Tag Archives: Auschwitz

Auschwitz III

This is the last of 3 related postings regarding Auschwitz.  The first post is available here and the second here.

The last selection took place on October 30, 1944. In September Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, ordered the crematoria destroyed before the advancing Soviet Army reached the camp. The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide their crimes.

Large rectangular concrete bunker in the ground with roof collapsed

Gas Chamber with Collapsed Roof

The SS command sent orders on January 17, 1945 calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the order was never carried out. They did try to evacuate the camp though.  Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in Wodzisław Śląski, over 60 kilometers away.  Many never made it.  On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.

Twisted concrete and metal amid a field of debris

Remains of a Crematorium blown up by the Nazis

On November 24, 1947, the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in Krakow began the trial of only 41 of the over 6,000 Nazis who worked at Auschwitz.  It took less than a month.  23 death sentences were issued, as well as 16 imprisonments.  Commandant Höss was found hiding among the German civilian population.  He was tried, found guilty of numerous war crimes, and then hung on a gallows specifically erected for this purpose, in a place just between the home he shared with his wife and children and the first gas chamber at Auschwitz I.

Simple wooden gallows with 4 steps on grass with green trees in background

Gallows built to execute Commandant Rudolf Höss

Visiting the Memorial

In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II.  It receives about 1.3 Million visitors annually.  Why do they come?  Why did I come?  I had already been to see 2 other concentration camps in Germany, Dachau and Buchenwald.

Visitors to Auschwitz I are required to go on a guided tour.  It includes the grounds, several of the barracks (including Block 11), and the first gas chamber and crematorium.  Particularly shocking are the exhibitions showing the confiscated belongings of inmates found by the Soviet liberators.  These include hundreds of eye glasses in a tangled pile, thousands of pairs of shoes, a room full of prosthetic limbs, a huge pile of suitcases (many with the names of their owners written on the sides), a 30 meter (98 ft.) long room filled with 2 tonnes of human hair, and nearby a display of the products made from this hair.

Pile of old leather suitcases (brown and black) with names written on the side in white paint

Suitcases of some of those who died

Some of the prosthetic limbs were from German Jews, veterans of World War I who fought for their country, only to be killed by the Nazis 25 years later. We also saw baby clothes and dolls of some children murdered here.  These items really brought home the humanity of the victims.  They were not just statistics, but real people just like us, who had children to be consoled, who wore shoes and who needed glasses.

While visiting we observed several other groups that were obviously Jewish.  We saw a group of Israeli military with the Star of David on their uniforms and a group of young men in black dress pants and white shirts wearing yamikas who were accompanied by a rabbi.  I wondered how many Jewish people are drawn to this place, to see what happened here.  How surreal must this be for them.  Notably, the signs at Birkenau II are in Polish, English, and in Hebrew.

There were many more visitors here than when we went to Dachau or Buchenwald, partly because it was a week with 2 national holidays, a week when many Poles take time off work.  When we arrived, there were touts trying to direct cars and buses to their private parking areas.  The staging area where people purchased tickets and waited for their guides was crowded and loud, too busy to encourage self-reflection at the start of the tour.  After this point, all visitors to Auschwitz I wear headsets to hear their guides’ voices transmitted wirelessly.  The barracks were similarly crowded with visitors, and the logistics of keeping our group together and on pace was distracting.  The whole thing had a feeling of mass-production.  For me, I could begin to reflect upon things only when we reached the quieter, open spaces of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Many visitors passing through gate with words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work will make you free) above

Many visitors enter the gates of Auschwitz I.

The guide’s narrative was fast-paced and direct.  He did not pull any punches, rely on subtle differentiations, or utilize any euphemisms.  This surprised me because there were some young children in our group.  I wondered how many of them really understood what he was talking about.

Why did I visit another camp?  Perhaps because Auschwitz was different.  It was an extermination camp, the largest and the most infamous.  Why did I want to visit it?  Certainly not because my wife wanted to.  She went only at my request.  Perhaps it’s because I still can’t get my head around it.  I understand something of Nazi doctrine and how many Germans were seduced by it.  Hitler told them they were special, that he could fix their problems quickly, and he offered them someone else to blame.  I’ve studied the research that demonstrates that ordinary people can and will do terrible things to one another with the slightest institutional inducement.  The German people were not evil nor special in this regard.  Most of them didn’t know what was happening in the extermination camps.  The whole thing just seems so surreal to me.  The huge numbers of people killed make it hard to conceptualize.  The horrific acts almost impossible to imagine.

Today the confines of Auschwitz II-Birkenau are green and grassy.  It is surrounded by birch trees. When we visited, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and there was a warm breeze.  This made it difficult to visualize what happened here.  Of course, when the camp was operational, there was no grass, only mud, due to the large numbers of prisoners occupying the space.

