as 828 declared themselves as Catholics, while 649 as Evangelicals. The “God-believing” (gottgläubig) were the third largest group. The SS command favored this “religion” due to the lack of its affiliation with any Church institution. For service in the SS-Totenkopfverbände, one had a chance to receive medals and decorations equivalent to those awarded for front-line service (with the exception of the Iron Cross), so the SS men made efforts to demonstrate eagerness and creativity at work.


Conditions in the camp

In theory, prisoners’ lives were governed by the concentration camp’s regulations. Every attempt to obtain food, evade work, relieve oneself when one was not allowed to do so, or even commit suicide – was considered an offence. All of these transgressions met with the appropriate punishments, such as flogging, detention in the cells at block 11 (the “dark cell” and standing bunker), the “post”, transfer to the penal company, etc. The punishments were meted out at random, and often depended on the SS men’s creativity. They could have been prompted by such trivial things as the failure to take one’s hat off fast enough. The prisoners’ memoirs, and especially witness testimonies given during the two trials of the Auschwitz garrison, are shocking.[2] “We then saw those who had been gassed. They stood upright, for they were pressed against one another so tightly that they could not collapse. They were naked” – testified Ota Fabian, a witness in the trial at Frankfurt am Main. Witness Anna Palarczyk testified as follows: “On several occasions in the clinic I saw very small infants wrapped in cellulose wadding, simply lying there until they died. In 1942 we knew that if a woman was pregnant, she and her child would never come back from the infirmary.”

Witness Stefan Maliszewski (at the Kraków trial of the Auschwitz garrison) gave the following testimony: “On the following day I was assigned to tidy up a load of coal. I saw the penal company standing in the roll call square on top of a mound of snow […]. I noticed human heads sticking out of the snow […]. Later I learned that prisoners who worked slowly were placed up to their necks in snow and had to stand like that until the end of work […]. They were usually frozen when their colleagues pulled them out.”[3] The SS men of the camp Gestapo (Political Department II), headed by Untersturmführer Maximilian Grabner, terrorized the prisoner population. Inmate Bolesław Lerczak recalled the actions of the SS in the following words: “I was interrogated at the camp’s Political Department, which was headed by Max Grabner. During the first examination, I was placed on the so-called “swing” and received 65 lashes of a whip and an oaken stick […]. During the second interrogation, I was put on a stool and got 25 lashes of a whip […]. During the third questioning I was on the “swing” again. As I was later told by colleagues, I was hit 300 times with a whip and an oaken stick. During that interrogation, the pain caused me to faint repeatedly and the officers kept bringing me round by pouring water down my nose […]. After this third interrogation I was carried to block 2a, for I was unable to move on my own.”[4] Bolesław Lerczak was beaten and tortured non-stop for several days.

The living conditions of the prisoners at the parent camp were catastrophic, and those in Birkenau were even worse. They were described in detail by a doctor of forensic medicine, Jan Olbrycht, who was imprisoned in KL Auschwitz for two and a half years. He testified during the Kraków trial as an expert witness, conducting a systematic analysis of the housing conditions, prisoners’ food and clothing, as well as the sanitary and work conditions. He based himself on his own experiences, other prisoners’ reports, and most importantly on German documentation from the camp. The data presented in his report is shocking. The prisoners were crowded together to the point that one inmate had 0.75–2 cubic meters of space, while the norm for Polish prisons in the interwar period was 13–18 cubic meters per person. The temperature in the barracks would fall below the prescribed 14degrees Celsius, while in Birkenau it was even lower, this because of the cracks in the wooden buildings and the lack of heating. Infectious diseases spread due to the shortage of water and the absence of a sewage system (especially in Birkenau, where water was unusable even for the purpose of rinsing one’s mouth). Female prisoners would wash themselves with the coffee that they received for breakfast. Olbrycht said further: “The meat delivered to the prison kitchen for soup was very often spoiled, rotten and covered with blisters, and stamped as inedible. It was usually horsemeat, cattle heads, animal blood and other waste products […] A prisoner who weighed 75 kilograms upon his arrival at the camp, would weigh 41 kilograms after less than 4 months in the camp.”[5] There was virtually no medical assistance – prisoners were afraid to go to the rewir (that is to the hospital barrack), since this was a dying house – patients were mostly left on their own, or were in fact finished off with phenol injections.


