Heroes and Criminals – To Survive KZ Sachsenhausen

In the late nineties during a yacht journey through the Canadian lakes, I met a tall and slim elderly sailor, Professor Jerzy Pindera.  His springy military walk revealed a man full of energy, a man always in search of action and challenge.  His personage was engulfed with the legend of horrific war experiences.  Seriously wounded in September of 1939, he struggled to the end of his days with permanent handicap of one hand.  His busy, tragic and exciting life came to an end in Waterloo, Canada, in 2003.

In the spring of 2004 Pindera’s war memoir was published. A tiny modest book entitled Liebe Mutti; One Man’s Struggle to Survive in KZ Sachsenhausen, 1939-1945, was edited and expanded with a commentary by Lynne Taylor, a history professor at the University of Waterloo.

Liebe Mutti represents yet another important witness account of the genocide committed on the Polish people during World War II.  In September of 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, Pindera was a student of aeronautics at the Technical University in Warsaw.  Mobilized in the rank of an officer, he went west to fight Germans. After initial defeat, his detachment was retreating east to reorganize for counteroffensive.  The treacherous Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939 caught Pindera by surprise in the vicinity of his hometown – Chelm.

Initially the mission of the Soviet military was unclear but soon leaflets dropped form the Soviet planes clarified the situation. Pindera recalls two such leaflets. One stated that “two greatest statesmen in history, Stalin and Hitler, decided to terminate the existence of the bourgeois Polish state (…) and intend to destroy the system of oppression of the Polish State.” The second leaflet called upon the Ukrainian people to fight against the Poles, to destroy the Polish administration and eliminate the Polish population.

Rapidly, the Soviets cut off the Polish army in eastern Poland from the rest of the country. Although the return to Warsaw was blocked, the apprentice of aeronautics found his way back.  Pindera takes control of a Russian plane and flies back.  His plane is shot down near Warsaw.

Seriously wounded, he falls into Wehrmacht’s hands.While his wounds are still healing, he escapes from the hospital just to be captured again, but this time he falls into Gestapo’s clutches.

This is when his five-year-long gehenna amid existence and non-existence begins.  Horrific tortures during interrogations bring about profound reflections.  This is when Pindera loses all respect for Germans.  In his words, they were no longer the same Germans he knew from literature, poetry, from science, engineering, and private contacts. These were merely narrow-minded pragmatics oriented exclusively towards achieving the goal imposed on them by their leader.  They valued political opportunism over moral principles and subordinated their ethical system to the willpower of Fuhrer. Their urge to assure Germany’s glorious future by using all possible means became repulsive.

In August of 1940 Pindera enters KZ Sachsenhausen.  In his welcoming speech, SS-Oberscharfuhrer Wilhelm Schubert explains that in the concentration camp there are no sick people.  There are only those still alive or those who are already dead. He further adds that there is only one way out – that through the chimney of the crematorium. Schubert truly enjoyed his work. His favorite saying was that prisoners were not human beings – they were merely prisoners!

Pindera’s memoir paints a detailed picture of the living conditions in the concentration camp. His story also focuses on the human behavior in extreme circumstances.  Keen observation of the camp life led Pindera to the conclusion that the camp was precisely organized as a sadistic system aimed at breaking people, crashing their will, and destroying their hope.  The camp managers were carefully selected for the job. They were charged with the task of creating the atmosphere of fear resulting from seemingly uncontrolled, random terror.  The terror however was not random but carefully planned.  Bestial murders of the prisoners were not random events but planned elimination of mentally unwavering or physically weak individuals. Almost always such acts were committed on orders of the higher ups.

“Liebe Mutti” represents the work comparable with the Holocaust classic “Survival in Auschwitz” by Primo Levi. Although in his account of life in the concentration camp Pindera focuses on facts and events, he also makes powerful comments about the spiritual and moral aspects of his experience.  His recollection of sadistic tortures and horrific scenes from the concentration camp is presented with one recurring thought in mind. Pindera is convinced that he was able to survive the death camp because he never compromised his moral principles. His deep conviction that in this degenerated animal place he must preserve his own humanity and civility at any cost, even when faced with death, helped him to develop the state of mind when he was no longer afraid of death. This attitude also gave him the sense of moral victory over the oppressors. He never considered himself a victim. He believed that only broken people become victims. He never joined their ranks.

The climax in the concluding scene exposes the source of the evil within the German war machine.  As the Soviet tanks approach KZ Sachsenhausen, three young SS officers take Pindera aside. “Herr Pindera,” one of them says, “we want you to know why we did what we did, and that now we realize we were wrong.”

Pindera recounts their story. As teenagers, they all went through Hitler Youth training where loyalty was valued more than honor. Upon graduation the Commandant called each of them to the office for a talk.  “Difficult tasks are awaiting you.” He said.  “These tasks are outside the rules of pre-war Germany.  But considering the significance of these tasks that would remain in our nation’s collective memory forever, only carefully selected individuals can undertake such tasks.  Make no mistake; the tasks will be difficult and unpleasant. Only those of the highest ethical strength would be able to perform them. But they will have to suppress their own ethical values; they will have to isolate themselves from everything they have learned at home and in school.

They would have to sacrifice themselves for the country.  Their individual deeds could be forgotten but thanks to their sacrifice the German nation will govern the world.”

These young patriotic Germans felt privileged to be selected for such an important mission. Five years later they began to understand the trap in which they found themselves. “We want you to understand,” the young SS officer continued, “now we realize we were deceived and misled. We were told we would become heroes but instead we became criminals. Maybe we will meet in Warsaw,” he joked, “but in different roles – we as workers rebuilding Warsaw.”

“They left but I couldn’t forgive them.” Pindera writes, „neither then nor now,” he adds. These people suppressed all their moral and ethical values and personal sense of honor just to replace them with blind and absolute sense of duty and loyalty.

The most severe blame though Pindera reserves for their leaders who took advantage of the patriotic idealism of the youth.  They are the ones who are responsible for forcing young Germans to commit horrific crimes. They called systematic sadistic slaughter of defenseless people as heroic deeds and encouraged bestiality. They created the climate of fear, haterage, and desire to dominate others. They are the ones who set the stage for crimes against humanity.

By Maria Szonert-Binienda

Forum, 10/2004