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Lederfabrik: The Dark History of the Forgotten Auschwitz Tannery

The citizens of Oświęcim passed by this building every day, not knowing how important it was in the history of their town. It is not a surprise though; the tannery was there forever, it melted within the surrounding area and was not being used for years. Just another empty building in Oświęcim. It was only in the year 2000, when the world reminded itself of the tannery. It was noticed again. This was one of the most important parts of Auschwitz, where prisoners worked and died. However, it was not included in the UNESCO buffer and protection zone, and that is why nobody paid any attention until the owner of the land decided to open a discothèque there. In this essay, I will describe the history of the tannery in Oświęcim to highlight another example of incredibly important areas of Auschwitz have been forgotten and ignored.

Few people realise that before the outbreak of the Second World War, many Jews lived in the town of Oświęcim. Polish authorities conducted a census in 1921, which showed that 40% of the population were Jewish (4950 out of 12187 people). The number continued to grow, and reached 8200 in 1939 (almost 60% of the general population of the town then). You could see the Jewish presence in the town. It was very visible in the industry too. Many of the factories located in Oświęcim belonged to Jews. They owned all of the factories connected with the tanning, chemical, processing, building, concrete and alcoholic industry. The most obvious evidence of how affluent the Jews of Oświęcim were is the fact that some of their factories were known not only across Poland, but also worldwide – i.e. the Haberfeld’s factory that was producing liquor and alcohol or “Agrochemia” that belonged to Józef Schönkera. 

View of the tannery complex by Marek Rawecki
View of the tannery complex
Photo by Marek Rawecki, 2006

The tannery was owned by the Enoch family – it was a famous Jewish family from Oświęcim. Hersch Enoch, who opened the tannery, was a member of the Town Council. He also owned three blocks and a bakery, and a small company producing beer. For a very long time, he was the only supplier of oil used in the lanterns and flats around Oświęcim.

In 1897 he bought some land from the town authorities where decided to build a house for his children (Jakub, Józef and Ekiwa). After one year the ground floor of this house was developed into the tannery. They named it “Hersch Enoch and Sons” and at first it was just a small workshop, where all the works were done manually. The leather was tanned in huge tubs standing in the yard of the tannery. The first registered worker of the tannery was Usher Radomiński. Other employees came from Kęty, Chrzanów, Łodygowice and Myślenice. The company was growing and by 1907 it was one of the biggest in Oświęcim. Every summer the Enochs would employ from ten to twenty additional workers, just to be able to keep up with the orders. 

When the First World War ended, the Enoch family started to face some financial difficulties. They sold the tannery in 1919 to the Tannery Company in Cracow. There were three supervisors then: Simon Shtamberg, Józef Leinkramer and Wolf Stampe. In that period of time, the building went through several modifications. It became much more modern. New techniques had been introduced. A lot of new workers were employed (85 people worked there in 1921). However, the Tannery Company went bankrupt in 1927. The new owner, Artur Müller, decided to change the name of to „Soła-Fabryka Skór” (‘Soła- the Leather Manufacture’). He rented the tannery to Wilhelm Goldstein and Kurt Jacobi in from 1930 to 1932. In 1932, it was sold to the Upper Silesian Leather Central in Katowice, which owned the building until the outbreak of the Second World War. 

The economic situation of Poland in 1930s was difficult for many reasons. In that time Polish agriculture went through a crisis, which influenced other sectors of economy, including the industry. Loses were bigger than earnings. More than 3 500 industry companies went bankrupt and closed throughout Poland. The situation in Oświęcim was also difficult, a lot of people were unemployed, and the wages dropped significantly. It was then when the workers’ political movements became more popular, as they were representing the unhappy people and promising them a better future. 

Franciszek Zemła was born on 13th June 1902 in Oświęcim. He worked in the tannery and was one of the very first members of the workers’ movement there. He says:

From 1924 to 1926 I worked in the tannery in Oświęcim, which was owned by a private owner then. In 1926 I lost my job and was unemployed, because it was very difficult to find a new job then. In 1927 the tannery was sold to a new owner, and I came back there. I met Marian Czerwiński there, and we established the Chemists’ Trade Union. We had to work ten or twelve hours every day. We wouldn’t get any money for overtime, and the wages were so low. Therefore we decided to go on a strike. We won the strike, but a lot of people got fired, including Marian Czerwiński, who was the leader of our Trade Union.1

During the war, Franciszek was a civilian worker by the construction of the camp (in the Kluge Company). With other workers, he did his best to help the prisoners, even though it was dangerous – the SS would guard them to make sure they don’t speak to each other. When the war ended, Franciszek worked for three years in Zakłady Chemiczne (The Chemical Plant in Oświęcim), and then returned to working in the tannery.

