By Manfred Rassau.
First published in "Neues Deutschland," August 30, 2014.
Translated from the original German by Bernhard Gesicki, 2017.
I met Albrecht Eika, a couple of years ago, during an event at the memorial in Sachsenhausen. Despite his great age of 90 years, he had travelled from Norway and spoke to young people about his experiences as an inmate of Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. One of his talks mentioned a prisoner able to escape with the help of a member of the SS. A hardly believable story about a successful plan. Curiosity motivated me to find more details about the fortunate escape of the Polish prisoner Bolek Marcinek, seventy years ago.
Marcinek was born in 1922, in Southern Poland, into a family of officers. After finishing high school he joined the military cadets. At the beginning of WW2 he wanted to join the Polish Forces in England led by General Sikorski. Unfortunately, trying to cross the Yugoslavian border, he was arrested in 1942 and sent to the Concentration Camp in Sachsenhausen. As prisoner number 18277 he saw the mass murder of Polish and Russian inmates taking place right there. Working at times in the crematorium, he realized that for the Germans he must be a dangerous witness. Nevertheless, he tried to use his time sensibly, by learning the German language and in addition also English. From the beginning, the imaginative Marcinek had plans to escape from this camp. The chances were very small. Several attempts had already been made to overcome the high voltage charged security fence, but almost all had failed. His first plan, in 1943, was to escape in the direction of Poland. He wanted to use a bicycle and had already acquired a pair of boots. Regrettably these were found in his bed by a routine search. The punishment of fifteen truncheon strokes destroyed this plan for the time being.
In 1943 his German language skills were good enough that he was selected for work in the design office for SS communication systems. There he met Albrecht Eika. The SS office chief had selected mostly engineers from the prison population.
Most SS officers in this design office tried to maximize their personal gain while working in the Concentration Camp, by dealing in food stamps, gold and foreign currencies. They became so notorious that a Gestapo commission was formed to investigate corruption inside the camp.
Marcinek and 18-year-old SS man, Otto Schreck, developed an understanding. Schreck was not a fanatical Nazi, but very corrupt. Both had talked about escaping to an enemy country. Schreck was still reluctant to risk it. But after their SS office chief had been arrested and sentenced to three years hard labour by an SS court in July 1944, it would have been only a matter of time until others would be interrogated. In June the Allies had landed in France. Marcinek wanted to use the situation for an escape attempt. To avoid possible arrest, SS man Schreck was now ready to desert. Preparations started immediately. The route should be towards France. They had to get up-to-date information about SS units fighting there and general conditions in France. Clean uniforms, equipment, weapons, ammunition had to be procured. Very important were correctly prepared documents, like pay books, travel orders, train tickets.
From the work scheduler, Schreck had got a permit for prisoner Marcinek to work outside the camp perimeter. On the 13th of July they both travelled to Berlin, Marcinek in an SS uniform that Schreck had exchanged for bottles of brandy. From the office he had also stolen blank travel order forms. Marcinek carried his outfit in a suitcase. From Oranienburg they took the S-Bahn and continued on the U-Bahn to Volta Strasse and walked to a house in Putbuser Strasse where Schreck's girl friend lived. Marcinek dressed in his SS uniform and they went to a photographer, who had the pictures for his pay book ready in twenty minutes. At 2pm both were back in Oranienburg/Sachsenhausen, just north of Berlin. In the afternoon Schreck stole another SS man's pay book in the shower, got a typewriter from his office and went back to Berlin. Again at his girl friend's place he forged the necessary documents and Marcinek's pay book. At 2am he was back in camp. Everything was now ready.
On the 14th of July, early in the morning, back at Putbuser Strasse, Marcinek changed into the SS uniform again. They burned his prisoner garb. Equipped with police pistols, each with six cartridges, gas masks, helmets, food bags, mess tins, all procured by Schreck, they rechecked their documents for accuracy and conformity to regulations. Marcinek even had a SS dog tag, made for him by a skilled fellow Polish prisoner. The only one who knew about their plan.
Dressed in the uniform of the SS Skull and Crossbones elite unit, they took the tram to Gesundbrunnen, the S-Bahn to Anhalter Bahnhof, from where they left for Metz at noon, arriving in France at 2 am. Their travel documents proved very good and got them safely through all the numerous controls to their proposed destination, a unit of the 12th Panzer division "Hitlerjugend" at the western front. They used the layover at Metz to exchange money into Francs. Without any problems the train got them to Paris and on the 17th of July, to Rouen. They checked in at the military dispatcher to draw food rations. So far everything worked perfectly. Back at camp, the escape had been discovered sooner than expected, but the search was inconclusive and soon abandoned.
Crossing the river Seine by ferry, they hurried along all through the night, hitching rides on army transports into the vicinity of Elbeuf. An armoured tracked artillery piece got them, in the evening, via Lisieux and Falaise to the river Orne. The front line could not be far away since the battle noise was very audible. Without a bridge in sight, they swam across the river; dripping wet and over-tired they rested in a hollow and slept until dawn. They left their hiding place shaking with cold and ran in the direction of the artillery explosions. A long ladder had to be used to get across a blown bridge. After easily traversing half of Europe, just before reaching the front, a mine field blocked their way. Luckily, they met some soldiers and asked them how to get to their SS-Unit, but crept along a small stream bed towards the front line.
Finally, at around 3 pm on the 19th of July, they saw a Canadian patrol. They ran towards them despite the German and Canadian machine gun fire and surrendered to the Canadians, who immediately started to beat these two men in SS uniform. Only after Marcinek had explained to them in English that he was an escapee from Sachsenhausen and the other man had helped him, did they stop. They were brought to and thoroughly interrogated at Canadian division headquarters. Thereafter they received food, sweaters, socks and shoes, a jeep drove both to the nearest prisoner of war camp. While the real SS man Schreck remained in the POW camp, Marcinek donned the uniform of the Allies and was shipped to London five days later. A month later he joined the Polish army. After the war ended he stayed in England, studied, got his masters degree, moved to Canada, where he taught history and died in 1995.
Schreck worked for British broadcasting after the war. He returned to Germany and died in 1989 in his home town in the vicinity of Stuttgart.
After publication of the above story, Manfred Rassau emailed me a clarification -- "Marcinek was a Lieutenant in the Polish Army, who, after taking part in the Polish Campaign of 1939, was taken prisoner by the Russians, escaped back to Poland, and early in 1940 attempted to cross the Yugoslav frontier to join the Polish forces in England. He was apprehended by the Gestapo and was confined in the Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg for four years."