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

As a young man, Jakob W. worked in the watchtowers of Auschwitz. Charges against him were recently dropped, but he described to SPIEGEL what it was like to be a cog in the Nazis' horrific machinery of death. 

Interview Conducted by , and

Jakob W. was 19-years-old and in his third semester studying architecture at college when he received the letter that would, seven decades later, turn him into a suspect for complicity in murder.

In the summer of 1942, the young man from a village near Belgrade received his draft notice. Just a few months later, he was standing on a tower hundreds of kilometers away from his home in Yugoslavia. Jakob W. was now an SS guard in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp -- and thus a party in the most horrific of the crimes committed by the Third Reich. For two and a half years, he looked down at the factory of human annihilation, day in and day out.

Now, in 2014, Jakob W. lives in a large, southern German city, his house plastered white and his garden filled with roses. A chain-link fence separates his yard from the neighbor's. A retired civil servant with a degree in architecture, W. has lived here for more than 30 years. Wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and black leather shoes, he settles in the living room on a black leather couch, covered in a wool blanket. The room is crammed with carpets; an oak china cabinet overflows with knick-knacks. Above the sofa is an oil painting of a mountain lake at sunrise.

Jakob W. was one of the 30 people targeted by German prosecutors in the fall of 2013, suspected of being accessories to multiple murders. Given the advanced age of the suspects, it is likely that these will be the last legal proceedings in Germany relating to Nazi war crimes.

It is now August, and it is the third time that the retiree has received journalists from SPIEGEL. A few days prior, just after his 91st birthday celebration, he learned that state prosecutors in Stuttgart had abandoned the case against him. Jakob W. was already convicted by a Polish court in 1948 in connection with his Auschwitz duties and he cannot be punished a second time.

The elderly man, whose German has a slight Slavic tint, has the energy of a man 20 years his junior. He could now draw a line under his past. But just as he defied investigators earlier this summer when they asked him not to speak to the press, he has no intention of keeping his mouth shut now. He wants to "bear witness," as he calls it, and share his version of the story. He has only one condition: Anonymity.

SPIEGEL: When did you first hear about the gas chambers?

W.: When you see that so many trains are coming, people arriving, then nobody can say anything. Everyone knew about it.

SPIEGEL: Were you ever inside a gas chamber?

W.: Just once. It was with a surveyor team. I was charged with guarding them. That was in 1943 or 1944.

SPIEGEL: How big was the chamber?

W.: Maybe as big as my entire house, which is 90 square meters (970 square feet). I mean, when one of the trains arrived, with 200 or 300 people, then they, if there were too many, had to wait outside.

SPIEGEL: You could see that from above?

W.: They had to wait in front of the gas chamber for an hour. And then they were led inside. They also heard the screams, but they, the SS people, the … I mean, that's how it was. That's how it … happened.

SPIEGEL: What was going through your mind when you were standing with the surveyors in the gas chamber?

W.: You can imagine it must have been a big room. It was pretty much a concrete bunker. There were pipes on the outside; I don't know any more if there were four or six. Then they threw a can inside.

SPIEGEL: You saw SS troops throwing Zyklon B in from the outside?

W.: Yes, of course. Standing on the tower, you could see them coming. It was always a vehicle with two men inside. And then they drove directly there and did a little operation and then you knew: That is the death squad.

Jakob W. was in Auschwitz until January 1945. After that, his unit was sent to defend Breslau, the present-day Polish city of Wroclaw, where he lost his right eye and was wounded in the stomach. To this day, he can only hear out of his left ear. In addition to his wife, he also invited his neighbor to be present during the interview. He wants to show that he has no secrets, and never did.

Many knew that he was once a guard in Auschwitz, including his three sons, colleagues at work and the Protestant pastor from the local church. Even the Chancellery and the German president's office knew. In 2011, Jakob W. wrote a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-President Christian Wulff complaining that the state had docked his pension by €59 ($78) per month due to his violation of the "principles of humanity" during the Nazi period. A law passed by Helmut Kohl's government made the decrease possible. His petition was politely rejected.

W.: In Auschwitz, I would have a week of daytime shifts and a week of nighttime shifts on the towers and then a week with the labor squads outside the camp.

SPIEGEL: Were you alone in the tower during your shifts?

W.: Yes, but at night there were two of us for the 12-hour shift, swapping out every three hours. In between, you could get some sleep. In the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, there is that famous gate through which the trains drove into the camp. Up above in the building was our break room for night shifts.

SPIEGEL: What do you remember about your service on the towers?

W.: Twelve hours is a long time. When it was hot, you had to stand the whole day in the sun. When it was cold, you had to constantly hop from one foot to the other. There you are, six meters (19 feet) up and you aren't allowed to go down, not even to pee.

SPIEGEL: What did you think about when you were up there?

W.: In the morning, all the prisoners had to go to work, somewhere to build roads. In the evenings, they came back in. In between times, there was nobody to be seen in the camp. During those times, we would read. I had a Bible with me, or a newspaper. That wasn't forbidden.

SPIEGEL: You read the Bible on the guard towers?

W.: I am an Protestant Christian. And I believe it was God's will that I was just a guard. And not in a firing squad.

SPIEGEL: Did you ever shoot a prisoner in Auschwitz?

W.: I never shot anybody.

SPIEGEL: From the towers, you had a view of the entire camp. Did you ever see another SS soldier shoot a prisoner?

W.: No.

SPIEGEL: Did you ever see a prisoner trying to escape?

W.: No, but it happened. They were mostly acting out of desperation. They jumped onto the fence and were shot to death.

SPIEGEL: But you never saw such a thing?

W.: I never shot anybody.

SPIEGEL: Did you have any contact with the prisoners?

W.: Yes, but it was mostly the German ones.

SPIEGEL: And you talked with them?

W.: They only spoke to us if we spoke to them first. Because many of us would say things like "shit Jews" or "stinking Jews," it's their fault that we are here. I would almost say that the majority blamed the Jews for the fact that we had to stand guard there. We used the informal "du" (you) when speaking to them and they had to use the formal "Sie" (you) when they replied.

SPIEGEL: What did you talk about with them?

W.: One time we had this women's labor squad, a couple of really young ones. And so I asked: "Why are you here?" Then she answered: "Because I'm Jewish." And what are you supposed to say then?

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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