Were there people in charge of finding and recapturing escaped prisoners in WW2?

Mar 2013
New York
I'm curious were there people charged specifically with finding and recapturing escaped prisoners from Nazi Concentration Camps? I can't seem to find anything on the subject.


Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
South of the barcodes
I can't think of anyone?

The majority of the KZ's were in Poland so authority would presumably fallen on the local Gauletier?

Presumably it would be a matter for the local commander to organise a scratch force of whatever military were in the district and security forces from collaborating police and the security police to mount a search?

Black Dog

Ad Honorem
Mar 2008
Damned England
The most likely candidates were the Einsatzgruppen themselves. These were the low grade SS units charged specifically with rounding up, and often killing, Jews, Commissars (Communist party officials) and anyone else likely to give them trouble. Their role was to follow the German army into newly conquered territory in the east and "secure" it by rounding up "undesirables". Before the advent of mass gassing in gas chambers, the Einsatzgruppen were the main, but not only, murderers of Jews and others. Later, they would capture such unfortunates and transport them to the camps.

However, like any other occupied territory, the place was swarming with soldiers, security men, and SS.

The Jews had other problems, too, should they escape: the fact that few would help them, and in fact, in some areas in the east of Europe, locals were just as hostile as the Nazis. There was at least one exclusively Jewish partisan unit in the Ukraine, but regular Soviet partisans were just as hostile to them as the Nazis.

Attempts to escape in numbers from concentration or death camps were very rare and were almost always started by non-Jewish prisoners. This is because Jews could expect no help once they escaped.

There was only two somewhat successful mass escapes from concentration or extermination camps: one at Treblinka, 1943 and another better known one at Sobibor, 1943. Rumour went around that the camp (Sobibor) was to be closed. Polish and Jewish prisoners got word and knew that closure meant almost certain deaths for themselves and the other prisoners. However, the rumour was untrue: in fact, the camp was to be expanded.

In September that year, Soviet POWs arrived at the camp and the escape started with a handful of Soviet officers started a revolt in the barber and shoe shine shops at the camp. Obviously, the other prisoners had little choice but run.

Around 600 people escaped the camp, but only 300 or so made it to the forests. A huge dragnet was put in place. Very revealingly, only 50 to 70 escapees survived the war. I don't know for sure, but I'll bet the vast majority were Soviets or Poles.

The escape at Treblinka was very similar: of 600 who managed to escape, only 40 survived.

Another attempt was made at Auschwitz in 1944, when prisoners blew up the crematoria. Unfortunately, most of the escapees were blown up, too. Only a handful escaped and survived: Henryk Mandelbaum, a Jew, later went on to become a tourist guide at Auschwitz.

The escape at Sobibor did some good: Himmler ordered the camp to be closed, and pine trees planted to hide the site.


Jun 2009
In february 1945, about 420 of soviet prisoners mass-escaped from Mauthausen camp in Austria. Authorities mobilized every armed unit they could for so-called "Rabbit hunt". Civilians were encouraged and did take a great part in this "hunt" as well. Of the escapees, only 9 made it to freedom. One of them was Michailo Rybcanskyij from Kyjev, who found shelter at pious village family.

See also: http://english.ruvr.ru/2012_12_19/Escape-from-the-Mauthausen-Nazi-concentration-camp/
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Black Dog

Ad Honorem
Mar 2008
Damned England
Yes, such escapes were rarely major successes. The family who helped him were taking a great risk, since the Germans tended to use severe reprisals, and many ordinary people would not want to risk that. They were very brave people for helping him.
Dec 2009
Some data from KZ Auschwitz (not to be confused with nearby death camp in Birkenau) - from this forum:

Ucieczki z Auschwitz - FORUM.HISTORIA.org.pl - Forum historyczne

1) It is known that at least 802 prisoners escaped (757 men, 45 women)

Yearly breakdown for these 802 people who escaped from KZ Auschwitz is:

