Our guest this month, Chris Petit, filmmaker and author of The Butchers of Berlin, on life in the German garrison at Auschwitz.
There were the Nazi death camps, where people were exported to die, and there was Auschwitz, where the choice after selection was immediate gassing or death deferred through forced labour. Then there was the so-called normal life on the other side of the fence in the SS garrison. On 6 September 1942, Sunday dinner was tomato soup, chicken, potatoes, red cabbage and vanilla ice cream. The visiting variety show for 14 November featured dancing dogs and bantam cocks that crowed in unison. Never had mass murderers been so catered for or entertained.
This other side of Auschwitz remains under-researched; understandably, given the enormity of the crime. Those there didn’t wish to advertise the fact afterwards and such is the nature of garrison life – temporary postings with a high turnover – that what little remains tends to be relegated to old family albums: in my case, photographs of stunned looking children in under-planted gardens and adults at social events, with soldiers in smart mess kit and permed wives wearing cocktail dresses. As an ex-army brat, I was nevertheless surprised by how much I recognised of Auschwitz’s infrastructure. It remained a family posting, even after it became a death factory. A local employment agency provided teenage Polish girls to act as housekeepers. One complained how unpleasant it was cleaning her master’s boots: ‘They stank of corpses.’
Founded in 1940, the camp at Auschwitz first operated as a tough penal colony for the Poles. Commandant Höss, who had belonged to the same back-to-the-land movement as his boss, Himmler, dreamed of an agricultural paradise until Himmler pulled off a deal in 1941 with the industrial conglomerate IG Farben to establish a local petrochemical plant to be built by SS slave labour. Tax breaks and government grants followed and for most of 1941 the region was booming, until construction was put on hold at the end of the year. That ultimately decided the fate of the huge second camp ordered by Berlin for nearby Birkenau, turning Auschwitz into a destination in a way the commandant could never have imagined when he founded his obscure backwater posting. Because it was bottom of everyone’s list for supplies, what was known as ‘organising’ — a euphemism for nicking stuff — became the main way of getting things done. The same principle applied when the big transports came in 1942 from all over, turning Auschwitz into the biggest black market in Europe. Millions in German and foreign money went missing. Enormous storage depots sprang up, known as ‘Canada’ (seen as the land of plenty). Temptation became irresistible. One transgressor reported that the bliss of ownership began to effect like hashish.
Little is said about the commandant’s wife in official accounts. At the senior level a tight circle existed in terms of social expectation and facilitation. An important figure was Erich Grönke, one of thirty tough German prisoners selected by the commandant to run the prison and keep the Poles in line. Grönke, a convicted rapist, managed the camp’s leather factory and after completing his sentence elected to stay on as a civilian contractor. In fact, he was a fixer, enforcer, launderer and killer. One of his main jobs was providing and fronting for Frau Höss, who was described as a major shopper in Canada.
She had from the start been enterprising. Himmler, after an early visit, advised that her house should be renovated to a standard in keeping with entertaining senior officers. Central heating was installed, two bathrooms added — one white, one green — parquet flooring laid downstairs, with smart leather furniture provided by Grönke’s factory. A Polish prisoner artist was employed to select suitable pictures.
The commandant was expected to entertain, which fell to his wife to ‘organise’. Her daily needs and requirements for their social calendar were met by the prisoner kitchen, via a shopping list given to household staff — meat came from the camp slaughterhouse, milk and cheese from its dairy, five litres of milk when her ration card entitled her to just over one. None of it paid for. Yugoslav cigarettes, liberated from prisoner supplies, were used to reward prisoners for informal odd jobs.
The commandant and his wife slept in separate beds. By his account, she withheld conjugal rights after discovering what his real work involved. It seems unlikely she was that upset, as she was staunchly anti-Semitic and refused to employ Jews in her extensive household staff. On the evidence of a letter to her sister-in-law, she was, in the end, past caring, referring to her husband’s business in the breeziest terms, as a minor inconvenience and a footnote to ‘shopping’:
Sorry you could not be with us. Schilling was just splendid. Sat next to Brigitte and she wore the most beautiful fur coat I have ever seen, and the necklace she wore was fit for an empress. She told me that she shops in Canada regularly and that Rudi [Commandant Höss] is aware of it. So sad Rudi could not be with us for he received another shipment this morning and all had to be processed by early morning, for another is on the way. I don’t know how much they will be sending. It is a good job, but they are working him to the bone.
