author: Mateusz Zimmerman
Seven lives of Marian Główka
He didn’t try to escape, he was unable to evade killing work and with all his tragedy he had a lot of luck. Marian Główka everyday had his brush with death. He crossed the gates of concentration camps seven times.
Exactly five years after he landed behind the wires for the first time, Marian Główka went to meet the American soldiers, who came to liberate the camp in Dachau. The day before he had come within an inch of death once again.
For five years he didn’t try to be a hero, he kept in line. Maybe that’s why he survived. Or maybe, simply – he had great luck. In the Nazi concentration camps, the death was everyday reality, and the survival – a work of chance.
Prisoner number 6638
Before the war started Główka was a teacher and a scoutmaster. During the Polish September Campaign he was supposed to join the Polish Army, as reservist, but he didn’t make it – with the whole family he started a journey from Bielsko-Biała to the East. Yet, they had to go back, since the Soviet Army started to invade the Borderlands (Pol. Kresy).
After his return to Bielsko, Marian Główka didn’t have any chance – as a Polish teacher – to find a job. The whole family suffered hunger.
The Germans came to take him at night. They told him to take a blanket and food for two days. It was April of 1940. At first there were interrogations, then a temporary camp in the furniture factory of Cieszyn, finally the group of prisoners were packed into railways wagons – not yet for cattle, but for human beings – and transported to the West. The soldier keeping an eye on them during the journey told them to eat all the food, if any of it left: “because in Dachau they will take away everything from them”.
They were chased out to the parade ground in hundreds. They were urged to get a shower, they got their heads and genitals shaved, and then they were thrown outside – barefoot and naked. Główka got a “low” camp number: 6638. At that time he was 32 years old.
In the academy of terror
The place, where Główka landed, had a bad reputation of the first German concentration camp. It was established right after the Nazi came to power – they captured so many political prisoners, that it was necessary to find for them places different than prison cells. The Bavarian police created then a prison camp on the territory of the old powder-magazine in Dachau, close to Munich, to hand over later its management to the SS.
The camp was built on a swampy and humid ground, in order to make prisoners’ lives of even more difficult. The territory itself was small (rectangle of 800 by 300 m), but it was surrounded by a kind of self-sufficient “SS little town”. It had its own hospital, schools, workshops and shops, even a sports stadium and a swimming-pool with diving-boards and a cinema theatre.
The Nazi concentration camp during the years of the Nazi’s government managed to create – like almost every such place – many branches. There were over 140 of them. They provided private companies, arms factories and SS enterprises with slave labour force.
The focal point of the “Dachau town” was the SS training centre. The candidates for commanding officers of the next Nazi camps – patterned on Dachau – and the members of their staff were supposed to be trained right here. Dachau became, as one of historians wrote, a specific “academy of terror”.
But still in spring of 1940 the living conditions in the camp were relatively bearable. The prisoners got their cabinets, aluminium mestins, even toothbrushes. The first few weeks in the camp consisted mainly of learning the march, assemblies, German songs and…looking for lice. As Główka referred: some of the prisoners almost longed for work.
Run with stones
They were convinced that the Germans would keep them in Dachau at most for a few weeks, and then they would be sent to a transitory camp somewhere in Great Poland (Pol. Wielkopolska). They were wrong. They got dressed in old uniforms, they were given wooden shoes and they got packed into wagons for cattle. They were going to the camp in Gusen.
Gusen was a branch of Mauthausen concentration camp. This camp complex was founded near a granite quarry, the biggest in Austria. In practice the camp was governed by criminals, which was an additional humiliation for the political prisoners.
The work was a killing one. Along the road of a few kilometers, going from the quarry to the camp, SS guards were sitting and urging the prisoners with whips. “In one direction we were running without a stone, and in the opposite one with a stone, grabbed on the run. In order to save the camp’s shirt, we were ordered to take the shirt off and we carrying the stones on bare shoulders” – Główka recalled.
One of the torturers told him to put on his shoulders a large piece of kerb, which could barely be lifted by three people. “I carried it for almost 50 meters. I got it off, because something cracked inside me” – he described. Result: two inguinal hernias. Główka almost couldn’t walk, he managed to get from the camp’s doctor a referral for the so called light work. He was lucky anyway: those who were unfit for work often got killed by the SS guards on the spot.
Soon Główka was beaten by the kapo of the place. The injuries were so serious that the prisoner moved down for some time to the role of the so called Muslim – this expression was used by the prisoners for the camp’s “living dead”, whose death was practically confirmed.