The Nazi authorities started their anti-Jewish politics in Oświęcim as soon as they entered the town. The Jews were excluded from the Town Council (which was liquidated shortly afterwards), and all the Jews older than ten years old had to wear a white badge on their arms with the Star of David on it. They were not allowed to go to public places, parks and to use the public transport. They were banned from schools, all of their books were taken away by the Nazis, and they had to close down all of their shops and businesses. Their fortunes were taken over by the Germans. All of the Jewish companies (including the industries) were given to the Main Trustee Office for the East (Haupttreuhandstelle Ost). It was the only organisation entitled to nominate and to withdraw the people in charge of the companies. The Main Trustee Office for the East was usually giving them to Germans who came to live in the town or to people, who signed the Volksliste. 

Unfortunately, there are no surviving documents that would tell us, how and when the SS took over the tannery and started to use it as an industry connected with the Auschwitz concentration camp. We do know however that it had to be fairly early in the Nazi occupation, as many former prisoners say that even the prisoners from the very first transport from Tarnów (14th June 1940) were assigned to work there. There are also those who say that the tannery became the part of Auschwitz in 1941. The main task of the building remained the same. 

The tannery was located outside Auschwitz I, by the Soła River, on the road leading from Rajsko to Oświęcim. The perimeter of the building was square. Just after entering the perimeter and going through the barrier, on the left you could see a guard house, where one of the SS-men was checking everybody who wanted to enter the factory. Right next to the guard house there were the clothing workshops and the offices of the administration. The next building was called ‘Kanada’ and it was used as a drying place for the tanned leather. The biggest building was the main production hall of the tannery, where there were huge tubs filled with the chemicals required to tan the leather. The latrine was located between the main production hall and the iron works workshops. On the right site of the perimeter, there were stables for the horses of the commandant Höss, and the kennels with dogs. In the very middle, there was a chimney that was working day and night– the prisoners had to burn everything that was brought to the camp with the incoming transports, which was not of any value to the Nazis anymore and could not be used again in the future, including things like personal belongings of the people, pictures, diaries, notebooks and clothes that could not be repaired. 

Paweł Żur, prisoner number 1188, was one of the first people who were assigned to work in the tannery. He gave his testimony in 1967. This is how he describes the building of the tannery: 

The factory was surrounded with a fence made out of boards, put one right next to each other. At the top of the fence there was barbed wire. In the corners of the land, there were four guard towers. Just after the main gate, there was a barrier. Our kommando (working unit) was called Bekleidungswerksätten then. Tailors, shoemakers, tanners, rope makers, and locksmiths worked there. The best and most gifted tailors and shoe makers – the ones who were really excellent and well-known before the war – worked for the SS members and their families. In the clothing workshops we also repaired the uniforms of the prisoners. All the repaired uniforms were put on the cart that brought our midday soup and were taken back in the camp.2

We do not know the exact number of prisoners working in the tannery; we estimate there might have been 1000 to 1200 prisoners working there. They were taken to Bekleidungswerkstatte Lederfabrik every morning. The SS guarded them all the way. In Auschwitz I, this kommando lived in the Block 14. The Blockfuhrerschreiber there was Teofil Dziama (prisoner number 13578), who was a Polish officer before the war and who was one of the main members of the resistance in the tannery. The prisoners ate breakfast and supper in the main camp, and a cart would bring them their soup in the midday. This kommando was considered to be kind; the prisoners worked inside a building and had a chance to talk to the civilians, which made it easier for them to survive. However, only qualified and well-educated prisoners could work there. Everybody who lied about their experience or qualifications would soon be punished by beating and send back to the camp. 

