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Interview with Karol Tendera, former prisoner of German concentration camps Auschwitz and Flossenbürg (Leitmeritz)

We must firmly stand up for the truth

Karol Tendera passed away in Krakow at the age of 98. Polonia Institute recorded an interview with Mr. Tendera in September 2017.

IPN: You were a prisoner of German concentration camps. How did this affect your attitude towards Germans right after the war?

KT: Young Germans ask me the same question. I answer that my attitude towards the war time Germany, let’s call it Nazi Germany, is indubitably negative. I regret that they murdered innocent people. Hitler claimed that first the Jews would be exterminated and later the Slavs. “We, the Germans will be the masters of Europe, and they will be our slave labor, so have no mercy for anyone. Let them perish when they are sick or about to expire” said Hitler, and his words were played through speakers located around the Krakow main square. Hitler devised the genocide, which was set up mainly in Auschwitz II – Birkenau. I saw in 1943 how the Germans brought young Soviet soldiers to Birkenau, and within a few days they were poisoned and burned in the crematorium. I tell this to the Germans during my meetings at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Auschwitz [Polish: Oświęcim].

Did you testify as a witness at the trial of German war criminals?

I did not, although I was persuaded. I did find out from a colleague, Józef Paczyński, who testified in the trial of Rudolf Höss [commandant of Auschwitz camp] and also heard his testimony that according to reports received from SS about 2.5 million people were murdered in KL Auschwitz.

According to the latest data published by research scientists in the 1990s, the number of people murdered in KL Auschwitz was about 1.1 million. Do you have the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Fortunately, not. I was a young boy then. When the war ended, everyone tried to take care of themselves and their family. I wanted to live a normal life: have buddies, friends, meet girls and attend dances. As a side note, I wanted to add that during my imprisonment in Auschwitz I met some future Polish Communist dignitaries. For few weeks I stayed in one cell with Joseph Cyrankiewicz. I also met Lucjan Motyka, future secretary of the Polish Communist Party [Polish United Workers Party, PZPR] Provincial Committee in Krakow. Cyrankiewicz originated a resolution that granted all former Auschwitz prisoners disability status, which they could apply for. For several years after the war I was the president of a cooperative, then I was promoted to the director of Agricultural Construction Company. I retired several years ago as a war-disabled person.

Did you apply for compensation for Nazi German human experiments?

I did apply to the German government, but unfortunately, they denied my application. My son was born with a heart defect. The doctors told me that this was the result of experiments carried out on me. I applied to the Polish-German Reconciliation Foundation. I got one-time financial compensation for being imprisoned in Auschwitz. I wanted to add that I was also at a forced labor camp in Hanover, for which I received no compensation.

You joined the Center’s for Dialogue and Prayer in Auschwitz [Oświęcim] educational activities. Based on your experience do you believe that the education in Germany regarding responsibility for World War II is adequate?

Not at all. I went once to Cologne, Germany with a group of former prisoners. We met with Archbishop Joachim Meisner, an acquaintance of Polish Cardinal Dziwisz. He told us that this was a taboo subject in Germany. We also met the mayor of the city who said that the German authorities are ashamed of this period. On the other hand, some Germans that I meet sometimes ask if it is true that Poland participated together with the government of the Third Reich in the construction of concentration camps, and who did we gas there, Poles or Germans? Can you believe that I am asked such questions? I explain that this is fake news, in other words anti-Polish propaganda, spread by some politicians. I also had a meeting with elderly Japanese, few of whom were survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I told them that in my opinion, Germany is trying to transfer some of the blame onto Poles. Why isn’t some of the blame passed to the French or Ukrainians? There were Ukrainians who collaborated, they were wearing black uniforms and acted as assistants to the SS overseers in the German concentration camps.

Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that Germany was responsible for the Holocaust and concentration camps, and the German Foreign Minister stated that “Poland can be assured that any attempt to falsify history by using the term ‘Polish concentration camps’, will be explicitly and strongly rejected by Germany.”

The Germans do not abnegate their guilt, they are responsible for the war and the damage it caused. This is a step in the right direction, reconciliation. I mentioned that I have the worst opinion of the Germans at the time of war, at the same time the current Federal Republic is democratic, it cooperates with the world, is economically active. The current Germans are different. Have you seen my picture with German President Joachim Gauck? I met him in 2015 at the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp. I sent him a picture of us together. After a month, he wrote back with thanks. Earlier I wrote to the previous German President Christian Wulff. He responded with a letter where he admitted that Germans had caused the war and were guilty of the cataclysm they started.

