Resistance Reconsidered: The Women of the Political Department at Auschwitz Birkenau1
Rebecca Elizabeth Wittmann, Ph.D.
© This article may not be quoted or reproduced without the permission of the author.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Author's Biography | Endnotes

Part I

There is one incident I can never forget: it must have been around November 1944. A truck, carrying Jewish children, drove into the camp. The truck stopped by the barracks of the Political Department. A boy - he must have been about 4 or 5 years old - jumped down. He was playing with an apple that he was holding in his hand. Boger came with Draser to the door. Boger took the child by his feet and smashed his head against the wall. Draser ordered me to wash the wall after that. Later I was called in to do some translation for Boger. He was sitting in his office eating the boy's apple.2

In the 1960s, the district courts of West Germany conducted hundreds of trials of Nazi criminals. This testimony by a female survivor of Auschwitz was the product of one such trial. The woman who told this story on the witness stand was a secretary in the Political Department of the Auschwitz Birkenau camp. She had many colleagues, all Jewish women, who worked with her in the Political Department and witnessed unspeakably gruesome crimes. The story of the little boy has become part of a greater body of legendary tales of devastation, and makes up a crucial part of our historical imagination of the world of Auschwitz. It was the product of the judicial interrogation of a survivor, twenty years after the end of the Holocaust, on the stand in Frankfurt am Main at the First Auschwitz Trial 1963-65. This woman, Dounia Wasserstrom, had never publicly uttered a word about this experience before. She, along with at least nine other women (or "girls," as Auschwitz survivor Helen Tichauer calls them - for that is what they were), spoke on behalf of the secretaries of the Political Department and gave the German courts and public the first concrete glimpse into everyday life and death at Auschwitz. Precisely how theses women lived, resisted, and survived, is the focus of my investigation.

By using trial testimony, a multi-layered representation of the Holocaust emerges. Both the realities of the Auschwitz concentration camp and the way it was remembered and retold decades later become focal points of investigation. The history of Auschwitz is magnified through this double lens of factual historical evidence and the way it is presented in the construct of the trial. This makes for a unique kind of historical analysis, and the reverberations between the truth of Nazi crimes and the way survivors describe them on the stand are a crucial backdrop to my particular focus of study.

Survivor witnesses made an essential contribution to the prosecution at the Auschwitz Trial by recounting the horrors of Auschwitz and reconstructing the actions of the accused in the camp with painstaking accuracy some twenty years after the fact. Necessarily, the state gathered the evidence of survivors who had played important roles in the camp and worked closely under the rule of the SS. The survivors could provide the court with extraordinary details of the activities of the camp guards. Most of the survivors who testified were Polish or Ukrainian political prisoners or German criminal prisoners, as Jews were rarely given jobs of any relative importance. They were generally either immediately sent to the gas chambers or assigned to hard labour, a fate which few survived.

However, there was a most unusual group of survivors discovered by the state through the International Auschwitz Committee (IAC), an Austrian-based organization of camp survivors under the leadership of Hermann Langbein, a survivor himself who was largely responsible for setting the wheels of the Auschwitz Trial in motion. The IAC was dedicated to finding and communicating with Auschwitz prisoners living throughout the world, and this group came to shed the most light on the activities of the Political Department of the Auschwitz I camp. (Auschwitz was made up of three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II or Birkenau, and Auschwitz III or Monowitz). In the Political Department the brutal torture of prisoners was administered by the camp Gestapo under the guise of "interrogation" for information. This group of secretaries, transcribers and translators are extraordinary because they were almost all Jewish, female, and they were privy to large amounts of information about the camps and its genocidal activities. These women were hired as the secretaries, translators, note-takers and book keepers for the Political Department because they were largely educated and spoke German as well as other languages - particularly Polish, Ukrainian, Slovakian and of course Yiddish. Astoundingly, the large majority of them survived (of sixty seven women, six died in the camp, one of whom tried to escape and will be discussed later.3 The rest survived and of these, nine testified at the Auschwitz Trial). These women wrote the death books for the camp hospital, the Crematoriums, and the Political Department, and they witnessed the methods of "interrogation" used by defendant Wilhelm Boger, perhaps the most infamous and certainly one of the most sadistic of the defendants who was a chief officer in the Political Department. They witnessed what came to be called verschärfte Vernehmungen (intensified interrogations), they saw his infamous "Boger swing" (a torture device he invented) and the unrecognizable state in which most prisoners appeared after being brutalized on it. The amount of murder, secret information and "illegal acts" (even by Nazi standards because of their excessive cruelty) witnessed by these survivors made them perfect candidates for the kind of short work cycle suffered by the Sonderkommandos of the Crematorium and Corpse cellars. In fact, the women of the Political Department were known as the Himmelfahrts Kommando, German inmate slang for a "commando on its way to heaven" because of what they knew. Why they were allowed to live to the end and then marched out, rather than shot, remains somewhat of a mystery. It seems that it was a simple case of the members of the Political Department, particularly defendant Boger, having a soft spot for them, as we shall see.

