To commemorate International Holocaust Day, Sean Ledwith tells the truly inspirational story of Kampfgruppe Auschwitz (KGA)
There can be few episodes that are more heroic in the annals of the left than the incredible story of how small groups of left-wing activists managed to sustain political activity in the most hostile environment imaginable-the machine of mass murder established by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Such a nightmarish situation would seemingly make even minimal gestures of opposition appear futile; and yet, astonishingly, Communist activists from different parts of Europe who found themselves in that living hell somehow managed to assemble a covert network of resistance that sought to provide physical and mental support to fellow prisoners in the blackest pit of the Holocaust.
In a situation in which mere everyday survival required exceptional strength, these individuals organised significant attempts to thwart the political dynamic of the camp, save others where possible-and even conduct reading groups on classic Marxist texts! Of course, they were far too small in number to prevent the greatest atrocity in history but it is impossible to learn about the Combat Group Auschwitz without being inspired by their extraordinary commitment.
Factory of death
Auschwitz II Birkenau-to give the camp its full name-was originally established as a concentration camp by the Nazis in 1940 in which primarily political prisoners were worked to death. Following the invasion of Russia the following year, however, the camp was upgraded into the horrific factory of death-replete with gas chambers, ovens and crematoria- that would become one of the epicentres of the attempt to systematically annihilate European Jewry. Incredibly, underground resistance in the camp initially began with Polish guerrilla fighters deliberately allowing themselves to be captured so that they could start to develop networks of resistance.
However, leftist prisoners regarded this first wave of infiltrators with some degree of suspicion as they brought with them a nationalist agenda that frequently focused on helping Polish prisoners at the expense of other nationalities. The politics of the Auschwitz underground was noticeably shifted to the left by the arrival of Spanish Republican prisoners who carried an unswerving commitment to internationalism and anti-fascism.
This group included a remarkable Austrian communist called Hermann Langbein, who had volunteered to fight for the International Brigades in Spain, only to be captured by the Nazis at the outbreak of World War 2. Langbeinn later wrote of his experiences in Auschwitz in his autobiography Against All Hope, published in the 1990s. He noted how inmates sustained by left-wing convictions could sometimes provide political sustenance for each other: For over two years, we had been interned in camps in southern France, and only internees who live together day and night can get to know one another as well as we did... The general expressions of support from the old political prisoners that greeted us, the first large group of veterans of the Spanish Civil War to arrive in Dachau, did us good morally and in some instances helped us concretely as well.
Reds v. Greens
After being transferred to Auschwitz, Langbeinn made contact with surviving members of the German Communist Party (KPD) who had been some of the first targets of the Nazi dictatorship for incarceration since the regime came to power in 1933. This group had been waging a secret campaign within the camp for years against prisoners with purely criminal profiles who had been selected by the Auschwitz commanders to spy on and harass the majority of the inmates. This hidden struggle for control of the barracks was known as the battle of the Reds against the Greens (leftist prisoners wore red badges, criminals wore green).
The KPD veterans had been scarred by the disastrous sectarian policy of their party leadership in the early 1930s that had allowed Hitler to rise to power over the divided forces of the far left and centre left. The Auschwitz Reds, impressively, did not make the same mistake and following the arrival of Langbeinn's Spanish group and an influx of social democrats from Poland, the leftists assembled in the camp joined forces in May 1943 to create the Combat Group Auschwitz (KGA).
Inevitably, in such a precarious position, the group adopted a cell structure with a small leadership of four and a wider network of volunteers who would take up specific tasks without being aware of each other’s identities. In accordance with an awareness of the political and practical importance of united front tactics, the KGA centre operated with two Communists and two social democrats sharing the decision-making process. For a while, there was tension between the KGA and the Union of Military Organisation (the more nationalist underground network in the camp) but this was relieved when senior leaders of the latter escaped. This enabled the KGA to emerge as the most and active prominent resistance group in the camp.
