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Oral History and the War

The Nazi Concentration Camp Experience in a Biographical-Narrative Perspective


Piotr Filipkowski

This book is rooted in the author’s experience as an interviewer and researcher in the Mauthausen Survivors Documentation Project – the biggest European oral history project devoted to a single Nazi concentration camp system, realized in the years 2002/2003 at the University of Vienna. Over 850 Mauthausen survivors have been recorded worldwide, more than 160 of them in Poland, and over 30 by the author.

The work offers an in-depth analysis of Polish survivors’ accounts, sensitive to both, form and content of these stories, as well as their social and cultural framing. The analysis is accompanied by an interpretation of (Polish) camp experiences in a broader biographical and historical perspective. The book is an interpretive journey from camp experiences, through the survivors’ memories, to narratives recalling them − and backwards.

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

←57 | 58→←58 | 59→

3The 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 ←59 | 60→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/ ←60 | 61→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 ←61 | 62→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 ←62 | 63→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, ←63 | 64→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 ←64 | 65→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 ←65 | 66→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 closeups, 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

←66 | 67→

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 ←67 | 68→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.

←68 | 69→

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.

←69 | 70→

That this struggle is only partly effective is perhaps most frequently manifested in the thread of the nightmare, recurring in many a story, with the plot taking place at the camp, or inspired by that experience.85 Here are two examples of such nocturnal torment:

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

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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 ←71 | 72→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, ←72 | 73→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 ←73 | 74→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, ←74 | 75→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 ←75 | 76→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

←76 | 77→

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 ←77 | 78→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

←78 | 79→

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.

←79 | 80→

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

←80 | 81→

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 ←81 | 82→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 ←82 | 83→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:

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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 ←84 | 85→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, ←85 | 86→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 ←86 | 87→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 ←87 | 88→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

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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 ←89 | 90→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 ←90 | 91→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

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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 ←92 | 93→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.

←93 | 94→

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, ←94 | 95→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 ←95 | 96→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 ←96 | 97→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

←97 | 98→

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 ←98 | 99→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 ←99 | 100→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 ←100 | 101→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 ←101 | 102→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:

←102 | 103→

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].

←103 | 104→

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 ←104 | 105→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:

←105 | 106→

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 ←106 | 107→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 ←107 | 108→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:

←108 | 109→

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 ←109 | 110→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

←110 | 111→

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:

In the Polish Armed Organisation [Polska Organizacja Zbrojna], I had [the nom-de-guerre of] ‘Brzóska’, // and when I was referred to the Home Army, I was then ‘Feliks’. I was confirmed by oath with the Polish Armed Organisation; with the AK, I took no oath. I can remember the opening: ‘Appreciating the responsibility for the armed actions taken by the Polish Nation, I henceforth join the Polish Armed Organisation. I solemnly swear …’, and the whole sequence of those various solemn assertions: ‘that I shall …’142

The moment of apprehension/detention/arrest proves to be a crucial moment in the story, whether the Interviewee finds his (or her) involvement in the conspiracy to be his (or her) key experience before the Lager or evokes this aspect in the background of many other wartime adventures, often much more intriguing ones. This is a distinct turning point in the autobiography: the moment they go from the state of freedom (albeit freedom under the Occupation) to the state of slavery. ←111 | 112→The transition is all the more severe as arrest as a punishment frequently implies cruel treatment, lashings, imprisonment (in several prisons, in many cases), and Gestapo interrogations. These repressive measures, not infrequently torture, are so severe also because they are inflicted on an individual basis, affecting the person detained and interrogated for their individual faults – not for being an anonymous part of a group. This experience is entirely different from being a victim of mass detentions as part of the action aimed against the intelligentsia of spring 1940, or mass deportations to the camps during the Warsaw Uprising (August to October 1944). It marks a radical entrance in one’s individual trajectory – even when the arrest embraces a larger group of conspirators:

The Germans got to know something was going on there, arrested the five of us, had two shot right after they were interrogated, and three of us deported to… // to Zawodzie, there, to the prison, and in that prison I stayed for some two weeks, it was the year ‘43, August; // in late August/early September. I can’t remember the exact date. … So, I… // was beaten dreadfully, so beaten was I, I’ve got a description of the illness here, // after the war, when I returned, I was cured; I had my bottom so battered that I had blood and water flowing out of it for the whole two years in the camp. …

As they interrogated me, // for I was interrogated, the last one, was beaten up, // Gerwaz was beaten up so badly that they carried him away, and me too, but when they interrogated me, then, it was, // first, here, at the Gestapo, right? ‘What organisation are you a member of?’ I say, ‘I don’t know any organisation.’ ‘But what newssheets do you read?’, the German says, in Polish. I say, ‘Kurier Częstochowski’, for there was one like that under the Germans. ‘It’s not about those ones, it’s about your ones.’ ‘I don’t know any at all, I’ve got nothing.’ ‘OK then, and who is your commander?’ I say, ‘The commander, aha! It’s Marchewka.’ Says he, ‘Gerwaz, he is your commander.’ And it was indeed him. I say, ‘He is a commander with the fire brigade.’ ‘Not like that, is he in that gang’, says he, ‘is he the commander?’ I say that I don’t know of any gang. And then he opens the cabinet, and, various weapons, various stuff, the partisans, as they had various such remade ones. ‘Well, which one was yours, show me.’ I say that I haven’t been in the army at all, I’m not familiar with firearms. And then, they started beating me so; he says, ‘You’ll own up!’ Then I lost consciousness; so, they carried me out, to a Gestapo cellar, I was to see that cellar again after the war as well, there was this tin-covered door, and we had nothing to eat or drink for two days, nothing.143

The Interviewee part of whose account has just been quoted was arrested for his involvement in the conspiracy, which, as was frequently the case, became known as a result of a ‘giveaway’ from somebody who had been detained and ‘crushed’ in a similar investigation procedure.

←112 | 113→

It also happened, however, that arrest came as a surprise, with no specific reason behind it whatsoever – resulting from a coincidence, or from resumed repression for some previous ‘faults’, such as participation in the September 1939 campaign:

The Ukrainian police were ferreting out, // catching such persons, better versed, // the organisers, better drilled and trained, and liquidated them. Beside me too, around me, // there were many incidents happening, they’d make an assault in the night, surround the house, carry away those individuals, the men. And they went away, a kilometre or two, to the bushes, they shot them, and went back to the station. Based on the news // that reached me, I was oriented, one hundred per cent, that some day… the same thing would happen with me. I was wary. And, so, there were still a few such incidents, and finally they came to my place too, but I took precautions and so they didn’t find me there, and they failed to grab me. But I then had to be, like, cautious, stay at home less, and… Now, the question: what to do about myself? Where to be?

But I resorted to a solution in that I had quite a number of acquaintances from my military days; various addresses, and I visited some of the soldiers, those who had survived, and usually in large cities, such as Warsaw, Radom, Kraków. You could hide easier there, in a big city, than in a village or in a small town. I used the opportunity // of that, of that guard, but eventually, how did it happen that I got to the camp? This will perhaps be the most interesting point.

And, I was on my way back home one day, // cannot remember now if it was from Krakow or from Radom, via Lublin, and in Lublin there was a change of train, and there, in the night, the German gendarmerie rushed into the railway station, and they drove everyone into one corner, and carded them. I crawled into the hands of the police, the Gestapo. And the young ones like myself, I was twenty-seven then, // were picked up, I can’t remember exactly, but over twenty, twenty such youngsters, the Gestapo took us to the car, and, to… // to the prison. Well, interesting… // I was curious as to what’s going to happen then. What are they going to do with me then? And, in the morning, // the gendarmerie, the Gestapo, called up each of us, based on the ID, which station [each of us] reported to. And they called up my station, and that’s the Ukrainians – they were chasing me. And, as they received the reply: arrest, contain, homicidal to the Germans. [silence] And, from the remand prison I was carried to Lublin Castle. I think… where? What sort of a prison was it, the Castle in Lublin! I passed through a Gehenna there.144

Some Interviewees evoke the arrest in terms of a casual occurrence in yet another sense: the reason behind it might have been guilt for something other than what the narrator himself/herself considers primary and actual. A story of these traumatic events told in this way helps put them into perspective – even if, in certain cases, by ridiculing those who used to inflict pain. Here is a fragment of such a reserved, somewhat cynical, interpretation of this kind of experience:

←113 | 114→

Stupidity. Essentially, as I’m, already now, from the perspective of the years, as I’m pondering to myself, and still when I hear them talking of the wisdom and order of those Germans, then I’m boiling with anger. That is stupidity, isn’t it, so much so that it hurts. Well, then, what they made of me, to make up a prisoner so dear and warded. I was, literally, not active with the conspiracy. I admit, I was with the ZWZ, yes, but I had no activity with them. If, however, I were be asked or interrogated about the foundry [the site of sabotage actions, referred to by the Interviewee earlier in his account (PF’s note)], then I’d feel miserable. But they, just figure it out for yourself, gave the accusation of a Landesverrat. I knew my German to the extent that I did know about the Landesthing, that it’s a country, something of the sort. But, a Verrat? // Staying in that cell, in isolation, I didn’t know for a few months then what Verrat was. Not until [I asked] the one who brought me the down: ‘What is Verrat?’ ‘Ah, son-of-a-gun’, says he, ‘that is a traitor.’ They made me a traitor of the country, so, how should you look at that, it’s like I’d have betrayed the Germans. And I meditated long on where such an accusation might’ve come from. First, strictly political. // Stupidity. // I’m afraid of the Germans. // Second: why a traitor of the country? And meanwhile, they had incorporated that Coal Basin [Zagłębie] in the Reich [the Interviewee lived in Dąbrowa-Górnicza in Silesia (PF’s note)], and that would just fit them like this. After all, I was kept in an elegant cell for these four-hundred-and-twenty-plus days. I had everything in the cell.

Let us stay with this story for a while, in order to see how central to the autobiography of this particular prison is the experience of the stay in an isolation cell. This is the climax of the whole story. My Interviewee has attached a special symbolic meaning to it: not only was it his most traumatic ordeal but it was also a time for him to self-analyse and redefine himself. This moment has been decisive in a number of his subsequent life choices. None of his earlier or later experiences is evoked in a similar manner – be it his stay in Auschwitz’s condemned cell, or, afterwards, in Mauthausen, or any of its two subcamps (“I have good memories of the work there”), or, marching in the Death March.

Well, and I was constantly serving time, serving time, and serving time… I ended up in a disastrous condition, such that later on, before I left for Auschwitz, as we were gathered in one cell, I couldn’t crack a smile. Nothing. // Well, you’d completely, you’d completely… // You would have to go through it to know, to be familiar with the furnace. … I haven’t met such a person, // in any case, it didn’t befall me to meet and talk to anyone who had served time for more than a year on his own. And so… // Later on, [there was] Auschwitz, not too long either; then on, the transport to Mauthausen. Well, there was that too.

And, when incited to tell me about his single day in the isolation cell:

Well, then, I was plucking that down. … That was a blessing. There, what you get is completely different stories, there are psychological stories, so, those various considerations… // The Decalogue, and whatever else I could think about different things… // And, there was an incident when the Poles were not given any books to read, [un]like ←114 | 115→what happens now in these slammers, mister: TV sets, all those things… And, I open the door: a book. Then, I caught it. The Germans were given books to read. Well, and that book was the weekly Las [‘The Forest’]. And the whole year’s issue stuck into one volume. Well, so then… // And I browsed it there… // I had [it] for a week, maybe two, and then they found it and took it from me. A nice forester’s house was there. And this was the time when I was considering what I should be. If I could survive at least – as is known, the prospects were vague. An episode, just like this.

This picture is complemented by a sentence uttered in the opening moments of this interview, when my Interviewee, constructing his concise biography, says this about his post-war professional activity:

Later on, I embarked on fulfilling my gaol-time daydreams – working in the forest. That was a successful outcome. I worked in forestry for a dozen or so years.145

For this Interviewee, the experience of arrest and of the term served in prison before going to a kacet is particularly spectacular, distinct, and important. But his voice is not unique or isolated. Imprisonment and torture or interrogation reappear in numerous stories told by former camp inmates of this group, oftentimes revealed as the most traumatic occurrence in their lives. That its construction in an autobiographical narrative is of such a peculiar type possibly also stems from the fact that it is an impetuous entry into the trajectory, forming the beginning of a series of traumatic experiences. The initial one is (being) experienced the most intensely, since it occurs all of a sudden, by surprise, coming as the first (in a series). Nothing like this had occurred to these Interviewees ever before. The initial occurrence paves the way for the subsequent ones: once you have been through the Gestapo’s gaol and tortures, you can survive the camp too. Once the first, so strong, blow was withstood, any consecutive blow, the concentration camp included, seems not as strong, and is easier to bear.

The following fragment suffices to illustrate these findings. Juxtaposed against the experience of interrogation and torture at Gestapo prisons, the departure to the camp seems to be an act of salvation; such a motif reappears in a number of narratives.

