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A Conversation with Katya Singer
by Susan Cernyak-Spatz & Joel Shatzky
The moral complexity of the Holocaust is still being debated after more than sixty-five years, especially as more information is revealed about how some people were able to survive while others perished. Perhaps one of the most important, least-known figures is Katya Singer, who was a “collaborator” as Rapportschreiberin, or chief operating officer, for the SS in Auschwitz, as well as the lover of a notorious Nazi — yet she has been credited by other survivors with saving the lives of countless women in the camp. These she rescued from the rigors of “outside details” by finding “inside jobs” for them, and, more important, by falsifying the numbers of the living and dead so that the SS did not realize that fewer Jews than they thought were being gassed. To judge Singer for having lived a relatively sheltered life as Rapportschreiberin in the death camp, with her own room, maid, and wardrobe, while most other inmates were living in the most degrading circumstances, is to ignore the fact that she put her life at risk every time she saved the lives of others through her deceptive juggling of numbers.
The following interview was given to Susan Cernyak-Spatz, herself a survivor, thanks to the prompting of Singer’s assistant, Helen “Zippy” Tischauer, a close friend of Cernyak-Spatz. As far as we know, the information revealed here is unique in the record of the notorious death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Katya Singer was an assimilated Czech Jew. She served as Rapportschreiberin from September, 1942 until her deportation to Stutthof in 1944 after being “denounced” for helping inmates survive. There is very little information about Singer in any history of the Holocaust, and as far as we know, this is the only recorded interview she gave in her lifetime (July 21st, 1991 at the Prague Intercontinental Hotel).
Katya Singer: I was really not supposed to be in the Patronka [a site for deportation in Bratislava, Slovakia]. I was renting a room from a Jewish family. I had ignored the call-up that all Jewish young people received, because I saw myself much more as a Christian than a Jew. When we were in the Patronka, it was the first time that I found myself among Jews. I did not come from an Orthodox house. I really think I am Christian; we were never together with Jews. My parents were not religious at all.
Susan Cernyak-Spatz: Why were you promoted so rapidly to be Rapportschreiberin?
KS: I don’t know why. The SS always said I was a German. Even when I was in the bunker, they measured my nose and my face and said that if I would sign that I was a Volksdeutsche [a German from Eastern Europe], they would release me, but I did not sign.
Something else happened at arrival in Auschwitz. There was an SS man there who had been my professor at the business academy in Olmuetz. First he slapped me — the first slap I got there. I did not cry and actually gave him a cheeky answer. Then he recognized me. Without hair, it takes a while to be recognized. He looked at me closer and said, “Aren’t you Katarine?” He helped me a little bit — he was not there very long and was sent to the front, but he must have talked with someone about me. I don’t know whom. At that time, everything was at a beginning: The prisoners were creating the women’s camp and anybody who wanted the job could have become Rapportschreiberin.
Zippy [Helen Tischauer, nee Spitzer, Singer’s chief assistant] helped me a lot with the job with the writing, because I spoke very little German.
SC-S: What were the responsibilities? An accurate count of the prisoners . . .
KS: Everything like that. Preparation for the roll call. The figures had to tally. With our pre-roll call in hand, they [SS officials] only had to check the figures; without it they would have to count and write down the individual numbers.
There were separate books for the hospital compound, for BUNA [the IG Farben slave labor camp] for the Stabsgebäude [administrative headquarters for the Gestapo]. Their figures were entered into the main book daily. Where women were active outside of the main camp, there was a daily report of their numbers.
SC-S: Zippy says that you and she developed the pre-roll call (Vorappell). How did that work?
KS: A report was given to the Administrative Office every day by all prison administrators, blockovas [Jewish women prisoners in charge of the blocks], etc. The SS office handed those reports to us from the hospital compound and from all the detached prisoners [those working outside the camp]. We then made lists of how many women were at each site. I handed Zippy all the records: how many women in the Revier [hospital], at the Stabsgebäude [staff headquarters], how many gassed. The numbers had to be precise, because if there were six thousand women in the camp, the numbers of the Vorappell had to be the same. Then the SS-Blockführer just checked the numbers from the Vorappell, and those had to coincide with the numbers from the morning Zählappell [roll call].
