Dr Adam Cyra about the first transport [Poles] to Auschwitz: Not even a half of them survived

One of the symbols of the Polish extermination in KL Auschwitz is the first convoy of the Polish political prisoners. On June 14, 1940, Germans deported a group of 728 Poles from the prison in Tarnów to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Since year 2006, by the decision of the Lower House of the Parliament in Poland, June 14 is celebrated as the National Day of Remembrance for the Victims of German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps. Among the prisoners of the first convoy were soldiers of the September Campaign, members of the underground independence organizations, secondary school pupils and students. They received tattoos with numbers from 31 to 758. Numbers from 1 to 30 were given to German criminal prisoners, who arrived from KL Sachsenhausen camp on May 29th, 1940. They were set up to do different functions such as capos and block leaders, who were in charge of a prisoner barracks. The prisoners of the first transport descended from the intelligentsia and were mostly young people. Some of them were of Jewish origin. Their fate was portrayed by Irena Strzelecka in the essay entitled ” Men – transport on the June 14, 1940 – 728 persons with numbers from 31 to 758 ” which was published in the ” Memory Book. Transport of Poles to Kl Auschwitz from Cracow and other places of the Southern Poland 1940-1944 „, Warsaw – Oświęcim 2002. Many prisoners of this transport, in the fall of 1939 and the winter and spring of 1940, were arrested in different places in southern Poland, while they attempted to reach   Hungary in order to join the Polish Army, which was being formed in France by general Wladyslaw Sikorski.

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Some were arrested as soon as they crossed the border on the Slovakian territory. The Nazis contemptuously called them ” tourists” or „borderers „. Kazimierz Albin (tattooed with number 118) was one of them. He was the one who as a chairman of the Main Society for the Preservation of Oswiecim in the 90’s sought to begin work on the above – mentioned ” Memory Book”. Another was Jerzy Bielecki (No. 243), the author of well-known book ” Whoever saves one life……”

Among those arrested were also organizers of the transfer to Hungary of volunteers to the Polish branches in France who were mainly from or around Zakopane. Those were Jozef Chramiec – Chramiosek (No. 101), representative of Poland in classic skiing in 1932 and 1936 Olympics, executed at the Death Wall on August 24th as well as Bronislaw Czech (No. 349), excellent skier, Olympian, perished in a camp hospital on June 5th 1944. A significant group of this transport were also members of secret resistance organizations operating in Sadecczyzna and the surrounding areas. For example, Stefan Syrek (No 238) who was very active in the Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ). Syrek, fought in the Legions during World War I, and over 20 years later in the invasion of Poland in 1939. After returning to Tarnów, after Soviet and German captivity, he joined ZWZ. He was arrested while recruiting new members. He died in camp gas chambers on August 8th, 1942. Captain Tadeusz Paolone (No. 329), in the camp Lisowski ) was also arrested for the activity in ZWZ, he was the founder of a conspiracy in Tymbark near Limanowa, executed at the Death Wall on October 11th , 1943.

In the first convoy of people there were a large group of patriotic youth who were arrested as a part of the action A-B against Polish intelligence. Among them were many scouts such as Jozef Stos( ( No. 752) or Kazimierz Zajac ( NR 261) . The group also included the brothers Emil (No 377) and Stanislaw (No. 132) Baranski from Dynow, who perished on May 3rd, 1945 in Lubecka Bay on the sunken ship „Cap Arcona” which was bombarded by mistake by English pilots.

Some of those delivered in the first transport were arrested during street roundups. Among them Janusz Pogonowski (in the camp Skrzetuski, NR 253) from Cracow, hanged on July 19, 1943. Before his death, he kicked the stool from under him interrupting the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss reading his death sentence and he hung on a noose thus protesting against the lawlessness prevailing in the concentration camp. Arrested Poles were transported from different prisons and detention camps in Poland to the prison in Tarnów, where they were not interrogated any more. However, the condition of incarceration in the new location were horrible, food deprivation, everyone awaited change from day to day. On June 14, 1940, prisoners were ordered to leave their prison and form columns of 100. They were escorted to the train station in Tarnów, where under extremely tight security they got on passenger trains bound for Cracow. At the station in Cracow they witnessed the joy of uniformed German soldiers enjoying the conquest of the capital of France on that day. Elated SS and soldiers of Wehrmacht were yelling ” Paris is conquered ” and ” Paris capitulated “.