Well, the [= my] reminiscence from the stay not exactly in the gaol but at the Gestapo is painful, in the sense that I still bear traces of that memory, I spent a month in the hospital unit. In spite of my having, let me put it bluntly, owned up, ‘cause I didn’t know… // I was perfectly aware that they knew everything by then about me, for, had they arrested just me alone… … But once they had already arrested Nawaliński, then I realised… … This always in combination with one more individual, Kosowski, that they knew everything; they counted on learning something more from me, while, well, nothing from me… // Even if I wanted to tell them, I wouldn’t have known. ←115 | 116→They wanted to force me to tell them that I had… // that he was then a director of an electricity establishment, then they wanted to force me to tell them that he was also a member. Well, I couldn’t own it up, for I, well, didn’t want to tell, indeed, so I said, well: ‘I’ll tell you, but this is lies.’ … They stopped tormenting me thanks to an intervention from a German doctor, who told them not to take me back to the Gestapo anymore. Once he forbade it, they stopped beating me, but I stayed in that hospital unit. I had been beaten in the prison by a gaoler, Schulze was his name, because during a walk I spoke up to… // Because we walked in circles, each one a few steps’ distance from the other, well, you allegedly were not supposed… // Well, indeed, you couldn’t talk, but, well, I opened my mouth, and he smashed me so that I have, here, this ear impaired … . Let me be frank to say that as I was on my way… [pause] …to the camp, then I was almost happy, because… // because I had escaped the torture in the Gestapo – and, well, the death penalty. Well, after all, some of my colleagues were sentenced, in Pomiechówek, to death, and hanged. So, I was thus happy, perhaps… [sighs] 146

Arrest for the offence(s) committed by another member of one’s family – or, simply, instead of this member – is yet another essential, and noteworthy, type of experience, one that proves particularly emphatic in some stories of this group of Interviewees. An experience of this sort pushes aside one’s own conspiratorial involvement. Since the latter was not the direct reason for the arrest, it would not be of much use to give a biographical meaning to the narrator’s camp and, at the earlier stage, prison trajectory. Here comes an example of such a reminiscence, whose author, although engaged in the Underground activity himself, constructs a story focused on one of the crucial moments in his life as a history of his whole family – and, as their group trajectory.

Well, and suddenly, we were at home: me, my sister Sylwia, my younger brother Henryk. // My elder brother, as I’ve already said, never stayed overnight at home; // my father, and my mother. And, the Gestapo enter, three men. They came over, and made a clearly cursory search, sort of. What kind of spirits [overwhelmed us], is known. And they were waiting. But, well, nobody came in, I think there was some knocking, an uncle of mine, my mother’s brother, the younger one, but then he went away, they remained silent, and then, in the evening, they told us to get undressed, and, to bed! One left, two remained at the table, they were snoozing there, as I watched furtively, // and they waited for my brother. They must’ve had some details. My father was very vulnerable, which I had not been aware of before, that he was… // He did the printing as well, with that organisation, and we even had a tiled stove there, above that stove there was some material … .

And us, to that prison van, // I can remember, it was opened, and well, we sat down, like, the four of us, that is, my mother, my sister, myself, and my brother. And ←116 | 117→we were waiting for what’s going to happen. Well, at last, I remember that one of them said, // and my mother spoke excellent German, in fact, I spoke it a little too then, had already learned some at school, // and he said // that they couldn’t find [him], and I remember that mother smiled, kind of, subtly, that they had not found him. And they carried us away, to the Gestapo. [pause] The four of us, which is, my mother, sister, myself, my younger brother, to the Gestapo edifice. My sister, well, very severely, so to say, paid for the manhunt for my brother being thwarted. She was severely beaten in there, till she lost her consciousness, and later, as a consequence of that beating, those injuries, and infected wounds, she had a phlegmon, which was a phlegmonous cellulitis of the face, so forever later she had, like, scars after that still, which have remained. Well, first, there was an initial inquisition, like, a mostly formal one, kind of, for later came these heavy interrogations, // but these initial ones… // And after that, they transported us to Sterlinga St. [in Łódź], I should think, to that Gestapo gaol. And we were separated with my brother, my mother and my sister were put in the women’s prison, and I stayed just there, and we were in separate cells.147

The narrator’s younger brother Henryk, whose narrative I have also taped as part of the MSDP, recounts this arrest episode in even more detail. However, precise facts are incessantly intertwined during the course of Henryk’s narrative with an extensive interpretation, a personal metaphysics of survival and salvation, a story of himself. Contrary to his older brother’s account, the narrator remains the central character in this story. This provides an opportunity for us to make the obvious remark that shared participation in an (objectively speaking) event tends not only to be diversely recorded in the memories of the participants, as regards the details, but, moreover, to mean different things for them. Their individual interpretations, and the senses and/or meanings they attach to them prove to be different. Let us juxtapose the passage quoted above with a fragment of the brother’s no less animated narrative: in the latter case, the occurrences are primarily (though not exclusively) used to confirm Henryk’s own metaphysical presentiments, abilities stretching beyond the rational sphere:

On February the nineteenth, I went to visit some friends of mine, brought a violin for them, and then I said that the family is going through some misfortune. I had had a good intuition since childhood, this was a gift of some kind … and this is perhaps why I deeply felt that there was some misfortune at home. One of those individuals is still alive. I was being consoled, that no, no. But I could feel it quite clearly. Therefore, when I went back home, to 3 Wspólna Street, ‘Winzerweg’ was its name then, I stopped in front of the house, said a short prayer, and pondered: should I go to my grandparents, or should I go to my flat, to my closest relatives? And I chose the latter option. I made up my mind, because when thinking that some disaster was happening there, that probably meant that some Gestapo officers are there, or something ←117 | 118→of that sort, and so I want to be together with them, that I want to share in this, so as not to leave them alone. And I wasn’t at all surprised when a Gestapo officer opened the door for me.148


Amongst the former prisoners who were put in Nazi camps between 1941 and 1944, the second most numerous group is those arrested for various transgressions when doing forced labour, for attempted escapes, or those detained in causal roundups (i.e. raids to arrest people, usually in a closed-off street). Their experience from before the camp is different from the one of the ‘conspirators’; their in-camp way is usually different, too. Common to both groups of narratives is a multiplicity of threads, and the fact that the camp experiences are situated amidst other experiences that are told and which belong to the Interviewees’ wartime trajectory. The stay at a Lager is not a completely separate experience, seen in the context of the other fragments of these autobiographies.

I should now like to focus for a while, however, not on the similarities but on the specificity of these non-conspiratorial, non-heroic and non-patriotic stories about being placed in the KZ. Their authors are rarely given the floor. They do not come forward by themselves: they do not write and, even less so, publish their memoirs, or offer their accounts to museums; they are absent in the discourse of/ on memory. Yet, they all have their individual memories. Once we had managed to somehow record them as part of our project, it was clear this record is worth eliciting. It would in fact be worth doing in a more complete manner than the perfunctory survey here allows. This has always been one of the purposes of oral history: publicising the muffled voices, those not recorded elsewhere.

Let us pass straight away to the narrative hard facts. One of my Interviewees has recounted his wartime experiences thus:

Well, I completed my primary education, then I wanted to go to a higher school, // I can remember, to a grammar school, but, well, the war broke out then. The war broke out, it was the year ’39 already. … I went to school in Łódź, then they exported us from there to Radomsko. I lived in Radomsko, for a short time, // for a short time, ‘cause right after the war [broke out], and there I was arrested, with the roundups of all the children, those who attended schools, I can remember, they deported [them] to Germany, to do forced labour. Where I landed in Berlin, in 1940. They deported us to Germany and taught us, I remember, grade seven and eight it was. // And, they loaded us into the car, and transported us to Germany, to the forced labour. That was, to tell you, // I was arrested on 7th March 1940. I landed in Güstrow, it was [in] what is [= was] the DDR today [= then]. We worked in horticulture, in, like, a castle. I think I worked [there] for six months, // I cannot recall exactly. Then, after these six ←118 | 119→months, they transported me to Schwerin. Schwerin was also some 200 kilometres from Güstrow. I worked there as a slave, same thing as here [in Güstrow]. In a power plant, where we, I remember, carried coke along a track for… // for it to be combusted. From there, I went to Hamburg, half a year later. To Hamburg, but to the yard there, I was kept there for four days in the prison, that was the Stadtpolizei, I remember. Four days later, they transported me to Neugame [i.e. Neuengamme, the concentration camp (PF’s note)], it was a newly-emerging camp near Hamburg, which I built for three months there. I can remember, it was the construction of the Elbe, of the Elbe channel; three months later, I was carried away from there to Mauthausen. In Mauthausen, I stayed until the very end, year ’45. I was building Mauthausen, and from Mauthausen I was transported later on to Gusen. And in Gusen, I was one, number one in Gusen, and I stayed there till the very end, till the liberation, that is, the year ’45, May the fifth, it was a Friday, at five in the afternoon. I can remember that. That’s about it.149

As it later turns out, this is not really about it – just a surface of the recollections, underneath which there is, however, no concise, coherent story, but rather, shreds of images recorded in the memory, not in each case assignable as to the place and time. This Interviewee does not attach much attention to such an assignment. He has stored in his memory a number of camp-time (as well as pre- and post-camp) experiences but has no actual story to offer. Such shreds are impossible to arrange in an order, to string precisely on a time axis, which we are otherwise accustomed to expect from a story, or autobiography. It is not quite the memory of the past events that fails to do its job – although this is what happens too. It is, rather, about the narrator being incapable of putting together these single fragments, building up a story, forging his experiences into a story based on these experiences. He has never done it, as nobody has ever asked him to do so. If he had ever recollected things – to his wife or children, for instance – he would have usually done it in such a dispersed, broken, fragmentary form; whereas the listener and researcher would like to understand the (hi)story of the individual/narrator being researched, stick the pieces together, and have the narrative form properly closed.

In a situation like this, it often happens that somebody has indeed made such an effort. In most cases, it is the survivor’s spouse, who ‘guards’ her husband’s story, sometimes acting as an expert on his personal (hi)story. She would make use of the moment of suspense in the mangled course of his narration and takes over the initiative, reminding of the incidents he has spoken about before. But at this point, the story actually turns into her own story, and she becomes involved quite forcefully in it.

[Interviewee’s wife:] I will tell you, an interview like this at this [= my husband’s] age today, my husband’s forgotten already. Just as my husband returned in the year ←119 | 120→’45, // you returned, right?, // and you arrived, // as you have told… As… // That was inhuman, all that, at all, you know… // They rushed to bathe, naked, frost, cold, snow. And there was a barrel standing on their way, and everyone had to, into that barrel, ‘cause there was such, disinfection was, right? In that frost. You know, as my husband told it, // that was so inhuman. Today, he’s forgotten everything.

More interesting than the attempted usurpation of the kacet memory is the couple’s common elaboration of this memory (and the narrative). There now comes one of the many examples of such effort. My Interviewee does not himself mention any suffering he directly went through while imprisoned in the Lager. I ask him about this detail, knowing about various illnesses gnawing at him after the liberation, up until today:

Oh, I was repeatedly slapped in the mouth. [Wife:] He once got it on that trestle, then he was all blue. [PF:] What was that for? [SJ:] That was for the tomatoes. [Wife:] Not for the potatoes? [SJ:] No, for the potatoes, for the potatoes! [Wife:] He ate [some] somewhere in a dump, somewhere… [SJ:] Not in the dump, but, I reckon, I found… // Raw potatoes, some… // Got some potatoes, stole ‘em, and, // as I walked to the camp, they caught me. [PF:] And who caught you? Some Kapo? [SJ:] No, an S[S] -man. [PF:] O dammit, and? [SJ:] Well, I had to take these potatoes out, and in front of … that one I stood, and this was around ten, and, I remember, I stood till six, as all were going out from work. There I stood, and he pushed those potatoes into my mouth, like this. [PF:] And then on, there was… // Right? [SJ:] Well, the battering came later. [Wife:] You know, he had to, on such a trestle… // You know, there were such trestles, eh? // Bend over, and… // [SJ:] I mean, I had an inquisition, and that I had no punishment. // Then, well, for that he had to smash my ass, so that I was punished, to have it written on my ID that he’s been punished. [Wife:] And they put a poultice on him, he was all blue. [PF:] And on the following day, go to work, as usual? [SJ:] Ah, absolutely! Just a towel and just, mister… // And, every four minutes, he had his ass dried. Whoever was in the camp, he knows what that means.150

I evoke this narrative structure spun upon a story that is being agreed upon as it is told, since it clearly shows how the emerging narrative is pulled away from the witness’s individual memory/oblivion, and into his wife’s memory – becoming a separate entity, a collage. I also present this particular fragment in order to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that among these shreds, fragments, unrelated or loosely related episodes, there is a submersed experience of suffering, pain, and trauma. It is submerged all the deeper as the Interviewee does not focus on it, perceiving his Lager sufferings as one more burden of fortune, the dispensation of Providence. Life is woven from such strands of suffering, and there is not much one can do about it. In the jagged memories of unpractised narrators, most of them being simple and poor individuals, there a boundary that is in flux between one’s Lager experience and one’s life as a free individual stands out. The Lager has ←120 | 121→heightened, sharpened the misery of their situation. The important moments in the biography – such as the outbreak of the war, deportation to a forced labour camp, arrest/ detention, imprisonment, the camp, the liberation, the return to Poland – do not make incisions as radical as in the case of the other narrators, former conspirators included. Here, a continuum of experiences reappears more distinctly. These experiences are, in a way, ones of a permanent trajectory, which is more or less intensified depending on the period in one’s life. I quote these fragments non-proofread, uncensored (which applies to all the fragments of accounts quoted in this book; here, it is perhaps worth emphasising). Their harsh, torn, broken and at times vulgar language is an integral part of the narrators’ experience.

