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The child of Auschwitz's Kommandant

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

Arthur Liebehenschel and Barbara Cherish

Barbara Cherish is a child of the SS, and the burden lies heavily upon her.

She knew early in her life that her German father, Arthur Liebehenschel, was involved in something terrible, something the family did not discuss.

Only later, as an adult, did she discover he had run part of the Auschwitz concentration camp for five months during World War II.

The knowledge gnawed at her, but it took a life crisis - her divorce and the death of her sister - to spur her to delve into the past and piece together her father's story.

The result is a book in which she struggles to reconcile her love for the father she never knew with the knowledge of his crimes, which saw him sentenced to death in Poland after the war.

I do have mixed feelings because he was a complex person. Here's this good person that really tried everything he could to help the prisoners
Barbara Cherish

"As a child, I was never really allowed to talk about my past with my family. I heard some things as a small child, about the mystery father, about Auschwitz. I never really processed it because I was so young. I knew it was something bad.

"There was a guilt there, I think that we all have. That we carry the guilt, being the…" she hesitates, "the children of the perpetrators".

Born in 1943, she was placed in foster care aged six. Her new family emigrated in 1956 to the US, where she has remained.

Stylishly dressed, Barbara arrives early at a San Diego cafe and apologises in advance, saying that "sometimes I get emotional" while telling her father's story. As predicted, she later becomes tearful.

Acts of compassion

Finding out more about her father, she explains, led her into painful territory. Not only did he help run Auschwitz, but before that he had left his wife and children for another woman. Her mother's mental health deteriorated after the war and she died in a hospital for the mentally ill in 1966.

Liebehenschel was kommandant of Camp I, the first of Auschwitz's three. According to Piotr Setkiewicz, head of research at the Auschwitz Museum, he was not directly in charge of the gas chambers at Camp II, Birkenau, but was formally responsible for sending prisoners at Camp I to their deaths.

Auschwitz main gates
Auschwitz's infamous gates were the entrance to Camp I

Despite all this, Barbara has a daughter's loyalty. The book is dedicated to her father, and the Liebehenschel she writes about in The Auschwitz Kommandant is a contradictory man, capable of acts of compassion towards inmates, and stricken by guilt for his role in the murder of women and children.

A German who worked with Liebehenschel at Auschwitz testified at his trial that the kommandant once travelled to Berlin to attempt to prevent up to 500 prisoners being gassed.

Several former prisoners of Auschwitz also gave evidence for the defence, saying he had improved certain conditions at the camp. In sentencing him to death, the court conceded that his claims of administering "fair treatment of prisoners and alleviation of hardship" were truthful.

Barbara, in her book, cites former prisoners who credit him with ordering the release of those who had been held in camp bunkers for months, ending beatings for minor crimes, and ending the informer network among prisoners. He also ordered a pool to be created for inmates.

Piotr Setkiewicz describes Liebehenschel as "not the ordinary bad guy among the high ranking SS".

"There is one testimony from a prisoner that said Liebehenschel heard some prisoners had inadequate shoes, so he ordered them to have new ones.

"Perhaps he was being humanitarian, or perhaps it was because at that time the SS were using the prisoners as slave labour and he wanted them to work harder. But I never heard anyone say something like this about [Liebehenschel's predecessor as kommandant, Rudolf] Hoess, for example."

Long showers

Another surprise about Liebehenschel is his choice of second wife, Annalise. From an SS point of view, she had been far too friendly with Jews.

"Liebehenschel initially held a high-ranking position in the SS, but Heinrich Himmler was unhappy that he left his wife and family for another woman, who was linked to Jews, and so he was given a lower-level position in the SS administration," says Setkiewicz.

He didn't want to go to Auschwitz - he was sent there as a punishment
Barbara Cherish

If this had not been the case, Barbara explains, he would never have ended up at Auschwitz.

As her research progressed she began to feel sorry for her father.

"I felt badly because he didn't really want to be there. He didn't want to go to Auschwitz. He was sent there as a punishment," she says.

When Barbara traced Annalise and interviewed her, she painted a picture of what this punishment meant for Liebehenschel.

According to her, he would come home after watching new arrivals to Auschwitz and cry "oh no, women and children", suffer headaches, take walks and have long showers, which his daughter says was "to wash away that evil, which of course he couldn't".

Does any of this alter our view of Liebehenschel?

In Piotr Setkiewicz's view, a "careful analysis of all the evidence is needed before you can come to a final statement" about Liebehenschel's record. But whatever improvement he represented, when measured against the worst Auschwitz kommandants, these were in the end only "minor differences", he argues.

Liebehenschel still participated in genocide and countless innocent people were sent to their deaths during his time there.

One Auschwitz survivor, Dr Franz Danimann, told Barbara that her father's death sentence was "probably historically and legally a just verdict", but that he "should have been given amnesty" because of his "diverse and positive initiatives which helped many prisoners".

No excuses

However, the prisoners who take a positive view of Liebehenschel's record are contradicted by others, also quoted in Barbara's book.

Former Auschwitz prisoner Wladyslaw Fejkiel said that during Liebehenschel's command "there were no positive changes for the care of the prisoners, related to food or medications. The sanitary conditions remained insufficient..."

He reports that Liebehenschel asked to be told about prisoners in poor health so that they could be considered first among those to be released from the camp. But he adds that he did "not know of a single case of those prisoners brought to his attention who were therefore released".

Children imprisoned at Auschwitz
Liebehenschel said he attempted to ease conditions at Auschwitz

Barbara stresses that she is not attempting to excuse her father's actions, that she is appalled by what the Nazis did. Her aim is to paint a three-dimensional picture, of a kind rarely given of Nazi war criminals, including the good as well as the bad.

She concedes her father did not always tell the truth when interrogated by his captors after the war, and does not believe his claim that he did not know about the gas chambers at Auschwitz prior to his arrival at the camp.

She underlines that he was loyal to Hitler and voluntarily joined the SS, but she also sees him as someone "caught in a web".

"My question always will be, and I will never really have the answer… did he know in the beginning what kind of a despicable organisation it really was?" she asks.

She adds, expressing a view that few outside the kommandant's family might accept: "I do have mixed feelings because he was a complex person. Here's this good person that really tried everything he could to help the prisoners."

Family guilt

Writing the book has not rid her of the burden she carries.

Barbara headed off from our interview to a friend's wedding. Two days later she sent an e-mail, recounting how she had been seated at the reception next to two Jewish couples.

She said she found herself "quietly asking my companion not to bring up my book". The thought of discussing the subject with them horrified her.

"After all these years I still have a hard time relating to (especially) Jewish people that I am my father's daughter," she wrote.

"I wonder if I'll ever be able to let go of the guilt and burden that I and my family have carried as the children of my father, the SS Kommandant of Auschwitz."



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