Interview with an Auschwitz Guard 'I Do Not Feel Like a Criminal'

Interview Conducted by , and

Part 2: 'You Couldn't Complain, It Wouldn't Have Changed Anything'

SPIEGEL: Did you see the corpses being burned?

W.: The crematorium chimneys weren't very tall. Depending on the wind direction, it stunk badly. And starting in 1944, the crematoria weren't able to keep up. Next to them was a ditch, perhaps three or four meters across. A fire was burning in the trench day and night. Two men were always carrying straps that they used to pull them (Eds. note: the corpses) out of the gas chamber, removed the straps and threw them into the fire. If you were standing in the area, it was impossible to look away.

SPIEGEL: So you were on a tower near the gas chambers?

W.: We always changed. The fence was right behind the gas chambers and the towers were behind that. You could see it. A huge fire was burning.

SPIEGEL: A huge fire of corpses?

W.: It never went out. Day and night. You get used to everything. Nobody could leave. And you couldn't complain, it wouldn't have changed anything.

As Jakob W. was talking about this dark chapter of German history, his wife was sitting next to him, knitting. Sometimes she would help him recall something or complete his sentences. She knew many of the details. She says that sometimes, at birthday parties of friends or family members, her husband would start talking about Auschwitz out of the blue.

The story of SS guard Jakob W. got its start in Beška, a small town near Belgrade where so-called Danube-Swabians, as Yugoslavia's German-speaking population was known, lived at the time. In April 1941, Hitler's troops marched into Yugoslavia. For W., that is an important detail. He never had German citizenship, he was Yugoslavian. And he says he also isn't responsible for the fact that, starting in 1942, the SS began sending long-serving SS guards to the front and replacing them with ethnic Germans. In the second half of the war, half of all guards were ethnic Germans.

Polish historian Aleksander Lasik maintains a database of SS members who served in concentration camps. He can substantiate that 45 men from W.'s home district served in Auschwitz. Jakob W. himself estimates that the number from Beška was around 20, including a cousin of his and a schoolmate. If that is true, Beška could very well have been the village with the highest concentration of Auschwitz personnel.

SPIEGEL: How did you get to Auschwitz?

W.: We were told that the train would leave from Indija, a village next door to Beška, at 9 a.m. on Sept. 19, 1942. SS people there received us. They told us that we weren't allowed to get off the train anywhere. We traveled in a passenger train to Vienna, where the last car was separated from the train. It went to Auschwitz.

SPIEGEL: You were sitting in the last car, in other words?

W.: Yes. We were seated according to last name. "S" to "Z" were sitting in the last car and had to go to Auschwitz. It was by chance. When a train arrived in Vienna, the SS divided up the passengers. Names were called out alphabetically. And when one car filled up, they started with the next one.

SPIEGEL: How did the journey continue?

W.: When we arrived in the Auschwitz train station, we immediately marched the two kilometers to the Birkenau camp. First, they cut our hair short, vaccinated us and gave us tattoos. Mine was an upside-down "A," which stood for my blood type. We initially received three months of training, including on a firing range. Lying down, standing, everything you can imagine.

SPIEGEL: Where were the others from?

W.: Our group was mostly made up of Germans from abroad, from Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Jakob W. insists that he had no choice. Research conducted by the historian Jan Erik Schulte indicates that conscriptions into the Waffen SS in 1942 Yugoslavia were "essentially predominantly compulsory affairs." As such, W.'s case began with a violation of the Hague Conventions, which expressly prohibits drafting foreign citizens to bear arms.

When W. arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was officially designated as a prisoner of war camp. Originally, SS head Heinrich Himmler had wanted to use prisoners of war to establish a network of defensive forts and barricades to protect German settlers in Eastern Europe. But then he had the site expanded into the largest death camp in the Nazi's machinery of destruction.

At the time, Auschwitz was part of the German Reich, with Hitler having annexed the region following the attack on Poland. Ultimately, the complex included three main camps and around 50 subsidiary camps. Many prisoners were brutally murdered in the sub-camps as well, but gas chambers were only to be found in the core camp ("KL Auschwitz I") and in the 140 hectare (346 acre) sea of barracks known as Auschwitz-Birkenau ("KL Auschwitz II").

Surrounding Birkenau were thousands of cement poles connected to one-another by electric fencing. On the outside of the fence stood the guard towers of varying heights, with SS guards wielding spotlights and machine guns on top. Surrounding those barriers was an additional string of guard towers, allowing the SS to control a huge swath of terrain. They were to prevent prisoners from escaping while performing labor outside the camp. At times, there were 3,000 guards on duty.