Oh, the history of [my] life is sad, it makes me ashamed to talk about it. You know, there were nine kids… // My father died age[d] fifty-four. He came over; he worked before the First World War yet. And my father was a pensioner, he came over [when he was] thirty-seven years [old], bought a farm. There, just where it is now. One of the… // ‘Cause there were only two people there, some relatives, childless, you know, that farm [was] one of the most splendid, there was an orchard, bees. My father got married, and here… // There was the five of us. He somehow went to the war [i.e. WWII – PF’s note], two years [he] wasn’t there… // In the war, and he returned, and later on, just… // No, he didn’t return yet. The front extended up to here, look, there, the rivulet that is there, it was the front[line]. The Russkis [colloq., Russians], as they were retreating, they expelled the whole village, not just ours, others too. And they drove, in front of them, and… // Then, as they left, must’ve been here, near Sokółka, then, from us… // No, that’s in Sokolany. There, the Russkis withdrew yet [resident of Polish eastern borderland area, the narrator uses here the Russian ‘uzhe’ for ‘yet’ (Transl. note)], they expelled them, and there, the Germans already [uzhe] met them, as they, as it was something, as in the war, then there were the various fronts, and the Germans: ‘Kuda!’ [Russian, ‘Where to?’] The Germans drew back, they returned themselves – the whole village is burnt! [shouting] The mother, five children, the husband’s at war, five children, she cried, only the hens remained, ‘cause there was the orchard, the raspberries were there, the bees, the beehives broken, trampled, and here’s just ashes, nothing; they said, one of the most splendid farms [it] was. Five children, the woman… You know what sort of life that was, to come back to ashes? When the stepfather came, a careless man, still four from the stepfather, nine kids [altogether]… There, before the war, mister, Poland… // It was all a stench in the villages before the war … .

It was fucking terrible in the villages, the stench, poverty, there were huts that had no table inside, no cupboard, bed-linen, the beds were made with straw, the roofs, all of them, with straw. Man! Thresh it with a fucking flail?!

There came what you called the scarcity, the spring, there was no bread in the villages, hunger… [shouting] You won’t believe in what it was like in Poland, illiteracy, because… … Then, the people, as they were walking, then, see, slippers or some gaiters, they hung a stick over their backs, get shoes from the church, from the church, get undressed [i.e. remove the shoes; the narrator uses a rather weird, ←121 | 122→combined Russian-Polish phrase rosdevaet się (Transl. note)] again, as home, home you go… Then, barefoot, maidens, bachelors, in the evening as they went out, then, all barefoot. There’s more of that, sir, as that stubble, as, for fuck’s sake, you had to mow the ten hectares, the scythe, then needed to rake, pick up, barefoot in that stubble…. Mister, for fuck’s sake, once I recall, then, today… 151

Now, one more image, from another narrative, remembered from the time before the war:

I perhaps was, like, // like my sons, top-of-the-class too, but there was a woman teacher that I could not look at when in grade four, because that was a… // Well, I don’t know, because the other children of the rich people, they gave contributions, such… // A hen, this or that, and I was poor, I couldn’t bring her [anything like that]. And I… // was impaired in this way. And from grade five on, I went to another female teacher… // who was a good woman. But I couldn’t, for there were two grades four, so, “You attended that one? Now, you go there!” In the fifth, I wouldn’t be accepted. I… // And my father was glad of the fact that I didn’t want to attend it. And, a week passed, then another one. I didn’t go to school, and so things stayed. Can you understand? Such was the time before the war, because you, the young, you cannot know what it was like before the war. …

I was, kind of, a boy… I was fourteen, fifteen years old already, sir, and there, the squire announced that he would pay two zloty for digging potatoes. Per day. It was October already, for the ground frost had already appeared and he was afraid that they were freezing. So, there, the people from the whole area, let’s presume, fifty, sixty people, went to dig those potatoes. And I, along with the others, went to dig those potatoes. Because, not… // You don’t know what it looks like, but the digging was done manually… // Well, and there we walked… // No, wait. // And I got a slip of paper, a small one, for she didn’t pay at once, he was to pay later on.. And then, sir, I put it into my cap, for I had no pockets. And, by the church, // because you were passing the church as you walked to that place, // I took my cap off, and it fell out. And I came home and want[ed] to boast to my mum, that I’d earned two zloty. I took my cap off – they money’s not there! I started crying. Because, well, I was still then, you can say, a child, wasn’t I. And then, my elder brother, mother, father, I should think… // But two zloty was quite a lot, so I will, I’ll go tomorrow, then I’ll have one zloty. In two days… // And so, we went for the whole week to dig, and then, we chased our money until Christmas. Whenever we dropped in, those people, then: ‘The lord is not back from the bank yet’; at nine in the evening… // In October [laughs]. And, all said and done, sir, well indeed, he paid us, eighty grosz each, what was supposed to be two zloty each. Yes, well, because such, such was the law then.152

←122 | 123→

In stories of this kind, it is so clearly apparent how an individual’s lot may be dependent on the social conditions – not to say, structural determinants. Moreover, the continuations of biographical stories thus initiated display a number of similarities and tangential points. They are very different from the stories told by those who can look for the sense of their camp experiences in the fact that they were put in a kacet for their participation in the conspiracies or struggle. These peasant, rustic narratives usually evoke the outbreak of World War II as one of the stages in their biographical trajectory. These narratives generally tend to neglect notions such as Poland, homeland, defence, or struggle. Struggle is present there in private terms, however: as a struggle for survival, biological subsistence, a no less dramatic one. A broader historical context is reduced to the concreteness of one’s individual, or, possibly, local, experience. For the Interviewees from what are today Poland’s eastern counties, the local experience constitutes the following Occupations: the Soviet and the German ones, with the resulting restricted freedom, deteriorated situation, compulsory work, fear, and direct repressions. Soviet repressions came first:

The war broke out, that’s what, you know – in ’39. Well, the Germans entered. Two weeks after, the Germans come back and shout as they go by: “Russen, Russen komm!” That the Russki[s] will come. There was nothing there – lawlessness. … Nobody, neither the Russkis, nor the Germans, there was nobody, such lawlessness there was. After two weeks, the Russkis arrived, yes… // By, like, normal, such, freight cars, they went to there153, to the village, and the Russkis began ruling us … .

Mister, they were building fortifications on the border of East Prussia. Mister, the mare got foaled so that stepfather had to tie the foal, lay it, … and go fifty kilometres, as there was the deportation…. You know, and they rushed, fuck, the entire villages. There you’d buy no food, so you had to take some food for the horse, for yourself, some food. And after a week, after two, they kept, fucking, there, they were digging, you know, there were no excavators – with spades. They’d carry [it] somewhere, to some pigsty, or to a barn, they’d give some straw, lay down, no cover for yourself, no way to make your bed, or, with anything, as you want it, there’s only a pile lying by the spade, and so… … .

Thinning out the forest… Fuck it! From our place they drove us as far as to Łomża, as far as here. You’ll get it, you have to work out thirty [? cubic] metres of the forest and carry this away; then, a richer man had to go there by horses [i.e. a cart], fifty kilometres you go, and just do this take-away thing! And that forest you were supposed… but, what to castrate [orig., rezat’, a local idiom, of (Belo)Russian origin – Transl note] it with? No kind of a saw, or axe, there was naught, nothing to buy, and the people didn’t have, ‘cause there was the Polish, fucking, poverty, there was no axe, and there was nothing! …

←123 | 124→

Man, that was… these compulsory supplies, the meat… // The potatoes, the rye, that and the manufacturing, horrible there, this fortifying of these borders, then there was no machinery, and you had to do it with your hands. And they were digging those, on the border there, those, fucking, pits, bunkers they were making, pouring, they already had those grinders for the stones. And, the forts on these borders, there, and not just from our village, this in all the villages. … He’d arrive [orig., priyezhdzhal; do.], for example, then, that the whole commune [gmina], well, they assigned, which villages, which date. By carts, whoever with the carriage, whoever the, whatever, and then they gave the direction, fifty kilometres. …

Under the Soviets, then, we, here… // Fuck, you know, two deportations were already in our area. The Soviets deported, like, suspect families. Suspect… // One year, they were for two years [here], I think, // one year, the thing… // In February, coincidentally, such frost, snow was, the deportation was in the time, in the period of this frost, you know, [the deportation] of all the gamekeepers, foresters, the ones somewhere from the [Civil] Militia, officials, sort of, suspect ones, sort of. Who gave those people to them, to the Soviets, who should bloody tell me; but on the night, on such a February night, the frost, the snow was, then they deported some, and then, right before the [Soviet-German – PF’s note] war [i.e. before June 22nd, 1941], before the outbreak of the war, somewhere, fuck; the war, when did it break out, in which…? [PF:] June ’41. [AŻ:] Then it must’ve been around May, or at the beginning of June they were deporting, then, a few families also from our place. They arrived like that, see, [and took] the whole families, but this in some [? of the villages/places]; they deported some, there, somewhere far away, to Siberia, and some others they only displaced. What a deportation was that, how afraid all the people were!154

Later on, repression, initially not much different, came from the Germans:

There was a quota, per each village, // not just me alone. They deported me too… // Because, what was there, well? A large family, hunger, poverty. The Germans didn’t set anything up there, either: no shops, not that they’d import something, they gave nothing to this place. What is it that you could have to provide with, or for me, my three sisters, three [brothers] younger than me, moreover, well, what was there to live on, what to do? The farm in ruins, fuck all, no way, the people gave horses away to no avail [=? for free] under those [‘first’] Soviets… Man, because, the more horses, the more labour they gave you, more of the takeaway, more of all [orig., dial., vshevo] there was. What could he do, the quota was there on us, then the sołtys [village head] came [orig., dial., prishol] and recorded us, ‘cause, well, he was making lists, such as [it was] obligatory. I had [orig., dial., U menia byl] an elder brother, the rest were younger, ‘cause later, one more was deported to Germany, stepfather’s [son], to Germany, to the labour, us, here, twenty-five were deported [from] here at once, towards East Prussia [we] went.155

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A crucial trait of rural Occupation-time experience is apparent here. On the one hand, the labourers’ departure for Germany is forced by the German Occupation regulations, referred to in this narrative as a quota, whereas, on the other, it is outwardly voluntary: the family can make a shared decision about which one of its members would go. Why is this voluntariness apparent? Because it is merely formal; the legal coercion becomes simply replaced by an economic and existential compulsion. Such constraint is perhaps harder to bear and more devastating when the family has to calculate and then settle the question of which of the children is to stay and which to go on this journey. For those people, it was a voyage into the absolute unknown:

There were the two of us: one, the elder, the generation of [19]23, a brother; and I was the generation of ‘25. Well, and…? My father says, ‘One, the Germans said that they have to take one [of you] to, to the force… forced labour, there.’ I say, // well, what, I was still only seventeen, well, what would I help, // help, mister. No ploughing, no-so-on, no, sometime… // With horses, and so on, no… // I think to myself: the older one, he will be helping, with something. He was nineteen then, and I was, // there came the seventeenth year with me. Well, and…? // [I] went, for my brother. Because, for the brother, and since there must be someone… … . Well, then I was taken … to the forced labour. Well, and they carried me away, mister, to Königsberg, from Königsberg… // Oooh, mister, there they disposed of us, and I finally got to a Bauer’s place, to Pilau…156

In some cases, the decision to go is, however, evoked in a different manner: not in such dramatic terms, but as the beginning of an adventure, an opportunity to meet a different, better world, to do work that was not as hard as that at home. Sometimes, it really appeared to be so:

And moreover, you wanted to go out somewhere, into the world, when young… Not only myself, from our village there were, I think, some fifteen, for there were from the other villages as well, there were, altogether. Go into the world. … The sołtys was walking round and round, where [there were] such large families. I had [orig., dial., U menia byl] an older brother, then he, apparently, were here already, and the younger, I fit it just right. Well, and what was it, to whom, you had to point out, who was to go. Well, accidentally, such a, me, // [I] was, such a, as if, the freest.157

The very moment of arrest is usually absent in the stories of these ‘ordinary’ Interviewees, in a manner as distinct as in the more ‘heroic’ and ‘patriotic’ stories of conspirators who happened to get caught or fell victim to a denunciation. Images belonging to the latter group are preserved and cultivated by the memory – one ←125 | 126→simple reason being that they tend to be more frequently evoked. In most cases, they are the crucial points of (auto)biography, separating its two extremely different stages. They clearly mark the beginning of the trajectory experience, and are key to the narrators’ identities and in adding sense or meaning to their subsequent experiences of prisons and Lagers. In the aforementioned category, they more frequently simply form one of the biographical episodes, yet another hopeless situation, of which many took place earlier as well as later on. These narrators do not have a special reason for contemplating such a moment for too long, nor do they attach more attention to this specific moment in their biographies than to any other.

