UP IN SMOKE
The German concentration camps employed a thousand-and-one lethal techniques to promote the "final solution": hard labor; undernourishment; disease; killings of individual prisoners by S.S. men, Kapos and others; punitive executions; suicides induced by the arduous conditions and the depression they brought on; shootings of prisoners attempting to escape; and inhuman "scientific" experiments. These methods were complemented by systematic, wholesale killings in the gas chambers.
Anyone feeling unwell and reporting sick was admitted, supposedly, to the hospital; in fact, he was consigned to the gas chambers. As "rookies", we were as yet in ignorance about what became of those taken away. Pointing to the columns of smoke visible day and night, seasoned prisoners with assigned tasks in the camp would tell us: "Those are the people who were taken 'to the other side' ." Indignantly declining to believe in such a possibility, we refused to lend credence to their words. Only with, the passage of time, as the stench of charred corpses filled the air day and night, did we begin to believe.
Camp veterans pointed out a distant farmhouse as the location where people were gassed. Once again, we refused to believe them. "After all, we are in a quarantina," we sought to reassure ourselves, "From here, we'll be sent on to a labor camp." The sole witnesses of what went on in the gas chambers and the crematoria were the inmates employed in their vicinity and those Germans engaged in wholesale extermination.
A unique and devastating eyewitness account of the death machine, with its gas chambers and crematoria, was submitted by an S.S. officer, Captain Kurt Gerstein initially to the Papal Nuncio in Berlin, then to a Swedish diplomat and, ultimately, to the Nuremberg war crimes court.
Gerstein's sister-in-law, a psychiatric patient, had been among the 60,000 mentally disturbed Germans put to death by gas at Brandenburg, as part of Hitler's euthanasia plan which closely foreshadowed the genocide that was soon to follow. Shocked by his sister-in-law's death, Gerstein resolved to expose the Nazi extermination machine. To this end, he volunteered for service in the concentration camps - "a step which called for the utmost courage," to cite Auschwitz escapee Rudolf Vrba. Having compiled a thick file of evidence, Gerstein composed a report which he submitted to the Papal Nuncio in Berlin. The office of the ecclesiastical dignitary denied Gerstein entry, on the grounds that he was wearing military uniform ...
Gerstein then approached a Swedish diplomat, who transmitted the report to Stockholm. On August 7, 1945, the Swedish embassy in London confirmed that the report was still filed in its government's archives. Sweden's anxiety to safeguard its neutrality had evidently outweighed the urgency of a public exposure of Nazi atrocities.
Gerstein himself, having fallen into Allied captivity at war's end, committed suicide in his prison cell.
This is how Captain Gerstein recorded his impressions of the extermination camp:
"S.S. Hauptsturmfuehrer Obermeyer ... showed me the installations. No dead were to be seen that "day, but the smell of the whole region, even from the main road, was pestilential.
"Next to the small station there was a large barrack marked "Cloakroom", and a door marked "Valuables". Next to that, a chamber with a hundred "barber's" chairs. Then carne a corridor 150 "meters long, in the open air and with barbed wire on both sides.
"There was a sign: "To baths and installations". Before us we saw a house, like a bathroom, with "concrete troughs to the right and left containing geraniums and other flowers. After climbing a small "staircase, we carne to three garage-like rooms on each side, four by five meters in size and 1.90 "meters high. At the back were invisible wooden doors. On the roof was a Star of David made out of "copper. At the entrance to the building was the inscription "Heckenholt Foundation". That was all I "noticed on that particular afternoon.
"Next morning, a few minutes before seven, I was informed that in ten minutes the first train would "arrive. And indeed a few minutes later the first train carne in from Lemberg (Lvov); forty-five cars, "containing 6,700 persons, 1,450 of whom were already dead on arrival. Behind the little barbed-wire "openings were children, yellow, half scared to death, women and men.
"The train stopped; 200 Ukrainians, forced to do this work, opened the doors and drove all the people "out of the coaches with leather whips. Then, through a huge loudspeaker. instructions were given "to them to undress completely and to hand over false teeth and glasses - some in the barracks, "others right in the open air. Shoes were to he tied together with a little piece of string handed to "everyone by a small Jewish boy of four years of age; all valuables and money were to be handed in "at the window marked "Valuables", without receipt.
