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Liberation of the Buna/Monowitz Concentration Camp

 a  Primo Levi describes the situation in his autobiographical novel Survival in Auschwitz: “23 January. Our potatoes were finished. For days past the rumor had circulated through all the huts that an enormous trench of potatoes lay somewhere outside the barbed wire, not far from the camp [...] Perhaps 400 yards from the camp lay the potatoes—a treasure. Two extremely long ditches, full of potatoes and covered by alternate layers of soil and straw to protect them from the cold. Nobody would die of hunger any more. But to extract them was by no means easy work. The cold had made the surface of the earth as hard as iron. By strenuous work with a pickaxe it was possible to break the crust and lay bare the deposit; but the majority preferred to work the holes abandoned by others and continue to deepen them, passing the potatoes to their companions standing outside.”

(Primo Levi: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) [first published as If This Is a Man], pp. 167–168.)
 b  “[A]t 4 p.m., a Wehrmacht truck appeared here, provided with bread, sausage, and other food items. My neighboring block was filled mainly with Greek Jews. Since I didn’t have enough places in our block, I asked our neighbors to store these valuable goods until morning. As darkness was about to fall, we couldn’t distribute the food. A few men offered to stand guard to keep anything from being stolen. Day broke and I went with my helpers to the barracks next door to start the distribution. I felt faint when I saw that there were scarcely any inmates in the block and almost all the bread etc. was no longer there. Theft? No, that amounted to murdering one’s own comrades. The few inmates who were still in this building were lying in their beds and chewing on food. We struck at them on all sides and tried to tear part of the food away from them. It was very hard, each one fought as if his life were at stake. A slightly more rational inmate explained to me that the theft was committed during the night and the thieves had run with the stolen items into a barracks in the SS camp, where they made themselves at home. Like wildfire, the news spread that people had stolen from their own comrades. My comrades approached me with sticks and knives, because they blamed me for this incident. Uttering huge threats, they forced me to attempt to get something edible for our people before it was too late. I had no choice, and so I went to the SS camp, where I heard piano music coming from one of the bars. When I threw open the door, the following scene presented itself. They all were dead drunk and eating some of the stolen things. What particularly appalled me was the fact that they all had appropriated SS clothes, which were present in huge quantities. In a high voice I screamed at them and cursed them, calling them ‘murderers.’ I said that I would go get the SS unless they returned to camp at once. Then the SS would settle everything. In reply they threw beer bottles at me. I saw that my bluff made no impression at all on them, and I returned to camp. Everybody wanted revenge, but nobody had the strength to undertake anything. ‘Camp elder, come to the gate’ was shouted out all over camp, and I had no choice but to come forward as quickly as possible. Now it’s curtains for you, I thought. Two Daimler cars stood at one side. Next to them was a crowd of SS men, equipped with submachine guns, who were pointing their weapons at 11 people in SS uniforms. Without doubt, they were our runaways. They stood in a row, trembling and with hands raised. The senior SS man took me aside and started questionng me. Right away it was clear to me that because of my clothes, which I had appropriated in the camp kitchen, they must think I was a Reichsdeutscher, a German citizen. This was also reinforced by the fact that German is my native language. I was accustomed to speaking High German, which visibly impressed my counterpart. He didn’t smell a rat and didn’t take me for a Jew. ‘These Jews have misappropriated property of the German people and I have to shoot them.’ He didn’t wait for my answer, but gave the command: ‘Aim, fire!’ The execution was a matter of seconds. While the poor sinners were still flouncing on the ground, I was ordered to lay them all face down, so another bullet could be fired into their heads. Then, as quickly as the SS men had come, they disappeared. I stood there for a bit, as if turned to stone, and was shocked by the events. Alone, I went back to my people. They didn’t believe their eyes when they saw I was still alive. I was convinced that I would have fallen victim to this massacre too, if I had had the Star of David on my chest. The next day everybody agreed that we wouldn’t set eyes on the SS again.” 
(Shmuel Argow: “Lebenserinnerungen” (unpublished manuscript, undated, 31 pages), Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, pp. 14–15. (Transl. KL))
 c  From the event calendar: “The entire division [first to arrive was a reconnaissance unit of the 100th Infantry Division of the 106th Corps of the Red Army] arrives half an hour later. The soldiers distribute their bread among the sick. The same day, a military physician with the rank of captain arrives and begins to organize assistance.”
(Danuta Czech: Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939–1945 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990), p. 804.)

In mid-January 1945, as the Red Army was advancing farther and farther westward and fast approaching Auschwitz, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA; Reich Security Main Office) and the SS prepared for the evacuation of the concentration camps. One day prior to the evacuation of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, an SS physician walked through the prisoner infirmary and decided who would go and who would stay. After the columns of prisoners had left the camp on January 18, 1945, there were 850 sick inmates, including one intern and 18 doctors, left remaining in the prisoner infirmary. They had been given three rations of bread and a little margarine and abandoned to their own devices. On January 19, 1945, there was a last Allied airstrike, and phosphorous bombs caused several barracks to burn. Luckily, however, the infirmary building, where most of the surviving inmates were located, was not affected. In the town of Auschwitz and the camps, the power and water supply failed. Thus the prisoners were cut off from all supplies, with no food, drinking water, or heating materials: “the Germans had abandoned the sick prisoners to their fate.”[1]


The SS general in charge of Silesia, Heinrich Schmauser, had given an order on January 20 for the shooting of all prisoners unable to go on the march. For unexplained reasons, and to the great good fortune of the prisoners, however, the SS fled the camp in haste on January 25 without carrying out the order. The strongest of the survivors in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, that is, those who still could manage to get around somehow, tried to arrange help for the others. Some elected a camp elder, Shmuel Argow, to lead them, while others tried by their own efforts to set up a meager food supply. Primo Levi tells of a potato storehouse outside of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, from which they could take enough food for several days.  a  Pillaging also occurred, however, as the ravenous prisoners looked for something to eat, and in some cases dramatic, horrible scenes resulted, as the survivor Shmuel Argow and others report.  b 


Of the 850 prisoners left behind, 200 died within a week because they lacked food and medicine, as the Germans left nothing behind when they pulled out. On the morning of Saturday, January 27, 1945, the first Russian soldier entered the prisoner infirmary at Buna/Monowitz.  c 


Though the Red Army provided the camp with foodstuffs and medical assistance immediately after its liberation, large numbers of former inmates continued to die in the following weeks from the effects of their imprisonment and the abrupt shift to a normal diet and portions. It usually took several more weeks for the survivors of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp to regain enough physical strength to set out on the road back to life—some returning to their countries of origin, others choosing emigration, primarily to the British Mandate of Palestine (later Israel) and the United States.

(SP; transl. KL)


Shmuel Argow: “Lebenserinnerungen.” Unpublished manuscript, undated, 31 pages. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute.



Czech, Danuta: Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939–1945. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

Levi, Primo: The Reawakening. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1987.

Levi, Primo: Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996 [first published as If This Is a Man].

Levi, Primo / de Benedetti, Leonardo: “Report on the Sanitary and Medical Organization of the Monowitz Concentration Camp for Jews (Auschwitz—Upper Silesia).” In: Primo Levi: Auschwitz Report. London/New York: Verso, 2006, pp. 31–78.

Wagner, Bernd C.: IG Auschwitz. Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941–1945. Munich: Saur, 2000.

[1] Bernd C. Wagner: IG Auschwitz. Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941–1945 (Munich: Saur, 2000), p. 279. (Translated by KL)