Leon Murzyn (prisoner number 62850) worked in Lederfabrik since January 1942 until 22nd October 1944. He says:

There were 1200 prisoners working in the tannery in the tanning production hall, and in the woodworks, as the shoe makers, as saddlers and as locksmiths. There were stables right next to the factory, with freight and regular horses. There were 15 horses that were used to pull the carriages, and the total number of horses was 150. The stables somehow surrounded the perimeter of the factory, and I could see all of the yard of the factory from the stables. In the yard there were prisoners working at the segregation of the things that were brought by people to Auschwitz, including clothing and the personal belongings (the bags, suitcases, purses, shoes).3

The prisoners had also to take care of the leather brought to the tannery from different sub-camps connected to Auschwitz, mostly from Harmęże and Rajsko. Ryszard Wiśniewski, prisoner number 2678, who came to Auschwitz on 15th August 1940, said: 

They would bring to us animals taken away from the local people. We had to skin them, and cook the meat for the hens in Harmęże. Then we had to put salt on the skins, roll them up, put numbers on them, then write down the numbers. Finally, we had to take them to the basements. When the number of skins was high enough, they would be sent. When it comes to the meat, we just cooked it, we would send the smaller pieces and bones back to Harmęże, and leave the bigger pieces for ourselves. We then gave them to other prisoners.4

The other kinds of work the prisoners had to do included cleaning and repairing the SS uniforms and the clothes belonging to their families, repairing the prisoners uniforms and their wooden clogs, and storing  the clothes that belonged to the people killed in the gas chambers, alongside with their private belongings and shoes. The prisoners working in the tannery had to take care of the animals kept there (horses and dogs, and for a very short period of time – minks, but they all died due to stress and the noise).

Commandant Rudolf Höss visited the tannery on a regular basis – he often checked on the welfare of his horses in the stable. There was a Ukrainian SS-man who took care of them; he spoke Polish fluently and prisoners testified that this was the language he was using when speaking to horses. Rudolf Höss also ordered in the tannery uniforms for himself and clothes for his family. Erich Grönke, who used to be the kapo of the shoemakers in Lederfabrik, had a very good relationship with the commandant. Grönke used to be a prisoner, but was released from the camp, and later employed in the tannery as a civilian worker. Adam Dembowski, prisoner numer 677, who came to Auschwitz with the very first transport on 14th June 1940, says:

Erich Grönke was friends with Höss and he really wanted to serve him well. In the tannery the tailors were making uniforms for the SS officers, but most of them would belong to Höss and his family. Grönke himself supervised the cleaning and the ironing of the uniforms for Höss. I worked in the office. The people would bring shoes for repairing to me (but only those belonging to SS officers), they would also bring clothes and uniforms to be cleaned and ironed. I had to write down on a piece of paper what had to be done. I had special documents to fill in. Then I had to take every item to the workshops. If the case was urgent, I had to wait in the workshops until the work was finished or come back later. (…) I often accompanied Grönke, when he took the repaired shoes or the cleaned uniforms to Höss. We had those trips really often, as the commandant owned a lot of uniforms and shoes.5

One of the darkest parts in the history of Lederfabrik is the fact that this place was used to dry the hair of women killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The hair was later used to produce the felt for the German industry. The Nazis used the hair yarn to make socks for the sailors working on the submarines and for people working on the railway. Oswald Pohl issued a special order addressed to commandants of all concentration camps on 6th August 1942; the order stated that they should store the hair of the people who came to the camp (including the ones killed in the gas chambers). Karol Bienias, prisoner number 1254, who was brought to Auschwitz on 26th June 1940, says:

Later on I was moved to work in the 'Soła' tannery. Various objects like shoes, coats, underwear, dentures and female hair were being brought there every day from Rajsko to be sorted and stored. We would clean the hair by taking out all the pins and accessories from it, we would then brush it with our hands and then put it in bags that would later on be sent to Germany. I remember we loaded once around 1,500 kg of female hair in the train on the railway station in Oświęcim. I do not remember where it was sent to. If we made a mistake when sorting the hair, we would be flogged. This is why we worked even more slowly preparing next transports.6

Stanisław Głowa, prisoner number 20017, who came to Auschwitz on 12th August 1941 and was immediately assigned to work in the tannery, mentions that also human skin was tanned there. He says:

The tannery that was nearby would tan the human skin to make bags from it. I remember one of my colleagues, a doctor, who showed me once what he received from another prisoner working in the tannery. It was a beautiful wallet made from human skin that was taken from male crotch and a cigarette holder taken from a skin of a Jewish prisoner. The human skin is so much prettier than animal leather. One of the prisoners working in the tannery, who worked as an upholsterer for Gestapo, used human skin to cover the armchairs. The rumor has it that he also made toys for German children using human skin.7

Many of the prisoners assigned to work in Lederfabrik were famous artists before the war. Most of them were very gifted and well-known painters and sculptors. People like Xawery Dunikowski, Mieczysław Kościelniak, Jan Baraś-Komski, Jan Machnowski, Bronisław Czech and Wincenty Gawron worked in the tannery, continuing to produce their art in secret. However, the Nazis soon found out that they were artists, and came to them with orders for paintings and sculptures. They paid the prisoners with cigarettes and food. The artists were located in a room on the first floor of the tannery, and they worked there on designing the official German signs and boards used later in the camp. Xawery Dunikowski, a famous Polish sculptor and graphic, would not be able to survive the camp if it wasn’t for the easy job and good conditions there. He was sixty five years old when he was arrested. His colleagues and the prisoner resistance inside the camp saved him. 

