Move the mouse pointer over a red word in the main text, to view the glossary entry for this word.


 a  “Once a boy failed to return from work in the evening. This happened in the middle of the winter. The prisoners had to keep on standing in the roll-call square, because the number of returning prisoners didn’t tally. But two hours later, they saw the boy suddenly come staggering up. He was about 14. A Kapo with a green triangle, a criminal, had raped him at work and then beaten him until he appeared to be no longer alive. The Kapo had covered the boy’s body with cement bags. But the boy had crept out.”

(Stefan Keller: Die Rückkehr. Joseph Springs Geschichte (Zurich: Rotpunkt, 2000), p. 124. (Transl. KL))

Relatively few escapes from most of the concentration camps, including the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, are known to have occurred. According to the calculations of Tadeusz Iwaszko, only 33 prisoners dared to attempt escape from the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. Running away entailed numerous risks and dangers, and most prisoners were enfeebled and scarcely equal to the physical demands: running fast, hiding, and perhaps waiting a long while for help and food. Moreover, the camp was heavily guarded, with a double row of electrically charged barbed-wire fences and SS men in watchtowers, ready to shoot. Once past those obstacles, an escaping prisoner had to skirt around a cordon of SS guards. In addition, after March 1943 a Streifendienst[1] (patrol force) was on duty at Auschwitz, and there were railway-station, town, and bicycle patrol groups that were authorized to be on the lookout outside the cordon of guards. With their shaven heads, characteristic prisoner clothing, and tattooed numbers, the inmates were easy to spot.


An attempt to escape could succeed only if the runaway obtained help outside the camp, that is, from civilian workers or partisan organizations. Polish prisoners had the best chance of making a successful getaway, because their command of the language made it easier to establish contacts with the world outside, and they might even have relatives in the immediate vicinity. For the large numbers of Jewish prisoners from all over Europe who were imprisoned in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, escape was decidedly more difficult to arrange: Not only did they rarely perform a function that enabled them to “organize” equipment, or possess any familiarity with either the surrounding area or the Polish language, but they also had to reckon with the anti-Semitism of the rural population, as local residents either refused them help or immediately turned them in to the Gestapo. Once captured, they were brought back to the concentration camp, usually interrogated and tortured, and eventually executed by public hanging. Not least, the break-out of a few was avenged with collective punishments for the entire camp. The fugitive had to expect that his escape would result in suffering for his friends and relatives.


If the count of prisoners at the construction site or in camp revealed that one or more were missing, the grounds were sealed off and searched by the SS, using dogs. The roll call lasted as long as it took to make the numbers come out right. In addition, the SS had to report escaped prisoners to higher authorities, including the Reichsführer SS, the SS Economic and Administrative Main Office, and the Gestapo. The SS’s alert lasted for three days in the camp: “After this period, the fugitive, if he had not been seized, was stricken from the inmate inventory of the camp; his name, however, was entered in the list of wanted persons.”[2] Survivors tell of roll calls that lasted for many hours, in any wind and weather, without food. Frequently the “fugitive” was found asleep or dead.  a  Often SS guards at the construction site reported the death of one or more inmates with these words: “shot while attempting to escape.” Since SS men received several days of leave as a reward for preventing an escape, they frequently induced prisoners to step outside the cordon of guards—for example, by tossing the inmates’ caps some distance away and ordering them to fetch them—and then shot them.


In a few instances, however, prisoners really did manage to escape from the camp. The Berlin Jew Bully Schott made his getaway in summer 1944. He spent one night hiding under insulation materials at the I.G. Farben construction site. Richard Sommerlatt, a German civilian worker, had procured a train ticket for him and accompanied him to Berlin, where he was able to go into hiding under a false name in the home of his fiancée, Gerda Lewinnek.[3] Two Jewish friends, Max Drimmer and Mendel Scheingesicht, escaped successfully in September 1944, thanks to the help of the Polish civilian worker Józef Wróna. They first hid in the home of the Wróna family, and then they were concealed by a female acquaintance of Mendel Scheingesicht at Gleiwitz until they were freed by the Red Army. Most others were less fortunate: the memory of the Jewish resistance fighters Nathan Weissmann, Janek Grossfeld, and Leo Diament is indelible for most survivors. The three planned an escape, but were betrayed and then tortured by the SS. They were hanged in front of their fellow inmates on October 10, 1944. Before the rope tightened, they shouted out words of encouragement to those forced to watch: “Chin up, comrades, we’re the last ones!” Non-Jewish prisoners who sought to escape were not always hanged when caught. In a few cases, they only had a so-called Fluchtpunkt (“escape mark”) placed on their clothing and were no longer allowed to leave camp for forced labor.


In the chaos of the war’s final days, on the death march, a relatively large number of prisoners managed to leave the marching column and hide until the Red Army arrived. Now that the end of the Third Reich was foreseeable, they also were more likely to receive help from the local populace—often hoping to protect their own families from the dreaded brutality of the Red Army by giving assistance to concentration camp prisoners.

(SP; transl. KL)


Max Drimmer, oral history interview [Eng.], July 3, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Paul Grünberg, oral history interview [Ger.], June 16, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Siegmund Kalinski, oral history interview [Ger.], September 11, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

[Posener, Curt]: “Zur Geschichte des Lagers Auschwitz-Monowitz (BUNA).” Unpublished manuscript, undated, 53 pages. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute.

Bully Schott, oral history interview [Ger.], November 30, 1995. USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Archive, Code 6458.

Herman Shine, oral history interview [Eng.], July 3, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Ya’acov Silberstein, oral history interview [Hebr.], July 29–30, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.



Diament, Freddy: “We are the last victims.” In: Jewish Spectator, April 1968, pp. 9–12.

Iwaszko, Tadeusz: “Häftlingsfluchten aus dem Konzentrationslager Auschwitz.” In: Hefte von Auschwitz 7(1964), pp. 3–57.

Keller, Stefan: Die Rückkehr. Joseph Springs Geschichte. Zurich: Rotpunkt, 2000.

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

[1] Tadeusz Iwaszko: “Häftlingsfluchten aus dem Konzentrationslager Auschwitz.” In: Hefte von Auschwitz 7 (1964), pp. 3–57, here p. 13. (Translated by KL)

[2] Iwaszko: Häftlingsfluchten, p. 23.

[3] An interview with Bully Schott is available in the workroom of the Norbert Wollheim Memorial: Bully Schott, oral history interview [Ger.], November 30, 1995. USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Archive, Code 6458.