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Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess on the Gallows


An article in the monthly Focus Historia is devoted to the execution of camp commandant Rudolf Hoess at the Auschwitz site in April 1947, and the photographs taken at the time.

We are publishing mostly unknown photographs from the execution of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. They were taken by the late Stanisław Dąbrowiecki, a press photographer, on April 16, 1947. They were kept secret for several decades in communist Poland. The negatives were stored in a safe at the Justice Ministry, but disappeared at some unknown time. Only 11 prints remain.

The trial of the 47-year-old Hoess began on March 11, 1947, in the auditorium of the ZNP [Polish Teachers’ Union] in the Powiśle district of Warsaw, which was the only auditorium large enough for the proceedings at the time. It held about 500 people. Equipment for simultaneous translation into several languages was installed. Those present were mainly former Auschwitz prisoners.

The British had arrested Hoess, who was one of the most sought-after war criminals. He appeared on the witness stand several times during at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. While never denying that he had committed crimes, he contended that he had only been following orders.

Hoess was turned over to Poland in 1946. He was calm and controlled during his trial. He had no illusions about the fate that awaited him. To the end, he contended that, at the most, a million and a half people had died at Auschwitz, not 5 or 6 million. At the end of the trial, he requested the court’s permission to send his wedding ring to his wife. The court announced its verdict, sentencing Hoess to death by hanging, on April 2, 1947.

The day after the verdict, former prisoners petitioned the court for the execution to take place on the grounds of the camp. It was scheduled for April 14, but postponed because of fears that Oświęcim residents would attempt to lynch Hoess when he was being transferred to the site.

German POWs erected the gallows, with a trap door, at dawn. It cannot be ruled out that they were also the hangmen. No one was admitted to the grounds without a special pass. Armed, uniformed guards stood everywhere. Hoess arrived at 8 a.m. and was taken to the building that had once housed the commandant’s office. There, he asked for a cup of coffee. Once he had drunk it, he was led to a cell in the “bunker,” the camp jail in Block no. 11, also known as the “Death Block.”

Hoess was led out punctually at 10 a.m. He was calm. With energetic steps, almost strutting, he walked along the main camp street. Since his hands were handcuffed behind his back, the executioners had to help him climb onto the stool placed above the trapdoor. A priest, whose presence had been requested by the condemned man, approached the gallows. This was Father Tadeusz Zaremba, a Salesian from Oświęcim.

A prosecutor read out the sentence. The hangman placed the noose on Hoess’s neck, and Hoess adjusted it with a movement of his head. When the hangman pulled the stool from under the former commandant, his body struck the trapdoor, which opened, leaving Hoess hanging. The priest began to recite the prayer for the dying. It was 10:08 a.m. A physician pronounced Hoess dead at 10:21. His remains were probably cremated.

The Polish press noted the execution only briefly. Newspapers were apparently forbidden to print eyewitness accounts. Documents found among the records of the Hoess case indicate that the state authorities decided in early 1947 to stop holding public executions of German war criminals. This occurred after the execution in the summer of 1946 of Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of “Warthe-Land.” Crowds of people watched his hanging on the slopes of the Citadel in Poznań. A picnic atmosphere prevailed, there were children among the observers, and vendors sold ice cream, soft drinks, and sweets. After the execution, people fought over pieces of the hangman’s rope. Intellectuals and Church officials protested to the authorities. The ministry of justice decided that the execution of the Auschwitz commandant should be a less public affair. More than 100 people—former prisoners and high officials from the ministry of justice, the state prosecutor’s office, and the Security Bureau—witnessed the hanging. This was the last public execution in Poland.

Andrzej Gass

Read more in Focus Historia 1/2007

Before the execution. The former SS infirmary can be seen in the background, with part of gas chamber and crematorium I
Before the...
Before the execution. In the background the the former camp gestapo building. Photo: Stanisław Dąbrowiecki, 1947 r.
Before the...