And I was twenty, nineteen years old when I had, sir, there was the so-called Baudienst – do you know what Baudienst means? It was [like] that ‘Service to Poland’158 after the war, with the Germans. All the young people aged… were conscribed for the Baudienst. I, // I was taken, and I fled and, well, stayed in hiding in here. I didn’t hide to the extent as I hid afterwards… // Well, and in June ’43, sir… Some Volksdeutsch was here, he knew that I was home. For it actually quietened down thus, and so it was. And they took the three of us, two brothers and myself. The gendarmes arrived at night, cordoned the house off, with the Navy Blue Police [i.e. the Polish police of the General Government (Transl. note)]. For it was imputed that we were in the underground army. In the underground army we were not, so I cannot say that I was in the underground army, as we were not. For there was yet no such partisan organisation, there were only the thieves. …

And until September the fourteenth was I kept in the gaol, because there, later on, // they were to release us, because they had freed one [of my] brother[s], for he worked in Radomsko, // you know, // and that director, a German, of that plant to [? addressed/requested] the gendarmes. // And he was released, for he was a good employee, a mechanic. And us, the two brothers, they took away to Auschwitz.159

This is one of the numerous ‘regular’ stories about arrest as a punishment for escape from a construction works or forced labour site. While the escape (or, simply, quitting the job and making the long journey to one’s home village) could have been successful, the home often appeared to be not exactly a safe haven or shelter. After all, the Germans would chase after such refugees in their home, in the first place. The neighbours, or the local village major (sołtys), could give those doing the chasing a hand, be it out of fear. The humility with which these events are evoked appears extraordinary; it may be a trace of the humbleness that was shown as they occurred.

I’m being kept in that custody, like, of the sort, my father comes [to] me up to the window and says, ‘Listen, son, that Koronko man’s put you in; the sołtys’; says, he’s ←126 | 127→the one. Well, too bad, well, what’s it that I should do here, mister? The next day, [they put] me into the carts there, and, to Bielsk [Podlaski (PF’s note)]. They carried [me] to Bielsk, to the Lager [orig., dial., v lagru], mister, there… // In twos, one hour of time: “Get down! Stand up! Down! Up! Down! Up!” And then, well, we worked at, some sort of, uh, // in some mine, that the coal, you… or something… // the turf, was dug. And, two weeks. …

On March the fifth, everybody there, mister, he’s driving, and us, mister… // The SS, us… // They loaded us into … a train, and you wouldn’t know: [we] were going, going to… // arriving, pulling up in Gdańsk, that I remember [orig., dial., to pomnyal], and in Gdańsk, and walked through the city. There were one hundred of us walking plus one person, … one hundred and one people. And, sir, they led [us] through this… // and there, to the ferry. The ferry, can remember, to that ferry, they drove us up to that ferry, well, and … from that ferry // we got loaded onto those, into that [narrow-gauge] train, and carried [us] up to the camp of Stutthof. To Stutthof.160

A failed attempt at escaping forced labour – for instance, leaving a Bauer’s farm – was not the only reason for putting the offender in a KZ. To be placed in a concentration camp, it sometimes sufficed simply to fall into disfavour when staying at a forced labour site, by using an unwanted word or behaving inappropriately. Such a transit to the camp takes a pretty ordinary, unexposed place in the story – and, presumably, in the memory too:

I had no court [case], without any discussion. Had no court, they just imprisoned [me], [I] was detained, but an investigation went on somewhere. And then, it’s just, uh, // they told [me] to go out, // a car stood there, to the car, and they carted [me] to that camp straight away.161


I have deliberately focused, in the foregoing description of the characteristic traits of the narratives of former inmates put into the Nazi Lagers between 1941 and 1944 as a punishment, on the fragments referring to the experiences preceding the camp itself. It is these experiences that, to a prevailing extent, shaped the ensuing camp lot of the prisoners of this group. I use the term ‘group’ in a colloquial sense, since, when in the camp, they did not form any distinct collectivity. It is very different with the eldest prisoners – the group I mentioned earlier, and the youngest, in terms of their camp seniority, who were put in a Lager during the Warsaw Uprising; I will cover this group at more length in the following section. Some members of the middle group managed to make up for a delay of a few or months or even a year or so, which originally separated them from the old, senior Häftlings who had put down roots in the ←127 | 128→camp. This exercise proved successful mostly with those who came across the other inmates who extended a hand to them, as a result of their involvement in the conspiracy, personal acquaintances, shrewdness, and a stroke of luck. Soon after, they could include themselves in the elite group of the eldest, as they factually belonged to it. Thus, the following self-determination of an Interviewee, who was arrested for participation in the conspiracy and detained in Auschwitz in the spring of 1942 (and later relocated to Mauthausen), is completely legitimate:

Being a scribe, I did not go to work during the day. I had a window open, and we talked freely to each other with that Ukrainian woman, on our way. At one point, I see her shut the window, and flee from that window. Well, then I thought that there was some alert, some SS woman entered the block, and that’s why she’s escaping. Then, I’m closing the window slowly as well, turning, and there’s an SS-man standing behind me. Golly… [laughs] Well, and he, at me: don’t I know that I am not supposed to talk to the women? I say, I do. It’s just that I talk to a woman at a distance, that far, and you’ve got the women, sir, on a daily basis and talk to them closely. He glanced at me so, looked at the number, notices that I’ve got an old one, and, thus: ‘Well, this is the last time I saw it, understood?’ ‘Jawohl, mein Sturmführer!’ ‘Got any cigarettes?’ ‘Well, I’ve got some.’ ‘Give me.’ I gave him a packet, or two, of cigarettes, and off he went.

One more picture from Auschwitz, in the same story, portrayed with a similar wantonness and glibness:

Being a long-serving prisoner, having the acquaintances, having the mates, you’d no more have to rely on that camp food. You’d arrange food for yourself, do some cooking. … In 1944, at Christmas, one colleague worked in the food store, another one in some storeroom too, and they had access to the foodstuffs. One worked in a slaughterhouse, and so they organised some sausages, or something of the sort. And, we organised that food, and swapped it among us. Well, so, for Christmas we had organised all the victuals, alcohol included. There were contacts with civilians, and you could buy from them. After all, there was the ‘Kanada’ thing, and you organised things also from those transports which were arriving, Jewish and others. Some three, four days before Christmas, Rapportführer Hartwig plunges into my block. I had a chamber allocated for me at the very end [of the block], an office, sort of, there were plank beds, and we lived there, the four of us. It was obligatory that, as an SS-man enters the block, the first inmate who sees him must shout, ‘Achtung!’ He crept in then, nobody shouted ‘Achtung!’, or anything at all, and he came in. Besides, that was by day, so the Kommandos were at work, and the block was basically empty. And, he crept into that small office of mine. I reported things to him, in conformity with the regulations. And he’s asking me what I have prepared for the Christmas. I’m saying, ‘I’ve got nothing.’ ‘Don’t you tell me tales that you’ve got nothing.’

Here follows a description of the search of his ‘small office’, with the SS-man finding the Christmas supplies and confiscating them. This does not incite the narrator to alter the form of his narrative: he maintains its – so to say – adventure convention:

←128 | 129→

What am I going to say to my mates now, ‘Hartwig was [here] and took everything?’ Why did I let him, they’ll ask straight away. But it turned out that my colleagues came, got upset, but they’re saying that we’ve still got three days [laughs]. And we had the same thing. And the SS-men toured the blocks, as they knew that the block guards, the Schreibers and other functionals [i.e. functional prisoners] have got something organised; that the old prisoners do not live on the camp cuisine.162

Meanwhile, the others, who arrived at the camp at a similar time or a little later, soon turned into the Lager pariahs who constantly oscillated between life and death. Some crossed this borderline several times during their inmate career. Such vicissitudes were extremely frequent for those who had been taken to a kacet from a rural environment, or directly from forced labour. Such individuals were the loneliest in the camp. Many of them died in Mauthausen, as confirmed by various studies, and by certain generalising statements made by other survivors in their published memoirs or oral narratives. This high mortality rate is one more, perhaps the most important, reason why testimonies for this particular group of inmates are so scarce. One of my Interviewees, who during the over eighteen months of his imprisonment never managed to find himself at a safe distance from the borderline with death, endeavoured to help me understand his situation in the camp thus:

Fortunately, I managed to survive; well, I don’t know what I owe it to. Well, in the first place, my organism was strong. That’s probably the only reason. Because, it was thanks to my own health, my own, // the power of my health, that I withstood. For to stand it for so many months in the camps, under your own steam, nineteen months and five days, it makes your mind boggle. [PF:] And, during your stay in the camp, did you have the chance to ‘organise’ some extra food, at times? [JB:] Absolutely not! [PF:] Never ever? [JB:] No way. … [PF:] Then, you didn’t receive anything as an extra, just the stuff available in the camp? [JB:] Absolutely nothing! And this is exactly the point: to live and survive on that concrete [stuff], that’s a real skill. [PF:] That is amazing, I haven’t yet met anyone who never got anything more than this minimum. [JB:] Oh, yeah! That’s what I’m talking about! When… // who say that he’s been in the camp for some [time], then I… // May he survive like I have survived. // [PF:] Then, you survived the camp with no privileges, completely? [JB:] Without anything, without anything, nothing. I had no parents, my brother was dead, just my sister-in-law remained, for [when] I was in the army, my brother died. A sudden death, of heart failure, an infarct. Only the sister was [there], then, what [could] she [do] there, poor thing, a woman, on her own… // And somewhere there, in Nadbuże [i.e. the area stretching along the Bug River], with those Ukrainians, dangerous it was. And me, all alone, I didn’t have anything. I just bore it, I alone, thanks to my own health. This is, // that’s exactly what I mean! That it’s only such a prisoner, the one has… he who could stand it.

←129 | 130→

It would probably be appropriate to add one more fragment of this narrative, where my Interviewee refers to his situation in the first weeks after the liberation. This image very powerfully authenticates his preceding words:

Those who hadn’t been in the camp [and could leave its area after the liberation – PF’s note], they jaunted, somewhere to the town, to that, they did something, like trading, or, I don’t know [what]. But I wasn’t able to walk out anywhere, the only thing that was good for me that the subsistence was decent already. I was only sitting inside the barrack, nothing else, and nourished myself. And they left as much food for me as I could have eaten. The goulashes, various ones, were very tasty, the rice on canned food [? canned rice], the pastas on canned food, oily, very tasty. So, this is how I fed myself, I laughed at that point that I’d lived to see some human food.

Departing, leaving the camp was the thing I completely didn’t think of, for I wasn’t capable [of it]. After all, I wouldn’t be able to climb into a car [i.e. vehicle/ truck], or get out, or, onto a train, or, where[ver else]. I couldn’t walk unaided anymore. And so, they were organising a transport, the Poles were organising a transport, any volunteers, anyone to go first? Well, there were, there were a lot… Well, exactly, such, these Varsovians, for instance, who had been for six months in the camp, or five, then he still could move – but I, who had been there for nineteen months? That [= I] was a tiny corpse, a regular tiny dead body, a skeleton, some tiny bones, and skin. Then I, there was no question, I didn’t think about it.

And, lastly, I don’t know, that lasted, already, [in] May, the whole of May, June, July – three months, then I already had taken some nourishment, in any case. But what was unsatisfactory for me, terrible, point blank: they’re liquidating the camp! Everybody’s willing to go, they’re liquidating, and me, how will I cope? [silence] Who’s there to lend me a hand?! … I was too weak, for someone [= me] to handle such things. Then, you had to go somewhere, get to know something, and I was in no position [to do it].163

The camp fate of this group of inmates unfolded somewhere between these extremes, but also inclusive of them. Their vicissitudes reflect almost any and all possible ways, diverse methods of tackling situations, and disasters occurring to kacet inmates. It is therefore unfeasible to recognise what is specific or distinctive within the camp experience itself. The experience of those who were brought in 1942–3 to perform permanent jobs in any of the armament factories at the Mauthausen subcamps lies somewhere in the middle. While they were not prominent inmates, they usually kept themselves at a safe distance from the Lager precipices. Their experience features, in most cases, a prevalent thread of permanent effort aimed at not losing this privileged position (given the camp circumstances) and, as far as possible, they relatively quietly persevered until the end. These efforts sometimes ended with success.164 But this is, again, just one of the numerous options: most of ←130 | 131→the prisoners put in the camp in the aforesaid period were many a time transferred from one labour Kommando to another, and from one camp to another. This was not always meant a promotion: the reverse movement was intensified as well.

