03 / 04 / 2018Marina Amaral

Faces of Auschwitz | Janina Nowak

In 2016, I colorized Czesława Kwoka’s photo and posted it on social media. She was just 14 when she was murdered behind the walls of Auschwitz concentration camp on 12 March, 1943. Her photo is haunting. Staring straight into the camera, her eyes tell a story of fear and horrors that few of us, in modern times, can understand or relate to. The expression on her face has never left me since the first time I saw her.

However, Czesława was not the only one to be murdered by Auschwitz’s butchers. 1.3 million others were brutalized, starved and killed within the camp’s walls. Monsterous hatred was leveled against them for nothing more than their being who they were: Jews, Poles, Sini & Roma or Soviet POWs; Christians, Protestants, Orthodox or Jehovah Witnesses; disabled people or homosexuals. We must remember them for who they were.

FACES OF AUSCHWITZ aims to recover these stories and present them to the world through a modern perspective, so that current and future generations will be able to look back at those we lost, understand the roots of hate and ensure that the atrocities of the past will never happen again. This project is supported by the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum.

JANINA NOWAK was a Polish woman born on August 19, 1917, in Będów near Łódź. She was deported to the German Nazi Auschwitz camp on June 12, 1942 and received the prisoner number 7615 during registration. Janina was the first female prisoner who escaped from Auschwitz.

On June 24, 1942 Janina escaped from a work party, known as a Kommando, consisting of 200 Polish women working near the Soła river, drying hay. After she was reported missing, the soldiers of the Nazi SS unsuccessfully attempted to chase her down. Exasperated by the loss of their prisoner, the SS led the remaining female prisoners from the Nowak’s Kommando back to the camp. The camp’s political officers interrogated the other members of the Kommando over the details of her escape. The women, for their part, provided their captors with no answers. As the camp’s officers were unable to punish Nowak for gaining her freedom, their anger was laid upon her fellows, instead. That evening, as a punishment, the women of the Nowak’s Kommando were all forced to have their hair cropped short (before this only Jewish female prisoners had their hair cut in the camp).

The following next day, the entire Kommando was re-designated a penal company and sent to one of Auschwitz’s sub-camps, called Budy, located roughly 6 km from the main camp. The accommodations at Budy consisted of a former school building, a ramshackle wooden barracks, a small kitchen and latrines, all of which were surrounded by barbed wire.  The women of the penal company were forced to toil in extremely harsh conditions cleaning nearby ponds, cutting bulrushes and digging drainage ditches–all of which was undertaken as part of a German scheme to turn Auschwitz into a centre for agricultural research.

A few days later, Nowak’s former Kommando was joined at Budy by a cadre of 200 female prisoners consisting of French Jews and Slovakian nationals. The penal company was surprised by a group of German kapos*, who brutalized their charges in the name of meeting the production targets set by their German SS camp supervisors.

After escaping Auschwitz, Janina Nowak managed to reach Łódz. She evaded the authorities until March 1943 when she was arrested. On 8 May 1943, Nowak was brought to Auschwitz once again, where she received a new prisoner number – 31529. In 1943, she was transferred to KL Ravensbrück where she was liberated at the end of April 1945.

  • Janina was one of 50 women who tried to escape from the Auschwitz camp..
    Learn more about escapes from this online lesson.
  • All together ca. 131 thousand women became prisoners of the German Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp: 82 thousand Jewish, 31 thousand Polish, 11 thousand Roma as well as Russian, Belorussian, German, French, Czech, Yugoslavian & others.

A kapo, one of many kinds of prisoner functionary (German: Funktionshäftling) was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp who was assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor. Other functionaries like block masters, room masters, clerks & others carried out different administrative tasks or supervised prisoners inside the blocks. The prisoner functionary system minimized costs by allowing camps to function with fewer SS personnel. The system was designed to turn victim against victim, as the prisoner functionaries were pitted against their fellow prisoners in order to maintain the favor of their SS overseers. If they were derelict, they could be returned to the status of ordinary prisoners and be subject to other kapos. Many prisoner functionaries were recruited from the ranks of violent criminal gangs rather than from the more numerous political, religious, and racial prisoners; such criminal convicts were known for their brutality toward other prisoners. This brutality was tolerated by the SS and was an integral part of the camp system. Prisoner functionaries were spared physical abuse and hard labor, provided they performed their duties to the satisfaction of the SS functionaries. They also had access to certain privileges, such as civilian clothes and a private room. While the Germans commonly called them kapos, the official government term for prisoner functionaries was Funktionshäftling. While at the beginning in Auschwitz most functionaries were German criminals, later SS started using members of different groups of prisoners. While many of the functionaries were indeed brutal, some tried not to harm others and only pretend violence when SS guards watched them, and in many cases political prisoners tried to take over some of the positions because they were able to use them to help other prisoners. Some functionaries were members of resistance movement. .

 Telegram dated March 12 1943 informing about Janina's arrest.
Telegram dated March 12 1943 informing about Janina’s arrest.

Contributors: Auschwitz Memorial and Museum; Seamus Bellamy;
Please do not reproduce the photos without proper attribution and context.