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Auschwitz Concentration Camp Sweater

Concentration camp sweater worn by Tadeusz Kowalczyk while a prisoner at Auschwitz during World War II.
(Museum object #1985.92)

In late June 1940 German soldiers arrested Polish veterinarian Tadeusz "Ted" Kowalczyk while he was tending animals at Polish President Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz's abandoned summer home in southwestern Poland. On June 25 Kowalczyk arrived at the Petrikau prison where he was tortured by the German Gestapo on three or four occasions over the course of the next month. He was then sent to Auschwitz where he lived and wore this sweater for the next three years before being sent on to two more concentration camps.

The brown wool sweater, now threadbare and full of holes, was made in Nagyvarad, Hungary (today known as Oradea, Romania) and probably originally belonged to a Hungarian prisoner. New arrivals to the camps usually had to surrender their clothing, which was stored in a camp warehouse, and wear striped uniforms instead. Prisoners assigned barracks supervision or special work details, like Kowalczyk, sometimes had the privilege of adding a piece of warm clothing taken from the warehouse. That clothing had to be marked, in the case of Kowalczyk's sweater with a red X, so that guards in the towers would know that the person in civilian garb was a prisoner.

While the Jewish Holocaust during World War II has been widely documented with an estimated 6 million victims, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler also directed the deaths of over 1.5 million non-Jewish Poles, many of them Catholic. According to Hitler in 1940, "Poles may have only one master - a German. Two masters cannot exist side by side, and this is why all members of the Polish intelligensia must be killed."

Kowalczyk, a Catholic, was born December 7, 1909 in Dobrowa, Poland. He received his diploma in veterinary surgery in 1937, and then began his career serving as the official veterinarian to the President of Poland. After the Germans imprisoned Kowalczyk for spreading news from the BBC to other Poles, he spent the next five years in German concentration camps surviving by both his wits and incredible luck. The only written record of his concentration camp experiences is a 1963 letter he wrote to officials in West Germany seeking an apology and a share of the monetary reparations granted to Holocaust survivors. This letter reveals most of what we now know of his personal ordeal.

According to Kowalczyk, by the time he arrived at Auschwitz, he had been beaten repeatedly and contracted pneumonia. Kowalczyk and his fellow prisoners were greeted with dogs, blinding searchlights, and Nazi SS soldiers brandishing whips. In his letter Kowalczyk wrote that he felt lucky to have been whipped only once as he entered the campgrounds. The next day an officer announced that they should expect to survive only two to three months, unless they were Jewish or priests who were likely to be killed within four weeks.

The Germans initially assigned Kowalczyk to Block 9 where, as he later wrote, "the block leader was a sadist who, during morning and evening roster in the camp yard, enjoyed kicking prisoners below the knee or punching them in the stomach." One of these blows gave Kowalczyk an ulcer on his leg that was slow to heal. He also came down with diarrhea, fought pneumonia, suffered swollen legs from malnutrition, and, finally, in the winter of 1943 contracted typhus. Somehow Kowalczyk survived all these diseases as well as the wrath of the guards who routinely pulled sick prisoners from the ranks to execute by gunshot or gas chamber.

By late 1943 the Nazis had assigned Kowalczyk to a farm of an SS commander to take care of his animals. When pregnant mares began to miscarry, Kowalczyk was accused of sabotaging them. One evening in August 1944 an officer arrived at Kowalczyk's barracks and took him to the notorious Block 11 at Auschwitz, frequently the last stop before execution. That night he recalled feeling his whole life pass before him, visualizing his family, relatives, and friends. Instead of executing Kowalczyk, however, the Germans placed him on a "punishment transport" and sent him to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. In February 1945 he was relocated to the Sachsenhausen camp where an SS doctor took him under his wing as a protégé in the camp's hospital. Kowalczyk later wrote that he believed the better treatment he received here saved his life.

On April 21, 1945, with Soviet troops advancing, the Sachsenhausen guards distributed small amounts of food to Kowalczyk and the other prisoners and marched them out in groups of 500. Kowalczyk's group walked for twelve days. If any of the prisoners fell behind because of weakness or sickness a German guard would shoot and kill them. On May 3, the group finally encountered an American tank corps, which liberated Kowalczyk from his German captors. He later wrote, "At this point I had such severe pneumonia that one more day of walking would have meant a bullet for me."

In 1949 Kowalczyk moved to Madison, Wisconsin and a year later married Ellen Olson, his roommate's sister. Soon after, he became a United States citizen and received his M.S. in veterinary science. By 1968 he was a full professor at the University of Wisconsin and an internationally recognized leader in the research of gastric ulcers in swine. Unfortunately, his experiences in the concentration camps had seriously affected his health and he never fully recovered. On December 2, 1970 Kowalczyk died during heart surgery.

[Sources: Tadeusz Kowalczyk, "Auschwitz Veterinarian: Five Years in the Death Camps" (Marshfield, WI: Brush Wolf Press, 2003); Poles: Victoms of the Nazi Era (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website); telephone interviews with Ellen Kowalczyk by WHS staff, April 2006; correspondence between WHS staff and Lizou Fenyvesi, textile conservator at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, April 2006.]


Posted on April 20, 2006

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