"Then the women and girls were allowed to go to the hairdresser who cut off their hair in one or two "strokes, after which it vanished into huge potato bags, "to be used for special submarine equipment, "doormats, etc." as the S.S. Unterscharfuehrer on duty told me.
"Then the march began. To the right and left, barbed wire; behind, two dozen Ukrainians with guns. "Led by a young girl of striking beauty, they approached. With Police Captain Wirth, I stood right in "front of the death chambers. Completely naked, they marched by, men, women, girls, children, "babies, even a one-legged person, all of them naked. In one corner, a strong S.S. man told the poor "devils in a strong voice: "Nothing whatever will happen to you. All you have to do is to breathe "deeply; it strengthens the lungs. This inhalation is a necessary measure against contagious "disease; it is a very good disinfectant."
"Asked what was to become of them, he answered: "Well, of course, the men will have to work, "building streets and houses. But the women do not have to. lf they wish. they can help in the house "or the kitchen." Once more, a little hope for some of these poor people, enough to make them march "on without resistance to the death chambers. Most of them, though, knew everything, the smell had "given them a clear indication of their fate. And then they walked up the little staircase - and behold "the picture: Mothers with babies at their breasts, naked; lots of children of all ages, naked too; they "hesitate, but they enter the gas chambers, most of them without a word, pushed by the others "behind them, chased by the whips of the S.S. men.
"A Jewess of about forty years of age, with eyes like torches, calls down the blood of her children on "the heads of their murderers. Five lashes in her face, dealt by the whip of Police Captain Wirth, drive "her into the gas chamber. Many of them said their prayers, others ask: "Who will give us water "before our death?" Within the chamber, the S.S. press the people closely together; Captain Wirth has "ordered: Crowd them in, as many as possible." Naked men stand on the feet of others. 700 to 800 "crushed together in 25 square meters, in 45 cubic meters! The doors are closed!
"Meanwhile the rest of the transport, all naked, waited. Somebody said to me: "Naked in winter! "Enough to kill them!" The answer was: "Well, that's just what they are here for." At that moment I "understood why it was called the Heckenholt Foundation. Heckenholt was the man in charge of the "diesel engine, the exhaust gases of which were to kill these poor devils.
"S.S. Unterscharfuchrer Heckenholt tried to set the diesel engine going, but it would not start. "Captain Wirth came along. It was obvious that he was afraid because I was a witness of this "breakdown. Yes, indeed, I saw everything and waited. Everything was registered by my stopwatch. "50 minutes... 70 minutes ... the diesel engine did not start!
"The people waited in their gas chambers - in vain. One could hear them cry. "Just as in a "synagogue," says S. S. Sturmbahnfuehrer Professor Doctor Plannenstiel, Professor for Public "Health at the Universlty of Marburg/Lahn, holding his ear close to the door.
"Captain Wirth, furious, dealt the Ukrainian who was helping Heckenholt eleven or twelve lashes in "the face with his whip. After two hours and forty-nine minutes - as registered by my stopwatch - the "diesel engine started. Up to that moment, the people in the four chambers already filled were still "alive - four times seven hundred and fifty persons in four times forty-five cubic meters! Another "twenty-five minutes went by. Many of the people, it is true, were dead by that time. One could see "that through the little window as the electric lamp revealed for a moment the inside of the chamber. "After twenty-eight minutes, only a few were alive. After thirty-two minutes, all were dead.
"From the other side, Jewish workers opened the wooden doors. In return for their terrible job, they "had been promised their freedom and a small percentage of the valuables and the money found. The "dead were still standing like stone statues, there having been no room for them to fall or bend over. "Though dead, the families could still be recognized, their hands still clasped.
"It was difficult to separate them in order to clear the chamber for the next load. The bodies were "thrown out blue, wet with sweat and urine, the legs covered with excrement and menstrual blood. "Everywhere among the others were the bodies of babies and children.
"But there is no time! - two dozen workers were busy checking the mouths, opening them with iron "hooks "Gold on the left, no gold on the right!" Others checked anus and genitals to look for money, "diamonds, gold, etc. Dentists with chisels tore out gold teeth, bridges or caps. In the center of "everything was Captain Wirth. He was on familiar ground here. He handed me a large tin full of teeth "and said: "Estimate for yourself the weight of gold! This is only from yesterday and the day before! "And you would not believe what we find here every day! Dollars, diamonds, gold! But look for "yourself!"