SC-S: Did you have an evening Zählappell?
KS: The numbers for the Vorappell were taken from the numbers of the evening Zählappell. And if they did not jibe with the numbers in the morning, we had to start from scratch.
Zippy kept track of the numbering, together with the tattooing of numbers. If someone visited from the very high-ups in the SS, she would show them the model she made of the camp and her pages and pages of statistics, and they would never come into the camp itself. The model is on exhibit in Auschwitz today. The Hauptbuch [main registry of the camp] also has been retrieved.
SC-S: The Hauptbuch contained all the information about the women’s camp.
KS: Yes. We had to deposit it every night at the gate with Drechsel and Mandel [Margot Drechsel, Rapportsführer at Birkenau, and Maria Mandel, head matron of Birkenau. Both women were known for their brutality in treating the inmates —JS]. But we prisoners made all the entries.
SC-S: Zippy says that you and she created the administrative organization of the camp. How did you do that?
KS: No numbers were repeated [in Auschwitz-Birkenau]. The numbers were registered running consecutively in the big camp book. When a prisoner died, the number and name were crossed out. We made individual columns for everything in a new book: columns for the sick, the dead, the individual blocks, the number of people in each block, well, sick, on detachment, Stabsgebäude, agriculture, factories.
With that kind of organization in the Lagerbuch, we saved many women’s lives. Zippy wrote down numbers that were dead. When there was a selection and they told me the list of numbers, I inserted “dead numbers” instead of live numbers that I wanted to save. If there were five hundred supposed to go to the gas, only a hundred actually went. The rest were “dead numbers.” [This method of deceiving the SS into believing that more inmates were executed than actually were has been independently confirmed by Helen “Zippy” Tischauer in her unpublished manuscript, “Method within the Madness,” and Magda Blau (nee Hellinger), another inmate of Birkenau, in U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum interview RG 50-030-0030. It is also confirmed by Polish political prisoners Wanda Marassanyi and Anna Palarcyk in their testimony at the Panstvove Muzeum, Auschwitz-Birkenau — JS.]
The Nazis wanted only the control list; they did not count the people on the truck. No one ever found out how we had done this. Only one of those we saved ever sought me out after the war. She was in one of the first transports, a woman who now lives in Illinois and was in Prague just to see me. She said she was twice on the list to the gas, and my intervention saved her. She recognized me immediately. I did not recognize her because I just dealt with numbers, the living and the dead, but she said that I had saved her life. [According to Marassanyi and Palarcyk, over 1,600 Slovakian women were saved by Singer, but there were probably many more of other nationalities.]
SC-S: Tell me about Margot Drechsel.
KS: That one was a real German woman. If after the war I would have all of them standing in front of me, and would be asked whom would I take aside from that group [not to be punished], I would have to say Drechsel — not Palitsch [Gerhard Palitsch, roll call leader in Auschwitz, noted for his brutality to prisoners; later he was Katya Singer’s lover] — no one else. Because Drechsel saved all Slovakian Jews and everyone she could. And do you know why? She was not married, she was in love with Palitsch, she had no children, she was very ugly, but she insisted we should keep ourselves clean, we should wash. She would slap women when they were dirty or would not stand up straight. I told her once that a certain prisoner could not stand straight because she was sick — and she slapped me [for saying that].
Drechsel was the only one who took no food packages sent to prisoners, which were stored in the Paket Kammer [a depository to which the SS had access]. And she never did more [cruelty to prisoners] than she had to.
KS: She was beautiful but evil. She could not stand that I was good-looking. “What do you put on your face?” she would ask me. “Nothing,” I answered. “Why do you not have any scars?” she asked, and I answered: “Do you want to give me some?”
