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The Auschwitz Kommandant
A Daughter's Search for the Father She Never Knew
By Barbara U. Cherish
The History PressCopyright © 2010 Barbara U. Cherish
All rights reserved.
Party Member # 932766 & Family Man
I remembered that Brigitte had recorded some audiotapes of our family's history shortly before she died. Until now, I had had no desire to listen to them, not wanting to revive the pain of losing her. But now I was ready.
I had married young, at age nineteen, and since my twenty-eight-year marriage had come to an end, I found myself alone for the first time in my life. At my small apartment I picked up the telephone, and with a trembling hand dialed the number of Brigitte's son, Kye. Without telling him the reason for my request, I asked him for the tapes. He readily agreed to make me copies. I hung up the phone and immediately felt that I had made an important decision.
Because I had no plan beyond listening to the tapes, I had no way of knowing that I had just taken the first and easiest step in what would be an eight-year quest before I would eventually find some of the answers I sought. This journey would be filled with frustration, disappointment, emotional turmoil, conflict and countless dead ends.
It was later that year in 1991, on a hot, sunny afternoon, that the search for my father actually began. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I sat down alone to once again listen to Brigitte's melancholy voice as she spilled out her recollections of our family's history of which I'd known only the most rudimentary of facts. She brought into sharp focus some memories that had grown faint throughout the years, but mostly she revealed details about my family that I'd never heard before.
I took notes as I listened to the tapes, writing on a large yellow note pad with a pencil that would soon be worn down to a short stub. And then it was not until some time later that I finally retired the old typewriter and replaced it with a computer.
My father was born on 25 November 1901 as the illegitimate son of Emma Ottilie Liebehenschel and Anton Heinrich Weinert in Posen, Poland. It was not unusual for these ethnic Germans, known as 'Reichs-Germans', to live in Poland. His mother named him Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel because Anton was already a married man and denied paternal responsibility, even refusing to give him his name.
Anton, a teacher as well as a railroad official, soon deserted them, leaving Emma to raise her only son by herself. Arthur held a deep, loving bond with his mother, who worked hard as a seamstress in order to survive. His adoration for his mother often was expressed throughout his writings. As a seamstress, she worked diligently to keep her child, but barely making ends meet.
There never was any mention or evidence of his own father, and one senses through this a deeply hidden void, creating more hurt than resentment. His father abandoned him before he was even born and never acknowledged him as his son, even in later years.
In Arthur's journals, he spoke of a stepsister Helene whom he wished he could have met, but never knew. Little is known about his actual childhood but he mentioned several times in his journals that it was a difficult one and the good memories were those of his beloved mother.
The First World War had ended with Germany defeated in August 1918 and disarmed by the Treaty of Versailles. That was under the Weimar Republic, in power from 1919–1933, which tried to establish a democratic parliamentary regime. From testimony given by my father on 7 May 1947, he stated:
My mother came from a family of Inn Keepers from East Germany and my father was a Railroad Official, a low ranking civil servant working as Secretary of the Railroad in Posen, Poland. He was a teacher by profession. His background stemmed from a line of mill workers in Prussian Silesia. I was raised in a religious atmosphere. My father was Catholic but I was raised solely by my mother who was a devout Protestant.
I have fond memories as a child of our neighbors, the Polish family known as Glowinski to whom I owed much in that time. Their family consisting of ten children was very prosperous and life was much easier for them than for my mother and me. I spent a great deal of time with these people and was often given generous gifts.
I was an only child. My father lived to be seventy-four and my mother died at age fifty-one. I had been a member of the Lutheran Church.
After finishing high school Arthur studied public administration and economics. As a young man he joined the 'Freikorps' (Free Corps) where he served as a 'Border Guard-East' from January 1919 to August of that same year. This newly formed illegal military authority came into power after the defeat of the First World War, consisting mostly of idealistic activists who had been members of the armed forces; many of these men later also became members of the Nazi Party. It was brought into being by those who were of Hitler's generation who shared his enthusiasm to defend Germany from the Bolsheviks.
In October 1919 Arthur joined the army – the Reichswehr – at age eighteen. It was known as the '100,000 Men Army' as this was the maximum number allowed after the First World War. The military seemed to offer some measure of security as well as the chance for a patriotic young man to serve his country.
In 1920 the National Socialist German Workers Party, known as the 'Nazi Party', derived from 'Nazional', had a mere sixty members. Adolf Hitler was the head of this new political party, the NSDAP. He promised, among other things, to return Germany's colonies to her, which had been lost at the time of defeat. War reconstruction and payments to the Allies were among the great economic pressures. With the country in such turmoil and politically unstable, Adolf Hitler became the dominant figure. His hypnotic speeches had an extraordinary effect on the people.
