Axis Atrocity Be Not Afraid! Books German WWII Ocupation of Poland Recommended Reading

Heroes and Criminals

Heroes and Criminals

One Polish Man’s Struggle to Survive KZ Sachsenhausen


During a yacht journey through the Canadian lakes in the late nineties, I met a fearless, elderly sailor, Professor Jerzy Pindera. Tall and slim, he was a daring sailor despite his senior age and restrained movement of one hand. His springy military walk revealed a man full of energy, always in search of action and challenge. His personage was shrouded in the legend of horrific war experiences.  Seriously wounded in the defense campaign of Poland in September of 1939, he struggled to the end of his days with a permanent handicap of one hand. His busy, tragic, and exciting life came to an end in Waterloo, Canada, in 2001.

In the spring of 2004, Jerzy Pindera’s war memoir was published. A tiny modest book entitled Liebe Mutti; One Man’s Struggle to Survive in KZ Sachsenhausen, 1939-1945, was edited and expanded with a commentary by Lynne Taylor, a history professor at the University of Waterloo.

Liebe Mutti represents yet another important eyewitness account of the war crimes committed against the Polish people during World War II. In September of 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Pindera was a student of aeronautics at the Technical University in Warsaw. Mobilized in the rank of an officer, he was sent west to fight Germans. After the initial defeat, the Polish army retreated east to reorganize and prepare a counteroffensive. The treacherous Soviet invasion of Poland from the east on September 17, 1939, caught Pindera by surprise in the vicinity of his hometown – Chelm.

Initially, the mission of the Soviet military entering Poland was unclear but leaflets dropped from the Soviet planes soon clarified the situation. Pindera recalls two such leaflets. One stated that “two greatest statesmen in history, Stalin and Hitler, decided to terminate the existence of the bourgeois Polish state (…) and intend to destroy the system of oppression of the Polish State.” The second leaflet called upon the Ukrainian people to rise and fight against the Poles to destroy the Polish administration and eliminate the Polish population. Pindera immediately realized that he was about to become an outlaw in his own homeland.

Overnight, the Soviets cut off the Polish army in eastern Poland from the rest of the country along the treacherous Ribbentrop-Molotov partition line secretly agreed upon by the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1939, and were rounding up confused Polish soldiers.  Although the return to Warsaw was blocked, the apprentice of aeronautic engineering found his way back.  Pindera took control of a Russian plane and flew back. His plane was shot down near Warsaw. Seriously wounded, he fell into the Wehrmacht’s hands. While his wounds were still healing, he escaped from the hospital and joined the Polish resistance. Soon he was captured again, but this time into the Gestapo’s clutches.

This is when his five-year-long gehenna amid existence and non-existence begins. Horrific tortures during interrogations bring about profound reflections. This is when Pindera lost all respect for Germans.  In his words, they were no longer the same Germans he knew from literature, poetry, science, engineering, and private contacts. These were merely narrow-minded pragmatics oriented exclusively towards achieving the goal imposed on them by their leader. They valued political opportunism over moral principles and subordinated their ethical system to the willpower of Fuhrer. Their urge to ensure Germany’s world domination by using all possible means became repulsive.

In August of 1940, Pindera ends up in a concentration camp. KZ Sachsenhausen welcomes him with the standard slogan: “Arbeit macht frei.” In the central square another slogan: “There is only one way to freedom – it leads through obedience, enterprise, honesty, order, cleanness, sobriety, sacrifice, and love of the homeland.” Ominously, the word “love” was located on the penal barrack known as the death chamber. In his welcoming speech, SS-Oberscharfuhrer Wilhelm Schubert explains that in the concentration camp, there are no sick people. There are only those still alive or those who are already dead. He further adds that there is only one way out – that through the chimney of the crematorium. Schubert truly enjoyed his work. His favorite saying was that prisoners were not human beings – they were merely prisoners!

Pindera’s memoir paints a detailed picture of the living conditions in the concentration camp Sachsenhausen. His story also focuses on human behavior in extreme circumstances. Keen analytical observation of the camp life leads Pindera to the conclusion that

the camp is precisely organized as a sadistic system aimed at breaking people, crashing their will, and destroying their hope.

The camp managers were carefully selected for the job. They were charged with the task of creating an atmosphere of fear resulting from seemingly uncontrolled, random terror. The terror however was not random but carefully planned. Bestial murders of the prisoners were not random events but planned elimination of mentally unwavering or physically weak individuals. Almost always such acts were committed on orders of the higher-ups.

“Liebe Mutti” represents the work comparable to the Holocaust classic “Survival in Auschwitz” by Primo Levi. Although in his account of life at the concentration camp, Pindera focuses on facts and events, he also makes powerful observations about the spiritual and moral aspects of this experience.

His recollection of sadistic tortures and horrific scenes from the concentration camp is presented with one dominant thought in mind. Pindera insists that he was able to survive the death camp because he never compromised his moral principles and beliefs. His deep conviction that he had to preserve his own civility and humanity even in the face of death helped him to develop a state of mind when he was no longer afraid of death. This attitude also gave him a sense of moral victory over the oppressors. He never considered himself a victim.  He believed that only broken people become victims. He never joined their ranks.

The climax in the concluding scene goes to the heart of the moral quandary of World War II and exposes the source of the evil within the German war machine. As the Soviet tanks approach KZ Sachsenhausen, three young SS officers take Pindera aside. “Herr Pindera,” one of them says, “we want you to know why we did what we did, and that now we realize we were wrong.”

Pindera recounts their story. As teenagers, they all went through the Hitler Youth training where loyalty was more important than honor. Upon graduation, the Commandant called each of them to the office for a talk.  After a series of questions measuring their eagerness to make sacrifices for their country, he made them an offer. “Difficult tasks are awaiting you.” He said. “These tasks are outside the rules of pre-war Germany. But considering the significance of these tasks that would remain in our nation’s collective memory forever, only carefully selected individuals can undertake such tasks.  Make no mistake; the tasks will be difficult and unpleasant. Only those of the highest ethical strength would be able to perform them. But they will have to suppress their own ethical values; they will have to isolate themselves from everything they have learned at home and in school. They would have to sacrifice themselves for the country. Their individual deeds could be forgotten but thanks to their sacrifice the German nation will govern the world.”

These young patriotic Germans felt privileged to be selected for such an important mission. Five years later they began to understand the trap they found themselves in. “We want you to understand,” the young SS officer continued, “now we realize we were deceived and misled. We were told we would become heroes but instead we became criminals. Maybe we will meet in Warsaw,” he joked, “but in different roles – we as workers rebuilding the rubbles of Warsaw.”

“They left but I couldn’t forgive them.” Pindera writes, „neither then nor now,” he adds. These people suppressed all their moral and ethical values and personal sense of honor just to replace them with a blind and absolute sense of duty and loyalty.

The greatest blame Pindera reserves however for their leaders who took advantage of the patriotic idealism of the youth. They are the ones responsible for forcing young Germans to commit horrific crimes; they are the ones who called the systematic sadistic slaughter of defenseless people as heroic acts; they are the ones who encouraged bestiality. And finally, they are the ones who created the climate of fear, hate, and desire to dominate others, the climate where crimes against humanity were raised to the level of heroic and patriotic deeds.

By Maria Szonert Binienda

Author of World War II Through Polish Eyes, East European Monographs, Columbia University Press, 2002.

This review refers to the book by Jerzy Pindera, Liebe Mutti; One Man’s Struggle to Survive in KZ Sachsenhausen, 1939-1945, edited by Lynne Taylor, University Press of America, 2004.

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