1940 - 2
1941 - 17
1942 - 173
1943 - 295
1944 - 312
1945 - 3

2) Among them: 396 Poles, 179 Russians, 115 Jews, 38 Gypsies, 31 Germans, 23 Czechs, 2 Austrians, 2 Yugoslavians, 16 others

3) 144 of them for sure succeeded, and most of them survived the war

4) 327 of them were for sure recaptured during their escapes and either shot during pursuits or brought back to KZ

5) for the remaining 331 there is no info as to what happened with them later


Regarding mass escapes, during rebellions of prisoners:

The most famous mass escape - but a failed one - was the escape of Jews from Auschwitz (or from Birkenau? - perhaps from both camps?) who were members of Sonderkommando (work unit consisting of prisoners) who worked in Birkenau camp. It took place on 07.10.1944. Jews set on fire Crematorium No. IV in Birkenau camp and started to escape towards the nearby forest. Several SS-men were killed by escaping prisoners and over a dozen were wounded. Around 250 prisoners died in combats. Further 200 members of Sonderkommando were executed after the rebellion.

Another mass escape was on 10.06.1942. It was during a rebellion of a penal company. Prisoners were building a meliorative ditch called Königsgraben in Birkenau. From around 50 prisoners, who started escaping, only 9 made it to freedom. During the pursuit 13 of those 50 were shot, on the next day further 20. Later in revenge for that rebellion, further 320 Poles from that penal company were gassed in Birkenau gas chambers.


According to German documents (such as APMO. D-AuI-1/13, k.25 - a message from Rudolf Hoess to Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski dated 19.07.1940) local population often tried to help those who escaped. In this message Rudolf Hoess wrote to von dem Bach:

"Local population is fanatically polish and ready for every kind of resistance against hated guardians of the camp. All prisoners who succeed in escaping, can count on every kind of help when only they reach the nearest polish farmhouse."

The family who helped him were taking a great risk, since the Germans tended to use severe reprisals,
Severe reprisals, death penalty and collective responsibility (mass executions) included.
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Dec 2009
BTW - there were few escapes with help of... camp SS-men (sic!) - but there was a risk of betrayal by SS-men.

According to that forum again:

1) Escape of a Czech Jew Vítězslav Lederer and SS-man Viktor Pestek - Pestek was recaptured and executed, Lederer survived the war.

2) Escape of two Jews with help of SS-man Dobrovolny - Dobrovolny betrayed, killing both Jews soon after they left the camp.


Some further references:

[ame="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudolf_Vrba"]Rudolf Vrba - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]

[ame="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_Kulka"]Erich Kulka - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia[/ame]

And articles about escaping from the official website of Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum:


The resistance movement
Contributed by Henryk Świebocki


Most prisoner escapes took place from worksites outside the camp. The attitude of local civilians was of immense importance in the success of these efforts. The Auschwitz commandant wrote in July 1940 to the commander of SS and police in Wrocław that “the local population is fanatically Polish and . . . ready to do anything against the hated camp SS garrison. Every prisoner who manages to escape can count on all possible help as soon as he reaches the first Polish homestead.”
The first escape came on July 6, 1940, at the very beginning of the existence of Auschwitz. A Pole, Tadeusz Wiejowski, made his way out of the camp with the help of Polish civilian workers employed in the camp. He escaped in the disguise of such a worker. Five Polish workers were incarcerated in the camp for aiding him. Only one survived, but he died shortly after the war.
In the fall of 1941, the local AK organization took care of seven escaped Soviet POWs, accepting two of them in its Sosienki partisan unit and smuggling the others to resistance units in the mountains. On December 29, that same organization assisted the escape of three Poles, Jan Komski-Baras, Boleslaw Kuczbara, and Mieczyslaw Januszewski, and a German, Otto Kusel. They left the camp in a horse cart, with one of them wearing an SS uniform and posing as a guard. The four sheltered in the home of AK member Andrzej Harat in Libiąź, 10 km. From Auschwitz, before being led across the border into the General Government.
Four Poles, Kazimierz Piechowski, Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster, Józef Lempart, and Eugeniusz Bendera, escaped on June 20, 1942 after breaking into an SS storeroom and stealing uniforms and weapons. In disguise, they drove away in a vehicle that they stole from the SS motor pool, and reached the General Government. Jaster carried a report that Witold Pilecki had written for AK headquarters.
In 1943, partisans from the Sosienki unit took in two escapees, the Jew Josef Prima from Brno and the Serb Vasil Mlavic. The former joined the unit and fought in its ranks.

