Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and we wanted to pay homage to those who suffered, died, and yes, the fortunate few who escaped the Nazis' vice-like death grip. On June 20, 1942, Kazimierz Piechowski, two other Polish political prisoners and a Ukrainian mechanic escaped from Auschwitz in a fast car they stole from the camp's commandant. Here's how they did it.
During World War II, Jews, Gyspsies, Communists and homosexuals weren't the only groups designated for liquidation in wartime Europe. Hitler had a long list of people he considered undesirable enough to murder. In accordance with the Furher's wishes, Nazis had also singled out Poland's Boy Scouts as a dangerous, criminal organization whose nationalists had to be done away with.
Rounding up Scouts and shooting them in the street was common practice when the Germans occupied Poland in 1939, so then 19-year-old Piechowski decided to make a break for it and Flee to France. Unfortunately, his flight didn't last long. He was captured at the Hungarian border, and a few months later, was a prisoner at Auschwitz.
As Piechowski recalled in an interview with the Guardian last year, the camp's SS guards and officers had itchy trigger fingers in its early days. Prisoners worked 12- to 15-hour shifts building structures to expand the camp and make way for the myriad prisoners who would walk through its gates over the next few years, most never to leave.
Piechowsky was given prisoner number 918 and served on a variety of work parties — including the Leichenkommando, which brought corpses to the crematorium. One of his assignments got him into to a coal scuttle in the building where the camp's officers kept uniforms and weapons stored. That would prove very, very valuable to Piechowsky and his compatriots. It also didn't hurt that some of them spoke German and knew people with access to prisoner records.
It was when Eugeniusz Bendera, a car mechanic from Czortków, Ukraine, approached Piechowsky with some alarming news that he, along with fellow Poles Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster and Józef Lempart, sprang into action. Bendera had learned that he was scheduled to be killed, so they formed a plan to get out. First, they had to get out of the camp's high security sector, through the gate bearing the now infamous black iron-formed inscription, Arbeit Macht Frei — Work Sets You Free.
They stole a kitchen trash cart and told the guard that they were on a work detail. Luck was on their side and the guard didn't check the register, so three of the four prisoners sallied forth to uniform storage — gaining entrance to the building through a coal hatch Piechowsky had "fixed" earlier in the day — while Bendera, who worked in the camp's garage, fetched the car, Commandant Rudolf Höss's Steyr 220. Bendera had picked the fastest car in the camp's fleet, a powerful Austrian machine reserved for Höss's quick trips to Berlin, so that they could outrun potential pursuers.
The group's next challenge came after they were in the car, dressed as SS officers, approaching the camp's outter gate. Piechowsky told the Guardian that as they drew closer to the baricade, it failed to go up on recognition of the car. Sweating profusely and scared for their lives, they sat in the car, not knowing what to do as Bendera stopped the car at the gate. One of them was dressed as a staff officer, but they had no papers. Lempart struck Piechowski in the back and hissed for him to do something. Summoning up the courage to save them, Piechowski — who was dressed as an SS Untersturmführer, or second lieutenant — put on his game face and leaned out the window.
"Wake up, you buggers!" [he screamed at the young guard] in German. "Open up or I'll open you up!" Terrified, the guard scrambled to raise the barrier, allowing the powerful motor to pass through and drive away.
Although they all escaped and made it out of the country, that was by no means the end of the line for any of them. The horror of Nazi occupation was too all encompassing to truly escape. Piechowski made it to the Ukraine, but returned to Poland a short time later to serve with the Home Army, a Polish resistance group. Jaster joined, too, so the Nazis threw his parents into Auschwitz, were they died.
Piechowski's punishment for serving in the Home Army was doled out not by the Germans, but by their Soviet successors. He served seven years of a 10 year sentence, gaining release when he was 33 and working as an engineer for Poland's communist government. Today, he lives on the Baltic coast in Gdańsk, Poland.
But the most chilling memento of the daring 1942 escape from Auschwitz isn't in pictures or records, it is etched in blue ink upon the arms of those who survived the camp's terrible later years. After Piechowski and his comrades escaped, Auschwitz's administrators began tatooing prisoners' arms with their prison numbers.
(Hat tip to Maximum Sarge!)