[Photo: Auschwitz Prisoner Uniforms at Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.]
“These people all speak different languages. But one language is international – a punch in the face.”
Henry Zguda made this statement about his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz, as he spoke to his biographer, Katrina Shawver. Henry, a non-Jewish resident of Krakow was captured by the Germans in May of 1942. A tall, lean swimmer, Henry was 24-years-old when he was shipped off to Auschwitz. He remained in there until March 12, 1943, when he was transferred to Buchenwald. He was finally liberated at Dachau by the American troops in April of 1945.
It’s not a surprise that in 1942, the prisoners that arrived at Auschwitz’s famous gate, were not Jews. Auschwitz did not become the place of death for one million Jews until a bit later in the German’s deadly game. Auschwitz began operation on June 19, 1940 with the arrival of 728 Polish prisoners. “Most of them,” explains Nikolaus Wachsmann in his monumental study of German concentration camps, “were young men, including students and soldiers, accused of a wide range of anti-German activities.” [KL 202]
Over the first six months at Auschwitz, the prisoner population grew to 7,500 and by the end of January 1943, to 40,031, including 14,070 Jews. [KL 203, 322-23] By this time, of course, neighboring Birkenau was up and running. The mix of German and Polish prisoners, Soviet POW and Jews, helps to explains Henry’s statement about the different languages in the camp.
Henry was introduced to life at Auschwitz by Kapo Jakub, a heavyweight boxing champion from Holland, in the dreaded Block 11:
“I asked Jakub, ‘So, how do we get out of here?’
‘Henry, do you know what block this is? This is the dead block. Outside, they shoot prisoners. They kill people every morning and afternoon in front that wall down there. They kill ten, five, one, two, or three at a time.’
Kapo Jakub takes me to a window and pointed to the crematorium chimney, smoking like hell.
‘Henry,’ as Jakub points to the chimney, ‘that is the one sure way to get out of here.’” [Henry 90-91]
The combination of extreme hard work and lack of adequate food soon affected Henry.
“[H]unger was terrible,” Henry lamented. “What did you get to eat? Nothing. For breakfast you’d get a one-fifth loaf of bread three fingers square, and a bowl of brown water they called coffee, made out of chestnuts. Lunch was soup. It was nothing but water, potatoes, beets, leaves, whatever they decided to throw in that day.
In the evening, you get another cup of coffee, another ladle of soup, bread, and a finger of marmalade or margarine, one-sixteenth of the brick. Sometimes, you got like a finger-length of sausage. That was all that you got. According to the Germans you got 1,500 calories a day. Bullshit. After twelve hours of hard labor, you’re exhausted.
I had my metal bowl for soup. You lose your bowl you die. Why? Because the main food you get is hot soup – you can’t hold that in your hands. You sleep with the bowl under your head so no one steals it from you. If it was a really good food, the kapos got to it before it ever reached prisoners.” [Henry 110]
Lady luck shined on Henry when he ran into his friend from Krakow, Kazio, in the camp. Kazio, had arrived at Auschwitz shortly after it opened in August of 1940. He rose to be the chief of the storeroom where all the food was located. This gave Kazio great power and clout. He could trade food for favors. He got Henry transferred to the kitchen duty, where he eventually became a cook – a tremendous improvement.
In the first half of 1943, Henry, along with thousands of other non-Jewish prisoners, was transferred to Buchenwald. The Germans wanted to make more room for the Jews and disrupt the Polish underground activities. (Henry 162) When Henry arrived at Buchenwald in March of 1943, “only one percent of the prisoners were Jewish, as most Jews were sent directly to their death at camps like Auschwitz.” [Henry 186]
At first Henry was assigned to work in the quarry, a very dangerous job. But soon, he traded his gold watch for a job as a stone massoner – much better. Pursuant to the camp regulations, Henry was allowed to receive two letters or postcards per month. And he could also receive money from the outside. With this money, the prisoners could buy things. Buchenwald, like Auschwitz had an orchestra. But it also had a movie house and a brothel.
That’s right, a brothel! It is hard to imagine a brothel in a concentration camp where there also happens to be a crematorium to turn the dead into ashes. But this seem to be the case. Henry reported that the brothel was visited by the Kapos and other higher-up prisoners, not the regular folk like him.
As the war drew to an end with the allied powers closing in on Berlin, the remaining 5,000 prisoners of Buchenwald were sent by foot, to Dachau. Henry was so worn down and ill from the death march that he could not eat.
“I gave my soup to someone else,” Henry explained. “I didn’t go to the hospital because I know from Auschwitz and Buchenwald they kill you in the hospital.” [Henry 233]
It was at Dachau that Henry was liberated by American troops on April 27, 1945. Eventually he came to America, married and worked as a therapist for people with chronic physical disabilities. In this moving book, Katrina Shawver, brings Henry and his story to the world.
It is important to hear the stories of non-Jewish prisoners at concentration camps. Why? To realize that the imprisonment and torture of humans by the Nazis was not an exclusive Jewish privilege. Non-Jews of many European nationalities suffered during the war. Even if they were not in a camp, countless Europeans suffered. War brought hunger, death and devastation to the continent.
It is, however, equally important to recognize that the Nazi’s plan and execution – to murder each and every Jew – was not equal for all European.
As Elie Wiesel put it: “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
Shawver, Katrina, Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America, Kohler Books, 2017.
Wachsmann, Nikolaus, kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015.