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Kazimierz Albin was tattooed with prisoner number 118. He escaped from Auschwitz and joined the Polish resistance movement, the largest underground resistance movement in all of occupied Europe (© Boris Buchholz) 
Kazimierz Albin was tattooed with prisoner number 118. He escaped from Auschwitz and joined the Polish resistance movement, the largest underground resistance movement in all of occupied Europe (© Boris Buchholz)  

80th Anniversary of the First Transport to Auschwitz

“Things can’t get any worse,” thought Kazimierz Albin. But he was mistaken. He was one of the first prisoners in Auschwitz

Kazimierz Albin was always active, as a member of the Presidium of the International Auschwitz Committee which represents former prisoners of the concentration and extermination camp, as a member of the International Auschwitz Council which makes decisions on matters concerning the Auschwitz Memorial, at meetings with other former prisoners and above all as a witness of the times. This task became increasingly important as he grew older. Meeting young people was particularly close to his heart. He made a point of meeting young people, especially from Germany. And with such a long life he had a great deal to tell them. Kazimierz Albin lived until he was 96 years old, and he was one of the first prisoners in Auschwitz. He was tattooed with the number 118. It was one of what later became more than a million such tattoos.

Always active. That is the way he was, even as a young man, in sports and with the scouts. When the war with National Socialist Germany approached in 1939, he knew that he was going to fight. And when this first chapter of war ended within two weeks with the German occupation, he wanted to carry on fighting by joining the Polish Army in France. But he was betrayed and, together with his brother, arrested in Slovakia. During the initial interrogations the two brothers were brutally beaten. Eventually, they were taken to the police prison in Nowy Sacz and locked up in a narrow cell that they were rarely allowed to leave. “I survived thanks to my fellow prisoners. I was the youngest, and so was able to learn from all of them. It was my good fortune to be together with such learned people who had great moral strength.”

But he found that being confined in such a small cell without movement was becoming increasingly unbearable, so unbearable that he even considered suicide. When he and his colleagues were transferred to Tarnow and finally to Auschwitz, Albin was filled with hope – they were on the very first transport to the place. He was thinking: “Things can’t get any worse.” 

But their arrival in Auschwitz soon proved them wrong. In the first three weeks, in so-called quarantine, the prisoners from Tarnow endured endless torment, humiliation and beatings by their guards. On the first day SS Hauptsturmscharführer (Captain) Fritsch told them, the only way out for them was through the chimney. This was the designated fate of the first prisoners.

When they were deployed for work, the conditions for the prisoners remained equally inhumane, and Albin realized that he would not be able to survive for very long. But he was lucky, because he could speak German. He was ordered to clean the quarters of the German overseers (Kapos). These Kapos had been imprisoned as common criminals and tyrannized the other prisoners on behalf of the SS. But Albin managed to keep their block clean to their satisfaction.

“People say that the strongest had the best chance of survival, but I think it was more important to be clever, to react in the right way at a given moment, and to be well informed, that’s what helped.” Albin had the ability to observe closely and to react at the right moment. Because of this, he was eventually transferred to the SS canteen. He and his fellow prisoners smuggled food from the canteen and into the camp. This would then be distributed by the resistance groups to the other prisoners. After almost three years in Auschwitz, despite his relatively ‘privileged’ situation, he refused to bear it any longer: “I had experienced my 18th, 19th and 20th birthdays in Auschwitz. I’d had enough.” He dared to make his escape and joined the resistance movement in the Polish Home Army. 

In the underground movement he was trained as an officer. He had a variety of assignments, and these included not only the acquisition of weapons but also the liquidation of traitors. He had no regrets: “I had seen thousands of dead people. A human life had meant little. And these particular people had brought death to others, and would have carried on doing it. I am proud of the fact that every single death penalty I carried out was truly justified.” 

After the war Albin lived an ordinary middle-class life as an aircraft engineer. But as he grew older, he became increasingly involved in the organizational work surrounding Auschwitz. Why? “Auschwitz – everyone associates it with the Holocaust, with the annihilation of the Jews. But the history of Auschwitz is a lot older. As the first prisoners, we experienced everything from the very beginning, and we didn’t want our history to be forgotten.”

When Noach Flug, the President of the International Auschwitz Committee met Kazimierz Albin, he immediately invited him to become a member of the presidium. All of the other presidium members were Jewish. In the words of the Executive Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee, Christoph Heubner, it was “an important gesture that recognized the suffering and the heroism of the Polish prisoners in Auschwitz.” Kazimierz Albin was one of them.

English translation: Ann Robertson