Grassy area surrounded by a fence with a guard tower and trees beyond.

Today the fence and guard tower overlook grass and trees at Birkenau.

For all these reasons, I found my trip to Auschwitz to be less emotional than my previous visits to other concentration camp sites in Germany.   Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism to allow the contemplation of such atrocities?

Auschwitz is a place where murder took place on an industrial scale with the goal of eliminating an entire race of people.  The scariest and saddest thing is that, albeit with cruder methods, similar things have happened since in other places (e.g. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan).  Will we ever evolve to the point where such atrocities don’t happen?

This is the last of 3 related postings about Auschwitz. The first post is available here and the second here.

Auschwitz II–Birkenau

This is the 2nd of 3 related postings regarding Auschwitz.  The first post is available here.

As many as 1 million Jews had already been murdered by the Nazis when they made the decision, in January 1942, to systematically kill all the Jews of Europe.  This was described by Hitler as the “Final solution to the Jewish Question”.  The initial extermination method of shooting people in burial pits was logistically inefficient and psychologically difficult, so in late 1941, the Nazis began establishing camps specifically intended for mass murder using gas chambers.  These camps had as their primary function genocide, the systematic killing of the people delivered there, although some also functioned as forced labour camps.

Extermination camps were built where most of the intended victims lived and Poland had the greatest concentration of Jews in Europe.  In the early years of the Holocaust, Jews were often sent to concentration camps with other prisoners, but from 1942 onward they were primarily sent to extermination camps.  The 6 main extermination camps, all located in Poland, were:  Auschwitz IIBirkenau, Chelmno, Bełżec, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

Construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau began in October 1941 to ease congestion at Auschwitz I.  It was designed as a labour camp to hold several categories of prisoners including women, and also to function as an extermination camp.  It was larger than Auschwitz I and many more people passed through its gates.

Low angle image of train tracks leading up to Birkenau Gate

Train tracks leading to Auschwitz II-Birkenau Gate

Despite the terrible living conditions in Auschwitz I, it was far superior to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  At Auschwitz I the barracks were made of brick but at Birkenau, most of the barracks were pre-fabricated wooden buildings designed to be used as horse stables.  As a result of their flimsy construction they have since disintegrated, but some have been re-built to allow visitors to see what they did look like.  The barracks were for the most part unheated and lacked any insulation, so they were freezing cold in winter.  In the summer they were hot and humid, with the terrible smell of having so many sick people crowded together.  People slept 5 or more to a bed on 3 levels.  Those on the lowest level slept on the concrete floor.

Two wooden bunks each with 3 levels with concrete floor and brick walls

Bunks in a Birkenau Barrack

Women had a particularly bad life in Birkenau.  They suffered greatly from being separated from their children and family.  Additionally, they didn’t have many of the skills that the men did to maintain their barracks, so their living conditions were even more wretched.

Initially small gas chambers were located in the woods at Birkenau to avoid detection.  They were created by sealing up existing buildings.  The bodies were buried in pits but had to be exhumed and cremated later when the ground started to collapse.  In 1943 four large gas chambers and crematoria were constructed at Birkenau to make the killing more efficient.  The majority of the victims of Auschwitz were murdered after this time. The facility had the capacity to kill up to 20,000 people each day.

Single wooden rail car sitting on tracks

Cattle car of the type used to deliver people to Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Prisoners arrived by train crammed into unheated cattle cars.  Many died during transport.  By July 1942, the SS were conducting ‘selections’ where doctors divided Jews into those deemed fit for work, who were sent to the right and admitted into the camp, and those who were sent to the left to be immediately gassed.  The group selected to die, about three-quarters of the total, included almost all children, women with children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection not to be completely fit.

There was no registration of those who were selected for death.  Men, women, and children were immediately marched a couple of hundred meters along the railway tracks, right past the camp ‘hospital’.  They were stripped of all their belongings and their clothes, and herded in to the gas chambers.  Diane and I walked the same route as those selected to die.

People who were sent to the camps didn’t know what to expect.  They were told that they were being re-located there.  They brought what luggage they could to prepare for their stay.  In some cases, they were even excited about the prospect of meeting a friend or relative who had been sent there previously.  For nefarious reasons, this ruse was maintained right up until the last moments.  New arrivals were told they were going to be given showers and deloused.  The gas chambers were equipped with fake shower heads to mislead them so they would stay calm as they entered.  The guards delivered speeches about what they should do after their shower was completed.  They were also reassured by the fact that they saw many barrack buildings in the camp, evidence of the fact that other prisoners were living there.

“Technically [it] wasn’t so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers…. The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 head in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time. The killing was easy; you didn’t even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly.” – Rudolf Höss

What did the inmates of the camp feel as they saw the trains arriving daily, watched the Jews being marched down the tracks never to return, and smelled the burning bodies.  How could they persevere?