In spite of the diversity of the wartime – especially, camp-related – experiences of this particular group of former inmates (referring here to a ‘group’ in a colloquial, rather than a sociological, sense), it seems that an observant, comparative and parallel reading of their oral autobiographies makes sense; in particular, from a sociologist’s standpoint. In the stories of these people, the Lager experience appears, as I have emphasised several times, to be one of the many trajectorial wartime experiences. It is not the most important experience in every case; yet, analysis of these accounts enables us to ascertain one further thing, which is even more interesting sociologically. We clearly find that within the universe of concentration camps, with all its weirdness and incongruence with normal social reality, the social distances, tensions, cracks and splits powerfully exerted their influences; in fact, they did so with an enhanced strength. This is, naturally, true for the interpersonal interactions taking place inside the camp. While the prisoners had brought such interactions in with them, the kacet sorely sharpened them. If finally met, the liberation did not fully extend to these dimensions. For many a survivor, this meant that their lifelong/social limitations, determinisms, or, simply, trajectories were continued – albeit in a form not as severe as while behind the camp’s wall or barbed wire, and no more subject to direct violence:

I returned to the homeland via Austria; on the frontier, when I saw those Polish liberators, then, God, muckworms, well, I don’t know, // whatever we had, we had to give to them They rifled through our things, really unbelievable. And, you were finally back in Poland – and then you regretted you had returned. Well, what? I’m going to be frank with you. I had a visa, I had a visa for America, I had one to Baltimore and I had a visa to Perth in Australia. I used neither, as Stasiu [Stanisław Grzesiuk] prompted me to return home. And I did return home, and became a jobless person, and that’s all, you know.165

And, one more image:

I arrived home, there in Hrubieszów area, where those Ukrainians were, I arrived, and everything is burnt down all around the area, the whole of Nadbuże, the whole county, north to south, there were only the chimneystacks, which were sticking out. The Ukrainians had burnt [the buildings in the area] one after another, the partisan forces exchanged blows mutually there, burnt it down, there. [silence] I came to a ←131 | 132→burnt house. Faint and frail, how to live on then? Everyone’s expelled, driven out, burnt out [long silence].166

Stories like these obviously have their continuations, which reveal the strife throughout their narrators’ biographies.

The war has destroyed… and right after the war, there was poverty like the devil, but I somehow, how can I put it? I lived by my wits, wiggled, that is, no scheming, // I just endeavoured, took out a lease on a field…. I was searching, always, I kept an animal husbandry plot, you know. I was the first in the village to erect a pigpen, like, and a corridor set straight through, the first to make a potato silo, first to set up these screens, to put up a potato column, I contracted many things of the sort, // then I made an effort, ran [the farming/breeding business].167

In these everyday exertions, his own camp experience disappears from the field of attention, but never evanesces completely. What has never been reelaborated, is unuttered, unwritten, yet leaves nonetheless a persistent trace, which now, in the last years of his life, repeatedly bothers him and reappears in a variety of ways:

You know what. My opinion is this: If I’d been born earlier and grown older, then I might’ve perhaps not survived the camp. Whereas I still wasn’t, I was young… // On the other hand, this is what I think to myself: had I not been in the camp, I would’ve been in [= joined] the gangs. For this is how even my colleagues perished. … So I, should I… not have been in the camp, then I would’ve been the first, again…? For there were the three of us, then none would’ve been saved, you know? So, I just don’t know how to say that.168

The point is this: about such things, it would be good to write out, note down, but I was shitty, mucky, dilapidated, overworked with that labour, and my wife worked hard, and me [too], for you, fucking, were made … a sołtys, and that purchasing centre after that, then the vodka, and all that, and the labour, that I, those notes, then you should… // ‘Cause these are the serious things, these are, you know… 169

3.3 Varsovians

The third, and last, type of Lager experience (and narrative related to it) I have distinguished is recognisable in the autobiographical accounts of those of my Interviewees who were detained in (one of) the concentration camp(s) in the ←132 | 133→summer and autumn of 1944, during the course of the Warsaw Uprising, and were deported together with local civilians via the transit camp of Pruszków near Warsaw. This is the most recognisable group of camp survivors who were former Polish political prisoners – not only for Warsaw alone but, on a broader scale, within the Polish kacet memory landscape. It is, moreover, the most active group, with its members participating in anniversary celebrations and other commemorative rituals, appearing in the greatest numbers at the former camp to attend liberation anniversary celebrations, as well as participating in numbers at meetings with Polish and German youth. They are the most dominant group in the local milieu of Lager inmates. Biology gives the simple answer to the question of why this is so: whilst not the largest, they are, however, the youngest group of Polish inmates – those who were put in the camp at the last moment, months before the liberation. The youngest of the group are aged over eighty today. Those rare former inmates form the first transports of 1940 who are still alive today are some twenty years older.

The wartime and camp-time vicissitudes of the prisoners whose accounts I have specified as the third type share the most similarities with each other. In many respects, this group of survivors is the most homogeneous, although there are some contrapuntal narratives, which render the image more complicated and undermine any overly strong or simple generalisations. While bearing this in mind, I will all the same try to point out a few crucial moments in the narratives of this particular group. They indicate certain similar, sometimes downright common, historical experiences. The most powerful and distinct moment in all these (auto) biographies, their definite turning point, is detention/arrest during the Warsaw Uprising, the subsequent transportation to the transit camp in Pruszków and, later, to the concentration camp and, finally, incarceration there. For some of our Warsaw-based Interviewees, Auschwitz was the camp they were first transported to, Mauthausen (and, subsequently, its various subcamps) being the second; but for a still larger group, Mauthausen came first.170

For the Warsaw group of former inmates, these wartime experiences prove to be exceptional, staggering, and traumatic. However paradoxical such gradation may sound, they could be described as even more unique, stupefying and traumatic than the (objectively) similar experiences of the remaining survivors; including those who stayed in the camps the longest. What makes them like this? What is the reason for their dwelling on memory in such a peculiar manner? The broader biographical context in which they are embedded is probably the most concise answer.

←133 | 134→

The salient point is that in 1944, during the Uprising and afterwards, during their stay in the camps, most of our Warsaw Interviewees were very young people, some were even just children. Although their childhood partly coincided with the Occupation years, it has been fixed in the memory, in most cases, as a relatively ordinary, safe time, passed under their parents’ roof and supervision. Even though they were involved in some conspiratorial actions, or in scouting activities – specifically, as part of the Grey Ranks organisation – they recollect this today, in most cases, as risky but good fun, the consequences of which they could not anticipate. It thus appears, in comparison with what came later, as though that world came to a sudden end: they were completely unexpectedly pulled from it, separated from their parents and siblings, and thrown into the camps at the moment they were the most full, with the highest numbers of prisoners dying, and the greatest chaos prevailing. This brutal passage from one world into the other forms a radical biographical incision in the survivors’ memory. The several months spent in the camp(s) breaks down their autobiographies into two non-congruent parts, which they find difficult to put into one, coherent autobiographical story. There remains an unhealed wound between these parts.

This diagnosis obviously does not refer in an equal degree to all the former prisoners who were placed in concentration camps during the Warsaw Uprising, deported from the city as civilians. People of various ages were sent to the camps, bearing the burden of varied pre-war and Occupation experiences, of which many were tragic. Some of the youngest still survive, and it is they with whom we could talk. The records of these interviews – audio-/videotaped or transcribed – not only feature the names of the same Warsaw streets and squares but also offer certain recognisable similar biographical structures, identical trajectories. Let us take a more careful look at them, by evoking the voices of some of the Interviewees from this group – primarily, those youngest ones.171

Let us begin with a few close-up views of the experiences under the Occupation. Most importantly, all the following fragments appeared in the first phase of the interview – as part of an unrestrained narrative, when the Interviewees, not yet guided by the interviewer’s questions, construct their own story about themselves, using their own language and freely evoking things of importance for them, thus defining their identities.

I attended my elementary school in Warsaw, at 192 Otwocka Street. My teacher was a superb woman named Ms Szuster, who died of cancer after the liberation. After ←134 | 135→I completed six forms of my elementary school, in the year 1939, I took an [entry] examination for the ‘[King] Władysław IV’ State Gymnasium [i.e. junior high school] in Warsaw, in Praga [i.e. the capital city’s right-bank district (Transl. note)]. I passed the exam successfully and was listed as the Gymnasium student. The war broke out. In October, we all turn up at the Gymnasium and even attended the classes in the first week. Then, came the invader’s instructions that the Gymnasium be closed down. I faced – perhaps not that I faced, for I was a child, I was twelve then, so, rather, my parents faced – the dilemma of what to do with my further education. Ms Szuster advised that I went to grade seven of the elementary school where she was also a tutor. I joined that grade, and completed it. Meanwhile, my parents got in touch with the teachers giving secret classes at ‘Władysław IV’ Gymnasium, among others, with Mr Usarek, the principal for these classes. This way, since I completed seven elementary-school grades, and could enrol with a gymnasium with six grades completed, I was enrolled as a second-grade student straight away. I attended the gymnasium during the Occupation period, until the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. In 1944, I completed my first secondary-school grade at a Humanities Lyceum [senior high school]. 172

Two more fragments, among the many similar ones appearing in these narratives – in their unrestrainedly constructed initial sections:

The Occupation followed. Our mum took care to provide for us, she continued to run the shop; I attended my school, my sister was at home with the housekeeper. So went on the dull Occupation days.173

The wartime: there were ups and downs. My father worked removing debris in fits and starts, but mostly doing bricklaying jobs. My elder brother, in turn, as the embassy was closed, found work as a waiter with a café in Nowy-Świat St. [in Warsaw]. My middle brother got a job somewhere in a café as a waiter as well. And so we persisted for these few years of the occupation status, until the outbreak of the Uprising on 1st August 1944.174

These are banal images of daily life, a life that flows with a tolerably quiet current, circumventing the obstacles. The outbreak of the war, the campaign of the Defence War of September 1939, the bombings, executions by firing squads, roundups, fear of the Germans, the Ghetto and the Ghetto uprising: the narrators appear not to be overly preoccupied with any of these occurrences, if at all. The war is there, yes, but it is somewhat in the background – mostly as the problem of the parents ←135 | 136→who want their son to continue his education after the school is closed down. Therefore, they have to solicit clandestine learning opportunities for him. All this is recounted as if it were about replacing one school for another in ordinary, peacetime circumstances: for instance, owing to moving house, unsatisfactory teaching standards; or, as a problem affecting an older brother or sister due to their involvement in conspiratorial dealings.

Unlike the rather quiet memories just referred to, some of these regular recollections of a childhood spent in a city under Occupation more vividly portray the details of specific occurrences, childhood or bachelorhood adventures with the Occupation as a ‘background story’:

I went to school, I studied, I played cards – the vingt-et-un. Gambling-style. I was attracted to it, I got a taste for gambling. We met in Grajewska St., at a first-floor apartment, and there we played cards, for money, obviously. Where did I get money from? Well, my father gave me money for books. I bought those books, then sold them, and allocated the money thus received to the vingt-et-un play. Someday, my neighbour must’ve noticed me there, and she informed my father of everything. One day I went out, as though to walk my dog – walking our dog, Medor, was part of my daily routine – while I went, as usual, to play cards. We’re playing, I’m getting more and more enthusiastic, I’m saying, “Bank for me!” and can hear at the same moment, “But let me take the cards.” I’m looking: my father’s standing behind me. That was the only time when my father didn’t say a word to scold me, // nothing; // we walked back [home] in silence. That was telling enough for me. But I didn’t quit playing cards. We just played elsewhere.

I could indeed have quite given myself air and graces. We had our entertainments: the cards, jumping – that is, jumping into and out of tramways. We did that our own way. Between Markowska St. and the Monopoly [i.e. the manufacturing plant of the State Spirit Monopoly (Transl. note)] there was a long [tram] stop. And, it required some skill to jump onto the tram and jump out, not ‘downstream’ but ‘upstream’. You’d jump up bent over, so that the onward rush wouldn’t knock you down. But you had to jump not into the second car but onto the second platform of the first. That was suicidal, wasn’t it? Of course, this was trifling entertainment, puerile, but still, dangerous. Such was ‘my’ Occupation.175

Professional work or a career appear among the ordinary Occupation-time experiences of many somewhat older Interviewees of this group:

I decided I would work, and study in the evening, that is, at night school. And that’s what I did. I started working for an electro-technical company, Stanisław Michnowski, located at 2 Aleja-3-Maja Ave., well, to coin a phrase: as a probationer. But the situation was that, since I was just under fourteen, so the owner of the company could not get me registered ←136 | 137→as a probationer, for such were the regulations, apparently. Therefore, he had me registered as an errand boy. Nonetheless, I worked at regular building sites together with installers, so to say: learning the profession. All that became possible, I have to admit, thanks to my uncle who had a carpenter’s shop in Zielna St. and knew Mr Michnowski, as he had made the so-called store outfit for him, meaning all the furnishings, desks, shelves, and so on, as needed for the store.176

Many these stories of Warsaw childhood experiences that preceded the Uprising have the war or, more precisely, the Occupation, present in them between the lines. At just a few moments of focused zoom-ins can we deem that ‘wartime’ memories appear. One such close-up concerns the very beginning of the war – the September 1939 campaign: the bombings, conflagrations, ravages, and temporary desertion of the city:

In 1939, my father, as a Government official, was evacuated together with the whole Ministry, the files and everything, by a special train, but he could not take any of us with him. My mother, together with a neighbour who had twins, from the same house in Puławska St., somehow managed to arrange this. Her husband was, sort of, more energetic, [he arranged for] a ‘RUCH’ [press distribution enterprise] vehicle which distributed the press, and as early as on 2nd September, following the first German air raids on Warsaw, he stuck us onto those papers, with the small bundles, me, my mum, and his wife with those small twins. We drove along the Lublin hardtop toward Żelechów. …

He [i.e. my father] somehow managed to reach Żelechów. He came across us there, so we had our father, the whole family, the only son, mum. You had to think, because the war was over then. Warsaw had capitulated.177

Symptomatically, it is in not just a few stories that only this period named ‘the war’:

Once the war was over, I began going to school again. We studied for two hours a day. That was, primarily, mathematics, Polish and, well, German, from time to time.178

My mother lived in Wronia Street, I went there and, till the end of the war, // obviously, till the armistice and seizure of the city by the Germans, I stayed there. The siege of Warsaw – it was a tragedy for all, not just for us. After the armistice, with the Germans having entered Warsaw, I went to my aunt, to Dzielna St. There we stayed, and there we lived with our grandma for some time.179

←137 | 138→

The next period identified in these accounts as related to the war is, usually, the Warsaw Uprising. Paradoxically, it is true also for those, fairly numerous, anecdotes that tell us about the narrators’ own involvement in the conspiracy – as if it was something beside the ‘true war’.

