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Releases from the camp

In the early years of existence of concentration camps in Germany, the number of prisoners released was high - usually, they had a chance of leaving the camp after three months or at the most after a year. The provisions of the camp regulations in force at the time provided for periodic evaluations of prisoners’ behaviour. Those willing to work and who allegedly accepted in principle the political policies of the national-socialist state received qualifications to the first category. Prisoners who showed some improvement but nevertheless required re-socialization received the second category. Whereas, persons who were definitely hostile to the regime (e.g. communist leaders) were usually assigned the third category.

Upon the outbreak of the World War Two, the previously adopted release criteria were considerably tightened. In 1940, the release of Jews was suspended and to some extent restricted for other political prisoners, whose continued stay in the camp, due to their specific professional qualification was deemed advisable by the SS authorities. Due to the considerable increase in the number of release applications from occupied Poland and the Czech Republic in 1941, the procedures were re-tightened, and from the autumn of 1942, it was almost completely stopped.

The preserved documents of the German Auschwitz camp SS administration show that a total number of nearly 1,600 Polish political prisoners, over 200 Czechs and a few prisoners of other nationalities, including Germans and Dutch were released. Approximately 9,000 Poles, so-called educational prisoners (Erziehungshäftlinge) were also released: about 7,500 male prisoners and up to 1,200 female prisoners of this category - who the Germans imprisoned in the camp for two or three months.

The greatest number of prisoners released from KL Auschwitz from late autumn 1940 to the end of summer 1942. For instance: out of the 728 men brought to Auschwitz in the first transport from Tarnów on 14 June 1940, more than 70 were released - until the spring of 1942. 331 persons were released from the Warsaw transports that arrived in 1940 (more than 3,600 deportees), whereas, only 57 (of the over 3,200 deportees) were released from the transports that arrived in 1941.

The number of prisoners released from Auschwitz increased again from 1944, but mostly included German criminals (about 200), who were recruited to the infamous SS Dirlewanger units.

During this period, the SS also released Poles from Silesia who had been sent to the camp mainly for involvement in patriotic organizations. At the end of the war, however, they began to fear that as witnesses to the crimes committed in Auschwitz, they would be shot by the SS men before the arrival of the Soviet army. Consequently, some decided to sign the volksliste, which entailed immediate conscription to the German army immediately, upon leaving the camp.


Formally, a release request should be submitted by a police outpost (Gestapo or criminal unit) that referred the prisoner to the camp. There, it was to be examined by officers of the Political Department - and subjected to proper assessment. It is then forwarded to the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, where, along with the assessment of the validity of the application by the central administration of concentration camps {the inspectorate, and then by office group D at WVHA (SS Main Economic and Administrative Office) in Oranienburg} it was considered by the Reich Main Security Office. It is there that the final decision of release was taken, and then sent by return mail to KL Auschwitz. In practice, however, according to the preserved fragmentary correspondence register of the Political Department, the number of such applications referred directly by the police and judicial authorities to the camp was small.

It is therefore likely that the majority of cases of prisoners’ release should be associated with efforts of their families who by means of bribes attempted to influence the investigating police officers to issue a positive opinion for a particular case. Such was the case with the theatre director, Leon Schiller, whose sister sold the family jewels to “buy” him out of the camp. Another means was to bribe or implore the employer of the convicted person to intercede on his behalf with the German authorities, emphasizing, for instance, his usefulness as a labourer or specialist. In the case of Władysław Bartoszewski help was promised by his mother’s colleague at work, while his father intervened through the Polish Red Cross.

If these methods failed, relatives of prisoners also wrote letters: to the Chancellery of the Führer, Governor General Frank, or other Nazi dignitaries - asking for clemency and favourable consideration of the petition. The significant number of these letters induced the Reich Main Security Office in June 1941 to issue directives under which release from the concentration could henceforth only be possible upon the emergence of new leads in the investigation or other relevant circumstances, e.g., identification of German ancestors of prisoners. In practice, however, even poorly justified requests were of great importance for attempts to get prisoners out of Auschwitz because one way or the other it resulted in the initiation of appropriate bureaucratic procedures. However, if no one from the outside was interested in the fate of a given prisoner, he had much less chance of being released.

The low number of persons released from the camp was also influenced by a number of other factors. In the post-war testimonies of SS men, there were motives of the ruthlessness of the head of the Political Department of KL Auschwitz Maximilian Grabner, who often took great satisfaction in qualifying release applications to the second category, meaning their rejection. As it appears, the labour shortage in Auschwitz was relatively much more important in this regard; releases on a larger scale could mean a significant reduction in the number of prisoners needed to work.

In contrast, release decisions were not taken based on substantive reasons. It is known, for example, that among Poles deported from Warsaw at the end of the summer of 1940 to the camp, about 2/3 were men arrested during street round-ups, i.e., in no way “politically” involved, while the rest were prisoners of Pawiak arrested by the police. One would imagine that the number of releases of people belonging to the first of these groups should be significantly higher. Meanwhile, as evidenced by preserved documents, the percentage of release of persons from these transports were - regardless of the reasons for arrest - approximately similar. Thus, it seems that a small group of prisoners were successively released in the initial period of the existence of the camp, but it was just as many as to fulfil the formal requirements of the existing pre-war regulations.

SS men never released anyone for extraordinary work efficiency. We know of only a few cases of release of prisoners - specialists of rare and useful trade skills, who, however, were immediately afterwards forcibly employed in camp institutions or SS enterprises. In contrast to opinions sometimes expressed, informants were never released - as a reward for submitting denunciations. Although the Political Department had "spies" operating in the camp, it is unknown of any case of release of them; such a person could only enjoy certain privileges, be assigned to a good work group or sleep in a block for German functionaries. The camp Gestapo officers acted pragmatically in this regard, as they wanted to keep such people in the camp as useful, proven agents.

The generally inconsistent or even chaotic politics of the camp authorities are proven by the frequent cases of release of prisoners who, for obvious reasons could be considered enemies of the Third Reich. For instance, a fairly large group of Polish Army officers were released from Auschwitz in agreement with Calvary Captain Witold Pilecki. Among them was one of his closest associates - Lt. Col. Władysław Surmacki, chief of staff of the Secret Polish Army and Capt. Ferdynand Trojnicki and Aleksander Wielopolski, via whom Pilecki sent out the first report from the camp describing the conditions prevailing in KL Auschwitz.  A well-known aircraft designer Antoni Kocjan was also released, who later took part in the production of weapon for the underground and played a great role unmasking the secrets of the German V-2 missiles.


Prisoners were often not informed in advance of their release. When, in April 1941, Władysław Bartoszewski was called out of the crowd of prisoners during the morning roll-call, he thought they were going to shoot him. Instead of going to work - they were led to quarantine block, where they usually spent up to four weeks. Contraindications for release was a poor state of health. The prisoners were after sometime brought before the health committee - and if they showed any signs of serious illness, malnutrition or visible signs of beating, they had to stay in the camp until their appearance improved.

On the release day, the prisoners were summoned to the office of the Political Department. At the office, they had to sign an obligation not to conduct any hostile activity against the Reich and a statement that they had not suffered any harm and shall not demand any claims for the stay in the camp. They also had to keep quiet about what they saw in Auschwitz. Then, they received their civil clothes from the warehouse and were escorted by a guard to the railway station. The SS man bought train tickets for the released prisoners from the prisoners’ deposits and stayed with them at the platform until the departure of the train.

The freed prisoner was required to report at the work site immediately. He also had to report every few days at the police station. After sometime, if he did not raise any reasons for suspicion, the Germans stopped the supervision measure.