Most likely, you have never heard of Jozef Paczynski. There is no reason why you should have. JP was one of millions of Jews who were incarcerated in Nazi death camps during WWII. However, what set him apart from those millions of others and what makes him an interesting historical figure was that for years he served as the personal barber to Rudolf Hoss, the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Hoss, not to be confused with Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer, was reputed to be responsible for murdering 3.5 million people during his tenure at A-B, which made him the biggest mass murderer in history. [At his trial after the War, when confronted with those statistics he indignantly stated he “only” murdered 2.5 million; the remainder, he insisted, died not from his hand directly but from starvation and disease, (a distinction without a difference.)]
Hoss was born in Baden-Baden, Germany in November 1940. He served in the German Army during WWI as a teenager. He joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and the SS in 1934, where he rose to the German equivalent of Lieutenant Colonel. He was A-B’s longest tenured commandant from May 1940 to November 1943 and then again from May 1944 until early 1945. His most infamous accomplishment was the introduction of the pesticide Zyklon-B, which greatly increased the efficiency of the process of murdering prisoners.
JP was transported to A-B in June 1940 as punishment for trying to flee Poland to join the Polish Army in exile in France. He got as far as Slovakia before he was caught and was transported promptly to A-B. JP became Hoss’ barber purely by happenstance, and yet it saved his life while millions of others perished. Such were the vagaries of war and life in the camps where luck often played a decisive role in one’s survival or death. JP was assigned to work at a particular barber shop where, as it happened, SS personnel got their hair cut. One day, while working at his assigned job, Hoss showed up and for some reason, which is unclear, selected JP to come to his house to cut his hair. Years later, JP recalled that he was so terrified “My voice was shaking; my hands were shaking; and my legs were shaking.” Nevertheless, he performed well enough that Hoss insisted on using him as his regular barber. JP remained at A-B until January 1945, which made him one of the longest tenured survivors of the camp.
Like many Nazis, indeed like many bullies of all types, deep down Hoss was really a coward and revealed his true character in the end. After the War, rather than “face the music,” he tried to avoid capture by disguising himself as a gardener using the name Franz Lang. After hiding successfully for one year, he was finally turned in by his wife. Apparently, she was persuaded to cooperate after the Allies threatened to ship their son to a Russian gulag. Even when he was about to be arrested Hoss tried to deny his true identity, but the leader of the British army detail noticed his ring and demanded to inspect it. Hoss stated that he could not remove the ring from his finger as it was “stuck.” Only when the leader threatened to cut off his finger to inspect the ring did Hoss remove it. The inscription of Hoss name and that of his wife on the ring incriminated him. Supposedly, the soldiers “encouraged” him to confess his identity and his crimes by beating him with ax handles. Eventually, he was tried, convicted and hanged on April 16, 1947.
Today, an affidavit of his confession is on display at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. There is a poignant photo alongside depicting a group of Hungarian women and children walking to one of the gas chambers in A-B carrying hand luggage in sacks.
After the War JP led a quiet life in his native Poland as a mechanical engineer and an educator. Frequently, he would be asked why he didn’t just slit Hoss’ throat while cutting his hair. After all, the sharp tools were right there in his hands. Wasn’t he ever tempted? JP would say yes, he thought about it. But, he realized that although it would have provided short-term satisfaction, it would not have resulted in a lasting solution. The Nazis would have promptly killed him and taken swift and severe revenge against the rest of the camp’s prisoners. Then, Hoss would have been replaced by someone just as bad. So, he restrained himself.
JP was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland in 2001. He died this week at the ripe old age of 95. In the end, he got his “revenge” in the best way possible, by living a long and fruitful life.