An image of the English-language Holocaust memorial in Birkenau camp, taken in July 2006. / Wikimedia Commons

The Holocaust raises issues of moral complexity still being debated over sixty-five years after the end of World War II. Indeed, the discussion acquires greater nuance as more information is revealed about how some people were able to survive while others perished.

Perhaps one of the most important figures that the historical record hardly recognizes and who embodied this moral complexity is Katya Singer. She can easily be seen as a “collaborator” in terms of being the Jewish “bookkeeper” for the SS in Birkenau as well as having an SS Nazi lover and special privileges. Yet Singer has been credited by many survivors with saving the lives of countless women in the camp whom she rescued from the “outside details”; finding “inside jobs” for them; and, most importantly, substituting the numbers of the living and dead, so that the SS were deceived about the numbers of women sent to the gas chambers.

On the one hand, Singer’s privileged life-style was substantiated in testimony given by several of the survivors of Birkenau including Wanda Marassanyi and Anna Palarcyk. As Marassanyi observed:

[Singer] dressed differently [than the other prisoners], in a blue coat with a black arm-band, on which was written “Rapportschreiberin.” She lived very well. They could see that she dyed her hair and she was a rather exotic personage.

This description with its implications of jealousy would not be surprising since most all of the other inmates in Birkenau were dressed in prisoners’ garb and had little opportunity to shower.

On the other hand, Singer found ways to use her privilege to help her fellow prisoners. Palarcyk credits Singer with preventing the roll-call – the notorious “Appell” – from being the exhausting ordeal that shortened the lives of many of the women. Singer organized a meticulous system of “bookkeeping” to keep track of the whereabouts of prisoners throughout the camp and at other worksites. This system enabled the SS, fearing typhus, to do their “counting” job quickly so they could leave the camp with minimum exposure to the inmates. In her memoir of another inmate closely working with Singer, Zippy Tischauer says Singer did not do this only to make her own job easier: “It was painful for [Singer] to see people standing in the roll call for hours and hours, morning and night, and Katja realized that no one expects hungry people to obey a fellow-prisoner as authority figure.”

It might seem that Singer had become too caught up in her own role as being “helpful” to the SS. But Singer didn’t just make life a little easier for the women of Birkenau within the limitations set by the Nazis: she frequently went beyond them, with considerable personal risk. Tischauer recalls that Singer sometimes chose people to work in the camp office “who would never have passed a selection and who only managed to slip through at the ramp and enter the camp by accident or an oversight of an SS-man.” Singer’s 1991 interview (published in Jewish Currents in 2011) reveals the most courageous and effective way in which she worked against the Nazi death machine, especially since she seemed to have their confidence that she was “accurate” in her tallying of the inmates. She developed a methodical way of manipulating the registration system. She said: “When there was a selection and they told me the list of numbers, I inserted ‘dead numbers’ instead of live numbers I wanted to save. If there were five hundred supposed to go to the gas, only a hundred actually went.”

Given her importance in the history of Aushwitz-Birkenau, it is surprising that little about Katya Singer has been revealed in all this time, aside from a few eyewitness accounts. There is an extensive statement by her, summarizing her years in the camp, that appears in The Death Factory: Document on Auschwitz (Kraus, 1966). Here she is identified by her Czech name, Katerina Singerova. In her statement Singer narrates the inhuman conditions she survived before she entered Birkenau but mentions nothing of her role as Rapportschreiberin; instead, she presents herself as one of the regular inmates. Given the nature of her job, her connections to the SS hierarchy, and the lifestyle she led compared to that of her fellow-prisoners, it is not surprising that Singer would not want to have her duties widely known. But, on the other hand, she also knew that her heroism in saving the lives of countless women from the gas would remain as much a secret as was her privileged position.

Singer was deported to Stutthof on September 2, 1944 for “Rassenschande” when she was denounced for having an intimate relationship with an SS officer, Gerhard Palitzsch. She was miraculously spared when, as she indicates in her interview, two of the SS-matrons she had known from Birkenau informed her: “You were lucky. Two days ago the gas chamber broke down.” Palarcyk reveals a glimpse into Katya Singer’s life after the liberation, and says that after leaving the camp she behaved “quite normally” and ran an art gallery. According to Palarcyk, Singer’s husband and family did not know about her Holocaust experiences and Singer never admitted to being Jewish.

The sense of guilt, regret, and anger that many Holocaust survivors have felt have been amply recorded by such eminent writers as Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Lawrence Langer. What is perhaps unique about the role that Katya Singer had played in saving the lives of so many women in Birkenau is that it is largely unknown. Katya Singer passed away about twenty years ago, and perhaps it will never be possible to know for certain the motivations of people like her. But I believe that the evidence is convincing enough for posterity to recognize Katya Singer not as a collaborator, but as a hero in the history of the Holocaust.

The author wishes to acknowledge the significant contributions of Ilana Abramovitch in the writing of this piece.

References:

Cernyak-Spatz, Susan. “Record-Keeping for the Nazis – and Saving Lives: A Conversation with Katya Singer, the Executive of Auschwitz.” Edited by Joel Shatzky. Jewish Currents. (Spring, 2011)

Cernyak-Spatz, Susan Protective Custody Prisoner 34042. Edited by Joel Shatzky. 2005.

Kraus, Ota and Erich Kulka. The Death Factory. Translated from the Czech by Stephen Jolly, Pergamon Press: Oxford, 1966.

Marassanyi, Wanda and Anna Palarcyk at the Panstvove Muzeum, Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Tischauer, Helen. The Women’s Camp: Auschwitz-Birkenau: Method Within the Madness.


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