Barber to the SS, witness to the Holocaust
By CNN's Steve Goldberg
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OSWIECIM, Poland (CNN) -- Joszf Paczynski remembers the day in 1942 when he saw a group of fellow prisoners at Auschwitz being gassed and cremated.
He was working as a barber to SS officers, including Nazi camp commander Rudolf Hoess.
It was a job that helped save his life -- and gave him a unique vantage point on the death factory Hoess was creating at the concentration camp.
"Hoess was an expert at gassing people," Paczynski says. "The Germans were constantly searching for a way to kill as many people at a time as quickly as possible."
Paczynski worked in a building next to the crematorium, and some of his fellow prisoners worked in the clinic upstairs. One day at lunchtime, a group of prisoners was brought to the crematorium, and Paczynski went upstairs.
"I went to the attic of the building, stood on a box and lifted the roof tiles a bit, and I could see exactly what was going on," he remembers. The prisoners were herded into a small area outside the crematorium.
"The SS officers behaved in a very polite way, telling the prisoners to get undressed and to put their clothes in order, because after going out from the shower you'll get them back.
"Then everyone was pushed into the cell, the door was shut, and one SS officer went to the roof of the building and poured powder inside an opening. He had a gas mask.
"Although the walls were very thick, I could hear loud screams from there. It lasted 15 minutes, then after, complete silence. Two engines were put to work on the sidewalk at the fullest so the screams would not be heard.
"Afterwards I went downstairs but did not realize what I was doing. If anyone had seen me, I would have shared their fate."
Paczynski's testimony later helped convict some 40 SS guards of crimes against humanity.
After the war, Hoess was sentenced to death by a Polish tribunal and was hanged at a specially constructed gallows at Auschwitz in 1947.
But during the war, Paczynski -- as barber to Hoess and other SS officers -- passed up plenty of chances to kill his captors.
Paczynski, now 85, was speaking to a German audience about the Holocaust when someone at the back of the room stood up and asked, "You saw Hoess. You had a knife in your hand. Why didn't you slit his throat?"
"Yes, I could have done it," Paczynski replied. "But I realized very well what the consequences would be. All my family and half of the camp would be killed. And of course I realized if this silent son of a bitch would go, there will be another man who will take his place."
Paczynski got work as barber in part by being one of the first inmates at Auschwitz.
A captain in the Polish army in 1939, he ran away as the Germans invaded his country and headed for France, where Polish soldiers were organizing. But he was arrested crossing the Polish-Slovak border, and the Slovakians handed him to the Germans.
After enduring numerous prisons and interrogations, he was put on the first train to Auschwitz. The date was June 14, 1940. Passing through his hometown of Krakow, unaware of his destination, Paczynski and the other 727 Poles on his train learned that Germany had defeated France as well.
Paczynski was a captain in the Polish army before being sent to Auschwitz.
On arriving at Auschwitz, Paczynski was photographed and given a number, 121. It was years before the Nazis would begin tattooing those numbers on prisoners' left forearms.
"You do not realize where you are," one of the overseers told the new arrivals, Paczynski recalls. "This is not a sanitarium but a German concentration camp. You can survive here at most three months. If there are any Jews or priests among you, they can live for six weeks."
The prisoners were then herded into a basement, where the SS took their personal details. Besides names and places of birth, they were asked about family diseases and how many gold fillings they had.
"Why? Because if they killed or shot you, the first thing they did was look inside your mouth to see if they could find gold teeth. And the family would get a message saying (their relative) died of a disease in the family," Paczynski says. "This was the beginning of the camp."
Some of the first prisoners at Auschwitz were chosen for basic duties, such as helping to run the infirmary, pharmacy and barber shop for the SS guards and officers. Paczynski was made a barber's assistant, sweeping the floor and training to become a barber. After about a year, he was allowed to cut the hair of some of the less senior officers.
Outside the gas chamber, where Paczynski saw prisoners undressing
''After every selection and gassing they would come to the barbershop, after the deed, and they seemed abnormal people. I could smell the stench from them. And I could see in their faces that they were conscious of what they did, but no one said a word."
His mentor, Arno, attended to the senior officers, including Hoess -- who preferred to have his hair cut at his private villa next to the camp. But Arno, a professional criminal before Auschwitz, was caught stealing perfume from the shop and taken away. Paczynski never saw him again.
One day, an officer came and told Paczynski to get his tools and follow him.
"I was the poorest barber there. My hands started shaking. But my colleagues helped me to prepare the tools, and I went to Hoess' villa.
"Hoess' wife met me at the door. I was scared to death. She led me through the corridors and took me to the first floor, to a bathroom, where there was a chair next to the sink.
"Then Hoess entered. He was not dressed formally. He wore house clothes. I asked him to sit and he did. I put a smock on him, and he started smoking a cigar. He did not utter a word.
"I had seen how Arno would give him a haircut, so I did exactly the same thing. It was not difficult. When I was done, I said thank you, and he went away.
"This is how my adventure with the SS began. Later, every week or week and a half, an SS officer came to take me to his house.
The interior of the chamber where prisoners at Auschwitz were gassed
"In October 1943, Hoess was moved to Berlin, but his family stayed at the villa. ... Often he'd come back to Auschwitz, and I always gave him a haircut. I gave him haircuts up to the very end, 1944. He never uttered a word."
Paczynski says he is often asked what kind of man Hoess was. He tells them that if they hadn't known about his role in the Holocaust, they wouldn't have suspected a thing.
"He was a very peaceful, calm, quiet, exemplary father and husband," he says, based on his own experience and that of two fellow prisoners who worked as gardeners at Hoess' villa.
"Every morning and every evening, he would be by the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate, just watching. The orchestra would play, and he would be there like a mummy, without saying a word, just watching the prisoners going out to work, and returning, tired, carrying the corpses.
"I never saw Hoess hit anyone. He gave out commands and made sure they were observed."
Paczynski's Auschwitz experience lasted throughout the war, and only came to an end on January 19, 1945, when the Germans marched him out of the camp with the last group of prisoners as the Soviet army approached.
The building from which Paczynski witnessed prisoners being gassed
"We were guarded on both side and followed by two SS officers who never put away their guns," he says. "Not all of us were as strong as I was, and some lost their strength along the way. They would sit down under a tree and say, 'I don't care what happens next, I can't go any further.' And the SS officers would shoot them and keep going.
"Because we were the last group and were following several other groups on the march, the road was covered with corpses. Afterwards, in the literature, they called it the 'march of death.' This was the end of my Auschwitz."
Paczynski was taken to another camp, where he was freed by U.S. troops two days before Germany's surrender.
"I can say that I was lucky."
CNN's Chris Burns contributed to this report.