Oral History and the War

The Nazi Concentration Camp Experience in a Biographical-Narrative Perspective

by Piotr Filipkowski (Author)
Monographs 442 Pages
Open Access

Table Of Content


World War II is part of the past. It forms an increasingly distant sequence of events on the axis of measurable physical time. The memory of this war – the memory of its experience – belongs, in turn, to the present. Incessantly remembered and (re)interpreted, it continues to be profoundly vivid in the present. It remains an important, sometimes crucial, point of reference for a number of identities: the European identity that is under construction; the more soundly-constructed national identities; and, moreover, for a number of individual identities. There is a number of such memories of the experience of the war; similarly, there are many communities of memory comprised of different people who remember different things, or remember things in diverse ways. These memories tend to be mutually contradictory, conflicting, or competitive. This is nothing new, in terms of how memory works in general – and, it is not specific to World War II.

Nonetheless, there is something specific about the era in which we live as regards the memory of wartime experiences. The last eyewitnesses – those who had first-hand experience of World War II and who are able to tell us themselves about this experience – are passing away. They had often recounted pieces of this experience, when they had the opportunity to be listened to. But, they were not listened to everywhere and in all periods; indeed, some were not listened to at all. Today, however, there is much more of a willingness to hear them and the last of the living witnesses continue to tell their stories. For them, the war, with its extreme ordeals – the Holocaust, the concentration camps – forms part of their biographical experience: usually, the most special, central part of it, which is constitutive for their self-image, their self-definition. This element, even if concealed and denied, is also the key ‘episode’ in their autobiographical narratives.

Soon, these people will no longer be counted among the living, although their memoirs, accounts, stories and recorded interviews will remain. The archives of their memory and identity will survive. Many of these collections, such as the narrations that are known as oral history, have been created in recent years, inspired by the conviction that they are being produced at the very last moment, when it is almost too late. The archives containing the successful collection of recordings of thousands of individual voices and images are also a token of the culture of memory – or rather, the culture of remembering and commemorating – in which we live. These archives are often referred to as unique monuments, of a particular kind. This label is both meaningful and revealing. The same is true for the claim that we are witnessing the experiences of the war as they slip from communicable into cultural memory, the latter being produced without a direct reliance on the autobiographical memory of the ‘witnesses’.

Although the records of this autobiographical memory, which have been deposited in the archives, seem somehow to suspend or delay this moment, they cannot reverse it. The authors of these testimonies will never speak for themselves again. They will need to be exposed, read, reheard, watched – and, subsequently, interpreted, dressed with a sense, and given meanings that are relevant. This will from henceforth take place in the absence of their authors/narrators/‘witnesses’ – and at an increasing distance from them, in biographical, temporal, emotional, and identity terms.

This moment, which can be described as a passage of memory, strikes me as being particularly important. This book is a clear testament to this, and is itself marked by it. It is founded upon biographical accounts of ‘witnesses’ – former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. I have listened to, and recorded, the greater part of these stories myself. The remaining ones were taped in the same period and all the recordings were eventually stored in the archive, where they were made available for further research and subsequent, different interpretations. The stories have remained, whilst most of my Interviewees are now dead. I can remember the meetings with them well, and my memory of these encounters is also recorded herein, alongside their own autobiographical memory. Subsequent commentators, should there be any, will be free of my personal experience of these meetings. By re-reading/rehearing/watching these accounts, they might thus see more, and see it more emphatically. Yet, for the very same reason, they may remain blind to certain aspects of importance to me.

There is yet another instance of the slide – or shift – of memory, of which this book is a token. Although strictly connected with the aforementioned phenomenon, it is specific to and very much embedded in the local Polish context. After all, the concentration camp experience was recounted in Poland long ago – narrated, in the first place, by surviving inmates. It was they who wrote memoirs, submitted testimonies and reported on their experiences. And, it was they, primarily, who wrote historical studies and contributed to the development of sites of memory in former camp locations. They also formed an important group that, to a significant extent, helped shaped what is known today in Poland as history-based politics. This group was also, incidentally, one the most prone to political manipulation. One method by which this was done was through the construction of a narrative of the Lager (as the camps were known in German) experience that excluded the annihilation of Jews. Although Holocaust victims were taken into account when it came to calculating the statistics of victims, this was done in such a way that, while remaining silent about the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the camps, it allowed for its dilution among the ‘millions of victims of various nationalities’, with Poles at the fore.

Today, those distortions are fortunately, at least to a considerable degree, part of the history of the collective memory (and collective oblivion). The Holocaust experience has since been clearly articulated, reported and recounted. Moreover, this has been done not only by the few remaining survivors, although many of them have told their stories and also as part of oral history projects. A further contribution has been made by those who interpret their stories, including younger scholars using a contemporary language. Long denied, marginalised, and falsified, the story of the extermination of the Jews is today beginning to take on a distinct, comprehensible, and attainable shape – to those, naturally, who are willing to hear it.

Meanwhile, the story of the non-Jewish, other-than-Holocaust camp-related experience – of concentration camps, rather than extermination camps, to use the symbolic and simplified, but important, differentiation – remains an ‘old narrative’, one that dates back to ‘those years’, namely the early years of the post-war period. This story, once told by political prisoners, was set within a different culture of memory. It is rather awkward to listen to today and the language those narrators were accustomed to is now little understood. It all seems rather well known, exhausted in scholarly terms, unattractive in terms of research, or out of fashion. Hence, few are willing to contemplate this particular camp experience, even briefly. Even fewer are prepared to try and retell it anew, using a more contemporary and, perhaps, more comprehensible language.


The starting point for this present study is, therefore, my own involvement as an interviewer for the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project (MSDP) and other oral history projects. I emphasise this point in order to highlight two important aspects.

First, the central point of reference in all my analyses are the meetings held with former Lager inmates and their autobiographical stories, which I listened to (and, subsequently, read the transcripts, reheard the sound recordings, watched the video recordings). These meetings and stories come before any analysis. Therefore, I endeavour, to the extent that I am capable, to acknowledge and respect the subjectivity of my Interviewees, and their ability to interpret and give sense and meaning to their own experiences. Any of my own interpretations, with similarities and differences acknowledged and generalisations constructed, are built upon those primary interpretations, as referred to in the quoted fragments of the accounts.

Second, all the accounts I have analysed (including those whose authors I have never met in person but which were recorded instead by my colleagues) have been audio- or video-recorded, the copies being kept in the archives of the KARTA Centre and the Ministry of Interior of the Republic of Austria. Some are also held by the Institute of History and Biography in Lüdenscheid, Germany. Copies of almost all these recordings can also be found in the personal archives of my Interviewees (or, more and more frequently, of members of their families). In all these locations, the recordings are identifiable under the narrators’ real names, to which they consented in writing. They also agreed that their accounts, whether as extracts or in whole, may be used in scholarly and educational work. Why do I mention this? Because I wish to emphasise the specific nature of the ‘qualitative data’ I analyse. Contrary to the usual practice of social researchers and many oral historians, I cite my Interviewers under their full personal details. My point is that it is legitimate in this case; what is more, it emphasises the subjectivity of the individuals researched. I mention the archiving procedure as a reminder that these accounts are not my property: once put in the archive, they are made available to other scholars and researchers, open to further readings and interpretations, including those done from completely different research perspectives – within the confines of sociology, and beyond. Even beyond the limits of the social sciences.

A number of oral history projects, and all those I have participated in and contributed to, are of a documentary, rather than a research, nature. Yet, they remain open to research, and encourage further research; in particular, qualitative research.

My reading of the narrative autobiographical interviews with former prisoners may be classed as a qualitative analysis of content. Such analysis refers to several research perspectives, none of which I approach in a dogmatic fashion, while I shun a completely consistent application of the recommendations of any of them. My main inspirations are rooted in two sources. The first is the biographical sociology of Norman Denzin and Fritz Schütze. In particular, I take advantage of Schütze’s concept of trajectory, as one of the main biographical processes. The others is theoretical reflexion as part of the oral history concept, especially in ‘the most sociological’ concept of oral history, as represented, for example, by Michael Frisch, Paul Thompson, Daniel Bertaux and, especially, Michael Pollak, an author virtually unknown in Poland. With the oral autobiographies under analysis, I pose the questions of what is recounted, and how is it recounted. Thus, I refer to the known distinction proposed by Ingeborg Helling: biography as a means versus biography as a topic, whilst not espousing either option in this polarity. Rather, I attempt to combine both of these approaches.

I am interested in the experience of my Interviewees’ time in the concentration camp, as seen through their autobiographical accounts, the (hi)stories of their lives. My assumption is that the only access we have to their camp experiences of ‘there and then’ is (inter)mediated by the narrative here-and-now. Yet, the latter is not a simple representation of the bygone; on the contrary, it becomes embroiled in multiple contexts of social relevance, such as (but not only): the context of individual and collective/group memory; the context of identity; defining the interview situation by those questioned (and by the researcher himself/herself); and, the very course of the interaction. In analysing the autobiographical situations of former inmates, I attempt to recognise these contexts. Thus, the core of this study is based on attentive reading, listening and watching of the stories told by my Interviewees.


The book is structured into three sections. The first section covers theoretical (as well as practical) contexts of relevance to my core research work, which I have grouped into two chapters.

The first chapter briefly explains the tradition of oral history through its European and American developments, tracing its relationship to qualitative sociology. I note a Polish specificity: a strong memoirist tradition on the one hand, against a very weak current of typical oral history research and studies on the other. The latter observation is true also for the experience of war, the key biographical experience researchable in this manner. I discuss the major documentary projects carried out within this trend over recent years, with a special focus on the venture I have participated in, the aforementioned MSDP, with the interviews done in this context forming the basis of most of my further empirical analyses.

Chapter 1 can be read as a separate text, independent of the study as a whole. It had, in fact, been published as such, in a slightly different version, before the Polish edition of this book appeared1. When read in the context of the whole book, however, I consider it a fairly good introduction to the detailed analyses that later unfold. It forms a framework for them, a substantive point of anchoring and reference.

The following chapter, still within the first section, is an essay on the current state of Lager research in the Polish social sciences. Aside from the discussion of the relevant studies, I have attempted to clearly define my own research perspective, against the background of, and in critical reference to, the existing approaches. There, obviously, are elements of positive inspiration, not necessarily Polish, among which in-depth analyses of concrete, single autobiographical interviews occupy a significant position. These are, simultaneously, important studies in the social sciences pursued in close association with historical research.

I attempt such an analysis in the second section of this study. Chapter 3 discusses my reading (including audio and visual records) of the over thirty biographical interviews I have recorded with former inmates of the Mauthausen concentration camp. My analysis extends to selected interviews, amounting to over twenty, recorded by my colleagues as part of the same documentation project. This is a kind of ‘crosswise’ reading, a form of cross-analysis. I endeavour here to identify what is common, shared, and characteristic to almost all the stories of the former prisoners, as well as what is distinctive to just some of them, which can be grouped together. The recognisable similarities and differences led me to the construction of a peculiar typology of camp narratives and experiences. I discern three types of Lager experience, although my focus is not on ‘pure’ experiences but their processed autobiographical and narrative versions, access to which was given to me by their narrators. These processed narrative experiences are not free but strictly correlated with memory – and, through memory, with experience. This approach is close to phenomenological takes and Gestalt psychology; in the field of biographical sociology, it has perhaps been most fully described by Gabriele Rosenthal.

These three types of experience consist of: (i) stories of long-term prisoners, most of whom were pre-war intellectuals, with considerable seniority as inmates. They spent almost the entire war in the Lager, became most familiarised with the rules of the camp universe, best assimilated them, and best cognised (and experienced) the social practices and ‘laws’ governing the place; (ii) stories of prisoners who were put in the Lager during the war years ‘as a punishment’ – in most cases, for participation in conspiracies or escape from forced labour. Before being taken to the camp, they would be held in custody or prison, interrogated, sometimes tortured; in many cases, they were put in several consecutive camps. For them, the camp was a trajectorial wartime experience, although not necessarily the central one. Many of these people faced repression after the war for their activities with the Home Army (AK), which has affected, in one way or another, their identity-related identifications as once-inmates; and, (iii) narratives of the youngest prisoners, taken to the Lager in their teens in autumn 1944 and who thus faced the final, tragic phase of the camp’s operation. I focus particularly on those who found themselves in the camp, as civilians, during the Warsaw Uprising (August to early October 1944). While they spent a ‘mere’ few months behind the barbed wire, their stories not infrequently bear traces of the severest trauma. The Uprising had snatched them from their everyday routines under the Occupation and, all of a sudden, threw them into the concentration camp hell. This marked a sharp biographical incision, which many of these Interviewees have not yet managed to patch together and integrate with the remainder of their autobiographies. It is hard to make such experiences sensible or meaningful. This particular group of former inmates, the youngest representatives of their community, guard the collective memory of these experiences the most actively, participating in the commemorative rituals.

The fourth chapter stands out against the structure of the book –a deliberate strategy, as emphasised by the chapter’s title, that refers to the narratives of female survivors of Mauthausen. I consider these narratives for a while. At the MSDP, we have recorded only three accounts in Poland of former women prisoners. None of these recordings was conducted by me personally. All these female Interviewees were sent to the camp as part of the so-called Warsaw transports, deported during the Uprising. Thus, their stories can be seen as part of the third specified group. By singling them out, my intent is to expose the specificity of the female experience of the camp, and of women’s autobiographical narratives. The reason behind this digression is not just a ‘gendered’ reading of these accounts, building on the category of cultural gender. The biological sex is no less important, as the women particularly suffered sexual violence when in the camp and very soon after the liberation. Allow me to inoffensively uphold this differentiation, though I do realise it is not always obvious.

The typology outlined above forms, intentionally, an introduction to the crucial, third section of this study. Here I analyse three biographical interviews, interspersing my interpretive commentaries throughout with extensive extracts (transcripts). Each of these narratives belongs to one of the three types noted above, but the case studies do not illustrate a preceding argument, nor are they meant to. Instead, they are, or, in any case, ought to be, self-contained research studies intended to reveal the diverse mechanisms for the construction of autobiographical narratives by my Interviewees (in a sense, together with me, as these accounts have developed in a situation of conversation, interaction, and exchange). These mechanisms range from the macro-social through to the interactional.

I have selected three out of some thirty interviews for my analytical purposes. That each of them belongs to one of the three types I have recognised answers the question as to why I selected three stories, but it does not yet tell why just those particular ones. This choice is not easy to rationalise: the researcher’s intuition has prevailed over a strict analytical procedure. Still, the choice is not completely random. The three interviews are not the ‘best’ of all those I have conducted with former Mauthausen prisoners. Nor are these accounts the longest or particularly ‘favourite’ ones. Yet, they do seem characteristic to me, typical and representative, to an extent – needless to say, in terms of so-called phenomenological, rather than statistical, representativeness. Having read several dozen transcripts, I eventually found these to be relatively ‘dense’, not just in terms of the number of episodes evoked and the multiplicity of biographical experiences, but also on the level of their interpretation, the richness of the meanings given to them by the narrators. This is not to say that these particular accounts offer, in a condensed form, all the elements that are dispersed across the other ones. The fact is, though, that much can be found in them.

My endeavours are centred on exposing, zooming in and commenting on the fragments of the narratives which answer the question of what the Interviewees actually remember and how they remember it. Moreover, how they interpret it, and what are the values, convictions and vision of the world that make up their frames of reference. The key motif that reoccurs across all the analyses, not just of the three specified case studies, is the attempt to recognise the position and importance of the camp experience within the context of the ‘full’ biographical story. This, in turn, encourages questions about the ways in which the narrators cope with this experience, about how it is integrated within the remainder of the autobiography, about its interpretation and the biographical sense and meaning added to it – or meanings added to it by different Interlocutors, or by one Interlocutor at different moments within the story.

Another important characteristic of these analyses is that I discuss not only the interview transcripts as recorded in writing but also the audio and, occasionally, video recordings. Exploring beyond the area delineated by the written text broadens the spectrum of the meanings analysed. The other broadening factors are the elements of participant observation, which give a clearer idea of the interview situation and of the circumstances accompanying its formation: the making of a ‘witness’ and his (or her) ‘testimony’. Furthermore, the analytical scope is expanded to include the specific moments within the accounts – including moments of interrupted narration and moments when silence falls. This focus on the narrative ‘here-and-now’ is not just a trace of my interactionistic inspiration; it also comes as a consequence of the aforementioned methodological choices. Indeed, methodological issues are the recurring thread in multiple moments throughout the three case studies researched.

Let me make one more, concluding remark. The purpose of the analyses proposed in this book is not to validate some earlier-formulated research hypotheses, or to explain or clarify the mechanics of concentration camp as a special social universe. This is not a necessary purpose of qualitative research. Instead, I offer a report from the process of a penetrating, ‘dense’ reading of my Interviewees’ stories – and, a guide to these stories. A reading of this sort helps, hopefully, to understand their Lager experience somewhat better: an experience that always remains entangled in the interactive social contexts within which the Interviewees construct their narratives, and in which we seek to read and interpret them.


This study would have never been written if not for our Interviewees, the former prisoners of the Mauthausen concentration camp system, whose stories we have recorded. I thank all of them – not only for the cordiality and openness with which they received our inquiring presence but also for the great effort of memory that they deigned to make in order to tell us about their experiences, especially the toughest, camp-related ones. There is no doubt that for most of them this involved an enormous and, in many cases, deliberate effort.

‘Our’, not ‘my’ Interviewees, I have deliberately said although the present analyses are basically based upon the recordings I personally made, I have also used and quoted the interviews carried out by my colleagues from the KARTA Centre, with whom I worked on the MSDP project. I have taken advantage of their efforts and not only in a direct manner, by quoting extracts from the interviews they recorded or transcribed. No less important and inspiring for me, though more difficult to grasp, were the discussions we had after the recording sessions, during which we shared our experiences from our meetings with the Mauthausen survivors. I thank them for this collaboration. A special word of thanks is due to Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner, who has supported me in my efforts since the first recorded account.

I owe especial thanks also to Professor Hanna Palska, the supervisor of my doctoral thesis, which formed the basis for this study, for unremittingly upholding my conviction that I should be following my own experience and researcher’s intuition, rather than any codified research method. Without her invaluable support and confidence, I would have found myself even more embroiled in methodological doubts – rather than following the voices of the subjects researched, and recounting my own experience of this venture.

1 ‘Historia mówiona i wojna’, in S. Buryła, P. Rodak (eds.), Wojna – doświadczenie i zapis. Nowe źródła, problemy, metody badawcze, Kraków 2006.

1 Oral history and the war

It is banal to state that oral narration was the original form of storytelling, and of history-telling. Some stories were listened to attentively, their narrators being given the status of oral codifiers of the tradition. In stories told long ago, war must certainly have had an important position – just as it did in informal family, neighbourly and discussions about the past, those of old and of today. Both these forms of narration are sometimes called ‘oral history’. On certain occasions in Poland, the term is also used to refer to collections of written accounts of the past, compiled ‘on commission’. The commissioning party, or rather, those seeking to create such sources, are researchers of social life, usually social historians or sociologists. In his article Oral history in Poland, Jerzy Holzer illustrated such practices through the rich Polish tradition of biographical studies, which first emerged in this country in the 1930s in a number of memoir-writing competitions featuring memoirs or recollections of the unemployed, peasants, and emigrants.2

When it comes to the oral history of today, it usually focuses on recording, archiving, and analysing interviews with and accounts of the participants and witnesses to various events and developments. A somewhat stricter definition may be given of oral history as a self-aware conversation, subject to a certain discipline, between two individuals, on certain aspects of the (experienced) past that are considered historically important, with the purpose of being recorded. This assumes that the form of the account, or narrative, of such communication is a dialogue, its form and content dependant on a series of driving forces: the questions being asked (which, in turn, are based on the contexts the interviewer operates within), the interviewee’s conviction regarding what is important or crucial, the interviewee’s interpretive resources, and the actual context (or contexts, for the interviewee). The interview meeting is, thus, a dynamic interaction.3

This definition of oral history, one of the many possible suggested definitions, does not specify whether those recording the interviewee’s accounts and, in particular, those analysing them (often the same person), are interested more in the historical facts recounted or, rather, in the meanings and senses that are conferred upon these facts in the present time, i.e. at the moment when the account is given and from the perspective of the (auto)biography being reconstructed.

In oral history, accounts are analysable from two different viewpoints. To simplify and make the distinction more clear, one viewpoint can be named the historical and the other the sociological4 – although this by no means suggests that the former is the ‘property’ of historians and the latter of sociologists.

From the perspective of history (history as an academic discipline), oral history narratives are approached as additional, complementary historical sources of second rank to written texts. The less remote the period covered by the narrative, the greater its factual value. Such accounts are sometimes referred to in particular in studies on social history, research on the history of the everyday, and whenever one seeks knowledge on the past from ‘ordinary people’ – the witnesses and participants of the events investigated who may not have been offered other opportunities to share their experiences. Traditional historiography, built upon positivistic foundations, has a negative approach to oral history narratives: they are seen (indeed, quite rightly) as subjective, dependent on the circumstances in which they were created, irresolute, and distorting of the facts owing to their emotion-imbued assessments of the events reported upon. Although many of these charges are equally pertinent to other historical sources, it is oral history that is subject to severe criticism and is ranked last in the catalogue of legitimate methods employed to establish the facts.

From the perspective of sociology, an oral history narrative does not seek to answer ‘what it was like in reality’: its purpose is to determine what the interviewees have actually remembered and how they recount their memories, how do they assess or evaluate them, and what meaning(s) do they ascribe to the events or episodes they recall. The historian Michael Frisch says that oral history accounts cannot be put on a par with other historical sources and treated as raw data subject to critical analysis, in the same way that historians process all the other sources they analyse.5 For Alessandro Portelli, one of the pioneers of oral history, the interview is a subjective act of memory which may (and usually does) contain errors, factual inconsistencies, and erroneous interpretations that miss the facts. Yet, as he adds immediately, these errors, exaggerations, and myths can lead us beyond the facts and to the meanings ascribed to them by the interviewees, where they gain meaning through the stories they tell.6 This is why oral history is not primarily a search for new facts but, rather, an interpretive occurrence where the interviewee must compress his or her story into an account lasting a few hours, selecting the episodes of their story and deciding, more or less consciously, what to tell and how to tell it. An interview is a recollection in real time of a testimony of the past as it was inscribed in the interviewee’s memory. It is an act of memory that is dependent on the moment in which the interview is carried out as well as on the (hi)story it relates.

The interview develops each time in response to the specific person, the questions asked, and the subjects raised. At the same time, it should be restated, it also constitutes the interviewee’s reply to his or her internal need to add meaning, or sense, to his or her own experiences. Language conventions, beliefs or convictions, assessments and evaluations all play a role here. In reflecting the speaker’s state of consciousness and the cultural context in which he or she moves, it reveals his or her identity; what is more, it is, or can be, the identity of their testimony. Therefore, when analysing oral history interviews, one should seek not merely the recounted events but also – and, perhaps, foremost – who says it, what it is that he or she is saying, to whom, to what purpose, and in which circumstances.

Oral history thus comprehended may become a source for interdisciplinary research, and a source to be used in a variety of studies: historical, sociological, anthropological, and psychological (especially, in the humanistic orientation). It could be claimed, somewhat magniloquently, that the multidimensional or multi-tier structure of the narratives collected as part of oral history stems in a way from, continues and is a consequence of the multidimensional nature of human fate and human experience. Hence, the difficulty perhaps in perceiving oral history unambiguously as a part of a single academic discipline, especially when understood as a narrow concept. But there comes yet another legitimate purpose for indulging in such an activity: an attempt to comprehend the human lot.

The audio or video recording of the interviewees’ accounts and the subsequent archiving of tapes with the sound and image that was recorded (‘tape’ being an increasingly conventional word, as recordings in a digital format or their subsequent digitisation is becoming a standard, and enables the data to be stored on a computer, CDs, DVDs and other modern carriers) is today a constitutive element of any reputable oral history project. Why does a reliable transcript of the account not suffice? What is the reason for the considerable investment (as opposed to the total costs and expenses of any oral history project) made to preserve the ‘source material’? Such questions may seem rhetorical. The conventional practice thus far in the delivery of most Polish sociology – and, more generally, social science – research projects of using cassette tapes containing the recorded interviews being removed (or, at least, not archived) once the material had been transcribed brings to mind the answers to these questions.

If we accept that accounts, or narratives, are recorded not just, or even primarily, in order to establish new facts, and if we concede that no less important are the interviewee’s own interpretations of these facts, the meanings they ascribe to them, the senses and meanings given to individual experiences within the perspective of their overall biographies, and the emotions surrounding the recollection and recounting of the events experienced, then the focus must (also) be on the very activity of telling, of recounting one’s own (and the others’) (hi)story. By being attentive when listening to the interviewee’s recorded voice or when watching a video-recorded account, we can better understand the non-verbal messages and take a more careful look at the structure of the narration and detect its supra-historical dimension.

Abandoning intertextual analysis is not the point here. Such analysis remains basic, as a good transcription enables us to pause at details which are difficult to grasp when listening to or watching an account. The point is, rather, to reach beyond the text, to hear and see what the text has not been able to render. One important reason for the failure to render everything is that the interviewee’s words form only a fragment, and not always the most important one, of the multi-layered communication that has come about during the meeting between the interviewee and the record-taker, through which interactive process an oral testimony emerges. The tone or pitch, strength and intonation of the voice, the rhythm and pace of the speech, the pauses – all these are part of the communication, and bearers of meanings, which are not easy to render in a transcription.7

Video-recorded interviews, once archived, are of even greater value in the search for such extra- or supra-textual meanings. They ensure the best point of observation for the processes of recalling and interpreting occurrences or episodes (or ‘just’ stories of them which are ready-to-use, and have been tried and tested many times), constructing through their use a potentially coherent and communicable narrative of the past. And, much better than a written text, such interviews enable us to see the interactive character of oral history testimonies.

In his analysis of interviews with Holocaust survivors, James E. Young points to a further dimension, a cinematographic narrative that is created by the medium itself: a videotape that moves in one direction: “Implicit in the lateral movement of film and video is a sense of sequence, a linear causality that suggests explanations for events: underlying every testimony – in its beginning, middle, and end – is a particular understanding of events.” The witness’s video testimony becomes ‘a narrative within a narrative’, while “the tendency to slip from one narrative level to the other becomes a natural one”. Taking this a step further (and deeper), Young finds that three elements compose a video testimony: “the survivor’s story, the telling of the story, and the audiovisual taping of testimony”.8

A somewhat atypical example is some of the accounts videotaped by Claude Lanzmann for use in his documentary film Shoah. Particularly expressive from this perspective is, to my mind, the narrative of Jan Karski – his countenance and facial expression, mimicry and gestures, the tension in his voice, the movement of his whole body, his request to cut the shooting are all an integral part of the testimony he is giving. This example is atypical since nobody, I think, would call the Lanzmann film an oral history project. But I have no doubt that the way in which he made it, with some three hundred taped hours from which just nine were included in his well-known documentary, converges at a number of points with the path along which oral history projects tend to unfold, whenever the witness/participant narrative is videotaped.

Yet, it is not just the method of recording and the form in which the interviewee’s story is taped that matters in terms of the testimony’s content (the differentiation of form and content is rather questionable in this case, as has been made apparent above). More important are the questions asked by the person doing the taping and the way he or she asks them. Oral history projects which intend to go beyond merely determining historical facts usually employ a narrative interview technique, which in most cases is biography-oriented. The point is for the interlocutor to be able to recount his story/biography without restraint and within it, by using his or her own categories, report on the events which are the actual reason as to why the interviewer is visiting him or her – as a participant or witness, survivor, observer, victim or more rarely, a perpetrator. The interviewee’s knowledge and our knowledge of the biographical events that are the cause of the meeting and the interview recording session obviously inform the content of the testimony.