Stolen goods, and plenty of sexual intrigue to go with it. A servant reported a huge bust-up between the commandant and his wife after he found her in the garden with a prison supervisor named Böhner, said to be her lover. Böhner was often in the house, ‘frying fish or cleaning shoes’. I was puzzled by these details, before realising they were a coded reference for the man’s usefulness. He worked at the nearby Bata shoe factory, where he ran the canteen, and probably answered to Grönke, and therefore was of use to Frau Höss for what he could provide.
The commandant in turn was noted for an affair with a female prisoner, Eleanor Hodys, employed by his wife to work in the house as a seamstress. Hodys enjoyed considerable freedom, including her own room and exemption from morning roll call. As an Austrian and German speaker, she would have been fast-tracked in terms of employment. She was even invited to a party at the commandant’s house on her birthday; such fraternisation between prisoner and staff shows quite another Auschwitz from what anyone expects.
Hodys gave a thoroughly confused account of her time there to an investigative team in 1944. She says she fell from grace for no obvious reason. The answer probably lies somewhere between revenge and cover-up. Frau Höss fired her and insisted her husband lock her up, perhaps because she suspected an affair, or to distance Hodys because she was a go-between for Grönke, who provided stolen jewellery to the commandant and his wife, and outside investigations were starting to be made. Hodys claimed the commandant took to nocturnal visits in her cell and impregnated her, had her put in solitary confinement in a standing cell for weeks, then arranged for a prisoner doctor to perform an abortion. He also tried and failed to have her shot and gassed.
Not much makes sense in the woman’s account and some reliable witnesses consider it either the scrambled fantasy of a damaged mind or part of a campaign of disinformation to get rid of the commandant because by then the garrison was a pit of in-fighting and rivalries.
I can’t prove it, but I believe the commandant cracked under pressure and had a nervous breakdown. He complained about his appalling workload. In the autumn of 1942 he had what was described as a riding accident and was off work for several weeks and when he surfaced for a meeting in Berlin he was morose about the numbers he was expected to take. His authority was constantly undermined by departments that didn’t have to answer directly to him, including the security police, the doctors and the construction office — responsible for the huge crematoria programme of 1942-3. The pressure-cooker atmosphere was increased by an enforced quarantine that had gone on for almost a year, confining everyone to the garrison. By then they all loathed each other to the point of a civil war breaking out between a new breed of reformists — extraordinarily, such a thing was possible to contemplate — and old hardliners who regarded any relaxing of the jackboot on the neck as an invitation to prisoner rebellion.
The commandant’s wife continued her serene way. Perhaps sensing her unpopularity with other wives, she set up a tailoring concession and allowed them a share of the profits. Prisoner seamstresses were expected to produce several outfits a week, for which they were rewarded by the client on a discretionary basis, usually extra rations.
Whereas her husband emerges as troubled — Primo Levi considered him a model bureaucrat ‘squeezed between the upper and lower jaws of authority’ — Frau Höss seems to have had a will of iron. She left it to her husband to complain to the gardener about the ash that fell on her roses. She was an enthusiastic horticulturalist and had a private walled garden built, with a summerhouse, pool, patio, trellises, children’s slide and a sandpit. When her husband was kicked upstairs at the end of 1943, she refused to accompany him to Berlin and insisted on remaining in the house, forcing the incoming commandant, a bachelor, to lodge elsewhere. She declared it the posting of a lifetime.
After the war, she slipped into obscurity and died in 1989. Her daughter was for a while a fashion model for Balenciaga. Höss was hanged in 1947 by the Poles in Auschwitz on gallows within sight of the house where he had lived, which his wife called paradise.
All images public domain:
- Accommodation blocks at Auschwitz
- Rudolf Höss
- The Höss family
- Rudolf Höss walking to the gallows next to crematorium in the Nazi German death camp Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland.