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'It Is Sweet to Die for the Fatherland…' - the Story of Bernard Świerczyna

“But you who knew me will write in your reports
That I spent my younger years for my country,
And as long as the ship battled, I sat at mast,
And when it sank, I went down with it...”

'My Testament' by J. Słowacki

On July 18, 1940 a twenty-six-year-old clerk and law student lost his freedom and identity. He was no longer Bernard Świerczyna but number 1393. The only things which could not be changed or killed by the Nazi regime were his patriotism and love for Poland…

Childhood and youth

Bernard Swierczyna
Bernard Świerczyna

Bernard Świerczyna was born on February 23, 1914 in Chropaczów where his parents came from. When he was 9, his family moved to Mysłowice and found a flat in a tenement house built between 1914-1916 which is known as Bauverein. Now it is a historic building. Bernard graduated from the Government Secondary School for Boys in Mysłowice and completed a reserve office cadet course organized by the Polish 26th Infantry Division in Skierniewice. Following his service, he started working as a clerk in the Silesian Voivodeship Office and became a student of law at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow.

On August 28, 1939 he married Adelajda Kierek who lived in the same house and attended a neighbouring school for girls. However, the outbreak of World War II, which was unavoidable, irrevocably changed their life as on their wedding day Bernard had already had a mobilization card and knew he would have to take part in the defence of Poland. During the September Campaign he reached the eastern border, but the Russian invasion forced him to retreat towards the West. As a result, he was soon arrested and imprisoned in notorious Lamsdorf Prisoner of War Camp (Lambinowice). Thanks to the efforts of his wife and workmates, who persistently explained that his knowledge of German was of key importance for the functioning of their office, he was released a few months later. As Bernard’s son emphasises, his mother and Poland were sacred to his Dad who quickly got involved into the resistance movement.

As it appeared, Christmas in 1939 and New Year 1940 were the first and the last ones Bernard and Adelajda spent together as a married couple since the situation he found himself in was so dangerous that he had to escape from Mysłowice. Fearing another arrest and terror, he moved to Krzeszowice where he stayed with his friends and relatives and started looking for a job at a post office in Cracow recommended to him. Nevertheless, his highest priority was to support and look after his wife who expected a child. Immediately after Bernard’s visit to the passport office in the Gestapo headquarters, which was necessary to obtain permission to legally cross the border between the General Government and Upper Silesia, he was arrested again and imprisoned in the Montelupich Prison. According to his son, Bernard looked for help from Maria Pozimska he had grown up with who worked at the passport office, but she refused and threatened him he would never come back home. The probable reason for it was that she had fallen in love with Bernard who had chosen Ada. Bernard’s wife went to Cracow in the hope of his release but all in vain. Maria Pozimska told her: 'If you give birth to a son, he will replace Bernard, but Bernard himself will never come back to Mysłowice'. Desperate Adelajda left her flat crying and without saying goodbye. Eventually, Bernard was sent to Auschwitz on July 18, 1940. It was the second Cracow transport of 65 Polish political prisoners. When Bernard’s son sees the cynical inscription 'Arbeit macht frei' ('Work makes you free') above the main gate of Auschwitz I, the first thing that comes to his mind is the inscription 'Abandon all hope, you who enter here…' above the gate of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Heroism in the face of the enemy

Since Bernard spoke German fluently, he was appointed a writer (Schreiber) in the so-called Bekleidungskammer, i.e. a clothing store, in Block 27. Also, as a patriot totally devoted to Poland, Bernard quickly got involved into the resistance movement in the camp and became one of its bravest and most active members. His best-known pseudonyms were Benek and Max. However, it is relevant to mention that he also called himself Zbirusz. The origin of this pseudonym is unknown, but Bernard’s family suspects that he created and used it to honour his inmate Zbigniew Ruszczyński who was shot in Auschwitz on January 25, 1943. While in the camp, Bernard was mainly a member of Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej (i.e. Military Organization Union) abbreviated ZOW, formed by captain Witold Pilecki, one of the leaders of a cell of Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej (i.e. Union of Armed Struggle) abbreviated ZWZ, organized by colonel Kazimierz Rawicz, a leader of Armia Krajowa (i.e. Home Army) abbreviated AK, and a member of a joint Auschwitz Military Council.