The withdrawn position of the narrative leader (interviewer) is meant to help create a space for communication in which the individual telling their story builds their narration, and shapes the story, possibly without any support and without being asked questions. The person doing the recording is mainly tasked, in this first part of the conversation (it still is a conversation, after all), with preserving the openness of this space: staying open toward the witness and the topics that he or she appears willing or otherwise to raise or take up, the manner in which they are introduced and depicted, the shape of the story being built and discontinued. Questions are asked only when the narrator halts the narrative flow, awaiting an impulse from the outside, so that the narrative character of the interview may also be present during this question phase. It is recommended that the questions asked – first, those that follow the interviewee’s free narrative, which aim to extend and complement it, and afterwards those prepared by the interviewer on the subject matter being investigated – continue being open-ended, triggering the memory of the individual as they respond to and interpret their story and raising more and more images from their memory.9

We have now passed from individuals telling their own (hi)stories into the area of qualitative research methods and techniques in the social sciences. Indeed, the so-called biographical method is at many points convergent with oral history. In practice, the same research work is probably carried out under different labels. But it is not the label that matters: of importance is caring about what Florian Znaniecki called the humanistic coefficient – the conviction that every human being is an expert, the best connoisseur of their own universe, and it is to them that the floor should be given – in an attempt to move closer to comprehending this universe. Norman Denzin has formulated this same postulate in a more pragmatic fashion, stating that, “human behaviour must be examined and understood from the viewpoint of those that it concerns”.10 This conviction is shared by exponents of humanistic sociology as well as oral history. And, it takes – and must take – primacy, let us add, before a too scrupulously codified methodology.

One possible example of such a consistent codification of all the stages of the research process is Fritz Schütze’s biographical sociology, stemming from the interpretive orientation (which was chiefly, though not exclusively, inspired by symbolic interactionism).11 But Schütze is – seemingly, although this would not be admitted by his adversaries – far from putting forward a dogmatic demand to apply, each time and without exception, all the assumptions of the method he has developed for carrying out and analysing narrative interviews (the most important part of which is the interviewee’s unrestrained biographical story, undistorted by questions).

One of the largest oral history projects to be conducted is that of Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, featuring filmed interviews. The project’s methodology for collecting information is briefly yet succinctly summarised on its website:

The Archive’s interviewing methodology stresses the leadership role of the witness in structuring and telling his or her own story. Questions are primarily used to ascertain time and place, or elicit additional information about topics already mentioned, with an emphasis on open-ended questions that give the initiative to the witness. The witnesses are the experts in their own life story, and the interviewers are there to listen, to learn, and to clarify.12

Another, no less substantive, suggestion put forth by Denzin concerns the primacy of meaning for the method used in biographical analysis. It essentially touches upon ethical issues. With interviews with individuals who have had traumatic biographical experiences, this ethical (and therapeutic) dimension of the conversation tends to be particularly important – more important than the rigidly applied methodological assumptions employed in taping the interviews. Referring to her experience as an interviewer of Holocaust survivors, Barbara Engelking wrote:

Many people, when they recall their sufferings, relive them; it would not be ethical in this situation to create a barrier and leave the narrator alone with revived memories of the past. Confronted by the other person’s suffering, the listener must at least attempt to participate in it, and must provide support, creating an atmosphere of trust and understanding. For these reasons, I believe that the only possible way of conducting the conversation is participation and involvement on the part of the researcher; to apply inflexible rules of research to auto-narration would be absurd and immoral, and would moreover make it impossible to obtain credible material.13

The narrative character of an account is assumed, I should think, in all oral history projects. The point is for the interviewer not to tell a story, or recount history, in general – what things were like – but what happened, or occurred, to him or her, and what he or she has actually experienced. Oral history interviews are not about telling the so-called objectivised, textbook-formatted history, which is far from the individual human experience: they are about the narrator interpreting his or her own experiences, through their narration.

However, the interviewer’s focus on his or her individual fate does not make an account biographical. Moreover, such an assumption is not always made; accounts are usually recorded because of an individual’s specific experience, an episode in his or her life, sometimes a single occurrence or some aspect of their biography. But the demand to biographise the narrative – with the interviewer (re)constructing the interviewee’s biography and inserting into it, as one among the many, the fragments that we or the interviewer consider particularly important – is also valid with thematic interviews. It is to be expected that in an autobiographical narrative of this kind, only certain selected images are produced from the speaker’s memory: ones that prove to be important, for some reason or another. More than in the colloquial meaning, biography here means a construction developed by the interlocutor in response to the impulse given by the inquiring/recording interviewer. But such a construction is not completely freeform: it is built from the memory of the experiences and from the meanings ascribed to them. And, from the interpretations assumed by the interviewee – be they on the level of the language with which he or she communicates his or her experience. What is, then, the rationale behind, and in favour of, the biographical method in oral history?

The first, and most basic, argument is that when requesting the interviewee for an autobiographical story, a clear message is given that researcher is interested in more than just the events he or she witnessed or participated in, and they are instead also interested in the individual and his or her unique experience. The interviewee thus gains a greater space for unrestrained narration about this particular experience. As already remarked, discovering hitherto unknown facts is not the main reason behind oral history. For memory is not a depositary of facts but an active process of giving meaning. Hence, there are no ‘false’ oral testimonies: all are psychologically ‘true’ and their truth may be no less crucial than a reliable factual source.14 In biographical accounts, such subjective truth may be expressed in a less restrained way, while for us the listeners it appears in a context that facilitates the understanding of its meanings. Biographical accounts offer the interviewee more space for the stories they are willing to tell.

Referring to empirical examples from his own investigations, Paul Thompson, author of The Voice of the Past – possibly the best-known book on oral history, first published in 1978 in the United Kingdom and reprinted several times afterwards – argues that we can benefit more from biographical accounts because they enable subsequent scholars to ask new questions. For this reason, he encourages the recording of biographical accounts, even if we are only interested in a fragment of the interviewee’s life or in his or her specific experience(s). Thompson’s arguments became even more salient if we bear in mind that he helped develop the main British qualitative data archive, Qualidata, and is a theoretician and practitioner of the reanalysis of qualitative data gathered by the social sciences.15


The position occupied by wartime experiences in oral history accounts is worth considering, especially given that, as a rule, for many interviewees these experiences form their key biographical experience. They not infrequently prove to have been a turning point in their biographies and, to a crucial degree, have shaped their whole subsequent post-war life. Memory of war forms an essential part of identity. In one’s later years, when one’s main daily physical activities are in decline, these memories are strongly revived. In an account recorded almost sixty years after the war’s end, one former prisoner of Auschwitz and, subsequently, Mauthausen said the following about the working of his memory:

In the beginning, you wanted to be as distant as possible from all that – from the camp. But no, this is coming back now, by itself. Now that I am retired, the reminiscences are constantly recurring. I cannot get away from it. There are moments when I’m at a social meeting when I can detach myself from that reality, but when I’m on my own, then the thoughts come over me, they’re coming over me all the time. This is what you cannot forget.16

This quotation does not relate to one specific event; rather, it is a generalised reminiscence of a certain experience and psychical state and, moreover, a reflection upon it, an auto-interpretation. Yet, it is long-term event-related memory that forms the core content of narrated accounts. The experiences that occurred during the course of the war were often unexpected and unique to the interviewees – and, as has been said, key for their biographies and identities. They involved strong emotions. In a number of cases, the traumatic wartime experience is so central to the biography that is being (re)constructed, in a history of one’s life that is recounted without restraint, that anything which occurred before or after it is reduced to a generalisation. A number of questions are thus required from the interviewer in order for the rest of the life story to be elaborated upon. This cannot be explained completely by what the interviewee may believe that they should be talking about when narrating, in response to their projected expectations of the interviewer doing the recording. Reverse situations also occur, however, where the traumatic war experiences are omitted or neglected in the account – not because they have been erased from the memory but, more frequently, because they are a painful part of the memory, which is better left untouched. The refusal to meet and talk protects these individuals from deepening the trauma of their wartime experiences. This is why the empathy and tact of the interviewer making the recording, his or her openness and ability to provide psychological support is so important. Some oral history projects, particularly those involving Holocaust survivors, specifically recommend that the recordings be made by psychologists.

Nonetheless, it is also often the case that it is the very act of speaking (and only when this opportunity arises) that brings relief and helps an individual who has been seriously affected by the war rebuild a sense of dignity. In this case, the opportunity provided by the interview responds to the basic human need to communicate, to be heard and accepted. The interviewee’s conviction that they and their individual history is important for others, that it will be recorded and archived and thus become a ‘testimony’, reinforces the sense of acceptance and boosts the confidence of a fair number of interviewees. The opportunity to meet another individual in order to recount one’s personal history builds a relationship of trust and intimacy, thus giving the interviewee a feeling of safety. This feeling of safety is potentially reinforced by the fact that there is no direct, family relationship between the interviewee and the interviewer, as they are two individuals who have no permanent connection but simply part after the meeting, each return to his or her own world. It is often the case that the interviewee entrusts the interviewer with their traumatic stories, rather than saddling their close relatives with them. A person from the world they do not experience on a daily basis is emotionally a safer and ‘easier’ listener.

Psychologists studying the human memory and memorisation processes are unable to answer exactly what this memory is, what it is that we remember, and how we actually do this. Instead of precise medical data, they offer a series of vivid metaphors.17 A selective and socially determined human memory is the most obvious element. This is also true for biographical accounts featuring the war – perhaps even more so than for other accounts. Hardly any past occurrence has left in the collective memory a trace as distinct as World War II has. Its memory, incessantly maintained, renewed, and negotiated, is an essential element of national identity. We have recently witnessed a revival of this memory (given that we are in the final phase of being able to seek the individual memory of its still living conscious participants, victims, witnesses, and perpetrators). Written biographical testimonies, oral family messages, accounts collected as part of oral history projects, all make an essential contribution to the collective memory. But the reverse influence is no less powerful: generic narratives and images shaping the collective memory inform the design of individual narrative biographies, their interpretation, assessment and evaluation, and the meanings given to one’s own experiences. Oral history interviews are perfectly designed for recognising the dominant narrative patterns – the so-called master narratives – within which various collective wartime experiences are arranged.

Another feature of accounts related to the war is that the psychological rules of recounting the history of one’s life are attenuated. The narrator’s ordinary need (and language habit) to place themselves at the centre of events, ascribing their actions or agency to themselves, maintaining the illusion of an autonomous shaping of the biography – all this collides in these accounts with the coercive force of external circumstances, restriction, annihilation of the potential to plan one’s own life (or, sometimes, simply to plan the very next day), or to make any choices whatsoever. Such external circumstances are characteristic of wartime. Instead of the ‘ordinary’ control of one’s own fate, what is dominant in these stories is the sense of disorganisation and suffering. Such a message is strongest in the accounts of individuals who during the war were enclosed in ghettoes, prisons or concentration camps, or stayed in hiding. In his typology of biographical processes, Fritz Schütze calls this state of having lost control of one’s own life a trajectory.18

Silence, moments of discontinued narration caused by the inability to talk, express, and articulate the memory and its accompanying emotions are not instances of broken communication. On the contrary, they convey an essential message, one that is full of meanings, and this is particularly true for oral history accounts of wartime experiences. With these, it is worth listening even more attentively to the silences, rather than confining oneself to reading transcripts with dotted lines. The interviewee’s broken voice, the moments of silence and affection accompanying it – the breakdown of defensive mechanisms under the onslaught of afflicting recollections – these unveil the interviewee, making them defenceless against us for a while. This (for a sensitive researcher) may create an ethical bond, a moral obligation – easier to bear if we can, as it were, take the witness’s side; but also hard, when therapeutic action is needed, whenever we want to or must stand up to the interviewee, such as in interviews with perpetrators.19

It is generally accepted that the first oral history project (in the sense given at the beginning) was conducted by the American historian Allan Nevins. In 1948, at Columbia University, he initiated the systematic and disciplined taping, archiving and disclosure, for further research, of accounts given by ‘witnesses of history’. Nevins was working on a biography of President Grover Cleveland and had recorded accounts of the individuals who had surrounded the president. Such was the beginning of the first research centre for oral history, the Columbia Oral History Research Office. Today, the archive houses some 8,000 interviews.

Interest in elites, the people representing political and major business circles, characterised the origins of oral history in the United States. Also characteristic was the conviction that oral history was, in the first place, an archival activity: gathering oral accounts to be used by historians as a complement to traditional written sources. It was strongly emphasised that no deviation from historiographical rules were possible, as objectivity remained the most important criterion.20

Yet, from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, oral history has been associated with completely different purposes and subject matters – documenting people who until then were particularly underrepresented in historiography, or present in it only indirectly, as they did not produce the traditional types of sources that historians usually investigated. Social researchers, including historians, first began recording interviews with ‘ordinary people’ from a variety of social strata and regions, including representatives of various minorities. The aim, however, was not simply to investigate new subjects: it was to write a new history ‘from below’. Of crucial importance to this reorientation were leftist political stance of western (European) oral historians. In Europe, oral history has always served social history. In the mid-1970s, a British team headed by Paul Thompson recorded several hundred accounts with interviewees born between 1870 and 1906. These interviews formed the basis of Thompson’s well-known book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (New York, 1975).

The subsequent stage in the development of oral history was the refocus from the subject matter recounted to the witnesses themselves, with an increasing interest in their personal lives. The focus on biography, on the history of the narrator’s life, meant a closer association with qualitative sociology, and it assumed two forms. Representatives of the more traditional current, represented, for instance, by Paul Thompson and, in France, by Daniel Bertaux, strive to reconstruct an objective reality that is hidden behind the interviewee’s account, to elucidate the social processes that define his or her biography; to understand the subjective dimensions of (the) life, and to determine the interrelations between (the) life and social structure and social change.

Advocates of this more recent direction, which today exists in parallel with the older one, focus on the interpretive procedures that contribute to the biography and co-produce the life story. There is a stronger emphasis on the narration itself, which is no longer approached as a neutral medium or a gateway to a reality but as a construction. This current, sometimes called narratology by its detractors, has mostly been developed in Germany, where oral history today appears primarily to be developing into a form of biographical studies (for example in the work of Gabriele Rosenthal, Fritz Schütze, or – to some extent – Alexander von Plato).

It is worth pointing out that alongside what we can call, to simplify, the academic current of oral history, there is another one at play, which, again, for the sake of simplification, I call the popular-educational current. This consists, among other things, of youth workshops and competitions, popular handbooks that provide a basic knowledge and encourage the user to record interviews with the older members of their families and their neighbours as well as to document local history. It would be unfair to reduce these activities – which are widespread today – to a sentimental game. The recordings collected as part of such local projects run for young people often remain the only record of their interviewees’ memory; therefore, it is right that they be archived (as is increasingly the case). This form of oral history activity is also popular in Poland.21

In parallel with these diverse documentary projects, oral history archives are also developing. A few dozen are associated with American universities, those at Yale and Columbia having already been mentioned. The archive of the Visual History Foundation in Los Angeles, with its over 50,000 video testimonies of Holocaust survivors, is incomparable to any other in terms of size. This collection has recently been made available in Europe too, including at Berlin’s Freie Universität and Charles University in Prague. Other oral history collections in Western Europe are much more modest in terms of the number of recordings stored. Two important centres are Essex University in the United Kingdom, with its Qualidata archive, initiated by Paul Thompson, and the Deutsches Gedächtnis archive in Lūdenscheid, Germany.

Moreover, oral history accounts are also being recorded and archived by a number of modern history museums, and even libraries. In these cases, the scholarly current coincides with the popularisation trend. Proactive in acquiring witness accounts are the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the British Library Sound Archive, for instance. A special group of museums and archives is that of the memory sites set up in the spaces of former concentration camps. Fragments of audio and video interviews with witnesses/participants of history are, with increasing frequency, being included in museum presentations, films and documentaries and radio broadcasts. In Germany and Austria, a number of memory sites located in former concentration camps have recently been completely redeveloped (such as at Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, and Gusen). Sound recordings and filmed accounts of former inmates have been made part of the display.

January 2009 saw the opening at the Freie Universität in Berlin (where Shoah Visual History Foundation accounts are available) of an archive belonging to the International Slave and Forced Labourers Documentation Project. As part of this project, some six hundred interviews have been recorded with former forced labourers as well as concentration camp inmates and Holocaust survivors across Europe, in the United States, Israel, and South Africa. The uniqueness of this archive lies in the fact that, unlike its peers, it is available online in its entirety. With internet access, anyone can listen to and watch several hundred audio and video accounts, in their entirety, and read their transcripts in one of the almost thirty languages in which they have been conducted, without leaving home. There are some eighty narratives to be found in Polish, but there are many more ‘Polish’ ones, in a broader sense (featuring Polish Jews who did not return home or migrated after the war, or Poles ‘in the West’). Such access to a large archive of biographical interviews offers completely new research opportunities. This online archive may mark an important moment in the development of oral history, and of biographical studies as part of the social sciences: something much more than merely greater access to the sources.


The term ‘oral history’ has not been fully ‘naturalised’ in the Polish academic context – even though a lot has changed in this respect the last couple of years.22 This is because oral history does not have a long-established history in the country. For many years there was no established culture of the planned collection of responses from people who may be ready to tell their stories, and the audio and video recording, archiving, analysing, and interpreting of such interviews had – until recently – no chance to develop in Poland. As a direct consequence of this deficit, there have been no much methodological or substantial discussions within academic historiography on the potentials (and limitations) offered by the recording and storing of testimonies of memory that have been recorded with the use of audiotape or videotape (which are increasingly being replaced by digital technologies).

The soliciting and collecting of oral history sources was not – and basically is still not – facilitated by the attitude of most historians, who were sceptical towards the inclusion of (not to say, giving equal rights to) oral history sources in historical research and studies. In contrast with countries that have developed oral history cultures, there have also been no – with a few important exceptions that appeared only in the 1980s – non-academic milieus in Poland that, regardless of any potential criticism from traditional historiographers, would have been able to record, on a broader scale, the memories of the witnesses to/participants of history, as evoked in their autobiographical stories. In those cases were such documentation did take place, it was mostly on the initiative of sociologists who took recordings of in-depth interviews and biographical accounts as part of specific research projects. Once a project was completed and its outcome published, the source material usually fell into oblivion. Unfortunately, it was rarely, if at all, considered that such recordings should be archived, for them to be reanalysed (in a broader manner, or from a different perspective by future researchers) and reused for the purpose of further study. Even less consideration was given to their possible reuse by researchers in other disciplines. Even if someone had contemplated such an option, it was difficult to know what to do with these resources, which archive to place the recordings in, and where to seek assistance for this. But in most cases, it was methodological rigidity and the attachment of scholars to their own research disciplines that prevented them from considering the possibility that an account, especially if biographical, may provide research material for a historian, a sociologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, … .

Still, the strongest restraints towards a more animated development of oral history were, at a deeper level and of a systemic nature. The People’s Republic of Poland was not a state that cared about documenting and nurturing individual memory. On the contrary: a strict watch was kept on those potentially obstructing the efforts for a top-down projection of collective consciousness. To deliver such a project, the silent and obedient stones of physical monuments proved a much better fit than some inconsistent human stories. But monuments were made not only of stone: human (hi)stories were also made use of, as they were squeezed into a heroic-martyrological pattern of ‘commemorating’ events of a specified sort, and their ready-made interpretations. This was a safe scheme (and one that gave a sense of safety), as it was distant from the authentic experiences to which it allegedly referred. A typical example of such pacification, reforging, and channelling by the state of individual memories of the war was, for many years, the Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (ZBoWiD), particularly in the first years of its activity.23 This central, politically manipulated, commemorative organisation embraced – among many other groups of victims – also the concentration camp survivors.

It is no surprise, then, that documentary activities, which we would today call oral history projects, were so scarce in the People’s Poland. Those projects that did occur – all of them coming late, without the ‘oral history’ label and without being embedded in such a tradition – were usually counter-systemic. In his 1990 essay quoted at the beginning of this chapter, Jerzy Holzer wrote that the Polish experience of oral history was dominated by political themes or, at least, had been shaped by political developments.24 Among such examples, he mentions journalistic books based on recorded accounts: Teresa Torańska’s Oni (Warszawa, 1985); Jacek Trznadel’s Hańba domowa. Rozmowy z pisarzami (Warszawa, 1986); and Jarosław Maciejewski and Zofia Trojanowicz’s Poznański Czerwiec 1956 (Poznań, 1981). Holzer also points to the activity of the Gdańsk-based Social Studies Centre, which during the era of the Solidarity trade union was legalised for the first time (1980–1) and collected interviews on the December 1970 events in the Polish coastal area (Grudzień 1970, Paris 1986). This initiative was cut short when martial law was imposed in December 1981. More than the fact that these are mostly journalism-based studies, more important for our present purpose is that none of them concerns World War II – the key biographical experience of the generation in question.

The only oral history project (in the strict sense, which encompasses recording and archiving the accounts of the ‘witnesses of history’, regardless of the name then used) covering wartime experiences mentioned in Holzer’s essay is the documentation of the fate of the Poles who were subject to repression in the East (inmates of Soviet lagers, deportees). This was initiated in 1987 by the KARTA (then still an illegal underground organisation) under the name ‘Eastern Archive’ (Archiwum Wschodnie). This later became one of the pillars of the now legal KARTA Centre (Ośrodek KARTA), with a collection of over 1,200 audio accounts from across Poland.

It is interesting to note that, when writing of the meagre, almost negligible, oral history tradition in communist Poland, Holzer neglected to mention the interviews and accounts that had been collected by the memorial museums, sites of memory located in the areas of the former concentration camps. The fact is that almost all of these institutions, although each on a different scale, collected and are still collecting such documentation. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the museums of Majdanek, Gross-Rosen, and Stutthof have together collected several thousand accounts. Since Holzer did not mention them in a study on oral history, can we classify this as an omission? Not necessarily, because most of these testimonies should be classified – according to Michael Pollak’s important typology – as statements that were submitted to historical committees, rather than oral history interviews. They are closer to statements given to a court than to unrestrained narratives about one’s life. The conditions in which the interviews were done are completely different in both cases.25 Or, at least, they used to be, as contemporary documentation of this (oral) kind as collected by these memorial museums is methodologically much closer to the standards accepted in oral history.


In the past ten or so years, there has been another outburst of interest, no longer constrained by the State, in recording, popularising, and researching accounts of the ‘witnesses of history’ (including historic heroes and victims) in which the war is an essential, sometimes the key, experience. Biographical interviews in which World War II is the central subject have become the basis for several important research projects in the Polish social sciences (and the basis for their ‘qualitative paradigm’).26 The authors of most of these projects often cite the tradition of Polish biographical sociology, specifically the work of Florian Znaniecki. One important example is the project Biography and National Identity, conducted in the mid-1990s by the Chair of Cultural Sociology at the University of Łódź. Several dozen biographical interviews were recorded with individuals who had survived the Occupation in central Poland and the Eastern Borderland area. The comparison of various wartime experiences and an analysis of the ways in which they are reported as part of the biographical narrative, during the interview, have formed the basis for a number of publications.27 Holocaust studies today also tend to analyse the individual experiences of survivors based on their biographical interviews; important examples of such analyses are the works by Barbara Engelking and Małgorzata Melchior mentioned above.

Characteristic to all the research discussed so far is an interest focused not quite (and, certainly, not only) on the events or episodes being recounted but primarily on the meanings given to them by the interviewees in their stories and biographies, their (auto-)interpretations. The interviews are not meant to determine a ‘historical truth’ but are instead an attempt at understanding the individual truth of each interviewee. This is why the word ‘identity’ appears so frequently. These testimonies were not called oral history, although this name may well have been applied had it been more common in Poland.

There is yet one more publication of accounts and interviews that is in effect an oral history of the war. This is the series of conversations with Warsaw Ghetto soldiers held (and recorded) by Anka Grupińska. In his introduction to the transcribed conversations, Paweł Szapiro rightly calls them a ‘Holocaust oral history’.28 This book well shows the essence of telling one’s own stories, of recording the ‘memory of those who remember’. The conversations and stories contained in it are also expressive because they are plainspoken, free of commentary, and free of any categories drawn from outside the world being recounted.

The publications mentioned above are just a few select examples, of which there are not many in Poland. Yet, it is no coincidence that, recently, more have started to appear. It is not by chance that so many interviews, accounts, conversations, and recordings with people who can remember World War II, and who consciously experienced it, have been appearing more and more in recent times. In a few years, it will be too late to create an oral history out of that particular experience. It is the sense that once the ‘witnesses’ have gone then we will irretrievably lose something very important, not only in terms of historical knowledge, that has inspired so many oral history projects. The largest, already mentioned, is Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the University of Sothern California (USC) Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education, carried out between 1994 and 1999, within which 52,000 accounts were video-recorded in fifty-six countries and in thirty-two languages (some 1,500 were made in Poland). The interviewees were primarily Jews, Holocaust survivors, and alongside them, the Romani people, former concentration camp inmates, witnesses in the war crimes trials of the post-war years, and American soldiers who liberated the camps. Today, the Spielberg Foundation strives for the dissemination of these testimonies for educational purposes in the countries where the recordings were originally done. The motivation is, quite rightly, that the witness’s voice and face can tell something more than a textbook can. Learning imbued with emotion promises to be more efficient.

The largest European oral history project covering one Nazi concentration camp system was the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project. Initiated and funded by the Austrian Ministry for the Interior, it was managed by the University of Vienna and the Vienna-based Conflict Research Institute. In 2002–3, a total of 860 biographical accounts (10 per cent of which were video recorded) of former inmates of the Mauthausen camps were recorded in nineteen European countries as well as in Argentina, Canada, Israel and the United States. In Poland, the project was run by the KARTA Centre, which recorded 164 interviews (including 17 videos). These are now available in audio form in the Oral History Archive maintained by KARTA and the History Meeting House.29 The same location also houses the collection of accounts from the Eastern Archives, along with interviews with former female inmates of Ravensbrück, with Polish and German pre-war dwellers of the Kashubian commune of Stara Kiszewa/Alt Kischau (where the war experience is central), and with Polish and German inhabitants of Krzyż Wielkopolski (until 1945, the German town of Kreuz). The Oral History Archive also contains interviews with prisoners of ‘forgotten’ concentration camps – those that are absent in the collective memory – as well as with Poles living in the Kresy, the Eastern Borderland area, which was formerly the eastern region of Poland and is today divided up between Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia. In 2005–6, the Polish contribution to the aforementioned International Slave and Forced Labourers Documentation Project was carried out by KARTA. The above is a general indication of the centre’s main projects over the last few years.

In addition to the KARTA Centre and the History Meeting House, there are several other institutions in Poland that are active in collecting and archiving oral testimonies. The most important are: Brama Grodzka – Teatr NN of Lublin; the Pogranicze Centre in Sejny; the Lublin Radio Oral History Studio; the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising; the EFKA Foundation of Krakow; the Polish branch office of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and Centropa (i.e. the Central Europe Centre for Research and Documentation), an initiative that aims to document the history of Central European Jewry through oral history accounts. Recently, a number of new institutions have joined the list, such as the Centre for Civic Education (accounts of Poles who rescued Jews during the German Occupation, recorded by young people); the Christian Association of Auschwitz Families (the Auschwitz Memento project, with video accounts of former Polish inmates of Auschwitz); the Museum of the History of Polish Jews; and the Museum of the Warsaw Borough of Praga. The National Remembrance Institute (IPN) also films oral history interviews. Again, the list is incomplete; it would be impossible to compile a full one, as it is continuously expanding, almost month-by-month, with a number of initiatives being only at a local or niche level.


In November 2007, a conference focused entirely on oral history, entitled ‘Oral History – the Art of Dialogue’, was held for the first time in Poland. The organisers included: the Institute of History of the Faculty of History, Jagiellonian University, Krakow; the scholarly periodical Historyka. Studia Metodologiczne; and the Artefakty Association. This institutional, strongly history-oriented context can be somewhat misleading, as traditional historians were definitely a minority at the conference. Papers were delivered by sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, political scientists, and psychologists. Alessandro Portelli and Charles Hardy were the special guests. Thus, openness and an interdisciplinary character were the event’s great assets. The term ‘oral history’ enabled scholars from various disciplines, scientific fields and countries to meet, talk, and understand one another.

The next step towards the institutionalisation of oral history in Poland was the establishment in 2009 of the Polish Oral History Association, in an attempt to integrate individuals and institutions active in the field, and to create a space for the exchange of knowledge, experiences and ideas. The Association organises annual conferences as well as various workshops and training in oral history interviewing techniques. Since 2011, the Wrocław-based ‘Memory and Future’ Centre (Ośrodek „Pamięć i Przyszłość“) has published the peer-reviewed scholarly periodical Wrocławski Rocznik Historii Mówionej, which is gradually becoming the most important publishing platform for Polish scholars using the method – and not only, or even not primarily, historians.

