Christmas Eve in Auschwitz as Recalled by Polish Prisoners
The five Christmases behind the barbed wire of the Auschwitz German Nazi camp were rich in tragic events. Nevertheless, despite the threat of punishment, prisoners observed Christmas Eve. People who experienced the hell of Auschwitz will always remember those events.
Today, the vestiges of those Christmas Eves live on mostly in prisoners’ eyewitness accounts, collected after the war, in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives. They paint a picture of the prisoners’ tragedies and the Nazis’ limitless savagery.
The first Christmas Eve behind the camp barbed wire, on December 24, 1940, was also one of the most tragic. The SS set up a Christmas tree, with electric lights, on the roll-call square. Beneath it, they placed the bodies of prisoners who had died while working or frozen to death at roll call. Former prisoner Karol Świętorzecki later recalled that Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch referred to the corpses beneath the tree as “a present” for the living, and forbade the singing of Polish Christmas carols.
A year later, in 1941, the Germans “organized” another tragic Christmas Eve. During the return from slave labor on the construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, they killed Soviet POWs who were too weak to walk unsupported. About 300 died that day.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives contain an eyewitness account by former prisoner Ludwik Kryński, describing how there was a second roll call at 6:00 PM, after the SS men had finished the roll call and eaten their supper. Despite temperatures far below freezing, the prisoners had to listen to Pope Pius XII’s Christmas Eve proclamation being read out in German. 42 prisoners succumbed to the cold, and the sight brought numerous others to the point of nervous breakdowns.
Prisoners tried to celebrate in their blocks and to help those whose spirits had broken. An account in the Museum collections by Józef Jędrych from Block no. 10a describes how “the singing of German carols began, and then like the waves of the sea came the powerful words [from a Polish carol] ‘God is born, the powers tremble’ and others, until the final chord in the form of the Dąbrowski Mazurka [the Polish national anthem]. Everyone exchanged warm, cordial embraces and cried for a long time. There were those who sobbed out loud. . . . Such a grand moment never fades from memory. That Christmas is fixed forever in my heart and memory.”
A small Christmas tree, smuggled in by Henry Bartosiewicz, stood in room 7 in Block no. 25. Polish Army cavalry-platoon commander Witold Pilecki, a hero of the camp resistance movement, adorned it with a White Eagle carved from a turnip.
The Germans set up a Christmas tree in Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1942, and placed the bodies of murdered men underneath it. Former prisoner Krystyna Aleksandrowicz’s recollections of the shocking event are in the Museum Archive. “Before Christmas in 1942, the SS men put up a Christmas tree for us. On Christmas Eve, they gathered the labor details from the men’s camp and ordered them to carry soil in their coats. They shot any man who gathered up too little soil. Then they stacked a whole heap of corpses underneath the Christmas tree.”
In her Auschwitz Chronicle, the late Danuta Czech, the Museum historian, notes under the date December 24, 1942 that, in the evening, Polish women prisoners in the Stabsgebaude [staff building] lighted candles on a fir bough that had been smuggled in. Carols were sung in many places around the camp, which lifted people’s spirits and gave them hope of surviving. In Block 18a, Christmas Eve had a religious dimension. A prisoner who was a Roman Catholic priest obtained some bread and used it as a substitute Host.
After Arthur Liebehenschel became camp commandant in November 1943, the prisoners’ lot improved. There were no more macabre “presents.” Many prisoners received communion wafers in parcels from their families, and shared them with other prisoners, including Jews. Prisoners organized Christmas Eve observances in many blocks.
The atmosphere on Christmas Eve 1944 was completely different. The days of the Third Reich were numbered. The prisoner priest Father Władysław Grohs de Rosenburg celebrated midnight mass with the tacit approval of the block supervisor and room supervisor.
The women in Birkenau prepared “Christmas gifts” for the children in the hospital, using material supplied by other women to sew about 200 toys. They attached two lumps of sugar or a piece of candy to each, and wrote the children’s names on the presents. One of the women dressed up as St. Nicholas and passed out the presents on Christmas Eve. Fifteen children from another block also received presents.
Museum historian Teresa Świebocka says that in 1944, Leokadia Szymańska, who was then a patient in the camp hospital, made a small Christmas tree that is now part of the Museum’s collections. It features Polish flags and a Polish eagle at the top.
January 27, 1945, brought the freedom of which prisoners had dreamed during each of the five previous Christmas Eves.