Resistance Reconsidered: The Women of the Political Department at Auschwitz Birkenau
The other women in the Political Department told this story very differently; in fact, it becomes clear upon closer assessment that they did not agree with Rosenthal in her positive opinion of Boger at all. Her reasons for painting an almost benevolent picture of Boger were initially unclear, for nobody else who came into contact with him did so. However, throughout her testimony she gave indications that she had been profoundly traumatized by her experiences at Auschwitz and was in fact still quite fearful. At one point she stated that "it has just been pointed out to me I can actually only say very little about the occurrences in the Political Department. This is, first of all, to be blamed on my bad memory and the huge holes in my recollections, as I have already mentioned. On top of that, because of my disposition I am a very frightened person and I was always very reserved."19 It became painfully clear to the prosecution in Stuttgart that overwhelming fear was the motivating factor behind her reticence about Boger's actions. Her husband, also a survivor, wrote a letter to the prosecution three months after her interrogation, in which he stated:
I told you my thoughts about this before the interrogation on the telephone and unfortunately, they proved to be correct. As a consequence of the interrogation, (I must assume) my wife had another serious gallbladder attack. I would therefore like to stress again, as I already discussed with police detective Weida, that under no circumstances can a further interrogation about the Boger case, or an appearance by my wife in court occur.... The detective assured me that my wife's name - maiden and married - will not appear in public. You will certainly understand, sir, that my wife cannot be put in danger of becoming the object of slander of the undoubtedly still existing SS organizations.20
Interestingly, Rosenthal did appear at the trial where she testified about Boger some four years later. Her reasons for her change of heart are not documented in the trial files, and her testimony in the trial itself was also quite vague. She did return for a second interview in December 1959, in which she reiterated her fears about even thinking of her time in Auschwitz, her inability to work through all she had witnessed, her terror to even cross the hall to use the toilet, her astonishment at the memory of the other women from the Political Department and her desire only to be truthful. Her tone was almost self-condemnatory, and she appeared rather ashamed of the weakness of her own character.
Rosenthal's testimony about Boger, however vague and unhelpful, was clearly influenced by paranoia about the man almost fifteen years after the end of the Holocaust. In the end, her words worked in favour of the prosecutors because they showed the terrifying influence of Boger and his effect on those working around him.21 Although the psychological effects of his behaviour on his secretary did not qualify as concrete evidence of his murderous actions, her reactions were noted by the court as part of the case against the accused. They also demonstrate two important aspects of life for women at Auschwitz: first, there was constant terror even in this fairly privileged job, which made all forms of resistance even more extraordinary. Second, it can often be difficult to determine what the whole truth was. Rosenthal functions as an important introduction to the difficulties faced by these women despite their more privileged positions.
The other women called upon by the prosecution were in general much more prepared to address the crimes of the men of the Political Department. Three, Sylvia Normann, Jenny Schaner and Raya Kagan, had in fact written memoirs and published books on their experiences; Dounia Wasserstrom had written pamphlets in French and had distributed them in France. Their recollections often made such profound impressions on the prosecution and the court that they almost became "myths" - legendary Auschwitz stories which would come to signify the brutality of the camp and be retold by many survivors in an almost folkloric manner. Some witnesses from the Political Department were rather vague in their pre-trial testimonies and then told much more detailed and horrifying stories in the courtroom, leaving the prosecution baffled. This led to further investigation, in which accounts given by the witness only in the courtroom would have to be verified to the finest detail.
A good example of this was the testimony of Dounia Wasserstrom, quoted at the beginning of this essay. Wasserstrom was a survivor residing in Paris who was interviewed by the West German embassy in Paris using a strict list of questions prepared for them by the Ministry of Justice of Baden-Württemberg in March 1959. In Auschwitz, Wasserstrom had been an interpreter in the Political Department, working chiefly for SS-Rottenführer Draser, but also for the defendants Boger and Broad. Wasserstrom made a strong impression on the interrogators in Paris, who described her as very calm and composed while at the same time warm and sensitive; they in fact decided not to ask her about the "Boger swing" because it was clear to them that she was controlling her emotions only with the greatest of care.22 In her testimony Wasserstrom reported seeing the beating and torturing of prisoners countless times by many of the defendants, and stated that in most cases these prisoners died as a result of the abuse. Her statements were generally quite vague and she mentioned only cursorily an incident in which she remembered Boger beating and then shooting a Russian prisoner; she always referred to the pamphlets she wrote on the subject of Auschwitz for further proof of her experiences at the camp. Indeed, correspondence between Hermann Langbein of the IAC and the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Ludwigsburg after her interrogation showed that the prosecutor's office was quite unhappy with the results of her interview.23
Despite the vagueness of her pre-trial testimony, Wasserstrom was called as a witness at the trial itself due to the nature of her position at Auschwitz. The decision to put her on the stand was a wise one, for her recollections proved to be some of the most important and sensational in the entire trial. In her cross-examination by some of the defense attorneys, Wasserstrom suddenly related the story of the little boy with the apple.
The defense attorneys naturally pounced upon this new piece of testimony, questioning Wasserstrom as to why she did not relate something so important in her pre-trial testimony or in any of the numerous pamphlets she wrote after the war. Her response was simple: "That is a very private matter. Since that moment I no longer wanted to have children."24 The judge and the public prosecutors also repeatedly questioned her about her silence in the pre-trial phase; her response always referred to the fact that she found it embarrassing that she could no longer look at children without crying and no longer wanted to have a child. For this reason she withheld the information.