In autumn 2014 the Genealogies of Memory30 conference took place in Warsaw for the fourth time. This key annual academic event East-Central Europe in the field of memory studies, broadly understood, was this time subtitled ‘Collective vs. Collected Memories. 1989–91 from an Oral History Perspective’. German oral historians were strongly represented at this event – conference participants could listen to Dorothee Wierling, Alexander von Plato, and the special conference quest, Lutz Niethammer. All these names need no explanation for anyone familiar with the European oral history tradition. I mention them just to show that we are ‘part of the game’.

Less than a year later, in late summer 2015, the Polish Oral History Association together with the Institute of Sociology of the University of Łódź – the leading academic institution in Poland for biographical research in the social sciences – organised an international conference entitled ‘Oral History in Central-Eastern Europe: Current Research Areas, Challenges and Specificity’, which gathered almost seventy scholars, mostly from Poland, Ukraine and the Czech Republic, but also with representatives from Belarus, Germany, the United States, Great Britain and the Netherlands. Keynote lectures were given by Alexander von Plato and Miroslav Vaněk, both former Presidents of the International Oral History Association.

These are just few of the most visible examples indicating the increasing popularity and importance of oral history in Poland – and Polish academia in particular. Still, however, despite all this undeniable successes, and despite the increasing number of academic and popular publications based on this research method, oral history is hardly accepted as a fully legitimate research method within the historical profession.

2 J. Holzer, ‘Oral history in Poland’, BIOS – Zeitschrift fūr Biographieforschung, Oral History and Lebensverlaufsanalysen, special issue: 1990, p. 41.

3 Cf. L. Shopes, Making sense of oral history, available at:http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/oral.pdf, pp. 2–3. [Accessed 2.09.2015.]

4 M. Melchior, Zagłada a tożsamość. Polscy Żydzi ocaleni na aryjskich papierach. Analiza doświadczenia biograficznego, Warszawa, 2004, pp. 16–17.

5 M. Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, Albany, 1990, pp. 159–160.

6 A. Portelli, Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, Albany, 1991, p. 2.

7 Ibidem, pp. 46–47.

8 J. E. Young, ‘Holocaust Video and Cinematographic Testimony. Documenting the Witness’, in Writing and Rewriting the Holocuast. Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1988, p. 158.

9 Cf., for instance, F.-J. Brüggemeier, D. Wierling, Einführung in die Oral History. Kurseinheit 2: Das Intterview, Hagen, 1986, pp. 20 ff.

10 N.K. Denzin, ‘Reinterpretacja metody biograficznej w socjologii: znaczenie a metoda w analizie biograficznej’, in J. Włodarek, M. Ziółkowski (eds.), Metoda biograficzna w socjologii, Warszawa, 1990, p. 53.

11 F. Schütze, ‘Biographieforschung und narratives Interview’, Neue Praxis, 1983, no. 3. For the most exhaustive coverage of Fritz Schütze’s biographistic sociology concept in Polish literature, see A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, Chaos i przymus. Trajektorie wojenne Polaków – analiza biograficzna, Łódź, 2002.

12 http://www.library.yale.edu/testimonies/about/index.html [sect.: About the Archive/Introduction]. [Accessed 2.09.2015.]

13 B. Engelking (ed. by G.S. Paulson), Holocaust and Memory. The Experience of the Holocaust and Its Consequences: An Investigation Based on Personal Narratives, transl. from the Polish by Emma Harris, Leicester University Press, London, New York, 2002 [first published in Polish as Zagłada i pamięć. Doświadczenia Holocaustu i jego konsekwencje opisane na podstawie relacji autobiograficznych, IFiS PAN 1994, 2nd ed. 2001], pp. 7–8.

14 A. Portelli, op. cit., p. 51.

15 P. Thompson, ‘Re-using Qualitative Research Data: A Personal Account’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Research [On-line Journal], 1(3), December 2000, http://qualitative-research.net/fqs-eng.htm.

16 From the account of Jan Wojciech Topolewski, former Auschwitz-Birkenau and Mauthausen inmate, recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner, as part of the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project; available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_021.

17 Cf. A. Hankała, Wybiórczość ludzkiej pamięci, Warszawa, 2001; T. Maruszewski, Pamięć autobiograficzna, Gdańsk, 2005.

18 F. Schütze, ‘Biographieforschung und narratives interview’, Neue Praxis, vol. 13, 1983; F. Schütze, Prozeßstrukturen des Lebensablaufs, in J. Matthes, A. Pfeifenberger, M. Stosberg (eds.), Biographie in handlungswissenschaftlicher Perspektive, Nürnberg, 1981, pp. 67–156. For the most complete presentation of this concept available to the Polish reader, see A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 75–88.

19 Interviews and research of this kind have been pursued intensively in recent years by historians, sociologists and psychologists in Germany and Austria. This obviously arouses considerable emotion and animated discussions, which not infrequently go beyond the confines of specialist periodicals, or even beyond a strictly scholarly framework. In Germany, this trend includes, for example, the studies by Gabriele Rosenthal and, more recently, Harald Welzer in particular. Welzer edited the famous book Opa war kein Nazi (Frankfurt am Main, 2002), and also authored a more recent one: Täter. Wie aus ganz normalen Menschen Massenmörder warden (Frankfurt am Main, 2005). Among the Austrian scholars, Gerhard Botz (and his students) deserves a mention in this context, in particular for the book he edited, Schweigen und Reden einer Generation. Erinnerungsgespräche mit Opfern, Täter und Mitläufern des Nationalsozialismus (Wien, 2007).

20 R.J. Grele, ‘Oral History in the United States’, BIOS – Zeitschrift fūr Biographieforschung, Oral History and Lebensverlaufsanalysen, special issue: 1990, p. 5.

21 This can be seen in the ‘Historia bliska’ [‘My Near-History’] series of youth history competitions, held since 1996 by the KARTA Centre and the Stefan Batory Foundation. The competition archive nearly 8,000 items at present.

22 The term is usually rendered into Polish as historia mówiona [roughly, ‘spoken history’] or historia ustna/oralna [‘oral history’]; the original English term is in use as well.

23 See J. Wawrzyniak, ‘Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokrację – ewolucja ideologii a więź grupowa’, in D. Stola, P. Osęka (eds.), Trwanie i zmiana, Warszawa, 2003.

24 J. Holzer, op. cit., pp. 45–46.

25 M. Pollak, Die Grenzen des Sagbaren: Lebensgeschichte von KZ-Überlebenden als Augenzeugenberichte und als Indentitätsarbeit, Frankfurt am Main–New York, 1988, pp. 95–112; M. Czyżewski, A. Piotrowski, A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek (eds.), Biografia a tożsamość narodowa, Łódź, 1997.

26 One example being the aforementioned study by B. Engelking, op. cit.; or, that by M. Melchior, op. cit.

27 The major ones being: K. Kaźmierska, Doświadczenie wojenne Polaków a kształtowanie tożsamości etnicznej. Analiza narracji kresowych, Warszawa, 1999; and, A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit.

28 A. Grupińska, Ciągle po kole. Rozmowy z żołnierzami getta warszawskiego, Warszawa, 2000 (foreword by P. Szapiro).

29 The Oral History Archive (Archiwum Historii Mówionej) is a joint venture between two institutions: KARTA, a non-governmental organisation, and the History Meeting House (DSH), a cultural institution run by the Capital City of Warsaw. Today, some 5,000 biographical interviews are housed in the Archive. The Archive’s emblem is the website audiohistoria.pl.

30 The conference Genealogies of Memory has been organised yearly since 2011 by the European Network Remembrance and Solidarity and the Institute of Sociology, Warsaw University in cooperation with the Bundesinstitut für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa and Freie Universität Berlin.

2 Concentration camp experiences in Polish sociological analyses: State-of-the-art in research, methodological issues, and research perspective adopted in this study

This study is about concentration camp experiences as read in the histories of the narrators’ lives and analysed through their biographical narrations. These narratives were produced in interview situations and have been audio or video recorded, and subsequently transcribed. This is, I believe, a legitimate reminder: it is worth emphasising once again that my analysis does not focus primarily on an actually existing Nazi concentration camp, specifically Mauthausen, and its numerous subcamps. The present focus is neither on some generalised, abstracted totalitarian institution of the concentration camp (colloquially named ‘kacet’ in these narratives – from the German Konzentrationslager, abbr. KZ; an equivalent of the more international ‘Lager’), although I make a number of references to this (and other) categories constructed and used by Erving Goffman.

At the centre of my interest is the camp experience of each of my Interviewees as he or she has interpreted it and the way he or she evokes it in a (relatively) unrestrainedly constructed entire biographical story. On a par with experiences of the ‘there and then’, of significance to me are their interpretations as well as the narrative and situational context in which the memory of those experiences is harnessed for processing in the ‘here and now’.

There are countless camp experiences. Each Interviewee and every single prisoner had their own unique camp experiences (and today there are unique stories about them): unique, simply because they are their own, individual, unrepeatable, and have been (or still are) mulled over in their individual memories. Or, they have been pushed into oblivion. Of the several months or years of an individual’s time at the kacet, only some events are recalled on each occasion, although it also happens that every recollection recalls the same, strongly fixed images: either selected to be evoked in a given situation, or those that no one has chosen but which stubbornly reappear, albeit unwanted. Although there are a number of experiences and images, they tend to be consolidated within a single dominant interpretation.

This uniqueness and unrepeatability of individual camp experiences (and not just camp experiences) is perceptible from an existential perspective, so to speak. One cannot stop at this level, however, if we are to understand and interpret not only the fate of an individual but also certain social mechanisms with which it is entangled and within which individual and collective memory functions. But social things can be traced in two different ways. These two basic paths, two main paradigms, are quantitative and qualitative research.

My analyses are primarily based on narrative biographical interviews with former concentration camp inmates, which I recorded as part of the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project. My central empirical basis is the thirty accounts I recorded, each running several hours, along with selected interviews carried out by my colleagues. Reference is also made to a number of other interviews I did with former concentration camp inmates during my later involvement with the KARTA Centre, as part of its Oral History programme. My data are thus qualitative. This is true not only for the data: the qualitative and the interpretative approach, being the paradigm upon which my action is based:31 I seek the meanings and interpretations of the experiences related to imprisonment in the concentration camp, as related by former inmates in their oral autobiographical narrations constructed almost sixty years after they left the kacet.

In analysing these autobiographical accounts, my aim is never to ignore the underlying experience of the time in the camp. My Interviewees were indeed there – and spent a few months, a year or several years there. The places they were imprisoned and suffered in really did exist. The material traces of some still remain, whilst other have been completely effaced, their materiality annihilated. They only remain sites of memory or in memory, individual and collective. Why is this an important reminder for me? I navigate the audio and video recordings, and interview transcriptions, (being) produced ‘here and now’, and thus being narrative constructions. But these constructions are re-constructions at the same time, as they refer us back to the real experiences. This is not to say that I approach them as historical sources, enabling us to cognise the objective reality. It is to say, however, that I am interested not just in the text (voice/image) but also in the ‘off-the-text’ social reality, which is subjectively experienced, organised, and interpreted by my Interlocutors. I have no direct access to it; my access is mediated and filtered in multiple ways – by (inter alia) later experiences, collective memory, the interview as interaction and, perhaps most importantly, by language. In other words, my question concerns the story’s content – thus being ‘what’ of the story (what is being recounted?); and, the very action of telling the story, building the narration – the question of ‘how’ of the story (how is it recounted/interpreted?).

Such an approach to the collected research material suggests that I should take a different angle from that used by Anna Pawełczyńska in her study Wartości a przemoc. Zarys socjologicznej problematyki Oświęcimia [‘The values and violence. An outline of the sociological issues of Auschwitz’]. The fact that my Interlocutors were once imprisoned at Mauthausen and not Auschwitz is completely irrelevant here (incidentally, many were taken to Mauthausen after having earlier been interned at Auschwitz or Birkenau). The point is that the Pawełczyńska study shows the concentration camp universe as an objective social (and historical) reality. Pawełczyńska knows this all too well through her personal experience: she was a Birkenau inmate herself, who attentively observed the reality she had been thrown into. Her book’s central subject is the prisoner community, relations between the inmates, how they were differentiated and how unequal their chances of survival were, as well as, as the title heralds, the values and violence of the camp world. The construction of this study is very different from the numerous autobiographical stories of other former Auschwitz inmates, of either sex, including female camp mates32 – and this was a deliberate and thoroughly considered aim:

It took thirty years to gain a perspective. It is this historical distance, a long time in which to reflect, and the serenity of impending old age that have enabled me to view the concentration camp with unbiased categories. …

It is not an easy task to apply a scholarly apparatus to a difficult period of one’s own biography. I have endeavoured to select and put in order, in a perhaps impersonal manner, such phenomena and their regularity as could be helpful in explaining the mechanisms of the concentration camp. Both the mechanisms that led to the existence of the camps, in their specific form, as well as those that enabled some of the inmates to survive.33

In her selection and ordering of phenomena and their reciprocal regularities, Pawełczyńska does not refer to the memories or accounts of or interviews with former inmates. The footnotes contained in her study point, rather, to a number of essays, monographs and studies. These include articles and research papers by the Krakow-based psychiatric team directed by Professor Antoni Kępiński. Pawełczyńska consistently avoids the subjective and evoking survivors’ narratives. She makes a great effort to maintain a distance and stay objective. This is also true for her camp experiences, to which she makes no direct reference, although they must have been the main, or at least an important, incentive behind her study.

Pawełczyńska’s book is perhaps the best and best-known sociological study on concentration camps in Polish scholarly literature.34 Among the lesser known and rarer quoted works that aim to describe the psychological mechanisms of the camp universe, two doctoral theses are worth mentioning: Marek Tadeusz Frankowski’s Socjologiczne aspekty funkcjonowania hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych 1939-1945 [‘The sociological aspects of the functioning of Nazi concentration camps, 1939–45’], published in 1996 by the Central Commission for Research on Crimes Against the Polish Nation – the Institute of National Remembrance;35 and Kazimierz Godorowski’s Psychologia i psychopatia hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych. Próba analizy postaw i zachowań w warunkach ekstremalnych obciążeń [‘The psychology and psychopathy of Nazi concentration camps. An attempt at analysis of the attitudes and behaviours under extreme charge conditions’], published by the Academy of Catholic Theology (Akademia Teologii Katolickiej), Warsaw, in 1985. Both authors willingly refer to Anna Pawełczyńska’s book – not only directly, through the quotations in the footnotes, but also indirectly, by assuming a similar, objectivising approach. This is particularly apparent in Frankowski’s study, where we read in the introduction:

Objectivism is indispensable, for tendencies have surfaced that disseminate delusory and consciously false ideas. …

It is the author’s intent that this study presents a sociological profile of the concentration camp community, multi-plane structure, mechanisms of functioning, as well as the interdependencies and social engineering techniques applied with respect to the inmates.

In contrast with a number of valuable publications, where the perception of the camp is that of the individual prisoner – a victim crammed onto the wheels of violence – the task of this study is to show the problems related to the concentration camp as an element of the system:

(i) from the standpoint of the purposes, strivings, and targets of those who developed the camps;

(ii) from the standpoint of the victims – a specific community, with graspable interdependencies and internal structure ….

This study is, as may be expected, an opportunity to show a panoramic view of the concentration camp, its various hierarchical levels, interdependencies, and structures.36

The author’s declared objectivism, his systemic and ‘panoramic view’, are confirmed by the bibliography and footnotes. Among the several hundred references to scholarly studies, published prisoners’ reminiscences are rare. In most cases where quotes from prisoners do appear, the authors comment as researchers in the camp area: in a ‘scientific’, ‘objective’ fashion. Hence, there is no trace of an interview with a survivor (or of a survivor having been interviewed). Sociological aspects of the camp’s functioning are described without using redundant, subjective, emotional elements. The author has been able to maintain the desired distance. As we read the subsequent chapters, our view of the kacet becomes increasingly ‘panoramic’, its image growing increasingly distant. Having waded through the numerous breakdowns, calculations, divisions and classifications, all meant to describe and clarify the various camp mechanisms, structures, and hierarchies, we close the book finding ourselves enriched with new knowledge but convinced that there is nothing that links us with the social universe of the kacet, a detailed description of which we have just read, and the rules governing it having little to do with those known to us from our daily experiences. This monograph reassures our sense of security and reinforces the comfortable presumption that the concentration camp is a very distant island, full of people unlike ourselves and of inhuman beasts.

Kazimierz Godorowski has analysed the attitudes and behaviours of concentration camp prisoners from a psychological perspective, specifically from the viewpoint of social psychology. This author also endeavours to create an objective picture of the reality he describes. However, he is much more cautious in constructing his classifications, breakdowns and typologies and far less convinced that his effort to render the truth of the kacet has produced a satisfactory result. In any case, he acknowledges that he must face certain important methodological questions:

One should, however, talk of the psychology of an inmate, rather than inmates, since it seems that referring globally to an ‘inmate psychology’ in concentration camps risks dangerously simplifying the issue. The thing is, there were various categories of camp ….

All this means that the living conditions were quite varied between individual camps and for the different categories of inmates. Reducing them to a common denominator of ‘inmate psychology’ would be erroneous. Below, I will try and propose a classification of attitudes and responses to the camp reality. I am well aware of the ensuing difficulties, be it in the methodological aspects.37

The cautiousness shown by this author in formulating statements on the psychological and sociological rights of the camp reality is related to the empirical approach upon which Godorowski based his analyses. He writes of the methods used in his work thus:

This study is based on:

The first and the last item are especially worth noting. It is significant that the reading of camp memoirs and the author’s own personal camp experience somehow inhibit his self-confidence when it comes to formulating generalised statements, rather than eliciting statements claiming the need to remain unbiased. Instead of distance and a ‘panoramic view’, we face here a multitude of psychological and social processes occurring in the camp reality.

In spite of the substantial differences, the two studies have much in common. Although not to the same extent, both are ultimately part of the current of objectivising, scholarly analyses of the camp universe. The kacet world is approached as a certain harsh reality which proves to be cognisable and describable. Similarly to most historical studies, the problems of presenting and representing, the complex and unobvious interdependencies between reality and how it is narrated, are for the most part neglected. Jerzy Topolski has written many times about this shortcoming, his remarks referring specifically to studies by historians. They also appear to apply to researchers of social reality in general:

Is it not the case, perhaps, that there is the past (though long gone), on the one hand, whilst on the other, there are all those, historians included, who are willing to say or write something about that past, and so they do. Such has been the belief over the centuries, and has remained so in many cases. But the reality … is otherwise, because historians do not investigate the past as something external to them, ready to be examined, or waiting for them; instead, when researching the past, they create its narrative image from the very beginning. It is not, however, a portrayal of something that is at least partly known in its original shape, but a construction of the metaphorical image, which is controlled through knowledge of the method and, first of all, through the other narrative images.39

When reading these concentration camp studies, my attention is drawn to something other than the blurred distinction between reality and its narrative image, although it is strictly correlated with it. In this objectivising, positivistic, or normative take of a social reality – even if its image emerges from the accounts of its participants – there is little (if any) room left for acquainting the reader with the accounts of people who contributed to that reality: who brought it into being, participated in its various dimensions, interpreted it, and accorded senses and meanings to it. If the perspective of the social actors – as sociologists sometimes call the individuals involved – is taken into account in these works, then it is done mainly with an illustrative purpose, if not an explicitly decorative one, to strengthen the scholarly arguments of the expert researcher and to make the study easier and more pleasant to read.

Fortunately, a parallel current is flowing through the social sciences which allows these social actors to speak and, moreover, for their voices to form the basis for any further analyses. The uniqueness of this current is its mediatory status, which is often strongly emphasised: we have no access to the social reality other than through the meanings given to this reality by its actors.

This qualitative and interpretative current has a strong tradition in Polish sociology, while, in turn, it makes copious references to Polish sociology and, especially, the work of Florian Znaniecki and his humanistic coefficient concept. Nonetheless, this current is not limited to sociological tradition but is today also superbly represented in areas such as biographical studies. These studies – as if naturally, by the power of history – often refer to wartime experiences, in particular, the extreme experiences of those who survived the Holocaust. The studies of Małgorzata Melchior and Barbara Engelking are particularly important examples of this research current.

However, within the interpretative approach, there has been no observant, close-up focus on the experience of imprisonment in concentration camps. The immensity of Lager-related literature, including scholarly studies such as the representative examples I have mentioned, along with the hundreds of published volumes of memoirs (as well as analyses of these memoirs as historical sources or literary texts40), appear to have long ago exhausted the matter. Its overuse, if not wear-and-tear, in Polish historiography before 1989 is also a contributing factor. It is no surprise, therefore, that other subjects (and other biographies) – particularly the ‘neglected’ ones, of which there were quite a number before 1989 – now tend more strongly to attract the attention of researchers who apply a qualitative/interpretative approach.

Nonetheless, I would like to do justice to the study by Alicja Rokuszewska-Pawełek, Chaos iprzymus. Trajektorie wojenne Polaków – analiza biograficzna [‘Chaos and coercion. The wartime trajectories of Poles: a biographical analysis’], to which I have already referred several times. In her analysis of various wartime trajectories, this author takes account of the camp experience of necessity. However, in a study wherein one half consists of theoretical considerations and the empirical section of which covers a number of diverse Occupation-time experiences, she was able to dedicate only a few pages to it (about 15, out of 200 pages), remarking only on its major traits. Her general conclusions are based on just three biographical interviews with former inmates.

Similarly, Barbara Engelking’s Holocaust and Memory, a book about Shoah survivors, merely touches upon the camp experience, although it was shared by as many as six of the twenty-two of her interviewees. Hers is a considered and well-grounded research strategy:

The third model of wartime experience that I have distinguished is that of the concentration camp. Even though this theme is probably the best-known and interpreted exemplum of totalitarianism, it remains one of the greatest intellectual challenges of our century.

I will not discuss the issue of camps in detail. This problem is outside of my areas of interest, and this for several reasons – one being the fact that it has already been profoundly recognised and described. I have not asked my Interlocutors (those who had been there) to describe in a detailed manner their experiences in the concentration camps.41

Krzysztof Konecki’s important article Jaźń w totalnej instytucji obozu koncentracyjnego [‘The self in the totalitarian institution of concentration camp’]42 should be mentioned here. This important essay describes camp experiences using the categories proposed by Goffman, particularly in his essays on totalitarian institutions published in Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. The author points to a few important features that distinguish the camp experience from the experience of other totalitarian institutions. The singularity of the camp is emphasised very strongly: “In his concept of totalitarian institutions, E. Goffman loses the ‘unique specificity’ of existence of the self in concentration camp institutions. According to Goffman, the various totalitarian institutions, for instance, monasteries and prisons, offer similar interactive patterns. Our present argument for the ‘unique specificity’ of the existence of the self concerns each particular totalitarian institution”. Konecki dwells on what has completely escaped Goffman’s notice: an analysis of the situation of transference from one camp to another. Unfortunately, this essay has remained an initial effort; neither its author nor any other author has undertaken to follow it up and add to it. All the same, it offers a significant approach by qualitative sociology (in its symbolist-interactionist version) to the concentration camp reality, one that proposes a completely different view on the issue, when compared to the version dominant in the studies of Pawełczyńska or Frankowski. This perspective is close to my own, and is an important inspiration for me. Yet, there is one important point where my epistemological assumptions divert from those taken by Konecki.

The source material used for the present analyses consists of memoirs of concentration camp prisoners, published in this country. … The memoirs, as the source for our present analyses, have been accepted without much objection, as far as the veracity of the facts they contain is concerned. The concrete facts, occurrences, situations are of interest to us owing not to their ‘historical authenticity’ but in terms of typicality, that is, repeatability, of certain strategies of action as shown in a number of memoirist accounts. The repeatability of certain strategies of action may testify to their social significance.43

The basic difference does not lie in the fact that Konecki analyses memoirs (or rather, quotes and uses them to illustrate his argument) whereas I am concerned with oral narratives. The point is that Konecki is not interested in story-constructing processes, narrative strategies, ways of presenting things or – quite obviously, since his argument is based on published memories – the interaction inherent in the interview/account/testimony process. The texts he analyses refer him directly to the kacet’s social reality as mirrored in the selves of the inmates. “In presenting the typical techniques of an individual’s operation, this article shows the ways in which the ‘rank-and-file’ concentration-camp prisoner negotiated his self-concepts.” Contrary to Konecki, I attempt to recognise and take into account at least some of the filters separating me (and my Interviewees) from the ‘there-and-then’ of the camp. This important difference is probably also rooted in the fact I have been strongly personally involved in making the recordings of the narratives (or, evoking the sources, in the terminology of historians). My intense memory of my own participation in the interviews, understood as interaction, and, thereby, of my own contribution to the stories, focuses my attention also on the construction processes neglected by Konecki.


In addition to these works, Antoni Kępiński’s essays on camp issues, first published as articles in the medical journal Przegląd Lekarski and elsewhere and then collected and edited as Rytm życia (several reprints; last ed.: Kraków, 2007) and Refleksje oświęcimskie (Kraków, 2005), hold a special position. A psychiatrist by profession, Kępiński had been a prisoner at a little-known concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro in Spain, modelled after the Nazi KZs. This is a little-known fact, as he rarely mentioned it. Still, his works on the subject are neither highly specialised medical studies nor the personal recollections of a survivor. They are, rather, essays written by a humanist who, disregarding the conventional borders of scholarly disciplines, touches upon philosophical, anthropological, sociological, ethical and – as we might expect – psychological and psychiatric problems related to the functioning of camps. What he proposes is not really a reflection on the concentration camp but on the situation of the ‘man thrown into the camp’, and his internal and external experience there; his camp ‘hell’ as well as ‘heaven’ (both metaphors were used by Kępiński). And, on the deep effects of this experience, which are again seen as manifold and human: psychiatric, psychological, social, … .

Some of the best-known studies by Kępiński are on the ‘KZ syndrome’, which he approached as a separate disease. He initiated research into this area, which was continued by Krakow-based psychiatrists and other specialists for a number of years. Their studies have made a major contribution to the annual special edition of the journal Przegląd Lekarski, titled Oświęcim and published between 1962 and 1991 (with thirty-one volumes in total). Examinations of former Auschwitz inmates, along with personal meetings with them, formed the basis for the interdisciplinary studies.

Along with Pawełczyńska’s study, Kępiński’s publications, hard to classify unambiguously, are, in a sense, the classic works of Polish scholarly literature on KZ issues. They have also been an important inspiration for me in writing this book. Not so much on the level of detailed analysis but, rather, as a way of seeing the camp experiences of survivors, and the related interpretative direction they offer. Instead, therefore, of individual footnotes referring to specific works by Kępiński, let me quote just a single fragment, which sets the direction for my work.

He who entered the camp had to be destroyed and had to cease being the person he had been before then. He became a number, but then took on some tiny function in that enormous camp apparatus. It seems to me that, in a sense, everybody was a functional prisoner, even if one’s activities were confined to tidying the camp, moving the stones, he still performed some function in the camp, was included in its total apparatus. I do not consider that a sharp distinction between the ‘functional’ and ‘non-functional’ is correct.44


If my observation that there is no in-depth interpretive study on the concentration camp experience is legitimate, then, with the research material at my disposal, I should make the effort to fill the gap. However, a difficult question immediately arises, one that it apparent to any qualitative researcher: How is it to be done? This question appears particularly acute to those researchers who, like me, work alone. How to cope with the thousands of pieces of paper with the transcribed texts of interviews? And how, later, to master the dozens of hours of audio and video recordings which, for me, are the actual research material, the transcriptions merely being guides to them?

