Researcher: John Drobnicki
Excerpts from “Professor Spanner,” by Zofia Nalkowska. In Medaliony, by Zofia Nalkowska (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1946). Reprinted (and translated into English by Jadwiga Zwolska) in Introduction to Modern Polish Literature, ed. Adam Gillon and Ludwik Krzyzanowski (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964), pp. 130-136.
That morning we were there for the second time. It was a bright, fresh May day…. We already knew what we were about to see.
This time we were accompanied by two elderly gentlemen. They had come as Spanner’s “colleagues”; they were both professors, both doctors and scientists….
The modest little unplastered brick building stood in a corner of the courtyard a little to the side, as an unimportant annex of the large building which housed the Anatomical Institute.
We first walked down to a dark roomy basement. In the oblique light which fell from the distant, high-placed windows the dead lay the same as yesterday. Their creamy-white, naked young bodies, resembling hard sculptures, were in a perfect condition, although they had been waiting many months for the time they would no longer be needed.
We passed one corpse-filled tub after another, and both the foreigners walked and looked, too. They were doctors and knew better than we what it all meant. Fourteen corpses would have sufficed for the needs of the Anatomical Institute. Here, there were three hundred fifty of them.
With the two professors we later passed to the little red house and saw there on the now cold fireplace a huge vat full of a dark liquid. Someone familiar with the premises lifted the cover with a poker and drew to the surface a dripping human torso, cooked to the bone.
There was nothing in two other vats, but close by, in a row on the shelves of a vitrine, lay skulls and thigh bones, boiled clean.
We also saw a large chest with layer upon layer of finely prepared human skin, cleaned of the fat. Jars of caustic soda stood on the shelf, a cauldron containing mordant was set into the wall; and there was a big oven for burning the scraps and bone.
Finally, on a tall table lay pieces of whitish, gritty soap and several metal molds containing the dried soap.
The thin, sallow-faced young man with clear blue eyes who is testifying before the Commission was brought from the prison for the investigation. He has no idea what we want from him.
He speaks deliberately, gravely and sadly. He does speak Polish, though with a foreign accent, slightly rolling his r’s.
He says that he is a native of Gdan’sk. He had attended primary school, then completed six grades of secondary school. He was a volunteer and a scout. During the war he was taken prisoner, but escaped. He worked at shoveling snow in the streets and then in a munitions factory. He ran away again. All this, more or less, took place in Gda’nsk.
When his father was taken to a concentration camp a German came to lodge at his mother’s. This German gave him work in the Anatomical Institute. And that is how he came to Professor Spanner.
This side wing was finished in 1943 for an Incinerator Plant. At that time Spanner made arrangements to obtain a machine for separating the meat and fat from the bone. Skeletons were to be made from these bones. In 1944, Professor Spanner ordered the students to store the fat from the dead separately. Every evening when the courses were over and the students had departed, the plates of fat were taken away by workers. There were also plates with sinews and meat. Well, they either threw the meat away or burned it. But the people in town complained to the police, so the professor ordered it burned at night because the stench was too great.
The students were also told to remove the skin neatly, next, the fat neatly, then–according to the book of instructions– the sinews down to the bone. The fat removed by the workers from the plates remained lying all winter and then, when the students left, it was converted within five or six days into soap.
Professor Spanner and Senior Assitant von Bergen also collected human skin. They were going to dress it and make something of it.
“The senior assistant, von Bergen, he was my direct superior. Dr. Wohlmann was Professor Spanner’s deputy. Professor Spanner was a civilian, but he was registered with the SS as a doctor.” The prisoner does not know where Dr. Spanner may now be. “Spanner went away in January 1945. When he left he told us to work on the fat collected during the semester; he ordered us to make the soap and the anatomy properly, and to keep everything tidy so it looked _human_. He did not tell us to remove the recipe, perhaps he forgot. He said he would return, but didn’t. When he left, his mail was sent to the Institute of Anatomy at Halle an der Saale. “
“What was this recipe? “
“The recipe hung on the wall. The woman assistant, who was from the countryside, brought a recipe for soap and copied it for us. Her name was Koitek…. “
“The soap from the recipe was always a success. Just once did it fail to come out right. The last lot, lying on the table in the Incinerator, it’s no good.
“The soap was made in the Incinerator. Dr. Spanner himself directed the production with the assistance of von Bergen, the one who used to go for the corpses. Did I ever go with him? Yes, I did, I went only twice. And also once to the prison in Gda’nsk.
“The corpses were at first brought from the lunatic asylum, but later these bodies were not enough. Then Spanner wrote to all the town mayors not to bury the dead, that the Institute would send for them. They were brought from the camp at Stutthof, those condemned to death at Koenigsberg, from Elblag, from all of Pomerania. Not until a guillotine had been set up in the Gda’nsk prison were there enough corpses….
“They were mostly Polish corpses, but at one time there were also German military men, beheaded in the prison during the celebrations. And at one time four or five dead were brought and the names were Russian.
“Von Bergen always brought the corpses at night. “
“What kind of celebration was this? “
“The celebration was in the prison. The dedication of the guillotine. The chief, Spanner, and other guests were invited. The chief took von Bergen and me along….
“At one time von Bergen and Wohlmann brought a hundred corpses from that prison.
“But later Spanner wanted corpses with heads. He also did not want people who were shot; there was too much work with them; they spoiled too soon and stank…. The corpses from the lunatic asylum were with heads.
“Spanner always had a stock of bodies, because if later there weren’t enough of them he’d always have to take headless corpses.
“No one was supposed to know about the production of soap. Spanner forbade even the students to be told. But they’d look in there, and later one told another, so perhaps they all knew…. And at one time they even called for students to the Incinerator to help with the cooking. But only the chief, the senior assistant, myself and two German workers had daily access to the production. The finished soap was taken by Dr. Spanner and was at his disposal.
“The finished soap? … Well, when it is ready, it’s soft at first–well, so it has to cool. Then we had to cut it. And Spanner locked it up. There was not only the soap there, a machine also stood there. The five of us had access. And if others wanted to enter, they had to ask for the key. “
“Why was it secret? “
He ponders this a long time. He wished to reply to the best of his knowledge.
“Maybe Spanner was afraid, or something… ” he reflects intently. “To my thinking, if somebody, a civilian from the town, heard about it, maybe there’d be a rumpus…. “
Someone finally asked: “Did no one tell you that it was a crime to make soap from human fat? “
He replied with complete candor: “No one told me that. “