80th anniversary of the first transport to KL Auschwitz

„It is safe to say that there were thousands of people who helped the prisoners. They were to be found all around the 40 plus subcamps which made up the complex of KL Auschwitz and along the route of the “death marches”. (…) They fed the prisoners, treated them, organised and kept up illegal correspondence with home, and all that right by SS men and the camp Gestapo. Many paid with their lives and the lives of their families for those acts of mercy.”.

– August Kowalczyk “A barbed wire refrain”

728 Poles

The significance of 14th June for residents of the Land of Oświęcim

The Germans brought the first transport of 728 Polish prisoners from Tarnów to Oświęcim on 14th June 1940. This date is considered to be the launch of the Nazi German camp KL Auschwitz.

Shortly afterwards the German occupiers evicted local Poles from their homes. These included inhabitants of Brzezinka, Harmęże, Pławy, Bor, Rajsko, Klucznikowice, Babice, Broszkowice and the Oświęcim – Zasole neighbourhood. The extermination camp was established along with its agricultural and industrial supply network.

The several years of the camp’s existence left a deep mark not only on the life of the people living in the shadow of KL Auschwitz but also on the town which had centuries of beautiful history.

The fate of the prisoners and the actions of the perpetrators have been well documented in both the spheres of education and media. On the other hand, the incredible aid rendered to the prisoners, often at the risk of one’s life and one’s family’s life, by local inhabitants and the difficulties of their daily life under the occupation and in the shadow of barbed wire, has not net been adequately commemorated. It was not until 22nd April 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the displacement, that two plaques (in Polish and English) dedicated to the evicted Poles, were unveiled in front of the Gate of Death of Auschwitz-Birkenau II.

Yes, there exists the publication edited by Henryk Świebocki entitled “People of Good Will” dedicated to the helpers and their aid. However, in spite of the great effort and huge amount of work put into this book by the author and its co-workers, it was not possible to mention all the various ways that locals helped the prisoners.

As can be seen in the meetings and conversations that Remembrance Museum staff have with witnesses of history, many heroes are still awaiting recognition. Today, so many years after the war, we are racing against time. How often we hear the words, “Why are you asking us only now? Why not earlier when witnesses were still alive?”

But despite the passing of time, the work of the Remembrance Museum to collect testimonies and document life under German occupation and terror is not destined to fail. Many witnesses of the tragic events of the occupation are still alive and willing to share their experiences and stories of which they were a part.

The materials below present what they saw with their own eyes. The events of 14th June 1940 were followed by further tragic events for the inhabitants of the Land of Oświęcim. They speak of the eviction and displacement and what daily life was like under the terror of German occupation. They also recall how they helped the prisoners of KL Auschwitz.

[1] [translated from the Polish]
[2] Memoirs written by August Kowalczyk, former prisoner of Auschwitz, from the moment he was imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp until his dramatic escape from the Penalty Company during one of the best-known mutinies in the history of the camp.