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