Poland Is Searching For the Last Living Auschwitz Guards

New database lays out details of the SS guards and commanders who carried out some of history’s most terrible crimes

Auschwitz Guard Tower
A guard tower at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where tens of thousands were murdered. Jacomoman (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The name Auschwitz is indelibly associated with the misery and terror of the Holocaust—and also with Poland, the country in which the horrors of Auschwitz took place. That doesn’t sit well with Poland, which has fought hard against the perception that it was responsible for the Holocaust. As SmartNews has reported in the past, the Polish government—now ruled by a right-wing, nationalistic party—has both banned the phrase “Polish death camps” and cracked down on a World War II museum it feels puts too little emphasis on the suffering of Poles during the war. Now, the BBC reports, Polish historians have put a database of known Auschwitz German commanders and guards online.

It’s the most detailed list of its kind and is the product of more than 30 years of archival research, Monika Scislowska reports for the Associated Press. It’s being released by the Polish government-affiliated Institute of National Remembrance and Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation (IPN), a research institute created in the 1980s.

IPN chief Jarosław Szarek said that the database was unveiled as an attempt to prove that Auschwitz was not Polish-run. Though Poland did not design Auschwitz—and though the country was occupied by Nazi Germany throughout World War II—Polish nationals did denounce Jews, commit anti-Semitic pogroms, and even collaborate directly with the Nazis. However, the database in question focuses on members of the SS, the Nazi organization that saw Poles as racially inferior and sought to annihilate its culture and institutions. Indeed, the first prisoners at Auschwitz were Polish political dissidents and the Poles were the second-largest group killed in Auschwitz.

In the years that passed since January 27, 1945, when Soviet troops entered the death camp at Auschwitz and discovered a scene of harrowing brutality—the remnants of a camp used to exterminate Jews—Nazi hunters have searched for, and found, many of the people who participated in the murders of Auschwitz. But not all. As Scislowska reports, only 12 percent are estimated to have been brought to justice.

The full IPN database, which was compiled by historian Aleksander Lasik​, now contains over 25,000 records that cover personnel of multiple concentration camps. Of those, thousands relate to people who worked at Auschwitz—which was not a single camp, but a network of camps that both enslaved and killed Jews, Poles, political prisoners, Roma people, homosexuals, the mentally ill and disabled, and others. At least 1.3 million people are thought to have been deported to Auschwitz at some point between 1940 and 1945, 1.1 million of whom were murdered. The atrocities carried out by guards and commanders all happened less than 40 miles away from Krakow, one of Poland’s most important cities.  

The database, which is an attempt to find the approximately 200 German Auschwitz guards who are thought to still be alive today, is "a tool to fight lies," Szarek tells the BBC. "We're not expressing an opinion, we're presenting the cold, hard facts." But whether the database will affect public opinion about Poland—and its involvement in one of history’s most heinous episodes—remains to be seen.

Editor's Note, February 1, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the history of Auschwitz, including the fact that Poles were the second-largest group killed at the camp.

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