The Germans plead guilty, but in your opinion did they compensate the victims of World War II?

No, they did not settle this, therefore I support the demands formulated by the present Polish government.

There are arguments that we have waived damages.

I heard that. However, nobody asked the people, there was no referendum on this matter, and yet the Germans induced monumental damages on Warsaw and other cities. That’s why they should pay reparations. How many of us survivors are still alive? There are probably only 800 prisoners of concentration camps still living in Poland and they are dying like flies.

Do you think there is a chance that we will get reparations from Germany?

I am not a telepathist or a fortune-teller, but I think we need to appeal, to demand, but firmly, roughly, rather than ask, as we did with these fake statements [using phrase “Polish death camps”], when we changed the law, we withdrew from persecuting these statements in the newspapers or on television. This was done a few years ago, and these hurtful terms continue to appear.

In 2013 the German public TV station, ZDF, published on its website an announcement of a documentary and used the phrase “Polish extermination camps in Majdanek and Oświęcim” in relation to the German camps KL Auschwitz and KL Lublin. After diplomatic intervention, the description was changed. However, you decided to file a complaint with the court.

I am the President of the Former Auschwitz Prisoners Association. At one of our meetings, I stated that spreading the negative opinion about Poland [by using this phrase] was scandalous. Attorney Lech Obara from Olsztyn offered his help to file a court case as a plaintiff. We demanded that the defendant be prohibited from using the terms “Polish extermination camp” and “Polish concentration camp”, and an apology to be published in two dailies, as well as on zdf.de website. I trusted that the court of the first instance, the District Court in Krakow would grant our requests. In the judgment, the District Court stated that I, the plaintiff, was right, because my dignity, honor and national identity were violated, but the court ultimately dismissed the complaint and lawsuit because it found that the plaintiff’s demands were “inadequate to the defendants’ faults“.  The court’s order in this palpable, simple and pertaining to the national honor case consists of eighteen pages. Only few of them were devoted to the analysis of the plaintiff’s allegations, and the greater part consisted of the arguments put forward by the defendant. In my opinion, the court was looking for mitigating circumstances, claiming that using these terms were caused by human mistakes. Thus, the District Court in Kraków recognized the defendant’s arguments, and found the 136 instances of accusations and slander to be mere “mistakes”.  It did not make an impression on the court that in 2016 the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed protest letters demanding the rectification or cancellation of these unfounded accusations of the Polish nation. I don’t think there were 136 mistakes about “Polish concentration camps” in the world outside of Poland in 2015. I would agree if there were five, eight, but not 136 mistakes! Outraged at the court’s verdict, I wrote to the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro. I asserted that the court was defending the Germans. After some time, Minister Ziobro wrote back to and thanked me for persistence, as well as honorable and patriotic attitude.

What happened next?

I appealed to the Court of Appeals in Krakow, which partially changed the judgment – ordered the defendant to apologize to the Polish nation and myself as a prisoner of concentration camp, by placing a statement on its main website page with a specific message. It can be said that the Court has significantly corrected the sentence. Also, the German court, which assumed the case on the German side, formally and unequivocally confirmed my demands and obliged the public TV station ZDF to comply with the judgment of the Polish court.

Did ZDF apologize to you as expected?

They apologized, although the apology was not displayed in a prominent place as the court ordered. My lawyers did not accept this and submitted a complaint to the German court in which they demanded to display the message on the main page. Finally, the German court confirmed our demands to apologize to the Polish people, to me personally, and to publish this information on the website.

Unfortunately, the German Federal Court of Justice has recently issued an unfavorable ruling on the enforcement of the Polish court judgments in Germany.

I am disheartened. I found out from my counsel, Lech Obara, that we would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and we would ask the Polish Supreme Court to submit a request for a preliminary ruling to the Court of Justice of the European Union. I am grateful to the pro bono lawyers and all those who support me. We will fight to the end to ensure that the truth prevails.

The apologies to the victims of German concentration camps are very important, but so is the publishing of the camp’s crew members names. The IPN has launched the truthaboutcamps.eu website with the names of the SS KL Auschwitz staffers, and has also asked the Interpol to help find the whereabouts of 1,600 SS-men who worked at the concentration camps. Some may still be alive but were never brought to justice.

The action of the IPN is the right step to show the international community the SS-men who mistreated, tormented and humiliated our compatriots in the German concentration camps.

Interview conducted by Maciej Foks, IPN

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