Although Bernard’s son does not know what exactly his Dad was responsible for, his kites sent from Auschwitz suggest that the main aims of the resistance movement were to organize escapes, collect information on Nazi crimes and the situation of prisoners, “organize” extra food and medicines, or help the weakest inmates avoid selections and survive. For his heroism, courage, and devotion, Bernard Swierczyna was given the War Order of Virtuti Militari, the Silesian Uprising Cross, and the Auschwitz Cross. In fact, they were given to his son, who represented his Father, after the war. To commemorate her husband, Ada also decorated their son with his Father’s War Order of Virtuti Militari for his First Communion.

The worth of human life

In the second half of 1944, the military situation of Nazi Germany was critical, so the SS authorities focused on removing the evidence of their own crimes and evacuating most of the prisoners to be employed in the Third Reich. The remaining ones had every right to suspect that they, as direct eyewitnesses of dreadful abuse, humiliation, and extermination of innocent men, women, and children, would be liquidated. The only way of preventing it and saving their lives could be an uprising. However, the final result of it seemed to be obvious as power relations between the strong and well-armed SS and the extremely exhausted and enslaved prisoners were unequal. For this reason, the leaders of the resistance movement decided to organize an escape of a few of its prominent members who could report the tragic situation to the public to punish the Nazi criminals. These were Ernst Burger, Czesław Duzel, Piotr Piąty, Zbigniew Raynoch, and Bernard Świerczyna.

While working in the Bekleidungskammer, Bernard frequently went to a laundry in Bielsko from which clothing was delivered to the Reich to be used for military and civilian purposes. He was strongly convinced it would provide a perfect opportunity for him and his inmates to escape from hell. Their plan was to leave the camp hidden in a car filled with clothes and get to Łęki-Zasole where they were to be waited for by courriers from the local Sosienki partisan unit. However, one of two SS men who were supposed to help, i.e. bribed Rottenführer Johann Roth appeared to be a traitor. On the basis of details on the planned escape provided by Roth, the Political Department (Politische Abteilung) ambushed them. When the car stopped next to the guard house, the armed SS men got on it, whereas the driver drove towards Block 11. The escapees, who realized they were trapped, tried to poison themselves, but only two of them died. The remaining three, including Bernard Swierczyna were imprisoned and eventually sentenced to death after a few-week investigation involving tortures. Moreover, the Gestapo arrested two Austrians accused by Roth of co-organizing the escape and the other SS men, Frank who supported the resistance movement in the camp. They also arrested and killed members of the Sosienki partisan unit in Leki-Zasole, including Konstanty Jagiello (known as Kostek) from the September 1940 transport who had escaped from Auschwitz a few months before Bernard. As a reward for his loyalty, Roth received a photograph of the Chief of the Economic and Administrative Main Office (SS-WVHA), Oswald Pohl signed by him. This is how much lives of several people were worth… 

Bernard's poem in Cell 28
Bernard's poem in Cell 28

'Long live Poland!'

Three days before the execution Bernard Świerczyna wrote on the door of cell 28 in Block 11: 'I only wanted to be a man not a soulless collection of numbers, to link my being with future ages, to know the code of future histories... Force took me by betrayal and put me behind bars but did not break my honour. Even the executioner cannot do that'. Also, he wrote: 'Quia pulchris est pro Patria mori' which means: 'It is sweet to die for the Fatherland'.

Bernard and his inmates were to be hanged in the presence of about twelve thousand prisoners on December 30, 1944, i.e. one day before New Year’s Eve. They did not let the hangman cover their eyes. When SS-Oberstrumführer Franz Hössler read the sentence aloud, Bernard screamed: 'Long live Poland!'. Furious SS-Unterscharführer and Rapportführer Oswald Kaduk started beating his face with a butt of his firearm even though Bernard had his hands tied and could not defend himself. After that, he was hanged.

It was the last public execution at the camp on the roll call square in front of the kitchen building. According to Bernard’s son, his family did not know anything about his escape, imprisonment in Block 11, and execution. The sad news of the tragedy was spread by their neighbour and Bernard’s schoolmate, who came back from Auschwitz after the liberation, and other inmates. 

'If I ever had a chance to talk to my Father, I would say: I love you Dad.'

On September 12, 1940 Bernard’s wife gave birth to their son who is now 76. In one of his letters from Auschwitz Bernard reminded Ada what name they had chosen for him. It was Felicjan. Bernard certainly wished he could hold his beloved little boy in his arms, see him smile, play with him, or teach him how to walk and speak. Boring everyday life, as one could call it, was his greatest dream. How difficult must it have been for him to not know if it would ever come true? Felicjan also waited for his Daddy to come back home but all in vain.