It seems that Hanna Palska is right in calling the categories of humanistic coefficient and qualitative analysis of content, so willingly evoked by qualitative sociologists, the key notions and spells which we do not, however, find quite so helpful for resolving ‘methodological uncertainty’. This task we have to handle on our own, “each time defining our own procedures of text interpretation and seeking a strong theoretical basis, as is done in many cases”. If these proposed solutions are not quite applicable, or it is not certain that they (these particular solutions) should be applied, we have no alternative but to define our own path between the extremes: a postmodernist methodological anarchism, on the one hand, and the rigorousness and formalism of certain concepts classed as symbolic interactionism.45

This methodological self-determination is not exclusively a rational choice. It is something more, at least on certain occasions: a research intuition, which is hard to name precisely. This is especially so when the researcher who has contributed to the material – having entered into direct, subjective relationships with the individuals being studied – is also the one who interprets the empirical material he or she has collected. This is my situation. To deal later with interview transcripts and, subsequently, fragments of them, may facilitate finding a solution to the ‘problem’ and gaining the necessary distance. Yet, the ‘problem’ is a stubbornly recurring one – each time we hear the voice of our interlocutors (and our own voice) recorded on an audiotape or CD. This reappearance is even more powerful when we can see their faces on video or DVD. As Daniel Bertaux, the sophisticated biographical researcher, says: “When [the sociologist] has a say in the selection of method, the decision will depend more on deep inclinations rather than rational considerations. And this is very good, for in order to execute decent research work, you should first be willing to do so. Passion is the engine of discovery.”46

If I had studied the history of the concentration camp of Mauthausen, or written a sociological analysis of the KZ as an external, closed and distant reality – as Anna Pawełczyńska once excellently did, her imitators having been much less excellent – I would probably have found it easier to escape the state of ‘methodological uncertainty’; provided, that is, that I had experienced it. Conceivably, I would have found any methodological issues so transparent that I would not have paid the slightest attention to them. But this is not the case; my perspective is different. Not only do I take into consideration the interpretations of the persons being examined but I actually place these interpretations at the centre of my investigation. And it is only through them, to the extent that it is feasible, that I endeavour to perceive the reality of my Interlocutors’ experiences. I do believe this reality exists. I do not believe it might be attainable outside of their interpretation. These interpretations are not offered to me directly but through the language, in the interview situation, through interaction.

When referring to the metaphysics of presence, Norman Denzin states that there is no clean window through which one might see into a man’s internal life, as our vision is always filtered by the language, signs, and meaning-giving processes. Language, be it written or oral, always proves unstable, open-ended, built from traces of other signs, of symbols (this being particularly true for its oral form). Having noticed this, Denzin immediately emphasises his attachment to the position whereby interpretative sociologists and anthropologists research into real people who have real-life experiences in a social world.47 Denzin further adds that the central demand in the biographical method (and in his own book) is the assumption that a real person exists ‘somewhere out there, outside’, and lives his or her real life. Such a real individual was once born and might now be dead, but they have left a trace in the lives of other people, and may have deeply felt and experienced human emotions: shame, love, hatred, anger, despair. This sensing, thinking, breathing person stands at the centre of the biographical method.48

The interviews I have recorded are narrative and biographical. It is important to me that both these traits do not disappear from my interpretations and analyses, and that they are always placed at their centre. How is this achieved? This is not an easy task at all. When discussing his research experience during a large oral history project which resulted, among many other things, in his important book The Edwardians, based on 100 (of 450) interviews, Paul Thompson speaks of the conflict the researcher is faced with. He calls it a conflict between cross-analysis and entire stories. “Once you knew a whole interview, somehow you wanted to have that whole person there [in the text], that you always feel”.49 He extricated himself from this by inserting in the book, which was meant to tell the social history of England in the Edwardian period, analyses of entire biographical accounts, quoting from them extensively. He included, moreover, analyses of a few portraits of his interviewees and their families. In his best known study, The Voice of the Past, Thompson discerns four basic methods for interpreting the recorded interviews: (i) presenting a single biographical story and analysing it in a broader historical and social context; (ii) presenting a collection of stories and grouping them around specified topics. As an excellent example of this approach, Thompson mentions Oscar Lewis’s study The Children of Sanchez, in which juxtaposed narratives of parents and children from one family help build a multidimensional picture; (iii) narrative analysis, extending in most cases to a single interview or, in some cases, a group of interviews. The researcher focuses on the interview/account (narrative) itself, as a spoken text, the language, subjects touched upon, repetitions, concealments, silence; the focus is on what the narrator has experienced, remembered, and how they have recounted it. This analysis rarely aims at showing a typicality of the narrator or their experiences; (iv) reconstructing cross-analysis, approaching oral accounts as the basis for constructing an argument on the patterns of behaviours, developments, and processes in the past. Thompson also remarks that it is possible within one book to merge his own expanded analyses with a presentation of fuller biographical stories.50 The Edwardians is an example of such a combination, after all.

Thompson’s third option is the one closest to my own approach (although I come to it through the fourth). Approaching the biographical story as a narrative rather than a reconstruction best harmonises with this approach. This is an initial self-determination, worth developing and complementing. All the more so given that Thompson’s argument is devised as an introduction and incentive to use oral history narratives for historians, rather than sociologists.51

The narrative approach to biographical accounts is a common term used for various interpretive practices. These include traditional literary criticism and thoughts on autobiography as a literary genre, which shed light on the interrelations between the form and the content of the story; between the way the narrative is built and its actual content. Alessandro Portelli, the classic author of oral history quoted by Thompson and who tends toward a more interpretative current, states outright that oral accounts not only comprise a variety of literary genres but themselves constitute a separate genre which we should comprehend: “The life story as a full, coherent oral narrative does not exist in nature; it is a synthetic product of social science—but no less precious for that.”52 This offers an important complement to Philippe Lejeune’s studies on the various genres and forms of autobiography. Luisa Passerini’s studies, analysing interviews with workers of the Fiat factory in Turin, offer her own literary specialist – or, more specifically, ‘genre specialist’ – considerations. Comparing the various autobiographical (and biographical) narratives of a single individual, which have been compiled at different times and under different circumstances, is an interesting variation of such an analysis. The study entitled Sprechen als Last und Befreiung by Friedrich Boll, a professor of modern history at the University of Bonn, is a good example of this kind of study.53

In qualitative sociology, an interpretative – or, narrative – approach to biographical accounts is represented by scholars such as Fritz Schütze, Catherine Riessman, and Gabriele Rosenthal. In criticising this biographical research current, Daniel Bertaux calls it a ‘narrativist current’ and sets it against his own, realistic approach, which, to his mind, is predominant among French scholars, who tend to focus on the socio-historical and macro-social reality that exists independently of the subjects being investigated. Negating these charges, G. Rosenthal emphasises that subjective meanings are not purely individual and psychological but are always socially constituted and form part of the constitution of the social universe – the fact Bertaux neglects, in Rosenthal’s opinion.54

Although I am more sympathetic to the German than the French school, I feel such a strong contraposition of the two stances is overly exaggerated. Paul Thompson presents a less strict juxtaposition. This representative of the realistic approach (which he prefers to describe as ‘reconstructive’55) admits that he has many constructivist inspirations, which have modified his positivist stance although he has never wavered from it. This evolution can be seen in the three consecutive editions of his The Voice of the Past; particularly conspicuous is the difference between the first edition of 1978 and the second edition, which came out ten years later. It can immediately be seen in the Table of Contents, where there is an extensive chapter on ‘Memory and the Self’, on memory and identity. The third edition discusses at much more length the various narrativist approaches. Thompson is perfectly aware of how he has developed.56

I agree with a number of the assumptions of symbolic interactionism, and make use of the analytical categories elaborated along the lines of this approach, finding especially useful those proposed by Fritz Schütze’s biographistic sociology. I also conduct narrative interviews in a manner that is close to what this method proposes. Having said this, I find myself unable to completely follow the direction it suggests. The main reason is that the consecutive, increasingly formalised and complicated steps of the analytical procedure, based on a well-established theory, call for an intense group effort. It is impossible to individually and within a reasonable timeframe analyse several dozen biographical interviews and bring the analysis to a conclusion – one where a theoretical model of the phenomenon under examination, or models explaining its development, are constructed.57

However, it is not the excess of the amassed material that discourages me from consistently applying this analytical procedure in its entirety. I am not quite convinced that such an intense effort is necessary (there is no doubt about its being intense). I believe that comparable conclusions are attainable without applying such formalised procedures. Clearly, however, such ‘softer’ methods are less resistant to scholarly criticism, and less subject to sound and reliable verification. This is not to say that they are to be excluded, although I am not willing to abandon interactionist references.

Paul Thompson, whom I have referred to many times thus far, has not joined this current but remains open to its influence. He summarises his presentation of the various methods of narrative analysis thus:

Despite the variety of forms of narrative analysis, ranging from the literary to the sociological, from the formal to the poetic, from the inclusion to the exclusion of the interviewer, some possible to combine and others incompatible, they have one crucial quality in common. They force the reader to slow down and look closely at both the whole text and its details, its images, forms of language, themes, its manifest and latent meanings. Ultimately, perhaps the greatest strength of narrative analysis, whatever its precise form, is to encourage an acuter and more sensitive listening.58

I consider this view sober, distanced, and wise. I would like my own analytical effort to be an example of such acute and sensitive listening, looking and reading – one where, following Denzin’s recommendation, the meaning and/or sense will take primacy before the method, and, moreover, the meaning/sense and the method become one.59 Such an analysis would not necessarily lead to building or verifying any specific theory. But, it does not have to set such a purpose for itself. Biographical studies can assume other forms as well. Apart from a comparative analysis of life stories, the purpose of which is to elaborate an established theory, Denzin identifies two other purposes: “(i) researching into narratives of a single life history; (ii) collecting life stories grouped around shared themes”.60 Fritz Schütze also emphasises the possibility and the sense of presenting such typical biographies, on the grounds of his own analytical concept.61 Schütze is not narrow-minded: he allows for open-ended, incomplete, and selective use of the analytical procedures he proposes.

As part of his own approach, which he himself calls ‘ethnosociology’, Daniel Bertaux opts for biographical research based upon a ‘saturated’ set of (auto)biographies rather than individual cases. At the same time, he focuses on such instances, making a number of references to Oscar Lewis’s study (which he uses as a model):

First and foremost, once you have taken the trouble, you can find a whole repository of thoughts in autobiographical statements. What I naturally mean is the bright ‘strokes’ against the dark background of narration. Nonetheless, it often happens that, with such strokes as the point of departure, a sociological treatise is built. It can afterwards be elaborated in not a single way but in at least two ways. The first and classic way consists in assimilating such strokes and translating them into the language of sociology, thus blurring their origin; the researcher remains the only one to know where they have drawn their ideas from. The other way, more rarely frequented, consists, in contrast, in elaborating the entire narrative, the form of a story (the concrete pieces of the content must remain intact), so as to highlight the new pieces of information concerning the social phenomena. The interaction with the interviewee can provide the opportunity.

He quickly adds,

Why resort to such evasions, if one could write a regular tract? The simple answer is, due to the specific powerfulness of autobiographical story. … Finally, an autobiography is a whole, which any sociological treatise focused on a given milieu ought to be.62

Interestingly, Denzin also refers to Oscar Lewis, and classifies his classic The children of Sanchez as one of the varieties of the interpretive format in biographical studies, describing this variety as ‘from the subject point of view’. The other two interpretive approaches, in his concept, are: the sociological, psychological, anthropological interpretation of subject-produced autobiographies (without the researcher’s contribution); and making sense of an individual’s life. It is within this latter approach that he situates his own research on Alcoholics Anonymous. Denzin sets these interpretive ways against various objectivising approaches. Interestingly, he includes in the latter category both Bertaux’s ‘ethnosociology’ and ‘objective hermeneutics’ with its various versions (Oevermann’s and Schütze’s), although noting the specificities of each.63

Thus, modern qualitative sociology does offer theoretical support for an analysis of individual autobiographies – particularly those resulting from the unrestrained narrative work of the individuals being researched. It is no longer necessary to refer each time to the autobiographies of Władek Wiśniewski or Władek Berkan, as included by Znaniecki and Thomas in their pioneering study and thereby introduced into the sociological literature. It is perhaps enough to note, particularly in the context of the earlier considerations of oral history and of archiving and reanalysing qualitative data, that these classic authors in the field of biographical research in sociology have preserved the integrity of their biographical data, whilst the authors of the texts they analysed are known by their names.64


At this point, let us pass on to the concrete thing, closer to my research of the oral autobiographical narratives of former Nazi concentration camp prisoners. As has been said, Poland has, on the one hand, an enormous number of written recollections of survivors, published and unpublished and, on the other, a few sociological (or, more broadly, social science) analyses of the kacet universe. In-depth studies of concrete stories and specific cases are absent. By this I mean sociological or anthropological studies in which we could read their own meanings and which would build their own interpretations, going beyond an approach that sees them as (rather poor-quality) historical sources or even literary texts.

Mention should be made of two studies by foreign authors who have endeavoured to follow such a path. These are obviously not the only examples, but they are of special importance and inspiration to me. Each of these studies has a different way of approaching the single autobiographical account by the social researcher. One of the accounts is by Margareta Glas-Larsson, Ich will reden. Tragik und Banalität des Überlebens in Theresienstadt und Auschwitz, edited and with commentary by Gerhard Botz.65 The first section, some 130-pages long, is Margareta’s autobiographical story, as tape-recorded during a very long multi-session interview, transcribed and edited, and with the specific traits of the spoken language being maintained. Margareta, the narrator, was an inmate of Terezin and then of Auschwitz-Birkenau and her name appears on the cover as the author’s name. The following sixty pages are filled with extensive footnotes: the historian’s reliable effort. In the next section, the third, titled Survival in the Holocaust, Gerhard Botz writes about the purposes and internal structure of the camp, the specificity of social relations at the women’s hospital where Margareta worked, the socialisation and adaptation which facilitated survival, and the psychosocial mechanisms of the transformation of the former inmates’ memories. All these analyses refer to the survivor’s story throughout. While Gerhard Botz is a historian, his analysis freely crosses the limits of his discipline, particularly the borderline with sociology. It cannot be otherwise, since he follows his interlocutor’s voice, never using her narration as a source of quotations or footnotes to his own argument.

The other source of my inspiration – which is even more important for me, as it is closer to my own research perspective – is Michael Pollak’s Die Grenzen des Sagbaren: Lebensgeschichte von KZ-Überlebenden als Augenzeugenberichte und als Indentitätsarbeit66, from which I have already quoted. Its first part in particular deserves close attention. It contains an analysis of a single, one-hour-long interview the author made with Ruth A. (so named throughout), a Berlin Jewess and former Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner. The recording, done as part of an oral history project, was analysed by a professional sociologist. But what kind of analysis was applied? ‘Open-ended’ is its simplest description. Pollak avoids getting attached to, or identified with, a single method, theory, or methodological concept; his perception of oral history utilises a combination of microsociology, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and Pierre Bourdieu’s theories. He names his major inspirations, whilst not seeing this self-definition as binding. Referring once again to Denzin’s conceptualisation, it can be said that Pollak gives primacy to the meaning, rather than method. In contrast with Botz, Pollak interprets his interviewee’s narrative, incessantly intertwining the text of the interview with his own argument. The interview and its interpretation are mutually combined in a process of constant reciprocal reference, within which research hypotheses are built and tested. There is room to refer to the emotion generated by the interview situation as an exchange and interaction. As Pollak emphasises, rather than being about separating the researcher’s subjectivity from the generalisations he formulates, an interpretation of the biographical account sheds light, as far as possible, on the entire research process, in all its complexity. Thus, the reader is encouraged to take a closer look at the process and its associated transformation of the subject researched (interviewee) and the researcher in their mutual interaction, and to join the process and continue it.67 It should be added that the interviewee’s account/story, the narrative heard by the researcher/interviewer, and the story read by the reader (being the subsequent researcher in this concept) are each time a different story/narrative.68

These declarations are attested to by the empirical parts of Pollak’s study, where the biographical interview recorded by the author is analysed. The analysis begins with the author evoking his first contact with his interlocutor and the process of building mutual trust. It is emphasised that the precondition for the success of this biographical interview was that it was not only he who selected the individual to be researched, as he was selected by her too, when she decided to entrust her story to him.69 This apparently obvious statement is certainly worth noting as it strongly underlines the subject status of both partners to the interview situation: stronger even than vague declarations and exhortations to respect subjectivity, as often seen in qualitative research.

Michael Pollak’s analysis of the single biographical account is a sociological analysis. What he looks for primarily in his interviewee’s narrative is the supra-individual, the socially constituted – on the level of narrative, memory, identity, as well as the individual’s biographical experiences: the ones she evokes and the ones she neglects. Moments of silence are not simplistically interpreted as forgetfulness: they signify an inability to utter things unutterable rather than oblivion. The author attempts to recognise the border between the expressible and the inexpressible.70

The second part of Pollak’s book (each part could be treated as a separate study) compares the various forms of autobiographical statements made by former KZ inmates. Subject to careful analysis here are: court testimonies the former inmates made as witnesses; statements made for historical committees; sociographic research; oral biographical stories collected as part of oral history projects; and written and published autobiographies. The last two varieties of narrative are covered at length, as they are approached as the best and the richest sources for social studies. They best express the memory and identity of the narrators, their autonomy, and their group/social affiliation. And, especially if they are unstructured biographical accounts, they serve as the best guides to the camp experience, offering insight into the processes of adapting to life in a totalitarian institution and also beyond, with the burden of its memory.

Pollak’s analysis extends to a variety of narrative forms, various ways of constructing the story. However, these ‘narratological’ analyses enable him to tell us something important not only about the narratives as such, but also about the social worlds, or universes, their authors are set within. Pollak shows how autobiographical research can wisely combine interpretive inspiration with normative or realistic inspiration (the German and the French school, following Bertaux).71 Although intentional, the combination avoids abusing such labels, or becoming attached to them. As he wrote, the structures and styles of autobiographical narratives refer one not just to the story-telling person but to the group(s) he or she belongs to. The typical is researchable and identifiable through the individual. Typical female narratives are discernible from typically male ones, stories told by members of the lower social classes are generally different from those given by members of the upper class. One can search for what is typical about the accounts of members of a single social group – political, religious, or cultural. Such typical, social elements are immanent and recognisable in any story, although stories are not reducible to this dimension only. Conversely, an individual narrative can be recognised as recounting the fate of a group for which it appears typical, if not representative (although not in a statistical sense).72

Let these considerations of Michael Pollak act as forerunners to my own typologies.

31 Qualitative data and their collecting techniques do not yet constitute a paradigm. The paradigm is primarily based upon the philosophical assumptions concerning social reality. Cf. K. Konecki, Studia z metodologii badań jakościowych. Teoria ugruntowana, Warszawa, 2000, pp. 16–23.

32 Characteristically, Anna Pawełczyńska has never published her camp recollections. Fragments of the ‘records’ made in the first months after her return to her home town of Pruszków in 1945 were published only in 2003 (‘Wieniec z kolczastego drutu’, Pro Memoria, no. 17/18).

33 A. Pawełczyńska, Wartości a przemoc. Zarys socjologicznej problematyki Oświęcimia, Lublin, 2004, p. 9.

34 In the German literature, the classical sociological study dealing with the reality of Nazi concentration camps – based, for once, mainly on accounts of former inmates – is: W. Sofsky, Die Ordnung des Terrors: Das Konzentrationslager. Published in 1993 and awarded the prestigious Geschwister-Scholl-Preis, this book has been reprinted several times since.

35 This study was republished in 2003, with minor supplements and a new historical chapter on the structure of Nazi camps in Polish lands, under the title Ludzie i bestie. Socjologiczne stadium mikrostruktur społecznych niemieckiego obozu koncentracyjnego [‘Humans and beasts. A sociological study of social microstructures of German concentration camp’]. Only the first part of the title is featured on the cover, most probably for marketing reasons. Two photographs of a camp ramp have been included.

36 M.T. Frankowski, Socjologiczne aspekty funkcjonowania hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych 1939-1945, Warszawa, 1996, p. 6.

37 K. Godorowski, Psychologia i psychopatia hitlerowskich obozów koncentracyjnych. Próba analizy postaw i zachowań w warunkach ekstremalnych obciążeń, Warszawa, 1985, p. 12.

38 Ibidem, p. 14.

39 J. Topolski, Wprowadzenie do historii, Poznań, 2006, pp. 11–12.

40 Worth noting here is a Master’s thesis by B. Krupa, Wspomnienia obozowe jako specyficzna odmiana pisarstwa historycznego [‘Concentration-camp memoirs as a specific variety of historical penmanship’], Kraków, 2006. It analyses Auschwitz memoirs published in Poland, and challenges the criticism of sources, in its classical form, deeming it “helpless in face of camp memoirs” (p. 1.). Although the author speaks as a historian (if my understanding is correct), it is the literary narrative, rather than the world outside it, that is central to his interests: “I am not particularly concerned when I see that certain facts of essence to a camp historian might be missing in this picture; of importance to me are the facts that inform the person writing. It is the author’s original experience of the camp, rather than a reality beyond the text, that is fundamental to me. … It hence follows that I should carefully considered, first of all, the narrative, rather than look for facts outside of it. In other words, what I am offering is a style of reading camp memoirs which is dissimilar to the one practiced so far.” (pp. 76–77).

41 B. Engelking, op. cit., pp. 58.

42 K. Konecki, ‘Jaźń w totalnej instytucji obozu koncentracyjnego’, Kultura i Społeczeństwo, 1985, no. 3.

43 Ibidem.

44 Quoted after: ‘Więźniowie funkcyjni w hitlerowskich obozach koncentracyjnych (Dyskusja)’, Przegląd Lekarski, 1968, no. 1, p. 257.

45 Cf. H. Palska, Bieda i dostatek. O nowych stylach życia w Polsce końca lat dziewięćdziesiątych, Warszawa, 2002, pp. 37–40.

46 Translated after the Polish version: D. Bertaux, ‘Funkcje wypowiedzi autobiograficznych w procesie badawczym’, in J. Włodarek, M. Ziółkowski (eds.), Metoda biograficzna w socjologii, Warszawa – Poznań, 1990, p. 71.

47 N.K. Denzin, Interpretive biography, Newbury Park – London – New Delhi, 1989, p. 14.

48 Ibidem, p. 22.

49 P. Thompson, Life story interview with Karen Worcman, June 1996; available at: http://www.esds.ac.uk/qualidata/online/data/edwardians/biography/PaulThompsonLifeStoryInterview1996.pdf.

50 Cf. P. Thompson, The Voice of the Past, Oxford, 2000, pp. 269–271.

51 Ibidem.

52 Quoted after: ibidem, p. 276.

53 F. Boll, Sprechen als Last und Befreiung. Holocaust-Überlebende und politisch Verfolgte zweier Diktaturen. Ein Beitrag zur deutsch-deutschen Erinnerungskultur, Bonn, 2003. Of particular interest is Part 3, Chapter 2, which analyses the impact of the ‘spirit of the time’ on the content of various autobiographical works by Ludwig Gehm (including his post-war biography published after World War II, documentary footage from the 1980s, accounts from an earlier period, and an interview with Professor Boll). Before the war, Gehm was a Social Democrat activist and member of the anti-Nazi resistance. Imprisoned from 1936, he was kept, for example, in Buchenwald, then enlisted in the Wehrmacht, which he deserted to join the Greek partisans fighting against the Germans. After the war, he spent some time at a British camp in North Africa and, once back in Germany, became active again with the Social Democrat Party (SPD) in Frankfurt. The study excellently shows how the social contexts informed the content of an autobiography that was created and compiled in a defined historical moment, specific political situation, etc.

54 For an exhaustive discussion, see A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 40–43.

55 P. Thompson, The Voice …, p. 286.

56 P. Thompson, Life story …; also, see the introductions to the consecutive editions of his The Voice of the Past (all reprinted in the most recent edition, 2000).

57 A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., p. 61.

58 P. Thompson, The Voice …, p. 286.

59 N.K. Denzin, Reinterpretacja …, p. 55–58.

60 Ibidem, p. 67.

61 After I.K. Helling, ‘Metoda badań biograficznych’, in Metoda biograficzna …, p. 31.

62 Translated after the Polish version: D. Bertaux, op. cit., pp. 80–81.

63 N.K. Denzin, Interpretive Biography, pp. 53–59. For an exhaustive, and polemical, presentation of this classification in the Polish literature, see A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., pp. 28–43.

64 For more on this subject, see: E. Hałas, ‘Biografia a orientacja symbolicznego interakcjonizmu’, in Metoda biograficzna …, p. 206.

65 M. Glas-Larsson, Ich will reden. Tragik und Banalität des Überlebens in Theresienstadt und Auschwitz, Wien, 1981. I have used the English edition: I Want to Speak. The Tragedy and Banality of Survival in Terezin and Auschwitz, transl. by L.A. Bangerter, Riverside, 1991.

66 M. Pollak, op. cit. The German-language edition contains texts originally published in French, revised, much extended and combined, for the first time in this form.

67 Ibidem, pp. 7–8.

68 N.K. Denzin, Interpretive Biography, p. 77.

69 M. Pollak, op. cit., p. 18.

70 Ibidem, pp. 89 ff.

71 This is not just a figurative statement. Michael Pollak was born in 1948 in Vienna. He studied sociology in Linz and then, at the encouragement of Pierre Bourdieu, with whom he corresponded and later collaborated, moved to Paris in 1975 to work at the École pratique des hautes études and subsequently at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He maintained intensive scholarly contacts with Austria, particularly with sociologists and social historians at the Ludwig-Boltzmann-Institut für Historische Sozialwissenschaft. He acted as an important (two-way) intermediary between Austrian and French researchers. He spent the final years of his scholarly activity researching into the social effects of AIDS, the disease that caused his premature death in 1992.

72 Cf. M. Pollak, op. cit., p. 8.

3 The camp inmate experience seen through autobiographical narratives: a tentative ‘typology’

The Mauthausen concentration camp system held some 200,000 inmates in total, including almost 50,000 Poles. Less than half of them did not survive to see the liberation. Ten years ago, some five hundred Mauthausen survivors were still living in Poland. As part of the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project, we have recorded the biographical narrations of 164 of these individuals. I mention these figures in order to remark once again how casual and non-representative my research material would have been were I attempting to make any resolute statements on the Nazi concentration camp experience. Those still alive are those who would have been the youngest, the most robust and the strongest of the kacet inmates. But, even just moments after the liberation, the freed prisoners’ stories would not have been fully representative, either: they would only have covered certain pieces of the camp experience. Or perhaps, they would not have represented those of most importance for the camp as a totalitarian institution – those at its very bottom. It must be borne in mind that the regular inmates, who were the definite majority within the camp, were only a minority among those who survived. Although some of the former may have survived, it was not they who wrote a history of the camps. Primo Levi acutely perceived this ‘error in the sample’, when he realised that, with the distance of the years (as he stated in the mid-1980s, forty years after leaving the camp), it was apparent that the camp-related stories had been produced almost exclusively by former inmates like himself. In other words, those who had never reached the bottom. Those who either did not return, or whose ability to observe and describe has been paralysed by the suffering they had been through.73 Levi is concerned by their silence. He resumes this thread, listening attentively to his mute camp mates:

The ‘saved’ of the Lager were not the best, those predestined to do good; the bearers of a message. What I had seen and lived through proved the exact contrary. … I felt innocent, yes, but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a justification in my own eyes and those of others. … I must repeat: we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses. This is an uncomfortable notion of which I have become conscious little by little, reading the memoirs of others and reading mine at a distance of years. We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so … have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are the ‘Muselmanns’, the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance.74

I am not in a position to develop a ‘typology’ of camp fates, experiences, attitudes, and/or behaviours. The design I will follow is more modest than that: I listen, read, view the autobiographical narratives of the once-prisoners. And it is in those voices, texts, and images, only there, that I can find the differences and the similarities. The process takes place at the level of narration and text, the stories listened to and heard are entangled in my Interviewees’ specific experiences, and social universes. In other words, they form an integral part of such experiences and universes. Hence, my recognitions and ‘typologies’ do not concern Lager-related experiences in general but those that have been recounted to me in the ‘here and now’: filtered over and over, and much digested – in a variety of ways, including supra-individual.

While meeting our Interviewees and taping their stories, which run for several hours, we can primarily, if not exclusively, see the individuals in them. Their narratives seem unique, individual, their own. If not in their entirety, then at least their most expressive fragments – those describing the special situations, places, and persons. Tape-recorded and transcribed, reviewed, listened to and read once again, they become separated from their authors, our Interviewees. The latter remain the subjects of the initial meeting, sometimes becoming important persons for us, while their narratives become like the other stories, as we can see them more and more clearly. This is true not only for their narrative autobiographical form but also in the contents of the reappearing or similar images (and imaging). The camp was a totalitarian and totalising institution, reducing humans to a prison number, levelling them down, annihilating them. This is why the stories told by those who have survived so resemble one another:

The concentration camp inmates constituted a collectivity that was isolated, subject to the operation of one and the same violence, vegetating in similar conditions and under incessant threat, awaiting the shared lot of a rapid and heavy death at the ultimate end, while desiring to resume their so varied biographies, cut halfway through by the camp. This is perhaps where the uniformity of the inmate community is exhausted; beyond this limit, differences appear.75

Yet, the similarities in the narratives of the survivors do not only stem from the similarities of their experiences within the extremely oppressive and standardising totalitarian institution. The narratives appear homogenised also because they have developed within the same culture of memory and commemoration/remembrance: their authors belong to the milieu of Polish former political prisoners of Nazi concentration camps and their stories often have a generalised historical narrative, with Lagers/kacets as the background, referencing one another and following each other’s pattern. Each autobiographical narrative evokes not only its author’s individual experiences but also the stories and incidents of the others, important occurrences (for a particular group of inmates) from the history of the camp, or from the history at all. It is only by recognising these historical contexts and paving a way through their entanglement that one can get closer to the individual experiences. Individual, experienced by the Interviewees, is not to say the ‘raw’ experiences: they are never raw, once they have been communicated, expressed in language. What is ‘raw’ remains unspoken.