The question can obviously be posed, also as a reproach, as to whether such stories are real and true and, moreover, representative or typical. In reply, I may remind the reader once again that my focus is not the issue of the genuineness or veracity of the stories under analysis, the correspondence between what the Interviewees say and ‘what it was like in reality’. I am mostly interested, instead, in individual experiences and their subjective meanings, the interpretations given to them by the Interviewees, and the ways in which they have built their autobiographical narratives upon these experiences, combining the episodes into sequences, stages, phases of their biographies, and setting or contrasting one thing against another. This opposition/contrast between the pre-camp and camp-time experience is the reason for why the former appears so ordinary.

In analysing the Occupation-time autobiographies set in Warsaw, it would be worthwhile asking whether any images of Jews, the Ghetto or the Holocaust appear in them, and what sort of images these are. The first observation one finds feasible in this context is that such close-ups do appear – usually, not in the first part of the interview, the free narrating phase, but only in response to the interviewer’s questions. If not for these questions, most of our Varsovian Interviewees would have constructed their stories without taking into account even one of their over four hundred thousand Jewish neighbours – residents of the Ghetto. This enclosed district is almost non-existent in the spontaneous stories. Yet, there are vital exceptions; let us quote an exemplary fragment, on a friendship that was sustained in spite of the wall that separated the two universes:

I entered, because I had some Jews I was well acquainted with, friends, then later I entered the Ghetto area in an illegal way. I mean, I entered the Courts edifice, there, from Elektoralna St. I would take off my overcoat, leave it at the cloakroom, as proof that I’d be back there in a moment; I took out in that cloakroom, secretly, or in the restroom, an armband with the Star [of David]. I would put it on my arm, and use the second exit, which led to the Ghetto side, I exited as a Jew. Of course, I could’ve run the risk, had my identity papers been checked, but I took precautions not to expose myself to consequences, and I went to my acquaintances. We’d have a chat, and in the morning, once the night was over, during which you were not supposed to walk around, I would go out and then, not along the same way, but through the exit gate toward Elektoralna St., // I can’t remember what the street between Elektoralna St. and the Courts is named… That side street. There was a fence made of thick beams. One of the beams was half-opened, and you had to wait for some time, till the guard walked past, then you set the beam ajar, and you walked out. I thus was twice in the Ghetto, illegally. It was really a tragedy then [there] already.180

←138 | 139→

This is a unique image, (re)constructed spontaneously, as part of an unrestrained narration, by an intellectual, a known photographic artist today, then involved in an armed conspiracy with the People’s Army (Armia Ludowa). The accounts of younger Varsovians, with whom we most frequently talked with, offer in most cases completely different images of/from the enclosed district and of its dwellers. Their common aspect is their great distance from the world behind the wall. It appears as a separate planet, completely dissimilar to ‘our city’. Its residents are also unlike ‘us’. They appear just for a while, in a vestigial fashion, if at all. They cannot catch the narrators’ attention for too long. Sometimes, they just slip past in the background, a feature in the city’s topography. Like the walls surrounding the Ghetto, whose contour is outlined by some of them with much precision:

And it so happened, sir, that the Ghetto… // They erased that house of ours. We swapped the house with some Jews, into a large apartment in Ogrodowa Street, that took a week, well, and the municipal board again claimed the house, and we … were thrown out, and we got back to that one [= our previous dwelling]. That was, well, at 92 Nowolipki St.

Well, and, you know, it lasted then until November ‘41, and once they set the walls along the streets, that is, there was Bankowy Square somewhere there, along Elektoralna St., Chłodna St., they turned into Żelazna St., incidentally. … But, that ghetto was [set] along Żelazna St., up to, roughly, Prosta St. The wall headed backwards, there was that famous [wooden pedestrian] bridge over Chłodna St., and in Krochmalna the ghetto followed up, at the Waliców St. side.181

The Ghetto is a space (physical as well as social or human) that appears unattainable, unknown, inanimate, alien in the individual maps of the city as recorded in the memory of Interviewees; invisible and unrealised on an everyday basis. It only appears within the frame of memory when it marks its presence by itself, demanding attention – eliciting sounds unheard before and wisps of smoke unseen before. One could not possibly neglect or overlook them any longer:

Because, as the Ghetto was liquidated, then, then there was a yell, kind of. The moment the Ghetto began to be liquidated, I remember, the window was open and some kind of uncanny yell was coming in, so, // so when we woke up, then you wouldn’t tell that something… Are there some geese squealing, in some farm? Only afterwards, after a short time, did we learn that they’re liquidating the Ghetto, that there were the Jews, the Jews were screaming, that sound… // Sound is a word that’s unfitting here, // that piercing yell, incredible, // that was just the… // that was coming from the Ghetto being liquidated.182

←139 | 140→

The audio recording shows how strong and dramatic this reminiscence is. The author was brought up before the war in poor Polish-Jewish backyards. Many of his former friends must have remained behind that wall, somewhere in that place where those frightful sounds were coming from.

There are some who speak openly of their increasingly distant, but once close, acquaintances or friends:

There were two Jewish families living in my house, in Zakroczymska St. A clockmaker, // I had my fellows, as there were three boys there: Heniek, the oldest; and then, Abram, the younger one, and Moniek, the youngest; and there was Andzia, Hana. We called her Andzia. He was a clockmaker, and he had a shop and a flat on the street side. There was a shop right next to it, but with an entrance from our backyard. It was a mercer’s shop, you know, that’s what it was called. And it was that very Jewish family who ran that mercer’s shop. And as they were leaving for the Ghetto, then some of the things, those fabrics, lay in my apartment, sorted out under the bed. She [apparently, the merchant’s wife (Transl. note)] requested my mother, maybe someone else too, to keep it for some time there. Because afterwards they were coming, // taking this stuff and, apparently, selling it. For some time.183

Those who never had such fellows, or have managed to forget about them, evoke the occurrences behind the wall in a quieter way, without emotion. They mention these events, let us recall, not of their own initiative but on the request of the interviewer:

[TG:] Do you remember the uprising in the Ghetto? [SS:] I do, but I wasn’t extremely interested. When I was at my friend’s in Pawia St., then I could see them burning, // the ghetto burning.184

Sometimes, however, it was impossible not to be interested – as when a shrapnel from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was flying over the wall, hitting the ‘safe’ side of it, and increasing the workload. Let us take a look at a fragment from the reminiscences of an Interviewee who happened to work at that time in the immediate vicinity of the Ghetto:

And I, sir, walk on Wednesday, the 19th [of April 1943 – PF’s note], to the [? tram] stop, as I went to work at 8 [in the morning] in Tamka St. … I went to work, and in the afternoon, as we learned about it then, while at work, that it was an uprising. … I, obviously… // The trams were only arriving at Krasińskich Square, and returned. They didn’t even come [as far as that] afterwards. They started immediately, organised transport facilities, // people had the skill of getting organised ←140 | 141→quickly, // horse-drawn transport, and they carried the people to Żoliborz [district] along Długa, Freta, Zakroczymska, Krajewskiego Street[s] . Yes, and there, the fighting was going on, as the gunfighting was from both sides. I witnessed that, since I arrived at Krasińskich Square and walked down the street, to Winiarska St., for that for me was the shortest distance to Franciszkańska St. I saw a policeman with blood stains inside a gate, he had his thigh shot through. Probably somewhere from that side over there. Whereas between the buildings, as there were two, such, buildings standing, edgeways, on the Ghetto side, there was a man slung across one of those balconies. This means that they had probably shot, killed him on that balcony, sir. And that was on Wednesday. It lasted all the time. The biggest for us, // I mean, for me personally, that was, like, the heaviest night, Easter Saturday into Easter Sunday. Why? Because the Ghetto was on fire already, it was seriously on fire, since the Germans were setting it on fire. Although Zakroczymska St. is some sort of a section, but it was windy, it was moreover warm, and there were whole, like, burning, glowing paper sheets, or whatever it was. And we watched so it wouldn’t get enflamed on the roof, as there was spread, on the roof, tar was spread on the roofing felt. So, we sat on the roof, and looked after, for it not to… // And that was Saturday, Easter Saturday, into Easter Sunday. That was a very heavy night for us, because the Ghetto was burning at that time. Well, besides, I witnessed that in Świętojerska Street … but that was later on, the uprising in the Ghetto was falling down, or had fallen down already, I could see a man, there was a sewage manhole, [at the corner of] Bonifraterska/Świętojerska Sts., and there was a manhole, and that manhole [cover] was lifted up, and from that manhole a man came out and tried to escape, and they began shooting at that man. And he ran into a gate, and there he was reportedly killed. So, I witnessed that. [PF:] Did you work all the time [during the Ghetto Uprising]? [JRS:] Well, yes, I worked all the time, activity in Warsaw didn’t come to a standstill.185

The last sentence spoken by this Interviewee renders well the experiences of probably all our Warsaw Interviewees who stayed in the city during the Ghetto Uprising; it is their common denominator. Regardless of how far the occurrences behind the wall reached or affected them (if at all), here, ‘on our side’, life goes on, with its usual rhythm. Activity does not come to a standstill. What is more, it is hard to even talk about ‘our’ and ‘that (other)’ side, as ‘that’ side is virtually nonexistent. The Warsaw experienced and remembered by these narrators does not extend to the enclosed district and the people contained therein. Rather than being an objection, this observation simply attempts to recognise the prevalent traits of the collective memory of this generation of Varsovians. Such marginalisation is, unfortunately, observable also on the level of a more objectivised historical narrative on the occupied city:

←141 | 142→

There was the Uprising in the Ghetto. I don’t consider it an uprising; it was a spurt. Today, they call everything an uprising. There were no military men, there were the civilians only. It was a spurt by a group of people. … There was no organisation in the Ghetto, to my mind; there was the ŻOB [i.e. Jewish Combat Organisation], but that did not quite play a significant role. [Mordechaj] Anielewicz was no military man, nor was [Marek] Edelman a military man, these were people from the spurt. In our [i.e. Warsaw] Uprising, there were five generals, military men, and there were the entire military resources, there were tactics.186

Let us pause, now, at this point to consider the experience of ‘our’ uprising – the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 – and its biographical consequences. This particular Uprising is not something that is only to be inquired about: it is a constitutive element of each of these stories, one that is evoked at a crucial moment. It forms the biography’s turning point, setting the beginning of the biographical trajectory or one of its subsequent stages, incomparable with any of the preceding ones. Again, this generalisation concerns, to the greatest degree, the youngest of our Interviewees. How deeply they were involved in Uprising-related fighting – or, whether they were so involved at all – is not quite the point. The statement can even be risked that an additional burden appears when there was no such involvement. Not because this has created a sense of guilt but because a substantial element is missing, which could have otherwise been instrumental in giving a meaning to the subsequent experience. Without such a meaning, it proves much harder to cope with the trauma of Lager trajectories, the sudden biographical cave-in that started with the Uprising – or was simply triggered by it, as believed by many of our Interviewees. Hence, voices such as those quoted below are by no means isolated:

You know, I, // I condemn the Uprising, I condemn the Uprising. They shouldn’t have been the ones to begin [it], they really shouldn’t have to have done it. With nothing, sir, well, consider the [squad of] thirteen boys having a sidolówka187.188

The fact is, // I lost a lot of my family in the Uprising: an uncle, a brother; sadly, he took part in the Uprising, and perished. … Then, I ponder every now and then whether this Uprising has paid back, although it was a heroic spurt. Whether it has paid back, or we have borne more of a loss than [gained] a benefit. What of it that the news was disseminated to the world that an uprising broke out, once most of those people were murdered, all was destroyed?189

←142 | 143→

And, just one more opinion, the most unambiguous of all:

What I always tell my daughter is, if anything similar happens, such as an uprising, for instance, then, don’t you wait for the course of events to happen but just take the things you need the most, and get out of town.190

A definite majority of our Interviewees from this Warsaw group were somehow involved or engaged in the Uprising: as scouts, messengers, or ancillaries. Those roles were short-lived and transient. The narratives of those experiences are chaotic, shredded, and incoherent. It is difficult – if at all possible – to build a precise historical narrative upon them. These are stories of lost children, rather than accounts of soldiers bearing any military rank and executing their commanders’ orders, able to prove knowledgeable of the situation.191 There are some who barely brushed up against the Uprising, or who just watched it from the other side of the Vistula. Some wanted to get involved but could not – because, for instance, their parents forbade them:

I was not in the organisation, since my father absolutely would not let me, which hurt me very much. I remember going to my female first cousin in Daleka Street, where the AK-men [i.e. Home Army members] met. My female first cousin was also a member of the Home Army, but I was not supposed to be so. …

When the rising broke out in Praga, … I wanted to go straight off, volunteer. I was seventeen, an athletic boy, I swam, played volleyball. My father could see that this was not a joking matter with me anymore, but said, ‘Let us wait a little still, a few hours; we will not be late.’ A few hours later, there was nothing to turn up [to], for there was no uprising in Praga [anymore].192

These experiences of the Uprising are diverse, scattered; the Interviewee’s vicissitudes run along various paths, but all these paths, completely unexpectedly, converge at one place: the transit camp of Pruszków. It all happens so quickly; they experience it in a crowd, with great fear, and find it shocking. This may be the reason why their memory has only preserved strands of it, torn images: some SS-men; sometimes, St. Adalbert’s (św. Wojciecha) church in Wola district; the Warsaw West Railway Station (Dworzec Zachodni); an electric train; some snapshot from the Pruszków transit camp – at a large yard near the railway tracks, followed, moments later, by the transport to a concentration camp: either to Auschwitz, or, directly, to Mauthausen.

