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Prisoners of the first transport at the railway station in Tarnów. 14th June 1940

The gates to Auschwitz I

On 14 June 1940, German authorities in occupied Poland organised the first mass transport of prisoners to the recently opened Auschwitz Concentration Camp. The transport, which set out from the southern Polish city of Tarnów, consisted of 728 Poles, including 20 Jews.[1] They were "political" prisoners and members of the Polish resistance, and most were Catholics, since the mass deportations of Jews had not yet begun.[2] All were sent to Auschwitz by the Sicherheitspolizei — German Security Police. They were transported to Auschwitz I from the regular prison in Tarnów, where they had been incarcerated as opponents of the occupying Nazi regime. Numbers were tattooed on the prisoners' arms in the order of their arrival at Auschwitz. These inmates were assigned the numbers 31 through 758,[3] with numbers 1 through 30 having been reserved for a group of German criminals, who were brought to Auschwitz from Sachsenhausen,[1] on 20 May [4] and became the first Auschwitz kapos.

According to Tarnów historian Aleksandra Pietrzykowa, on the evening before the transport, the 728 Polish prisoners were rounded up based on a previously prepared list and ordered to take a shower and to disinfect themselves in a public bath. They were then detained until the early hours of 14 June, when the whole group, escorted by the SS, were marched out of the prison and along the deserted Tarnów streets to the railway station. There, all were pushed into the waiting rail cars.

Eugeniusz Niedojadlo, who was one of the group, recalled later: "The day of our departure was hot and sunny. We were walking in fours, guarded by armed SS men. The inhabitants of Tarnów were ordered to stay in their homes, and we had no idea where we were going".[5]

Niedojadlo described the sprawling group as looking like a giant snake, and it gave him the impression of cattle being led to a slaughterhouse. "The SS were constantly yelling at us, and we were sad and depressed. Even though the streets were empty, here and there I saw curious faces looking at us from behind curtains. At one moment, an unknown hand tossed a bunch of red flowers towards us, but an SS officer trampled on it."[5]

Aleksandra Pietrzykowa claims that 753 inmates left the prison that day but only 728 of them were interned at Auschwitz. According to Pietrzykowa: "In prison records, under the date June 13, 1940, a transport of 753 persons was mentioned. However, 25 persons less reached the camp. We have established that one person was released at the rail platform, just before departure of the train. According to the testimonies of other inmates — Jan Stojakowski (Auschwitz prisoner number 577) and Wladyslaw Pilat (Auschwitz prisoner number 330), the remaining 24 might have been prisoners from Stalowa Wola, who reached Auschwitz, but for unknown reasons were brought back to Tarnów the next day. In Tarnów prison records, under the date June 15, 1940, there is a short entry: 'Transport Stalowa Wola, 24 persons'. We do not know what happened to these inmates and why they were transported back, if they were transported back at all."[5]

The number 31, which opened the list of political prisoners of Auschwitz I, was given to Stanisław Ryniak, who was the first Polish prisoner in Auschwitz[6] Ryniak, who was 24 years old in 1940, had been arrested by the Germans in his hometown of Sanok at the beginning of May, and was accused of being a member of the Polish resistance.[7] He was transported to Tarnów prison on 7 May, together with eighteen Poles from Jarosław (Ryniak survived Auschwitz and the aftermath of the Second World War - he died in Wrocław in 2004, aged 88). The number 758, the last one of the transport, was assigned to Ignacy Plachta from Łódź.[8] Plachta had been caught by the Gestapo in the southern town of Zagórz on 1 February 1940, while trying to escape to Hungary. Prisoner number 349 was the well-known Polish artist and Olympic skier Bronislaw Czech who was captured in his hometown of Zakopane, also in May - he was killed in the camp four years later on 4 June 1944.

Upon arrival, the Poles lined up in five rows and were met by Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, who announced: "This is Auschwitz Concentration Camp....Any resistance or disobedience will be ruthlessly punished. Anyone disobeying superiors, or trying to escape, will be sentenced to death. Young and healthy people don't live longer than three months here. Priests one month, Jews two weeks. There is only one way out — through the crematorium chimneys".[8] However, the crematorium did not begin operation until 15 August 1940.[9]

In spite of these dismal prospects, Aleksandra Pietrzykowa established that around 200 members of the first transport survived. Eugeniusz Niedojadlo, who spent almost five years in Auschwitz, said that members of the first transport tried to stick together throughout their internment. The Tarnów inmates also cooperated with other Polish inmates, from the nearby city of Rzeszów.[5]

Today, the square in front of former public bath in Tarnów is called the Square of Auschwitz Inmates, and in 1975, a monument commemorating the departure of the first transport to Auschwitz was unveiled there.

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