W.: If you had a daytime shift, it ended at six in the evening. Then we went to the canteen. Afterwards you could request to leave the camp and you could go as far as the Auschwitz train station. The girls from Katowice, the nearest larger city, would always go there.

SPIEGEL: So you would leave the camp during the evenings?

W.: Yes, yes, of course. There were many bars. Most played skat and drank beer.

SPIEGEL: What did people talk about?

W.: People weren't enthused about the leadership. We of course knew and everybody almost felt that it couldn't end well, that it couldn't been good when trains were being brought here full of people who were then getting killed. We all had that feeling. But, I mean, when you're a soldier ...

In the personnel files of camp staff members, there are official declarations stating, "I may not cause bodily harm or death to opponents of the state (prisoners)." It also states, "I am aware and I have been informed today that I will be punished by death if I misappropriate Jewish property of any kind." The SS team at Auschwitz -- a camp where the indiscriminate torture, robbing and murder of people was part of everyday life -- were required to pledge in advance to do precisely the opposite.

One could view forms like that as a special form of cynicism. Or one could see it as a pseudo-legal facade aimed at covering up the Holocaust. One provision called for "absolute secrecy" to be maintained. In practice, it had no meaning.

W.: My brother visited me once. He began serving as a Wehrmacht soldier in 1941. I didn't get any vacation at the time. He wrote to me that he had been given five days of special leave to visit me.

SPIEGEL: When was that?

W.: He arrived at the train station in Auschwitz in the summer of 1943. There was a home for visitors and he called me from there. I picked him up and we walked around the entire camp. He wore a Wehrmacht uniform, but that didn't draw any attention in Birkenau.

SPIEGEL: And what did your brother say about the concentration camp?

W.: What did he say? He knew about it. Half of our village was in the SS and everyone had said something about it at home.

SPIEGEL: How did you feel about your brother's visit?

W.: I was glad. My cousin, who was also a guard in Auschwitz, got a day off as well. The three of us walked around the camp. You have to imagine it being like a large village. The prisoners weren't there, they were at work.

SPIEGEL: Do you show him the crematoriums where the gas chambers were located?

W.: He saw it, of course. That evening we went back the train station and into the bar.

Jakob W. says that, while serving in Auschwitz, he saw a military newspaper that included a want ad seeking Wehrmacht medics for the front. He claims that he then twice told his superior that he would prefer to join the combat troops. After the second time, he says, the company commander threatened to jail him for insubordination if he made any further attempt. There is, however, no written proof that this happened.

The public prosecutor in Stuttgart opened an investigation into W., part of which was W.'s presence on the tracks when a transport train from Berlin arrived at Auschwitz in 1943. The Jewish prisoners had often been underway for days by the time they arrived. On a siding at the freight depot, new arrivals would be "selected," as it was called in the Nazi vernacular. From there, the SS people would either march them in columns to the camp or transport them by truck. Most were murdered immediately in the gas chambers and forced labor awaited the others.

SPIEGEL: What was it like when you received the train full of prisoners?

W.: There would be a whistle to duty and they would call "step up". Then you would move into position, about 20 meters from the train, which had already arrived. They would open the doors from the outside and we had to encircle the train until the people had been unloaded. They would then be taken into the camp by the guards responsible for internal camp supervision.

SPIEGEL: Did the people arriving attempt to flee?

W.: They were so intimidated. Before their departure, they were told they were being taken to a labor camp and that nothing would happen to anyone unless they tried to run away. In the gas chambers, they saw the nozzles and thought they were going to take a shower. Before entering, they had to stack their clothing in neat piles.

Surviving prisoners have differing memories of their arrival at Auschwitz. Some recall glaring spotlights and shouting SS troops. Others speak of being greeted by men in civilian clothing in a "very friendly" manner. The friendliness was meant to provide the victims with a sense of security and to prevent panic.

Researchers are convinced today that the division of labor in the industrial killing machine significantly reduced the inhibition threshold of staff. They estimate that the percentage of pathological murderers among the perpetrators to be 10 percent at the very highest. They believe that others who aided in the killing hesitated, had doubts and pangs of conscience. But they then somehow talked themselves into believing that they didn't have anything to do with the crime in question.

SPIEGEL: Do you bear any guilt for what happened?

W.: No, I don't have that feeling. We gave the Jews what was left of our bread, which otherwise would have been thrown away. We set it on their toolboxes near the place where they got water. I never did harm to any Jew. But I also wasn't able to help any of them.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel a something like a sense of moral guilt?