The extermination facilities were staffed partly by prisoners called sonderkommandos.  They prepared new arrivals for gassing (ordering them to remove their clothing and surrender their personal possessions) and transferred corpses from the gas chambers to the crematoria, having first pulled out any gold that the victims might have had in their teeth.  Commandant Höss reported being impressed by the diligence of the Sonderkommandos, despite their being “well aware that . . . they, too, would meet exactly the same fate” because members of the sonderkommandos were also killed periodically.   Höss further reported that the men occasionally encountered the corpse of a relative, but, although they “were obviously affected by this . . . it never led to any incident”.  He mentioned the case of a Sonderkommando who encountered the corpse of his wife, yet behaved “as though nothing had happened”.  What fear and torment must these men have endured to suppress all emotion in order to conduct these tasks?

In 1943 and 1944 the Allies received reports from prisoners who had escaped Auschwitz, which at first were dismissed as exaggerations.  Although the reports were detailed, it was hard for anyone to believe that industrialized killing on such a mass scale was taking place. 

The gas chambers worked to their fullest capacity from April to July 1944 during the massacre of Hungary’s Jews.   Hungary was an ally of Germany for most of World War II, but it had resisted turning over its Jews to the Germans, until Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944. From April until July 1944, 475,000 Hungarian Jews, half of Hungary’s pre-war population, were deported to Auschwitz, a rate of 6,000 – 12,000 a day.  The incoming volume was so great that the SS resorted to burning corpses in open-air pits as well as in the crematoria.   Burning in pits took as long as 24 hours.

Black and white image of many Hungarian Jews by rail lines with Nazi guards

Selection of Hungarian Jews at Birkenau (Source: Wikipedia)

It is estimated that 1.3 Million people died at Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945 including 1.1 Million Jews, 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Roma (‘gypsies’), 15,000 Soviet POWs, 34,000 prisoners transferred from other camps, and 25,000 other people.  The ashes of the victims of Birkenau were scattered on the grounds and between the barracks, so the entire area is considered a burial site, the largest in the world.  The ground upon which thousands of visitors walk is composed of the remains of the victims.

To be continued. This is the 2nd of 3 related postings about Auschwitz. The first post is available here.  The last post will focus on my experience visiting the memorial.


This is the first of 3 related postings about Auschwitz.  The second post focuses on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and the last post on my experience visiting the memorial.

Auschwitz was established as a concentration camp, a place where criminals, political prisoners, academics, dissidents, prisoners of war, Jews, Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, and other people considered dangerous or undesirable by the Nazis were held and forced to work as slave labourers.  In its first year (1940-1941) it was converted from a Polish military camp and grew to hold over 10,000 inmates, the large majority of whom were Polish.  Over the years 1940-1945 Auschwitz expanded to become the largest German concentration & extermination camp.  It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original labour camp and administrative center for the whole complex),  Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a labour & extermination camp),  Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labour camp), and 45 satellite labour camps.

The site for Auschwitz was chosen because it was near an industrial area where slave labourers were needed to help the war effort.  It was also at the center of the rail network, allowing easy transport of goods and people across Europe. Additionally, it was a large area and relatively isolated from nearby towns.  The Nazis were concerned about the opinion of German citizens and some Western nations (e.g. Western Europe, America) and endeavored to keep secret what was really happening in their concentration camps.  Initially the Red Cross was allowed to visit the camps, and so some had hospitals and even schools, though they were primarily for show.  This is also why they located their 6 main extermination camps in Poland, where they were less visible to observers from the West.

Auschwitz I

Prisoners who would be staying in the camp were stripped of everything.  They surrendered all their personal property including their clothes.  Children with blond hair and blue eyes were separated from their parents, to be sent elsewhere for education.  Men and women were completely shaved and their hair sold to make wigs, blankets, and other items.  In the early days of the camp prisoners were photographed for identification, but this was later deemed to be too expensive and not particularly useful (prisoners lost so much weight that they soon didn’t resemble their pictures anyway) and so it was abandoned.  Today the hallways of the prisoner barracks are filled with thousands of these photos, row upon row of those who died here.

Black and white images of Auschwitz prisoners

Auschwitz Prisoner Photos

Prisoners also lost their identities.  All of their personal documents were destroyed.  Instead of names they were assigned numbers, one of many techniques used by the guards to dehumanize them, making them easier to abuse and ultimately to kill.  Initially names were sewn on to prisoner uniforms, but this was an added effort, so they switched to tattooing numbers directly on to the prisoners’ bodies.