Rest means sentence
Once during the assembly, the number of Marian Główka was read out loud. His kommando remained on the parade ground, and the rest of the prisoners went to work. It was announced that Główka was going back to Dachau for a “rest”. This heralded the worst – other fellow-prisoners told him that the Germans were taking him only because of the fact that in Gusen there wasn’t a gas chamber and a crematory yet. Główka was convinced he was going to meet death.
The prisoners were loaded to cattle wagons. “It is so stuffy, that one feels faint. The week are dying” – he remembers. But behind the gates of Dachau nobody took them to the gas chamber. The ill got deloused, they got to the hospital. Główka got a new camp number – this time already a five digit one. He was still balancing between life and death.
He found a priest among the prisoners and asked him for a general confession. He was confessing, walking with the priest among the barracks. The had to walk quite close to each other in order to keep discretion. And distant enough so that the camp’s staff wouldn’t accuse them of homosexuality and wouldn’t mark them with the so called pink Winkel.
Soon a committee of SS men appeared in Dachau. They were looking for prisoners who would work for the camp’s extension in Oświęcim. Despite the wretched health conditions of Główka, he was picked up. One week before Christmas of 1940 he got to Auschwitz.
“You’ve been on holidays – here you will find out what discipline means!”
His stay in the camp started with beating the newly arrived, at random. “You’ve got it so that you know that you are in Oświęcim, not in Dachau. You were on holidays there – here you will learn discipline and order!” – the new prisoners could hear.
His kommando worked at pulling down the houses in the camp zone. He almost froze to death while working on the roof, then he managed to catch a job in the stable, finally: at concrete-mixing. This work was harder, but under the roof. The prisoners were building here among other things concrete pillars, on which later the barbed wire was fixed.
Główka worked with Stanisław Dubois, among other people – a well known lawyer, who, before the war, was imprisoned by the Sanation regime in the Brest Fortess (Pol. Twierdza Brzeska). After getting imprisoned in Auschwitz, Dubois became a member of the camp conspiracy, the same, to which the cavalry captain Witold Pilecki belonged. In front of Główka’s eyes, in 1942 Dubois was taken out for an execution by firing squad.
Peeing to trouser-legs
In his memories Główka expressed critical opinions regarding escapes from the camp, describing punishments, that were imposed later on the other prisoners: 24 hour assemblies without eating and drinking or possibility to go to the camp’s lavatory. That’s how he judged one of the escapes: “I cannot remember if the escape was successful or if he got caught. I remember only the tremendous heat, fainting prisoners, peeing to one’s trouser-legs!”.
He accused the prisoners trying to escape of being egoists, because after every such attempt, the SS men chose 10-15 prisoners to be executed by firing squad. Główka experienced such a “selection” twice and it was enough for him to form his own opinion on escapes. However, he didn’t care only for himself – at least one prisoners mentioned after the war that Główka had saved him several times, when he had typhus.
Główka himself didn’t try to get away from the camp. He knew that soon after discovering his escape, his family would be brought to Auschwitz – the SS often used this punishment as deterrent example.
Soon the hernia took its toll from Główka. Finally he had it operated, the doctors performed the operation practically without anesthesia. A few days after the surgery he presented himself for floor’s cleaning, because this was a guarantee of a better portion of food. In the camp hospital he stayed with another famous prisoner of Auschwitz – the sculptor Xawery Duni-kowski.
They both evaded death. They were discharged from the hospital at the very last moment, when they heard about the selection that was coming promptly. Not much later, in front of their eyes, the ill from the hospital were taken away by trucks to the gas chamber. Główka worked as well in the kommando of plumbers, beyond the camp’s enclosure, which made him relatively safe. However in October of 1944 – after almost four years of his stay in Auschwitz – he was sent to the transportation. He went to Lower Silesia.
Escaping from the front
At that time the Germans were already gradually evacuating and eliminating the last camps on the Polish territory, trying to cover up the tracks of their crimes. Główka was evacuated to Gross Rosen. He found himself in a group of qualified prisoners, who were supposed to extend that camp and prepare it to receive another ones, from Auschwitz, among other camps.
Right after his arrival to Gross Rosen he was submitted to a humiliating search. “I was told to bow down, open my buttocks and the SS men looked inside. Then I found out they were looking for gold. Because the opinion about the prisoners from Oświęcim was that they provided themselves with gold for the journey…” – he said. But he was lucky again, because his work was quite light: he worked producing doors for braziers.