What is it, then, that the many autobiographical stories of the Mauthausen survivors (and, of survivors from other camps) have in common, when they are collected using the narrative interview method? Let me try to identify a few crucial similarities.

(1) First, a majority of the interviewees focus on their camp experience while constructing their autobiographical story. It is this experience – or rather, a collection of diverse ordeals that make up a single common Lager experience, which also includes the journey made to the camp and the epos of the way back home76 – that forms the narrative’s central theme. The time at the camp usually represents the most important biographical stage, the biography’s turning point, an experience that is incomparable with any other from the time before or after that at the camp. Using the language of biographical sociology, I would call it a trajectorial experience, an epiphany. But it is not the specific, ontological status of this fragment of one’s life that makes it the main topic of most of the stories told by my Interviewees. I have visited them, and have taped their autobiographical narrations simply because they were once prisoners of a kacet. And although I have many a time emphasised that I would be interested in the entire history of their lives, many of these Interviewees have tended to define our meeting as an opportunity to give a testimony of their stay at Mauthausen and, sometimes, also of their other wartime experiences. They are usually convinced that no other piece of their experience is important, worth recounting, or interesting to me as the listener, save for those unique and historical ordeals. Convincing them that I have also came over to listen to the story of their ‘ordinary things’, from before and after the war – as well as those of the wartime/camp-time – does not suffice. More questions often appear necessary to ask as the meeting goes on, if I am to be told at all about such things. But even the questions sometimes did not help. Things that are regular, normal, repeatable, daily routines do not constitute easy material that can be processed in narrative terms. How can one tell a story about ‘nothing happening’, being simply ‘busy working’, ‘living in/at …’, ‘retiring’. The latter experience is probably the most prone to fading away in my Interviewees’ stories. The end of one’s professional life, adulthood and the self-reliance of not only the narrator’s children but his or her grandchildren, their lack of power or of the potential to meet new challenges in the life – in a word, withdrawal from many a social activity – reinforces the feeling that they live in a biographical ‘occurrenceless’ time. Nothing important happens in their lives anymore; and, there is nothing else that can possibly happen. For many of my Interviewees, this period of retirement, which they perceive as ‘empty’ in narrative terms, covers the recent dozen or so, or even twenty or thirty years. Quite a few entered this stage at more or less the time I came into the world.

There are significant exceptions, of course. There are those who fill their narratives with stories about the last days of their lives, about travelling, trips, visits to spas, mountain trekking, children and grandchildren, work and relaxing on the garden plot. More often, they talk about their involvement with the worlds of the former inmates, participations in anniversary commemorative celebrations, commemoration rituals, trips to sites of memory, or – quite a recent frequent phenomenon – trips to Germany or Austria to join meetings with local and public youth communities, where they recount their camp-time experiences.

(2) The Lager experience is evoked in these stories as a collective experience. A personal account becomes an exemplification of the fate of a group or collectivity.77 This is clearly observable on the level of linguistic structures: the personal pronoun ‘I’/’me’ is superseded by ‘we’/’us’, the active voice by the passive. The narrative of the arrest, transport to the camp, crossing the gate, and the first weeks, sometimes months (or, the whole period) inside tends not to be constructed with phrases such as ‘I did …’, as is otherwise typical of autobiographical accounts, but rather, ‘… was done to us’. The activity of the acting subject tends to fade away, to be replaced by experiencing and sustaining, suffering, enduring. Thus, actions are done to the subject – but the subject is collective: not, however, a group, but a uniform mass of identical Häftlings (Polonised as ‘heftlings’). This manner of narrating is characteristic to collective trajectorial experiences. Imprisonment at a Nazi concentration camp is certainly an instance of such experience. Yet, this recognition needs to be complemented. With time, as the prisoner was accruing camp ‘seniority’ and the inmate was becoming an ‘old number’, the form of the narrating is reshaped. The autobiography regains its traditional structure: the subject/narrator appears with increasing frequency as the originator or causer of the events occurring. On a grammatical level, we reencounter the first person singular and the active voice. The various individual stories offer different methods of recovering this once-annihilated subjectivity. The ways in which the trajectory is overpowered, worked on, are varied too. We can, nonetheless, risk the generalisation that the greater an inmate’s seniority, the more that traces of such an overpowering effort can be found in the narrative fragments of the story: more of ‘I’/’me’ than of ‘we’/’us’. With respect to the personal pronoun, first person singular, the focus shifts from the passive to the active: ‘I did’ something, instead of something was done to me (‘I was beaten/driven/robbed/…’). The narrator’s gradually regained subjectivity is indicative of the degree of their domestication within the universe they are describing, mastering its rules, becoming attuned to life as a prisoner/inmate, and overcoming its trajectorial potential.

(3) The individual experiences of the Interviewees are often evoked in strict association with a generalised historical narrative of the concentration camp of Mauthausen. The history of the camp, the way it functioned, and its various institutions become the subject of the story on equal terms with the individual’s own fate in the kacet. Now, they have gained primacy over this fate. Hence, this comes as yet another aspect of the narrator’s (self-)objectification. Instead of hearing a story about what incidentally occurred or happened to/with ‘me’ (‘us’), what ‘I’/’we’ experienced or have been through, we hear a story of what it was like in the camp, what (and when) happened/occurred therein, and what it all looked like in there. This ‘all’ refers to describing the material, the static aspect of the camp (the topography of the Lager and of the workplace, the appearance of the barracks and plank beds, the prison uniform, etc.). Also, the elements of the camp routine (wake-up calls, assembly, the way to work and the labour performed, the return, evening assembly, the quarantine procedure, the rewir, i.e. sickroom, etc.). The motifs that constantly arise in descriptions of the living conditions in the Lager include hunger, cold, dirt, sicknesses, exhaustion from labour, violence, abuse and maltreatment.78 Generalised statements concerning prisoners of other nationalities appear often: such inmates are taken and pictured en masse, juxtaposed with ‘our’ people and set against the Poles. In these comparisons, the Poles are treated, for a change, as a uniform group, a whole. The story frequently mentions the names of the best-known tormenters in the Mauthausen Lager, particularly Commandant Franz Ziereis (also featured is the history of his capture, interrogation and death right after liberation). An almost fixed element in this story is the impending threat that the inmates would be put into the adits (mining tunnels) and blown up on the eve of liberation.

With these elements predominant, what we are given is a history of the camp, rather than a history of one’s life. Sometimes, the events (and camp legends) evoked are in no way linked with the Interviewee’s individual fate, although there is an intermediate link: the very fact that one has been imprisoned at Mauthausen or Gusen (incarceration in these largest camps of that particular Lager system best contributes to such a historicisation) legitimises the upholding of such narratives, which belong to the camp’s collective memory. Not only does it legitimise, but it also imposes the obligation of doing service to such memory. In the least advantageous variant of doing such service, the survivor’s narrative cannot free itself from the shadow of occasional speeches or talks to young people, in which the narrator has grown proficient, with the cost of overriding his or her own personal experience.

In the context of a specific interview, both narratives always appear interpenetrated – so strongly sometimes that it is extremely difficult to distinguish them, especially since the Interviewee often does not help to this end. What they do is recount – they tell a story about themselves or, on other occasions, about the camp. At one moment a guide to their own biography, they become a moment later, perhaps in the very next sentence, a guide to the camp – including to nooks and recesses that they never peeped into. One needs to listen attentively and then read the transcribed interviews carefully in order to recognise the boundary between autobiographical memory, the memory of one’s own experiences, and the narrator’s knowledge of what it was like, and what was happening, ‘overall’. This recognition can rarely be precise, however. The boundary is completely blurred in many places, with only traces of it visible elsewhere. Knowledge usually follows experience, but the two are strictly unified. The knowledge functions so that one can understand, interpret, and add meaning/sense to the experience. It allows the narrator to set their own fate within that of the collective; thus, to position oneself as part of a collectivity. It just so happens that this meaning/effort at sense-development shapes the narrator’s memory to a larger extent than his or her real camp experience.79

It is quite apparent that various interviewees have a different knowledge of concentration camps and their history. Some are researchers in this field, and have written books, articles or studies on the topic. Their oral stories are usually most intensely permeated with the history of the camps, the related facts and statistics. The narrators of this category are the ones most easily able to abandon autobiographical specifics. A similar phenomenon is seen with those survivors who, many times and on various occasions, have already told their camp stories, of themselves and of the others. Some of the former prisoners are almost professional narrators, or storytellers, while others are simply camp guides. Their oral stories, told over and over again, as a routine, tend to be more a reproduction of their previous narratives rather than an attempt to approach distant experiences. This process is understandable: this is how human memory works. But this is not to say, nor does it not have to mean, that a survivor telling his or her story for the twentieth, fiftieth or hundredth time is emotionally distanced from it. Such ‘professionalism’, often justified in terms of a ‘mission with respect to the generations to come’, is sometimes one of the ways in which the camp trauma can be tackled. Experienced narrators among the former KZ inmates are probably most represented among the former inmates of the camps located within Poland – particularly Auschwitz-Birkenau, being the largest and bearing the heaviest symbolic burden of all. Smaller camps, more distant from Polish territory, such as Mauthausen, Buchenwald and Flossenbürg, have not generated similarly audible survivor stories, to which subsequent generations can refer.

In turn, those former inmates who have written their camp memoirs (although not necessarily had them published) often tend to reproduce that earlier, already-written account in the course of the autobiographical interview. The images that have been fixed in writing congeal so strongly in their narrative form that they are sometimes evoked afterwards in an almost identical manner, using the same words, or even whole phrases. When listening to such stories, we get the impression that they are being read from a sheet – even though they are not. Even so, there have been sporadic occasions where an interviewee insisted that he or she must read a fragment of their recollections during the interview. On other occasions, the text that has been written earlier discourages the telling of an oral story, as “I have already described everything there”.

The preceding narratives thus inevitably intercede between the camp experience of the past and the present concrete story that I listen to during our meeting, this particular interaction, our interview which I preserve by taping and archiving.

(4) Almost each of the autobiographical accounts of former camp prisoners that we have heard, or at least each ‘successful’ account, contains strictly narrative fragments that form a story about their individual unique experience. This individuality and uniqueness concerns the narrator’s perspective, and is not at odds with what I indicated a moment ago. Narrative fragments are set within the frame of the totalising and standardising institution of the Nazi concentration camp. However, the speaker’s effort does not focus on telling a story about the camp, the way it functioned, and the sufferings that took place in it. These fragments are not at all subject to such rationalising and ordering procedures. The fragments are not so much elicited from the Interviewee’s memory but, rather, they are extracted from it, by the interviewee, all of a sudden and unexpectedly. These occurrences or events include those which have become the most memorable, most powerfully stirring, and which trigger the strongest emotions today. On listening to these stories, recounted as individual camp adventures, we clearly hear the Interviewee speaking faster (possibly, in response to the recollections awoken or aroused). The distance between their telling of their story in the here and now and their experience of the there-and-then is shortened – a distance that offers a sense of security and, thereby, control. Such approaches, or close-ups, are the most important and most valuable for me – and perhaps also for many others who have listened to survivor stories. They are all the more valuable if such images can astonish the Interviewee themselves, if they are verbalising them for the first time. This happened repeatedly during our meetings, and such instances were recorded for the first time ever, in almost all such cases.

It is symptomatic that the contents of these fragments, the specifics they describe, are loosely associated with the generalising descriptions of the camp, the conditions and interpersonal relations prevalent in it. They are not simple examples or pieces of evidence that attest to how terrible a place the camp was; such fragments usually do not directly refer to the violence suffered. Instead, the sufferings incurred by other inmates come to the fore, rather than sufferings borne by the narrator. Far more frequently, such moments are in contrast to the camp routine; they are signs of a universe that exists outside the camp. And it is from this contrast, or clash, that they draw their symbolic power and expressiveness in the narrator’s memory.

Here are two very similar examples of such a clash. Their similarity offers food for thought, especially given that each of these close-ups is quoted from the accounts of different former inmates, from different camps:

There were very weird things happening sometimes because, as the bombing was going on – the Americans were bombing very often – there was the chemical factory Steyer, then, somewhere halfway between Linz and Gusen, by the Danube, there was such a grand chemical establishment and the bombs frequently fell there, and well, the lights were going out in our place. And the light went out then, it was at night, and just as the light goes out, then, well, you’d bunk down in that work, and sleep. But then, a strange thing happened. Some marvellous, trained, great artist, a singer, an Italian, began singing. It became dark some time after, it’s absolute darkness in that adit, this is as it ought to be, well, and this, silently, and all at once he starts singing some high-flying operatic arias; well, such a concert… That is strange… It was some singer such a high class that when these recollections come back, then you can never hear such a concert [i.e. comparable to that particular one]…80

This fragment comes from a video-recorded interview. A transcript is not capable of rendering what was probably the most important part of the communication at that moment. The silence marked by the ellipses signifies a great agitation, which brought a lump to the narrator’s throat. This silence embraces the delight with the camp song performed at that moment by a prisoner in the blacked-out Messerschmitt factory in Gusen.

Here is the second fragment:

[I saw] the camp orchestra, which played marches. They played behind the barbed wire, between the first crematorium of Auschwitz – not in Birkenau – and the villa of Commandant Höss. They played for the Germans, for the officers and their families, at a time when hundreds or thousands of people were simultaneously being gassed and burned at Birkenau on literally a daily basis. Those people had no problem – I think about those listeners – the Germans – listening to Beethoven, Mozart, or Brahms. I once listened myself, because I played the violin as a kid, so music always attracted me. But I had a shock. One day, as I was on my way to the kitchen, to carry sand and gravel and cobble, all of a sudden, out of the block right in front of the gate – the orchestra had their lodgings at the right-hand side, and there was a bawdy house on the upper storey – a prisoner appeared in the window, and sang an aria from Tosca, the moment Cavaradossi sings before he dies. That was such a shocking sensation… Obviously, the SS-men quickly pulled him down from that window. I don’t know what happened to him. As I learned, he was a tenor from the Brussels opera, a Jew… In any case, when I hear this aria today, I see all that.81

This recollection is rather like the one quoted previously, although it is introduced differently: a reference is made to the camp orchestra. We find it embedded within a more extensive commentary, describing the narrator’s emotion more precisely. However, the crucial aspect is almost identical to that in the previous image: the contrast in juxtaposition with the camp universe and the strong agitation it triggers in the Interviewee. This account has also been videotaped. It is worth watching to see, at the point of the ellipses, that the impetuous sensation arose not only there, in the camp, but it reappears today, as the aria is sung within the space of memory.

(5) An inherent element of the autobiographical accounts of former Lager prisoners is the various attempts at understanding, interpreting, and adding sense and meaning to one’s own camp experiences – that of survival, first and foremost. This involves wrestling with questions that are sometimes not expressly formulated, but remain implicit in most cases: ‘Why me?’, ‘Why was I brought to the camp?’, ‘Why have I survived, while so many around me were killed?’ The latter question is posed most acutely and dramatically by Jews saved from the Holocaust, who struggle with the fact that they survived. But this question also torments so many of the non-Jewish former inmates of the Nazi concentration camps too.82 For them – at least, for some of them – it is perhaps somewhat easier to find the answers, and attempt to offer rationalisations. As a rule, however, these are extemporary, incomplete, and unable to offer lasting relief or consolation. Instead, these are partial explanations, often compiled in an ad-hoc manner, as the narration proceeds – and applicable to concrete situations that one has managed to undergo and survive by means of a miracle or accident, or divine providence. Or, all at the same time.

These diverse strategies for tackling the experience of imprisonment and survival in the camp, and the trauma of these experiences, are dependent upon a number of factors: the reasons for the arrest; one’s position in the camp structure; shared outlooks and ideologies; professed values – before and after the time in the camp; belief or otherwise (lack of faith) in God;83 the extent or degree to which the individual was able to resume their pre-camp world; and whether there was anyone – and exactly who – was waiting outside to meet the survivor.

Only some of our interviewees were able to construct more durable, more complete ‘theories of survival’ which could place their own camp experience at a safe distance and give them enough strength to be able to decide for themselves whether, when, how, and for how long to evoke it. Here is one of those rare stories on the usefulness of the Lager experience and the lifelong lesson learned from it:

I do not surrender easily, thanks to the camp. Once I had endured the camp, why should I not be able to endure other things? It certainly strengthened you, gave you respect for other humans, human dignity. You understood what being human is, to look not at a man’s external features but instead to spot the values he has inside him. It very often varies. We were all dressed the same there. The value of some of the people, their fortitude, showed, the inner being. So, you’ve learned all that in the camp, never to surrender; perseverance. This was a very good lesson, looking at my life as a missionary; only that it was too costly, when you think about the victims. Had we all passed through that camp… That was another novitiate, which no-one can repeat. That is impossible. A very costly lesson, unfortunately. Fourteen were killed out of twenty-six, and that was already in the first year. Fourteen young people: twenty-one, twenty-two years of age. I think about them very often. I should like, all of them ought to be at the altar [i.e. declared blessed/saints]. You can feel you carried on their legacy, for yourself and for them. This toughened you, gave you strength, no two ways about it. It’s just that they were young people. There was nobody to cry as they were dying.84

In parallel, there are many who are unable to find a similar philosophical consolation or so deftly to project their post-Lager experiences onto an interpretation of the Lager-time ones. Instead, they struggle with their uncontrollable camp trauma for the whole of their lives. Usually, they do this alone, or share the struggle with their camp mates – with no professional psychological support. This aspect in particular constitutes a quite marked difference between Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European camp survivors with many of their camp colleagues from Israel, the United States, or Western European countries.

I want to let you know that I had, such a, dream; // I would somehow like to mention that dream. // I’m talking about those nightmarish dreams. I dreamed, sir, that I was in the camp. There’s a car standing at the camp exit gate. I don’t know if that is [= was] Melk; something like that, in any case. The tarpaulin, and there’s bread. I went in under the tarpaulin, to the bread, and the car pulls out at some point and crosses the gate, meaning that I’m leaving the area of the camp and, sir, my fear – not that – my fear that I found myself outside the camp area, and once I am caught, they’d kill me. You know, and the worst is that in the camp I still could survive, whereas there, if they catch me, I’ll be killed. So, sir, waking up from such a dream – you felt almost happy.86

Here is one more close-up, where the boundary between dream and rational second thoughts towards the past experience is completely blurred:

… Whether he [= referring to himself] had no fear or something, since he was younger. Now, some sort of stress, you’re feeling some dread, sort of. You don’t believe this can be so, or how? Why was it like this? Initially, not so, somehow; now, there’s more. Some thrill, fear, you couldn’t tell what it is. Oh my God, what’s up, there! Jesus Christ! First, as he was younger, then, maybe, the work, he didn’t have things, it was different then, he was busy doing something else, whilst now… At home, as he sits so, go somewhere, then [it] is there, you’re recalling [yourself] everything. Sometimes, I scream in my asleep. The worst thing is when you’re seeing the murdering, the shooting, lashing, the abuse in plain view. A Kraut is laughing to himself, with gloves on, and meting out the abuse. Beating, murdering, kicking. I can remember, the Jews, they had a separate field. When they were carrying their transports, then, he [= one of them] would [at times] go through the gantry to the field. The bastard Fritz’s walking, smoking his cigarette, there’s a child crying, [grabs the child] by the hand, for there were the wires, not very tall, two meters [high], and throws it behind that wire. He walked on. Same things were going on and on there.87

Not only does the camp torment and oppress at night, but it influences the survivor’s social life, his or her ability to build and maintain interpersonal relationships. Many former inmates are aware of this burden that they carry. Some have managed to overcome it:

The camp has burdened me with a stigma of this kind, in interpersonal relations. I would judge people – always considering, on meeting someone new, being with him for a while, talking to him for a while, whether it’s a colleague, or whatever, then I always thought, once I’ve worked them out a little: how would he have behaved in the camp? What would he do? How would he behave, in such a situation? And that very often dissuaded me from [getting to know] that man. … Man is tested in such conditions, in the conditions we were in, be it in the camp, or in the prison, then man is tested to reveal what is really inside him, what prevails in him. … For I was a little savage after the camp. I didn’t like company, didn’t like going anywhere at all, or rather going somewhere, like, in the open air, to see how the water was running. I simply wanted to quieten down.88

Sometimes, the camp experience can have no theoretical explanation, or rationalisation whatsoever. It may not vex during the night or have a strong impact on the present-day interpersonal relations that are built and maintained by the once-inmate. Yet, it leaves different, less-visible and more-modest traces – which is not to say that they are less important to the survivor:

[My stay in the camp] has shaped my outlook on life. // Well, I, you know, am perhaps more sensitive [now] to the issues of poverty. The birds migrate here, hundreds of birds in the winter, and I give them daily half a kilogramme to one kilogramme of porridge. I give them this for the whole of the winter. And my neighbours are astonished, and I get hundreds of these [birds] coming over here, flying in here, various fowl. But they are hungry, I have to give them something, for I believe they need to be fed, well, it can’t be helped. There are cats, you know, who come in; I also feed the cats. They come for the feed I put out, which the cats get, in the garden; hedgehogs come, from the Citadel, hedgehogs come here. Well then, these hedgehogs are also fed here. I don’t chase them away, but give them milk instead, pour it in. Hedgehogs like milk very much, as it appears, they like milk, eat soup. … I’ve got hazelnut trees and the nuts, the trees. Now in the autumn, squirrels come from the Citadel. And these squirrel have grown so bold that they freely wander around the garden here. When a cat comes, it flees into the tree, the cat cannot catch the squirrel, as the squirrel is more nimble. When there are no cats, then the squirrels walk in here, across this garden. I don’t prevent them, they’re taking these nuts, then let them eat, they are hungry. In the winter, still, you know, once I’ve thrown into each of these hollows in the large trees at the Citadel, I drop off the nuts so they can have a nibble there as well. Well, it is a creature, it needs to survive the winter. And the people are probably astonished, the neighbours, think that I am insane. But these are hungry creatures.89

For many prisoners I have talked to, Mauthausen was the last stage in their Lager journey; it was there, or at one of the subcamps, that they saw the liberation. Many had been imprisoned earlier at Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, Neuengamme or, an even more frequently, Auschwitz-Birkenau. A large group of prisoners had been brought to Mauthausen from this last camp in late 1944, as a result of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s (so-called) evacuation in the face of the approaching front. Mauthausen and, in particular, some of its subcamps, were located deep inside the Reich, far from the frontline. Armament factories operated at these sites, hidden in rock tunnels, drifts or galleries, until the end of April 1945.

I mention this in order to introduce two substantial biographical events experienced by my Interviewees: one is related to the transfer from one camp to another; the other, with the stay at Auschwitz-Birkenau and witnessing the annihilation of the Jews. The former experience is covered at length within the detailed analysis provided later, so as to show its different variants. At this point, I would like to pause for a while to consider the latter. Let me leave aside, however, the theoretical fragments of the accounts, the comparisons between the Polish and the Jewish camp prisoner’s fate. Although present in many accounts in the form of generalisations, or, sometimes, an ‘auctioning’ of sufferings, they remain beyond the scope of my present interest. What I am after is concrete narrative things, hard facts, which bring the individual camp experience nearer.

The Holocaust remained beyond the scope of the direct experience of my Interviewees, Polish political former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. Yet, it took place in plain view of many of them. One did not have to go to Birkenau to witness the extermination of Polish Jewry: many a prisoner I talked to had been such an eyewitness before they were detained in the camp90 – or, while they were in another camp, Mauthausen included. For, although the latter was not an extermination camp, Jewish inmates were treated with peculiar cruelty, and this was strongly imprinted upon the memory of the Polish prisoners. Moments of discontinued narration, muteness, usually mean more in these fragments than the words spoken.

Block guard [Blockführer] Schteps’s right-hand man in there was, it’s hard to believe, a Jew fifty-plus years of age, looking like a one hundred per cent Jew, bold, with the nose like this. Ormicki, a professor from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. He was a geographer, I think. And that Schteps, he managed to hide him in a funk hole for a few weeks, because when there was the roll-call, he’d position himself in the second rank, mind you, so that the nose could not be seen sideways. Then, when he’s counting, passing by, that one, then, just for him to manage to uphold. But, finally, some S[S];-man spotted him. He was dragged out, he [= the SS guard] called the Lagerältester [camp senior], that Helmut Becker man, about whom I had said, who had beaten me now and then. Together, there, with that block guard, for that block guard with a black winkel [i.e. triangular badge], Schteps, was a moderately tolerable man, because that docent, [associate professor] Ormicki spoke German, was a very sumptuous man, very… an intellectual, what can I say, a man of great class. And that, that little Schteps was not that stupid either, that narrow-minded, and this impressed him. As far as he could, he managed to hide him there. He wasn’t even slim, looked good then, professor Ormicki. He was taken away. … A large Waschraum [washroom] [was there] between the sickroom and the block at the back, where there were the showers. It was cold, very cold then. To the shower, which was frigid. Becker, plus one block guard, some, and a Kapo, some, there was no S[S]-man there, [took] him to the shower, and lashed [him] in the shower with sticks. So it went on, he tried to dodge, for the water was icy, then, well, they were driving in him with those sticks. And that lasted some two minutes, three minutes. I witnessed that. At some point, the sport was over, ‘cause they put a hosepipe with water into his eyes. They set a strong current at him, and he burst… That’s what it looked like.91

And, one more passage – even tougher, more painful for the narrating Interviewee:

The other day, at night, I mean, I [dreamt I] woke up in the morning and I was swollen, I put on my trousers, have to go to work in the morning, and we then worked in the adit, the one I commuted to by train. And, sir, I got dressed, the Appelplatz [roll-call ground], then the descent to the train, there was a ramp, specially built in front of the station, and the train drove up, they loaded us onto the train, we went to an identical ramp in the camp area, where the quarry was, everyone’s exiting again, and now, sir, you need to go downstairs. I am becoming increasingly swollen with time. I cannot bend my legs anymore. My gross legs are literally stiff, my trousers are swollen now, and we were walking, sir, einhacken zu fünf, that is, as I said, in fives arm-in-arm, holding the one to your right with your right hand. These columns were slightly crooked, but you marched steadily. And beside me, to the right, // for I was the second in the row, of that five, // was a Hungarian Jew. As we had to go down those stairs, and the stairs were, sort of, broken, I couldn’t keep up. And he was constantly shouting at us, to go faster, go faster, so that the column… // this is two thousand people, so that we can get off the ramp. Therefore, I cannot walk. So, the German who walked beside me, that SS-man, tells that Hungarian Jew to grab me by the hand. Not me to hold him, but for him to hold me. So the two of them led me on. And he, the Hungarian Jew, made, like, a gesture of impatience, // despondence, // something, sort of, as if he didn’t want to do it. And, that moment, // that SS-man who guarded us, had a, sort of, Italian rifle, // they had, such, Italian rifles, those were rather short guns, with, such a, broken bayonet. And he struck him, with the butt of the rifle, on the back of his head. And the Jew fell, // fell, simply, on the ramp. And I was holding him, arm-in-arm, and so was quickly withdrawn, and those who were behind me had to take the Jew and carry him downstairs; they didn’t so much carry him as drag him down to the roll-call area. It was not far away, as a result – the roll-call ground was not far from the ramp. And they laid him down, you know; we marched as the Kommandos, each of the Kommandos marched separately, and everyone was kept count of. And they laid him down beside our Kommando, as he [the Jew] was one of us; he was our co-operator. And the one I mentioned, a Gypsy, came over, gave him a few kicks, and he’s shouting… // And then, he put a peg with [on] him, and crushed him.92

The stay at Birkenau, close to the epicentre of the Holocaust and the machinery of mass extermination, has remained a peculiar, separate experience, gaining in extraordinariness also through the way it is read. On listening to the accounts of Polish Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners, I cannot help thinking (though I could also presume certain completely other readings) that my Interviewees were ‘scorched’ there. Or, just scorched (no inverted commas), not only a figurative or symbolical meaning, like in the title of a book by Irit Amiel,93 but also a thoroughly literal one. At times, just as literal:

Once I got inside Auschwitz, no Birkenau was there then, that’s it. There were not many Jews, either. But in the year of ‘42, those transports started flowing in. … They were gassed. Also me, there… // I was sent, a few times, with, such a, Kommando. Then, there was food in abundance. Because they had left it – and it was segregated, unstitched. Unstitched, for those Jews had… jewellery // stitched up. I nourished myself a little. … I even liked it there.94

There are not many among our Interviewees who are capable even today of directly evoking that cold distance from ‘there and then’. Or, perhaps, they would be able to if only they were courageous enough. Let us not mistake the simplicity and forthrightness of behaviouristic imaging for the Interviewees themselves – the individual we can hear and see here and now. The strategies of tackling the experience of witnessing the Holocaust are diverse, and in most cases they are devised in ad-hoc fashion, on one’s own.