"Then he led me to a jeweler who was in charge of all these valuables. After that, they took me to one "of the managers of the big stores, Kaufhaus des Westens, in Berlin, and to a little man whom they "made play the violin. Both were chiefs of the Jewish worker units. "He is a captain of the Royal and "Imperial Austrian Army, and has the German Iron Cross, First Class," I was told by "Hauptsturmbannfuehrer Obermeyer.
"The bodies were then thrown into large ditches about 100 by 20 by 12 meters located near the gas "chambers. After a few days the bodies would swell up and the whole contents of the ditch would "rise two to three meters high because of the gases which developed inside the bodies. After a few "more days the swelling would stop and the bodies would collapse. The next day the ditches were "filled again, and covered with ten centimeters of sand. A little later, I heard, they constructed grills "out of rails and burned the bodies on them with diesel oil and gasoline in order to make them "disappear.
"Nobody bothered to take anything approaching an exact count of the persons killed. Actually, not "only Jews, but many Poles and Czechs, who, in the opinion of the Nazis, were of bad stock, were "killed. Most of them died anonymously. Commissions of so-called doctors, who were actually "nothing but young S.S. men in white coats, rode in limousines through the towns and villages of "Poland and Czechoslovakia to select the old, tubercular and sick and have them done away with "shortly afterwards in the death chambers. They were the Poles and Czechs of the third category, " who did not deserve to live because they were unable to work.
This testimony depicts the annihilation machine in its cruder phase. Having commenced with mass executions by shooting, a method they found inefficient, the Germans set about developing the gas chamber crematoria complex. "Zyklon B", chosen as the most effective poison gas, was shipped to Auschwitz from Hamburg, one of the centers of Germany's chemical industry. The innovative sophistication of their gas chambers gave the Germans a capacity for killing thousands at a time. Electric elevators hoisted the corpse from the gas chambers to the crematorium. Here, gold teeth were extracted, and hair shorn from the bodies of women and children, whereupon the corpses were loaded onto trolleys - two adults and one child on each. Prisoners of the Sonderkommando would push the loaded trolley to the crematoria, where the corpses were swiftly reduce to ashes. The ash was buried in pits - until August 1944 when the Red Army's counter-offensive rapidly pushed the front line closer to the "death factory". The Germans aware of having perpetrated a terrible crime against humanity, hastened to cover their tracks; they reopened the pits, and, after grinding the bone residue to a fin powder, loaded the ash on trucks, to be dumped into the river Vistula.
Most of the work in processing the corpses of those killed was carried out by Jewish prisoners enrolled willy-nilly into the Sonderkommando. In the summer of 1944, they were reinforced by 19 Soviet war prisoners.
Sonderkommando personnel were given better food and clothing, to keep them fit for their arduous task. Nevertheless, no one took on the assignment voluntarily. First, because the work was atrocious - far worse than any other job available in the camp; second, because it was common knowledge that those employed in the Sonderkommando were not long-lived. After keeping them in isolation from the other prisoners, the Germans, anxious to forestall leaks about what went on in the gas chambers and crematoria, would ultimately procure their eternal silence by killing them and swiftly enlisting replacements.
One day, the camp commandant arrived to pick out some 300 of the more feeble-looking of the Sonderkommando personnel. "We are going to transfer you to lighter work," he assured them. But they grasped the true intention: when the Germans carne to take away the first hundred-man group, a revolt broke out, and no. 3 crematorium was set ablaze. Seeing the flames and hearing the shouts, the crew of no. 1 crematorium - some 150 men, including the 19 Soviet war prisoners - likewise mutinied. They attacked the S.S. guards and disarmed them, hurling the German officer into the crematorium. They disconnected the power-line of the electric fence separating them from the neighboring women's camp, and began fleeing with their weapons. The mutineers were headed by KAMINSKY from Poland, and JOSEF BARUCH from Greece.
They didn't have a chance. S.S. men from the neighboring camps rushed after them in pursuit. In the exchange of fire, about ten of the S. S. were killed, as were all of the 300 prisoners employed at no. 3 crematorium. The 19 Soviet war prisoners likewise fell in the unequal engagement.
The systematic, wholesale nature of the extermination process was known only to the Germans engaged therein, and to the prisoners likewise required to lend a hand - the Auschwitz Sonderkommando. Initially numbering no more than ten men, the Sonderkommando's task was to burn the corpses of prisoners who had died or been executed. At the time, the camp crematorium comprised only two ovens.
