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Arrested Mourning

Memory of the Nazi Camps in Poland, 1944–1950


Zofia Woycicka

«Analyzing the earliest debates over the memory of Nazi camps, the author makes an important contribution to the study of their origin, reducing the existing asymmetry in our knowledge on the relevant phenomena in Western and Eastern Europe. This is all the more important as the Poles and Polish Jews, whose involvement in the disputes over memory she describes, were the most important group of survivors and eyewitnesses of the camps and so the genuine group of memory.» Prof. Dariusz Stola (Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Science)
«The vast number and variety of sources used in this work create a fascinating picture of a multifaceted, rich, vivid, and at times heated debate conducted in Poland in the late 1940s. A great merit of Wóycicka is to preserve this discourse from oblivion and to bring it back into the public sphere.» Barbara Engelking (Polish Center for Holocaust Research)
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Chapter 3: At the “Limit of a Certain Morality”: Polish Debates on the Conduct of Concentration Camp Prisoners

← 116 | 117 → Chapter 3

At the “Limit of a Certain Morality”1: Polish Debates on the Conduct of Concentration Camp Prisoners

...and finally, tell us how you wangled places in the infirmary and in good work commandos, how you shoved the “Muselmänner”2 into the ovens, and how you bought men and women. Tell us what you did in the Unterkünfte (barracks), in Kanada3, in the Krankenbau (camp hospital), and in the Gypsy camp. Tell us about that and all the minor things. Tell us about daily life in the camp and how it was organised. Tell us about the hierarchy of fear and the loneliness of each individual. But admit that it was you who did these things, that you, too, deserve a piece of Auschwitz’s grim reputation! Wouldn’t you agree?4

It was with this appeal to his former camp comrades that Tadeusz Borowski ended his review of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka’s Auschwitz memoir. The cited article appeared in Pokolenie [Generation] in January 1947. Borowski accused the author of From the Abyss of unfairly juxtaposing the loyal and dignified conduct of Polish women prisoners with the supposed lack of solidarity and fortitude displayed by women of other nationalities and of ignoring facts that could have put her Birkenau comrades in a bad light. According to Borowski, by attributing the heroic conduct of Polish women in Birkenau to their patriotism and deeply-rooted Catholic faith, Kossak-Szczucka had disregarded the different living conditions faced by each category of prisoner, which determined their chances of survival and whether they were in a position to help others.

Borowski himself, in his Auschwitz stories published in the years 1946-1948, describes in an uncompromising manner the entanglement of prisoners ← 117 | 118 → in the system of terror and their indifference towards the suffering of their comrades. For Borowski, there is no clear distinction between perpetrators and victims.5 The essence of Auschwitz is that it debases all who come into contact with it; the SS officer and the Häftling (inmate) both become cogs in a criminal machine. In the camp, every action intended to increase one’s own chances of survival or improve living conditions is taken at the expense of another human being. Prisoners working in “Kanada” profit from the human transports sent to the gas chambers; Vorarbeiter (foreman) Tadek without hesitation transmits an SS order to murder two Jewish inmates; the cooks sell prisoners’ food rations in return for vodka and cigarettes. “The phrase ‘I survived Auschwitz’,” writes Andrzej Werner, “has a completely different meaning for the author of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen than it does for the authors of martyrdom literature; the martyr’s glory, the victim’s values, simply vanish into the ether; all that remains is a terrible feeling—if not of guilt, then of shame….”6

Werner is right to claim that, from the outset, Polish post-war fiction was dominated by the “martyrological” trend in camp literature and that Tadeusz Borowski was one of very few Polish novelists to oppose that trend. What is questionable, however, is that Werner offers on this basis a general analysis of Polish memory of the Second World War. Interpreting the experience of the camps in terms of martyrdom and heroism certainly fulfilled a broad social need and conformed to the Polish Romantic tradition, which saw the Poles as the “Christ of nations”; with certain modifications it also suited the policy of Poland’s Communist rulers, for whom the myth of the international anti-fascist resistance movement, ostensibly led by party comrades, was an important source of legitimacy. In the 1940s, however, memory of the war and occupation was still too raw and too detailed for it to be possible to erase all the cracks and contradictions and replace them with a simple black-and-white narrative. In addition, the new Communist authorities were not yet established well enough that they could impose their own interpretation of history.

The controversy over Borowski’s prose was set against the background of the trials of prisoner functionaries (Kapos) and the public debate which accompanied them. This debate was particularly heated among the ex-prisoner community, which was directly affected by the trials. “Whenever former Auschwitz inmates meet,” wrote Jerzy Rawicz in the periodical Robotnik [The Worker], “the subject always comes to the fore. They all know someone deserving of punishment and public ← 118 | 119 → condemnation.”7 Although the moral judgements made by the participants in the debate were not always as categorical as Borowski’s, their descriptions of the conflicts between prisoners and the ambivalent conduct of many prisoner functionaries are far removed from the image of camp life portrayed in Polish memoirs and fiction.

War Crimes Trials in Poland, 1944-1950

The second half of the 1940s was a period in which Polish society was coming to terms with the war and occupation.8 In the years 1944-1950, numerous trials of German and Austrian war criminals took place before the Polish courts. The most famous of these were the trials of the Majdanek SS (November–December 1944); Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of Wartheland (June–July 1946); Amon Goeth, Commandant of Płaszów (August–September 1946); Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau (March 1947); Auschwitz staff (November–December 1947); Albert Forster, Gauleiter of Danzig-West Prussia (April 1948); and Josef Bühler, State Secretary of the General Government (June–July 1948). Many Polish citizens accused of having been informers or of collaborating with the Nazis in other ways were also tried by the courts. For political reasons, the trials of war criminals did not include those suspected of collaboration with the Soviet authorities.

According to Leszek Kubicki’s findings, in the years 1944-1960 approximately 18,000 people were tried in Poland for war crimes or collaboration.9 Most of the trials took place in the 1940s and early 1950s. Whereas in 1944-1951 almost 16,000 people were sentenced under the August Decree, over the subsequent nine years, until 1960, just over 2,000 judgements were delivered. Three-quarters of the 18,000 accused were Polish citizens, ethnic Poles, or foreign nationals. The 13,000 or so cases brought before the Polish courts against Polish citizens also included the trials of former concentration camp prisoners accused of murdering or mistreating their fellow inmates.10 Sometimes, as in the trials of Majdanek and Stutthof staff (April-May 1946), members of the SS and former prisoners sat next to each other in the dock.11


The trial of Rudolf Höss, March 1947. Overall view of the courtroom. The defendant is seated, in the upper left-hand corner (courtesy of APMAB).

← 119 | 120 → Proceedings were usually commenced on the basis of denunciations made by former camp comrades or reports from the Central Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (GKBZNwP). The trials were a legally sanctioned means of holding the perpetrators to account. Earlier, immediately after the liberation of the camps, lynchings of the SS and certain prisoner functionaries had been common.12 “I’m surprised only that he had the courage to return to ← 120 | 121 → Poland […],” wrote a former camp comrade of one of the accused Kapos in a letter to his family. “He was lucky that in the autumn of 1944 he was transferred from Gusen to another camp, because he would not have even got outside the gates on liberation day. Indeed, no one who had loyally served the Nazis left the camp alive. [...] many of my friends and colleagues returned to Poland from Austria just so that they could capture him.”13

Charges were brought against prisoners who had performed the roles of Kapo (prisoner functionary), Blockälteste (block senior), Stubendienst (barrack orderly), etc., within the administration of a camp.14 The accused were tried under Articles 1 and 2 of the “Decree of 31 August 1944 Concerning the Punishment of Fascist–Hitlerite Criminals Guilty of Murder and Ill-treatment of the Civilian Population and of Prisoners of War, and the Punishment of Traitors to the Polish Nation”, otherwise known as the August Decree.15 The decree was amended on several occasions. Under the key amendment of 10 December 1946, which was in force during the period when most of the cases discussed here took place, Article 1 of the decree stipulated the death penalty for:

any person who, assisting the authorities of the German State or of a State allied with it:

1)   took part in committing acts of murder against the civilian population, members of the armed forces or prisoners of war; or

2)   by giving information or detaining, acted to the detriment of persons wanted or persecuted by said authorities on political, national, religious or racial grounds.16

← 121 | 122 → Article 2 of the decree stipulated imprisonment for a period of not less than three years, or the death penalty, for:

any person who, assisting the authorities of the German State or of a State allied with it, acted in any other manner or in any other circumstances than those indicated in Article 1 to the detriment of the Polish State, of a Polish corporate body, or of civilians, members of the armed forces and prisoners of war.

Furthermore, Article 5, paragraphs 1 and 2, of the decree provided that although “the fact that an act or omission was caused by a threat or order […] does not exempt from criminal responsibility”, the court in such a case could mitigate the sentence “taking into account the circumstances of the perpetrator and of the deed”. Against this background, a dispute arose over whether the provisions concerning a state of necessity were applicable to the August Decree; in 1948, the Supreme Court (SN) ruled that they were not.17 The decree was watered down once again with the introduction of a new provision (Article 5, paragraph 3) in 1948. This stated that in the case of crimes prosecuted under Article 1, point 2, “extraordinary mitigation of punishment” was possible also in other circumstances, not just in cases where the accused had acted under threat or order.18

We do not know to what extent exactly the trials of concentration camp prisoners were used as an instrument of political struggle in Poland. According to Andrzej Rzepliński, although the August Decree “was not intrinsically a Communist legislative act”, from 1948 onwards it was employed by the Polish authorities to defeat political opponents.19 As Andrzej Pasek writes, by 1956 approximately 300 members of the Home Army (AK), the Government Delegation for Poland (an agency of the Polish Government-in-Exile), and other organisations of the Polish Underground, had been sentenced on the basis of the August Decree.20 We also know that in the years 1948-1956 many former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps were arrested and tried for alleged activities in the anti-communist resistance movement. It is not unlikely that in certain Stalinist political trials the ← 122 | 123 → accused’s concentration camp past was used against them. Of the cases discussed here, only one bore the hallmarks of a political trial. This was the case of Maria Bortnowska, director of the Information Bureau of the Polish Red Cross, who had been imprisoned in Ravensbrück between 1943 and 1945.21

After the liberation of the camp, Bortnowska returned to Poland, where she resumed work for the Polish Red Cross. In the spring of 1947, she was arrested and charged with having “assisted the authorities of the German State” whilst in Ravensbrück. “As a so-called barrack orderly, and then as a block senior […], she acted to the detriment of Polish women prisoners in the camp through systematic beatings and bullying, such as by deliberately extending the roll call and obstructing the supply of food, medicines and clothing to the prisoners.”22 The District Court in Warsaw sentenced Bortnowska to three years’ imprisonment with the confiscation of property.23 Although the Supreme Court dismissed her appeal, a year later Bortnowska was pardoned.24 She was spared the rest of her prison sentence but the additional penalties were upheld.25 Bortnowska was not rehabilitated until after the October Thaw, in 1958.26

On the basis of the court records it is not possible to determine definitively whether Bortnowska’s trial had been political in nature. This conjecture is supported not only by her later rehabilitation but also by the course of the trial and the grounds of the judgement. On the other hand, according to the account given by one of her former camp comrades, Bortnowska did indeed mistreat some of the prisoners under her control:

← 123 | 124 → I didn’t attend [Bortnowska’s] trial because if I’d given evidence her sentence would have been twice as long. [...] She condemned me to death in Ravensbrück [...] But I was not the one who accused her. I don’t know [who it was], perhaps fellow inmates who had a score to settle. Later on, I didn’t even know what had happened to her. When the trial began, Krysia Żywulska said to me: “Listen, that [Bortnowska] is on trial. Didn’t you tell us how she had… Let’s put you forward as a witness.” I replied: “No. […] there are so many criminals being tried for genocide nowadays that I don’t think it’s the right moment to be even getting with Poles, even despicable ones. First we must concentrate on settling accounts with war criminals. Let her live with her conscience.”27

The above account and the evidence given by certain witnesses suggest that Bortnowska’s trial had not been manufactured by the Polish authorities. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the authorities had used the opportunity to remove or discredit a person whom they regarded as inconvenient—Bortnowska, as director of the Information Bureau of the Polish Red Cross, had information concerning the fate of 14,700 Polish officers murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940 in the so-called Katyń massacre. What is interesting is the fact that the court rejected certain witnesses called by the defence.28 The judgement of the Supreme Court stated that the decision of the District Court had been justified because those witnesses were to give evidence in regard to the same events that other defence witnesses had described. However, this argument did not prevent the judges from calling numerous prosecution witnesses, who knew only by hearsay about Bortnowska’s alleged behaviour in Ravensbrück and only from witnesses who had testified earlier.29 This is all the more striking given that, in justifying its verdict, the District Court pointed to the greater number of witnesses for the prosecution than for the defence.30

That the panel of judges had been under pressure from the authorities is also implied by the argumentation used in the grounds of the judgement, according to which the accused had favoured certain prisoners at the cost of the many. Those ← 124 | 125 → privileged by Bortnowska had supposedly included women from the “upper echelons”, i.e., the intelligentsia and the aristocracy.31 Even the Supreme Court decided that the findings of the District Court in this regard were “not supported by the evidence” and that the judges had adopted this classification a priori.32 The court judgement also ignored the fact that dozens of the accused’s former camp comrades from Poland and abroad had spontaneously sprung to her defence.33 In letters sent in to the court, they emphasised that Bortnowska had treated her function within the camp as a public obligation, that she had tried, where possible, to use her position to help others, and that she had shown exceptional dedication and on several occasions had risked punishment by the SS. If on occasion she had struck or insulted one of the women, they argued, this had been dictated by the need to protect the prisoners in general, for instance, to protect them from collective punishment. They attributed the accusations made against Bortnowska to the personal dislike shown towards her by women who had been sent to Ravensbrück in civilian transports during the Warsaw Uprising. These statements reveal the resentment and sense of superiority that political prisoners felt towards people who had been sent to the camp “by accident”. Thus, for instance, in a letter to the Supreme Court, Zdeňka Nedvědová-Nejedlá, head of the Czechoslovak Association of Former Women Political Prisoners of Ravensbrück, wrote:

Sister Bortnowska’s personal conduct already excludes the possibility that she behaved badly towards other women prisoners. However, if one of the Polish women claims that Bortnowska struck her, then perhaps it is true, since we prisoner functionaries could never claim that we never struck anyone. There were moments in the life of the camp when even this sort of measure was necessary for the good of the prisoners in general. If sister Bortnowska was provoked into doing what she did by one of the women from the so-called Warsaw transport—the moral dregs of Warsaw, who voluntarily put themselves into the “care of the Germans” [...], then she would only be blamed for it by someone who knows nothing about the reality of the camps. Those sycophantic women, dancing attendance on the Germans, declared indignantly that ← 125 | 126 → they were not political prisoners. They did not even want to speak to us until, robbed of their possessions and ravaged by life in the camp, they needed our help.34

If the Polish authorities had indeed wanted to remove Maria Bortnowska from public life, then they were only partially successful. Bortnowska received the mildest punishment envisaged under Article 2 of the August Decree; she was released after one year. The explanation for such “lenient” treatment of the accused should be sought in the solidarity campaign organised by her former camp comrades. Faced with international protest and interventions from people such as Zdeňka Nedvědová-Nejedlá, the Polish authorities were probably forced to suspend execution of the sentence.