We were not human beings for her. She had no interest in keeping the camp in decent condition. Drechsel was much better in that way. Mandel was only interested that everything should run smoothly. She did very little work. Drechsel was always busy in the camp. She always would say: “You can survive only if you can keep clean.” [One wonders if Singer really believed what she was saying, or if she perhaps had never seen the inside of a new arrival block, without water, change of clothes, blankets or strawsacks, and with plenty of disease and vermin. — JS].
Drechsel was very honest. It must have been a great disappointment for her when she found out that Palitsch loved me. When I was deported, she did not come to see that happen; she did not betray me. She could have shot me at that time; she could have done whatever she wanted to me.
They sent me to Stutthof to be gassed with “Sonderweisung” [a special directive to be killed immediately]. When we arrived in Stutthof [September 2nd, 1944] the gas chamber was out of order. Stutthof was a terrible camp. Terrible winds, cold. There were only three women’s blocks and only Hungarian Jewish women. Only one Unterscharführer [sergeant] as commandant. There were two SS-matrons from Auschwitz who knew me and greeted me: “Katja you are here; everything is all right,” one of them said to me. “You were lucky. Two days ago the gas chamber broke down. Otherwise you would have never gotten into the camp.”
SC-S: Were the Arbeitsdienst [work registry] and Arbeitseinsatz [work deployment department] in Auschwitz also organized by Zippy and you?
KS: Both of these were connected to the Schreibstube [offices]. We were the first stage [of “processing” the prisoners] and they were the second and third stages. Arbeitsdienst organized the card catalogue from our records, and the Arbeitseinsatz filled the demand for women prisoners to work from the Arbeitsdienst card catalogue.
The hospital compound also had a daily Zählappell and sent the results to the Schreibstube. If there were not enough people for a transport to the gas, they would send these people to the hospital compound and let them wait there until there were enough for a gas transport. That is why, in the beginning, those destined for the gas were listed as “transferred to the hospital compound.”
SC-S: Were there any political organizations in the women’s camp?
KS: Yes, the well-known architect, Vera Foltynova, was the head of a group. It was said after the war that it was a communist group. That is rather questionable because we all were only interested in surviving and possibly meeting after the war to create a publication that would reveal everything about the camp.
I often received information that I could hand on. Once, I accidentally lifted the telephone receiver and there was a conversation. I don’t know who was talking, but the person said that an order had been issued [by the SS] to destroy the family camp. I, of course, immediately informed the camp inmates. [Confirmation that the information was spread to Auschwitz-Birkenau was made in testimony by Polish inmate Anna Palarcyk. According to the Holocaust Education and Archive Research Team, at the beginning of September, 1943 two transports with Jews of Bohemian-Moravian origin left Terezin for Birkenau, without knowing this was another name for Auschwitz. It was presented as a family camp from which postcards were sent. It seemed from the outside to be another ghetto like Terezin. In the summer of 1944, the Berlin delegate of the International Red Cross, M. Roessel, briefly visited those “family camps” and reported on them favorably. In December, 1943 an additional five thousand Jews of Bohemia-Moravia had to leave for the Birkenau “family camp.” In March, 1944, just at the Jewish Festival of Purim, the group that left Terezin in September, 1943 died in the gas chamber. The December group survived until May, 1944, when many were murdered in the gas chambers. —JS]
That was actually the aim of all the political organizations [among the Jewish inmates]: to make sure that the free world would learn what had happened to us. I don’t know if Zippy told you about the letter she wrote for me, for Palitsch to take when he went to Brno. Palitsch had said he was commanded to Brno for a court case, to carry out a death sentence on twenty people. Zippy helped me write a letter, addressed to my sister, about how everything was in the camp. Palitsch took with him to Brno. Because of it, they arrested my sister. When I was little, I was “Macinka,” and I had signed this letter “Macinka.” It arrived and they took my sister to the Gestapo. We had written about everything: the camp and no food, the stolen food packages, the gas chambers. My sister did not understand any German and at the Gestapo they got a translator for her. Imagine, the translator was a former school friend of mine. And they said to her: “Here is a letter for you and who is Macinka?” And the translator told her in Czech: “Tell them you know nothing.” Unfortunately, my sister said, “That is my sister and I have not heard from her for three years.”