←143 | 144→

There was a sentinel, the SS-men were standing, somewhere there at the corner, we had to walk up a bit to that barricade which they had already taken away. There, the search at once, ‘hands up!’ They immediately took off various things, searched us, and let us go on. There was a whole column walking toward Wola, there was a point, like, at St. Adalbert’s church. They gathered us up there, and we were there for two or three days, encamped in that church. Later, when they gathered all the company together, they convoyed us to the [Warsaw] West station and to Pruszków.193

Some of these barely noted incidents, residuary images, have a special status as they rank among the most important the memory has stored and constantly replays. They are key for the Interviewee’s identity. Usually, these are the most traumatic images:

We were driven through the Polish Fiat [establishment] area – initially, all of us to the ‘[Romuald] Traugutt’ Park. There, we were separated. Males separately and women separately. And we were driven to Stawki St. There, in Stawki St., were the warehouses and there I met my mother for the last time, I didn’t know it then that it was for the last time, but it so happened that a column of women was standing and a column of men entered, and our column turned up beside the other column… // And my mum, I remember she gave me some more… // In the kettle, she had some water, I don’t know where from, as there was no water available at that time, after all; maybe that was some rainwater. And some sugar cubes. // I met her there, and bid farewell, actually, to my mother, because our column was driven forward, the men were driven forth in the first column, and when I said goodbye to my mum at the last moment… // with my sisters [the Interviewee’s mother was accompanied by his two sisters (PF’s note)], and we were driven to the church in Wola.194

The passage from the occupied city, from the Uprising, to a camp marks the moment from which the narrators enter – are thrown into – the swift current of a collective lot, a current that snatches and carries them forth. Each of these individuals also experiences, moreover, their individual trajectory, which proves to be irresistible. Within a few months, most of the narrators find themselves detained in a number of camps, working with several labour Kommandos – the usual initial site being a quarry; as their health abruptly breaks down, they are put, in most cases, in a sickroom (rewir), and finally are driven along a death march, for dozens of kilometres.

The prisoners who arrive in the kacets early in the spring of 1944 are usually offered no opportunity to adapt to the camp universe: the timeline is too short for them gradually to be taught the rudiments of the role of inmate, for their lengthy apprenticeship, the development of interpersonal bonds and social relationships. ←144 | 145→Those who could be saved, in the first place, managed for a while to draw the attention of the senior and well-domesticated prisoners, whenever the latter were able to extend their helping hand. They are normally perfectly aware of these facts, and some can express them quite accurately:

It is worth saying here that all of us, the young, I was seventeen then, but all the young boys from the Uprising who were carried to our camp in our transport, all of them survived. All found some ‘camp fathers’ [for themselves] who took care of them. Be it the crematorium Kapo, or be it the Feuerwache Kapo, or be it the kitchen chefs’ Kapo – everyone had a ‘father’ to help him. Of course, our caretakers were mostly Polish. All of us young men survived the camp. Whereas the Varsovians were passing away at an incredible rate, countless, you can say; already in the winter, early spring period, they were departing from this life, so greatly, especially that the mortality rate… The food rations had been cut sometime in around April. The prisoners only got a sixth of a loaf of bread each. Even the word ‘bread’ is, besides, too magniloquent, I would say. It was some sort of a mash, hell knows of what. And they would get a bowl of soup made of potato peelings, with some weeds, once a day. So, the people were greatly passing away as a result. We, the young, had extra soup, and an extra piece of bread. This was a great deal. Thanks to this, we survived.195

Nevertheless, some of our Interviewees appear to have remained on their own till the very end, unable or not lucky enough to find a ‘father’ patron for themselves;196 some lost their ‘father’ along the way (from camp to camp/Kommando to Kommando). They lived to greet the liberation while on the verge of complete exhaustion – to the extent that some of them did not even register the moment of liberation.

Although I didn’t quite realise I was still alive [after the liberation – PF’s note]. I had complete amnesia, and even some time after the liberation I didn’t know how to write. Later on, when I could write again, I found my handwriting had changed. I gradually retrieved my memory, to the point where I could remember everything.

Elsewhere, this narrator says:

I was absent physically and spiritually then. They say, I existed. Something reached my consciousness, some cries: ‘The Americans, the Americans have arrived!’ But I couldn’t care less about all that: Americans, or whoever, whatever.197

←145 | 146→

Over the entire period of their detention in the Lager, they constantly brushed against death. Not just an anonymous death, the piles of nameless corpses which in that final period filled many spaces of the camp area – but also a concrete death: the death of those with whom they travelled to the camp. Their closest relatives were sometimes among these companions. It appears these are the severest camp-related experiences. In order to elicit a related reminiscence, let us set together a few passages from various moments within a single story; with their different narrative functions, these fragments revolve around one motif: the death of a father and two brothers in the camp.

It might have been a mistake that we made, with our whole family, by sticking together. That was the cardinal mistake, it seems to me. Clearly, they separated the women from us, and all four of us, that is, my father and three brothers, went to the camp of Mauthausen. Whereas my mum, with the other women, was directed to Ravensbrück. So, this meant the whole of our family ended up in a camp. …

My middle brother and I were both in one Kommando. We somehow stuck together, but it was made increasingly plain that it wouldn’t be possible this way all the time. I abated first. … My elder brother was well-built, and a, sort of, sportsman, a little. I find it strange that he was the second to lose his life. I think this must’ve happened in an abrupt way, and it wasn’t [because of] an illness. Because he even worked with those carpenters, and they were Austrians, from freedom [i.e. living outside the camp]. And he even told us sometimes that he’d got a piece of bread from them. But they feared they might expose themselves to the SS-men’s displeasure. A horde of SS-men was swarming around there constantly, and the Kapo exacerbated all this by screaming and lashing when he saw them. So I wonder at the fact that he ended his life before my middle bother did, who was always a skinny man and who Mum considered to be, like, her ‘scamp of a son’. Although he was the middle one, and I was the youngest, Mum always considered Zdzisiek [dimin., Zdzisław], this very one, to be her, sort of, ‘scamp of a son’. … I was weaker, and Zdzich [dimin., Zdzisław] would always support me psychically. …

My father always said, ‘You have to stick together, last out till the end. For someone to survive, to at least let mother know; for one of you to support her.’ …

My father felt very bad. He was depressed, to put it simply. He knew he wouldn’t bear it, and that his days were numbered. He was a sickly man, after all; already under the Occupation, he had problems with his stomach. And, that camp-style belly-timber… He was, moreover, a smoking addict. And, my brother and I noticed that he wouldn’t eat the whole [portion of] bread, but sell [part of it] for a cigarette. And he was sinking fast. We made efforts to explain this to him, but couldn’t quite convince him. …

I collapsed myself when I learned that my father and brothers were dead. That was a collapse. // I couldn’t comprehend how three people could perish so quickly. …

There was weeping, nothing else. What could one [do]? The worse thing was that I couldn’t share this with any family or friends. I had to work through all that tragedy myself and bear it on my own. … There was no friendly person in this block. Everybody was scowling at one another, for there was hunger. I didn’t make friends with anyone.

←146 | 147→

And, a reminiscence from the post-war period, with respect to the same trauma:

I knew [about my father’s and brothers’ deaths in the camp – PF’s note], but just couldn’t look into my Mum’s eyes and tell her they were dead. I gave her some hope. And we reported them to the Red Cross, so they could search and notify us how things stand. And, some time after, we received, like, brief notifications that they stayed [in the camp], died, // with the dates. … I never eventually told her that I’d known. She was under the delusion that perhaps I had left the camp too soon; that maybe we could’ve met there. In the following years, we did not resume the subject, treating the camp matters, the matter of their deaths, as a taboo. We didn’t comment on that any further, for we were so sorry about that. … Mum was terribly upset, she remained sad till the end. She was greatly affected, but, how could I help her with it? I comforted her by saying that we have to finally snap out of it, and carry on living this life.198

The return to Poland – for those who decided to go back, as many from this group resolved to stay in the West – meant for this group of survivors a return to a city in ruins, to decimated families. The few months between the summer of 1944 and spring of 1945 deeply and abidingly mutilated their lives. Their biographical mutilations were no less heavy than those caused by the Lager in the lives of the older, long-term prisoners. To survive the last few months in the camp could have been no less tough, if not downright tougher, than to survive several years there.199 This finding is not absurd or illogical if we apply qualitative, rather than quantitative, ‘measures’: it appears more appropriate to apply the former to human experiences of the kind in question.

At this point, I will refrain from rendering more condense the description of the third (and last) category of camp narrative/experience I have discerned. I will follow up this thread in my analysis of the account of Roman Strój, later in this study. This chapter is more descriptive than the analyses of the two other interviews. The following chapter, in turn, considers the specificity of women’s Lager-related narratives – specifically, those which have been taped in Poland as part of the project under discussion.

73 P. Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, New York, 1989, p. 17 (a Polish translation of this seminal book has also been issued: P. Levi, Pogrążeni i ocaleni, transl. by S. Kasprzysiak, Kraków, 2007).

74 Ibidem, p. 82.

75 A. Pawełczyńska, op. cit., p. 63.

76 I have borrowed the phrase ‘epos of the way back home’ from M. Pollak, who entitled this fragment of his analysis of a biographical interview with an Auschwitz survivor ‘Epos der Heimkehr’, in op. cit., pp. 59–65.

77 A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., p. 183.

78 Ibidem, p. 184.

79 Many examples can be found in a number of accounts to support this observation. There is one particularly characteristic episode that has stuck in my mind – a scene of arrival at the Mauthausen camp, as evoked in a biographical interview by one of the former inmates (account taped as part of the project called ‘Biography and National Identity’, carried out in the mid-1990s by the University of Łódź): “I can remember us entering through the Mauthausen gate and me seeing that grand ... gate, a wrought gate, you know, a concrete, iron one, with the inscription ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, ... then I knew that it was almost the way [...] as Dante describes it, we are entering a hell from which there is no way out.” (Quoted after: A. Rokuszewska-Pawełek, op. cit., p. 187). The fact is, the inscription ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ was never featured at the Mauthausen camp gate, and so was it with a few other Nazi camps, e.g. Ravensbrück, Buchenwald (the latter had an inscription reading ‘Jedem das Seine’). Incidentally, some of my Interviewees emphasise that there was no such ill-famed and cruelly cynical welcoming motto, which has been referred to so many a time.

80 From the account of Janusz Bąkowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_154.

81 From the account of Tadeusz Smreczyński, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_130 (recorded by Dorota Pazio). (For the quotes from accounts based on interviews done by my KARTA colleagues, I give the interviewer’s name; for the interviews I have myself taped, only reference numbers are given.)

82 This wrestling with a sense of guilt and shame, among the non-Jewish prisoners of KZs too, was also recognised and analysed by P. Levi in his aforementioned The Drowned and the Saved, p. 70ff.

83 Survival is rationalised through faith particularly strongly among those survivors who experienced conversion while at the camp: “The Jehovah’s Witnesses, to whom I felt attracted in the camp, initially didn’t want to accept me. I didn’t know why. Maybe they were frightened away by the red triangle I had, for I was a political one [= prisoner]. How much I wept there, only Jehovah, God, knows. There was nothing drawing me to the world any more, I saw the abhorrence, I saw the violence, and now, they’re not willing to accept me! So I incessantly besieged those brethren, that I’m desirous, I called for help. In consequence of that, I was accepted one day into the brethren’s community. There’s no ‘madam’ or ‘sir’ among us; Jesus said, ‘You are all brothers and sisters’. As I learned later on, a brother, supervisor of this group of inmates in the camp, his name was, as I can remember, Martin Pötzinger, the anointed. He said one evening at an assembly of ours, as we were assembling every day, ‘cause, where’d we go? In small groups. ‘Brothers, that must be a Lord’s ewe, as it is constantly attacking us’. As a result of that, he ordered that, sort of, oral educational, biblical studies be conducted with me. After six such studies, I declared I was ready to receive baptism. A baptism is only worthy in God’s eyes if through complete submergence. What it expresses is that the individual has resolved to deliver God’s will. ... Our brethren the carpenters made a long trough, a rather tall one. Well, a larger bathtub, as if it was. And they brought that trough, in broad daylight, to the ironworks. The SS men thought it was needed for parts, as we were dismantling the machines, appliances. So, when they went away, we [transferred] the trough, via the central-heating duct, to the boiler room. The stoker at the boiler room was a brother of ours. He bolted the door of the boiler room from the outside, and we [went down] one day via that duct to the boiler room, and there, in the boiler room, brother Martin Pötzinger delivered a speech, obviously in the German language, but it was translated straight into Polish. And there I assumed baptism, through complete submergence. Thus, I became, from that moment on, an ordained servant of God. And so, I was the fifty-sixth Jehovah’s Witness in the camp, but the first witness created behind the wires”. From the account of Zygmunt Sawicki, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_071 (recorded by Michał Zarzycki).

