Couple in race to save Nazi canteen where Auschwitz SS guards partied after killing
No place typifies the banality of evil as much as the SS canteen in Auschwitz.
Erected at the end of March 1942, it was here that members of the SS garrison would come to eat, drink and be entertained after clocking off from killing shifts that when added together comprised the largest recorded mass murder in the history of humanity.
It could hold thousands of people at any one time and was the heart of social life for the Auschwitz killers and their families.
The huge wooden barrack-style hall stands just a few hundred metres from the camp's historic “Arbeit Macht Frei” main gate, but it is not part of the Auschwitz Museum and few tourists ever see it.
Yet, it is unique. It is the largest building constructed by the Germans that remains standing in the entire German concentration and extermination camp system.
According to Dagmar Kopijasz from the foundation that is desperately trying to save the 18,000-cubic-metre building from ruin, it is an integral part of the camp as much as the red-brick buildings of the Auschwitz main camp and the wooden barracks of Birkenau.
“The building is Auschwitz,” he told TFN. “Although it is outside the museum’s perimeter fence, during the war it was inside the camp’s barbed wire.”
The foundation Memory Sites Near Auschwitz-Birkenau took over care of the building from the Małopolska provincial authority in 2017. Its aim was to restore it so that it can a venue for events related to the Holocaust.
However, due to limited funding they have only been able to halt the building’s decline and rot. It added a new roof to the western wing after it collapsed in 2014.
The foundation says that their efforts are essential for Holocaust memory because Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau camps show the tragedy of the victims but they don’t show the perpetrators.
“They were ordinary people like you and me. They needed to eat, they wanted a drink after work, they wanted to be entertained.
“People don’t want to think about the perpetrators as being ordinary people. But they were. They were people like us, the only difference is that they murdered people when they were at work,” Dagmar says.
In his opinion, the history of Auschwitz and education about the Holocaust is not complete without this building and it’s story.
The wooden camp kitchen and SS canteen building known as Kameradschaftsheim der Waffen SS KL Auschwitz was built by forced slave labour of Auschwitz prisoners. Work began in autumn 1941 and was completed at the end of March 1942.
The main hall could accommodate as many as 2000 people. At its end was a fully equipped theatre stage. Even today, the mechanisms that lowered the curtain can be seen as well as the space for the line prompter’s booth.
Above the entrance was a modern cinema projection room that beamed all the latest hits onto a huge screen.
The kitchen could serve 6,000 meals a day to the SS crew. SS men also met there for entertainment events, performances and concerts. They enjoyed social evenings with their wives as well as birthdays and other family celebrations.
250 prisoners worked in the building, which included 100 in the Kartoffelschallereikommando who peeled potatoes all day. Until 1944, the majority of them were Polish. However, the cooking for the SS was done exclusively by other SS men.
Bronisław Staszkiewicz, a prisoner who worked in the kitchen, recalled: “They received food three times a day, very substantial and plentiful, consisting of sweetened coffee (breakfast), lunch, usually two courses, often with compote as the third course, and a dry supper consisting of cold meat, cheese, marmalade, butter or other fats, bread and tea.
“In addition, SS men were very often given sweets, oranges, grapes and lemons. They were often given rum with their tea for supper. Drinking parties very often took place in the canteen, usually in companies, they were called Kameradschaftsabendy. At these gatherings, the SS men drank vodka, and cakes and bread were baked especially for them.”
SS men were regularly given special vouchers called Sonderverpflegung for taking part in executions by shooting, gassings and other special actions.
For such a voucher, an SS man received 100 grams of sausage, 1/5 litre of rum and five or ten cigarettes. They collected these from the canteen.
Entertainment was an important part of the social life of the camp staff. Performances included cabarets, sketches, the camp orchestra, concerts and boxing matches.
“Prisoners didn’t just build the building, they had to work in the kitchen and serve SS men in the hall and, in my opinion the worst, they had to entertain them on the stage,” Dagmar says.
In the orders issued by camp commandant Rudolph Höss, there are many that invite SS men and their wives and girlfriends to concerts given by big stars of the stage.
In one, Höss informs that “On Tuesday, February 16, 1943, at 8 p.m., a large-scale program will be performed in the large hall of the Waffen-SS Kameradschaftsheime.