In other Eastern bloc countries there were similar, even more drastic cases of a person’s concentration camp past being used for political ends. A purge of former Buchenwald prisoner functionaries was carried out in the GDR in 1950-1955.35 During the war, Buchenwald had come to be dominated by German Communists. By removing criminal inmates from positions of authority, they had helped to mitigate the camp regime, but the main purpose of their activities had been to protect members of their own organisation, often at the cost of other prisoners, and having power over life and death had led some to depravity.36 Already in late 1946, the SED launched an internal investigation to determine whether the accusations made against certain German Communists imprisoned in Buchenwald had any justification. The investigation was prompted by accusations from former camp comrades publicised in the American press, as well as by the Buchenwald trial, organised by the Americans, in which the indictment of certain prisoner functionaries was also considered. Despite earlier findings, the final report of the SED’s special investigative commission cleared the members of the KPD within Buchenwald of all charges. At the beginning of the 1950s, the matter was resurrected by the Soviet occupation authorities and the SED leadership and used as a political tool. It was an aspect of the factional struggle between Communist activists, such as Walter Ulbricht, who had spent the Nazi period in the Soviet Union, and those who had remained in Germany during the war, usually incarcerated in concentration camps. In 1950, Ernst Busse, a Kapo at the camp hospital, and Erich Reschke, the camp senior (Lagerältester)—both ← 126 | 127 → members of the communist resistance movement in Buchenwald—were arrested by the authorities of the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. Having been interrogated for several months by the Soviet Military Tribunal, both were sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to the Gulag. Ernst Busse died in Vorkuta in 1952; Erich Reschke returned to the GDR in 1955 and was rehabilitated. Over subsequent years, many other prominent Buchenwald inmates were investigated by the SED and either excluded from the party or demoted.

Irrespective of the extent to which the trials of prisoner functionaries in Poland were used as an instrument of political struggle, the principle of a fair trial was often ignored. In an article on the settling of scores with war criminals in Poland in 1944-1950/55, Włodzimierz Borodziej writes that although the adoption of Soviet models by the military courts did not lead to the “radicalisation and brutalisation” of the biggest trials of Nazi war criminals before the Supreme National Tribunal (NTN), it could have “acted to the detriment of people accused in less spectacular cases”.37 One example of such brutalisation is the case of two prisoner functionaries from Stutthof accused of mistreating their fellow inmates. At the trial, both renounced their earlier testimony, claiming that they had been beaten during interrogation.38 This would appear to be confirmed by the minutes of the interrogation, which was conducted in both cases by the same Security Service officer.39 The minutes show that the suspects not only admitted all the charges but also added new ones themselves. One of them was to have said, for instance, that he had mistreated other prisoners “willingly and with pleasure”.40 The investigating officer also asked him whether he thought that “the government had been better before 1939” than at the time of the interrogation, to which the suspect was to have replied in the affirmative.41 For sure, these were not isolated ← 127 | 128 → cases. One may assume that, when conducting investigations in cases involving former concentration camp prisoners, Security Service officers often abused and mistreated suspects. One may also surmise that, as with many cases prosecuted in Poland during the Stalinist period, the courts were guilty of other irregularities during the trials of former prisoner functionaries. This did not necessarily imply harsher sentences and could sometimes work in the accused’s favour.42

According to Andrzej Pasek’s calculations, of the 12,892 people convicted in the years 1946-1950 under the August Decree, 1,113 received a death sentence, 284 received a sentence of life imprisonment, 871 were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison, and 10,624 to less than 10 years in prison.43 Although the punishments envisaged under the August Decree were very severe, in most cases the courts did not impose the maximum sentence. Pasek does not state how many people were acquitted. Of the 17 prisoners and prisoner functionaries whose trials are discussed here, three were acquitted, six were sentenced to death, and the remainder were given prison terms of between three and fifteen years, although two were eventually pardoned.44

Controversies Surrounding the Trials of Prisoner Functionaries

When delivering judgements in cases involving prisoner functionaries, judges and jurors were faced with the problem that commonly accepted legal and moral standards could not be applied to the reality of the camps. Former prisoners often raised the objection that those who had not experienced the camps at first hand were not in a position to evaluate their actions properly. In his account of Mauthausen-Gusen published in 1945, Stanisław Nogaj wrote that life in the camp involved “a hard and tragic daily struggle for survival under hitherto unknown ← 128 | 129 → conditions” and that those who had not experienced it were best advised to remain silent and not to “judge those whom someone has casually accused”.45 A few pages further on, he added: “Today, we must look on the perpetrators of those bloody crimes through different eyes. If I were a judge, I would not be able to judge them beyond the reality of the camp.”46 The writer Jerzy Putrament also warned against passing hasty judgement on former prisoners. He noted that the camp system had been purposely organised in such a way as to deprave its victims, and that the unspeakable conditions of the concentration camps had led many to moral turpitude. It was, claimed Putrament, easier to evaluate the extreme cases, such as that of former Gross-Rosen barrack orderly Antoni Kossecki—a protagonist of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s famous novel, Ashes and Diamonds—who cruelly tortured his fellow inmates, than to evaluate the much more common situation of people committing minor offences at the cost of others in order to save their own lives. Consequently, Putrament suggested that a special citizens’ tribunal be appointed, composed of former prisoners, who would decide whether the accused had indeed violated “the norms of the prisoner community within the camp”.47

However, there was equally no consensus amongst the victims themselves on how to assess the behaviour of their former comrades. What for some was absolutely deserving of condemnation, such as theft, beatings, or protecting one human life at the expense of another, for others was justified under camp conditions. The dilemmas that emerged in the courtroom were also reflected in the press debate held in Wolni Ludzie and other newspapers and magazines on the trials of prisoner functionaries. In 1947-1948, Wolni Ludzie continuously reported on the trials taking place in Poland and abroad. The case of Roman Zenkteller, the chief prisoner–doctor at the camp hospital in Birkenau, caused the biggest stir.

In the analysis below, I shall refer primarily to the case of Zenkteller and to the trials of four other prisoner functionaries:

1)  Roman Zenkteller, born in 1889, was a physician by profession and participated in the Wielkopolska Uprising of 1918-1919. Captured by the Germans in 1939, he was transferred from a prisoner-of-war camp to Auschwitz; in 1944 he was evacuated to the West. At the end of 1946, Zenkteller was extradited to Poland from the American occupation zone of Germany. The accusation made against him was that, as a prisoner functionary and hospital doctor in Auschwitz I and in Birkenau, he had participated in the selection of prisoners and had abused patients and hospital staff. Zenkteller was acquitted in a trial before the District Court in Kraków in the second half of 1948. The Supreme Court rejected the prosecutor’s appeal. However, following an extraordinary ← 129 | 130 → review of the sentence by the main Supreme Court prosecutor, the case was submitted for reconsideration. It is unknown what happened to the accused thereafter.48

2)  Jan P. was born in 1920. Arrested in the spring of 1945, he was tried in 1945-1946 along with 14 other Stutthof staff as well as Polish and German prisoner functionaries before the Special Criminal Court (SSK) in Gdańsk. The accusation made against Jan P. was that, as a Kapo and Vorarbeiter in Stutthof, he had participated in the murder of inmates and had abused prisoners, beating them and forcing them to work beyond their physical capabilities. The prosecution was unable to prove, however, that Jan P. had caused the death of any of his camp comrades. He was thus acquitted.49

3)  Feliks W., born in 1908, was a physician by profession. Arrested by the Gestapo, he was sent to Auschwitz in June 1940 in the first transport of Polish political prisoners. He was arrested once again in the summer of 1945. The accusation made against him was that, as a nurse in the sick room at Auschwitz I, he had killed inmates by injecting them with poison on the orders of the camp authorities. Józef Cyrankiewicz, among others, gave evidence against Feliks W. During the trial, however, the accused managed to show that he had not murdered prisoners on the orders of the SS. He admitted only to the fact that, in agreement with other Polish political prisoners, he had ended the lives of six German prisoner functionaries who had regularly abused inmates. Feliks W. was acquitted in a trial before the District Court in Kraków in the autumn of 1947.50

4)  Józef K., born in 1903, was an office worker. He was arrested in the spring of 1947. The accusation made against him was that, as a Kapo in Stutthof, he had abused prisoners of various nationalities through beatings, forced labour, and the confiscation of food. The trial took place before the District Court in Białystok in December 1947. During the trial it emerged that the accused had not been a Kapo at all, merely a senior worker. Józef K. was sentenced ← 130 | 131 → to three years’ imprisonment, which was the lowest penalty envisaged under Article 2 of the August Decree. Four months later he was pardoned.51

5)  Józef Koł., born in 1896, was an officer in the Polish Army and, like Zenkteller, a participant in the Wielkopolska Uprising. Arrested in the spring of 1940, he was sent to Dachau and then to Gusen. In the summer of 1944 he was transferred to a camp in Linz, where he remained until its liberation. After returning to Poland, Koł. was arrested in the autumn of 1946. The accusation made against him was that, as a Kapo and then a block senior in Mauthausen-Gusen, he had abused inmates by beating and kicking them, forcing them to work beyond their physical capabilities, and stealing their food. He was also accused of having regularly insulted Polish prisoners, affronting their sense of national dignity, and of having participated in the murder of inmates within the camp. In November 1947, he was tried under Article 1(1) and Article 2 of the August Decree before the District Court in Ostrów Wielkopolski. Despite the fact that the prosecution failed to prove that the accused had been directly involved in executions carried out by the SS, Józef Koł. was sentenced to death. The Supreme Court dismissed the defendant’s appeal. Józef Koł. was hanged in July 1948.52

Apart from the case of Józef Koł., all of the above trials ended in the defendant being acquitted or receiving the shortest possible sentence; the final outcome of the Zenkteller trial is unknown. As mentioned earlier, the punishments meted out to prisoner functionaries were often very severe. However, the trials which culminated in a lenient sentence provide the most interesting material for analysis, since the acquittal of the accused, or the mitigation of charges, usually resulted from disputes that took place within the courtroom.

A controversial issue both in the press debate and in the courtroom was whether the mere fact of having assumed a function within a concentration camp signified corruption or whether there were cases in which prisoner functionaries had behaved with decency. This problem was addressed by, among others, Eugenia Kocwa, a former inmate of Ravensbrück. In an article published in July 1945 in Tygodnik Powszechny, Kocwa argued that although prisoner functionaries had sometimes used their position to help others, in most cases the prisoner ← 131 | 132 → “self-administration” was filled with “brutal and egotistical individuals”.53 She also noted that prisoner functionaries had played a significant role in the system of terror: “It is clear that without the cooperation of the prisoners, the whole structure of the concentration camp would not have been sustainable, at the very least due to insufficient numbers of supervisors (not to mention other reasons).”

Rene Skalska, another Ravensbrück inmate, also opposed the a priori condemnation of prisoner functionaries. In an article entitled “Not all Prisoner Functionaries were Executioners”, she emphasised that Polish women prisoners had used their privileged position in the camp hierarchy to save others, often at a risk to their own life: “When they returned to Poland, prisoner functionaries did not boast about their work within the camps. The other women prisoners did not speak about it either. But today, when one hears phrases such as: ‘whoever was a prisoner functionary helped the Germans and collaborated with them’, we must stand in their defence.”54

The accused often defended themselves by claiming that they had taken on the role of prisoner functionary at the instigation of their fellow comrades, and that their intention had been, where possible, to protect inmates against the arbitrary actions of the SS.55 However, even those who assumed positions of authority with the approval of their comrades and cooperated with the camp resistance movement often found themselves in a highly ambiguous situation; forced to obey the orders of the SS, they inevitably became part of the machinery of terror. Recognising this ambivalence, Roman Frister, a Jewish former Auschwitz inmate, wrote in defence of Roman Zenkteller that, although acceptance of the role of camp senior (Lagerältester) was itself an offence, it was important to realise that, in taking this decision, the physician had faced the following dilemma: “Not to accept the role would have entailed suffering the plight of other prisoners and helplessly observing the injustices taking place in the hospital; to accept it meant shouldering a huge burden and performing the difficult role of an intermediary between the inmates and the oppressor.”56

Neither in the press nor in the courtroom, however, was the issue raised of the extent to which the solidarity shown by prisoner functionaries working on behalf of the resistance movement extended beyond members of their own organisation or political or national community. It was taken as self-evident that prisoner functionaries ← 132 | 133 → who were members of the Polish Underground acted for the benefit of all prisoners, regardless of their nationality or political convictions. However, some of the witness testimonies reveal severe antagonism between various groups of inmates. Thus, for instance, in the trial of Stutthof staff, Jan P. defended himself by claiming that he had been assigned the role of Kapo at the instigation of the Polish inmates, who wanted him to protect them against prisoners of other nationalities who were stealing their bread. Jan P. went on to say that he had never abused prisoners; on occasion he might have “struck one of Ukrainians for stealing bread from the Poles”, but nothing more than that.57 The case records also reveal a high incidence of class conflict. The indictment against Józef Koł. states that he harboured a particular hatred of intellectuals, calling them “Polish pigs”, “the shit-stained Polish intelligentsia”, and “teacher-shit”.58 The accused defended himself by claiming that the Polish intelligentsia had formed a closed caste within the camp that was set apart from the other prisoners.59

The camp “aristocracy”, who were usually willing to defend the accused, saw the role of prisoner functionaries rather differently than did prisoners on the lowest level of the camp hierarchy. This difference is well illustrated by two accounts relating to the Zenkteller case. In defence of his former boss, Franciszek Piechowiak, the former camp dentist, said that Zenkteller had admitted to the sick room inmates who were protected by the camp resistance movement. In a letter to the editor of Wolni Ludzie, he wrote:

If special assistance was needed, Dr Zenkteler would, at my request, never refuse it; this was the case with Mr Tołłoczko, the former Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Mr Gnoiński, the former Provincial Governor of Kraków, Professor Winid, Major Molenda, and dozens of other comrades.60

Henryk Korotyński saw the situation rather differently. Wishing to illustrate the social stratification of the prisoner community, he described a day in the life of one of the camp “aristocrats”, a Polish political prisoner and Oberkapo (chief Kapo) of the food stores:

Dressed in an impeccably tailored striped uniform and waving a little cane, he pondered how he would spend the day. He had some business to attend to at the FKL [Frauenkonzentrationslager—the women’s camp] and at the Sauna61; his friend Zosia ← 133 | 134 → in Camp B had invited him to dinner. Besides that, he hoped to visit two patients at the KB [Krankenbau—the camp hospital] to see if Dr Zenkteller was taking care of them as promised.62

Korotyński condemned neither the Oberkapo nor Dr Zenkteller. However, he presented the assistance that Zenkteller ostensibly gave to certain prisoners not as the consequence of a campaign organised by the resistance movement to protect particularly vulnerable or important individuals, but rather as the outcome of the shady dealings of the camp “aristocracy”.