84 From the account of Fr. Marian Żelazek, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_072 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

85 For more on this aspect, see the investigations made by the Krakow psychiatrists’ team representing the A. Kępiński ‘school’, published in the special fascicles of Przegląd Lekarski from 1962 to 1991.

86 From the account of Jan-Ryszard Sempka, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_036.

87 From the account of Włodzimierz Kaliński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_108 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

88 From the account of Edward Pyś, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_092 (recorded by Michał Zarzycki).

89 From the account of Eugeniusz Śliwiński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_131.

90 Here is a recollection from the town of Biała-Podlaska under German Occupation, before the Interviewee was detained: “The wife went in the regular way. They were murdering the Jews in plain sight.... Two pits, like. There are traces still. Like this room, larger, that pit. And all those Jews went into those pits. The children, that’s right, all went into there. I wasn’t lying all the time like that, mister [the Interviewee had been wounded in the September 1939 campaign and immobilised for several months (PF’s note)] – and then I scrambled out of the home, you know, with a rod, curious. Look awhile here, listen awhile there. You know that man is thoughtful, after all. You couldn’t detach yourself completely, like that”. From the account of Eugeniusz Sacewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_073.

91 From the account of Stefan Pręgowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_003.

92 From the account of Jan-Ryszard Sempka, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_036.

93 I. Amiel, Scorched: A Collection of Short Stories on Survivors, transl. by Vallentine Mitchell, London 2006.

94 From the account of Czesław Oparcik, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_017 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

95 From the account of Eugeniusz Sacewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_073.

96 From the account of Jacek Zieliniewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. ISFLDP_047.

97 From the account (videotaped) of Zbigniew Dłubak, art theorist, photographic artist and painter, shot by movie director Maciej Drygas, available at the KARTA Centre/ History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_156. Z. Dłubak’s account, edited and with his earlier unknown paintings made when in the camp, was published in ‘Obieg’ art quarterly, 2006, No. 1 (73).

98 From the account of Sylwin Jóźwiak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_027.

99 Out of 164 biographical interviews recorded as part of the Project in Poland, twenty-four were with prisoners who had been detained in a kacet since 1940 (which required much effort, as they were the most difficult to reach).

100 From the account of Stanisław Pręgowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_003.

101 From the account of Stanisław Dobosiewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_014.

102 V. Klemperer, LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch enines Philologen: such was the title of the first edition, published in 1947 in Germany. See also P. Levi’s remarks on LTI in his The Drowned and the Saved, p. 97 ff.

103 See the account of Zbigniew Filarski, a student of Architecture at the Gdansk University of Technology, who was arrested together with his father, sister and brother on 14th November 1939 and imprisoned at the Stutthof concentration camp. In April 1940, Mr Filarski was dispatched to Sachsenhausen and, shortly afterwards, to Gusen, where he was kept till liberation day; available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_058 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

104 From the account of Stefan Pręgowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_003.

105 From the account of Wacław Milke, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_019.

106 From the account of Tadeusz Różycki, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_042 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

107 My Interviewee eventually recalled the writer’s first name – Gustaw (born Augustyn). Gustaw Morcinek was an eminent Polish fiction author of Silesian background, who was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau.

108 From the account of Stanisław Dobosiewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_014.

109 From the account of Jan Wagner, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_026 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

110 From the account of Telesfor Matuszak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_105 (recorded by Michał Zarzycki).

111 From the account of Janusz Gajewski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_132 (recorded by Dorota Pazio).

112 According to the Nazi classification, Grade 1 camps (e.g. Dachau) were devised for ‘less incriminated and unconditionally re-educable protective custody prisoners’; Grade 2, for ‘heavily incriminated, but still re-educable prisoners’ (e.g. Buchenwald); and, Grade 3 – for ‘heavily incriminated incorrigibles and criminals with previous convictions as well as asocial persons, i.e. to all intents and purposes non re-educable prisoners’ (e.g. Mauthausen/Gusen).

113 From the account of Stanisław Dobosiewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_014.

114 The moment of the shift is particularly highlighted in, amongst others, the account of Jerzy Wandel, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_001. For more on this point, see P. Levi, op. cit., p. 46.

115 Not in a colloquial sense but in the one proposed by Goffman; see Erving Goffman, ‘On Face-work: An Analysis of the ritual elements in social interactions’, Psychiatry 18(3), 1955, pp. 213–231.

116 Van Loosen was a Kapo and one of the greatest torturers in Gusen; his name reappears in a number of former inmate accounts; characteristically, most references to him are found in the accounts of the oldest inmates, who best knew the concrete Kapos and SS men, by their first names and surnames.

117 From the account of Wacław Pilarski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_125 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

118 Ibidem.

119 From the account of Czesław Oparcik, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_017 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb). Characteristically, an almost identical episode – similarly set within the course of narration, with a similar symbolism and triggering similar emotions – appears in the account of Leon Ceglarz, a long-term Gusen inmate, which I analyse in detail further below, in section 3.

120 From the account of Fr. Marian Żelazek, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_072 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

121 From the account of Henryk Białkowski, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_011 (recorded by Agnieszka Knyt).

122 From the account of Stefan Pręgowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_003.

123 From the account of Edward Pyś, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_092 (recorded by Michał Zarzycki).

124 Three (of the four) books written by Stanisław Dobosiewicz, prisoner no. 166, on the Gusen camp are all about this particular dimension of the Lager experience.

125 From the account of Wacław Milke, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_019.

126 From the account of Tadeusz Różycki, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_042 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner). This is exactly what Primo Levi refers to as the ‘grey zone’; his image is more complex, though.

127 From the account of Stanisław Dobosiewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_014.

128 From the account of Albert Juszkiewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_024 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

129 From the account of Stanisław Dobosiewicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_014.

130 H. Maršálek, Die Geschichte des Konzentrationslagers Mauthausen, Wien – Linz, 1995.

131 From the account of Paweł Kokot, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_078 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

132 From the account of Zdzisław Nowakowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_076.

133 This memory is institutionally expressed by, among others, the Christian Association of Auschwitz Victims. One of its recent projects is the videotaping of more than forty interviews with former inmates of the camp, primarily, the eldest Polish prisoners. For a presentation of this effort, including fragments of the interviews, see the webpage:

134 From the account of Józef Paczyński, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_203.

135 Among the instances of collective/family responsibility applied by the Nazis, the detailed, dense story of the arrest, imprisonment, and sending to the concentration camps of members of the Leszczyński family of Łódź deserves particular attention: two brothers, a sister and the mother, instead of the eldest brother who was active with the anti-Nazi conspiracy movement (he had managed to escape while being arrested). The two brothers were put in Mauthausen. Their stories have been taped as part of the Polish contribution to the MSDP project. See the account of Stanisław Leszczyński, ref. no. MSDP_031, and of his brother Henryk Leszczyński, ref. no. MSDP_164.

136 From the account of Józef Nowak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_085.

137 From the account of Dyonizy Lechowicz, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_034 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

138 From the account of Benedykt Lech, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_056 (recorded by Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner).

139 From the account of Eugeniusz Śliwiński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_131.

140 From the account of Stanisław Leszczyński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no MSDP_031.

141 From the account of Zbigniew Dębiński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_075 (recorded by Dorota Pazio).

142 From the account of Kazimierz Pieńkos, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_020 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

143 From the account of Stanisław Wochal, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_062.

144 From the acocunt of Józef Bednarczyk, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_069.

145 From the account of Józef Nowak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_085.

146 From the account of Zbigniew Tłuchowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_088.

147 From the account of Stanisław Leszczyński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no MSDP_031.

148 From the account of Henryk Leszczyński, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no MSDP_164.

149 From the account of Sylwin Jóźwiak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_027.

150 Ibidem.

151 From the account of Antoni Żak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_107.

152 From the account of Teofil Płonka, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_066.

153 In the original, the narrator from time to time resorts to local idioms used in the Polish eastern borderland area, sounding like, or simply being, (Belo)Russian borrowings; here, prishli for ‘they went’ (Transl. note).

154 From the account of Antoni Żak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_107.

155 Ibidem.

156 From the account of Stefan Puc, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_110.

157 From the account of Antoni Żak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_107.

158 Służba Polsce, a State paramilitary youth organisation, founded in 1948 (Transl. note).

159 From the account of Teofil Płonka, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_066.

160 From the account of Stefan Puc, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_110.

161 From the account of Antoni Żak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_107.

162 From the account of Florian Granek, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_086 (recorded by Michał Zarzycki).

163 From the account of Józef Bednarczyk, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_069.

164 It is worth remembering that in 1942, owing to the wartime demand, the Nazis modified their concentration camp policy: originally intended as sites of extermination, from then on the camps were primarily supposed to become the source of the free labour force. For the Jews, what the year 1942 marked was just the converse: the beginning of mass-scale annihilation.

165 From the account of Sylwin Jóźwiak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_027.

166 From the account of Józef Bednarczyk, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no MSDP_069.

167 Ibidem.

168 From the account of Teofil Płonka, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_066.

169 From the account of Antoni Żak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_107.

170 Mauthausen and its subcamps received in the summer of 1944 some 5,000 prisoners from Warsaw. All had passed through the transit camp in Pruszków (Dulag 121). Some, those who joined the first transport, which departed from Pruszków on 9th August, were first put in Auschwitz-Birkenau (the subsequent transports were sent to Mauthausen directly from Pruszków).

171 Among the Mauthausen survivors whose stories we have taped, some were detained in the camp together with the civilians from Warsaw although they themselves were mature individuals during the war, strongly involved in conspiratorial activities, including armed activities. Rather than belonging to the type I am identifying here, their stories represent the previously discussed category, in its conspiracy-related variant. This is also often true for their later situation in the camp; see the account of Zbigniew Dłubak, MSDP_156.

172 From the account of Janusz Domański, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_074 (recorded by Dorota Pazio).

173 From the account of Jan Chodakowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_133 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

174 From the account of Henryk Matulko, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_129 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

175 From the account of Janusz Domański, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_074 (recorded by Dorota Pazio).

176 From the account of Michał Fertak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_029 (recorded by Monika Kapa-Cichocka).

177 From the account of Wacław Wilk-Wilczyński, available at the KARTA Centre/ History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_035 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

178 From the account of Stefan Sot, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_159 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

179 From the account of Waldemar Pański, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_153 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

180 From the account of Zbigniew Dłubak, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_156.

181 From the account of Henryk Nowicki, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_018.

182 From the account of Janusz Bąkowski, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_154.

183 From the account of Jan Ryszard Sempka, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_036.

184 From the account of Stefan Sot, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_159 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

185 From the account of Jan Ryszard Sempka, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_036.

186 From the account of Waldemar Pański, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_153 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

187 Common name of the ‘R wz. 42’ hand grenade produced by the Home Army during WW2 (Transl. note).

188 From the account of Henryk Nowicki, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_018.

189 From the account of Ryszard Cyran, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_097.

190 From the account of Henryk Matulko, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_129 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

191 Yet, there are some stories of this kind; see, for example, the accounts of Wacław Wilk-Wilczyński, MSDP_035, and Jan Ryszard Sempka, MSDP_036. The latter is probably the only one of the several dozen of our Warsaw Interviewees whose account has also been taped by the Oral History Archive of the Warsaw Rising Museum (available at the Museum’s official website,

192 From the account of Janusz Domański, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_074 (recorded by Dorota Pazio).

193 From the account of Henryk Matulka, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_129 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

194 From the account of Jan Ryszard Sempka, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_036.

195 From the account of Janusz Domański, available at the KARTA Centre and History Meeting House’s Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_074.

196 For more on this particular thread, see the following sections of this study: remarks appended to the analysis of the account of the survivor Roman Strój.

197 From the account of Wacław Wilk-Wilczyński, available at the KARTA Centre/ History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_035 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

198 From the account of Henryk Matulko, available at the KARTA Centre/History Meeting House Oral History Archive, ref. no. MSDP_129 (recorded by Tomasz Gleb).

199 Of the many interviews I have recorded during the past few years with former concentration camp prisoners, only once was the session radically and forcefully cut off by the Interviewee, who nearly threw me out of his apartment. The possible explanation is that my presence triggered in him some unprocessed traumatic memories. The reminiscences were of the type combining Warsaw and concentration camp motifs. The thirty-minute recording made on that occasion has not been included in the MSDP project and is not available.