Turning to the pre-trial files and the trial tapes, I will examine the testimony of four representative women - Maryla Rosenthal, Dounia Wasserstrom, Raja Kagan and Jenny Schaner - in order to give examples of the various types of (resistant) behaviour demonstrated by all of the women in the Political Department. Their testimonies provide valuable information about the atrocities committed in the Political Department. Such detail is vital to our understanding of the conditions of life for these women and the extraordinary nature of their often courageous reactions to evil. This backdrop also demonstrates that it was often enormously difficult in the courtroom setting to determine the whole truth about what went on at Auschwitz because for some women, real fear still existed some twenty years after and affected not only the way they behaved at the camp but how they testified as well.

The Auschwitz Trial took place in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany, between December 1963 and August 1965. The trial of twenty Auschwitz perpetrators by the Public Prosecutor's Office of the state of Hesse - representing a cross section of criminals who participated in the atrocities at the camp between 1940 and 1945 - lasted over 180 days, involved approximately 400 witnesses and produced 30,000 pages of files, not including the trial record itself, which is now being transcribed from audio-tape. The Auschwitz Trial was by far the largest, most public, and most important ever to take place in West Germany using West German law. There was enormous national and international press coverage; in West Germany each court day was covered by all of the major newspapers. It came to fascinate the nation as a symbol of the brutality of the men (for only men were tried at this proceeding) who were not the main leaders who dreamed up and created the Holocaust, but the "small" men who carried out the "Final Solution" on a daily basis.

The trial was not the first criminal proceeding against Nazi perpetrators (and one prisoner "kapo") in Germany. After the Nuremberg trials of the 1940s, there was a period of silence about Nazi crimes against Jews until the late 1950s, when West German Public Prosecutor's offices throughout the country initiated the first German trials. These trials were not conducted according to the international criminal codes as established at Nuremberg, but according to everyday West German criminal justice procedure. This created problems for the prosecution as the West German criminal code was subject to many limitations which hindered the state in trying to render justice for crimes of such an extraordinary nature. There were two basic problems: first, the limitations of the murder law itself, and second, the Verjährungsdebatte or "debate on the Statute of Limitations" which took place during the 1960s. Briefly, the murder charge stipulated that the prosecution must prove the subjective motivation of each defendant in order to have him sentenced with murder. This meant that the state had to prove beyond doubt that each defendant had acted sadistically, with treacherous intent, out of sexual desire, or out of base motives (in Nazi cases determined to be racial hatred). In addition, in order to prove that a defendant had been the perpetrator and not simply an accomplice (which carried a much lighter sentence), the prosecution had to prove individual initiative. This was virtually impossible in cases where defendants had stood on the selection ramp at the entrance of the Auschwitz camp, pointing innocent people either in the direction of the work camp or the gas chambers. So, despite the fact that the orders to kill at Auschwitz had been ruled illegal already at Nuremberg, the lack of personal initiative would (and invariably did) lead to a lesser charge. Related to the restrictions of the criminal code and central to the state's case development is the evolution of the debate on the statute of limitations that began in the late 1950s in the Federal parliament. This complex controversy dealt with the twenty-year limitation on murder, manslaughter and aiding and abetting charges, and was at the heart of the early years of West German attempts to deal with the Nazi past. The courts were very much at the mercy of the decisions made in parliament, and could only charge the defendants according to the decisions brought down in the Verjährungsdebatte. This meant that in 1963, for example, manslaughter was no longer an option as a charge, and made the state's task much more difficult as it was limited to proving murder or the far lesser charge of aiding and abetting. The understanding of these legal issues is imperative in order to fully appreciate the trial proceedings themselves: the atmosphere in the courtroom, the strategies adopted and unfolded by the prosecution and the defence, and the role of the judge in arbitrating such a complex trial. It also helps to understand why the witnesses were put through such a rigorous interrogation process. In some ways, the time-lapse between the end of the Holocaust and the beginning of the trial was problematic, because people's memories were often either vague or suppressed. At the same time, the recollection and retelling of the crimes committed at Auschwitz brought history back into the immediate present and created a startlingly vivid picture of the camp.

In their trial testimonies, as in their written testimonies and memoirs, most of the women who appeared on the stand at the Auschwitz Trial told of their daily activities as a backdrop to their more specific testimony about the crimes of the defendants on trial. Certain efforts and actions repeated themselves in the words of these women and certainly constitute forms of resistance. This will become obvious in the examples below, which demonstrate the importance of individual response both in terms of fear and resistance. Dr. Ella Lingens, a prisoner who worked as a doctor in the "Hospital" of the camp, demonstrated this most profoundly in her testimony at the trial. When asked by Judge Hofmeyer, "Do you wish to say that everyone could decide for himself to be either good or evil in Auschwitz?" Lingens replied, "That is exactly what I wish to say."4  Although Dr. Lingens was speaking about the SS guards of the camp, one could argue that this held very much true for prisoners as well. The horrors of imprisonment in Auschwitz preclude any kind of moral judgment of "survival strategies," and this is not my intention here. Still, it is certainly worth investigating the diverse reactions to extreme adversity. These trial documents are an invaluable source for such an inquiry.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
All rights reserved.