In the Reichswehr my father was in the Infantry for two and a half years and then became Master Field Sergeant in the Medical Corps. His rank in this army was 'Sanitaets Oberfeld-Webel' at the time of his marriage to my mother, Gertrud Baum, on 3 December 1927 in Frankfurt-Oder.
I unfortunately have little information about my mother's background or childhood. Hers, too, was not an easy life – the sadness reflects in all of the photographs which I have of her. She was born in Zuellichau, Poland on 3 October 1903, a small pretty woman with hazel eyes. My parents, both ethnic Germans, met when she was working as a secretary for a college professor in Zuellichau. Evidently she worked closely for a number of years with a Dr Rudolf Hanov, the author of a book on the history of a local students' group. It was published in 1933 and he dedicated this book to her:
Dedicated to Frau Gertrud Liebehenschel, the former Gertrud Baum, for her longstanding loyal assistance. In fond memory of our collaboration toward matters concerning the subject of Burgkellerei – by Dr. Rudolf Hanov.
My sisters remembered that our mother often spoke highly of this old friend and wondered if they had been romantically involved at an earlier time.
Still living in Frankfurt-Oder on the Polish border, my parents' first child – my oldest brother Dieter – was born to them on 2 September 1928. At the time, my father had also been attending secret underground meetings and became very involved with the Nazi movement. As with so many other people, he was overwhelmed by the powerful speeches of promises to reunite Germany and to return the people's dignity and economic welfare.
By the end of 1929 unemployment had risen to three million, and inflation was rising making circumstances even more favorable for Hitler and his party. On 30 January 1933 the forty-three-year-old painter from Austria was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
After twelve years of duty in the Reichswehr, father was discharged as Master Sergeant, a non-commissioned officer, on 3 October 1931. Throughout the following months after his discharge he remained unemployed. In 1932 my father went to work for the Finance Office in Frankfurt-Oder.
After my brother Dieter was born, Brigitte arrived four years later on 28 December 1932, followed by my sister Antje, who was born 7 April 1937. It was extremely cold that year, and Brigitte remembered my mother saying that there had been little money for coal. They had no heat and 'could scrape the ice off the inside walls' of their small apartment. To keep the new baby warm, Mother and Father placed her between them in their bed, but were afraid to move for fear she might be smothered during the night.
One of the first major breakthroughs during my research came when I finally received word from the Berlin Document Center that all existing reference material had been moved to the National Archives in Washington DC. Grateful that I could now correspond in English – and after the usual bureaucratic red tape – I located the transcripts taken at Nuremberg of Father's pre-trial interrogations.
I received the transcripts on microfilm, which I took to the local library to view. As I threaded the film onto the ancient machines, I was filled with a strange mixture of happiness at receiving this tangible piece of evidence and fear of what I might learn.
As I read, a knot formed in the pit of my stomach. Some of the testimony was damning – not only from witnesses, but also from my father himself, who was clearly lying about what he knew. I left the library, my head reeling. Was my father really responsible for the murder of hundreds of prisoners as the witnesses claimed?
As with most of the documentation that I would accumulate throughout the next few years, these transcripts were in German and I began the diligent, lengthy and incredibly emotional task of translating my father's testimony into English. It was as though I found myself back in time at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice with my father, and I can almost see him on the witness stand. In my mind's eye, I am experiencing these dramatic hearings. I wonder if his obvious lies are due to the oath he had pledged to Hitler, promising obedience, loyalty and of course the code of secrecy. Here was his testimony about the beginning.
Transcripts of Pre-trial Interrogation at Nuremberg: U.S. Military Chief of Counsel for War Crimes/SS Section Taken Of: Arthur Wilhelm Liebehenschel – by E. Rigney Date: September 18, 1946 – 10:00–11:30 a.m.
Q: Did you ever belong to any other political party before 1930?
Q: Did you ever belong to any other political organization other than the Union?
Q: When did you join the NSDAP [Nazi Party]?
Q: Did you ever hold any leading or subordinate office within the NSDAP?
A: No I joined the SS.
Q: We're now talking about the 'Party'. Did you ever hold any official position in the party?
Q: What other formation within the party did you belong to?
A: I joined the general SS.
Q: Since when?
A: Also since February 1, 1932.
Q: With what rank did you start in the SS?
A: I started as private in the SS.
Q: I'd like to go back to the question of the 'Party'. You said you held neither rank nor a position in the 'party' itself. Did you ever hold any official functions in the party?
Q: Did you have personal friends that were members of the party?
A: That I don't know. I had virtually nothing to do with the party itself. The SS was automatically assigned to the 'party'. We had little or no involvement with the party. We paid our dues.
Q: So the answer then to my question from a logical point of view would be: 'Yes' that your friends within the SS were also members of the party?
A: As you wish.
Q: What was the general reason that you joined the SS?