Leon Piechna, a former Auschwitz inmate, also drew attention to the different way in which Zenkteller was perceived and evaluated by members of the camp aristocracy on the one hand, and the remaining prisoners on the other. In a letter to the editor of Wolni Ludzie he wrote:

A person who survived Birkenau, who lived there for around two years and did not belong to the privileged camp “aristocracy”, and who witnessed Zenkteller’s behaviour at first hand, that person [...] will not be able in all good conscience to excuse the actions of a man whose cruelty and boorishness in relation to his fellow prisoners is deserving of condemnation.”63

We must not allow, Piechna appealed, “the abuse of one human being by another to find justification, for whatever reason, in the eyes of the public.”

Paradoxically, it was precisely former prisoner functionaries who were seen as more credible witnesses during trials, since they had a better understanding of the realities of the camp on account of their privileged position. It would seem that judges were also guided by the a priori assumption that members of the intelligentsia and members of the resistance movement were more trustworthy than other prisoners. In the grounds of the judgement in the Zenkteller case, the court considered the testimonies of the defence witnesses to be more credible “not only due to their lack of bias” but also because those witnesses “are mostly doctors, nurses, and intelligent people”, who “had a better understanding of the situation and were more aware of what was going on around them compared to those witnesses who base their assertions only on momentary observation of certain aspects of the accused’s activities, from which they draw conclusions”.64

The judges in the trials of prisoner functionaries also faced the question of whether the accused had acted on their own initiative or on the orders of the SS, and what consequences they risked for failing to follow orders. The defendants often ← 134 | 135 → claimed that they had acted on the orders of the camp authorities and that refusal to follow orders would have resulted in death. Although, under Article 5 of the August Decree, an act caused by a threat or order did not exempt the accused from criminal responsibility, it could be regarded as a mitigating circumstance. To prove that the accused had acted under duress, however, was usually very difficult. For instance, in his evidence against Feliks W., the Auschwitz nurse accused of injecting prisoners with lethal doses of phenol on the orders of the SS, Józef Cyrankiewicz stated: “There were Poles amongst the doctors who refused to participate; it was done by degenerates, fanatics, bootlickers, or terrified individuals.”65 A more cautious approach to the issue was taken by Stanisław Kłodziński, also a member of the Auschwitz resistance movement. The accused, claimed Kłodziński, administered the injections “under duress; to disobey an order was a very dangerous thing”.66 At the same time, Kłodziński noted that “there were doctors and nurses who refused to administer lethal injections”. “Of the people I know who refused to obey that order, none were executed. It was, however, [illegible] a risk, and a [...] faint-hearted individual could [illegible] have feared the death penalty.”

The judges in the Zenkteller trial faced a similar dilemma when attempting to assess the role of the accused in the selection of sick prisoners. Some witnesses alleged that, when admitting prisoners to the sick room, Zenkteller had divided them into three groups; those whom he classified as the most seriously ill would be removed to a separate block, from where they would be sent to the gas chambers. In the grounds of its judgement the court rejected the testimony of the prosecution witnesses, citing the evidence given by other prisoners, who claimed that being sent to the block for seriously ill prisoners was not tantamount to a death sentence. The court also argued that Zenkteller was not the only person who participated in the selection procedure, and that to disobey an order of the camp authorities risked terrible punishment; it would have been pointless anyway, since the activities of prisoner doctors were monitored by the SS.67 The prosecutor countered this line of argument. He stated that acting on the orders of the camp authorities, and the fact that the selection procedure was monitored by SS doctors, did not absolve the accused of the charge of having participated in murder. In his appeal, the prosecutor argued as follows:

The view taken by the court does not take into account the fact that participation in acts of murder within the meaning of Article 1(1) of the Decree [of 31 August 1944] also occurs when the perpetrator, having carried out a certain action, hands over a ← 135 | 136 → person condemned to death so that a further action may be carried out which leads to that person’s murder. The selection procedure undertaken by the accused was such an action; it is completely irrelevant, as the court would have it, that the camp authorities would have carried out the selection procedure anyway, without the participation of the accused. Consequently, the view taken by the court that prisoner doctors cannot be held responsible for such actions, i.e. the selection or segregation of prisoners, on the part of the German camp authorities, is fundamentally mistaken. If one were to hold such a view, then all war criminals should be acquitted. Indeed, beginning with the trial in Nuremberg, the accused have all claimed that they were simply following the orders of their superiors.68

When defending their comrades’ behaviour, former prisoners pointed to the ubiquitous brutality of camp life, in which beatings were the norm. The picture that emerges from the testimony of witnesses in the Zenkteller trial is one of relations between prisoners characterised by violence; this corresponds with the descriptions found in the stories of Tadeusz Borowski and even more so in the recollections of Stanisław Grzesiuk published at the end of the 1950s. “In the camps, if you weren’t the one doing the beating,” said one of the accused’s former comrades, “then you were the one being beaten.”69 He added that if beatings were to be regarded as a crime, then 90 per cent of Polish prisoner functionaries would find themselves in the dock. A similar description of relations within the concentration camps was provided by one of the witnesses in the trial of Józef K. According to this witness, the year 1943, when the accused arrived at Stutthof, was a period of mass death: “At that time, no one paid any attention to pushing and pulling. The best of friends [illegible] became animals. Everyone tried to save his own life. [...] Perhaps [K.] did push someone, but no one would have paid any attention.”70

A distinction was often made between beatings, which many regarded as “normal”, and overt cruelty towards others.71 “Although there were instances,” said Stanisław Kłodziński, giving evidence in the trial of Feliks W., “when [the accused] hit someone, due to his position it was seen as acceptable under camp conditions; it did not take the form of sadism and did not suggest that he was ingratiating himself with the enemy.”72 Albin Mazurkiewicz, a former Auschwitz inmate, made a similar distinction. “Did Dr Zenkteller hit people?” he asked rhetorically in a letter to the editor of Wolni Ludzie:

← 136 | 137 → I don’t know, but one must assume that he did. I saw many doctors strike inmates, but in the camps violence was rife. Those who hit no one, but could have done so by virtue of their position, were in a tiny minority and were themselves beaten. I was in six camps and in each one people were beaten. It’s another question whether people were abused. That’s a different matter.73

Prisoners tried in various ways to rationalise their own conduct and that of their comrades. It was argued that although Zenkteller’s behaviour had departed from the standards of “decency”, it was thanks to those brutal methods that he had managed to discipline the corrupt and neglectful medical staff and had thus helped to improve the prisoners’ lot.74 Many argued that it would not have been possible to control such a huge mass of people without the use of force. Janusz Kledzik, a former orderly in the sick room at Birkenau, wrote in a letter to the editor of Wolni Ludzie that Auschwitz had been a “Tower of Babel”, both in terms of language and in terms of the prisoners’ mental capacity, such that “severe measures” had sometimes been essential.75 Another witness in the Zenkteller trial claimed that “the ‘Muselmänner’ were people who were physically weak and mentally numb. To make them understand what was expected of them, they had to be beaten”.76 The judges also adopted this line of argument. In the grounds of the judgement, the court stated that although the witness testimonies confirmed that the accused had reprimanded and even beaten prisoners, he had “done so in the interests of the prisoner community in general”, and if on occasion he had struck someone unnecessarily, this had been caused by the specific conditions within the camp. In Auschwitz, the judges continued:

there were huge numbers of prisoners of various nationalities, cultures, and social classes, of diverse habits, character, and mental strength; there were political prisoners with high moral standards alongside prisoners who were common criminals. Moreover, due to the risk of death at every step, most of the prisoners were depraved, having no regard for discipline or moral standards. Under such conditions, to maintain discipline—so important for the good of the prisoners overall—was extremely difficult, perhaps even impossible.77

← 137 | 138 → Similar arguments were also used in other trials. One of the witnesses in the trial of Jan P., a former Stutthof inmate, argued that the accused had not abused the prisoners. It was true that he might have hit someone on occasion as a punishment for disorder, “but this was a necessity under camp conditions”.78 “I can’t imagine the camp at all without the beatings,” he continued. “For instance, it was impossible to distribute food without the use of a stick.”

In the Zenkteller trial, the argument was also raised that in order to save the prisoners as a group, it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice the life of individuals. Many witnesses and contributors to the press debate cited the example of a doctor who had performed a delousing campaign during which the prisoners had stood naked for hours in the freezing cold. The campaign cost hundreds of lives, but—it was claimed—successfully prevented a typhus epidemic.79 The court accepted this argument of the defence; the prosecution rejected it, however. In his appeal, the prosecutor argued that to cause the death of several hundred people during a disinfection campaign could not be justified on the grounds that it had benefited the other prisoners.80

Beatings were also sometimes presented as an alternative to reporting an event to the camp authorities, which could have entailed far worse consequences for the inmate concerned. “I admit that on occasion I was forced to hit someone when distributing food,” said one of the accused in his own defence. “I preferred to take the matter into my own hands than to report it to my superiors, for this would have led to the patient being severely punished.”81 Józef Koł. adopted an almost identical line of defence, stating that he had only beaten prisoners when forced to do so: “If I hadn’t done it, the SS would have done something worse.”82

To understand the behaviour of the accused, attempts were made not only to find rational explanations but also to understand the psychological conditions of camp life. Nervous breakdown caused by the inhuman conditions within the camps was often cited as a reason for the ill-treatment of other prisoners. As the ← 138 | 139 → grounds of the judgement in the case of Jan P. stated: “If we consider that every human being has the urge to preserve his own life […] and if we consider that the Stutthof concentration camp was a so-called extermination camp and that the prisoners were well aware of this, the court concludes that certain degenerate acts, certain deviations from the norm as understood by a person at liberty, were justified, and they were justified to the extent that although a person at liberty would see them as crimes under the Criminal Code, under camp conditions they were seen as legitimate states of necessity.”83 Similarly, former camp comrades testifying on behalf of another Stutthof prisoner, Józef K., argued that if the accused had ever abused inmates, then this was due to “frayed nerves and the continual struggle for survival”.84 The assumption was that not everyone could be a hero and, whilst strong personalities were to be lauded, it was also necessary to show understanding towards weaker individuals. The court, in granting a pardon to Józef K., wrote:

Each day in the camp was a battle to stay alive. Individuals of strong character were able, under any circumstances, even in the depths of human misery, to behave with dignity and to give succour to their comrades in captivity. Those of a weaker disposition, however, in those difficult moments, often when fighting to save their own life or to secure less onerous work, would fall apart, forgetting that their gain was someone else’s loss. The court regards Józef K. to be one of those weaker individuals. This man, having spent more than two years in the camp, has essentially become a human wreck as far as his mental state is concerned; to some extent, the same could be said of his physical state.85

Witnesses, and also judges, often used a different yardstick to measure the conduct of Polish prisoner functionaries compared to that of foreign, especially German, prisoner functionaries. Whereas the malicious intentions of the Germans and of the Volksdeutsche in general were assumed from the outset, attempts were made to excuse the behaviour of Poles in various ways. In a letter to the editor of Wolni Ludzie, Albin Mazurkiewicz wrote that although all the prisoner functionaries in Auschwitz administered beatings, only the Germans were guilty of excesses: “There were exceptionally few cases of inmates being abused by camp officials of other nationalities.”86 Similarly, in the trial of Jan P., one of the ← 139 | 140 → witnesses testified: “We preferred to be beaten by the Poles than by the SS or Kapos of other nationalities. The Poles were less violent or would just pretend to beat you. In the Stutthof camp, Poles gained the upper hand, which enabled many of their compatriots to survive.”87

These observations may be partly correct. Indeed, in the first years of the war in particular, the SS often appointed German convicts to positions of authority within the concentration camps, choosing individuals known for their exceptional brutality. In all likelihood there was a degree of national solidarity within the camps, too. Nevertheless, the statements cited above seem to oversimplify the issue. Such stereotyping sometimes affected sentencing: the same acts perpetrated by a German, by a Pole, or by prisoner of a different nationality, would in one instance be interpreted as proof of sadism or “Pole-baiting” and in another as evidence of a higher need or mental breakdown.88

The patriotism of the accused could also be employed as a rationale for assessing their conduct in a more favourable light. Thus, for instance, the fact that Zenkteller, despite alleged pressure from the SS, had not signed the German People’s List (Deutsche Volksliste)89 was a strong argument in his favour for both the court and witnesses alike. Zenkteller’s participation in the Wielkopolska Uprising was also emphasised. Almost all the witnesses concurred that the accused had beaten inmates. However, his earlier patriotism was seen as proof that he had not been driven by sadism. The accused was assumed to be of sound character. It was also assumed that a readiness to die for one’s country was synonymous with a generally humanitarian attitude towards other people, irrespective of their race, nationality, or political convictions. Nevertheless, patriotism was not always regarded as a sufficient reason for acquittal. Józef Koł.’s participation in the Wielkopolska Uprising did not save him from execution, despite the fact that the defence counsel cited this fact in his appeal to the Supreme Court.90

During the period when Roman Zenkteller was the senior prisoner functionary at the camp hospital, in other words from March to December 1944, only Jewish prisoners underwent selection at Birkenau.91 The question arises as to whether ← 140 | 141 → the court’s lenient treatment of the accused was also linked to the fact that his actions had affected Jews more than they had Poles. That such instances of court bias did occur is shown by Andrzej Rzepliński’s analysis of the case files in the trials concerning the Jedwabne pogrom of July 1941, which took place in Poland in 1948-1950 and 1953-1954. Rzepliński states that the courts had been guided “not by the need to see justice done, but by an unwillingness to give satisfaction to the victims”.92 It is difficult to verify this assumption in the Zenkteller case as the records of the trial have been lost. In the grounds of its judgement, however, the court stressed that one of the defence witnesses was a Jew, which may suggest that the court was fearful of being accused of bias.93

In the debate on the trials of prisoner functionaries, it was often emphasised that offences committed within the camps should not be measured by the same yardstick as offences committed in normal life. We encounter this argument in, for instance, Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel Ashes and Diamonds. One of the final scenes involves a conversation between the main protagonist, Podgórski, a party activist, and his old friend and superior, Judge Kossecki. During the meeting, Kossecki delivers a speech in his own defence, in which he tries to justify his misdeeds during his time in a concentration camp and to convince Podgórski not to denounce him. It is worth citing here a longer excerpt of the text, for although Andrzejewski himself never spent time in a concentration camp and did not belong to the ex-prisoner community, it illustrates one of the key elements of the dispute over the conduct of prisoner functionaries. “War [said Kossecki] brings out all kinds of instincts in men. Some it turns into heroes, others into criminals. But now the war is over. There is no war, and now we’ve got back to normal human relationships, now that there is no rape or cruelty, now that people are no longer imprisoned in camps or subjected to torture or forced to torture others, it’s the time for new, normal estimates of society.” The judge continued:

Certain people broke down in one way or another during the war. They couldn’t endure the nightmare. [...] But is that to mean that under normal conditions many of these people cannot become honest and useful citizens again? Do you think that X, who stole from his friends in a camp, will go on stealing now that he has returned to his job and is no longer hungry? Or that Y, who became a passive tool in the hands of criminals, will now be a monster to society? [...] Of course, I’ve made a number of grave mistakes. But do you think I’m any different now from before? That I can’t go on being the useful and respected individual I was before the war? [...] Suppose I am sentenced. What of it? [...] Some dozens of people, who knew me well, will say: ← 141 | 142 → If such a man can stoop so low, what can be expected from others? I assure you it won’t be an elevating trial. And it won’t help anyone strengthen his or her belief in mankind.94

In the end, Podgórski is persuaded by Kossecki and allows the judge to leave.