That was her downfall. They sent her to Terezin, to the small fortress. Her husband [not Jewish] was also arrested. They had a son, and they put him into an orphanage. After the war, I went to a Czech National Office and asked if they had the papers. The letter still existed after the war. They said the Germans had taken all the [other] documents with them when they left.
Palitsch wrote me, saying that when he was on the train and it went past the camp, the passengers said it was a big factory, and he realized that the people thought those who worked there were well off. At that moment, he realized that he was one of the murderers of Auschwitz, and he could not carry out the death sentences in Brno. He refused to follow the orders and was immediately arrested. [According to the testimony of a number of Holocaust survivors, including Marossanyi and Palarcyk, Palitsch was denounced for “Rassenschande,” having sexual relations with Jewish inmates, obviously including Singer, and was sent to the Eastern Front, where he died, probably in late 1943. —SC-S]
SC-S: Who organized the working commandos, such as the rag-picking Effekten and the Effekten Kanada?
KS: The SS did that weekly from the Stabsgebäude. They had the information about which factory or work detail needed how many women. The figures would be sent to Birkenau, and Mandel would hand it to Drechsel, and she gave it to us. If, for instance, they said Siemens [a German manufacturing plant] needed people, then we selected women from the register for Siemens. Most of the time, the SS women selected them, but from time to time we could smuggle a few of our choice into the group. Thanks to the German bureaucracy, many of us survived, because they needed us in that bureaucracy.
If women stayed in the Aussenkommando [outside work detail], they did not survive. The women in the Stabsgebaude never knew about [the horrible conditions of the “outside” workers] in Birkenau.
SC-S: Did you make compromises with the SS?
KS: When I would say I needed five or ten women to help me with the roll call, they would say, pick whom you want. Or I would say I needed some help in another block, and they would let me choose what I said I needed. Those people would be safe. When inmates brought me things from Kanada [a warehouse of food, clothing and other items, including Red Cross packages, taken from the Jews upon their entry into Auschwitz-Birkenau], and the SS needed some for their children [the SS was technically not allowed to take materials from Kanada for personal use], I would give them things. Everything was used to bribe them. The SS men and the matrons were often willing to help someone, if that person was healthy and clean. The sick ones you could not help. The SS tried to avoid having to enter the blocks of the ragged outside commandos. That was one of the reasons why we could save that many.
For instance, we would tell them [at the roll call] that there were twenty sick women in the block. Actually there would be only four or five, but with so many they certainly would not look into the block, and we could hide four to five people we wanted to save. The [SS] only wanted to get done with their daily work. They did not care whether someone stayed alive or died.
SC-S: From my research, I have learned that no SS man was ever executed for refusing to follow orders in the camp.
KS: There were a lot of intrigues among the SS. Lots of denunciation. Palitsch once told me that they never assigned two SS men from the same town to a position. If one of them wanted to climb higher in position, he would denounce the person standing in his way, and that one would be arrested.
SC-S: How come Palitsh came that frequently into the women’s camp?
KS: He was commander for both the men’s and the women’s camps in Birkenau. He was higher than Maria Mandel. [According to records from Auschwitz, Palitsch did not have a high rank. —SC-S] He was in the camp before we came.
KS: Palitsch was married and had two children. He was ten years older than I. I was 21. He kept saying how I looked so much like his wife and that I was different than all the other women. He had been in love with a woman in the gypsy camp, but he sent her to the gas nevertheless. I told him that was not a good thing to do. And he said he could not help himself.
That all counted against him. Brno counted against him. Someone betrayed him. Zippy always said it was Drechsel, but it was not her; it was Ria Wolf [Prisoner Camp Eldest, women’s camp], Ria’s sister told me. I have never understood how they did not shoot or gas me at that time.