At night from 26 to 27 April 1943 co-founder of camp conspiracy Witold Pilecki escaped from the camp. Jan Redzej and Edward Ciesielski escaped with him. Pilecki presented the Home Army his plan of attacking the camp which however was not approved by the leadership. He described his activities in conspiration movement and the situation in the camp in special reports. Pilecki continued his underground activity. He fought in Warsaw Uprising in 1944. After its collapse he was arrested in a POWs camp in Murnau. After the liberation he joined the II Polish Corpse of general Władysław Anders in Italy. At the end of 1945 he come back to Poland. In 1947 he was arrested by the communist regime. He was sentenced to death for alleged espionage. He was executed in Mokotów prison in Warsaw on May 25, 1945. He was rehabilitated in 1990.

Two Jews, Josef “Pepi” Meisel from Austria and Szymon Zajdow from Poland, escaped in late July 1944 with the help of the camp resistance movement and the local underground. Władysław Pytlik and Danuta Bystroń of the Brzeszcze PPS group delivered them to PPS couriers, who smuggled them to Cracow, where local socialists helped them remain in hiding until liberation.
In September 1944, Nowa Wieś resident Józef Wrona organized an escape by two Jewish prisoners, Max Drimmer and Hermann Scheingesicht, from the IG Farben chemical plant and hid them at his home. When Wrona learned that the Gestapo was looking for him, he had to leave home and go into hiding himself. Before doing so, he found the two escapees a hiding place with a friend in Silesia, where they remained safely until liberation.
Two groups of 11 Poles escaped from Auschwitz in September 1944 with the help of two Oświęcim district AK couriers, Zofia Zdrowak of Brzeszcze and Zofia Gabryś of Bielany, and Sosienki member Marian Mydlarz of Oświęcim. Several of the escapees were wearing SS uniforms. They joined the Sosienki unit and worked for the sake of the prisoners in the camp. Two of them, Stanisław Furdyna and Antoni Wykręt, dressed in SS uniforms on October 18, 1944, approached the camp, and freed two Polish prisoners, Stanisław Zyguła and Marian Szayer, who were being escorted by SS men. The two new escapees also joined the Sosienki unit.
On the night of September 11/12, 1944, Jawischowitz sub-camp prisoner Kazimierz Szwemberg, a Pole, escaped while working at the coalmine with the help of Brzeszcze PPS couriers. He went into hiding with the Nikiel family in Skidziń, before being smuggled to Cracow. From there, he joined the PPS Teodor partisan unit and fought until liberation.
Some escape attempts ended in failure. One of them was the effort by the Brzeszcze PPS group to free several prisoners who were active in the resistance movement inside the camp, including Ernst Burger, an Austrian, and Bernard Świerczyny, a Pole, on October 27, 1944. They bribed an SS man to carry them out of Auschwitz in a truck, but things went wrong when the SS man betrayed them. The SS murdered the unfortunate escapers and other prisoners who were in on the plot. The members of the underground waiting for them on the outside also paid a high price. The Germans imprisoned the Dusik family of Łęk-Zasola in Auschwitz for their involvement. Even worse, Konstanty Jagiełło, a partisan in the Brzeszcze PPS group who himself had previously escaped from the camp, died in an exchange of fire with the SS.
Another escape that ended unsuccessfully was made by Edward Galiński, a Pole, and Mala Zimetbaum, a Jewish woman. On June 24, 1944, Galiński disguised himself as an SS man and “escorted” Zimetbaum through the closed zone around the camp. The Germans caught them more than ten days later and sent them back to Auschwitz, where they were executed after undergoing brutal interrogation. A month later, another Polish-Jewish pair tried the same escape formula, and succeeded. On July 21, Jerzy Bielecki convoyed Cyla Cybulska out of the camp. They both reached the General Government; Bielecki joined a partisan unit and Cybulska went into hiding with Poles who sheltered her until the end of the war.
Repors written after escaping from Auschwitz
Some escapes were particularly significant because the escapers later wrote reports on the camp and the crimes being committed there by the SS. You can find more information about the reports in a separate article.
The number of escapes
Calculations by the author indicate that at least 802 prisoners (757 men and 45 women) attempted to escape from the moment of the founding of Auschwitz to its liquidation and evacuation (January 18-19, 1945).
Among the 802 escapers, there were 396 Poles (including 10 women), 179 Soviet citizens (15 women; 50 of the men were POWs), 115 Jews (3 women), 38 Gypsies (2 women), 31 Germans (9 women), 23 Czechs (4 women), 2 Austrians, 2 Yugoslavians (1 woman), and 16 others (including one woman) of unknown nationality.