This story was of course picked up by the press because of its sheer emotional and sensational impact. The distasteful, shocking headline from the Frankfurter Rundschau the next day read "Witness: Boger Splattered a Child on the Wall." The paper reported on the eerie silence and horror in the courtroom as Wasserstrom testified. It also reported one of Boger's extremely rare retorts in his own defense. Replying to the judge's inquiry as to whether he had anything to say, Boger calmly said: "to the matter of the child I have nothing to say. That is a ridiculous invention, maybe something for the press."25
The story had to be verified by virtually ever other woman in the Political Department who had contact with Wasserstrom after the war. In his interrogation of Raja Kagan, Judge Hofmeyer referred to the incident in an attempt to determine when exactly Wasserstrom had first mentioned it to the others, for if it was only a subject of conversation directly prior to the trial it would have to be discounted. Kagan, however, backed up Wasserstrom's story, repeating it as her friend had told it to her. Hofmeyer then asked her:
H: When did she tell you the story?
Such discrepancies between pre-trial and trial interrogations demonstrate the dilemma faced by the court in its attempt to get the "whole picture" of the activities of the defendants at Auschwitz and Birkenau. They also show, however, the extraordinarily delicate nature of witness testimony and the varying traumatic effects of the experiences of each person who survived to testify. The notion of clear-cut, straightforward testimonies about the specific actions of each individual defendant was extinguished long before the trial began and proved to be frustrating within the confines of the Federal German Criminal Code.
The testimonies of Rosenthal, Wasserstrom, Kagan and Schaner demonstrate that these women found different ways to sustain themselves and others. They provide in their testimony insight into the general behaviour of the rest of the secretaries. In some way, all resisted, and what greater form of resistance than saving or prolonging lives in a death factory? Raja Kagan's testimony in both the pre-trial interrogations and the courtroom itself was indispensable for its meticulous, well-detailed accounts of life for women in the Political Department. Born in Russia and raised in Vilna, Kagan was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 while studying in Paris. She was transported almost immediately to Auschwitz and within two days of her arrival there was sent to work in the prisoner registry of the Political Department because of her language abilities. Kagan was determined to recollect to her best ability all that she could from her experiences at Auschwitz. In both her pre-trial and trial testimony she stated that it was her driving purpose in surviving to bear witness to the crimes of the SS guards at Auschwitz.27 This is an example of a form of spiritual resistance to the degradations of the camp. The courts used her 1947 memoir, "Hell's Office Women," extensively, and sections of it appeared translated from the Hebrew into German in the pre-trial files. In her pre-trial testimony Kagan recounted the extreme danger facing these women. When discussing her first day of work, she said that
before we started our work, we were welcomed by the head of the Political Department, SS-Untersturmführer Grabner, and we were especially told that we had to adhere to the strictest silence on the nature of our activities. With that he threatened us, that we would be killed, if we spoke to our fellow prisoners about our work. Grabner warned us that we were not to give anything away by our expressions either.28The prosecution was largely interested in the details she could provide about Boger, and her memoirs include many specific descriptions of his actions. In the form of story telling, Kagan recounted her first knowledge of the "Boger swing:"
One day Henny came to us... and reported about extraordinary noise, screams and beatings in the investigation room.... Boger took Bauer, the beautiful black boy, aside, and ordered him to bring something into the room. Henny leaned over my ear and whispered nervously: "He ordered him to bring a 'swing' in." I decided that I had to see for myself if this story was correct.... In the morning I asked Leo to send me into the Blockhouse with some sort of memo…. I felt ashamed that I had come to see their (her fellow prisoners) torture and I hurried into the blockhouse. Screams and cries of pain filled the air.... I stood as though nailed down, my legs as heavy as lead, my heart as though it had been hollowed out. Suddenly the door to my left opened and I thought quickly enough to move back, just as a body came flying out of the room and then lay motionless on the ground. Before the door closed again, I threw a glance into the room. A low trestle stood there, with an iron rod on its back; there was a person tied to the rod by his hands and feet, and his head was hanging over.29
This account was translated and provided to Central Office already in 1959, proving to be one of the first pieces of concrete information amassed for the investigation of Boger, and therefore an invaluable description of the infamous swing. Such details were new to the investigating authorities. Kagan's descriptions form the foundations of a history of torture and atrocity that is now the basis of common knowledge about the crimes committed at Auschwitz.
Kagan's testimony in her prosecution and court interrogations were vital in the prosecution of Boger. However, as with many other witnesses, Kagan was not allowed access to the room in which Boger conducted his "interrogations" and therefore did not actually see whether anyone died on the swing. She stated, however, that "because of the catastrophic conditions in the camp, I consider it out of the question that any prisoner had even the slightest chance of coming out (of such an interrogation) with his life."30 Kagan could list the names of those widely known by the secretaries of the Political Department to have been executed by Boger, in particular the Kommando Kartoffelschälerei (a unit in charge of peeling potatoes), accused of attempting an uprising in the fall of 1943; amongst them was the adjutant of Marshal Pilsudski. Again, Kagan did not witness this execution herself, but stated that "I looked into their files after their death and could confirm that Boger personally conducted this investigation and carried out the 'interrogations.'"31
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.