This ending to the novel, although it undoubtedly met with the approval of many former prisoners, also provoked protest and indignation. Krystyna Wigura, for instance, in a text published in the spring of 1948 in Wolni Ludzie, expressed the view that concentration camp prisoners should be judged according to the same criteria as others, and that truly decent people managed to behave properly, even in captivity. The author rejected the argument used by the hero of Andrzejewski’s novel that it was the inhuman conditions of the camps that turned inmates into criminals, and that in normal life they could prove to be good citizens. In Wigura’s view, a person who had once committed similar crimes would have no qualms about committing lesser offences in normal life. She also warned that the non-punishment of war criminals would lead to the relativisation of crimes. If every decent human being was to be seen as a hero, she argued, then the moral turpitude of the camps would cease to be regarded as something evil because, after all, one cannot expect everyone to be a hero. Meanwhile, in the camps, “a person with a moral backbone would not even entertain the thought that he could compromise his principles to save his own life”. These deliberations led Wigura to the conclusion that people such as Kossecki should be severely punished. “There are ongoing court cases,” she wrote, “concerning people who did not emerge victorious from the ‘trial by fire’. What is more, many of those people are not even undergoing rehabilitation. Why? In the camps we warned them that their conduct would not go unpunished. Yet now—when we see that they have returned to normal life, that they are useful citizens—we are all too willing to forget. We say: ‘Oh, what the hell!’, and we let them get off scot free, just as Podgórski did under pressure from Kossecki.”95

Although many former camp inmates stood in defence of their accused comrades, the picture that emerges from this polemic—of relationships governed by brutality, corruption, and indifference—is very different from the way in which those relationships were presented by the most widely-read authors of camp memoirs—Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, Seweryna Szmaglewska or Krystyna Żywulska.96 And although the moral assessment of prisoner conduct was not always as devastating as Tadeusz Borowski’s, it was precisely the press articles and witness ← 142 | 143 → statements intended to defend the accused that often revealed—in a far more meaningful way than the accusations directed against them—the brutality of camp life, since they exposed the inadequacy of generally accepted moral and legal norms in describing the reality of the camps.

Beyond the Courtroom

Aside from articles directly concerning the trials of prisoner functionaries, Wolni Ludzie, as well as other newspapers and magazines, published texts which tackled more broadly the problem of the conduct of concentration camp prisoners and their entanglement in the system of terror. The biggest debate was sparked by the Auschwitz stories of Tadeusz Borowski and his polemic against Zofia Kossak-Szczucka.97

Borowski’s very first short stories, which appeared in April 1946 in Twórczość [Creativity], gave rise to controversy.98 Even the editors of the monthly distanced themselves from the published texts. In a note that preceded the two short stories, the editors wrote that although the authors—initially, the story entitled The Sosnowiec-Będzin Transport had been wrongly attributed to Borowski’s friend, Krystyn Olszewski—had rightly shown that the whole purpose of the system of Nazi crimes had been “to turn its victims into accomplices”, they lamented the fact that the works lacked explicit moral judgement and a “categorical rejection of evil”.99 If, despite this, the editorial board of Twórczość had decided to publish the works, it was, argued the editors, in order to “confront Nazi criminals with an indictment full of naturalistic horror; an indictment which reveals the plague of evil that was implanted in the soul of the victims”. Several critical reviews of Borowski’s stories appeared over the following months, but it was the young author’s attack on Zofia Kossak-Szczucka’s From the Abyss that truly ← 143 | 144 → caused a storm. Those who stood up in defence of Kossak-Szczucka were, first and foremost, writers from Catholic journals. Shortly after the review appeared, Dziś i Jutro [Today and Tomorrow] published “An Open Letter to the Executive Board of the Professional Union of Polish Writers (ZZLP)”, in which it demanded that Borowski be put before a peer tribunal.100 The Catholic writer and journalist Paweł Jasienica also rose to Kossak-Szczucka’s defence. In a piece for Tygodnik Powszechny, he described Borowski’s text as indecent. By accusing Kossak-Szczucka and other Auschwitz inmates of unethical behaviour, Jasienica argued, Borowski had relativized the crimes of the SS. Jasienica likened Borowski to other Marxist writers, who, he believed, had unjustly accused the Poles of showing a lack of solidarity during the war.101 The debate over the polemic between Borowski and Kossak-Szczucka soon developed into an assault on the literary output of the author of “A Day in Harmenza”. Borowski was not spared ad personam attacks either, his detractors accusing him of having behaved immorally whilst in Auschwitz. “We know that in the camps there were many so-called ‘organisers’ from amongst whom the Kapos, block seniors, and camp hyenas were recruited,” wrote S. Poszumski in Słowo Powszechne [Universal Word]. “They all survived the camps and will see justice done, for in a few weeks’ time a great trial will take place at the very location where their crimes were committed.102 But they have enough good sense, or perhaps decency, to desist from writing their camp memoirs.”103

In the meantime, Borowski’s former camp comrades came to his defence. Henryk Korotyński accused Poszumski—one of Borowski’s most vehement critics—of ignorance and cheap sententiousness. He argued that the prisoner community had been a stratified caricature of the class system; it had comprised an “aristocracy”, which included high-ranking camp inmates but also long-serving ones; a “bourgeoisie”, which enriched itself from barter; a “petite bourgeoisie”, which included lower-ranking prisoner functionaries, camp craftsmen and traders, as well as inmates who received parcels from home; and finally a “proletariat”, the most ill-treated group, which had no hope of survival. It is not true, wrote Korotyński, that Auschwitz signified nothing more than “work, hunger, suffering, and death”. Members of the camp elite, but also the middle classes, could ← 144 | 145 → lead a “normal” life in which there was room for “love and debauchery, heroism and cowardice, politics and business, friendship and patronage, as well as creative activity, sports matches, and games of bridge”.104 The concentration camp nurtured widespread indifference to the suffering of others. This was a necessary defensive response to the surrounding horror: “We defended ourselves in various ways: by playing football; by not wearing sackcloth and ashes; by not pulling out our hair in despair every time a comrade died or was gassed. There, Sir, in Auschwitz (Korotyński addressed Poszumski), death was our daily bread, and a pile of naked, skeletal corpses our daily spectacle. There would not have been enough ashes, or tears, or strength, to feel compassion and despair.” Korotyński also lamented the fact that the accounts of camp life published in Poland were dominated by the martyrological approach, according to which prisoners were presented solely as innocent victims or heroes; few authors touched on the problem of the moral bankruptcy caused by incarceration. Korotyński attributed this to the fear of relativizing Nazi crimes and profaning the memory of the victims. He believed these objections to be unfounded, however, since it was the system of terror created by the Nazis that had caused the depravity, and this could be used as an additional argument by the prosecution. Referring to the trials of prisoner functionaries which were taking place at that time, Korotyński also expressed concern that “if the judges are not aware of the full truth of the concentration camps”, misdeeds committed within the camps will be unjustly measured “by the yardstick of people at liberty”.

Paweł Jasienica, having read the stories Borowski had sent him, changed his opinion about the author. In an article entitled “Confession of the Tormented”, which appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny, Jasienica withdrew the earlier comments he had made about Borowski. There exist, he wrote, two truths about Auschwitz. The first is a story of resistance, sacrifice, and heroism; it concerns some of the victims, perhaps even a significant number. But then there is the second truth, which concerns most of the victims; this is the truth about depravity caused by the conditions within the camps. Borowski, claimed Jasienica, by writing in the first person, showed remarkable moral courage. Even if he was describing his own transgressions, who would dare to condemn him for it? “He could have done the usual thing and taken a comfortable, well-trodden path. Quite simply, having left the camp, he could have put on the ever-fashionable jacket of martyrdom, signed up to various associations, and pinned medals to his chest. But Borowski refuses to do this; instead, he confesses to what he did in the camp.”105 In Jasienica’s view, Borowski’s conflict with public opinion stemmed from the fact that his writing ← 145 | 146 → unwittingly aroused in his readers “a sense of responsibility for what had happened”.

The problem of the stratification of the camp community and the lack of solidarity among prisoners was also tackled outside the context of Borowski’s work. Many authors were troubled by the question of why some inmates had completely lost their moral compass within the camps while others had remained loyal to the basic imperatives of human solidarity and had sometimes even displayed remarkable heroism. A wide range of explanations was offered. At the two, ostensibly opposing extremes were the national interpretation and the Marxist interpretation; between these, however, was a vast array of approaches to the problem.

The most straightforward and convenient explanation, as proposed by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, among others, was that different national groups behaved in different ways. Although Kossak-Szczucka admitted that the conditions in Birkenau killed off any spirit of camaraderie, and that the urge for self-preservation had made people “predatory and ruthless”, she also claimed that three fundamental differences in the conduct of different nationalities could be identified.106 Describing the various groups of women prisoners, Kossak-Szczucka wrote that the Poles “had the reputation within the camps of being the most spiritually resilient”107 and that they remained loyal and dignified to the end. The nastiest and most corrupt group were the German inmates, mostly convicts and prostitutes. Jewish women prisoners were supposedly characterised by passivity and disunity; it was from amongst them, claimed Kossak-Szczucka, that the majority of prisoner functionaries were recruited. Jewish women were also distinguished by their particular cruelty, even towards their own compatriots.

Such categorisation along national lines was challenged not only by Tadeusz Borowski but also by other authors. Among them was the writer Stanisław Wygodzki, a friend of Borowski’s. Wygodzki had been transported to Birkenau from the ghetto in Będzin. That Wygodzki was a Jew, and thus in all likelihood would have found himself on the bottom rung of the social ladder in Birkenau, perhaps sharpened his view of the relations between prisoners. In his camp memoir published in Wolni Ludzie, he emphasised that the division between perpetrators and victims had not run along national lines, and that no nation had been immune to the evil which prevailed at Birkenau. Nor did he exempt the Jews from his harsh assessment. “On the one hand,” he wrote, “there were victims of various nationalities (mostly Jews), speaking various languages, perishing together; on the other, there were perpetrators of various nationalities, speaking various languages, and doing one and the same thing: murdering people. Between them stood the Kapo and the Vorarbeiter, speaking various languages, and doing the same thing regardless of whether they were from ← 146 | 147 → Berlin, Rome, Thessaloniki, Budapest, Warsaw or Kaunas: robbing the prisoners and organising lard, vodka and tobacco for themselves and their masters.”108Andrzej Kobyłecki, the editor-in-chief of Wolni Ludzie, also warned against making generalisations about the conduct of national groups within the concentration camps:

We have involuntarily inherited from our oppressors […] a certain system of generalisation, a certain understanding of collective responsibility. How often we hear people say, seemingly with utter conviction, that in the concentration camps the Russians were united and ruthless; the French aloof; the Italians thieving; the Jews cowardly and dirty; the Serbs slovenly; the Greeks deceitful and fearful; the Germans thuggish; and the Poles…the Poles were all very different.109

Kobyłecki attributed this simplified view of reality, first, to the Nazi-imposed system of thinking in racial and national categories and, second, to the plain fact that Polish prisoners knew their compatriots best, whereas other groups of inmates appeared to them as an homogenous mass.

Another popular criterion used to explain the differences in the conduct of concentration camp prisoners was religious faith. This theme appears in numerous camp memoirs and scholarly works, particularly those dealing with the fate of Catholic priests. The writer Gustaw Morcinek, a Silesian activist and inmate of Sachsenhausen and Dachau, claimed in an article, albeit for Wolni Ludzie, that the experience of the camps had debased perpetrators and victims alike: “The camp inmate often became, as a result of his suffering, the same beast as his Nazi oppressor. He became as cruel as his own executioner. He murdered his comrades in a cold, calculated manner. He savoured their suffering and sought out new forms of torture.”110 And yet, continued Morcinek, in the concentration camps one also encountered great kindness and humanity. Not everyone was debased by the camp experience; for some, it was a kind of “catharsis”, from which they emerged “morally cleansed” and “even stronger” than before. Everything depended, in Morcinek’s view, on a person’s spiritual strength and faith in transcendental values.