W.: No. I spoke to them in a friendly manner; I never hit, kicked or killed any. I do not feel like a criminal just because I had to guard them. Germany had invaded Yugoslavia and that was a crime against humanity and international law. Then the Nazis conscripted me and brought me to Auschwitz. And how was I supposed to get away from there? If I had deserted, they would have shot me.

The German justice system tried once before, in the late 1970s, to serve justice on Jakob W. But the case was ultimately closed. Back then, he told investigators that he hadn't known what "was happening inside the camp." He also didn't mention anything about being part of the selection on the unloading ramp. He only said: "My insight wasn't that extensive." Was it just a self-serving assertion to avoid incriminating himself? Today, Jakob W. says he can no longer remember the questioning. What he does say is that it would be absurd to claim that people didn't know what was happening inside Auschwitz. "When the crematorium is constantly burning, then everyone knows that something is going on."

SPIEGEL: What happened to you once the war ended?

W.: As an SS member, I was placed in an American camp for prisoners of war. At the end of 1946, I was in Dachau along with perhaps 6,000 prisoners. We were housed in three-story barracks and wore our old uniforms. My great coat was still torn up from the injury. Then, one morning, we were told that the Jews from Auschwitz would be coming today as witnesses.

SPIEGEL: They were supposed to identify you?

W.: There were around 20 men. They were from a special unit that led their own people to the gas chambers and they had to take them from there to the crematorium in wagons. They were all young people.

SPIEGEL: How was the encounter?

W.: They all had the right to spit on and denounce us. Instead they went past us, looked at us and said: "You poor pigs. Where are your officers and Blockführer?"

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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robertoboni 08/28/2014
1. think about it
To think that somebody can be punished because 2000 years ago he was fighting with the romans against the Germans is fool. Forget and forgive 90 years old people for something they may be did in theirs twenties.
Stephen, UK 08/29/2014
2. Change of mind
It is interesting that the witness has changed his mind on the key facts since the 1970s.
gadfly 08/31/2014
3. The universality of evil...
Many otherwise ordinary people have an astonishing capacity for cruelty toward their fellow human beings, which can be unleashed by widely accepted authority structures. Those who manage to form a sound moral foundation in their youth are nevertheless both willing and able to subordinate their own innate sense of right and wrong when directed to behave in contrary ways by such authorities. And when a collapse of those authority structures leaves them face to face with the reality of their personal guilt, they have a bottomless capacity for denial. Such depravity is usually unleashed by national governments in time of war, but not exclusively so (for example, in controlled psychological experiments test subjects were willing to administer jolts of severe electric shock to others upon being directed to do so by the administrator of the experiment; most, though not all, never considered refusal to be an option!) We have seen it in subsequent massacres of innocent civilians, as at My Lai (Vietnam, not an isolated incident, but just the tip of the iceberg, see: ), in El Mozote (El Salvador, see: ), in Haditha (Iraq, not an isolated incident, but one of several, see: ) and now in the murderous rampage of the Islamic State hooligans in the northern Levant (for whom the justifying authority is a distorted religious fundamentalism). The often unrepentant perpetrators of these atrocities think of themselves not as criminals but as either patriots, or as victims themselves, who had no choice. So do the societies which enabled their actions. It is not my intention to minimize the sheer enormity of the Holocaust by citing these “lesser” atrocities, but to suggest that the obedient subservience of the Germans and conscripted foreign nationals who operated the levers of mass death in the Third Reich are not ethnically exclusive traits. These are universal human traits. All of us live among people today who, under different circumstances, and given permission by some authority structure, would calmly execute you or me, and consider themselves to be personally blameless. They cannot imagine defying a corrupt authority. Newly inaugurated Turkish President Erdoğan rebuked Turkish reporter Amberin Zaman at a recent political debate, calling her a “militant in the guise of a journalist” and telling her to “know your place”. What did Erdoğan find so deeply offensive? Zaman had asked a different candidate whether any Muslim society was capable of challenging its authorities (see: ). Erdoğan was nevertheless subsequently elected. It seems clear that, in Turkish society, the answer to Zaman's question is “No!”
Jael 09/04/2014
As a jew I think that this ship has sailed long ago. I don't forget, but I dont think that after all these years it matters, in fact it is great that he as a first witness can tell the story that some today try to deny
agarrity3 09/05/2014
5. Victims
I just don't see how these young soldiers can be held responsible for things they had no control over. To do anything other than obey would have resulted in imprisonment or death. How many of those who judge, then and now, would have made a different choice under those circumstances? Go after the leaders and policy makers and leave these cogs to live with their ghosts.
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