A: This is how it was at that time: Since I was unemployed after twelve years, one needed to seek an occupation, but there was no employment for some time. I wanted to have some activity; something to keep me occupied. That is why I joined the SS. At that time the SS was still seen as a military branch with decent people.
Q: That's a matter of opinion. We are not here to discuss our ideas.
Later, when Dieter and Brigitte had whooping cough and Antje was just a tiny baby, mother was afraid Antje would also become infected. Therefore, they were sent on a train with identifying name tags to Zuellichau, to Oma, our mother's mother. Oma lived alone in a large old house in the city, as our grandfather had died in June of 1936. Dieter and Brigitte found her apartment fascinating. It was quite dark inside as the bedroom had no windows. The heavy overstuffed furniture was of old craftsmanship. The large dining table was beautifully carved wood covered by an old-fashioned, long-fringed tablecloth that nearly reached the floor.
Brigitte recalled how Oma was very strict, but a wonderful lady. She stood for no nonsense concerning picky eating habits, something Brigitte was known for. My sister preferred eating snacks between meals and Oma warned her that if she didn't clean her plate, she'd have to wait until the next meal. My sister showed her rebellion by taking a newspaper under the table and proceeding to eat it piece by piece.
Oma could not get angry when she found Brigitte pouting and peering through the long fringes of the tablecloth. But she too was headstrong and made no attempt to offer any snacks! I suppose there was a lesson learned, but who was the teacher?
It was 6 January 1929 and Hitler appointed Himmler 'Reichsführer SS'. Himmler was placed in charge of the original SS troops, the black corps which were the elite guards, a select group of young men eighteen to twenty years of age, pledged to protect Hitler with their own lives.
Himmler, as most of the youths of that era, including my father, seemed to be driven by a strong belief in complete order and discipline. History tells us that after the war many Nazis testified 'they were only following orders'. In the interesting book Hitler's Elite by Louis L. Snyder, the author cites that historians who have researched the psychological aspect of this behavior, have called this conduct the 'obedience syndrome'. The foremost golden rule was to respect authority and to obey law and order.
Adulation of the government and complete subservience to authority was the sign – and expected of all model citizens. It was not only taught within the home and family, but even the educational system of that time was indoctrinated by teachers spreading the philosophy of Georg Hegel. Disobedience was considered betrayal to the Führer and the Fatherland.
At the onset of Nazi rule, Himmler was involved with the earliest concentration camps, which had been constructed at Dachau near Munich, then Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen by Berlin. These 'correctional institutions' were soon turned into death camps. Later, the Reichsführer would be the one to make life exceedingly difficult for my father.
My father joined the general SS as a private in February 1932 and became 'Party' member # 932766. He became a part of this elite and powerful organization, which Himmler built into a private army and police force by using highly specialized training. In 1933 the ranks of the SS had a membership of 52,000 men, escalating Himmler's power, and soon he had complete control of the German people. The Death's Head Units of the SS (Totenkopfverbande) were established and its members were primarily employed as concentration camp guards.
At the time I joined the SS, I automatically and also voluntarily, became a member of the NSDAP [Nazi Party], in which I never held any official offices. In accordance with the propaganda of the SS at that time, I informed my superiors in 1938 that I had relinquished my faith and religion and was no longer affiliated with the Protestant Church. In actuality, however, I remained a member of my congregation and continued to pay my dues. I never officially acted out my separation from the church. I hid the truth from the SD to avoid their punishment.
The young and most able were formed into a specialized battle unit in 1940. The 'Totenfkopf' Division became part of the Waffen SS (Military Division). These troops were not involved with the concentration camps. Those members who were wounded or elderly, unfit for the front, were – as in my father's case – put in charge of the concentration camps.
My father took the oath of 'nobility and honor', the same oath taken by the military forces:
I swear before God this holy oath, that I should give absolute pledge to the Führer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht, and as a courageous soldier will be ready at all times to lay down my life for this man.
With Hitler in power, Joseph Goebbels, the ambitious Minister of Propaganda, waged his skillful campaign by showing the Führer kissing babies, children bringing him flowers and playing with his animals, and showing him on newsreels in theaters to convince people of his fondness for children and his goodness of heart. These clever lies built Hitler's national image, and fooled most of the public.
It was during this time of desperate economic decline that to many – those who chose to join the Nazi Party or the SS – it was merely a job. In a bleak time of unemployment, hunger, bankruptcy and despair, Hitler had come along with the answer to regain economic strength. One has to wonder how many people would have chosen to participate in Hitler's 'workers' party' had they known the extremes of the end result, as we know it today.
Those people, however, who were not sympathizers of the Nazi Regime, were threatened to enlist against their will. In order to keep their jobs many became non-active but paying members.
Excerpted from The Auschwitz Kommandant by Barbara U. Cherish. Copyright © 2010 Barbara U. Cherish. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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