Bernard's wife, Adelajda, and their son
Bernard's wife, Adelajda, and their son

A simple but precious gift Bernard created and sent from behind the barbed wire appeared to be a very personal memento of him as he never joined his family. The gift was the Fairy Tale of the Hare, the Fox, and the Rooster translated from Czech into Polish by Stanisław Bec and his Czech inmates. The main character was the Hare forced out of its hut by the dangerous Fox everyone was scared of. Neither Dogs nor a Bear or a Bull could help it defeat the heartless enemy. Only the Rooster was brave enough to protect the hopeless Hare.

Risking his life, Bernard asked an SS man to deliver the Fairy Tale with a personal dedication to four-year-old Felicjan. It was on Adelajda’s birthday. When she opened the door, she noticed the tall soldier who gave her a German book titled 'Das Altertum', said 'thank you' and 'goodbye', and left. As soon as it had happened, she discovered that the Fairy Tale was in it. It was hidden in a rectangular hole cut out of a few pages which was just a bit bigger than a pocket of cigarettes. On the first and the last pages of the German book Bernard wrote his name, surname, and number. There were also soldier’s name, surname, and military rank. However, Adelajda tore the page containing the information out of the book after a visit of representatives of the KGB (i.e. the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union) who looked for Bernard in January 1945. She was scared she could be accused of and arrested for cooperation with Germans. According to Felicjan, his family had absolutely no information on the soldier. They did not know who he was or why he had agreed to deliver the Fairy Tale.

As it has already been mentioned, Rottenführer Johann Roth betrayed Bernard and his inmates, which led to their death. Hence, one may have every right to conclude that it was possible in this case as well. If so, why did Bernard decide to try? What was the reason which made him take such a high risk? As Felicjan suspects, his Father wished to give him a clear guideline for his life conveyed through the last lines of his dedication. It was that courage was the most important virtue in life, which Bernard proved himself.

Felicjan donated the Fairy Tale to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 1996 as he did not know how his life would change in the future and was scared the Fairy Tale would be lost or destroyed. According to him, it came back to the place of its origin. However, he sometimes regrets his decision. When asked about his Father, Felicjan admits he does not remember him at all even though Bernard had a chance to see his wife and son from a distance a few times as he travelled to the laundry. Adelajda took the boy to a baker from Bielsko who let them stay at his place and wait for the Bekleidungskammer staff to pass. Felicjan also describes a meeting which took place in 1944. While he was walking with his aunt and neighbour along Mikołowska Street in Mysłowice to visit his grandfather, a car suddenly stopped. Two SS guards and a man wearing a stripped uniform jumped out of it. The man took Felicjan into his arms, held him, and cried. It was his Father… Felicjan made sure the story was true when in 2008 he received a letter from and then met the woman who had accompanied them and remembered the whole situation. She saw him on TV and decided to get his address to share her memories with him. When thinking about it, one could suspect that Felicjan might have been angry with his Dad who devoted his life to Poland and left his son even though he loved him so much. However, when asked this question, Felicjan replied: 'If I ever had a chance to talk to my Father, I would say: I love you Dad'.

Felicjan Świerczyna, son of Bernard
Felicjan Świerczyna, son of Bernard

Lost but not without a trace

The Fairy Tale of the Hare, the Fox, and the Rooster was not the only thing left by Bernard. The collection of his son includes Bernard’s bookcase, books, desk, piano, photographs, school certificates, marriage certificate, military certificates, CV, texts written by Bernard for periodicals published in Silesia and articles on him, pictures showing the face of Jesus Christ and the Pilsko mountain hostel drawn by Bernard, letters sent from Krzeszowice and Auschwitz, kites from Auschwitz, paintings of Bernard painted by his inmates in the camp and sent to Adelajda, the book in which the Fairy Tale was hidden, a death certificate issued after the war, an obituary, the War Order of Virtuti Militari, the Silesian Uprising Cross, the Auschwitz Cross, etc. A primary school and one of the streets in Myslowice were named after Bernard Swierczyna. Also, Felicjan’s son received his name. Now it is time for him and his siblings to share the story of their Grandfather who was 'Somebody' or 'the Man of the Renessaince' for their dad and one of the bravest national heroes for us.


Magda Stania

I am deeply grateful to Mr. Felicjan Świerczyna who devoted his precious time to share the story of his Father with me and present his collection of mementos. All the photos used in this article were provided by him.