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Oral History with Henry Kanner

Oral History with Henry Kanner
USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education

The choices and actions of police officers had various impacts on people’s lives during the years of the Nazi regime. In this oral history, Henry Kanner explains how the choices of several different policemen he encountered during the Holocaust changed the course of his life. 

Born into a conservative Jewish family in Kraków, Kanner was only twelve years old when German forces invaded Poland in September 1939 and World War II began. When German authorities established the Kraków ghetto in March 1941, the Kanner family was forced to move there.1 Hunger and starvation were widespread, and Henry often snuck out of the ghetto to look for food for his family.2 He ran away from the ghetto after his family members were sent to the Belzec killing center during a violent mass deportation in October 1942.

Alone with no family, Kanner approached some of his family’s non-Jewish Polish friends and neighbors for help, including a member of the Polish underground resistance (Armia Krajowa, or Home Army). Because Kanner spoke fluent German, he agreed to deliver a secret message to Vienna for them. After he boarded a train, Kanner was arrested by the German Railway Police on suspicion of being Jewish.3 Although the officer seemed sympathetic to Kanner’s pleas, he explained that he could not let the teen go without getting into trouble himself. When the train pulled into the town of Ratibor (the present-day Polish town of Racibórz), the officer turned Henry over to the town's German Order Police, who took him to the Gestapo the next day.4

In the featured clip, Kanner describes how he was treated by different members of the German police forces in Ratibor. Every few days for a month or more, he was interrogated and severely beaten by the Gestapo before they returned him to a cell in the local prison. The officers of the Gestapo tortured and taunted him, but the German Order Police officer in charge of the prison secretly helped him survive. Polizeimeister Schneider gave Kanner extra food and expressed sympathy. However, he hid his acts of compassion and even pretended to act cruelly toward Kanner. 

When Kanner was transferred to Auschwitz in spring 1943, a Gestapo officer mocked him and delivered the news with a smile. On the day of his transfer, Polizeimeister Schneider escorted Kanner to the prison train and whispered words of parting as he boarded. Schneider’s compassion made a deep impact on Kanner, who describes him as “a very decent human being.” Such acts of kindness were uncommon occurrences within Nazi Germany’s system of incarceration. Although some camp and prison guards were motivated by religious beliefs or genuine sympathy for their prisoners, others sought to establish a record of more decent behavior once it became clear that Germany would lose the war.

Kanner survived two years of incarceration in Auschwitz and Mauthausen before being liberated in May 1945.5 A friend at Mauthausen had forged Kanner’s identification card and listed his religion as Catholic, which may have saved his life. He met his future wife in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany after liberation and immigrated to the United States in 1946.6

To learn more about life in the Krákow ghetto, see Malvina Graf, The Kraków Ghetto and the Płaszów Camp Remembered (Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Press, 1989); Felicja Karay, The Women of Ghetto Kraków, translated by Sara Kitai (Tel Aviv: 2001); Bernard Offen with Norman G. Jacobs, My Hometown Concentration Camp: A Survivor’s Account of Life in the Kraków Ghetto and Płaszów Concentration Camp (London and Portland, OR: Valentine Mitchell, 2008); and The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Vol II: Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe, Part A, edited by Geoffrey P. Megargee, Martin Dean, and Melvin Hecker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 527–31.

Once when Henry had snuck out of the ghetto, he was caught by the Polish police. Rather than turn the Jewish teen over to the Germans, the head of the Polish police precinct chose to let Henry go. "As far as I’m concerned," the officer told him, "you’re not here." Kanner recalls that the "head of the precinct was apparently a very human person." Some members of the so-called Polish "Blue" Police (named for their dark blue uniforms) did not enforce all German policies with dedication and even engaged in resistance activities, but these police forces also arrested and tracked down Jews and oversaw deportations. To learn more, see Jan Grabowski, "The Polish 'Blue' Police," in Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013): 101–20; and Jan Grabowski, "The Polish Police: Collaboration in the Holocaust" (Washington, DC: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017).

The German Railway Police were the security forces of the German national railway system (Reichsbahn). The German railway played a central role in the deportations of Jews to Nazi killing centers. For more on German railroads and the Holocaust, see Christopher R. Browning, Raul Hilberg, and Peter Hayes, German Railroads, Jewish Souls: The Reichsbahn, Bureaucracy, and the Final Solution (New York: Berghahn Books, 2020); and Alfred C. Mierzejewski, Hitler's Trains: The German National Railway & the Third Reich (Stroud, England: Tempus, 2005).

Kanner recalls that he was treated decently by the Order Police when he first arrived in Ratibor, and this may have saved his life—they allowed him to use the bathroom privately, which gave him the opportunity to destroy the letter that he had been carrying for the resistance. For more on his experiences with the German Railway Police and the Order Police in Ratibor, listen to this interview in the collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Kanner gave multiple oral history interviews about his experiences during the Holocaust. To learn more about Kanner's experiences at liberation, see this interview in the collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

To learn more about the experiences of other Displaced Persons after World War II, see the related Experiencing History collections, Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Europe and Displaced Persons and Postwar America.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education
Source Number 38645
Date of Interview
January 6, 1998
Duration 00:01:51
Time Selection 03:50–05:41
Henry Kanner
Reading, PA
Reference Location
Ratibor, Germany (historical)
Racibórz, Poland
Interview Type Oral History
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