Prisoner mutinies
The resistance movement in the camp planned and made preparations for an armed mutiny against the SS by the prisoners. The Polish underground outside was to join in the combat against the camp garrison and German units stationed nearby, and worked out the details with the prisoners. Preparations reached an advanced stage, but the camp underground never gave the green light for the revolt because the fight would have been too unequal. In the case of a mass escape, there would have been no practical way to shelter tens of thousands of prisoners in the area around Auschwitz.
The mutiny and escape by Polish prisoners in the penal company
On June 10, 1942, Polish prisoners in the penal company mutinied and attempted to escape while working on a drainage ditch in Birkenau. Only a few of them made it to freedom. In reprisal, the SS executed 20 prisoners by shooting and murdered more than 300 Poles from the penal company in the gas chamber.
Soviet POWs also mutinied and escaped from Birkenau on November 6, 1942. Under cover of fog and falling darkness, they forced their way past the SS guard posts into a part of the Birkenau camp, still under construction, that had not yet been fenced off. However, the majority of them were shot or caught during the escape.
The mutiny by Jewish prisoners in the Sonderkommando

On October 7, 1944, the biggest and most spectacular mutiny and escape attempt in the history of Auschwitz occurred. Jews in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz II-Birkenau organized it. They set one of the crematoria on fire, causing serious damage, and attacked the SS men in the vicinity. Some of the prisoners managed to cut through the fence and reach the outside, but unfortunately the SS managed to pursue and surround them, murdering them all. A total of about 250 Jews died fighting, including mutiny leaders Załmen Gradowski and Józef Deresiński. The SS lost three men killed and more than ten wounded. Later, four Jewish women who had stolen explosive material from the Union-Werke armaments factory and supplied it to the Sonderkommando conspirators were hanged in public.

Cases of resistance on the ramp and in the gas chambers
The majority of the Jews deported to Auschwitaz were murdered immediately after arrival and therefore did not have any chance or even any time to organize resistance. Nevertheless, there were cases in which they mutinied and put up a fight.

A transport of Jews arrived from Bergen-Belsen in October 1943. The SS sent them to the gas chambers immediately after selection. In the undressing room of crematorium II in Birkenau, the antechamber to the gas chamber, one of the women realized the danger they were in and seized SS man Josef Schillinger’s pistol. She shot him and wounded him badly, and also shot a second SS man, Wilhelm Emmerich. This was a signal for other women to attack the henchmen. However, the SS suppressed the mutiny and killed all the women. Schillinger died on the way to the hospital. Emmerich survived, but was disabled.
There were cases in which Jews being led to their death escaped from the crematoria and gas chambers. Several hundred men, women, and children from a transport brought from Hungary attempted to escape on the night of May 25/26, 1944. They hid in the nearby woods and in ditches.
The SS tracked the fugitives down and killed them.
On reports written by those who escaped (there more such reports, not just the one by Jan Karski, which is questioned by a few people):