Inmates wore striped pyjamas and wooden clogs without socks.  The footwear was often ill fitting leading to foot problems and pain that made it difficult to walk.  These were the only clothes they wore in all seasons, even while working outside in winter.  They worked and slept in a single garment that was not changed.  Like in other concentration camps, prisoner uniforms had patches that distinguished their group (criminal, Jew, homosexual, Roma, etc.)

Sign showing the symbols used to categorize prisoners on their clothing

Badges used to categorize prisoners on their clothing

The prisoner barracks, preserved to this day, are made of brick.  They were only used for sleeping as prisoners worked all day.  Although they had heaters, insufficient fuel was provided to warm the buildings in winter.  Initially the camp had no toilet facilities, and prisoners had to go outside.  They were only given 2 opportunities per day to do so.

Brick barrack in the sunshine

Auschwitz I Barrack

All inmates had to work in the nearby arms factories.  Those who couldn’t work were murdered.  Prisoners worked 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  Most worked outside of the camp and had to walk to work.  To maintain illusions, a band played each morning as they marched out of the camp and when they returned each evening.  Every evening the prisoners were counted, so those who died during the day had to be carried back by their fellow prisoners for roll call.  Auschwitz’s 45 satellite camps were established to allow prisoners to sleep closer to their work, thereby losing less productive time having to walk to and from each day.  The harsh work requirements, combined with poor nutrition and hygiene, led to high death rates.

Black and white drawing by former inmate of prisoners leaving gate to walk to work

Drawing by former inmate of prisoners leaving gate to walk to work

The warehouses where prisoners sorted through the belongings confiscated from incoming prisoners and the dead were known as Canada.  At this time Canada was regarded as a paradise by Poles; it had a reputation as a land of plenty and was a desirable location for Europeans to emigrate to.  Working in ‘Canada’ was one of the best jobs to have in the camp.  The work was indoors.  Sometimes food could be found in people’s belongings.  Occasionally the workers smuggled out valuables which they could trade to the Nazi guards in exchange for favours.

Auschwitz was run in a very orderly and efficient manner, supervised by the SS (Schutzstaffel meaning ‘protection squadron’).  German doctors, dentists, engineers, and other educated people helped to design and to operate the camp.  The day-to-day enforcement of rules and the maintenance of order was handled by kapos, prisoners selected by the SS to be in charge of their assigned groups.  Initially, they were recruited only from the criminal population at Auschwitz.  In return, they were given special privileges, which increased their chances of surviving.  Our guide told us repeatedly that we should not judge these people too harshly, as they were only trying to stay alive.

Prisoners were fed 3 meals a day but the food was so limited and of such poor quality that starvation was the biggest killer in the camp.  We saw a picture of an adult woman who was liberated from the camp and who weighed only 25 kilograms (55 pounds) after 4 months in hospital.  Another major factor was exposure.  Working inside greatly increased one’s chance of survival.  In summer, those who worked outside might live a few months – in winter, a few weeks.

Very thin woman, naked on hospital bed

Auschwitz survivor after 4 months in hospital

Many prisoners were tortured, starved, and executed in Auschwitz I.  Barrack Block 11 was reserved for this purpose.  Although the guards tried to keep these atrocities quiet, there are no secrets in a small ‘town’, and word got around quickly. On September 3, 1941, the deputy camp commandant experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in the basement of Barrack Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a deadly cyanide-based pesticide.  Following this successful test, a small gas chamber and crematorium was established in 1941 by converting an existing bunker.  It operated for 1 year and was used to kill 60,000 people before the larger gas chambers were built at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  We walked through this gas chamber.  Diane was initially reluctant to enter but decided that it was more important to see what was inside.

The Guards

The first Commandant of Auschwitz between 1940 and 1943 was Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess who was Adolf Hitler’s Deputy).  Höss lived at Auschwitz I in a villa with his wife and 5 children, about 100 meters from the first gas chamber built there.  He claimed that he kept the real purpose of the camp a secret from outsiders for 3 years and did not tell anyone until he shared it with his wife in 1942.

Black and white image of Rudolf Hoss during his trial with armed guard behind

Commandant Rudolf Höss       (source Wikipedia)

Most of the guards who worked at Auschwitz preferred it to other more dangerous wartime assignments. According to Höss’s diary, after the war many of those involved directly in the killing went mad or committed suicide.

Josef Mengele was among the German doctors at the camp who performed human experiments on prisoners.  He was known as ‘The Angel of Death’ for the cruel things he did, particularly to identical twins.  Bayer and other pharmaceutical companies also bought prisoners to use as guinea pigs for testing new drugs.

Black and white head shot of Joseph Mengele in a suit and tie

Dr. Joseph Mengele       (Source: Wikipedia)

To be continued.  This is the first of 3 related postings about Auschwitz.  The second post focuses on Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and the last post on my experience visiting the memorial.