OBITUARIES

Jozef Paczynski dies at 95; prisoner was barber for Auschwitz commander

Jozef Paczynski, who died at 95, said he was terrified giving the Auschwitz commander a weekly haircut

Once a week for more than three years, Auschwitz prisoner Jozef Paczynski held a razor to the neck of the death camp's commandant.

Slitting his throat would have been easy. The world would have been rid of Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoess, the SS officer who in his memoir proudly described Auschwitz as "the greatest human extermination center of all times."

But Paczynski, a Pole who was barely out of his teens and had somehow been chosen as the commandant's personal barber, refrained. As he explained many times in his later years, he knew exactly how futile that flashing flick of his wrist would have been.

"I was aware of the consequences," he told a gathering in Poland in January to observe the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation. "I wasn't crazy. If I had slit his throat, half the camp's prisoners would have been immediately executed."

Paczynski, who after the war went to technical college and became a teacher of mechanical engineering, died Sunday in Krakow, the Polish city where he had lived for decades. His death was confirmed to news agencies by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. He was 95.

Hoess, who refined the chemical mixture used to gas Auschwitz prisoners, was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg. In 1947, he was hanged on a gallows erected beside the Auschwitz gas chamber.

In an affidavit he filed before his trial, he wrote that 2.5 million people, mostly Jews, were put to death at Auschwitz during his tenure. Precise numbers are a subject of conjecture, but some historians estimate the total at about 1.1 million.

Paczynski was born Jan. 29, 1920, in the Polish village of Lekawica. While serving as a Polish soldier, he was captured by the Nazis after leaving occupied Poland to rejoin his scattered army. He was among the 728 prisoners — "Boy Scouts, university students, soldiers, underground activists and a few priests," as he described them — who constituted Auschwitz's first wave.

At the camp's railway depot, a deputy commander told his new charges: "This is not a sanatorium. This is a German concentration camp and you can expect to live three months. There is only one way out of here and that's through the crematorium chimney."

Still, Paczynski and a few more of the new camp's initial prisoners managed to fare better than the legions to come.

"I ended up in the hair salon. I would clean the place, arrange cosmetics on the shelf, and be the salesperson. All for the SS!" Paczynski told Polish journalists Maciek and Agnieszka Nabrdalik in "The Irreversible," their 2013 collection of survivors' recollections.

After Paczynski's boss was arrested for providing a prostitute with perfume, another prisoner-barber gave the cold, silent Hoess his weekly haircut. It was so awful that the commandant issued orders for guards to bring that "kleine Pole" — that little Pole — to the villa he shared with his wife and their five children on the camp's outskirts.

Paczynski was unnerved.

"I work with 10 Warsaw hair stylists, fantastic professionals, and it is me who is to give Hoess a haircut? How? Good god! I was terrified!"

Shaking, he was ushered into Hoess' bathroom, carrying a sharpened razor and other haircutting tools.

When Hoess strode in a moment later, the young barber came to attention and draped a sheet over the shoulders of the SS man who extolled his contribution to "the Final Solution" and wrote poems about the beauty of Auschwitz. Paczynski proceeded to cut.

"I shaved his hair over his ears with a razor and trimmed the rest with a shaving machine. My hands trembled terribly. We never exchanged a single word. I was afraid and he was disgusted."

The weekly ritual continued for much of the next four years. Hoess never uttered a word.

After the war, Paczynski gave depositions that helped convict a number of SS officers. In his later years, he spoke widely in Poland and Germany about the horrors he had witnessed.

"I saw people going to their death and thought tomorrow, in a week, it would be me," he said in a 2006 interview with Agence France-Presse. "Why am I still alive? Hope dies last. There was hope in prayer. When no one saw any chance of escape, people prayed."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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