The event named “Sunny South” promises a performance by the famous Italian actress and singer Lia Origoni.
One of the most disturbing performances that ever took place on the stage was the Dr Mengele dwarf show.
The Ovitz family, seven of whom were dwarves, was the largest family of dwarves ever recorded. When they were deported to Auschwitz in May 1944, they were a source of fascination for Joseph Mengele.
Mengele separated them from other prisoners, gave them better conditions, but only so that he could conduct cruel experiments on them such as removing bone marrow and extracting their teeth.
In September 1944, Mengele took them to the canteen where the hall was packed with high-ranking SS officers. They had been told they were to put on a show.
On stage, Mengele barked at them to undress and instead gave a presentation using the Ovitz family to show how the Jewish race had degenerated into dwarfs and cripples.
When he finished, the audience rose to applaud and a swarm of SS officers climbed on to the stage to prod the naked family members.
The story of the Ovitz family was told in the film Perspectives starring Star Wars and Harry Potter actor Warwick Davies, who visited the camp in 2013.
According to Michael Challoner from the Auschwitz Study Group, the kitchen was considered one of the best places to work.
“It allowed the prisoners to organise food not only for themselves but also for their friends. This is where the resistance inside the camp set up one of its headquarters.
“Each prisoner working in the kitchen received a list of people he was supposed to help. The lists consisted of the prisoners who were weak and sick but yet very important to the resistance and who needed to be helped immediately. A lot of them were saved due to the food from the SS kitchen,” he said.
The canteen also provided an opportunity for escape. Seven prisoners who were employed in the commando serving the canteen kitchen escaped on the evening of 27 February 1943. Two other successful escapes were made from the canteen.
After the war, the building was used by the Polish Tobacco Monopoly, but in 1949 storing food was more important and it was taken over by Polish Cereal Monopoly, which used it as a huge warehouse for storing and drying cereal.
“In a sense it saved the building as all the doors and windows were untouched, they didn’t refurbish anything because there was no need to,” Dagmar says.
The building remained in that state until the 1980s when it was taken over by the State Treasury, and that is when its tragedy started.
Without anyone on site to look after it, the building started to deteriorate until finally the western part of the roof collapsed in 2014.
That was when Dagmar and his wife Agnieszka decided they had to do something to save it.
“This building was built from scratch by the hands of prisoners, to see it deteriorate year by year was heart-breaking,” Agnieszka says.
Dagmar has been collecting items connected to the camp for over 18 years.
At the end of the war, the Soviets allowed local people whose homes had been demolished by the Germans for the needs of the camp complex to take materials to rebuild their homes.
Dagmar has spent much of his adult life tracking these items down and ensuring they are preserved.
He estimates that he has removed Birkenau barrack panels from over 60 local buildings. He has also gathered tens of thousands of objects, including a bra made of the stripped prison clothing and a porcelain Mickey Mouse unearthed in a death pit.
The foundation runs two museums in nearby Brzeszcze and also looks after the Judenrampe where the majority of the camps victims arrived, and the SS potato warehouses near Birkenau.
The foundation has bold plans for the canteen. “This building which can fit 2,000 people in the large hall and 1,000 each in the wings can be used for all kinds of events and ceremonies connected to the museum, the liberation of the camp, you wouldn’t need to build that huge marque at Birkenau,” Dagmar says.
He sees it as the ideal venue for meetings, theatre performances, film screenings and exhibitions connected with the Holocaust and Auschwitz.
But with the foundation not having received any public money for two years, progress with these plans is impossible.
This year, it is launching an international fundraising effort. “Maybe the world will notice us and think it is worthwhile saving the building,” he says.
Looking around at the scale of the work to be done, Dagmar adds: “My dream is for Górecki’s symphony of sorrowful songs to be played here.”
The foundation also has the original sheet music for the marching tunes that were specially written for the camp orchestra formed from prisoners. This music was played as prisoners were marched back to their barracks after working all day, often carrying the bodies of others who had died.
“Maybe we could organise some kind of musical reviews at which they could be played. They are hard to listen to though. They hurt your teeth,” Dagmar says.