The crimes of the garrison

When reading the testimonies of witnesses from KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, one can come to the conclusion that membership in the garrison alone deserved punishment. During the second Auschwitz trial, witness Witold Dowgint-Nieciuński gave the following testimony: “We were convinced that if any of us survived, and they [the SS men] were put before some tribunal, then the trial would concern the camp of Auschwitz as such, and being a member of the garrison would be sufficiently incriminating. There would be no need to prove the personal guilt of every individual defendant.”

This did not happen, however, and approximate data shows that only about 15 percent of the members of the Auschwitz garrison were tried. This percentage is actually rather high in comparison with other camps. The conditions created in the camp by the SS men and the mass extermination of Jews in the gas chambers resulted in the deaths of 1.2–1.5 million people. Most of them, about 1–1.35 million, were Jews. Poles were the second largest group of victims, numbering around 70–75,000. The third largest group – the Gypsies – comprised some 20,000 people. In addition, approximately 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 10–15,000 prisoners of other nationalities (such as Yugoslavs, Czechs, Belarusians, Frenchmen, Germans, and Austrians) died in the camp. These estimates show that we still know very little about the victims, and many of them remain anonymous to this day.

It would seem that we know much more about the perpetrators. Unfortunately, our knowledge is still limited, even with regards to the SS men at Auschwitz. This is evidenced by the present database of SS men, which in many cases offers no information besides their names and surnames. The situation is different as regards those members of the garrison who were tried – mostly in the two major, collective trials held in Kraków in 1947 and in Frankfurt am Main in the years 1963–1965. This was the first time when their crimes were brought to light and examined in great detail, and the world heard their names. Camp commandants, doctors and lower-ranking functionaries appeared in the dock. The camp physician, Johann Paul Kremer – a representative of the scientific community – was one of the accused. He wrote a diary, in which he described his everyday life. The diary included very few notes concerning the atrocities committed at Auschwitz, and not a single statement indicating that its author had a “doctor’s sensibility.” There were numerous details concerning good food, tailored clothing, and packages being sent to Germany. Diary entrances describing his time at Auschwitz were similar, for instance: “23 September 1942. At night I attended the sixth and seventh special action [selection for the gas chamber – J.L.]. In the evening, at 8.00 p.m. I had dinner with Obergruppenführer Pohl in the officers’ mess. What a truly festive meal. They served unlimited amounts of roasted pike, real whole bean coffee, delicious beer, and sandwiches.” As a scientist researching the effects of starvation on the human organism – among other topics – he chose those from among the prisoners who were especially starved; he would instruct medical orderlies to “book” such a prisoner and “inform of the date on which the prisoner could be killed by an injection.” On the day when the prisoner was killed, Dr. Kremer wrote: “Today I preserved fresh human material from the liver, spleen and pancreas.” Injections were administered by medical orderlies, such as Josef Klehr, who was later tried in Frankfurt. During the trial he testified that before the most effective method of killing – phenol injections to the heart – was determined, experiments were conducted with various types of poison and needle insertion points. The film recording of the trial shows an elderly gentleman praising this method of killing, contrasting it with “cruel gassing.” In a very evocative way, using a lot of gestures, he describes the subsequent stages of gassing, emphasizing the horrors of such a death. “Injections worked immediately, the prisoner did not suffer.” – he concludes. Asked by the judge whether he had any scruples, he answered without hesitation: “No, never, none. I was following orders. […] I felt deep sympathy for the victims at Auschwitz.” The court proved that he was guilty of killing 475 people, and stressed that he had probably killed many more.

Maria Mandl became commandant of the camp for women in October 1942. She was a beautiful and ruthless woman. The testimony of former prisoners leaves no doubt, accusing her of unimaginable cruelty. She beat prisoners, kept them outside in the frost, and participated in selections. Witness Antonina Piątkowska testified in the Kraków trial: “Mandl and Drechsler made a name for themselves as terrible and sadistic criminals.”[6] After the war, when Mandl was detained in prison in Kraków, she wrote the following statement in a letter to the Polish investigator Jan Sehn: “I helped every prisoner as much as I could, in every possible way. […] I did not murder anyone, I always tried to alleviate the prisoners’ fate.” She was condemned to death and executed on 24 January 1948 in Kraków.