That these two interpretations, the religious and the national, were closely linked is best illustrated by Kossak-Szczucka’s memoir. Whereas in the text cited above Morcinek did not specify which religion he had in mind, the author of From the Abyss left her readers in no doubt that only Christianity could impart the necessary strength to survive the camps without losing integrity. According to Kossak-Szczucka, “a Häftling (inmate) who accepted the concentration camp as ← 147 | 148 → an act of divine retribution, who was filled with Christian resignation, was able to take on this momentous test, this final lonely battle for the greatest good: his own soul”.111 “The strength which allowed Polish women prisoners to remain dignified” was also, she believed, “the prayer of friends”112 “Not every woman received parcels, but for each woman fervent prayers were said by those on the outside; by her children, husband, family, friends, and relatives. [...] The power of this prayer meant that although Polish women died in equally great numbers as other women, they generally maintained their humanity till the end.” Whereas, according to Kossak-Szczucka, Jewish women prisoners were paralysed with fear and lacked the courage even to give water to their compatriots who had been condemned to death, Polish women, when summoned by their compatriots in the name of Christ, heroically performed the last offices despite the risk to their own lives. Such assistance had no practical significance and did not justify the risk, but it nonetheless eased the conscience: “They cried: ‘In the name of Christ!’. Who could have been deaf to that?”113

Many authors also attributed a victim’s spiritual strength or weakness to his or her class background, although they evaluated the conduct of each social class very differently. Thus, for instance, Kossak-Szczucka suggested that the intelligentsia endured the conditions of the camps better than other social classes. “The remarkable dynamism of the Polish intelligentsia, embracing life even amongst the ruins and bunkers,” wrote the author of From the Abyss, “did not give them [the Polish women political prisoners in Auschwitz] a moment’s rest. So long as their spirit lingered, they wished to be useful; they wanted to feel as if they were still fighting on the front.”114 The opposite view was taken by Stanisław Nogaj, who, in his Gusen memoir, stressed that class background and education had no impact at all on the conduct of prisoners. In Gusen, he wrote, everyone stole: “the renowned political activist; the duke, the count, and the worker; the priest, the dean, and the canon; the professor and the colonel”.115 Nor did it matter, claimed Nogaj, whether someone had been sent to the camp as a convict or a political prisoner: there were criminals to be found within every category of inmate.

The debate over who was particularly prone to collaboration with the Nazis had strong political overtones. Indeed, it is no accident that in Jerzy Andrzejewski’s Ashes and Diamonds, the protagonist Kossecki, a former block senior in Gross-Rosen, turns out to be a pre-war lawyer, a provincial judge, who made his ← 148 | 149 → career during the Sanacja.116 Arrested probably for his cooperation with the Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ) or the Home Army (AK), in the concentration camp this widely respected citizen turns out to be a person without moral backbone, who, in order to save his own life, is capable of the greatest cruelty. In subsequent editions of the novel, these ideological overtones of Kossecki’s past were successively given greater prominence. In the first version of Ashes and Diamonds, which was serialised in Odrodzenie, Judge Kossecki is portrayed merely as one of many who failed to emerge from the war with their honour intact: “How disgusting! It makes you want to vomit,” exclaims Podgórski, having learned about Kossecki’s past. “Don’t exaggerate, my friend,” replies Szczuka, Kossecki’s former camp comrade. “You would have had to do the same.”117 When the novel was first published in book form in 1948, the author changed the final sentence of the dialogue: “Don’t exaggerate, my friend,” says Szczuka. “It’s simply the bankruptcy of a certain type of mentality….”118

This theme was taken up by Jerzy Putrament. Referring in an article to Ashes and Diamonds, he wrote that Andrzejewski, by introducing the character of Judge Kossecki, had raised the very important issue of society’s attempts to come to terms with the Second World War. Putrament criticised Andrzejewski, however, for wrongly attributing Kossecki’s behaviour to his bourgeois origins. “The worker and the peasant were just as capable of butchering their fellow inmates.” But in rebuking the winner of Odrodzenie’s literary prize for his excessive dogmatism, Putrament showed himself to be even more orthodox. Developing his argument, he wrote:

The worker, devoid of values, lacking in class consciousness and possessed by false beliefs, and having witnessed the break-up of his party, served Hitler just as the peasant and the bourgeois did. The advantage the worker has over the bourgeois is that his class interest coincides with the interest of the (given) nation, whereas at times the opposite is true of the bourgeois. A prisoner’s ideological awakening, his class consciousness, would seem to be significant.119

Tadeusz Borowski’s series of Auschwitz stories entitled Farewell to Maria, published at the end of 1947, provoked similar reflection.120 In the first, eponymous ← 149 | 150 → story Borowski describes the life of the Warsaw intelligentsia during the occupation. In subsequent stories, the main protagonist, Tadeusz, having been incarcerated in a camp, proves to be, despite his education and poetic nature, just as ruthless and insensitive to the suffering of others as his lower-class comrades. The writer Paweł Jasienica drew attention to this. In a review published in July 1948 in Tygodnik Powszechny, he noted that Borowski’s stories had an ideological message, for their structure suggested that Borowski blamed the reality of the camps on the bourgeoisie, who had apparently been the most prone to depravity. Jasienica felt this was an unfair assessment. The camps, he claimed, had depraved people regardless of their class background:

Germany became a criminal state not because its citizens were guilty of bourgeois thinking but because the German nation was taken over by a desire for world domination. And every person who surrenders to that desire will be forced to behave just as the Germans did. [...] Whoever wants to protect the world from the hell of the concentration camps must defeat tyranny and totalitarianism, not the bourgeoisie.”121

Aside from this ideological dispute, attempts were made to explore the psychology of prisoner perpetrators and to understand the mechanism of depravity. Of particular note in this regard is a story by Juliusz Kydryński, published in the spring of 1945 in Odrodzenie. The author describes the fortunes of a young Kapo from Auschwitz, who, having murdered his school friend, suddenly becomes aware of his own debasement and decides to commit suicide by throwing himself against the electric barbed wire:

The Kapo was 19 years old and profoundly aware of his own insignificance. But he had only reached this conclusion the previous day, when he had started to think about it. Before that, for those two years, he had lived as if in a trance, distinguishing neither dreams from wakefulness nor feverish fictions from reality. [...] Unaware of the complexes that life in the camp had produced within him, he thought it entirely natural that, having previously endured the most deserving punishments, coupled with terrible beatings—punches to the head, kicks to the stomach, the use of auxiliary implements—now he had the right to administer those very same beatings. And so, with the most perfect mindlessness and primordial cruelty, he tortured his comrades. The mentality of the hunted, baited animal, which quivers before the strong and kills the weak, found flawless expression within him.”122

A very similar pattern emerges from a fictionalised memoir reprinted in Wolni Ludzie in 1947.123 The hero is a 10-year-old Jewish boy nicknamed Bubi, who, having been saved from death by an SS officer in Treblinka, is later transferred with the officer to Majdanek. There, he becomes an errand boy for the camp ← 150 | 151 → senior. Completely desensitised, Bubi mistreats the other prisoners. The culminating point comes when a man he is beating turns out to be his father. In contrast to the previous story, in this one there is no moment of “repentance”. And unlike other stories and memoirs that deal with the subject of prisoner functionaries, here the protagonist is portrayed not as a sadist intoxicated by the suffering of others but rather as a victim of the Nazi system of depravity. His innocence is emphasised not only by his young age but also by his tragic death in the mass execution of Jewish prisoners in Majdanek. His debasement is entirely blamed on the SS.

Defending the Image of the Political Prisoner

As the preceding chapter showed, the stratification of the prisoner community and the entanglement of victims in the system of terror was not a taboo subject in Poland in the immediate post-war years. Why, then, was the topic given such scant attention in fiction and in memoirs, and why did Borowski’s works cause such public outrage?

It is true that Borowski posed the question about the depravity and lack of solidarity among victims of Nazism in a manner that was both forthright and mature in literary terms. Notwithstanding the criticisms made by certain reviewers, the author of “A Day in Harmenza” and “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” could hardly have been accused of nihilism. On the contrary, his moral judgements were uncompromising. Borowski’s accusations were directed not only at the camp elite, the highest-ranking prisoner functionaries, camp seniors, block seniors, Kapos, and camp plutocrats, but also at the prisoner “upper middle class”, to which he himself belonged.124 He was not interested in the extreme cases of prisoners murdering or abusing their comrades. The protagonists of Borowski’s stories usually behave in accordance with the unwritten law of the camps, but when viewed from the outside they appear as egotistical, ruthless, and indifferent to the suffering of others. And, as Paweł Jasienica correctly noted, by writing in the first person Borowski forced the reader to identify with the “evil-ridden” heroes of his stories.

However, there is another explanation for the reaction provoked by Borowski’s works. The participants in the courtroom controversies that arose during the trials of prisoner functionaries were almost exclusively former prisoners. Likewise, the articles published in Wolni Ludzie were primarily meant for the ex-prisoner community. Borowski’s stories, on the other hand, were addressed to a wider public. In other words, the author of “Among us, in Auschwitz” brought his vision of life in the camps to a readership that existed beyond the inner circle of survivors. ← 151 | 152 → Things that were familiar to Auschwitz inmates, wrote Henryk Korotyński of Borowski’s works, the outside world reacted to with astonishment and even indignation.125 Former prisoners were worried that Borowski’s confessions might be misunderstood by society at large and could damage the image of the PZbWP and its members. Wolni Ludzie did not discuss Borowski at all; even an article by Korotyński that was reprinted in the magazine had all references to the author cut.126 In the summer of 1948, following the publication of Farewell to Maria, only a brief review of the book appeared in Wolni Ludzie. The reviewer did not enter into a polemic with Borowski; instead, he merely expressed concern that the book might be confusing for readers uninitiated in the realities of camp life.127

Shortly after the war there were fears that the truth about the relations between concentration camp prisoners could discredit the Poles, who, aside from the Jews, often constituted the biggest group of victims. Many who had been in a camp for several years had managed to secure a privileged position. In April 1945, Jerzy Kornacki, a member of the newly-appointed Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Auschwitz, who had witnessed some of the interviews with former prisoners then taking place, wrote:

It’s all coming out—the wildly extravagant eating and drinking and debauched lifestyle of some prisoners, and the misery and torment of others; the conspiracy amongst the long-term inmates against the waves of new arrivals; the cosy alliance between the SS and the prisoners in so-called Kanada; the disgusting, often contemptible behaviour of the intelligentsia from all corners of Europe—it’s a quagmire; it’s enough to make the angels weep. All the remaining days of my life seem contaminated.128

Later that month, Kornacki sent a memo to Prime Minister Osóbka-Morawski in which he stated that “amongst the foreign prisoners, particularly the Jews and the French and Belgian communists”, one notices “a strong anti-Polish feeling bordering on outright hatred towards Poland. I dare say that soon we shall witness the emergence of an anti-Polish organisation of foreign ex-prisoners, who will not hesitate to make shameful accusations against Poles and Poland on the international arena.”129 Consequently, the author proposed to co-opt into the commission two former Auschwitz prisoners: the former Reichstag deputy Artur Mayer, a German Jew, and Doctor Otto Wolken, an Austrian Jew. In this way, Kornacki believed, the report produced by the commission would have more credibility in the eyes of the international community.

← 152 | 153 → In a letter sent to reassure Osóbka-Morawski, the then Minister of Art and Culture, Edmund Zalewski, wrote that the Auschwitz Commission included the director of the Central Jewish Historical Commission, Filip Friedman, the chairman of the Kraków Jewish Committee, Leon Kupferberg, as well as Zofia Nałkowska, Ksawery Dunikowski, and several professors of the Jagiellonian University, which would guarantee the commission’s international recognition. Foreigners were also interviewed by the commission. In the course of the research, however, wrote Zalewski, “the disgraceful behaviour of various high-ranking prisoner functionaries—Poles as well as Germans and Jews—has been revealed on several occasions. The accounts concerning the activities of the Silesians are particularly gruesome. It is difficult to say with certainty whether this will lead to the institutional hatred of Poland by foreign communists and Jews. But even if this were to happen, the many recognised acts of heroism by Poles on behalf of foreigners in the camps will definitely undermine any generalisations in this regard.”130 Despite this, Mayer and Wolken were co-opted into the commission.131


Interrogation of former Auschwitz inmate Otto Wolken by members of the Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Auschwitz, Kraków, 24 April 1945. On the right, at the table, Zofia Nałkowska (courtesy of APMAB).

← 153 | 154 → Influenced by the spate of trials of prisoner functionaries and numerous publications describing relations within the camps, two years later the PZbWP leadership once again debated the image of the political prisoner. This time, however, the focus was on score-settling within Poland rather than on international issues. The first voices of disquiet were heard between the summer and autumn of 1947. At the September meeting of the PZbWP’s Supreme Council (RN), Ludwik Rajewski, the chairman of the association’s Monitoring Committee, gave a speech in which he expressed concern that the recent proliferation of trials of prisoner functionaries, which were appearing like “mushrooms after rain”, and the many publications inspired by those trials, could damage the good name of the association and its members.132 Society, he believed, was not being properly informed about the conditions within Nazi concentration camps and might draw false conclusions from reading those publications. Furthermore, he claimed, the whole debate was grist to the mill of Western propaganda, which was trying to whitewash the Germans at the cost of others. We must not forget, he said, “that social coexistence within the camps was different”, that “collective life was governed by the fear of hunger and death. That is why camp inmates must be judged by different standards.” Other participants in the meeting shared the concern that the debate over the trials of prisoner functionaries could further undermine the association’s standing. According to one speaker, the association was already barely tolerated by other public organisations. Consequently, the association’s Supreme Council decided to take steps to restrict the public debate and to channel it in the appropriate direction. Rajewski suggested appointing a special commission that would draw up a declaration “on the truth about the concentration camps”. As proposed by other participants in the meeting, the commission would also monitor the press debate on the subject of the camps and clarify any misunderstandings. It was also decided that the association should ask the Censorship Office to employ special PZbWP-appointed censors to monitor all films and publications about the camps. In addition, the participants resolved to call on members not to denounce their camp comrades directly to the public prosecutor’s office but rather to notify a peer tribunal, which would determine whether to refer the matter to the courts.133 At the same time, it was decided to carry out a purge within the ranks of the PZbWP and to exclude all persons whose conduct in captivity had been in any way suspect. In November 1947, a text by Ludwik Rajewski entitled “On the Truth about the Concentration Camps” appeared in Wolni Ludzie134; in it, Rajewski declared that, in light of the numerous trials of prisoner functionaries and the public debate ← 154 | 155 → surrounding them, the PZbWP had decided to put forward its own position. Next, the author presented the demands that had been formulated at the September meeting of the association’s leadership. The article also made some preliminary remarks about relations within the camp community. Rajewski pointed out, among other things, that in creating the camp system the Nazis had consciously tried to “destroy the human soul”. He also emphasised that many posts within the “prisoner self-administration” had been deliberately taken up by members of the resistance, thus helping to mitigate the camp regime. Consequently, Rajewski advised particular caution when considering the problem of prisoner functionaries.