Informing the world about Auschwitz
Contributed by Henryk Świebocki

Reports written by Polish escapees after they were on the outside, sent to the underground leadership, were another source of information on Auschwitz. In April 1942, Stefan Bielecki sent AK headquarters a report written by camp resistance leader Witold Pilecki. A month later, escapee Gustaw Jaster brought out another report. Kazimierz Hałoń, who escaped on November 2, 1942, reported on Auschwitz to the Cracow PPS leadership. Later, the socialist Liberty ran 6 articles probably based on his information.
In April 1943, Witold Pilecki, Jan Redzej, and Edward Ciesielski escaped. Each of them compiled a report independently, and these were sent to AK headquarters. Stanisław Chybiński, who escaped a month later, wrote a report titled “Snapshots from Auschwitz” for AK headquarters.
In mid-1944 escapees Konstanty Jagiełło and Tomasz Sobański sent the Cracow PPS organization secret messages, and maps of the camps and SS deployments. None of these escapees’ reports, with a few exceptions, was published during the war.
Reports by other escapees were published and had an impact, however. The Pole Jerzy Tabeau escaped in November 1943. In a report to the leadership of the Polish underground, he discussed the events of the last year and a half. His report was smuggled out of Poland. In Switzerland, it came to the attention of several diplomats and representatives of the World Congress of Jews. As the “Report by a Polish Major,” it reached the UK and the USA.
Two Jews from Slovakia, Rudolf Vrba (Walter Rosenberg in Auschwitz) and Alfred Wetzler, escaped in April 1944. In Zylina, they met secretly with officials from the Slovakia Jewish Council and gave them a secret report on Auschwitz. An in-depth report was drawn up in Slovak and German. It recapitulated events in the camp from April 1942 to April 1944, and also discussed earlier events. It was sent through various channels to Allied governments, the World Congress of Jews, the International Red Cross, and the Vatican. The media carried the story in the Allied countries and Switzerland, while respecting the anonymity of the authors.
Two Jews, Czesław Mordowicz from Poland and Arnošt Rosin from Slovakia, escaped from Auschwitz in May 1944. After reaching Slovakia, they reported secretly to officials from the Slovakia Jewish Council on the Auschwitz events of April-May 1944, especially in regard to the Jews from Hungary. This report was also sent to the West.
These reports were published in whole or in part in Switzerland and the Allied countries. For instance, the Vrba-Wetzler and Tabeau reports were published together in Switzerland as Les camps d’extermination. The Czech government in exile used the same sources to prepare Report on condition in the concentration camps of Oswieczim and Birkenau. A two part brochure was published in Washington in November 1944 as German Extermination Camps – Auschwitz and Birkenau. The first part contained the Vrba-Wetzler, Mordowicz, and Rosin reports, while the second part featured Tabeau’s “Report by a Polish Major.”
Furthermore, information from these reports appeared in the British, American, and Swiss press.

The revelations in the reports by escapees were accompanied by actions intended to deter the Nazis from further crimes. These intensified in connection with reports that Jews from German-occupied Hungary were being deported to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers. This news roused public opinion to protest in order to stop the extermination and save those who remained alive. President Roosevelt, Pope Pius XII, the King of Sweden, and the governments of Turkey, Switzerland, and Spain, and the International Red Cross brought pressure on Hungarian regent Miklos Horthy to halt the deportation. The pressure proved effective; transports from Hungary stopped arriving in Auschwitz at the beginning of July, 1944.
These efforts were accompanied by appeals to bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers and crematoria, and the rail lines that led to them. Various people and organizations, mostly Jewish, directed these appeals primarily to the US government. They turned out to be ineffective. The War Department held the view that military resources should not be used for non-military purposes, and that the proposed air raids were “unfeasible” because they would have required the diversion of air power needed for success on other fronts. Furthermore, the Department felt that the most effective way of helping the victims of persecution was the most rapid possible victory over the Third Reich, and that all resources should be directed towards this aim. The British Air Ministry took a similar stand.
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