PHILIP MILLER, an Auschwitz survivor who published his memoirs in Germany long after the war, was brought to Auschwitz in May 1942, and assigned to the Sonderkommando. One day, he was cleaning up the room of the S.S. man in charge of operating the crematorium when a messenger delivered a telegram; the S.S. man read it and promptly left the room. Hastening to the table, Miller read the telegram. It said: "Report immediately on state of corpses. All burnt? Prepare for large-scale action tonight. "
Miller grasped instantly that the reference was to the mass annihilation of thousands of Czech Jews shipped to Auschwltz from Theresienstadt. They had been permitted to bring their belongings and, on arriving at the camp, were allowed to establish schools and arrange their affairs with a considerable measure of autonomy. The Germans encouraged them to write to relatives and friends, to tell them all was well. Everything possible was done to instill the prisoners with a sense of security, so as to facilitate their ultimate annihilation with the utmost swiftness and ease.
Any prisoner disclosing the secrets of the extermination process was summarily sentenced to death and executed. Risking his neck, Miller nevertheless confided the secret to one of the leaders of the Czech group.
Miller ran the risk in vain. "Don't sow panic!" the Czech Jew rebuked him. Refusing like all the rest to believe the truth, he consequently failed to transmit Miller's revelation to the members of his community. In this unwitting manner, he ultimately aided the Germans in leading his people to the gas chambers, and was himself executed the following day.
With a view to facilitating the annihilation process as far as possible, the Germans endeavored to reassure incoming transports right up to the very last moment before they were herded into the gas chambers. Among the inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were several thousand Jews of foreign nationality: Palestinian, Argentinean, Mexican and others. Prominent among them were two thousand Jews with United States passports, most of them hailing originally from Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, etc. The Bergen-Belsen "Americans" enjoyed favorable treatment, and the Germans promised they would be transferred to neutral Switzerland. One day in October 1943, the "Americans" were ordered to pack all their belongings and board a train. In place of the usual freight wagons, the train contained passenger cars, and was guarded by a small unit of S.S. men - a fitting escort for a train to freedom.
Instead of crossing the border into Switzerland, however, the transport was brought to Auschwitz. When the train halted in the camp, the passengers were ordered to dismount without their belongings, and form up in lines of five. Since no selection was performed, the members of the camp labor squads deduced that the "Americans" were being dispatched directly to the gas chambers. They were indeed driven the one mile from the station and lined up opposite no. 1 crematorium. Here they were surrounded by numerous armed S.S. men reinforced by dogs, and ordered into the building.
"Undress!" the command boomed out. Broken sobs and cries were heard but, in their terror, many of them began taking off their clothes. Suddenly, a woman's voice rang out, clear and defiant: "Jews! Brothers and sisters! Don't undress! lf we are fitted to die - let us die like human beings!" It was the voice of the Lodz actress-dancer REGINA ZUCKER. Electrified by her appeal, her colleagues stopped taking off their clothing, and many who had stripped off some of their clothes began putting them back on.
Never having encountered such defiance hitherto, the S.S. men hastily summoned Rapportfuchrer Schilinger, who was notorious throughout Auschwitz for his ferocity, and for devising "sporting" exercises in whose performance numerous prisoners died. Schilinger appeared, flushed with anger, a pistol in his grip. He marched up to REGINA ZUCKER, who was evidently the leader of the mutiny. Proud and erect, REGINA faced up to him. Intending to rip off her clothes, he stretched out a hand to the décolletage of her dress, whereupon Regina snatched the pistol, shooting him and his deputy before turning the gun on herself. Schilinger was killed instantly, and his deputy was severely injured. Regina suffered mortal wounds and restored her soul to its Maker with the Nazi's gun in her hand.
Other prisoners told me that, after the transport had been put to death in the gas chamber, the men of the Sonderkommando rummaged through the corpses until they found REGINA ZUCKER's body. They gave her the ritual cleansing required by Jewish law, and wrapped her in a white sheet; in choked tones, one of the men chanted the "Kaddish". Her photograph, discovered in her valise, was passed from hand to hand like a sacred relic.
At the time, most prisoners were still in ignorance of the horrendous secret of the extermination; accordingly, we lived in eternal hope that, if we managed to survive another day, tomorrow might be better.