New book shines light on forgotten Polish Nazi hunter who brought Auschwitz commandant to trial
With his name largely faded from history, a Polish Nazi hunter that interrogated some of the biggest monsters of the 20th century has been returned to the spotlight following the publication of a new book celebrating his life and work.
Born in 1909 in Tuszów Mały, it was Jan Sehn that led investigations into figures such as Rudolf Hoess – the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1943 – and Amon Goeth, the commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. Yet despite his role in bringing to account some of the most infamous war criminals the world has ever seen, his story has, until now, been allowed to sink into obscurity.
“He died in 1965,” explains Filip Gańczak, the author of ‘Jan Sehn – Tropiciel nazistów’, “and though he was well-known in both Poland and the German Federal Republic, as time went on he became something of a forgotten man – he didn’t have any children, so when his wife passed away in 1984 there was no-one to carry his story onwards.”
His part in history diminished yet further when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Enjoying their new freedoms, Polish historians used the opportunity to scrutinize Soviet crimes at the cost of those committed by the Nazis.
Now, however, Sehn has once more found himself the topic of attention.
“In 2016, Andrew Nagorski’s book ‘The Nazi Hunters’ was released,” says Gańczak, “and I was captivated by the small chapter on Sehn – I’d heard of him before, but this book encouraged me to explore the archives and discover more about the actual man.”
Working as a lawyer in pre-war Kraków, his legal expertise (not to mention friendship with the future Prime Minister, Józef Cyrankiewicz) paved the way for his appointment as part of the so-called Auschwitz Commission, an investigative unit charged with collecting and preserving evidence of war crimes committed by the Nazis.
“Between 1946 and 1948 there were seven high profile trials in Poland held before the Supreme National Tribunal,” says Gańczak, “and Sehn’s role was crucial in preparing four of those – very quickly he became regarded as an expert in his field as in the first few years of Communism the authorities were ready to appoint non-party members who had legal experience. Also helping his rapid rise was his fluency in German.”
Of German heritage himself, this last point, it transpired, proved to be critical.
“Because of this,” says Gańczak, “he was able to work under extreme time pressures and read thousands upon thousands of German language documents. Secondly, it gave him the chance to interrogate suspects without the aid of interpreters.”
Yet if the word interrogation conjures images of beatings under lamplight, Sehn’s technique ran in complete contradiction to the expected norms. Seeking to establish a rapport with the accused, he treated them with civility and granted them unexpected privileges such as access to German-language books, mail and sufficient meals. It was a psychological masterstroke, one credited with swaying Rudolf Hoess into not just accepting responsibility for his participation in the Holocaust, but also putting pencil to paper to write his account of his tenure in charge of Auschwitz.
“I could never have brought myself to make this confession of my most secret thoughts and feelings had I not been approached with a disarming humanity and understanding that I had never dared to expect,” wrote Hoess in his final letter to his wife. “It was only here, in a Polish prison, that I learned what humanity is.”
Suspects were encouraged to write their wartime experiences down, and whilst all others sought to minimize their individual part in criminal acts, the confessions of Rudolf Hoess are regarded as a highly valuable and authentic insight into the running of the planet’s most notorious concentration camp. Referenced to this day, the significance of these revelations continues to resonate.
Eliciting confessions represented just a percentage of Sehn’s duties, and the challenges he faced with the Auschwitz Commission were rife.
“It’s hard to believe nowadays,” Gańczak tells TFN, “but at the time even finding transport to get to the camp was difficult – only in May, 1945, were they finally loaned a car so they could visit the site for the first time.”
Permitted only to use it on certain days, the lack of transportation presented all manner of problems, not least when it came to returning documents back to the panel’s Kraków’s headquarters, and these struggles were compounded by other issues such as a fraught relationship with the Soviets.
“At first the cooperation was fine,” says Gańczak, “but as time passed the Soviets created more and more problems by limiting movement around the camp. When they established their own camp to hold Germans and Polish civilians, there was even a period during which the commission couldn’t enter at all.”
Even abroad Sehn found himself facing seemingly insurmountable barriers.
“There was a general lack of staff,” says Gańczak, “and without copying facilities Sehn had to re-write documents himself by hand, a job that usually would have been awarded to a secretary rather than an investigator.”
“Aside from that, when he first started visiting the American occupied zone in Germany for his investigations he was treated with suspicion,” says Gańczak. “They didn’t trust someone from communist Poland, so it was a real battle to convince the Americans that the Poles were professionals that simply wanted to do their job: that being bringing war criminals to justice.”
Eventually, a mutual trust and understanding was formed and this was later revived in the post-Stalinist thaw when Sehn again began visiting Germany to build other cases.
Combining, in the words of one colleague, a meticulous German-style attention to detail with typical Polish flair and passion, Sehn’s diligence was such that it’s said that he refused to take a day off until the autumn of 1948, often choosing to work late into the night at home so as to prepare for the trials. Impressively, his success as an investigator came in spite of juggling numerous distractions that included, at one stage, accusations of wartime collaboration with the occupying Nazis.
“He spent much of the war working for a restaurant association,” says Gańczak, “and in 1946 he himself was placed under the microscope when a couple accused him of being responsible for the closure of their restaurant in Kraków’s Podgórze district four years earlier.”
Though he was soon cleared of any misconduct, and in fact deemed to have played a positive role during WWII, it was an episode that says much for the chaos of the immediate post-war years. “It was a surprise to learn that someone investigating German war crimes was pretty much simultaneously being investigated themselves,” says Gańczak.
Also praised for his role in rescuing and hiding secret documents relating to Soviet atrocities committed in Katyń (manuscripts that were later found hidden in an attic in 1991), Sehn’s defining accomplishment was his prosecution of Nazi war criminals (this despite him being an opponent of the death penalty).
In this he remained active till, quite literally, his dying day. Visiting Germany in 1965 to partake in the so-called Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, he died suddenly in his hotel room in circumstances that, to many, appeared to be highly suspect. Gańczak, though, has found no evidence of foul play.
“His secretary was certain that this was an ‘unnatural’ death,” he says, “but nothing I found in my research supports this. What we know is that he was a chain smoker working in a highly stressful job. On top of that, he was said to have become emotionally agitated just before his death after reading a derogatory article about himself in a German publication.”
The rumours, though, have not subsided, and these were given added credence when, in 1968, another prosecutor, Fritz Bauer, was found to have drowned in a Frankfurt bathtub.
While popular knowledge of Sehn’s name has declined since his death, Gańczak’s book has once more thrust it into the public realm and the author is hopeful that this time around his legacy shan’t be forgotten.
“Everyone knows Amon Goeth from the film ‘Schindler’s List’,” he says, “but despite Sehn leading the investigation against him there’s not one mention of him. It would be wonderful if, one day, there’s such a major film about Sehn. Certainly, his interrogations of Goeth and Hoess deserve one.”
‘Jan Sehn – Tropiciel nazistów’ is published by Wydawnictwo Czarne