One evening the sound of the alarm hooter could be heard and the camp plunged in darkness. Soviet airplanes were shooting towards the territory of the Nazi concentration camp (it was already February of 1945) and the staff decided to evacuate it. The prisoners were literally loaded to open coal-cars and once again they were transported to the West.
“To my coal-car probably a hundred of people got hustled. It was so tight, that it was impossible to change the leg!” – Główka wrote. The German kapos, who also had to stay in the coal-car, were throwing weaker Poles overboard during the journey – to make mores space for themselves. The prisoners had to bribe the supervisors with cigarettes to make them stop.
Those, who travelled this distance by trains, were still lucky. At the same time „death marches” were going regularly to the West – the prisoners were urged to Reich’s camps on foot, in the frost and under the open sky. On their way thousands of them died, only a small percentage reached the goal.
Polish songs, sorrel and sow thistle
For Marian Główka Hersbruck – one of the branches of the Nazi camp in Bavarian Flos-senbürg – was in all his sixth camp. The kommandos had to go to work in the mine, walking a few kilometers.
One day, going to the mine with a Polish kapo, the prisoners started singing Polish songs. “How much heart we put into that singing! «Oh my rosemary», «Heart in a backpack» and so on. And singing we were marching in the streets of that town. All the windows opened, lots of women and children at the windows!” – he said.
On the next day the camp commandant announced that singing songs in foreign languages was forbidden. But nobody hurt the prisoners – “The thousand years old Reich” was falling apart fast in front of everyone’s eyes and the SS torturers started to realize that showing mercy to the prisoners could soon work in their favour.
In Hersbruck Główka stayed only a month. The prisoners were urged on foot to the next camp. The bridges had already been bombed, for more than two weeks they wandered around on foot. They slept in orchards, barns or meadows. After a few days there was already no food („It had been said that if anyone had picked up a potato lying on the ground, he would have been shot as thief of the German goods “), it wasn’t allowed to scoop water either. Even easing the nature had to be done on the run. What saved Główka was the fact of chewing sorrel and sow thistle, picked up, when stopped on a meadow.
1800 prisoners had started the march – every fourth one arrived at the destination.
The commandant, the dog and the barrel on the back
For the third time in his life Główka crossed the gate saying Arbeit macht frei – not the one in Auschwitz, but the one in Dachau, well known to him. Frenetic evacuation of the camp was being done. The newly arrived were told to get undressed, Główka was convinced, all of them would be killed. He tried to get a civilian dress so that he could join those prisoners who were supposed to be evacuated further.
And once again he avoided death by the skin of his teeth. “Someone put his hand on my back. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Weiss – the commandant and the dog. Weiss put the gun against my back and he shouted: what was I going to do? I said I was naked and I wanted to get dressed. When you are about to leave the camp, you will get your clothes. He let his hand go. I started to run” – he said.
On the next day someone started to shout: “The Americans in the camp!”.
“People are running somewhere. So I’m running, too. Someone is cutting the wires! We are going out! The Germans are standing here – they are holding their hands up. There are two-three Americans behind them. With their sleeves rolled up. Automatic guns in their hands. General noise, joy, general kissing!” – that’s how Główka remembers his last moments as a German’s prisoner. He was one of over 30 thousand prisoners survived from the camp, crowded at that time to the absolute ultimate limit.
In the following weeks, as a stretcher-bearer he took care of the seriously ill at the camp hospital. He was amazed seeing how fast the American soldiers of the forces of occupation fraternized with their recent torturers. When he saw in the hospital an American sergeant, pawing a German nurse, he didn’t stand it and he decided to leave the camp.
Screams in a single tomb
With a few colleagues they decided to go to Poland. On his way he got to a Polish repatriation camp and he founded there a school for the recent forced workers. He came back to the country only in autumn of 1945, he found his wife and children and started working as a teacher again.
He didn’t say a word about his stay in the camps, even at home. Until the moment when he landed in the hospital with a heart disease (these afflictions were to continue for many years). “I said a little bit, I started to scream, wail, cry at night. They were waking me up. I understood that I couldn’t talk about the camp “.
After his return from the hospital, he told his wife about his nightmares. She told him that she could hear his screams from the moment he got back from Germany. Soon he started sleeping in a small room, away from his wife’s and children’s bedrooms, so that they wouldn’t wake up. He called it “single tomb” and used to say: “I can scream as much as I want. Nobody can hear me”.
I used and quoted, inter alia: “The Third Reich. New story” (author Michael Burleigh), “Those days” (author Kazimierz Rajner) and “Adverse fate” (aut. Józef Hubert). I quoted the memories of Marian Główka after the 041 service.