Two months later, another PZbWP member, Jerzy Rawicz, published a text in Robotnik in which he argued that, contrary to the general public view, not every concentration camp prisoner had been a hero or a political activist, and not every prisoner had behaved with decency.135 Rawicz divided prisoners into five categories: 1) members of the camp resistance; 2) non-affiliated prisoners whose conduct had been dignified; 3) prisoners who had mainly looked after themselves but without harming others; 4) prisoners who had tried to survive at any cost, even at the cost of others; and 5) prisoners who had been guilty of contemptible behaviour towards others, as well as Volksdeutsche, national traitors, and Kapos. According to Rawicz, people in the last two categories deserved to be roundly condemned. The issue of heroes and non-heroes among Polish prisoners, he wrote, had hitherto been unjustly ignored. But now was the time to dispel the myth that all prisoners had been heroes. It was necessary to expose “the infiltration of the association and the community by people who are not worthy of being called former political prisoners”. Rawicz accordingly called on PZbWP members to disclose the names of former prisoners “who today occupy whatever position but who disgraced themselves when in captivity”. Such cases were to be considered by the Chief Monitoring Committee and the names of the persons concerned to be published in Wolni Ludzie.

Neither Rajewski nor Rawicz tried to convince their readers that all prisoners had been heroes. On the contrary, as if to pre-empt the likely reaction, they admitted that the prisoner community also included people who had allowed themselves to be drawn into the system of terror. At the same time, however, both authors warned against making hasty generalisations. They emphasised that the conduct of prisoners had varied. Yet, by dividing prisoners into those who were decent and those who were worthy of condemnation, they avoided the fundamental problem, namely, that commonly accepted moral standards could not be applied to the reality of the camps. The interpretation of the camp experience adopted by Rajewski and Rawicz denied the possibility of ambivalent conduct, and those whom they ← 155 | 156 → regarded as unworthy of the title of political prisoner were simply excluded from the prisoner community. By calling on PZbWP members to disclose the names of those suspected of collaboration with the Nazis to the association’s leadership, and not to the public prosecutor’s office, Rawicz implied that such matters should be taken care of by the prisoner community itself. In this way, the PZbWP tried to maintain its image of an organisation composed solely of irreproachable heroes of the fight against fascism.

The declarations of the PZbWP were followed up by specific measures. Although political vetting had taken place since the organisation’s inception, in the summer of 1947 it intensified.136 The purpose of the vetting campaign was, among others, to exclude from the association all those suspected of having “sullied the good name of political prisoners”137 through their conduct in captivity. Other measures were also taken to bring the debate on the concentration camps under control. In the summer of 1948, the PZbWP’s Executive Board issued a circular which stated that the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites (ROPWiM) had passed a resolution concerning the procedure for the erection of monuments, publication of books, and organisation of lectures on the subject of the Second World War.138 According to this resolution, the Department for Museums and Monuments of Struggle and Martyrdom at the Ministry of Art and Culture had to be notified of all proposed monuments and museums of martyrdom, and, following consultation with the ROPWiM, it would decide whether to allow their construction. This rule was also to apply to all publications and lectures concerning the war and occupation.

It is hard to judge to what extent the actions of the PZbWP aimed at restricting the debate on the conduct of concentration camp prisoners were inspired by the association’s members and to what extent they were prompted by the state authorities. Separating these two centres of decision-making is further complicated by the fact that in the summer of 1947 the PZbWP’s Executive Board carried out its first major political purges.

The efforts of the association, the ROPWiM, and the Ministry of Art and Culture did not immediately produce the anticipated results. The trials of prisoner functionaries were ongoing, and the conduct of concentration camp prisoners was still a subject of public debate. Tadeusz Borowski’s World of Stone appeared at the end of 1947. However, the atmosphere of the debate on Poland’s recent past ← 156 | 157 → was slowly changing, and the war, wrote Tadeusz Drewnowski, “particularly in its general aspects, was becoming a legacy that needed to be overcome rather than exploited”.139 Borowski’s final collection of Auschwitz stories met with fierce criticism. At the turn of 1948/1949, the number of publications devoted to the concentration camps significantly declined. The trials of prisoner functionaries no longer aroused the interest of the press. After the merger of veterans’ and prisoners’ organisations and the creation of the Union of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy (ZBoWiD), Wolni Ludzie was closed down and replaced by a new bi-weekly magazine—Za Wolność i Lud [For Freedom and the People]. In this new publication there was no place for coming to terms with the experiences of the Second World War. If the subject of the concentration camps was mentioned at all, it was exclusively in the context of stories about heroes of the anti-fascist resistance movement.140

The culminating point of this process was a text written by Tadeusz Borowski for Odrodzenie in February 1950, which marked his entry into Socialist Realism. In the article, Borowski distanced himself from his previous work. Of his Auschwitz stories, he wrote:

It was pure “anti-fascism” without any positive solutions. When one depicts a human being’s debasement under fascism, it is necessary also to reveal his heroism; one cannot wriggle out of one’s involvement in the class struggle by means of “moral outrage” […] My ambition had been to reveal the “truth”, but I ended up being objectively allied with fascist ideology.141

Equally telling in this regard was the fate of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s Ashes and Diamonds. Initially, the author had intended to write a novel or a short story about the moral bankruptcy caused by war and occupation and about the dilemmas involved in evaluating the behaviour of people in situations of extreme terror.142 The main protagonist was to be a lawyer, who, despite being widely respected before the war, becomes a concentration camp Kapo and abuses his comrades. As the novel took shape, however, Andrzejewski relegated this motif and shifted the emphasis towards the problem of the struggle over the future Polish state. The decision proved exceptionally fortuitous: in the summer of 1948, Ashes and Diamonds received Odrodzenie’s prestigious literary prize. Among the other candidates was Borowski’s collection of short stories Farewell to Maria. Andrzejewski’s work ← 157 | 158 → was rewarded for the relevance of its subject-matter.143 In Andrzej Wajda’s film of Andrzejewski’s novel, shot in 1958, the theme of Judge Kossecki is completely omitted.144 Andrzejewski wrote the screenplay himself.

No less important was another change: in the 1948 edition of the novel, the first to be published in book form, Podgórski, having been persuaded by Kossecki, abandons his plan to hand him over to the authorities.145 He decides he has no right to judge others since he has never been in a similar situation.

Yet despite winning an award, Andrzejewski’s novel soon fell out of favour with the authorities. In an article published in January 1950 in Odrodzenie, the author distanced himself—much as Borowski would do a month later—from his previous work. He wrote that in Ashes and Diamonds he had been unable to capture “the fundamental aspects of historical change resulting from the class struggle”.146 It was only during the first wave of the post-Stalin thaw that the book was partially rehabilitated, and in 1954 a third, edited version appeared. Andrzejewski—probably under the pressure of criticism, and perhaps at the behest of the censor—made significant alterations to the text.147 One of the major changes was the ending of the novel. In this and in all subsequent editions of Ashes and Diamonds, Podgórski, after his conversation with Kossecki, decides to hand him over to the Security Service.148

At first sight this change may seem surprising: why, during a period when the problem of prisoner functionaries and the entanglement of prisoners in the system of camp terror was becoming increasingly taboo, did Andrzejewski decide to revise the ending of the novel and punish Kossecki? In essence, however, this change was part of a broader trend to create an image of a united prisoner community, and a united national community, whose members had resisted their Nazi oppressors in harmony. The author of Ashes and Diamonds did not deny that there had been criminal elements among Polish concentration camp prisoners. However, the new ending of the novel suggested—as did the texts of Ludwik Rajewski and Jerzy Rawicz—that it was possible to make unequivocal moral judgements in this regard; that it was possible to separate good from evil, the wheat from the chaff. It also suggested that only very few had been susceptible to evil; otherwise, it would be necessary to put the whole of society in the dock. In this way, “bad ← 158 | 159 → people” were symbolically excluded from the prisoner community and also from the national community, thanks to which those communities could live on, convinced of their own innocence. That such exclusion was merely symbolic in character is also evidenced by the fact that precisely the opposite was happening in the judicial system. At the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s, the number of people tried under the August Decree significantly declined, and the judgements delivered—leaving aside political trials, of course—were increasingly mild.149

* * *

The process by which the dark side of prisoner conduct became a taboo also had parallels in other Eastern bloc countries, notably the GDR. Both the Polish PZbWP and the East German VVN attempted to gain control over all publications concerning the concentration camps and the anti-fascist resistance movement.150 Very similar methods were used by both organisations. In the GDR, all studies dealing with the camps were to be submitted to the relevant VVN committees for approval. In 1950, for instance, the entire print run of Rolf Weinstock’s camp memoir, Rolf Kopf hoch!, was confiscated. The author was accused of focusing too much on suffering and on the desensitisation and brutalisation of prisoners and of failing to mention the camp resistance movement.

The manner in which certain aspects of camp life acquired taboo status in the GDR is well illustrated by the case of Bruno Apitz and his novel Naked among Wolves.151 The book was written in the years 1954-1958 and tells the story of a three-year-old Jewish boy who, having been smuggled out of Auschwitz in a suitcase, is then transported to Buchenwald. There, hidden by German Communists and members of the camp resistance movement, he eventually sees liberation. The story, based on true facts, is a pretext for illustrating the heroism of members of the KPD imprisoned in Buchenwald. Susanne Hantke has analysed the original manuscript.152 Her finding is that Apitz, himself a former Buchenwald inmate—probably as a result of conversations with, and perhaps pressure from, the publisher and his former camp comrades—progressively deleted from the manuscript all fragments that suggested ambivalent conduct on the part of German prisoner functionaries and members of the communist resistance movement. In the final version of the story, the leaders of the camp KPD were no longer identified as the highest-ranking members of the “prisoner self-administration”; there was no mention ← 159 | 160 → of cronyism between prisoner functionaries and the SS, the killing of prisoners through lethal injection, or the changing of names on transportation lists.

By these and similar means, in both the GDR and in Poland, a vision of the camps was created that was devoid of all ambiguity. In this vision there was no place for “the grey zone” between good and evil, between victim and executioner, which Primo Levi wrote about in his Auschwitz memoir.153 This does not mean that, in creating a simplified narrative, no reference was made in Poland or in East Germany to pre-existing and socially accepted interpretative models. However, the fact that this simplified narrative was supported by the Communist authorities meant that it became the only accepted interpretation of history.

Was this tendency—to exonerate one’s own society from the crimes of the Second World War by constructing a black-and-white image of the past and excluding a small number of the most blameworthy individuals, or perhaps only random individuals, from the national community—a phenomenon that went beyond the borders of the Communist bloc? In his book The Long Shadow of the Third Reich, Klaus Bachmann uses the terms “inclusive” and “exclusive” historical policy. By absolving the general public of responsibility for crimes and by punishing only a few individuals in an act of “ritual cleansing”, an inclusive historical policy promotes a dichotomous image of the past and strengthens a national community’s belief in its own innocence. By contrast, an exclusive historical policy entails accusing various social groups—former economic and political elites, forced labourers, and prisoners of war, for instance—of involvement in crimes or collaboration, thereby stigmatising those groups and excluding them from public life. Citing research carried out by Pieter Lagrou, Bachmann suggests that the inclusive model of historical policy was dominant in France, the Netherlands, and also Germany, until the late 1960s and early 1970s, despite the different wartime experience of those countries. This policy, claims Bachmann, was dictated by the need to unite citizens around the idea of national reconstruction after the ravages of the war years:

Generally speaking […] for post-war governments the main purpose of historical policy was integration. This is not surprising: under democratic conditions, the groups concerned were too big to be permanently excluded. Moreover, they were needed for demographic and economic reasons—population growth and national reconstruction. The permanent exclusion of those groups would only have been possible under a dictatorship, and this is precisely what Stalin did in relation to the deportees and prisoners of war who survived the German massacre.154

Despite a different political system, the situation in East Germany was identical:

← 160 | 161 → The Communist government of the GDR needed a broad social base to legitimise its authority, play an important role within the Soviet camp, and enable it to rebuild the country. The simplest solution was to offer to the broadest possible sections of society an image of the past based on a “tradition of resistance” created ad hoc.155

According to Bachmann, the policy adopted by the Polish authorities was different. They, too, used historical arguments but sought to exclude from public life all their political opponents, including members of the Home Army, the National Armed Forces, and other groups within the Polish Underground:

An inclusive image of the occupation, an inclusive historical policy, which would have integrated former enemies—members of the Home Army and perhaps even members of the National Armed Forces—risked undermining the ideological basis of the new system. The Polish authorities were too weak to put the idea into practice against the wishes of their Soviet masters. In addition, an inclusive policy would have signalled the re-entry of Poland’s pre-war elites into the political fold, which in the long term would have entailed the emergence of a pluralist society, thereby depriving the nascent Communist elites of their power. Under such circumstances, the image of the past which the Polish authorities offered to society after the war had to be exclusive in the extreme: it excluded everything that was not Stalinist—from pre-war political movements, through members of the Home Army and National Armed Forces (now decried as traitors and Nazi collaborators), to soldiers who had fought in “inappropriate” military units of the Western Allies.156

Although Bachmann’s proposed classification of historical policy seems very useful, his claim that in the immediate post-war years the Polish authorities adopted an exclusive historical policy should be treated with some reservation. During the Stalinist period, the Polish Communists did indeed exclude a significant portion of society from public life, and did so using historical arguments. But in other respects their historical policy was inclusive. As Bachmann himself notes, in Poland there was no settling of scores with collaborators—“it only happened when it was necessary to weaken the influence of real or suspected political opponents”. Because the authorities excluded a significant number of their own citizens from public life for political reasons, it would have been all the more imprudent to antagonise society further over the issue of collaboration. In addition, the belief in the united struggle of the Polish nation—“reactionary elements” notwithstanding—against the German occupiers and then, more broadly, against fascism and imperialism, was a major source of legitimacy for the Communist authorities in Poland. That is why the debate over the conduct of concentration camp prisoners was swiftly crushed through the combined efforts of the PZbWP and PPR/PZPR. ← 161 | 162 → In this regard, the historical policy of the Polish authorities proved to be, at least at the level of rhetoric, as inclusive as that of de Gaulle’s, Adenauer’s or Ulbricht’s.