 After a few hours of driving, the prisoners noticed the railway station in Oświęcim, from where after a short stop the train was steered to the sidetracks next to the pre-war buildings of the Tobacco Monopoly. Everyone was forced to leave the carriages. Beating them and shouting, SS men and German criminal prisoners, brought to KL Auschwitz almost a month earlier, rushed them into the yard of one of the buildings of the Tobacco Monopoly fenced with barbed wire. Soon the new arrivals were placed on the ground floor and the first floor of this building. On June 15, 1940, a period of quarantine for prisoners began, designed to break them physically and mentally. After a few days, during which SS men and German criminals raced to outdo each other by inventing all sorts of murderous exercises and various torments and tortures, all prisoners were totally wiped out. In July 1940, prisoners from the first transport were transferred from the Tobacco Monopoly building to the nearby pre-war barracks of the Polish Army. They took three barracks, which were numbered from 1 to 3. They had previously been given prisoner clothes and some also received wooden clogs.

They all slept in prisoners’ chambers, where they could lie on one side only on straw mattresses squeezed to the limit. After the quarantine, a significant number of the prisoners of the first transport worked on further expansion of the camp. Many of them were also employed carrying out pointless tasks, e.g. digging trenches and then backfilling them. Only a few managed to get a job in the camp offices, e.g. in the prisoner registration office, but only those who knew German had the chance to have such an employment. The first prisoners, who later blended in with prisoners from other transports arriving at the camp, were especially merited in the underground conspiracy in KL Auschwitz, established by Captain Witold Pilecki (who was brought to the camp on September 22, 1940 by transport from Warsaw under the name Tomasz Serafiński, (No. 4859). The members of this organization, operating under the name of the Military Organization Union, were:

Stanisław Barański,
Józef Chramiec, Aleksander Fusek (No. 775),
Mieczysław Januszewski (No. 711),
Karol Karp (No. 626),
Jan Komski (in the camp Baraś, No. 564),
Witold Kosztowny (No. 672),
Stanisław Kożuch (No. 325) ),
Jan Gąsior-Machnowski (No. 724),
Tadeusz Myszkowski (No. 593),
Edward Nowak (No. 447),
Eugeniusz Obojski (No. 194),
Tadeusz Paolone,
Tadeusz Pietrzykowski (No. 77, a well-known Polish boxer),
Zygmunt Sobolewski (No. 88),
Czesław Sowul (No. 167),
Alfred Stössel (No. 435),
Antoni Suchecki (No. 595),
Marian Toliński (No. 490),
Zygmunt Turzański (No. 615),
Jan Zięba (No. 66)
and Jerzy Żarnowiecki (No. 616).

Prisoners from the first transport, initiated escapes from the camp. Tadeusz Wiejowski (No. 220) the first prisoner fled on July 6, 1940; he was captured after a while and murdered. Later on, 26 prisoners escaped. Some of them then fought in the Home Army partisan units. Dozens of prisoners (so far, the number of 76 prisoners has been established) were released from the camp mainly due to the efforts of families who bribed influential Germans. Of the 728 people brought on June 14, 1940. to KL Auschwitz, at least 227 prisoners were killed in this camp, and at least 266 of them were evacuated to other German camps, of which no fewer than 61 were killed there. About 300 prisoners from the first transport survived the war. Every year, on June 14, they came to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum to remember their colleagues who sacrificed their lives here and to give tribute to all the victims of this largest German extermination camp. None of them are alive today. Extermination camp for Poles On the grounds of ​​the former Nazi Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, the only religious symbol commemorating the martyrdom of Poles, almost all Christians, is the cross in the post-camp gravel pit located outside the fence of the former parent camp in Oświęcim, i.e. KL Auschwitz I. In this gravel pit during brutal labor, prisoners from the penal camp died in large numbers, mainly Poles and Polish Jews, among whom there were also Catholics. This cross is also situated very close to Block 11, called the Block of Death. In the courtyard of this block, at the Wall of Executions, the Germans shot at least several thousand Poles.