I can remember, there was a transport that arrived from Kraków. We, mind you, just as observers or so-called senior inmates. For, once you’ve been through that hardship, you’d be classed among those seniors. And those seniors were engaged to do works – at the railway station, in to the Kartoffelschale … – which is, potato unloading. And, I’m just going there, to the Kartoffelschale, I am on a wagon. With the potatoes; // but there’s some train arriving, not like the one we have.

And this appears to be a train from Belgium, with Jews. And so, a Jewess, a nicely-dressed one, is looking through the window and eating chocolate. That’s what, you know, for a prisoner like that, chocolate is milk-and-toast-and-honey, mister. And I say nothing to her, but I’m driving that shovel, without potatoes, and thinking to myself: maybe she’ll give me a piece, or something. And she dropped one to the ground. Well, c’mon, I’m not going to climb down from the wagon, without the SS-man’s order, to get on the ground, as he’ll shot me dead. Yes, for he had a gun, // always, a gun in his hand ready to shoot, mister, yes indeed. But, I ask where she’s from. And I knew that whoever arrives in Birkenau, then the thing’s known. We already knew then where these transports were going, and we knew, // they were chased in front of our field. Who was interested in that then, and would write. But how would he write, mister? What on? On the ground. Then they wiped it later. Well, and then I ask her if she can understand German. ‘O, ja, ich spreche Deutsch’, says she. // Yes, indeed. // And says she, “Hier is das beste Kurort.” And I burst out laughing. She came along to a health resort, to get cured. And I’m saying, ‘Das is beste Schlachthaus.’ And she spit in my eyes. ‘Cause there’s a space between the wagons, but no spit fell on me, and she, ‘Pish!’ // I could’ve riffled ten shovelfuls… // In several languages, in French: ‘Ensemble!’, in Polish: ‘Zbiórka!’ For there were Frenchmen and Poles there. Well, and what’s that like, we climbed down from the wagons and the train is at a stop, with those ‘bathers’. I repeat what that Belgian woman said, a Jewess she was. But you couldn’t tell it was a Jewess, mister. How can you judge it, sir? A Jew you can recognise, that’s the circumcised thing. With a Jewess, no. And that’s how many intelligent Jewesses saved their lives. Well, and, they checked us, sir, yes, and there was a barn. A barn, sir, knocked together with, like, planks – patches, as we called them. That there’s no way you could match them with the other [sic], understand?, yeah. The slots finger-wide, in some cases two fingers even. The SS-man says, ‘Sit here. Ruhe!’ And I, or someone else asked if you could glance, and he says, ‘You can.’ He opened the door ajar and sat himself at the door, and whoever wanted, could be looking over his head. I sat down, squatted down in a place such that I didn’t, myself, need to… I could see all. So, the thing… // As we were scrambling out of the wagons and walking to the shed, there wasn’t a single German on the platform. A company of Germans probably came in there all of a sudden, apparently, with sticks. And, together, they surrounded that whole platform in, like, a ring arrangement. And, off you get! And those are getting off. And, take everything, yes, with you. And the kids, and those suitcases, those, like, you know, mister. All that’s arranged now. And what’s next? There’s some page walking, neatly dressed, and collecting letters from them. That they had arrived in a spa. For he even said how, what, to write, that German. Was sollen Sie schreiben. That they’ve arrived sound, they’re healthy, are in good humour, and it’s all going well with them. And they were writing this; that took a long time. We did not go to work anymore that day, we were just sitting in the booth. Every line [= family] obtained this, and there were words written down, and that page collected [the letters]. And he disappeared somewhere. He went off with all that. And then came those Germans with rods, and, the segregation happened at once. Yes. Males separately, and women with children, separately. Well, there, already, the things, and here, those sticks are now in operation, going. So far, it was all polite, mister, // yes, man, the German[s]; gave a salute. And from that time on, as they started separating, then, all this, // the sticks swept across the heads, and the men went there to the left side, to the right side there went the women with the children. And, those traps and stuff. One, two, three, those men – right there. And, there’s not a trace of them. They arranged them in fives, and, to the crematorium. To the gas, first.

And then continuing, with the women and children. And all they had, that good [= these goods], remained like that, like, in the open, yes. And then, they took the women, then, the women were placed, in that field. When we were back there, they were in the field with those children. At dusk, on that day. The cars came up, and, a struggle between the mothers and the SS-men, and they had their children snatched away from them. And just like they pick up cabbages in the field, so were those children thrown into the packing cases. He’d pluck, mister, and, into the cases. The normal way, thus, as if… // as I describe it, like you pick up cabbage. Into the case, and that went away. To be burnt as well. And they took the women in the night, so it was clean already for the morning. There wasn’t a trace after, not of one. That’s what it looked. That’s the only time I watched it.95

This one single time was more than enough for the image of the annihilation being watched not only to strongly agitate and become deeply memorable, but also, to become one of my Interviewee’s major biographical experiences, who had himself first-hand experience of dramatic ordeals: first, on the war front and subsequently, in a Gestapo gaol and several concentration camps – and, after the war, as a judge prosecuting Nazi criminals.

Some of the rescued prisoners, who had witnessed the annihilation of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau, go beyond a dry description of what they saw. In their struggle to understand and adopt those images, a struggle that has been going on for several dozen years, they openly ask themselves difficult questions, theorising, trying to understand their own behaviour and their emotions in that particular situation. And, those of today – the ones they sense and recognise here and now, but in relation to, and because of, the emotions of the past:

That was in May, and it was then that the tragedy of Hungarian Jews started. Somewhere around the middle of May the first transportations arrived. The whole circus took place at the beginning. The crematoria were separated, fir branches were entwined among the barbed wire, so as to conceal it. Then, it all fell off, and everything could be seen. Besides, there was no possibility to protect yourself from that. The transportations were going, literally, day and night. Day and night they came along, between camp B1 and B2. And, after the selection, the people walked straight ahead, to ‘Two’ or Three’, to those two crematoria, or, along that diagonal path, [t];here to the wood, to ‘Four’ and ‘Five’. They walked in [t]here, and we walked in the opposite direction, to work, so we and the people walking to be put to death passed each other. It has to be said that it was, sort of, characteristic, to all the people at the camp, that they didn’t want to, // could not, // weren’t able to, I don’t know, take care of others’ affairs. Everyone thought about himself, or of their closest relatives. The death of humans was something, such a, workaday thing. The deaths of thousands of people, that was, in reality, hard to reckon up. Maybe it would’ve been simpler to bow before a dead individual, but, before the thousands? So, those people were walking to meet their death, and we were going the opposite direction, to work. They didn’t know where they were going. They were told lies from beginning to end.

We knew what was going to happen to them a moment later, but, to be frank, we were completely uninterested. To this very day, there resides in me, not just in me, a sort of scourge that one can be that insensitive. For you could not help [those people] anyway. But to feel something, at all…

We were sitting some day on the plank bed, there were five of us on one such deck. There were blankets [provided] already, so-so ones, but there they were; straw mattresses too, with everything extracted, but there they were. And, well, there were things to eat, things to talk about. And when one of the mates asked, ‘Listen, are we still normal people? If one of the civvies were driven in among us, // or one of them stood at the side, what would he say about us?’ ‘But what’s happened?’ And he says, ‘Well, after all, as we’re passing by, and the Jews are walking the opposite direction, to the crematorium, to the gas chamber, we are not interested. Can this be happening under normal conditions, with a normal man?’ And then one of the colleagues responded, saying, ‘You know what? It seems to me personally that it’s not so bad about us yet. Because, at least me, when there are children going along, I am moved, in any case.’ Then we admitted he was right: indeed, the children passing along did affect us.

Whereas I should make the point that it seems to me today that the memory of this today is more emotion-laden for me than when seen at that time. Well, but this is what the camp was like; that was something completely different, that was another world.96

In these various narratives on the experience of being a witness to the extermination of Jews, at such a close distance, we find one more reappearing, shared thread: asphyxiation from the smoke and fetor of burnt corpses. This is not confined to the image of wreaths of black smoke soaring over the camp area, but there is a repulsive odour encoded somewhere deep inside – on the biological, or physiological, level, hard for any rationalising effort to reach. This poison can be recognised and given with a name, but it cannot be removed from the organism:

Auschwitz was a camp of extermination. Enormous transports of Jews arrived there, in the first place. They were killed at the gas chambers, and burned. Not in crematoria at all, why the fuss, eh, with the crematoria. I saw those crematoria, six, eight corpses might’ve been burning there for forty minutes each, so how much could’ve been burnt [there]. And a transport arrived [with] several thousand Jews. So, they got it managed otherwise. They dug pits, threw those gassed corpses into those pits, poured mazut on all that, and set fire to it. And a column of black smoke went up from the pit. When the wind blew towards the camp, that was unbearable. For that was meat and bones being burned, and the mazut on top. Well, later on, I travelled to the United States on the ‘[Stefan] Batory’ [ocean liner] still. It was a mazut-propelled vessel, too, and at times the drift came out of those chimneys, like, that was Auschwitz for me. Abominable.

Asked about the most dramatic moment he remembers, this same interviewee concluded the interview with a statement that may have been obvious to him but it was astonishing for us, who had just listened to his long autobiographical story:

Well, that’s what I said already, this is the smoke above the pits where the Jews were being burnt.97

It is symptomatic that being a direct witness to the Holocaust sometimes turns out to be an experience that is paralysing and, moreover, completely separate and detached from any earlier (and subsequent) prejudices, ideas and concepts, and stereotypes about Jews. This experience comes from a different, deeper, existential level. This is why one of the Interviewees, who would laughingly say whilst evoking his schoolboy years:

I’ll tell you something, I was eight, nine years old, can remember those gudłajs [= Hymies]. I held them myself by those side-locks, drove them across the park, and whatever else; I can remember that.

can afterwards conclude his account by evoking the camp lot of the Jews, which he finds incomparable with his own traumatic experience of the kacet:

That was, sir, the race selected to be annihilated. And there, if he had, of David, that… Star, then he was an enemy at every turn. Well, I personally never held any grudge against them, nor will I hold any. But once a German, or another, saw it, then, shit…98


The elements specified above, which are characteristic to the autobiographical accounts of many former Polish KZ inmates, do not form an exhaustive catalogue of what is common or similar in these stories. Instead of extending this list, however, I would like to suggest certain more detailed similarities, singling out some, although not all, survivor accounts: those that we can initially systematise.

Between the elements that reappear in a number of interviews, if not all of them, and what is unique, singular and individual, I identify a medium level, which by no means undermines the other two categories. What I mean here are similar experiences and, at the same time, similar methods in their (re)construction, which differentiate the various groups of prisoners/narrators. This recognition, based on the analysis of the accounts obtained, audio and videotaped recordings heard or watched, and a repeated reading of the transcripts of not only my own interviews, points to the following three ‘types’ of camp experience, seen in the perspective of autobiographical narrations (thus, the ‘types’ also refer to narratives). The length of time spent in the camp is the factor that most strongly distinguishes the ‘types’, and groups of inmates, from one another. There are, usually, other overlapping differences, many strictly interrelated with the length of time in the camp, and somehow dependent upon it. Let us try and distinguish these differences.

3.1 ‘Low-numbers’

Long-term prisoners, with the greatest seniority, who spent almost the entire war in the kacet – less (or more, for some) than five years. This group is very sparse today among the surviving Mauthausen survivors, and it is obviously the oldest group: those who were born in the second decade of the past century. Today, if they are still alive (most of those to whom we talked are now gone), they are around one hundred in age. Although their group is so sparse, it remains manifest. Their voice is audible in autobiographical accounts taped in Poland as part of the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project.99

This group consists of survivors who were detained at the camp as adults, mature people. But age is not their only common bond. A definite majority, and certainly all my Interviewees within this group, are identifiable with the Polish pre-war intelligentsia. Leaving aside the perpetual discussion around the question of who is to be included or excluded, how to define this social class, and so on, I assume for my present purpose a simple and pragmatic criterion, considering the Polish intelligentsia of the period as those who had passed their high-school finals (so-called maturity examinations) and had been to college, or intended to do so, before World War II. This is an important aspect of the social context they functioned in, and contributed to. One of the Interviewees starts his autobiographical account as follows:

Born: April 15th, 1919, in Warsaw. Father a doctor, elder brother a doctor… // Before the war, I studied at [a]; Philosophy [Department] for two years, under Professor [Tadeusz] Kotarbiński, among others, under the famous philosopher of, still, the Lvov school of philosophy – Professor [Władysław] Witwicki. // The known name[s]. // I studied before the war for those two years, for I got my high-school finals at ‘[Mikołaj] Rej’ [Grammar School], in 1937, as I failed to pass my entrance exams for medicine twice in a row, in two academic years, meaning, until the war I didn’t manage to get in. In spite of the fact that in both cases I had passed my first-year exam with ‘good’, but there were a few hundred others like me, and there were one hundred places, plus ten for Jews. So, one hundred and ten altogether. And in the second year, meaning right before the war, in the academic year ‘38/’39, that is, the second year after my finals, I failed to get enrolled again, for there were eight hundred and several dozen candidates altogether, with 110 [places], of which at least half passed the exam just like me, with ‘very good’.100

The oldest of our Interviewees, those born nearer to the year 1910, were in the midst of their studies at, or had graduated from, a university or college, teacher training college, officer cadet school, or theological seminary. Some worked before the war, doing jobs typical of intellectuals, as teachers, officials or clerks, lawyers, etc. Some established families. Many joined the ranks of the Polish Army to resist the German invasion in 1939 – and this military episode became their only clear memory from the wartime period, beside their time in the camp, of course. Some wanted to join the campaign of the Defence War but did not manage to. The first days and weeks of the war often marked their experience of the first repressive measures, with a collective as well as individual trajectory:

As chance would have it, when the war broke out, together with my brother-in-law, who was assistant lecturer at Poznań University, we resolved to volunteer, around the beginning of September [1939], for the RKU [District Military Draft Office] in Konin. It turned out, once we reported there, that there was no RKU. They had us sent off to Kolno, and from Kolno – to Kutno, and when we found ourselves in Kutno, the battle on the Bzura was going on around us. Near Kutno, that’s the battle on the Bzura. This being the case, we decided to go to Warsaw, for in Warsaw there was an uncle of my wife’s and we thought we might survive the war there. Believing constantly that there would be a front in the West, that the war would come to an end without a disaster. Meanwhile, the war ended up a disaster, and September the seventeenth saw us detained at my paternal uncle’s in Grochów [a borough of Warsaw]. I stayed for some time in the military barracks at Mińsk Mazowiecki, and then, in an Ostrołęka prison; till the first of October ‘39 I was continuously led out to the [train] station in Ostrołęka, as they were to take us away to some camp in Prussia, but the trains that were meant to transport us were coming back from the East, filled with the loot they took from that area, machinery and appliances of various sorts. And they didn’t manage to dispatch us, until the moment the Russian troops came nearer to Ostrołęka. This being the case, we were led out of that prison, to Czerwony-Bór, machineguns were deployed and we were told to escape into the woods, and to the Soviet side. We fled but met no Soviet soldiers. And I decided that from that place, via Ostrów, along the paths I was familiar with, where I had once driven a bike, I would go back to my mother, to Maków Mazowiecki. And in Maków Mazowiecki, I was arrested on the sixth of April.101

Most were arrested in the spring (very many, in April) and summer of 1940, as part of the so-called preventive action against the Polish intelligentsia, called by its Nazi instigators and executors the Präventive-Aktion gegen polnische Inteligenz (or, Polen Aktion). There is no need to add that the keyword ‘Präventiv’ was a cynical euphemism, so typical for Nazi newspeak, as identified on an on-going basis by Victor Klemperer, who called this language Lingua Tertii Imperii.102 What ‘prevention’ most often meant in such cases was a sequence of the following repressive measures: arrest, sometimes in a brutal manner, and detention in a prison or transit camp. Depending on the place of arrest, it could be either the Pawiak prison in Warsaw, Fort VII in Poznań, Radogoszcz in Łódź, Działdowo, Szczeglin, Tarnów, Sanok, Kalisz, of Stutthof, for Polish residents of the coastal area.103 The full list of such locations is much longer. Some were transported immediately after being arrested, setting off for one of the ‘old’, ‘exemplary’ concentration camps in the Reich territory: Dachau or Sachsenhausen, in most cases, and subsequently, having been in quarantine for a several weeks, were dispatched to Mauthausen, or directly to Gusen, its largest subcamp.

Let us pause for a while to consider the experience of arrest and detention. Identification as a member of the intelligentsia was a sufficient enough reason for this, even without involvement in any anti-Nazi conspiratorial activities (though this also happened, quite often). This is a crucial moment for determining the ensuing identity as a prisoner:

Well, and I was in Warsaw… Just like the youth at the time, // the curfew, so there, with a few of my colleagues, we went out to a café in the afternoon. It was a coffee shop, among other things, on 29th April, the year ‘40, at the ‘Bodega’ café, together with two friends of mine, one acquaintance a girl, we were having our coffee, around the afternoon hours. The Bodega café was, you know, as you enter, a hundred metres from Aleje Jerozolimskie Ave., to the left, as you go toward Krakowskie Przedmieście St., in the backyard, and downstairs. There was the Milano Precinct first, and then, down the hill, downstairs, further up there, was the Bodega café, where the very good band the Brodziński Brothers performed, the well-known one. Well, good then, // we were sitting there, suddenly, those few steps from at the upper level, [the door] opened and S[S];-men entered: ‘Alle Männer hände hoch! Aus(?), hände hoch, die Mädchen können sitzen bleiben.’ Oh, we raised our hands, they led us away, to a truck. Three days at Dzielna Street, in ‘Serbia’ [former women’s prison, adjacent to Pawiak] at the Pawiak, and on May the second, I should think, May the second, the first transport to Sachsenhausen/Oranienburg. The first thousand prisoners, one thousand Poles they took from mass seizures also from a few other locations, from some other cafés, like us from the ‘Bodega’. … On the sly, wasn’t it?104

The people who spent five years of their lives at a Lager, only because they had been marked as intellectuals by the Nazis and punished for this very fact, could not explain their situation as prisoners as the consequence of struggle or resistance, with this as the punishment. So, they had to try to identify other meanings for their trajectories. The status as member of the intelligentsia was at times, in a way, an additional burden within the camp – primarily, in their relations with the other inmates who, having assumed their camp functions, gained an opportunity to get something back, show who is in power now, mock and deride those who in the normal world, before the camp, were much higher up in the social hierarchies. A trace of such aversion is visible also in Stanisław Grzesiuk’s Pięć lat kacetu, an important book on Gusen.

Another typical experience: a short stay in one of the oldest Nazi concentration camps is most frequently evoked in these narratives as an important aspect of the individual’s socialisation, preceding the long years of their ‘career’ as a prisoner. Not only because this was where initiation into the Lager and the first quarantine (assembly, physical training, singing) and, in some cases, the first labour assignment, took place:

As I already said, from Szczeglin, they brought us to Dachau. As I already mentioned, these experiences, that first sight of the people harnessed to those great, great rollers, which beat down the street [surface]. This is difficult to recount, when a man, snatched from freedom, sees hell all at once. Some people walking with such sticks, lashes, well, and there began the first Gehenna of my stay in the camp. At a real concentration camp, then, as Szczeglin was a transit one, it was a grange, like, an estate. There, in the Dachau camp, enormous discipline; I worked there with the Gärtnerkommando, we carried the earth for the garden plots. Often we would sit for hours and hours, singing various songs, learning our German. Severity that was out of this world. We daydreamed of freedom, but unfortunately the freedom wouldn’t come.105

There were rare cases where inmates volunteered to be transported to Mauthausen, to do stone dressing, expecting to find conditions there more bearable compared to those in the camp they were at. These hopes turned out to be misconceived. Little wonder, then, the figure of an older and wiser prisoner who warned against going to the stone pit was so strongly connected with this – erroneous – decision:

And I’m saying, ‘I probably have to fly away from this Buchenwald to somewhere else, go to another camp.’ There was an opportunity, there was an announcement that you could apply as Steinmetzers [stonemasons/stonecutters], as professional workmen, up to the age of such and such. And I applied for it. Now, they set us up in the roll-call ground for the departure, and the block guard comes over, I’m telling the truth: an alien man; he was crying, spilling tears; says he, ‘Stay here. You’re not going to Mauthausen: the place you’re going to is a Mordhausen…’ For they knew it, for they had been kept there for several years. They knew, those block guards, the air you’d sniff in this camp or the other. He begged me not to go, but I’d already made up my mind, and went to Mauthausen.

Elsewhere, this man says bitterly:

They were not humans but bandits in Mauthausen, and they were humans in Buchenwald. This was the difference.106

This initial stage of a prisoner ‘career’ is sometimes clearly remembered exactly because one could at that point meet and establish contacts with the elder prisoners. Firstly, with those older in age, brought by the same ‘intelligentsia’ transport, which also carried prisoners much older than our Interviewees, including teachers, writers, scholars, artists, doctors, and engineers. Secondly, with those who were older in terms of camp seniority, being detained at the camp for several years.

It chanced that I found a place for myself in the kitchen beside a pre-war writer, a very famous one. His name was Karol Morcinek, or Kazimierz, I can’t remember now.107 As a Polish philologist, I had him invited to meetings with young people in Pabianice and Słupca. So, I reintroduced myself to him and from that moment on, we chatted, quite agreeably, while peeling potatoes for a few days. I was astonished by one thing: Morcinek, who travelled to Germany before the war, was convinced that the Germans would win – not only as they had won against Poland, but also against France, against which the war was at the time, mind you. He believed the war could last for five years; that if America did not join, then the Germans would surely be the winners; that they would then defeat Russia. And, what was the mood among the inmates? When I went back to my block, I was in block 13, which we explained to ourselves wrongly, because of [unlucky] thirteen, yes. When I went back and told them what Morcinek had said, all my colleagues, and those arrested from Maków alongside me, the teachers, protested horribly against me. Some of them with very indecent words, too. How dare I repeat such things, the war will certainly end in a victory. Germany shall fall, and we shall return home. …

So, I was so mistreated for repeating what Morcinek said. But I told him this, [and] he said that these sorts of thing are said by naive people. He was convinced that he was right. … But on 25th of May, we were gathered at the camp ground in Dachau and the officers in SS uniforms were surveying us, and pulling us out of the ranks. All those who had been pulled out were dispatched to Gusen. I can remember one symptomatic scene. When we, those selected, were back in our block to take our belongings for the trip to Mauthausen, then my block guard, the old communist, said that we should bear in mind that we’re going the highest-class camp, the heaviest one. One where a great effort [would be needed] to survive, but we should believe that the truth has been said, // he quoted it to us, // the truth has been said by Shakespeare, that there is no night after which the sun will not shine. The sun shall also shine for us. And so, with such optimism, in a way, we set off for Gusen.108

A subtle smile and look of affection appeared on my Interviewee’s face as he uttered these words, suggesting that this is not irony or black humour but rather, a specific way of interpreting his Lager experience, and adding sense to this fragment of his biography. This very experience is approached as an integral fragment of the biographies – this perhaps being the major distinguishing feature of the autobiographical narratives of this particular group of former prisoners. A fragment that, as a rule, is much better integrated, understood, and internalised than in the case of other survivors. The five years spent at the kacet and the conclusive survival of it are rarely evoked by these specific inmates as an episode detached from the rest of their lives, one of the wartime adventures, or a ‘biographical breach’. Conversely, this experience forms part of their biographies, and adds to their continuity. Not only were they in the camp but they lived in it, with all the related ambiguity. Therefore, their stories, when compared with the voices of the other survivors, resemble at many moments reports on regular life lived outside of the barbed wire. Apart from the whole hellish reality of the Lager, featured in (almost) all the narratives, this group of accounts offers numerous zoom-ins of the various practices and institutions, imitating their corresponding entities in the ordinary, off-camp universe: prayer, sports, artistic/literary activity, learning, conversations, song. Not all of the narrators participated in these activities, certainly not to an equal degree. But all members of the group in question did see it and know about it. These dimensions of the Lager universe, lesser known to us, were known to them.

Moreover, what these stories most distinctly reveal is the process of growing and being an (increasingly elder/senior) inmate; the process of learning, domesticating the totalitarian institution. It is a slow process, stretched out over time, following a course that was not in a straight line. They had that time given to them: this is one possible perspective of those who have outlived it. That this process and transformation were available to them is part of their experience.

The oldest prisoners know the history of the camp the best; and, they often recount it, intertwining their autobiographical accounts with it. This knowledge is partly of a later date, and thus ‘external’ to what they actually experienced there and then. Partly, however, this knowledge is built upon the experience in question. These prisoners were in a camp that in the end proved to be completely different from the one they subsequently left. As their position within the inmate community changed, and as they were changing as individuals, so was the micro-universe they were thrown into. This change/transformation was taking place at multiple levels: from the purely external, topographical, through to the physical conditions of living and doing work, up to the mutual relationships between the inmates, and those between the inmates and the crew. The kacet, in their accounts, appears not to be a static institution that is not subject to change, one where the same horrifying rituals are merely a reperformable daily routine; it is, instead, a dynamic, albeit long-lasting, transformation process. The experience of participation in that process, the current – particularly, if retrospective – observation of it, combined with reflection upon the place occupied by the narrator within it, all contribute to the unique perspective from which the Lager is perceivable by its elder inmates.

This point of view means that many of them feel themselves to be the host of the Lager – however strange this might sound. The fact that they participated in the subsequent phases of the camp’s functioning, often almost from the very beginning till the very last day, and, moreover, that they constructed the camp on barely barren land, and survived the first, toughest years, gives them a sense of a peculiar domestication. It also gives them access to a kind of mystery that is unattainable or unapproachable for those who ‘walked into a ready-made position’. This initiation usually appears in autobiographical narratives in either of the two ways and, possibly, both at once: the narrator highlights his or her low camp number and/or emphasises that he or she was member of the first builders’ group:

The construction of the camp, inside: the barracks, barracks, roll-call grounds, social area. … Later on, I joined the group of 170 people and we were building a housing settlement for the quarries at St. Georgen. St. Georgen is a small town, very pleasant. I liked walking there, because as I walked, you could meet deer, tamed, as it were. They had no fear for humans, they walked across the streets to the small forest, played around in the meadow. …

The works were progressing. You had to make the foundations, the long-strip footing, the shuttering, the ceilings were poured [with concrete], not slabs; reinforced, underpinned. I was made a builder, by force of fact. One tragic moment was when we built the ceiling wrong, without underpinning it properly. We’re walking, and can see it from the street: it collapsed. Jesus Christ, we know what that means – we’ve screwed it up! Before they could shout, we rushed to dismantle it completely, so it would be invisible. [laughs] No one spotted anything. Or maybe they did, but pretended that none of the interested parties could see it: the Baumeister, the Kapo, the Oberkapo who assigned the tasks and knew about everything. We quickly dismantled it, and, [started] anew. Snip, bang, chop! – done. I was the main pundit for those matters. One [of them] was a tanner; another, a priest; yet another, an engine driver. I gathered them all, and managed [the team]. Somehow it worked out. We made the cellars, poured the ceilings – all in order, fixed, done.109

And now, a grimmer experience of labour, and the overwhelming conditions:

I was merely shocked by the terrific primitiveness and chaos, compared to Dachau. As I saw those wooden barracks made of planks, unpadded, the street paths were merely set, unhardened, there was ordinary ground. It was dry, it was good, but when the rainy days came later on, the mud was ankle-deep. An open cesspit was dug near each of the barracks, fastened with rails to serve as a toilet-seat and to hold [yourself] up, as an abutment. And there was one tap with running water for the whole barrack.110

The hopeless situation during the first moments after arrival is evoked in a number of these stories. This emphasises that those senior inmates were the only ones who encountered the Lager conditions in their worst form, as a very peculiar building site:

Gusen was only just being built. This is probably the worst moment, when you arrive at a camp of this sort. A concentration camp, subsequently called a camp of, de facto, extermination, and a camp under construction. Well, [we] were gathered in that, so-called, roll-call ground, we saw some barracks standing there, a lot of construction materials, boards, bricks. The roll-call ground was not hardened yet, just sand. … Our block was a tiny barrack made up of slats. The boards were such that the outside showed through.111

The oldest of our Interviewees often call Gusen the camp for the Poles or, more frequently, the camp for the Polish intelligentsia. Or, they quote the German description, which suffices for the Lager’s earliest period: Vernichtungslager für polnische Intelligenz (i.e. extermination/annihilation camp for Polish intelligentsia). Indeed, Poles accounted for the largest group of its prisoners. The first transport of Polish prisoners arrived there from Buchenwald (via Mauthausen) on as early as 9 March 1940; the following, with 1,084 people, came from Dachau. Poles accounted for most of the Gusen victims, too. Emphasising the ‘Polish’ profile of this particular camp is today an important element of the collective memory and commemorative practices of the milieu of the former inmates of the Mauthausen camp system. Obviously, it contained not only Polish inmates, as the camp has multiple national memories: Spanish, French, Czech, Russian, Italian, to evoke just a few. The most prominent are featured at the celebrations of the consecutive anniversaries of the liberation, held annually on the site of the former camp, in the middle of a charming locality named Gusen, right where the camp was built.

