On This Day: 4 inmates escape Auschwitz dressed as SS officers 81 years ago

The escape was led by Kazimierz Piechowski, a non-Jewish political prisoner in the camp. It saw the inmates bring back the first detailed account of the horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz.

 Kazimierz Piechowski, the Auschwitz inmate who led a daring escape mission. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Kazimierz Piechowski, the Auschwitz inmate who led a daring escape mission.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

June 20, 2023 marks 81 years since several inmates in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz made a daring escape by stealing SS uniforms and a car belonging to the camp's commandant.

The escape was led by Kazimierz Piechowski, a non-Jewish Polish political prisoner in the camp. Ultimately, four inmates were able to make their escape.

The escape was notable for providing some of the first detailed documents about the horrors of the Holocaust that were occurring at the camp.

Escaping Auschwitz: How four inmates broke free of the Nazi death camp

Auschwitz was one of the most infamous of all the concentration camps used by the Nazis to carry out their genocide of the Jewish people and other demographics such as Sinti and Roma people. The camp also included a separate prison camp, rather than just a death camp. However, since the arrival of the first inmates in 1940, it hosted numerous executions, with ultimately over 1.1 million people being killed over the course of the Holocaust.

In fact, one out of every six of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust are thought to have died in Auschwitz.

 Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Auschwitz concentration camp in Oświęcim (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But it wasn't just Jews at Auschwitz. There were also several Polish political prisoners, among whom was Kazimierz Piechowski.

An engineer by trade, 19-year-old Piechowski was a boy scout – one of the many groups the Gestapo would target to be used as forced labor. He would try to escape, but wound up being captured on his way to join the remnants of the Polish Army and was sent to Auschwitz on June 20 1940 as inmate 918. 

He had to help carry away corpses to the crematorium after the SS guards executed inmates by shooting them at the "death wall." 

"Sometimes it was 20 a day, sometimes it was a hundred, sometimes it was more," he recounted in a 2011 interview with The Guardian. "Men, women and children."

Thoughts of escape only formed when he learned his friend, a Ukrainian inmate named Eugeniusz Bendera, was scheduled to be executed.

"When I thought that they would put Gienek [Bendera] against the wall of death and shoot him, I had to start thinking," Piechowski told The Guardian.

Bendera came up with the plan, but Piechowski took the lead. On a Saturday, the two, along with two other conspirators Józef Lempart and Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster, pretended they were part of a garbage disposal squad and were able to make their way out of the main camp to the store block. Then, they snuck into a storage room and were able to steal SS officers' uniforms. Bendera, who already had a copied key thanks to his work as a mechanic, was able to get them access to the fastest car in the camp: The Steyr 220, reserved for use by the head of the SS garrison equipment repository, Paul Kreutzmann.

The four inmates drove through the checkpoints, but it was the last checkpoint, the SS-controlled "zone of interest," that proved to be the biggest hurdle, as they didn't have any sort of clearance to go through. 

In his account to The Guardian, Piechowski described what he did to escape. 

He shouted at the guards "Wake up, you buggers! Open up or I'll open you up!"

It worked.

While some accounts have claimed that this escape prompted Auschwitz to tattoo all new inmates, the Auschwitz Museum has claimed this is a misconception.

Rather, the practice of tattooing inmates began with Soviet prisoners of war in 1941, with this later being implemented on Polish prisoners and Jews in 1942.

What happened after they escaped Auschwitz?

Ultimately, the four of them all successfully escaped and went their separate ways. 

Piechowski joined the Polish Home Army and fought the Nazis as a resistance fighter. He was arrested by the communist regime after the war ended and eventually died in 2017 at the age of 98.

But the greatest impact came from Jaster, who fought for the Polish Home Army and was eventually recaptured by the Gestapo and died sometime in 1943. The circumstances for his death are unclear.

However, Jaster brought back information regarding the horrors of the Holocaust. While in the camp, Jaster was in contact with Witold Pilecki, a Polish military officer and resistance operative who willingly allowed himself to be imprisoned at Auschwitz to both organize a resistance movement and compile information about the camp.

This document was given to Jaster, who then gave it to the high comment.

Pilecki's report was incredibly detailed and contained information about the camp's capabilities. It was later added to by Pilecki himself after his own escape from the camp in 1943.

Overall, according to the Auschwitz Museum, 196 people would successfully escape Auschwitz over the course of the Holocaust.