The present work concerns the debate over the conduct of concentration camp prisoners and not of other social groups: forced labourers, prisoners of war, Jews imprisoned in ghettos, or simply the inhabitants of the General Government and other areas of occupied Poland. However, the debate over the problem of prisoner functionaries also provoked a more extensive discussion of the social and moral consequences of the 1939-1945 period for Polish society: the problem of depravity caused by war and occupation was not, according to the writer and historian Paweł Jasienica, restricted solely to the reality of the concentration camps but applied to the totality of the wartime experience. The fact is, wrote Jasienica, that “during the occupation we all became morally infected. Perhaps there were individuals who came out of it in one piece, or who managed to become better, more honourable people because of it. But this was certainly not true of the masses. Looting and bootleg alcohol are not the whole story. We still harbour—in capita et in membris—a disregard for human life.”157 Stanisław Wygodzki likewise extended his observations on the relations between concentration camp prisoners to the experience of the Second World War in general. In his war memoir, he wrote:

There was the cruelty of the perpetrators who condemned millions of people imprisoned in camps and ghettos to death by starvation; the cruelty of those who wanted to save their life at any cost; the cruelty in murder, in slow or sudden killing; and the cruelty in wanting to stay alive. It was not only the system used against the enemy that was cruel; so, too, was the person exposed to that system. This applies not just to people who were physically imprisoned in camps. The system equally affected those who for years remained “free” during the dark night of fascism. And just as the light from the lantern in Goya’s Execution unites, rather than separates, the firing squad and the captives, so it was cruelty that united the Nazis and their victims.158


1     Text of a letter by Tadeusz Borowski to Paweł Jasienica. Quoted after: Paweł Jasienica, “Spowiedź udręczonych”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 5. Oct. 1947.

2     A term used in the camps to describe mentally and physically exhausted individuals who willingly succumbed to death.

3     Warehouses in Birkenau where the property of murdered inmates was sorted and stored. In camp jargon, the warehouses were referred to as “Kanada” (Canada) on account of the “riches” to be found there.

4     Tadeusz Borowski, Alicja w krainie czarów in idem, Utwory wybrane, compiled by Andrzej Werner, Wrocław 1991, p. 497.

5     On the subject of the oeuvre of Tadeusz Borowski see, above all: Andrzej Werner, Zwyczajna apokalipsa. Tadeusz Borowski i jego wizja świata obozów, Warszawa 1971. See also: Sławomir Buryła, Foreword to Tadeusz Borowski, Pisma (Proza I), Sławomir Buryła (ed.), Kraków 2004, pp. 6-19.

6     Werner, Zwyczajna apokalipsa, p. 150.

7     Jerzy Rawicz, “Nie wszyscy byli bohaterami”, Robotnik, 20 Jan. 1948.

8     On this subject, see, inter alia: Włodzimierz Borodziej, “‘Hitleristische Verbrechen’. Die Ahndung deutscher Kriegs- und Besatzungsverbrechen in Polen” in Norbert Frei (ed.) Transnationale Vergangenheitspolitik. Der Umgang mit deutschen Kriegsverbrechen in Europa nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, Göttingen 2006.

9     Leszek Kubicki, Zbrodnie wojenne w świetle prawa polskiego, Warszawa 1963, pp. 180-181.

10   In Wolni Ludzie I found mention of at least 35 trials of Polish prisoner functionaries. There are sure to have been far more.

11   Indictment against Herman Vogel, Wilhelm Gerstenmeier, Anton Ternes, Teodor Schölen, Heinz Stalp, Edmund Pohlman, 4 Oct. 1944, AIPN, Sąd Specjalny Karny (SSK) w Lublinie 293. See also: Cyprian Tadeusz, Sawicki Jerzy, Siewierski Mieczysław, Głos ma prokurator..., Warszawa 1966, pp. 11-12; Judgment in the case of John P., Jozef R., Wacław K., Kazimierz K., Wanda K., Gerda S., Elżbieta B., Ewa P., Jenny-Wanda B., Aleksy D., Franciszek Sz., Tadeusz K., Jan P., Jan B., Erna B., 31 May 1946, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 423.

12   Numerous memoirs and eyewitness accounts mention lynchings of former prisoner functionaries in the first days following the liberation of the camps. See, inter alia: Stanisław Grzesiuk, Pięć lat kacetu, Warszawa 1968, pp. 232, 345; Stanisław Nogaj, Gusenpamiętnik dziennikarza, Katowice-Chorzów 1945, p. 43. Eyewitness accounts: Adam Stręk (Bergen-Belsen), Karta Centre, ISFLDP 054; Józef Szkuta, Karta Centre, MSDP 123.

13   Wojciech D. to Maria D., 9 Dec. 1947, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Ostrowie Wielkopolskim 33.

14   Among the sources which deal more broadly with the issue of prisoner functionaries, with particular reference to the situation in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, are: Imtraud Heike, Bernhard Strebel, “Häftlingsselbstverwaltung und Funktionshäftlinge im Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück” in C. Fuellberg-Stolberg et al. (eds) Frauen in Konzentrationslagern Bergen-Belsen und Ravensbrück, Bremen 1994; Anette Neumann, “Funktionshaeftlinge im Frauenkonzentrationslager Ravensbrück” in Werner Röhr and Brigitte Berlekamp (eds) Tod oder Überleben? Neue Forschungen zur Geschichte des Konzentrationslagers Ravensbrück. Bulletin für Faschismus- und Weltkriegsforschung, Berlin 2001; Bernhard Strebel, Das KZ Ravensbrück. Geschichte eines Lagerkomplexes, Paderborn 2003, pp. 228-241.

15   Decree of the PKWN of 31 August 1944 Concerning the Punishment of Fascist-Hitlerite Criminals Guilty of Murder and Ill-treatment of the Civilian Population and of Prisoners of War, and the Punishment of Traitors to the Polish Nation, Journal of Laws 1944, no. 4, item 16.

16   Declaration of the Minister of Justice of 11 December 1946 Concerning the Announcement of the Unified Text of the Decree of 31 August 1944 Concerning the Punishment of Fascist-Hitlerite Criminals Guilty of Murder and Ill-treatment of the Civilian Population and of Prisoners of War, and the Punishment of Traitors to the Polish Nation, Journal of Laws 1946, no. 69, item 377.

17   Andrzej Pasek, Przestępstwa okupacyjne w polskim prawie karnym z lat 1944-1956, Wrocław 2002, p. 146.

18   Decree of 3 April 1948 on the Amendment to the Decree of 31 August 1944 Concerning the Punishment of Fascist-Hitlerite Criminals Guilty of Murder and Ill-treatment of the Civilian Population and of Prisoners of War, and the Punishment of Traitors to the Polish Nation (Journal of Laws 1948, no. 18, item 124). For the interpretation of this decree cf.: Pasek, Przestępstwa okupacyjne w polskim prawie karnym, p. 162.

19   Andrzej Rzepliński, “Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej? Sprawy karne oskarżonych o wymordowanie Żydów w Jedwabnem w świetle zasady rzetelnego procesu” in Paweł Machcewicz and Krzysztof Persak (eds), Wokół Jedwabnego. Studia, Vol. I, Warszawa 2002, p. 356.

20   Pasek, Przestępstwa okupacyjne w polskim prawie karnym, pp. 200-203.

21   See: Wanda Sokołowska, “O Marii Bortnowskiej i Biurze Informacji PCK”, Więź 12 (1975), p. 117. The Bortnowska case is also recalled by Bortnowska’s friend from the camp, Karolina Lanckorońska. In her memoirs, published a few years ago, she claims that the charges levelled at Bortnowska after the war were politically motivated (Karolina Lanckorońska, Wspomnienia wojenne, Kraków 2003, p. 329).

22   Indictment against Maria Bortnowska, Public Prosecutor for the District Court in Warsaw, 11 Jun. 1947, State Archive of the Capital City of Warsaw, Milanówek Branch (Archiwum Warszawy, Oddział w Milanówku), Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548.

23   Judgment of the District Court in Warsaw in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 14 Aug. 1947, Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548.

24   Judgment of the Supreme Court (SN), cassation appeal hearing in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 8 Apr. 1948, Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548.

25   Chief Courts Supervisor at the Ministry of Justice to the District Court in Warsaw, 15 Jul. 1948, Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548.

26   Judgment of the SN in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 6 Mar. 1958, Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548.

27   Interview with Krystyna T.

28   Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548: Appeal against the judgment of the District Court in Warsaw of 14 Aug. 1947 in the case of Maria Bortnowska, Warszawa 27 Jan. 1948; Judgment of the SN in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 8 Apr. 1948; Judgment of the SN in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 6 Mar. 1958.

29   Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548: Record of the main hearing in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 5-7, 13-14 Aug. 1947; Sentence of the District Court in Warsaw in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 14 Aug. 1947.

30   Judgment of the District Court in Warsaw in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 14 Aug. 1947, Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548.

31   Ibidem.

32   Judgment of the SN in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 8 Apr. 1948, Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548.

33   See, inter alia, Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548: Executive Board of the PZbWP Branch in Łódź to the Prosecutor of the Special Court in Warsaw, 6 Aug. 1947; Statement of the Presidium of the “Raven-sbrück” club sent to ZG PZbWP, 30 Jun. 1947; Official letter from the Czechoslovak Association of Former Women Political Prisoners of Ravensbrück, 27 Jun. 1947; Statement of Zdeňka Nedvědová-Nejedlá in the case of Maria Bortnowska, 6 Jun. 1947. Cf. also: Minutes of the meeting of the Presidium of the ZG PZbWP, 28 Aug. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 5; Minutes of the meeting of the RN PZbWP, 28 Sep. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 4.

34   Chairwoman of the Association of Former Women Political Prisoners of Ravensbrück, Zdeňka Nedvědová-Nejedlá, to the president of the SN, 3 Apr. 1948, Archiwum Warszawy Oddział w Milanówku, Sąd Okr. w Warszawie (1945-1950) 1548.

35   On the post-war history of the Communist prisoner functionaries from Buchenwald see: Der „gesäuberte” Antifaschismus. Die SED und die roten Kapos von Buchenwald, edited by Lutz Niethammer, Berlin 1994, pp. 77-91; Hansel, Reuter, Das kurze Leben der VVN, pp. 392-411.

36   On the subject of the German Communists in Buchenwald see, inter alia: Hartewig, “Wolf unter Wölfen?” in Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, Vol. 2.

37   Borodziej, “Hitleristische Verbrechen”, p. 415. On the subject of military jurisprudence in Poland in the years 1944-1956 see also: Jerzy Poksiński, “Sądownictwo wojskowe w latach 1944-1956 (Rola i działalność, kadry oraz organizacja)” in idem, „My sędziowie nie od Boga...” Z dziejów Sądownictwa Wojskowego PRL 1944-1956. Materiały i dokumenty, Warszawa 1996, pp. 9-42; Bogdan Musial, “NS-Kriegsverbrecher vor polnischen Gerichten”, Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 47, 1 (1999), pp. 54-56.

38   Record of the main hearing in the case of Jan P., 4 Sep. 1945, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 420; Record of the interrogation of suspect Jan B., 14 Sep. 1945, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 421.

39   Record of the interrogation of suspect Jan P., Provincial Office of State Security (WUBP) in Bydgoszcz, 12 May 1945, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 419; Record of the interrogation of suspect Jan B., WUBP in Bydgoszcz, 13 May 1945, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 421.

40   Record of the interrogation of suspect Jan P., WUBP in Bydgoszcz, 12 May 1945, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 419.

41   Judgment in the case of John P., Jozef R., Wacław K., Kazimierz K., Wanda K., Gerda S., Elżbieta B., Ewa P., Jenny-Wanda B., Aleksy D., Franciszek S., Tadeusz K., Jan P., Jan B., Erna B., 31 May 1946, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 423.

42   Rzepliński, “Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej?”.

43   Pasek, Przestępstwa okupacyjne w polskim prawie karnym, p. 173.

44   AIPN: Sąd Okr. w Toruniu, Wydz. Zamiejscowy we Włocławku 70; Sąd Okr. w Białym–stoku 141; Sąd Okr. w Szczecinie 35; SSK w Gdańsku 417-423; Sąd Okr. w Krakowie 262, 471-471a, 498-498a; Sąd Okr. w Radomiu 217, 102; Sąd Okr. w Trzciance 56; Sąd Okr. w Ostrowie Wielkopolskim 33; Sąd Okr. w Gliwicach 73, 83; Sąd Okr. w Jeleniej Górze 149. Archiwum Warszawy (ekspozytura w Milanówku), Sąd Okr. w Warszawie 1945-19501548. AAN, SN 2/9251. In the case of one of those acquitted, an extraordinary appeal was brought before the SN, but I was unable to establish the subsequent fate of the accused. Four of the accused were women. One of those standing trial was an ethnic German, two had signed the German People’s List, one had been sent to the camp as a Jew, and the other accused were Poles, according to the court files.

45   Stanisław Nogaj, Gusen, p. 38.

46   Ibid., p. 42.

47   Jerzy Putrament, “Notatki o Oświęcimiu”, Odrodzenie, 6 Jun. 1948.

48   List of war criminals from the Auschwitz concentration camp extradited from the American Zone as at 25 Feb. 1947, AIPN, Polska Misja Wojskowa—Badanie Zbrodni Wojennych (PMW-BZW) 173; Judgment in the case of Roman Zenkteller, District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 20 Nov. 1948, AAN, SN 2/9251; Sentence of the SN. Cassation appeal hearing in the case of Roman Zenkteller, 5 Oct. 1949, AAN, SN 2/9251; Official letter from the Minister of Justice to the Polish Military Mission affiliated to the Office of the Chief of Counsel for War Crimes at the Control Council in Germany, 26 Jul. 1950, AIPN, PMW-BZW 608.

49   AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 417-423.

50   AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Krakowie 262: Indictment against Feliks W., 12 Sep. 1946; Judgment in the case of Feliks W. issued by the District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 29 Oct. 1947.

51   AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Białymstoku 141: Indictment against Józef K., 26 Aug. 1947; Judgment of the District Court in Białystok in the case of Józef K., 18 Dec. 1947; Ministry of Justice to the District Court in Białystok, 21 Apr. 1948.

52   AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Ostrowie Wielkopolskim 33: Indictment against Józef Koł. Prosecutor, District Court in Jelenia Góra, 31 Jul. 1947; Record of the main hearing in the case of Józef Koł., 22 Nov. 1947; Judgment of the SN. Cassation appeal hearing, 12 Mar. 1948; Information from the Prosecutor, District Court in Ostrów Wielkopolski, for the Criminal Division of the District Court, 29 Jul. 1948.

53   Eugenia Kocwa, “Prawo życia”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 8 Jul. 1945.

54   R[ene] Skalska, “Nie wszyscy funkcyjni byli katami”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Apr. 1948.

55   See, inter alia: Record of the main hearing in the case of Jan P., 4 Sep. 1945, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 420; Judgment in the case of Roman Zenkteller, District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 20 Nov. 1948, AAN, SN 2/9251.

