Sixty-Third Anniversary of the First Mass Escape by Poles from Auschwitz
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Contributed by PAP
Wednesday, 15 June 2005
Friday was the 63rd anniversary of the first mass escape from Auschwitz. About 50 prisoners mutinied and made an escape bid, but only 9 reached freedom. Over 380 prisoners perished during the break and in the course of German reprisals.
Describing the escape, an Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum historian noted that its origins reach back to May 27, 1942, when about 400 Polish political prisoners were assigned to the camp’s penal company. They had been deported to Auschwitz in transports from Warsaw and Cracow in 1941 and 1942.
Every few days, the Germans picked out between ten and twenty of these prisoners and shot them. The threat of death prompted the prisoners to plan a mass escape. Years later, former prisoner Tadeusz Chróścicki recalled that “we were all implicated and under a death sentence, and so we thought that it would be better to take the risk—perhaps someone would be saved.”
The prisoners drew up a plan. The signal to stop working on the Birkenau drainage ditch and return to the camp would cue the escape. The date was set as June 10, 1942.
A misunderstanding meant that the escape was only partially successful. As a result of pouring rain, the penal company boss, Hauptscharfuehrer SS Otto Moll, called an early halt to labor. The long blast on the whistle threw the prisoners into confusion. About 50 of them made a run for it. A dozen or so of them knocked down the capos. Two prisoners, Tadeusz Pejsik and Henryk Pajączkowski, were caught immediately.
The remaining prisoners were herded into the Auschwitz camp; the corpses of 13 who had been shot were carried through the Arbeit Macht Frei gate.
Of the 50 prisoners who made a run for it, 9 reached freedom: August Kowalczyk (who became a leading Polish actor after the war), Jerzy Łachecki, Zenon Piernikowski, Aleksander Buczyński, Jan Laskowski, Józef Traczyk, Tadeusz Chróścicki, Józef Pamrow, and Eugeniusz Stoczewski.
In the wake of the escape, August Kowalczyk hid with the Polish Lysek and Sklórz families in Bojszowy Dolne. Later, the Oświęcim Union of Armed Combat/Home Army organizations enabled him to reach Cracow, from where he joined a Home Army unit fighting in the Miechów area.
Historian Henryk Świebocki states that, from among the other eight escapees, the Germans caught Aleksander Buczyński and Eugeniusz Stoczewski about 25 kilometers from Auschwitz on June 25 and brought them back to the camp, shooting them there a month later.
The escape accounted for a great many victims. The Germans shot 13 prisoners in hot pursuit. The following day, they shot 20 people in reprisal and killed about 320 Poles from the penal company in the gas chamber.
A total of at least 802 people attempted to escape from Auschwitz—757 men and 45 women. Poles were the most numerous escapers, with at least 396 making the attempt. 144 people succeeded in escaping. Most of them survived the war. A total of 327 prisoners were either shot while escaping or taken into custody later by the Germans. Świebocki writes that the fate of a further 331 escapers is unknown. It is possible that some of them reached freedom and survived.