Very frequently, these oldest prisoners emphatically refer to the fact that Mauthausen-Gusen was officially classified by the Nazis in January 1941 as a so-called concentration camp of the last, third, grade (Stufe III) – one of the most stringent rigour, particularly severe conditions, and potentially highest mortality rate. This was the only camp classed as such at that time.112

The beginning of the camp route at Gusen was almost identical for all Poles arriving with these first transports: constructing the camp infrastructure; working in the quarries; stone dressing. The camp was constructed in order to mine and exploit the deposits of quality granite, using pre-existing or newly created stone pits. Hitler’s design was to use the stone for the construction of ‘his’ cities; one such city was Nuremberg, with its enormous Reichsparteitagsgelände – rally grounds for the Nazi party. The inmates who worked at the Gusen quarries tend to emphasise this purpose of the granite they were mining. Their awareness of this fact is possibly later, but it helps rationalise the labour experience:

In that camp, when I was moved to the Steinmetzer floor, I was very quickly taught by one of the Poles who worked there how to machine the stone slabs, the large ones. Our camp had a bog contract with the SS Headquarters for the production of granite stone, with which Hitler’s great stadium in Nuremberg was to be built, projected to be the world’s largest stadium, one that could hold 150,000 spectators, where celebrations were to be held … . We initially processed those great slabs of at least a metre in length, half-a-metre in width, and you machined the face, that is, the front, but you had to smoothen it so it could fit at the appropriate point. So, you were given the pattern according to which you needed to do [it]. You had to work carefully, as with any inadvertent processing of the top, that external section, it was easy to knock off the rim. And then, you’d lose everything, you’d lose it. And for that, there was a punishment: from five to twenty-five lashes with a, what do you call it? Used for dogs – the thong, not the thong; well, like, a whip, scourge. The bullwhip.113

Only the beginning was the same for everybody: the subsequent camp experiences appear increasingly varied, and this diversity is difficult to show here. It is more important to recognise what is characteristic to this group of survivors, what I have already mentioned: the process of becoming an ‘old Häftling’, a ‘low number’. This marked a gradual adaption to living within the Lager world, always connected with performing better, lighter work, even if within the same ‘occupation’. Some processed stone until the liberation; but even in their case, the memory of the work performed in 1945 is not quite like the story of their first labour in the camp, in 1940:

My colleague and I formed a group of two stone-machine workers. With the use of a tiny chisel and a small hammer, I would carve a small groove along that line, so if it rained, the trace made by the civil foreman would not be washed off. At a distance of around every ten centimetres, my colleague bore, with a pneumatic hammer, holes that were ten, twelve centimetres [deep]. With a hammer that made the holes with compressed air. As we made these holes along that line, every ten centimetres, I, as his assistant, would insert tiny cast-iron wedges into these holes, knocking them with my hammer, and that rock, that shapeless solid, splintered, so that the place where it separated was even, like a sheet of paper. Thus, the foremen could see how the stone was constructed inside. When my colleague became tired with hammering, for this required much energy, we swapped. He made the grooves, I was making the holes. I worked there as a Bohrer till the end of my stay.

Many, however, did a series of different jobs in the course of their inmate ‘career’:

After that work, I worked as a Steinmetzer with a number of other Kommandos. That is to say, I worked on the regulation works for the river Gusen, which was not far from our camp. We dredged the river there. That was also very pleasant work, for our Kommandoführer S[S];-man was a very tolerant man, nobody was lashed by him. The Kapos were also very likeable, given the German Kapo standard. The mood there was very good. And I always had nice recollections of that work, till my last days at the camp. Because the Kommandoführer, being German, an SS-man, was a very quiet, pleasant man, and the Kapos were likeable too. After the Gusen River regulation was completed, I returned to the camp, and started looking for another job …. The point was not to get beaten, and for the work not to be hard. I worked with a few other Kommandos. Finally, I got to a Kommando which built big underground factories. We drilled tunnels and factory floors in the mountainside, not far from Gusen. In those tunnels, they began assembling fuselages a year later. That work was not so hard. The only thing was that, as the Poles, the inmates, who had working there for some years told us, the work was actually not quite safe. These rocks hollowed by the prisoners fell away from time to time, and crushed, those rocks, the people and the equipment, and the trolleys used for removing the debris outside. Fortunately, nothing bad happened to me there. The war was coming, little by little, to an end anyway.

Some of the senior prisoners pointedly evoke the important moment when the functioning of the camp was redesigned: rather than stone mining, assembling aircraft in underground tunnels became the main economic purpose. Many of them found better jobs for themselves in one of the armaments factories. The fact that the work performed there required an apprenticeship or training, some relevant competencies, is extremely important. Apart from the Kapos, or instead of them, the workers were often supervised by civil foremen. To train an inmate took some energy and time. More individualised relationships could develop in such circumstances. It was worth not losing this asset, as the priority had already switched from exploiting the prisoners for exploitation’s sake to intensified armament production. Entangled in this business were the interests of specific armament companies, which manufactured the equipment by using prisoner labour. This switch in priorities saved quite a few prisoners. It means a perceptible (although not to all, obviously) change in the way the inmate workmen were dealt with – particularly by the Kapos, who could no longer kill their Häftlings with impunity as this would result in a loss to the workforce, something that those in charge were now not in a position to afford.114

Some among the senior inmates managed to be offered the particularly privileged posts: the minor functions of gardener; block scribe; interpreter; surveyor; kitchen worker; hospital assistant; SS sickroom masseurs. There was a number of such functions and performing them was often connected with frequent, individualised contacts with members of the SS crew. Characteristically, as the unrestrained autobiographical narrative unfolds, this experience of privileged status is not infrequently kept in the background, playing second fiddle in the story of the inmate’s severe hardships – those from the first days, weeks or months of detention. This is, perhaps, why it is only the latter ones that easily fit the (stereo)typical history of survivor, who unambiguously remains perceived as a victim throughout, in any and all situations. On the level of the interview, as an interactive situation, this can be interpreted as the Interviewees shunning a narrative that could expose them to a loss of face,115 to the potential disapproval of some of their camp-time behaviours, attitudes or roles. Even more often they tend to protect or defend their camp mates – so as to completely prevent their goodwill as former camp inmates from being affected by the faintest tinge of doubt.

This type of interview situation only relates to some of the individuals investigated. The others do not activate such inhibiting measures, make no objections or reservations, or ask for the taping equipment to be switched off. This group of Interviewees treats us as mature listeners, and they freely continue their narrative on the subsequent stages of their Lager route. Yet, they also might pause to reconsider, from time to time: “Please do not let everybody know, because the people might interpret it in a completely different way”.

As I am willing to consent to this request, let me quote, instead of a conspicuous image, another passage, recounting the experience of a senior, privileged inmate assigned the job of gardener:

One day, [as] we’re still standing aligned, he comes up, van Loosen,116 and asks if there’s a Rasensetzer among us in here, that is, the one who does the sodding. I’m saying to myself: I’m an old scout, I got awards for arranging various flowerbeds; so I stepped forward. The Oberkapo ushered me over and ordered that I do the sodding around the locks, so that some flowers could be planted, something like that. My leg was hurting! I had had my brace taken off already, but my leg was still stiff, I was doing exercises, fastening a stone to it, to exercise it. He led me there, I’m making the flowerbeds by these blocks. My mates were bringing the sod, and I was doing the sodding. I was the boss, sort of, but I was doing the jigsaw for myself. As I was doing it, it was almost fine, ‘cause the block guard would go, serve me a bowl of soup, which he’d had left over, sometimes a piece of bread, extra. I had [it] for myself and for my colleagues who were with me there. This lasted for some time. Of those blocks how many I rearranged I cannot remember, they were very decently done. The Arbeitsdienstführer is walking past one day, the one who took care of the gardeners’ Kommando (Gärtnerkommando). He’s walking past, watching, walks past me, and says to me, ‘Bist du Gärtner von Beruf?’ [Are you a gardener by profession?]. I reply, ‘Jawohl.’ [Yes, sir.] What else could I reply? – ‘Welche Spezialität haben Sie?’ I got it somehow, and what I said was, ‘Meine Spezialität ist Blumengärtner.’ He replies, ‘Mensch! Das brauche ich so eine. Von Morgen kommen Sie zu mein Kommando.’ [Man! I need one like that. As from tomorrow, come join my Kommando.] The following day, of course, I’m no longer going to the Lagerkommando, to van Loosen, but to the Kommando of the Gärtner instead. There, the point was that I was a specialist, the Blumengärtner, near Führerheim, it was a sort of ground where a garden needed to be laid. He took me there, and gave [= delegated] there one more mate of that Kommando of gardeners. We were arranging everything according to plan. We stayed in touch with the proper gardener. He was a teacher by profession, but knew his way around horticulture, he had kept a vegetable garden. He assisted us in all those matters, we sought advice from him, and other things too. We planted a number of shrubs, flowers, other things, the garden was ready. It was there that I worked afterwards, in that garden. That was, obviously, a much easier task.117

A privileged position such as this was sometimes used as an opportunity to arrange help for fellow inmates. This thread permanently appears in this group of accounts, one probable reason being that such assistance is considered by the narrators to be an excuse for their holding such a privileged position. It enables the narrator to explain their reasons to their interviewer (unnecessarily) and to themselves (perhaps most importantly). Let us follow a subsequent fragment of this same account, as transcribed, in order to take a closer look at this characteristic combination of both threads within a sense-making and logical narrative. In this conception, membership in the camp elite means camp service, done at the peril of one’s life.

At Führerheim, they were bringing food for the S[S];-men, but for the higher-ranking ones, warrant officers, officers of the S[S]. As they were bringing the food, something would always be left in the cauldrons. We were walking, with my mate, with buckets to fetch water, you’d pour the water. We worked, our camp organisation was operational. We got the task of passing one pail per day to the quarry. A colleague was there to collect it. Well, and so we did this. You’d put the food inside the pail, and leave it aside. Our mate set up the stones by himself, made a screen. … In this way we passed on the buckets, the bread. …

Once, those S[S];-men were hungry, ate everything, [left] the cauldrons empty. We told our colleagues this, and they said “Don’t wait till they’ve eaten then, but just as they bring it in, pour it out at once.” And that’s what I did. They brought that food, and no pouring anymore, but just putting the pail into the cauldron, and that’s it; as much as could be ladled, I took away. You’d just lift it up, and fill it. The German who had his booth there, he walked one way, then another, and thus you had to target it.

I’m with the pail, it so happens, he turns, whistles to call me. My colleague left the pail, as he’s escaped, and I am there by the fence. And so, the show is over. Then I say to myself, my life’s finished. He obviously came up, took the pail off, and noted down my number. …

Earlier on there’d been an incident once we already had flowers in our garden, when one of the chiefs of the S[S];-men’s company comes over to me and says, ‘Gärtner, besorge Sie mir ein Blumen [?]. Meine Frau morgen hatte Geburtstag.’ I’m saying that I cannot give them [the flowers] to him, for he has to bring me a permit from the camp Commandant. ‘Noch mir, ich [?] das Brot.’ I say that I’m afraid. ‘Kein Angst, kein Angst.’ We made an agreement. I say, ‘I’ll lay the flowers under that bush, and you’ll bring the bread [and put it] also under that bush.’ I made up the flowers, put them there for him, he came, took the flowers, I took the bread, and, everything’s fine. That was repeated perhaps two, three times.

Now, as he caught me with the pail, I recalled to myself. I had never been to an S[S]; barrack. I enter that barrack, the machine guns are standing upright, arrayed. Like in any barrack, here’s the door, there’s the door. Only that I knew which door, for I had once brought him flowers, to the window. I had reckoned it to myself before that it’s going to be this door. I entered the barrack. I knock on the door. I hear, ‘Come in!’ Well, then I open it. As he saw me, he said, ‘Was machts du hier?’ He started shouting at me, that I’m not supposed to enter this place, that there are machine guns, how did I enter?! He scolded me for a while or so. I say that something misfortunate happened, that I was passing a pail to my colleagues, to the quarry, with food inside, and the guard who is there took down my number and took the pail away. I say, ‘Looks like I won’t be able to bring you flowers, Commander.’ He rebuked me and says to me, just go away, and never do anything like this ever again. He saw me as far as the door. He led me through the whole barrack, fifty metres’ long. I went off, and only afterwards realised. If I hadn’t been in such shock, I wouldn’t have walked in there. I thought to myself than that’s the end of the story of my life. …

After such an incident, I ought to have been hanging somewhere on a pole, or been reassigned a Kommando, or, to a penal company. There were a thousand different things, but there was the belief in surviving somehow… You did things, although you knew you were not supposed to, but you had to do them in order to bring your mate a piece of bread, a bowl of soup. We didn’t stop passing the soup at all. We passed it to one another, just in a different way, from a different side of the fence, not above but below it. In this way, as I’m saying, under such circumstances, where you were exposed to death, somehow you managed it, and survived.118

These extensive fragments – from a much longer, multithreaded micro-story – are worth quoting as a number of accounts of one’s own privileged status in the camp have been constructed in a similar manner. Their pivot is a painstaking climb up the camp career ladder. Not quite a ladder, really: climbing a steep rock, it would be more appropriate to say – with falls sometimes happening, alongside help offered by others. Not only by other inmates but also by so-called good Germans, including good, or decent, SS-men. Over time, one becomes able to extend such a helping hand to those who perform poorly while climbing, or who have begun their climb at a later point.

Rather frequently, attaining a better position is preceded by a fall from higher up and a closeness to death. This is sometimes evoked in terms of a psychical crisis, a loss of faith in the point of climbing, breakdown, suicidal thoughts. It was not only the eldest prisoners who had such thoughts; those who were a little younger, who were a few years behind them in the camp, were also affected; the duration of their stay was still long enough for a radical fall to occur in their camp career. Such a fall is followed by a rising.

I say, I’m going to end my life. There was an inmate walking by. ‘Off you go, off you go.’ I was eighteen then, no facial hair. I don’t know what, why, a miracle? ‘Off you go, the war’s going to end! There’ll be no war in three months’ time! What’re you up to? Suicide?! There’s no war!’ I say, ‘I cannot walk. Have you got a piece of bread?’ ‘I have.’ There was a Kommando at block 12 who caught fish in the Danube. They walked with a net. There they dried and roasted [the fish], in the bathroom. [One of them] says, ‘Roast yours’; well, I burnt the bread to a cinder.

What power did I regain! I had been so subjugated that I was powerless. When he said, ‘The war is over in three months’, I don’t know how come that force was sparked. I took that coal, spread it. I kept all that. A happy man.119

This motif of ‘going to the wire’ (i.e. throwing oneself onto the wire) constantly reappears in survivors’ stories, particularly those of long-term prisoners. They would frequently witness the following occurrence:

The camp was surrounded with high-voltage barbed wire. In Gusen, there was somebody going onto this wire, to find deliverance, almost daily. Even one of our co-brethren, a seminary student, went too, a young lad, a violinist, a very joyous man. He was completely languished, believed himself the worst among the sinners.120

Yet, there are accounts where, in line with what researchers into Lager reality have found, the survivors emphasise that instances of suicide were a rarity in the camp; this is true even for suicide attempts:

You were beaten, you stood up and pawed the wall, but still wanted to live. I have never met a man who would say to me, ‘I’m going onto the wire, I’m fed up.’121

More frequently, however, it is not one’s own choice but a matter of being pushed down, downgraded, a concussion from the outside that causes a fall and suddenly brings one closer to death – the danger that had seemed remote for a while. In a flashback, this experience of falling is also constructed as a warning signal, if not a turning point. Somebody or something helps them narrowly escape death; sobered up, the individual starts from then on to even more actively solicit his or her position, withstand and resist the camp machinery. The stories of this particular moment, the concrete experience of transformation, always refer to an incidental happening or occurrence, a stroke of luck or divine providence. For the narrator, such a story becomes a substantial element of the metaphysics of their own salvation – and, one of the most pronounced fragments of the narrative.

I was a Dolmetscher [i.e. interpreter] in there for two-and-a-half, almost three, weeks. … And, after this two-and-a-half weeks or so, I had my face messed up a few times, and Martik had me sacked. He sacked me for a very simple reason. He wanted me to be like a warder [Polish, sztubowy], he lashed down at the Spaniards for any old thing, you get me. And in the beginning, I was pretending, for that was normal, when he is somewhere near, then you shout, ‘Du dreck Schweine!’, and so on, and so on, noise and hullabaloo is raised, you lift your hand [to strike] for the hell of it, so he could see. But he at last realised that I had that truncheon, so that I, as the warder would come and whip them, which I didn’t do, and so he fired me. And I resumed the carrying, for around a week, eight days, I returned to block 6, to stone carrying. As I was back, // Aha, over that two-weeks-and-a-half, I had eaten my fill, quite; // there was a top-up refill, more bread, margarine; as that block guard was stealing, since he shared his portion with the warder, then it’s quite plain how the prisoners were robbed. And to me he always gave a refill and more bread, // so I put on some flesh, a few kilograms, over those goofy two-weeks-and-a-half. And I resumed the stone carrying, with my boy [assistant]. The mates say, ‘Stefan, what, shit, Stefan, why, how comes you’re here again? How excellent you look. Where’ve you been, in the sickroom?’ And I say, ‘No.’ // That’s exactly it, what I’m recounting to you at this moment, what it was like.

Encouraged by these stories, one famished prisoner resolved to go to the barracks and look for bread in the cabinets of the prominent persons. He was caught, and tortured. He said he was induced to go there by my Interviewee. The ensuing consequences were rather obvious:

Suddenly, ‘Dolmetscher von Block neunzehn, antretten!’ [The interpreter from block 19, step out!] runs through the camp. Initially, it didn’t quite get through to me, and finally, someone from my block said ‘The Dolmetscher, they’re calling you, aren’t they?’ … I enter and see that boy of mine, with whom I carried stones. Beaten, kicked black and blue, semi-conscious, he’s lying hunched up, like… As I entered, Martik, the block guard, asks him, ‘Das ist der?’ and he’s pointing at me. … From the beating, kicking and so on, the semi-conscious boy pointed me out. Of course, in the normal way: in the face, stool, onto the stool, hands behind. I was hung up on a beam. Yes, they kicked the stool away, but that’s a piece of cake. ‘Fess up! / I… [laughs] What is it that I should own up to? For no reasonable man would [own up] to such nonsense, to have someone, a boy, sent off. I didn’t want to admit it. They started beating me …, [? with the handle] of a shovel. Once I got… // twenty, the twenty-second, or -third, time, // Zbyszek Donimirski, who witnessed this, told me that exactly. I was completely semi-conscious, // no… // I didn’t want to fess up. I fainted. When I fainted, then they poured water over me. And then, same thing again: ‘Fess up! And I, reportedly, // just as Zbyszek told me, // I cannot recall it. At last, I nodded, ‘Yes.’ I owned up. And altogether I was given fifty-nine lashes.

This is not where the story ends. The narrator was put onto a harsh construction Kommando, but there, during the course of another lashing, some other Kapo and the SS-man overseeing the construction site discovered how badly he had previously been tortured. As they had their own scores to settle with the other tormenter, they used the opportunity against him at once. This was a stroke of luck for my Interviewee: he ended up cured at the Lager hospital, an opportunity that enabled him to become, later on, a medical orderly with the Soviet POWs and, afterwards, a masseur for the SS-men.

I returned to the block, the following day in the morning, the Kommando was going do Sankt Georgen, for Sankt Georgen was being built, a housing estate for SS-men. … And me, with this arse of mine, which turned black later on, in only twenty-plus hours. // I’ve got the spots, after all, they are not big, they are, like, on the two buttocks. // You know, I got to Sankt Georgen, where there was a very bad Kommando, because, first, you had to walk three kilometres, though there the labour was fast, for there were blocks getting constructed for S[S];-men, that’s also under the stick of the Kapo, etc., etc. So I started carrying cement there. And at some point, he swiped the stick at me again, the Kapo. And I then said, ‘Nich auf Arsch schlagen, Kapo. Nicht auf Arsch schlagen!’ [Don’t beat my arse, Kapo!]. And he’s asking, ‘Warum den nicht? Komm mit mir.’ [Why shouldn’t I? Come with me.]. Because I was shielding myself, like, with my hands. To the Kapo’s shack: ‘Zieh deine Hosen unten.’ [Take off your trousers.] As he saw it, and [there] was also the Unterscharführer, // supervising the construction site on the SS’s behalf. As they both together saw my black backside, they grabbed their heads in disbelief, and that Unterscharführer, who was a sort of decent man too, immediately… …

But since Helmut Becker who had beaten me was disliked by the fellow-prisoners, including a large share of the Germans, his colleagues, as well as the S[S];-men, those who were in touch with the inmates, that is, the Blockführers… … Coincidentally, that one, the Unterscharführer to whom I showed my arse, says, ‘Who beat you like this?’ And I say, ‘The Lagerälterster.’ ‘Becker?’ I say, ‘Jawohl.’122

This is not yet an end of the story, where the Interviewee’s memory opens further and more new threads are conjoined into one coherent story. We can pause at this point, as we can now see quite well that the attained position was never given for good; it was extremely easy to lose one’s function, and slide down the camp hierarchies (if not to be killed immediately). Such a fall is a reappearing motif in these stories. Or, as in the previously quoted gardener’s account, there is a risk of such a fall, a fear of it. Once lost, the position is virtually unregainable: the area has been ‘scorched’. One then has to seek another, possibly no worse, position elsewhere. Sometimes, the outcome is successful.

There were situations where it was particularly difficult or completely impossible to regain a position. The moment a senior inmate was moved to another camp created a situation that was completely different from the aforementioned short-term stays at Sachsenhausen or Dachau at the very beginning of the camp journey. It is also different when compared to the situation faced by those prisoners who were many times relocated, from one kacet to another. I will now focus on those inmates who spent almost the whole of the war in one camp, to be finally detained in Mauthausen-Gusen, where they spent the last months of the war. This change appears to be a separate experience. For many prisoners, it signifies a passage to another world, although the two resembled each other so much externally. This is what the man who was brought to Gusen in January 1945, after more than four years in Auschwitz, says of this moment:

I find it hard to compare. These things were incomparable. First, I was the whole time in Auschwitz, and so know the whole history of Auschwitz. The hardest hell to have been through was in the year ‘40, ‘41, ‘42. Then, it became a little relaxed. … Gusen II made a dire impression on me. When you come to a new camp, then you have to start everything from the beginning. I had already had a certain position in the camp, in Auschwitz. I had, given the camp conditions, a good job. … It was under a roof, most importantly… I had no lice. You were not supposed to get lice, for we were in contact with the SS-men. … We had a separate bathtub …, bathing was obligatory. We knew where to steal the food from. … And there was no other option. Simply, none. Just eating from the cauldron. And that’s it. And the food from the cauldron was very, very meagre. Because a whole series of concentration camps, on evacuation, were dumped there, after all.123

In many of the senior prisoners’ stories, the privileged position is connected not only with the assistance they extended to others: also characteristic to it was participation in the camp’s ‘second life’ and the offering of various forms of resistance, as these actions are called by their participants. This is obviously not about armed resistance, but about creating inside the camp certain social spaces that imitate the ordinary activities of free people: participation in the forms of entertainment available at camp; attending the ‘walking university’ lectures; singing with a choir; sporting activities; writing poetry; membership of an organised religious group; participation in poetry contests, and the suchlike. With these varied activities, emphasising their ancillary function with respect to the young, or junior, confused Zugangs, is important. As we hear, this was another method for the ‘seniors’ to protect the ‘juniors’ against the Lager hell.

Sometimes, this particular dimension of the experience of the eldest Häftlings, their ‘second life’ in the Lager – an aspect that tends to be neglected, if not depreciated and satirised by many an ‘ordinary’ former prisoner – assumes the level of a crucial dimension in these autobiographical narratives. It constitutes the primary sense-making filter through which the entirety of one’s time at the Lager tends to be interpreted:124

Well, it was then that our Kommando was dismantling that shrine and, well, everything that was there beside it, the planks, went into storage, while we took off the statue of Our Lady and the cross. So, when the camp’s Commandant came over one time, asking, ‘Wo ist Madonna?’, where are those things?, // to our Kapo, // and the Kapo says, ‘The Madonna is here.’ But he’s asking that [sic] a cross was there too. ‘Wo ist [das] Kreuz?’. So he says, ‘I don’t know.’ He asks, ‘Wo ist [das] Kreuz?’. I’m saying, ‘Well, I don’t know, we’ve only taken this.’ They knocked off, destroyed everything, then [it was] made of timber, I think, then, it’s broken. And, the Kapo says, ‘Indeed, that was of timber, that was broken’, etc. And so, let’s say, that one didn’t say anything; they took the Madonna away. And we [kept] that cross [hidden]. But once you had it hidden, then you’d never take it off, till the very end, never remove it, and indeed, we returned and brought [it with us] to Poland, as a beautiful keepsake, as a beauteous gift. Which means that it attests that you lived for your beliefs: that you’d survive, that you have to bring these documents [referring to a hidden cross and rosary made of bread, as elsewhere mentioned by this Interviewee – PF’s note], for them to testify to this spiritual force of man, that in spite of taking the risk, he believed in something, had faith, of some sort, that he’ll have been through it. That was what you needed very much in those moments: to avoid getting depressed. …

A secret organisation was operating already at that time, which aimed at lifting the spirits, providing mutual aid, taking care of the juveniles. // And at this point, a great bow, huge bow to the professors, the men of science, who, suffered like any inmate – fright, fear, hunger, poverty, indigence – yet they were still strong enough to take care of the younger ones, complement the education of the young in there. This consisted of so-called ‘threes’, that is, just two participants and the professor who came over, doing it during time off work, when this was assigned for relaxation, such as in the day, or evening. Then, you’d walk between the barracks, or across the roll-call ground, well, you were supposedly talking, because more than three at a time were not supposed to walk together. The professor was in the middle, and we, at the sides, the two participants, and that’s what you called the ‘walking university’. We were walking, and those were lectures from various areas of science. Superb lecturers, and never ‘in plain clothes’, never could you learn so much, or absorb as much knowledge, as you did then. Whether it was that particular thirty minutes, or some other – this is hard to say. You lived in that moment, thinking about the lecture the whole day, it strengthened your spirits, and they said that there shall be a Poland, although we are in camps, prisons, you the young people need to be prepared, for Poland will be in need of you. Meaning, they didn’t break down, or crumble, that it’s all finished tomorrow, or the next day, although it’s all the same to everyone, you never know what’s going to be there in an hour or two. And we should make a huge bow to those men of science, who, instead of taking a rest, ravenous and emaciated as they were, rescued those younger ones. Well, they also took care of those younger ones, for there’s the hard work in the stone pits. And on the other side, they were also the main engine behind that cultural and educational effort. So, secretly from the authorities, various soirees, evening gatherings were organised; that means, what did it consist of? You’d make an appointment for this or that block, a covey of the insiders would gather, one would stand sentry, to watch for the Gestapo man coming, and various concerts, or whatever else, were held there. Polish ones for the time being, and later, of various other nationalities. You made friends with many other nationalities, colleagues from the various nationalities.125

Among these ‘most senior’ voices, we can also hear others which do not recall anything like this, cannot find any such idealising consolation, nor even begin to look for it. For them, the camp remains a cold, cruel, ruthless world till the very end. No notion of helping the others is raised whatsoever; on the contrary, the distance between the ‘old’ and the ‘young’ is emphasised. This distance forms an abyss that separates the different, mutually incompatible experiences. Given such a perspective, the two groups are both within the same camp merely in physical terms:

It was the year ‘42, the block guard reported that the count for the block was three hundred. He says, ‘You’ll report two hundred tomorrow.’ Meaning, he would have one hundred inmates killed during the afternoon and the night, the block guard. Well, he had his Kapos at his disposal too. He walked around, when we were already in our beds, taking down the numbers. He didn’t record any older prisoner, I mean, by seniority, rather than age. They were afraid then of the older inmates. Just all the novices. The novices, they went without anything. I don’t know why. No one moved.