56   Roman Frister, “W sprawie Zenktellera. Dyskusja trwa...”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Aug. 1948.

57   Record of the main hearing in the case of Jan P., 4 Sep. 1945, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 420.

58   Indictment against Józef K. Prosecutor, District Court in Jelenia Góra, 31 Jul. 1947, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Ostrowie Wielkopolskim 33.

59   Sentence in the case of Józef Koł. District Court in Ostrów Wielkopolski, 22 Nov. 1947, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Ostrowie Wielkopolskim 33.

60   Franciszek Piechowiak, “Sprawa doktora Zenktelera. Zdolny lekarz”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Jul. 1947. The name Zenkteler/Zenkteller is written in different ways in different documents.

61   The Sauna was a building in Birkenau where the incoming inmates were shaved, tattooed, “bathed” and given prisoners’ uniforms.

62   Henryk Korotyński, “Kiedy będziemy znali Oświęcim?”, Odrodzenie, 24 Aug. 1947.

63   Leon Piechna, “Jeszcze sprawa Zenktellera. Dyskusja trwa...”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Aug. 1948.

64   Judgment in the case of Roman Zenkteller, District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 20 Nov. 1948, AAN, SN 2/9251.

65   Record of the witness interrogation of Józef Cyrankiewicz, 13 Jul. 1945, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Krakowie 262.

66   Record of the witness interrogation of Stanisław Kłodziński, 10 Nov. 1945, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Krakowie 262.

67   Judgment in the case of Roman Zenkteller, District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 20 Nov. 1948, AAN, SN 2/9251.

68   Cassation appeal by the prosecutor at the District Court in Kraków filed with the SN Criminal Chamber (Centre for Field Sessions), 4 May 1949, AAN, SN 2/9251.

69   “Sądzimy Zentkellera”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Jul. 1948 (statement by a former prisoner Marossany).

70   Record of the main hearing, 18 Dec. 1947, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Białymstoku 141.

71   “Sądzimy Zentkellera”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Jul. 1948.

72   Record of the witness interrogation of Stanisław Kłodziński, 10 Nov. 1945, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Krakowie 262.

73   Albin Mazurkiewicz [letter], “Jeszcze w sprawie Zenktellera. Dyskusja trwa...”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Sep. 1948.

74   Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jun. 1947: “Winien czy nie winien? Sprawa doktora Zenktelera”; “Dzieje teatru K.B. w Brzezince” and Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Jul. 1948: “Cel nie uświęca środków. A jednak...”; “Sądzimy Zenktellera”.

75   Janusz Kledzik [letter], “Jeszcze w sprawie Zenktellera. Dyskusja trwa...”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Sep. 1948.

76   “Sądzimy Zentkellera”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Jul. 1948.

77   Judgment in the case of Roman Zenkteller, District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 20 Nov. 1948, AAN, SN 2/9251.

78   Record of the main hearing in the case of Jan P., 14 Sep. 1945, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 420.

79   Henryk Korotyński, “Echa w sprawie Zenktelera”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Jun. 1947; “Winien czy nie winien? Sprawa doktora Zenktelera”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jun. 1947; Roman Frister, “W sprawie Zenktellera. Dyskusja trwa...”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-31 Aug. 1948.

80   Judgment in the case of Roman Zenkteller, District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 20 Nov. 1948, AAN, SN 2/9251; Cassation appeal by the prosecutor at the District Court in Kraków filed with the SN Criminal Chamber (Centre for Field Sessions), 4 May 1949, AAN, SN 2/9251.

81   Record of the suspect interrogation of Feliks W., 6 Jul. 1945, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Krakowie 262.

82   Record of the main hearing in the case of Józef Koł., District Court in Ostrów Wielkopolski, 22 Nov. 1947, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Ostrowie Wielkopolskim 33.

83   Judgment in the case of John P., Jozef R., Wacław K., Kazimierz K., Wanda K., Gerda S., Elżbieta B., Ewa P., Jenny-Wanda B., Aleksy D., Franciszek Sz., Tadeusz K., Jan P., Jan B., Erna B., staff members and prisoners of Stutthof, 31 May 1946, AIPN, SSK w Gdańsku 423.

84   Declaration of the Executive Board of the Białystok Branch of the PZbWP, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Białymstoku 141.

85   Opinion regarding the pardon of Józef K. District Court in Białystok in closed session, 13 Mar. 1948, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Białymstoku 141.

86   Mazurkiewicz [letter], “Jeszcze w sprawie Zenktellera. Dyskusja trwa...”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Sep. 1948.

87   Record of the main hearing in the case of Jan P., 24 Sep. 1945, AIPN, SSK Gdańsk 420.

88   Indictment against Fryderyk P., 28 Aug. 1947, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Szczecinie.

89   Judgment in the case of Roman Zenkteller, District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 20 Nov. 1948, AAN, SN 2/9251; Andrzej Kobyłecki, “Sprawa doktora Zengtelera”, Wolni Ludzie, 20 May 1947; Eugeniusz Zatorski [letter], “Jeszcze w sprawie Zenktellera. Dyskusja trwa...”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Sep. 1948.

90   Cassation appeal in the case of Józef Koł., 20 Dec. 1947, AIPN, Sąd Okr. w Ostrowie Wielkopolskim 33.

91   During one of the last selections conducted in Section BIIf of the hospital, on 16 October 1944, 600 Jewish prisoners were sent to their deaths. See: Auschwitz 1940-1945. Central Issues in the History of the Camp, edited by Wacław Długoborski and Franciszek Piper, Vol. 2, Oświęcim 2000, p. 326.

92   Andrzej Rzepliński, “Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej?”, p. 458.

93   Judgment in the case of Roman Zenkteller, District Court in Kraków, VII Criminal Division, 20 Nov. 1948, AAN, SN 2/9251.

94   Jerzy Andrzejewski, Popiół i diament, Warszawa 1948 (first edition), pp. 329-330.

95   Krystyna Wigura, “Sprawa Kosseckiego. Na marginesie powieści Andrzejewskiego ‘Popiół i diament’”, Wolni Ludzie, 15-30 Apr. 1948.

96   Kossak-Szczucka, Z otchłani; Seweryna Szmaglewska, Dymy nad Birkenau, Warszawa 1945; Krystyna Żywulska, Przeżyłam Oświęcim, Warszawa 1946.

97   For more on the subject of the polemic surrounding Tadeusz Borowski’s prose see: Tadeusz Drewnowski, Ucieczka z kamiennego świata (O Tadeuszu Borowskim), Warszawa 1972, pp. 132-138; Dmitrów, Niemcy i okupacja hitlerowska w oczach Polaków, pp. 115-126; Andrzej Werner, Foreword to Borowski, Utwory wybrane. Another attempt to convey the essence and the roots of the conflict between Borowski and Kossak in the context of the contemporaneous Polish war literature is: Dariusz Kulesza, Dwie prawdy. Zofia Kossak i Tadeusz Borowski wobec obrazu wojny w polskiej prozie lat 1944-1948, Białystok 2006.

98   Twórczość 4 (1946): Tadeusz Borowski, “Dzień na Harmenzach” (“A Day at Harmenz”); Krystyn Olszewski (in reality also Borowski), “Transport Sosnowiec-Będzin” (the subsequent title of this short story was “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen”).

99   Editors’ note, Twórczość 4 (1946), p. 42.

100 “List otwarty do Zarządu Głównego ZZLP”, Dziś i Jutro 6 (1947). Cited after: Drewnowski, Ucieczka z kamiennego świata, p. 133.

101 Paweł Jasienica, “Warto pogadać”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 2 Mar. 1947.

102 Perhaps the author was thinking of the trial of the Auschwitz staff, which was held in Kraków on 24 November–16 December 1947, though prisoner functionaries were not among the accused in this trial.

103 S. Poszumski, “Fałsz, cynizm, krzywda... Wspomnienia z obozu godzące w godność więźnia i męczennika”, Słowo Powszechne, 14 Jun. 1947. Quoted after: Drewnowski, Ucieczka z kamiennego świata, p. 134.

104 Henryk Korotyński, “Kiedy będziemy znali Oświęcim?”, Odrodzenie, 24 Aug. 1947.

105 Paweł Jasienica, “Spowiedź udręczonych”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 5 Oct. 1947.

106 Kossak-Szczucka, Z otchłani, pp. 80, 140-149.

107 Ibid., p. 149.

108 Stanisław Wygodzki, “Kaufering—Obóz II”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jul. 1947.

109 Andrzej Kobyłecki, “O świat dobrego człowieka (artykuł dyskusyjny)”, Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 May 1948.

110 Gustaw Morcinek, “Człowiek w obozie”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 May 1947.

111 Kossak-Szczucka, Z otchłani, p. 154.

112 Ibid., pp. 148-149.

113 Ibid., pp. 115-116.

114 Ibid., p. 152.

115 Nogaj, Gusen, p. 38.

116 The period between 1926 and 1939, for most of which Poland was under the authoritarian rule of Marshal Piłsudski.

117 Jerzy Andrzejewski, “Zaraz po wojnie” (12), Odrodzenie, 20 Apr. 1947. Cf. also: Jerzy Andrzejewski, Asche und Diamant, edited by Andreas Lawaty and Wolfram Schäfer, 1984, p. 392.

118 Andrzejewski, Popiół i diament, Warszawa 1948, p. 143. In the 1954 Polish edition of Ashes and Diamonds, the author is very explicit that the “bankruptcy of the petit bourgeois” is meant (Popiół i diament, Warszawa 1954, p. 129).

119 Jerzy Putrament, “Notatki o Oświęcimiu”, Odrodzenie, 6 Jun. 1948.

120 Tadeusz Borowski, Pożegnanie z Marią, Warszawa 1948 (postdated). See: Borowski, Pisma (Proza), p. 411.

121 Paweł Jasienica, “Którędy wyjście?”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 11 Jul. 1948.

122 Juliusz Kydryński, “Biała noc”, Odrodzenie, 1 Apr. 1945.

123 “Bubi (Historia prawdziwa)”, A.K., Wolni Ludzie, 15 Sep. 1947.

124 Werner, Zwyczajna apokalipsa, p. 123.

125 Henryk Korotyński, “Kiedy będziemy znali Oświęcim?”, Odrodzenie, 24 Aug. 1947.

126 Henryk Korotyński, “O ‘całą prawdę’ o Oświęcimiu”, Wolni Ludzie, 1 Sep. 1947.

127 “T. Borowski, ‘Pożegnanie z Marią’” (MEWA), Wolni Ludzie, 1-15 Jun. 1948.

128 Quoted after: Zofia Nałkowska, Dzienniki 1945-1954, compiled by Hanna Kirchner, Part I, Warszawa 2000, p. 58 (note).

129 Memorandum of parliamentary deputy Jerzy Kornacki regarding the Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Auschwitz, 28 Apr. 1945, AAN, URM 5/11.

130 Official letter from the Minister of Art and Culture to the Prime Minister, Edward Osóbka-Morawski, 23 May 1945, AAN, URM 5/11.

131 Minutes of the first meeting of the GKBZNwP, 9 May 1945. Cited after: Główna Komisja Badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce i jej oddziały terenowe w 1945 roku, pp. 20-22.

132 Minutes of the meeting of the RN PZbWP, 28 Sep. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 4.

133 Minutes of the meeting of the Presidium of the ZG PZbWP, 28 Aug. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 5; Minutes of the meeting of the RN PZbWP 5, 28 Sep. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 4.

134 Ludwik Rajewski, “O prawdę o obozach koncentracyjnych”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Nov. 1947.

135 Jerzy Rawicz, “Nie wszyscy byli bohaterami”, Robotnik, 20 Jan. 1948.

136 Circular no. 1 from the GKW to the executive boards of the PZbWP branches (Instructions for vetting members), 31 Jul. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 28; Instruction for vetting committees of local groups and branches of the PZbWP, 1 Dec. 1947, AAN, PZbWP 28. Cf. also: Reports of the branch vetting committees, AAN, PZbWP 18.

137 Regulations of the GKW PZbWP, 21 Jun. 1946, AAN, PZbWP 28.

138 Circular from the ZG PZbWP no. 8/48, 9 Jul. 1948, AAN, PZbWP 14.

139 Drewnowski, Ucieczka z kamiennego świata, p. 144.

140 See, inter alia: Za Wolność i Lud: Mieczysław Kowalski, “Buchenwaldzki Krankenbau” (1 Sep. 1949); Jerzy Rawicz, “Aufsicht” (15 Jan. 1950); Teofil Witek, “Pod sztandarem proletariackiego internacjonalizmu. Powstanie w Buchenwaldzie” (1-15 Apr. 1950); Samuel Willenberg, “Treblinka w ogniu” (1-15 Apr. 1950).

141 Tadeusz Borowski, “Rozmowy”, Odrodzenie, 19 Feb. 1950.

142 Anna Synoradzka, Andrzejewski, Kraków 1997, p. 88.

143 Drewnowski, Ucieczka z kamiennego świata, p. 143.

144 Film: Ashes and Diamonds, dir. Andrzej Wajda, screenplay Jerzy Andrzejewski 1958.

145 Andrzejewski, Popiół i diament, Warszawa 1948, p. 331.

146 Jerzy Andrzejewski, “Notatki. Wyznania i rozmyślania pisarza”, Odrodzenie, 29 Jan. 1950.

147 Synoradzka, Andrzejewski, pp. 116-118.

148 Jerzy Andrzejewski, Popiół i diament, Warszawa 1954, p. 296. Cf. also notes to: Andrzejwski, Asche und Diamant, pp. 398-401.

149 Kubicki, Zbrodnie wojenne w świetle prawa polskiego, pp. 179-184; Pasek, Przestępstwa okupacyjne w polskim prawie karnym, p. 173.

150 Hansel, Reuter, Das kurze Leben der VVN, pp. 350-376.

151 Bruno Apitz, Nackt unter Wölfen, Halle a. S. 1958.

152 See: Susanne Handke’s afterword to: Bruno Apitz, Nackt unter Wölfen, revised edition, edited by Susanne Handke and Angela Drescher, Berlin 2012.

153 Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, New York 1989, pp. 36-69.

154 Bachmann, Długi cień Trzeciej Rzeszy, p. 37.

155 Ibid., pp. 54-55.

156 Ibid., pp. 101-102.

157 Paweł Jasienica, “Spowiedź udręczonych”, Tygodnik Powszechny, 5 Oct. 1947.

158 Stanisław Wygodzki, “Kaufering—Obóz II”, Wolni Ludzie, 15 Jul. 1947.