The prisoners working in the tannery came from different social groups and were a mix of professions before the war. Polish political prisoners formed the largest group. Some of them were members of the resistance, and were arrested and executed on 11th October 1943. The group included Teofil Dziama (prisoner number 13578) and Juliusz Gilewicz (prisoner number 31033). Tomasz Serafiński (Witold Pilecki, prisoner number 4859, who volunteered to be arrested and put in Auschwitz). He talks about his time in the tannery and the process of establishing the resistance in his ‘Report’. Due to the fact that the tannery was located outside so-called Interessengebiet (the interest zone of the camp) it was easier to maintain and keep the contact with the civilians and the resistance outside the camp. The residents of Oświęcim helped the prisoners in the tannery by delivering letters to them, or by leaving the medicine and food in hiding places. The civilian workers also tried to help the prisoners – even though they have been warned that any contacts with them would be punished by being arrested. Even the SS allowed contact on occcasion.

Sometimes the SS would be more lenient and they would lead their kommandos to Lederfabrik, knowing the prisoners would get some help there from the civilians. Wanda Ojrzańska, prisoner number 45754, who came to Auschwitz on 2nd June 1943, remembers this:

It was a very important place for me as we used to eat dinner there. If our Aufseherin (the female SS guard – I.B.), that was easy to bribe, she allowed us to enter the factory. And boys there were cooking those delicious soups all the time and treated us. They were the best soups in the world.8

Not all of the Germans working in the Lederfabrik had a good reputation. One of the most evil people was kapo Erich Grönke (prisoner number 11), who soon became known amongst the prisoners for his cruelty and atrociousness. He was released from the camp in 1941 due to his good behavior, and was re-employed in the tannery. He worked there as a civilian supervisor. Grönke lived in the factory with his wife and mother, sometimes his father visited them. The prisoners say his mother was a very good and sympathetic person, who often helped and protected them from her son. Leon Murzyn says:

Grönke beat the prisoners with a leather whip, and he also had a rubber bat which was 70-80 centimeters long. He used it to beat the prisoners too. If he didn’t have his whip or rubber bat with him, he would use literally anything to beat. Sometimes he used shovels or a stick he found somewhere. He beat the whole body, including the head, until you dropped on the floor. I have seen a couple of dozens of times that he kicked the prisoners who fell down, forcing them to get up. I have also seen a lot of prisoners who weren’t able to get up anymore, no matter how hard he kicked them or how much water we used to wake them up. They couldn’t get up, they didn’t get up. A prisoner in that condition was dragged under the wall of the factory until the roll-call that ended the work, then he would be dragged back to be put in a row with other prisoners. Other prisoners carried him in their arms back to the camp (…). I estimate that Grönke killed this way (just by beating them up) 50-70 prisoners since January 1942 until October 1944.9

Inside the dilapidated and abandoned tannery
Inside the dilapidated and abandoned tannery
Photo by Marek Rawecki, 2006

The Lederfabrik was closed down on 18th January 1945 when the Auschwitz concentration camp was being evacuated due to the Red Army approaching. The prisoners working in the tannery were made responsible for the transport of items stored there. Karol Bienias said:

On the 18th January 1945 kapo Grönke chose a couple of prisoners from our commando (including me) to drive carts with horses. The carts would form a transport. That transport included a couple of carts filled in with various objects taken from the tannery – duvets, pillows, new shoes, underwear and things like that. We drove through towns like Wodzisław, Opawa, Jablovice, Karlowe Vary to Floss in Bayern. In Jablovice we stopped for around three weeks. I found some pages from the diary of our kapo Grönke. I kept them up to this day. You can find names of different prisoners from our kommando, you can see there my name too. We left our carts in Floss, and then we were attached to the column of other prisoners. The death march started.10

 When the war had ended, the tannery once again opened its doors for commercial use. It was filling orders mainly for the Chemical Plant in Oświęcim, but also for other companies, such as Bata Factory in Chełmek.