There is more than impotence to this: there is also a reproach, a grudge held against the ‘novices’, as they were so passive, would not offer any resistance, and just let the butchers kill them. The reproach does not extend to members of the group the narrator belongs to: those older in seniority. They could simply stay in bed, as the executioners were afraid of them. The memory and evocation in our conversation of that particular scene, interpreted in such a ‘dispassionate’ manner, with no room for compassion or pity, corresponds with the other generalisations offered by this narrator:

Believe me, I should emphasise it now that I never saw, during the entire five years of my stay in the camp, an SS-man beating, kicking a prisoner; an SS-man, uniform-wearing functionary. Only the inmates were murdering. And what some others write about a coexistence like that, about a camaraderie – that’s lies. Indeed, there were cases of comradeship, but [between] two, or three men who knew each other from the same area, but generally, man was really like a wolf to another man.126

This caustic judgement has not prevented this Interviewee from evoking the situations where older inmates extended their assistance to younger ones, gave them more food, organised ‘second life’ institutions to detach those juniors, be it for a while, from the overwhelming first one.

As we can thus see, a stay of several long years at a kacet can lead to various generalisations, and completely differing interpretations. There is a shared tendency to put them into words; a conviction or, perhaps, a sense that a lengthy inmate seniority makes the survivor an expert, a connoisseur of the Lager issues. It gives him a special right to express interpretations whose purpose is not limited to adding sense or meaning to one’s own specific experiences: they are constructed as commentaries on the camp experience in general; the camp experience as an abstract.

Many of the oldest inmates tell us not only about aiding the weaker and the younger ones in the camp, but also about a sense of responsibility they had for the others after liberation as well. Many of them (although not only the eldest participated) helped organise a transit camp for the Poles waiting to be transported back home, and acted as wardens of such transports. The camp veterans who returned before the others sometimes assumed a messenger mission, notifying families about the situation of those who still remained in Austria and were to return later.

I bade farewell to the camp, I bade farewell to the colleagues who remained there; we encouraged them to write letters to their home country. I took 237 letters from the inmates in my knapsack, on various types of paper, with the addresses, and which I was supposed to drop off at the first post office [I would come across] after my arrival in the homeland. I was to post them, and they were to reach their homes [= destination]. The letters reached the country indeed. …

We were returning home, expecting great things there; we encountered terrible disillusionment. Once the train arrived in Dziedzice, the Czechowice-Dziedzice station, at the frontier, [we went directly] from the camp, Soviet soldiers greeted us. They made us stand in a file and searched our luggage. And whatever they liked, they took. When I was being searched, I talked to the soldier in Russian. Then, our prisoners asked of me that I absolutely must request to talk to their officer and complain that we were being robbed. I did that. I explained that these people are on their way back home, where they were from, who they are, what a gross crime this was, that we were being robbed. The soldier, the officer, called those soldiers, said that they would be punished, they might even be executed by firing squad for that, and ordered that everything be given back. But that was a terrible hardship for us. …

On 15th June [1945] I travelled to Poznań, to see what was going to happen with my potential job, in the future. To the curator’s office of Poznań, which was in operation already. Taking the opportunity, I paid a visit to the Głos Wielkopolski [a local periodical] editorial offices, and there I placed a brief notice saying that I had returned from the camp of Mauthausen-Gusen, that anyone interested in what might have happened to members of their families [who had been] sentenced to Gusen are encouraged to request me, at my Słupca address, // to request information, since I was well versed in the camp situation, with several years’ stay at the camp behind me. And soon after I received more than fifty letters, from various regions. Also, years afterwards [I was receiving] various greetings of thanks from those whom I had first announced good tidings… I kept these letters, as an interesting memento.127

Even so, there were some far more dramatic recollections of the messenger mission assumed by the senior and well-versed former prisoners. Today, so many years after, these reminiscences have not conveniently settled in the memory, and now appear in the narrative far from polished. Once evoked, they cause much pain:

And, well, we reached Turek, // having already gone past the lanes, that’s what they’re called: the lanes, and we’re driving into the narrow-gauge railway station in Turek. … We can all see that almost the whole of Turek has gathered at that railway station, ‘cause Jasiu Herman phoned Turek before. They apparently let everybody know there in Turek, for it is not a big town, after all, and almost the whole of Turek was now gathered. And they’re all waiting for their fathers, grandfathers, sons, who had been deported. They’re waiting. Once we drove into the narrow-gauge railway station, we hear a fire brigade band playing, some joyous anthem is what they’re playing. Trumpets, drums, all to greet us. We all disembarked, we were all moved to tears, even the tough guys from the camp. We were moved to tears as we had returned to Turek. And, at this point, some of them ran up asking, “Where’s this one, where’s that one?” And we had agreed in advance that we’d be telling them they’re going to be back later, as for now it’s only us returning. And they’ll come back later. Perhaps they’ve stayed for a while in Austria, some even applied for conscription in the army, but return they sure will. We knew very well that there was nobody else to return.128

Acquaintance with the Lager universe – or, to be more specific, the sense of such an acquaintance – is characteristic not only for individual senior prisoners but is, moreover, a feature ascribed to those in the oldest group – by themselves as well as by the whole milieu of the former Mauthausen-system of concentration camp inmates. Although so scarce in number, elderly and ailing, often not fit enough to be actively involved, not participating in meetings, commemorative celebrations, trips to Mauthausen, etc. – they are lastingly memorialised by the younger inmates. The latter evoke the former as their recognised authorities. It often happened that some of these younger inmates referred us to their older colleagues, seeing them as experts in Lager-related matters. And the oldest usually knew one another quite well, remembering each other from the camp as well as from various post-war meetings. Some of them cultivated collegial, or even friendly, relationships. The experience of the long years spent at the camp – almost from the very beginning (construction of the barracks) until the very end (liberation) has been the basis for the consolidation and reuniting of this milieu. The bond between the old Häftlings proved, in some cases, resistant to the differences in their philosophies of life, religious or political views and attitudes. This bond also played an important role in creating an objectivised story, a historical narrative, of the Gusen camp. The author of a few basic studies on this camp says of his methodology:

To this matter, // to camp matters, I was attracted by my camp mates. I kept in contact with my friends from the camp, now scattered across the country. … I began working on the history of the camp from 1972 onwards.

I think that what I have recounted is a very brief summary of what is in those books. The book is not my memoirs; it is a third-person [singular] report on the camp. It is, besides, mainly a story of what I have gone through myself or observed inside the camp, but this as confronted, generally, with what various colleagues can remember in this respect. I have handled correspondence with fifty-two acquaintances from the camp; with such outstanding inmates, on whose accounts I could depend. Much of that [= material] has been accumulated.129

It is perhaps worth adding that the first and, possibly, still the most important monograph on the Mauthausen camp, as the headquarters of the system, was authored by its long-term inmate Hans Maršálek, an Austrian.130

I should like to discuss the ‘low-number’ inmates: the survivors who were released from the camp following imprisonment of a few or so months. Although rare, such incidents did take place. A few Interviewees we have talked to did indeed experience release from a kacet, rather than the liberation. Their autobiographical reports on the beginnings of the camp experience, arrest, transport to the Lager, construction of the camp infrastructure and the first months of functioning inside the space, fit well with a typical ‘old Häftling’ narrative. But what then follows is a sudden separation of their stories and the group memory. The camp trajectories of those who were released early are incomplete; their voice appears considerably softened, amidst the voices of the other survivors. Their stories do not quite fit as building material for the collective memory of the former inmates.

Yet, these voices are softened to a varying degree, depending on the reason for their release and the interpretation they give, which would enable this experience to be integrated with the rest of the camp autobiography. This is why those who were released on the arbitrary decision of the Germans – just like the one which put them into a KZ – find it much easier to tell their stories.

On certain occasions during a prisoner’s stay in a camp, somewhere far away, some legal action was being pursued with respect to their case, without them knowing, and was finally concluded with the decision to set them free. This decision would be delivered, according to the law – unmindful of the arbitrariness and absurdity of keeping all the others detained at the camp:

One evening, we were called to the hairdresser, who shaved us. We were wondering what’s the shaving for, and they said that we’re going to be released tomorrow morning. As I learned, I had been sentenced in Pszczyna to six months, while seven months had passed, and for a month the local German police were looking, with all those merchants, with the Germans, for evidence that I had persecuted Germans. Only when I got out… then I discovered that they had been coming forward asking for an opinion, but no one would say anything bad about me, and I was therefore released after the seven months.131

In some cases, no strong rationalisations of this kind appear, which could be used as a backup when it comes to interpreting the atypical experience of release from the camp. The situation can, in such cases, be familiarised, discharged, and given a biographical meaning, precisely by emphasising its arbitrariness – as one of my Interviewees, an ‘old Auschwitzer’, number 44, has done. The narrator is, moreover, aided in this by the date of 1 April, excellent for the purposes of such an interpretation:

I was released on April Fool’s Day, // I was released on the 1st of April. And I’m standing at the roll-call, and that’s that Bumbo, // as I was on my way back to the camp, the doorkeeper, that small midget, says, ‘You, verundvierzig [number forty-four], have been released.’ And I say to him, at first glance, “No stupid joking around!” Well, in any case, I growled out something to him, impolitely, in reply; I fell in, and heard them read the names. They released forty-eight of us then. They’re reading my name? They’re not, so I run up there, to hear. Palitsch reads out that by means of order of the Commander of the camp… // I wasn’t sure whether I didn’t mishear the German, or [heard it] well, // but I can see, everybody beside me is joyful, as we would be released, but only in three weeks’ time. We have now to be trough a three-week quarantine, to pull through.

The absurdity and incomprehension of the whole situation are obvious when recalled once again:

But can you figure it out that I, until then, // as I’ve already told you, // I don’t know how on earth, what influenced it so that I was released, carefully and exactly. Once I got to know about it, I thought that my parents might have ransomed me. But I returned home: utter poverty, you had nothing to eat at all. The father’s got no work, the mother’s got no work, there are three brothers at home, one of them, moreover, with a wife and a little child. I returned at Easter, then you had nothing to feed yourself with, even on the holiday. My mother got some pierogi [dumplings].

The release experience is the toughest to tackle, though, for those who cannot explain it in terms of the absurdity or, otherwise, the rationality of decisions made by Nazi functionaries. For those, that is, who had a sense that the decision was somehow dependent on them; that they helped produce it, that they could have contributed to their early release. Although the developments were usually dependent not on them but on their families, their fathers and mothers, it is they who grapple with the burden of guilt. Not because they are guilty, or because their parents are to blame as they got them out of the kacet: the reason is, apparently, that the collective memory of the experience of confinement in the concentration camp offers no room for their narrative. This makes their own voice barely audible – and, probably, unknown to many; and thus, in turn, it is seemingly astonishing, completely separate.

Among my interviews with Mauthausen survivors is a conversation with a prisoner who was released as a result of the endeavours taken by his mother. In order to save her son, this woman decided to sign the Volksliste. It took us many long hours before my Interviewee shared this piece of his experience with me. Before he opened up, I had been trying hard to put the pieces together and comprehend his fragmented Lager story: instead of having some characteristic ending, a powerful culminating point, it was becoming completely blurred. Our meeting was important for my Interviewee. It was perhaps one of the few at which he decided to tell his story to an ‘alien’. He had been afraid to do this to his colleagues from the former inmate milieu; in spite of a strong need to unburden himself, he remained on the sidelines. He made it at the last moment, so to put it: he died three months or so after we had met and talked. Let us pause for a while at a fragment of his laborious, softened story of his experience of release:

I… // You were allowed to write a letter home once in a month. The letter would be censored, but I managed to smuggle a message to my family that I resembled uncle Andrzejewski while… // I knew that uncle Andrzejewski had died before the war, which means, I let them know that I was having a very rough time of it, well, and… // Then, as I learned afterwards, my family, especially my sister, who was right after me in the sequence – Henryka – contrived that ‘we should get him out of there, in whatever way’. My mum had been displaced from the housing estate and lived in Chojny, and there Mrs Larkowska, the owner of the house, cottage [coughs], said, had she pulled her son out of a concentration camp, // and she said how she did this. She said to my mother that my mother ought to sign the Volksliste and, afterward, // make a demand. To demand of the Gestapo, request the Gestapo that I also be released, set free. Well, and, since my mum wasn’t initially willing… but, at my sister’s instigation, she consented. She consented… // But, she had great difficulties, as she didn’t speak German. My mum had no command of the German language. She found it very difficult to communicate. She’d always go with the Larkowska lady as an interpreter, for that lady spoke perfect German. [silence]

And, well, sometime after, they called me, at the camp, to the chancellery, told me to sign some document, I didn’t even read the document, I signed it. And they told me I would be released. But since there was, // typhoid broke out, and no-one was going to be released right then, so I still had to wait three months till the szpera [from the German Sperre = ban] would be abolished, which means, the ban on leaving the camp would be abolished.

Well, and I came over, after… [pondering], after… one year and a half, // no, one-and-a-half years?… // After nineteen months in the camp, I arrived home. Well, I arrived home, but it turned out that I had to report to the police, // and it turned out that this, on… // My release and the signing of the Volksliste by my mother, // well, it wasn’t quite all for the best with us, because my brother was conscripted with the German army. They took him to the army board, classed him as an ‘A’ and, well… // he got a notification that he’s supposed to report to a German unit.132


The reconnaissance and diagnoses spun so far with regards to long-term political prisoners in Nazi concentration camps have primarily referred to the accounts of survivors of Mauthausen and its subcamps – particularly, Gusen, the ‘most Polish’ of them all. But, if we set aside the aspects related to the specificity of this concrete KZ, the above remarks can also be made about the survivors of other camps, who spent several years in them. In the Polish memory landscape, a special position is assigned to the most senior Auschwitz prisoners, in particular, those who were brought to the camp with the first transport, the so-called Tarnów transport, of 13th June 1940. Few of them are still alive today, but those who are continuously gather at the annual anniversary celebrations held at the site of the former camp. It is significant that the celebrations are held in the middle of June: rather than the date of liberation, the date on which they were put into the Lager is meant to determine their identity as (former) inmates. Those first Auschwitz inmates – the camp pariahs of 1940, who later on, in 1943 and 1944, assumed a privileged, at times prominent, position – today form a group that keeps possibly the strongest guard on the Polish memory of the camp.133 This memory sometimes competes with the Jewish memory of the Holocaust, with a strongly marked emphasis on the difference between Auschwitz and Birkenau – and they demand that others bear this difference in mind as well. Here is a passage taken from the account of a former Auschwitz inmate in the first transport, who for many years served there as a barber to the crew, including Commandant Höss himself:

I have to add one more thing. // I should’ve said this at the beginning. There is an erroneous concept of Auschwitz in the world, generally: ‘Auschwitz is the Holocaust only, nothing else’. Of course, my colleagues and I were the first to go into Oświęcim [i.e. Auschwitz]. Poles only were in Auschwitz till 1942. The first Czechs arrived on 1st June 1941. There arrived the first group of Czech political prisoners, but otherwise there were just Poles. A wrong idea. Auschwitz was established in order to destroy the Polish nation: the intelligentsia, the youth. Absolutely. I say it everywhere and always. The following stage was the Holocaust, but that came later. Initially, Oświęcim was set up with a view to liquidating the Polish nation.

Speaking up repeatedly for the presence of a narrative of the Polish experience of Auschwitz does not necessarily imply a blindness to the Holocaust experience. It is, rather, a repeated cry that the camp route followed by the group of inmates with which this narrator identifies should have an established and powerful place in the collective memory. Elsewhere this Interviewee talks about being an eyewitness to the extermination of Jews:

That was a slaughter that is unutterable in this world. Unimaginable. A mother is walking with a child, keeping it beside her – they are all going to meet their deaths, for nothing, for the fact that they are humans. For they were born Jewish. I might not like Jews, but those are terrible things, beyond comprehension. We, the people who saw all that and who were there, we cannot believe this ourselves. This is unbelievable. This is impossible to describe. Those were horrible things.134

But let us now resume the thread of differences more subtle than the one between the Polish and the Jewish experiences of Auschwitz. The differences within the Polish experience of kacet, and the autobiographical narratives of Mauthausen survivors – the area I feel most familiar with – will be explored further.

3.2 Concentration camp as punishment and wartime ‘adventure’

A different type of Lager/kacet narrative has been developed in the stories of those survivors who were put into the camp after having lived several months under the Nazi Occupation, during which time they had experiences other than those in the camp. They were arrested in the years 1941, 1942 and 1943 (less often in 1940 and 1944) with the charge of conspiratorial activity (from armed struggle through to transporting Polish Underground printed matter hidden in a bicycle frame) as well as for grosser offences committed while kept as forced labourers or escaping from the forced labour site. Some were also incarcerated in place of a member of their family who had been found guilty of an offence.135 Extremely varied pre-camp and post-camp experiences are included in this category, which makes it difficult to see these cases as a relatively homogeneous group of survivors. However, attentive listening to these voices enables us to recognise the similarities – not so much in the camp experiences as incidents of ‘there and then’ but, rather, in the ways in which they are evoked within the perspective of an autobiographical narrative.

The camp trajectories of these individuals are part of their wartime trajectories, coming as their consequence and crowning, if not their culmination. The experience of the Lager does not, thus, fill these autobiographical narratives to the degree it does the narratives of their older (senior) camp colleagues. And if it does, it does not appear as limited to the one camp of Mauthausen or Gusen but extends to the several camps they were consecutively kept in.

Mauthausen, Gusen, or any other subcamp of the Mauthausen system was the place where they faced the liberation. The experience of being a freed prisoner/survivor of Mauthausen is an important landmark for our Interviewees in their self-definition as former inmates of this particular camp. This moment is, moreover, decisive for their affiliation with the circle of former Mauthausen inmates and their participation in the commemoration rituals practiced by this group.

For those survivors who, in the course of their prison career, went through a number of KZs – many such being represented in this group – the stay at Mauthausen-Gusen was the last stage of their multistage camp route. In some cases, there are so many stages that the narrator tends to lose their sequence, and misplaces the events (“I am a bit confused about whether it’s Vienna or Gusen”136) – which is especially true for those least proficient in the deliberate and systematic evocation and narrative processing of such stages. For those more accustomed to making a narrative effort, the narration of each of the consecutive camps is constructed as an autonomous narrative form (though intertwined with the other ones), a certain self-contained whole.

For the narratives of this particular group of survivors, such autonomous status is often present in those stories describing what preceded their stay at the camp. These stories are often as developed as those covering the Lager events. Everyday life in the pre-war or Occupation periods is rarely the subject matter, as these registers of daily life usually become blurred in the narration of the individual’s memory, exceeding their narrative potential; instead, pronounced wartime experiences enter the memory, ones that prove crucial for their personal identities. These typically include conspiratorial efforts or forced labour (including the completely diverse experiences of working ‘under the Bauer’ or being an industrial worker); arrest, imprisonment – in some cases, in several Gestapo-run gaols or remand centres; transports from one detention/imprisonment place to another; and, lastly, being put in a concentration camp.

Even more multilevel and complicated are the autobiographical stories (and biographies, in a colloquial meaning) of our Interviewees who, after the war, were persecuted by the communist authorities for their participation in the ‘inappropriate’ conspiracy. In these narratives, the more individualised trajectory of the repression suffered after the war overlaps with the wartime trajectory. This obviously informs the interpretation of their Lager-time experiences, the meaning given to their own (and not only their own) survival and, later on, impacts on their attitude towards the veteran and camp prisoner organisations that were active in the People’s Republic of Poland (specifically, the ZBOWiD).

Some members of this particular group of Interviewees – constructing their autobiographical narratives from a few or a dozen or so autonomous stories concerning various wartime and post-war experiences – interpret them as a sequence of events, adventures, or episodes that occurred in their lives. And although each of them is instrumental in telling a separate story, they often become united under a common interpretation that enables us to construct a single coherent autobiography from them. The integrating factor, the one that gives an autobiographical sense to the various experiences and ordeals, is, in most cases, Divine Providence, a miracle, a lucky accident, and the suchlike, which have enabled these narrators to go through and outlive all that, and to survive. But, there are also some pretty measurable, concrete rationalisations. Both meanings appear mutually complementary, rather than exclusive. Diverse metaphysics and rationalisations function within one story.

If practised earlier on, built from with a distance, and with gusto too, such autobiographical narratives sometimes become animated, gripping adventure stories, peculiar eposes. The other Interviewees obviously construct similar stories too: not only those who had been arrested and imprisoned ‘as a punishment’ but generally, those telling the personal stories of their lives. It seems, however, that those individuals who had gone through so many diverse wartime and post-war experiences tend to build such autobiographical epics more often than the others.


Let us now take a somewhat closer look at the few characteristic moments in the diverse narratives of the survivor group in question.

One of our Interviewees, arrested in July 1943 for his involvement in the conspiracy, gaoled at the Gestapo headquarters in Kielce and, subsequently, in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Gusen, states the following at the beginning of his account:

By 1940, my parents had already been members of the conspiracy, and I was therefore also made part of it. Earpieces and gloves for [Major] ‘Hubal’ troops were sewn at our home, and I transported them to the nuns, the Dominican nuns. There, I was hosted by a man who carried them to the vicinity of Końskie. I brought three greatcoats, and fifty complete earpieces and pairs of gloves.137

This passage directly follows the Interviewee’s initial self-introduction; in fact, it forms part of it, as the conspiratorial lineage is an important aspect of his self-definition. This becomes even more visible as we learn, further on, that the narrator in fact became involved in conspiratorial activities at a much later point. He was only thirteen in 1940. A similar thing happens in another story, with the difference that, here, the narrator’s actual engagement starts at the beginning of the war. The third and the following sentences of this account, right after he gives his name and date of birth, read as follows:

As the war began, as the Germans entered Włocławek, we gathered, a few people, including my sister, two years older than me, and we set up, // actually, it was my sister who set it up, the Kuyavian Political-Literary Union. We issued newssheets. Obviously, these newssheets were issued [i.e. produced] with a duplicator, because that was the only way to do it. There were items of news from radio recordings, from radio monitoring. There were items of literary news, something to raise the spirit. Well, and they were getting spread about. It came to the point that everyone was waiting for that newssheet. There was a whole host of distributors. Everybody was barging into that Union. And, well, that lasted for the whole of the year ’40, until the arrest, // till the year ’41.138

A definite majority of the Interviewees, former prisoners who were arrested once ‘as a punishment’, confine themselves to the vague statement that they were active in the conspiracy, delivering newspapers or leaflets, sharing information, etc. In most cases, just a general remark is made that the structures they operated within or worked for were the Grey Ranks (Szare Szeregi), Home Army (Armia Krajowa), National Armed Forces (Narodowe Siły Zbrojne), etc. They often have no relevant knowledge or prove unable to locate their own activity within a broader historical context. But, even though their role was very modest and is now referred to at a distance, in a detailed yet peculiarly non-historical manner, this particular biographic thread is always there – even if expressed in an impersonal fashion:

So, in Poddębice, it was listened to and that was transmitted; the news was, of course, also… from the ZWZ [i.e. Union of Armed Struggle]. We received the instructions, for the ZWZ was at that time, out of which the AK [i.e. Home Army] was later formed. But first, there were various organisations, later it was consolidated into the ZWZ; finally, the AK emerged. …

But sir, well, I had nothing to do with arms. Just the gathering and transmission of the news between the region’s headquarters and the district headquarters. So, what was going on, what transports were going, how they carried the Jews away, to Łódź. Well, then, then on the following day they had it signalled to the district headquarters. So, these matters were shared very quickly.139

In some of the stories, this involvement in the conspiracy is merely one of the wartime ‘adventures’ – a less important one than the other, more absorbing and moving adventures. They are moving for the Interviewee and the listener, and, probably, for the reader of the transcript:

And together with my brother, we decided to escape from the Germans, because the Germans were drawing close, as we had learned, to Łódź, // or maybe they had those first bridgeheads of theirs just there in Łódź. And we went by bike eastwards. Many various adventures on the way, but these are commonly known: the bombings we survived, the flights, contact with the troops running away. Lastly, crossing the Vistula, you know, where we could have had a bad end right there, as the bridge was collapsing. But finally, we reached as far as Łuck [today, Lutsk in Ukraine], and there we worked in a hospital, my brother was a second-year medical student at the time, he’d already have some contact with that medicine, so he assisted with the dressing, and I was there, a sort of, ‘pass-me-the-brick’ [i.e. helper/labourer], // I served those who were injured a little, washed things sometimes, etc.

And there we were, // there were a good number of Polish soldiers, in that hospital. And there were even such, // two [of them] were from Westerplatte, I can remember. They were killed there, anyway. There was no way to rescue them, but there was one, such, a picture that startled me. That is, there were two physician captains, wearing Polish uniforms. And, // the Soviets had already come there. And, // I can’t remember whether they were well-oiled or not, but, in any case, they were walking and they, those ones, the Soviet soldiers, shot them in the back, just like that. I saw those two doctors being killed, when they simply walked home, in the evening, after work, you know, and then we decided to go further on by bike. We took the bikes with us, and we went on by bike. And we went to Lvov. My brother studied in Lvov, and there, there was a friendly apartment, some Ukrainian woman’s place, in any case. Well, it was very hard, the Russians were there already, everything was changing, there… it would be too long a story to tell, but we had there… // We had to queue for bread there, it was hard.140

In many an autobiographical account, it is the conspiracy-related fragment of the story that triggers the liveliest emotions in the narrator, proving far more important than the other adventures; proving crucial. The phrase ‘(confirmation by) oath/swearing in’ is strongly emphasised, and the story of the conspiratorial experience refers to the official military language and soldier’s jargon. Pre-war military men and those who partook in the Defence War of 1939 in particular excel at it. The distinguishing features in these narratives are the noms-de-guerre of the commanders, troop names, dates, etc., evoked as the story unfolds.

I was sworn in, in February 1940, by Mr Sowa [then using the name Stefan Lelek (Transl. note)], a Senator of the Polish Republic, who very shortly after the oath was taken was detained, together with his daughter, by the Gestapo of Lublin, and executed. I continued to organise the Resistance in the Kraśnik county [powiat] area, and from there I was transferred from the ZWZ, with which I had sworn my oath, to the Home Army, in February 1941. As I knew that area very well and had it worked out, I was entrusted with the organisation of Kraśnik District [Obwód Kraśnik] and Janów-Lubelski, the organisation department, with the title of Officer for Special Missions. I’ve got a document confirming this, in case you’d be willing to read it. The document says, “Captain Rymsza, nom-de-guerre ‘Rębacz’, Deputy District Commander.” My district commander, // I don’t know his exact name, for he had several IDs, for the names: Kaczyński, Kaczkowski, Kaczorowski, with the nom-de-guerre ‘Zygmunt’.141

In some cases, the moment of the oath swearing appears even more distinct:


ISBN (Book)
Open Access
Publication date
2019 (April)
narrative analysis biographical memory concentration camp experience survivors‘ testimonies Polish political prisoners World War Two
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 439 pp.

Biographical notes

Piotr Filipkowski (Author)

Piotr Filipkowski is a sociologist and oral historian, who works as a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is co-founder of the biggest Polish Oral History Archive at the History Meeting House in Warsaw. He currently publishes mainly on oral history theory and practice, as well as on qualitative methods in social sciences.


Title: Oral History and the War