The aforementioned cross was an element of the altar from the first John Paul II visit to Poland in June 1979. It was at the site of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp that the Pope celebrated the Holy Mass. In 1988, with the consent of the Catholic Church, this cross was removed from the location to a gravel pit during a procession. Outside of Poland – this Polish and non-Jewish martyrdom – is still little known. Therefore, it should be constantly reminded that KL Auschwitz-Birkenau is not – like the sites of mass extermination of Jews in Bełżec or Sobibór – only and exclusively a Jewish cemetery. In the first part of KL Auschwitz, i.e. in the main camp in Oświęcim, there were maybe „only” several thousand Jews exterminated. This represents a few percent of the total number of about a million Jews who died primarily in gas chambers three kilometers away in the second part of the KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, i.e. in Brzezinka (about 900,000). The construction in the latter part of the camp began in October 1941, and it was there that not only Jews, but also Poles, Roma people, Soviet prisoners of war and prisoners of other nationalities died together as registered prisoners. Jews were primarily murdered in the Birkenau gas chambers. They also constituted half of the registered prisoners (about 200,000) imprisoned in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau and in about 40 other sub-camps. Let us not forget that the other half of the registered prisoners in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau were mainly Poles (about 140,000), Roma (over 20,000), Soviet prisoners of war (about 12,000) and prisoners of other nationalities (several thousand). Poles constituted 35 percent all prisoners included in the camp records, and also played a special role in the camp resistance movement. In addition to that, about 10,000 Poles and about 3,000 Soviet prisoners of war, who were also murdered in KL were not registered in the camp records.

Initially, the German Nazi camp in Oświęcim was a place of execution almost exclusively for the Poles themselves. First of all, representatives of the Polish intelligentsia, members of the Polish underground movement and Poles caught in round-ups, as well as a small number of Polish Jews brought in along with the Poles. The mass extermination of the Jewish population began in the gas chambers of Birkenau in the spring of 1942. At the same time, Polish transports were still directed to KL Auschwitz-Birkenau and that was so until the end of the camp’s existence.

During those years, inhabitants of villages from the Zamość region (over 1300 people) and the population of insurgent Warsaw (about 13 thousand) were brought there. It should be noted that in the Zamość region in December 1942, the plan to mass deport Poles to the Auschwitz extermination camp began. Fortunately, in the spring of 1943 due to the situation on the fronts, the Germans abandoned further deportation of Poles from these areas to KL Auschwitz. Poles were brought to the camp throughout its existence, both from the General Government and the Polish western and northern territories incorporated into the Reich during the occupation. Poles from the Galician district – from Lviv – also came to KL Auschwitz.

Over the past ten years, employees of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim developed and published more than a dozen volumes of detailed publications of Memorial Books devoted to Polish transports of men, women and children from the Warsaw (about 26,000 people), Krakow (about 18,000 people), Radom (around 16,000 people) and Lublin districts (over 7,000 people).

The Books of Remembrance of Poles present a valuable source of material that has been developed thanks to the dedicated work of many people, and these help the tragic fate of Polish prisoners in Auschwitz not to be forgotten. However, there are some source gaps, as the SS destroyed some of the camp documentation in the face of the defeat of the Third Reich. This means that the full list of Poles deported to this camp cannot be restored. For this reason, historians are unable to definitively and truthfully answer the question: how many Polish prisoners were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau? The state of knowledge about the tragic history of this camp gives us only an estimated number of Poles who lost their lives there. From among 140,000 Poles imprisoned in this camp around 100,000 did not survive. They died in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau (according to an estimated calculation of about 75,000) or after being transported from this camp deep into Germany to other Nazi concentration camps (several or tens of thousands of Poles). On the other hand, this issue can also be viewed in a different way, pointing that about 400,000 were killed in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau sub-camps. Polish citizens: Poles (about 75,000) and Polish Jews (about 300,000), which is one third of those murdered. The number of all victims of this largest extermination camp was at least 1.1 million people. It is also important to remember the extermination of over 20 thousand Gypsies in KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It is not widely known that for Poles – as for Jews, as well as for Roma, mostly Christians, this camp is a symbol of extermination. There was no other Nazi camp in which so many Jews, Poles and Roma perished.

Dr. Adam Cyra

The author is an elder curator of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and author of books dedicated to KL Auschwitz and Calvary Captain Witold Pilecki.