In August 2000, the eyes of the world turned onto the tannery again. This was a direct result as a consequence of a decision by land owner, Rafał Waliczek, who opened up a discothèque there for the youth of Oświęcim. He was well aware of what the Lederfabrik was and what role it had in the history of KL Auschwitz. He justified his decision, saying that the tannery is not included in the UNESCO buffer zone (where any kind of changes are forbidden) and that it’s two kilometers away from the main camp, so a discothèque there is not disrespectful towards the people who were killed in that place. He also stated that the building standing then on that land was not an original tannery building. It was supposed to be demolished and then rebuilt in 1952, so it was no longer connected with the history of the camp. However, the Auschwitz Study Group was able to check this information. There are documents proving that the building standing on that piece of land in 1962 was the original tannery building. The documents were signed by Polish judges, who had to confirm the testimonies of former prisoners so that they could be used in the upcoming lawsuits against the Nazi criminals. It is clearly visible that the owner of the land was lying, hoping that it would justify his extremely controversial decision. 

Many famous and influential people decided to give their opinion about the case. The names included Władysław Bartoszewski (former Auschwitz prisoner, then the head of the Council of Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites) and Simon Wiesenthal (the famous Nazi hunter), who issued a special statement on 10th September 2001. He said: 

A disco in the immediate vicinity of the largest Jewish graveyard in the history, amounts to an affront, while local authorities have said they can do little because the dance club is on private property.11

The newspapers like New York Times, Newsweek and Central Europe Review, alongside with leading world news services (BBC and CNN) reported daily on that case. It did not come as a surprise that Rafał Waliczek, the owner of the land, changed his plans and decided not to open the discotheque in the tannery. 

A second plan that was suggested involved the building of a shopping center on the land. Zbigniew Sroczyński, the owner of the chain of the dancing clubs, who accompanied Waliczek in his fight with the public opinion, said:

We will build a shopping center instead of a discoteque. We will put a special plaque commemorating the people who perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau. This plan was accepted by both Town Council and authorities, but also by all the groups visiting Auschwitz Memorial.12

In the very same statement, Sroczyński said that only the owner of the land should be able to decide what to build there or not, and that people in Oświęcim want to live normal lives.

The tannery chimney
The tannery chimney
Photo by Marek Rawecki

The tannery was demolished in 2005, when its condition was classified as dangerous for people to enter. You can still see the rubble of the chimney and much of the original floor tiles. The waste land where the factory once stood is now occasionally used for public events, car park overspills and temporary storage facilities.

One of the most recent temporary occupiers were the organisers of the Life Festival, which began in 2010. The main idea behind the Festival was to promote peace and tolerance, but also to show the lesser known face of Oświęcim that is not connected with Auschwitz. The organizer of the Life Festival decided to place a long line of public toilets in the perimeter of the former tannery. The history of Lederfabrik was not mentioned during any edition of the festival.

The problem that the town of Oświęcim has faced for more than seventy years, is the connection with the Auschwitz concentration camp which has developed into a very strange kind of relationship. The tannery was just one of many buildings attached to Auschwitz which was not included into the boundaries of Museum protection. As the factory was located outside the UNESCO buffer zone, the Museum did not feel responsible for it, and therefore as a direct consequence, there were no efforts to protect it or to commemorate it. The Tannery was an incredibly important part of the history of Auschwitz however, it sits alongside several dozen buildings just outside the museum zones that are not recognised as Auschwitz. For over 70 years, the abandonment of this unwanted part of the Auschwitz history, a history that has never even been commemorated with a plaque during its post war existence is a disgrace to the memory of the victims who perished here, and the grotesque events that took place.

Iga Bunalska

 

Notes

1 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 584 by Franciszek Zemła, volume 27, pages 107-113.

2 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 1241 by Paweł Żur, volume 55, page 55.

3 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 176811 by Leon Murzyn, volume 147, page 11.

4 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 1577 by Ryszard Wiśniewski, volume 72, pages 26 and 27.

5 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 1027 by Adam Dembowski, volume 48, pages 131 and 132.

6 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 4859 by Karol Bienias, volume 21, page 83.

7 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 159503 by Stanisław Głowa, volume 94, page 158.

8 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 177144 by Wanda Ojrzańska, volume 149, page 63.

9 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 176811 by Leon Murzyn, volume 147, page 11.

10 The Archives of Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The testimony number 4859 by Karol Bienias, volume 21, page 83.

11 R.Cohen, For synagogue next door to Auschwitz, a Theme of Healing at Re-Opening Rights w New York Times, September 2002.

12 Ibidem.