Oswald Kaduk was a butcher by trade. Holding the function of Rapportführer at Auschwitz, he was in charge of the roll calls. One prisoner, Nathan Jakubowitz, who testified as a witness in Frankfurt, mentioned that Kaduk was a typical sadist who took his anger out on prisoners, especially when he was drunk. “It was his hobby. He had to kill people. He had to shoot. He shot at prisoners, or sometimes in the air.” He was proven guilty of having murdered 10 prisoners and being complicit in the murder of a thousand more. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Thousands such stories can be found in the files – themselves comprising hundreds of volumes – of legal proceedings against members of the Auschwitz garrison. But the majority of them were never tried. Those who were, stood mostly before Polish courts. In the years 1946–1949, about 1,000 people suspected of having committed war crimes at KL Auschwitz were extradited to Poland. Indictments were issued against 673 people, including 21 women. While terms of several years’ imprisonment were the most frequent, death sentences and life imprisonment were handed down relatively rarely.



Auschwitz w oczach SS,trans. Jerzy Rawicz, Eugenia Kocwa, Oświęcim 2007.

Höhne Heinz, Der Orden unter dem Totenkopf. Die Geschichte der SS,Frankfurt am Main 1969.

Kobierska-Motas Elżbieta, Ekstradycja przestępców wojennych do Polski z czterech stref okupacyjnych Niemiec 194650, vol. 1–2, Warsaw 1991.

Lasik Aleksander, Sztafety Ochronne w systemie niemieckich obozów koncentracyjnych. Rozwój organizacyjny, ewolucja zadań i struktur oraz socjologiczny obraz obozowych załóg SS, Oświęcim 2007.

Maria Mandl’s letters to judge Jan Sehn, IPN GK 196/139, pages 97–131.

Lumsden Robin, Waffen SS. Organizacja, działania bojowe, umundurowanie, Warsaw 1999.

Mowa końcowa oskarżonego Josefa Klehr, http://www.auschwitz-prozess.de/index.php

Website of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim: http://www.auschwitz.org/

The SS garrison at KL Auschwitz (database): http://pamiec.pl/pa/form/60,Zaloga-SS-KL-Auschwitz.html

Testimony of the defendant Josef Klehr: Frankfurter Auschwitz Prozess: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYtOQjYvAh0

Witness testimony: Anna Palarczyk, Frankfurcki proces załogi Auschwitz, 100./101. Verhandlungstag, 15–16.10.1964, http://www.auschwitz-prozess-frankfurt.de

Witness testimony: Nathan Jakubowitz, Frankfurter Auschwitz Prozess, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTsQC5-Ekss

Witness testimony: Ota Fabian, Frankfurcki proces załogi Auschwitz, 109. Verhandlungstag, 6.11.1964, http://www.auschwitz-prozess-frankfurt.de

Witness testimony: Witold Dowgint-Nieciuński, Frankfurcki proces załogi Auschwitz, 132. Verhandlungstag, 29.1.1965, http://www.auschwitz-prozess-frankfurt.de

Żyję. Wybór odpowiedzi na ankietę ks. prof. Konstantego Michalskiego z 1945 roku, skierowaną do byłych więźniów politycznych z czasów okupacji niemieckiej, Polska Prowincja Zgromadzenia Księży Misjonarzy w Krakowie, Kraków 2012.


Dr. Joanna Lubecka  – a historian and political scientist, and an Associate Professor at the Ignatianum University in Kraków, she holds lectures at the Institute of Political and Administrative Sciences and currently works at the Institute of National Remembrance (the Kraków Branch of the Historical Research Office). She has authored many scientific works and publications intended for the general public, and also delivered lectures on issues including historical remembrance in Polish-German relations and a reckoning of the crimes committed by Germany during World War II.


[1] It should be noted that if a name is misspelled, a given person may appear in the database of the members of the Auschwitz garrison twice.

[2] The first trial took place in Kraków from 24 November to 16 December 1947, 23 out of 40 defendants were condemned to death; the second trial of the garrison took place in Frankfurt am Main from 20 December 1963 to 10 August 1965, 18 out of 22 defendants were sentenced for imprisonment.

[3] Cf. the account of Stefan Maliszewski.

[4] Cf. the account of Bolesław Lerczak.

[5] Cf. the account of Jan Olbrycht.

[6] Cf. the account of Antonina Piątkowska.