Jozef Cyrankiewicz, one of the key figures of the Auschwitz Reds, was able to call on his links with the Polish Socialist Party outside the camp who displayed exceptional valour in secretly visiting the perimeter after dark to communicate with their incarcerated comrades. One of the most daring operations of this kind brought the Holocaust to the world’s attention for the first time. The KGA and its external allies smuggled cameras into the camp and took photographs of bodies being burnt in the crematorium. The images by a Communist called David Szmulewski are part of a small collection by the inmates of Auschwitz themselves and, of course, remain a horrifying testament to barely-believable genocide.
Overcoming divide and rule
As the German war machine rampaged across Europe, leftist prisoners from other countries arrived in massive numbers. The KGA made an explicit effort to overcome nationalist prejudices within the prisoner population, even though the instinct to prioritise self-preservation must have been overwhelming for most. Cyrankiewicz made a conspicuous effort to confront xenophobia towards other nationalities by his fellow Poles.
Perhaps most commendable was the lengths German KGA volunteers would reportedly go to assist Russian prisoners- especially in light of the visceral antagonism between the two peoples at that time. It is apparent that the internationalist tradition that had characterised the labour movement in the pre-war era was remarkably intact, even in this most adverse and hideous predicament. KGA volunteers similarly sought to protect Roma prisoners from the particular wrath of the Nazis reserved for that population.
Three members were instructed by the command to find a way of infiltrating the so-called Gypsy Camp. Having done so by demonstrating clerical skills, these three men found a way of stealing the details of over 20 000 Roma men, women and children in order to prevent the SS from targeting them for immediate extermination. There is also evidence KGA militants even persuaded some SS doctors to de-escalate the killing rate. A drop in the mortality rate in the camp (excluding those gassed on arrival) in the winter of 1942-43 has been attributed to the hidden influence of leftist prisoners serving as hospital orderlies.
The influence of the KGA even expanded beyond the perimeter of Auschwitz into other camps in the Nazi empire. In 1944, three female Austrian Communists were transferred from the camp to Ravensbruck, an all-women camp in Germany. The Auschwitz Reds got a message through to sympathisers at Ravensbruck that the three were to be regarded as top-priority for assistance and possible escape. Shortly afterwards, the underground network in that camp arranged for Antonia Lehr and her two comrades to be smuggled out of Ravensbruck to re-join the resistance.
On a number of occasions, the Combat Group Auschwitz plotted the possibility of a full-scale rebellion in the camp, as occurred in a small number of other sites, most famously Sobibor in 1943. Conditions were so ferociously oppressive, however, that the final calculation was always that the probability of failure-along with the inevitable collective reprisals-outweighed the chance of success. In October 1944, however, the KGA became aware that members of the Sonderkommando (Jews forced to bury the bodies) were planning an insurrection.
The Communist cell considered that the action was doomed to defeat and did not want to jeopardise their fragile operation in a lost cause. However, neither was the KGA willing to turn its back on fellow-prisoners making a stand against arbitrary terror. Therefore, when the Sonderkommando launched their attack on the SS, it was with machine guns, knives and grenades supplied to them by the KGA's network outside the camp. Tragically, the entire 450-strong force of insurrectionists lost their lives-but they did manage to take four SS guards down with them.
Langbeinn and some other Communists miraculously survived the horror of Auschwitz. Ten years after liberation, he formed a survivors' campaign group, the International Auschwitz Committee. This organisation successfully pursued legal compensation from IG Farben, the industrial firm that had shamefully profited from the slave labour at the camp. He even turned the focus of his militancy from defying the Nazi leviathan to taking on the Stalinist version that supplanted it in Eastern Europe. In 1958, he was expelled from the Austrian Communist Party for protesting against the execution of Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed Hungarian Revolt against Russian occupation two years earlier.
The astonishing heroism and daring of the KGA may seem to some like a drop of resistance in an ocean of horror; but their defiance of the most malicious regime the world has ever seen is a powerful antidote to the stereotype of all victims of the Holocaust trudging helplessly to their fate. We should also take away the message that if revolutionary activism was possible there, it is possible anywhere.