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"On the Auschwitz trial in Kraków (impressions)"

Krakow Auschwitz trial
Nasze słowo, no. 10, Warsaw and Łódź, 1947

In November 1947, a Polish national tribunal put 41 former officials of Auschwitz-Birkenau on trial for beating, torturing, and murdering prisoners during the Holocaust. Among the defendants were several officials known for their cruelty, including five female commandants. Great public interest surrounded the trial. Newspapers around the world posted correspondents to cover the proceedings in Kraków, which were also broadcast to crowds outside the courtroom building.

The prosecution relied heavily on witness testimony to document the brutal treatment endured by prisoners at Auschwitz. Survivors took the stand to describe the horrors of life in the camp, including starvation, beatings, gassings, and medical experiments.1 When the court adjourned on December 22, all but one of the defendants had been convicted and more than half had been sentenced to death, including two women. The judge explained that mercy was not warranted, because the convicted defendants "took part in the killings due to internal need to kill, rather than on superiors' orders."

A young Jewish woman from Kraków named Halina Nelken penned this article in the Polish Jewish daily Nasze słowo ["Our Word"] following the trial.2 As a teenaged girl, Nelken had survived the Kraków ghetto, Auschwitz, and several other concentration camps. Her article gives a description of the trial's proceedings and condemns the most notorious female functionaries in the camp. For Nelken, the refusal to accept their guilt is the greatest act of cruelty inflicted by these "despicable little people."

Nelken's article shows how these widely publicized trials of perpetrators of the Holocaust pressed survivors to revisit wartime trauma. "At the Auschwitz Trial" also points to a little known aspect of postwar justice. Though survivors often identified women as their persecutors during war crimes investigations, few of these women ever faced charges. Jurists typically pursued male war criminals more intently—and indeed they outnumbered female perpetrators—but German women and female collaborators were often falsely portrayed as victims, bystanders, or unwitting accomplices.3 "At the Auschwitz Trial in Kraków" depicts a rare encounter between a female victim and her female oppressors.4

Former Auschwitz prisoner Otto Wolken also described witnessing such brutality when he testified at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial in 1964.

Nelken later published a volume including her wartime diaries and postwar writings; see Halina Nelken, And Yet, I Am Here!, trans. Halina Nelken and Alicia Nitecki (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

In her analysis of female SS guards in the Majdanek concentration camp, historian Elissa Mailänder argues that women concentration camp officials perpetrated violence routinely and of their own initiative. See Elissa Mailänder, Female SS Guards and Workaday Violence: The Majdanek Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, trans. Patricia Szobar (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 2015). For more on atrocities committed by Nazi women, see Wendy Lower, Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

In media coverage, female perpetrators were frequently portrayed as defeminized and bestial agents of physical violence. See, for example, Daniel Patrick Brown, The Camp Women: The Female Auxiliaries Who Assisted the SS in Running the Nazi Concentration Camp System (Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2002).

The path that Jesus is said to have walked on the way to crucifixion.

Block 25 in the BIa sector of Birkenau housed female prisoners who had been deemed unfit for work and sentenced to death in the gas chambers.

German: "the master race."

The Auschwitz Trial of 1947 was held in the Great Hall of the National Museum in Kraków.

Alice Orlowski (1903–1976) was a German concentration camp guard, first in Ravensbrück in Germany and then in Majdanek near Lublin in October 1942. She was later assigned to Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, where she became notorious for her brutality.

German: "Ah, you sow!" 

A subcamp of Ravensbrück.

Luise Danz (b. 1917) was a Nazi German concentration camp guard, first in Ravensbrück, then Płaszów, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau and at the Ravensbrück subcamp of Malchow. Extradited to Poland after the war, she was tried at the first Auschwitz Trial and sentenced to life imprisonment. Danz was granted amnesty and released in 1956. 

The Supreme National Tribunal (Polish: Najwyższy Trybunał Narodowy) was a war crimes tribunal in Poland functioning between 1946 and 1948.

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Halina Nelken

On the Auschwitz Trial in Kraków

They sit in the dock as looking as though nothing has happened. Their facial expressions are blank or ironic, sometimes confusedly embarrassed, mainly arrogantly self-assured. They whisper something among themselves and laugh. They note something on a piece of paper. Whenever a new witness comes to the microphone, they eagerly put on their earphones; a moment of concentration—the name of the defendant is spoken. The defendant usually goes slightly pale, the others try impassively to conceal the tension that has coursed through their nerves and facial features.

