Laurence Rees: Jerzy Bielecki was a prisoner on the very first transport to Auschwitz in June 1940. He’d been arrested because the Nazis suspected he was helping Polish resistance. And like the majority of people who were sent to Auschwitz in the first eighteen months of its existence, Jerzy was a Polish Catholic. The Nazis welcomed these new arrivals to Auschwitz with characteristic brutality.
Words of Jerzy Bielecki: They beat us between the cars and the gate. They gave us such a hard time. There was a young boy standing next to me, maybe he was sixteen, fifteen even, and he was crying, tears were falling. And his head was cracked and blood was dripping on his face, it was dripping on his clothes. We were afraid, we didn't know where we were. It seemed to me that we found ourselves in hell. You cannot describe it any other way. And it turned out that this was hell.
Laurence Rees: But within this hell there were different degrees of horror. And about the most horrific place any prisoner could find themselves, in those early days at Auschwitz, was in the penal company run by a German prisoner called Krankemann. Krankemann was a Kapo, a prisoner who supervised other inmates – and in the process was given the power of life and death over them.
Words of Jerzy Bielecki: He had this Kapo band on his arm. And he had a dark blue jacket and was very fat, and had red hair, even his eyebrows were red. And his eyelashes. Anybody could be sent to his penal company. Anyone could be directed there. If you, for example, picked up a cigarette butt that was thrown by an SS man and another SS man noticed - for any little thing you could be punished. I could have gone there anytime, for the smallest little thing. There you could live only for an hour, a week or a month, and he was the head of that. First time I saw him, when he was leading his group - about twenty five people - they were pulling this huge roller, and they were rolling the square between two blocks. And they were levelling the earth, soil that was brought by trucks. Of course it was a very heavy roller and if these twenty five people couldn't pull it then Krankemann had a whip and would hit them, would hit, and would say: ‘You dogs faster, faster’. He maltreated them. And I once saw, when we were during a lunch break, and they were working without a break until the evening, I saw one of the prisoners who had no strength fell on his knees and elbows, stumble and he couldn't get up. And the roller was moving, and Krankemann hit him a few times and yelled to them to keep pulling the roller. ‘Move, move, move, don't stop.’ And the roller went over this man’s legs. I got used to seeing deaths and beatings, maltreatment. But when I saw this it just made me cold. It was a one and a half ton heavy roller. I just froze inside. This could happen to me at any moment - that's the way it was in Auschwitz. What happened in Auschwitz from the very beginning - you had to see it, and experience it.
Laurence Rees: Jerzy was to experience horrendous treatment himself when, one day, the SS discovered that he had tried to hide from work because he was injured. The punishment they inflicted was swift and brutal.
Words of Jerzy Bielecki: They sent me for an hour of hanging. The SS man took me to the attic, we climbed to the first floor, I don't know what's happening. I walk in - it was warm and in the attic the tiles were hot - it was August, a beautiful sunny day. There was a stench and I could hear someone moaning: ‘Jesus, oh Jesus.’ It was dark - there was no electricity - only through the tiles maybe there was some light. I looked and there's a guy hanging. And the SS guard brought a stool and said, ‘Climb the stool.’ I put my hands behind me and he took a chain and tied my hands. ‘Stand on your toes,’ he said and he pulled the chain up. There were hooks on the beams, and he wanted to hang me on the, on the hook. Finally he made it and he kicked the stool away without any warning. I just felt ‘Jesus, Mary,’ that was it. ‘Oh god, terrible pain.’ My shoulders were breaking out from the joints, both arms were breaking out from the joints. It was very violent the way he kicked the stool, terrible pain and I didn't know what to do, and I'd been moaning, and he told me: ‘Shut up you dog,’ 'cause ‘you deserve it and have to suffer.’ He looked at his watch, jotted down the time he hung me. It was eternity for me. And of course the sweat was flowing down my nose and my chin and my back, it's very hot, I was saying, ‘Mummy!’ I remember these words. And then a different SS guard came, it reached my awareness and I couldn't even look, I couldn't see anything. I was sort of out in a different world because of the pain. And I think maybe he'll release me. He went to the other guy and he released him. How he left I don't know, my eyes were closed. I'd been hanging without a spirit, without a soul. What reached me was the SS guard was saying something. He said, ‘Just fifteen more minutes.’ I was totally finished, I'd been hanging for forty-five. He left following the other prisoner. The guy came back fifteen minutes later. He helped me to straighten, and he let that chain loose, and I fell from the stool on my knees on the side. He helped me. He was a very compassionate SS guard. He helped me get up. And then he took off the chain. And with a smile, ironic smile he raised my right hand up and said, ‘Hold it.’ There was no way I could hold it, I didn't feel my arms. He said this will pass, in an hour he said. And I walked down, barely, with the SS man, and I came to my block, sat down and just cuddled myself. I don't know whether I cried.
Laurence Rees: Young and still strong as he was, Jerzy managed to recover from his injuries. And he survived to witness a change in the function of Auschwitz; from a brutal concentration camp – where tens of thousands of prisoners died of mistreatment – to a death camp where prisoners were murdered on arrival. In this case, Soviet prisoners of war.
Words of Jerzy Bielecki: One night, in 1942, towards the end of January, maybe beginning of February, I hear a kind of movement. I say, ‘Boys, what happened? Have a look.’ We came to the window and we hear yells, kind of moanings, and you can see a group of people running, naked completely, bare foot and naked running down a street from the railway tracks towards the crematorium, our first crematorium. And SS men are running with machine guns - they were all running, it was frosty, maybe minus fifteen or twenty, it was cold. They were running straight to us. It was about twenty metres from us not further. And we're looking, one group rushed by, in fifteen minutes a second group rushed by and everybody was moaning and yelling out of cold, an incredible sound. One group rushed by and the second and third, four or five such groups, rushed into the crematorium. Naked, they entered the gassing chamber. I was terrified. It was a devilish, hellish image.
Laurence Rees: Auschwitz was metamorphosizing in front of Jerzy Bielecki’s eyes. And soon it wouldn’t be Soviet prisoners of war who would be murdered en masse in the gas chambers, but Jews – more than a million of them.
Originally recorded in Polish, this transcript is taken from a simultaneous translation.