Its incomprehensible to imagine that selection for a work unit in Auschwitz where one rises before the rest of the camp and often returns after most other work commandos in the evening, would be considered a lucrative placement. Yet this was how hardened prisoners of Auschwitz would compartmentalise their lot.
This is not to say that the work commando was indeed an easy placement. On the contrary, such a placement never existed in the camps history. A highly sort after commando only met the essential requirements for life in such a hell. Access to organising food (camp jargon for opportunities to illegally increase a ration), shelter from the outdoor elements – heat and mosquitos in the summer and the freezing cold and death in the winter. And finally, if you had even a vaguely sympathetic Kapo or SS Overseer you could hardly hope for more.
The SS Küche, or SS canteen was one example of this. It provided all the basic ingredients for a chance of survival, yet it did not offer protection from the unpredictability of the guards. No commando could. The SS Küche was a place of lavishness, over indulgence and a place where the SS would mimic the prisoners need to survive by stealing food of their own, however in their case it was not for survival. Merely greed. It was a breeding ground for young soldiers to get drunk, eat, meet women (it was also a performance hall with a stage and cinema) and act how they like. If an unfortunate prisoner happened to be in the vicinity of a soldier of the SS who is missing out on such extravaganza due to being on rota, he may well meet his end.
The depraved work conditions at the SS Küche must not be downplayed in anyway. 250 prisoners were assigned here eventually preparing meals for 3,200 SS-men every day. Under half of these prisoners were peeling potatoes for the whole day and then went on to other tasks. The prisoners were known to serve the SS-men during the Kameradenschaftsabend (Bonding meetings of the SS), even though they worked all day and then served the SS all evening.
Despite the incredibly long shifts, the camps underground resistance managed to establish one of its bases here. It did afterall provide an essential lifeline to those camp inmates who were in no position to organise food beyond their starvation level diet.
In 1971, Walter Błażej Latka a prisoner who worked at the canteen for nearly a year gave his testimony in 1971. His Auschwitz number was 108607.
I was lucky to be assigned in the middle of June 1944 to the SS kitchen (SS Küche). I was assigned to be the accountant there.
The prisoners who worked in the SS-kitchen were the ‘Kommandiertkommando’ - it means we were leaving for work before the general roll-call in the morning (our shift started at five o’clock in the morning), and we would return to the camp at six o’clock in the evening, sometimes even later than that. There were 17-18 prisoners working there. The Kapo was Polish – his name was August Fronczak – he came from Łącko by Nowy Sącz. He was a very decent man and a good friend, he did many good things for us, and he was beaten for it too. There were many difficult situations in the camp, and he preferred to get beaten than to let anybody beat us, even when we deserved to be beaten.
When I was assigned to work there, the head of the SS Küche was SS-Unterscharführer Werner Paschke: he was of middle height, a bit chubby, he was a slaughterer and his father was a slaughterer. He would brag he came from Dresden. He was very nervous, his fellow SS-men called him ‘Schuttelkopf’. He had this tick: he was shaking his head when he was nervous. The tick was a result of him being buried under the rubble after one of the bombings. He was very cruel towards the prisoners. I remember I was walking one day by the place where the bread was unloaded – and then Paschke, for no reason at all, kicked me very hard. It shocked me a lot but what could I do? When he was calling us, you just had to drop everything and go. If he noticed something, he would beat you all over your body.
When I came to the kitchen on the very first day, he told me ‘Du stinkst wie die Pest! You stink like a plague! He told me that if I didn’t change my stripped uniform and didn’t shower properly, then he will throw me out of the kitchen. I was able to do all of that thanks to my colleagues.
He was replaced by another SS-man named Hans Scheffer, he was SS-Oberscharführer. I remember Werner Paschke had a wife who lived in Katowice on Henryka Sienkiewicza Street, she would sometimes visit him in Oświęcim, he was very jealous over her. There were seven SS-men in total in the kitchen, but I don’t remember their names. One of them made very good doughnuts but only the high ranked SS officers would receive them on special occasions.