And words of horrendous truth issue from the microphone: murders, abuse, beating, beating, shot, gassed—these words sticky with blood, the uninterrupted leitmotif of every testimony. Majdanek, Płaszów. Auschwitz, Ravensbrück—the names come like milestones marking out the prisoners' Via Dolorosa,1  and the career path of these present defendants.

Numbers: Block 25 in Auschwitz.2 General roll call. Four thousand to the gas. Transports. Three thousand, five thousand a day. On one day in November at Majdanek, several thousand Jews were shot. 

Astonishing words come from the microphone, terrifying in their frightful horror and truth—and they are reflected on the numb faces of the criminals, who sit with expressions as though this had nothing to do with them.

"Witness, whom of the defendants do you recognize?"

My gaze slowly passes along the dock. The Germans' faces—as usual—are indifferent, and yet there is a familiar look in their eyes. That same look of inner stress and trepidation which I knew so well from the selections  and the transports. Except then wearing this miserable gaze was our lot—the roles were reversed—I wonder if my eyes today have that cold glow of absolute hatred and contempt typical of the "Herrenvolk?"3 

The women defendants stand. We eye each other up and down. And suddenly the huge, packed hall of the National Museum4 vanishes and I am back in the camp.

Roll call. An hours-long roll call in Płaszów. Equal-length rows of women in headscarves on the left, men with shaved heads on right. The parade ground slopes slightly, the silhouettes of SS officers can be seen clearly at the bottom. Vulgar, loud laughter.

"Block warden, when will they finally count us?" Our legs, exhausted from standing so long, refuse to obey. In fact, only the first rows are standing—concealed behind them, prisoners sit on mess-tins or squat on the ground.

"Watch out! Orlowski is coming!"5

The lines immediately straighten up. The "tomboy" is coming, a huge, burly old gorgon, already hurrying us along from afar in a stentorian voice: "hop-hop, dali-dali!" She counts off groups of five, standing at attention frozen and motionless. One of the women, weakened from standing so long, staggers to the side. "Ah, du Sau!"6  Now she's yanked her out of line and is bashing her with her fists, showering her with a stream of filthy invective. When the prisoner groans and shifts a little on the ground, she kicks her with her polished "jackboots," and pulls her up by her hair, the anger and screaming working her into a frenzy and she beats, beats, beats...

And roll-call again.

This time, in faraway Malchow,7 in Mecklenburg. Five thousand shadow-women barely holding themselves up on unnaturally thin legs with protruding shins. From their eyes flows a river of five years of war, the misery that follows the German camps and hunger, tremendous hunger. In front is the tall Oberaufseherin Danz8 with the hard face of a wicked boy. She places her white-gloved hands in the pockets of her ski pants—February in northern Germany is very cold—in an unpleasant, harsh voice, she announces a several-hour roll call as punishment for the escape of two prisoners.

"You will get no bread today either!" she spits out at the end, and goes off to her warm quarters.

And the five thousand shadow-women stand helplessly, fainting one after the other. Like a row of dominoes when one is inadvertently knocked over. They collapse from weakness and exhaustion, pick themselves up again and stand numb, with one desperate thought: that today there will be no one-eighth portion of bread, green with mold.

Transport to Leipzig: Danz carries out searches, distributes to the prisoners what remains of the warm clothes and shoes, and smashes a water bottle on the head of a prisoner who'd taken it along on the road. 

"I did not beat, I did not bully, I never performed any searches," that same harsh, unpleasant voice.

Before the Supreme National Tribunal9 the defendants deny any guilt, accusing the numerous witnesses of lying.

There is something horribly disgusting in the behavior of the defendants. If even one of them had the courage to admit: yes, I did this. For this reason or that, because it was an order from the top, because I enjoyed it so much. Then these inhuman criminals would remain to the end a symbol of inhuman evil and cruelty.

There is something base in impudently denying any responsibility (when—surely—they are fully aware of their guilt)—in shifting the blame onto others, betraying one another.

This is proof that the defendants are not driven by any idea they would fight for, taking responsibility for the death and suffering of thousands of innocent victims. They do not have within them the greatness of devils. They murdered on command, they tormented for pleasure.

Criminal, despicable little people.


Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Nasze słowo, no. 10, Warsaw and Łódź, 1947
Date Created
Author / Creator
Halina Nelken
Kraków, Poland
Document Type Newspaper Article
Description Newspaper article
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