Saving lives

The attempted rescue of fellow inmates from certain death was extremely dangerous. Resisters took huge risks to hide the inmates or give them new identities. Inevitably, such rescue remained very rare. The perils are illustrated by the case of Luigi Ferri. In summer 1944, the 11-year-old was deported from Italy to Birkenau with his grandmother, and soon found himself alone in the quarantine sector. Had it not been for the Jewish prisoner doctor Otto Wolken and other helpers, Luigi would have been murdered within hours. Instead, as Dr Wolken testified in 1945, the young boy survived the camp.

089 – The Auschwitz prisoner Dr Otto Wolken on rescuing his “camp son” Luigi

The little boy told me tearfully that he was called Luigi and that he had been taken away from his grandmother and wanted to go back to her. To start with, I comforted him and since I had a doctor (Dr. Bergmann) in Block 2, who had studied in Italy and spoke fluent Italian, I arranged that Luigi should be taken to Block 2. That evening the [SS] Report Leader came to see me and told me that the Sauna (i.e. crematorium) was looking for an Italian who was thought to be in our camp. I was asked to go and look for him and send him to the [SS] Block Leaders’ office. I knew at once that it was Luigi and went along to Block 2. But when I saw the child I hadn’t the courage to deliver him up. So I discussed it with Dr. Bergmann and asked him to hide the child, telling him [Luigi] that he must not show himself anywhere in the camp and must spend the whole time on his bed. I told the Report Leader that I couldn’t find the Italian. I would look for him the following day at the roll call.

I had little hope of saving him

The following day, when the [SS] camp doctor [Thilo] arrived, Luigi behaved very rashly. He did not yet know the Germans and so he ran to the camp doctor and asked him to arrange for him to be transferred back to the female camp so he could rejoin his grandmother. We didn’t have any children in our camp, for almost all of them were sent from the ramp straight to the gas chamber, particularly when they were so young. So Thilo asked the deputy Report Leader who was with him: “What’s this child doing in the camp?” The Report Leader said he didn’t know whether the boy was a Jew or what he was doing there. Thilo responded: “I don’t want to see him here tomorrow”. Meanwhile, I had been informed that the camp doctor was in the camp and, on going to see him, arrived just when this scene was taking place. Luigi had somehow understood what the camp doctor had said and was crying bitterly. I sent him back to the block […]. [Later] I went to see Luigi, comforted him, and once more impressed upon him that he must not move from his bed and above all not let himself be seen by any SS man. But I had little hope of saving him. […]

After waiting for two months, I bribed the Kapo of the political department and finally managed to smuggle Luigi into a newly arrived transport and get him tattooed. He was now an official prisoner of the camp and could move around the camp completely freely.

Source: Auschwitz memorial, Archive, Proces Höss, Hd. 6, Bl. 280–3

Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes