Millions of people suffered and died in camps, ghettos, and other sites during the Holocaust. The Nazis and their allies oversaw more than 42,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labor, and murder. Among them was the Althammer subcamp of Auschwitz.
The Germans established the Althammer subcamp of Auschwitz in the town of Stara Kuznia (Althammer) in September 1944.
The prisoners lived in brick barracks in which the Germans had earlier confined Italian prisoners of war from Badoglio's army. The first group of 30 prisoners arrived at Althammer from Auschwitz in a truck in mid-September 1944.1 Additional groups arrived later, and the prisoner population rose steadily; the camp held 486 prisoners on January 17, 1945.2 The prisoners were almost exclusively Jews primarily from France, Poland, Hungary, and the Netherlands. In addition, there were a few German prisoners, one Pole, and one Roma (Gypsy) in the subcamp. They served in various positions in the prisoner administration.
SS-Oberscharführer Hans Mirbeth was the subcamp's commandant. Like other subcamps, Althammer was under the administration of Auschwitz III. In this connection, the subcamp was inspected by that camp's commander, SS-Hauptsturmführer Heinrich Schwarz, and by SS-Untersturmführer Dr. Hans Konig.3 Since there was no Political Branch on site, SS men from the Auschwitz Political Branch would come to the subcamp when prisoners escaped and conduct investigations on the spot. Food and medicine were also brought into the subcamp from Auschwitz.4
The job of the first group of 30 prisoners was to enclose the barracks with a double fence of barbed wire and erect four watchtowers at the corners.5
The prisoners' chief place of work was the Walter thermal power plant construction site in Stara Kuznia. To prevent prisoners from escaping, the entire construction site was fenced with barbed wire, and a cordon of guard stations surrounded it as well. The prisoners did such jobs as bricklaying and transport work. A large group of prisoners worked digging sewage ditches, which meant that the prisoners often had to stand in water without rubber boots. Several dozen other prisoners were also put to work building a railway siding. For a time, some prisoners were employed digging up potatoes. As necessary, others were used to unload railroad cars. Still other prisoners were put to work around the camp, in the SS men's kitchen; in the prisoners' kitchen; cleaning the camp rooms, yards, paths, and bath house; and building a new kitchen.
Living, working, and sanitary conditions were better than at Birkenau but still extremely unhealthful. The prisoners received food that was inadequate in both quality and quantity. They did not even get the food rations provided for in camp standards.6 Also, their clothing was not adapted to the working conditions or the climate; the uniform consisted of a striped suit and wooden shoes. An infirmary was established for the sick and those unable to work, under the supervision of orderly SS-Sturmmann Kisel. Care was minimal, however, and prisoners who stayed in the infirmary for too long were taken away to the Auschwitz main camp.
Strict discipline prevailed in the camp. The SS treated the prisoners brutally. Even against standing orders to keep roll call times to a minimum at Althammer, roll calls were often drawn out, and the prisoners were subjected to searches and persecution. If the guards found any contraband on prisoners, especially food, cigarettes, or paper put under their shirts as protection from the wind, they would beat the prisoners with whips or rubber bats. Similar treatment was the norm at the work site as well. There were also instances when the SS men would take prisoners who were too weak to work productively to the forest and shoot them. The subcamp's commandant Mirbeth set the example in tormenting prisoners. Not only did he beat them, but he also murdered them (he shot several prisoners and choked one). The bodies of those who died from abuse and exhaustion were stored in the camp latrine, after which they were taken away to Auschwitz II to be burned.7
The Germans shut down the subcamp and evacuated the prisoners in January 1945 due to the approach of the Soviet army. On January 18 or 19, approximately 350 prisoners were led out of the subcamp on foot and escorted to Gliwice (Gleiwitz). From there they were taken to different camps within Germany. Some found themselves in places such as Mittelbau or Bergen-Belsen. On January 25, SS men selected several dozen of the approximately 150 sick people left in the subcamp and escorted them out of the camp in an unknown direction. The rest were left under the supervision of the local Selbstschutz (local paramilitaries). They were liberated by Soviet forces a few days later.
Records pertaining to the Althammer camp may be found in the Archiwum Panstwowego Muzeum w Oswiecimiu (Archives of the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau; APMO) Affidavits Collection, accounts of Mieczyslaw Francuz, Israel Lejbisz, Joanna Mryka [or Mryki], Jan Juraszczyk and Ludwik Cipa; Fahrbefehle; Kraftfahrzeug-Anforderung; Auschwitz concentration camp staff trial records; SS-Hygiene Institut Records; Nummernbuch. The following published sources also contain information on Althammer: Franciszek Piper, “Das Nebenlager Althammer,” Hefte von Auschwitz 13 (1971): 141-158; Aleksander Drozdzynski, “Maly spokojny oboz,” Zeszyty Oswiecimskie [Auschwitz Notebooks] 8 (1964).
Series: Auschwitz Subcamps
Critical Thinking Questions
- How might the German population and the local community in Poland have been aware of this camp, its purpose, and the conditions within?
- Did the outside world have any knowledge about these camps? If so, what actions were taken by other countries and their officials?
- How does the example of this camp demonstrate the complexity and the systematic nature of the German efforts to abuse and kill the Jews?
- What choices do other countries have in the face of mistreatment of civilians?
Archiwum Panstwowego Muzeum w Oswiecimiu (Archives of the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau; APMO), Zespol Oswiadczenia [Affidavits Collection], account of former prisoner Mieczyslaw Francuz.
APMO, Materialy Ruchu Oporu [Resistance Movement Materials], vol. 3, book 208, p. 212.
APMO, Fahrbefehle dated September 22, 1944, and November 18, 1944.
APMO, Kraftfahrzeug-Anforderung dated November 22, 1944, in which the “collection of corpses and delivery of medicine” was listed as the purpose of a trip to Althammer and Eintrachthütte.
Living and working conditions and prisoner treatment have been depicted based on the accounts of former Althammer subcamp prisoners Mieczyslaw Francuz and Israel Lejbisz, the memoirs of former Althammer prisoner Aleksander Drozdzynski, as well as the accounts of the following residents of nearby towns and workers who had contact with prisoners: Joanna Mryka [or Mryki], Jan Juraszczyk, and Ludwik Cipa, on file at ANMA.
ANMA, Akta SS-Hygiene Institut, segr. 56/531- 532 [Records of the SS-Hygiene Institut, File 56/531- 532]. Results of a test of a sample of soup from the Althammer subcamp.
ANMA, Kraftfahrzeug-Anforderung dated November 22, 1944.