SC-S: Prisoners in Birkenau who were not in Kanada or in any good position in the camp, ordinary prisoners in average commandos, have said in biographies and other books that the blockovas, especially the Slovakian ones, were beating the prisoners and stealing parts of their rations. Since you had selected these blockovas personally at the beginning of Birkenau, what were your criteria?
KS: That is not quite true. Only two were known to beat prisoners, the two youngest. It is always like that. Among a thousand people there are always ten who are evil. But I did not select the blockovas. Every matron had been assigned a block and they had decided who would be a block worker and who would be the blockova. . . . The blockovas would beat a prisoner who was dirty and did not have to be dirty; who was caught stealing and did not have to steal.
SC-S: From my own experience in an Aussencommando block, I know that it is not easy to keep clean there.
KS: I know that Etta Wetzler was one that beat the prisoners [unnecessarily]. She was blockova on Block 25 [the death block]; that was terrible.
SC-S: The rumor was that the blockovas skimmed off the top of the assigned food rations to the block and then distributed the rest to the prisoners.
KS: The reason given to me by the blockovas for skimming off the rations was that in the new arrival blocks, the prisoners still had enough nutrition in them to sustain them for a few weeks. Those that had been there longer were much hungrier, so the block workers skimmed off some rations and gave them to their hungry friends.
SC-S: This was an extermination camp. Why did the SS need such precise figures for the camp morning and night?
KS: I never understood that, either. That is how the Germans were; if they got an order they had to follow it. There was the order to count in the morning and in the evening. That increases the misery of the prisoners. That had nothing to do with rations or anything; just increasing the misery.
SC-S: What do you remember about Zippy?
KS: She was always helpful for others as much as she could be. She did work for the Germans so she could help the prisoners. She was totally unselfish. She would help whomever she could. As far as I know, she never had a lover in the camp, and she was always very intelligent.
Zippy never did anything harmful to anyone. She was always straightforward with me. Once she asked, concerning Palitsch: “Do you love him?” And I answered, “What is to love about him?” I said that we could help many people, because I know him, but if he is caught, I will be caught also.
I was also able to help several prisoners in the men’s camp, thanks to him. They would send me a message that someone needed help, and through Palitsch I was able to help. He would ask me why I would want to help a certain person, and I would say, these are my people. They were usually Slovaks or Czechs; no political prisoners.
In the women’s camp the Slovakian women did not need any help from me [since they had “inside jobs”], but I also helped the Poles and the Czechs.
There was one radical communist in the camp by the name of Laufer. She told me one time: “If you survive, we will kill you. Because you helped everyone but the communists.” The men had a better political organization. In the women’s camp the groups were more ordered by nationalities. In the men’s camp there were no national differences in the communist organization.
SC-S: Did the Jewish Polish women stick mostly with each other?
KS: Yes. They had come from the ghettos. They knew how to survive. The Greek women did not survive. Because of the cold. The political prisoners would stick together.
Afterword: After liberation, Singer resumed civilian life and successfully buried her past. Except for this interview, she gave no testimony on her role in Auschwitz-Birkenau. She married a Christian, had children, and worked for the Czech government as an art gallery curator. None of the people with whom she spent the last fifty years of her life knew anything of what she had done.
Susan Cernyak-Spatz, a survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Ravensbruck, is professor emerita of German at the University of North Carolina. She has written and lectured frequently in schools, colleges, and civic groups throughout the U.S. and Europe about the Holocaust and how to teach it. Her memoir of her experiences during that period, Protective Custody Prisoner 34042, was privately printed in 2005. In 2008 it was published in a German translation by Metropol Verlag. Protective Custody Prisoner 34042 is available from her for $20, 3516 A Colony Road, Charlotte, NC 28211.
Joel Shatzky last appeared in our Autumn, 2010 issue with an interview of Diane Ravitch and a review of her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. He writes a blog, “Educating for Democracy,” for the Huffington Post and is an adjunct in the English department at Kingsborough Community College after having retired from full-time teaching at SUNY Cortland from 1968-2005.