One of my tasks as a Schreiber working in the SS Küche was to record the bills regarding the Sonderpflegung – the special food rations. They would be given to the SS-men who would volunteer to take part in the roundabouts and the killings in the gas chambers, so basically in any kind of the special actions. They were given small square pieces of paper (4x4 centimetres). This paper would allow the SS to get 100 grams of sausage, 5 cigarettes, half of litter of vodka, 250 grams of bread and a small amount of butter. I was doing the monthly summary of those special additions. I was grouping them looking at the signature of the SS officer who signed it. I remember that between May and September 1944 a lot of those papers were issued. For example, in June 1944 13,000 of them were issued, whilst the average was 3,000-7,000 a month. We used that to establish the number of people killed in the gas chambers. We counted there were 5 million people killed that way in Auschwitz.
The SS-men from the kitchen were sometimes assigned to the ramp in Birkenau.
When it comes to Scheffer, he was treating the prisoners a little better. He wouldn’t torment them that much. He wasn’t really clever, he was a womaniser and sometimes he would read out loud the fragments of the letters he was getting from all the women. Sometimes he asked me to write the letters for him. Each of the SS-men used the food as much as possible. If one of them was going back home for some time off work, we had to fill their luggage with food.
Hans Scheffler had a very beautiful dog, a German shepherd. He was training him on the prisoners. Usually he was using one of the prisoners working in the kitchen, Kazik Flak. Kazik would put a lot of rags on his body, enter the heating room in the kitchen barrack and this is where Scheffler would let his dog on the prisoner. Kazik was a young brave boy. He told me himself he felt sick when he couldn’t organise anything on the given day. Even though all the meals were prepared accordingly to recipes, we were still able to organise some of the products. We were doing it for various reasons but mostly because the best food and products would be delivered to the SS kitchen from the prisoner warehouses and the prisoner kitchen. If the SS-men were stealing from us, we didn’t feel bad about stealing from them.
In the very same barrack, except for the SS kitchen and the canteen, there was also the Kartoffelschalereikommando – the potato peeling. Very important people in the camp would visit the kitchen, of course I mean the SS. The doctors would come and the Rapportführers too. Kaduk for example. He ordered us to do some ‘Sport’. And we did nothing wrong. But he didn’t like something obviously. He was always drunk.
Some of the SS-men would go as far as to ask us for things if they needed them. If it was a decent man, we would help him. The SS female guards would come there often too. One of them, she was very tall, got really angry with me. She even pointed her gun in my direction, claiming I disrespected her. In other words: the kitchen was a magnet for all of the SS-men who wanted to organise something. They were not bad at it. Us – the prisoners would do the same, we would organise whatever possible. One of our colleagues who was employed in Verwaltung smuggled a lot of food back in the camp. His name was Józef Dominik. He was delivering food to the SS-men who were arrested in Block 11. We were always giving him more food so he could feed the prisoners in that block too. I remember Konstanty Jagiełło. He was picking up food from us and smuggling it in the camp.
Until autumn 1944 most of the prisoners working in the SS kitchen were Polish. We were very clever and sneaky. Our boss Scheffler summed it up one day by saying ‘Yes, Poles are very good workers, but they steal too much’. Except for us, Polish people, there were two Germans working with us – they were marked with green triangles, one of them was Otto, and the other Richard. I can’t remember their surnames. Richard came from Berlin and was tall and slim. He bragged lots about his criminal past.
There was one prisoner from Ukraine, his name was Franek. I remember we had some kind of competition going on. It was about helping the female prisoners. It started in autumn 1944 when a big group of girls was assigned to work in the SS kitchen as help. Most of them were Polish and Ukrainian. He helped the Ukrainian and I helped the Polish.
Prisoner Józef Zielińśki was the head of the diet section. Before the war he used to work for some kind of count. He was in his fifties and couldn’t speak German at all so I had to translate for him.
The women were assigned to work at the peeling of the potatoes. I remember one of them. Her name was Zosia and she came from Radom. She couldn’t live with the fact that Scheffler told her to clean his boots. She was very down. I was explaining her and tried to cheer her up but I didn’t succeed.
On 1st January 1945 I was still working in the kitchen. I was beaten up by the SS-man who came from Slovakia. He was slim and short. He beat me up very badly and I didn’t know why. I was so shocked. Maybe he beat me up as he was on duty when everybody else was drinking and having fun with the women upstairs? This very same man came back after an hour and asked me if I was angry with him. I think he felt guilty as he took me downstairs and gave me a glass of vodka.
Article written by Michael Challoner and Iga Bunalska
Translation and Research by Iga Bunalska