Sunday, August 4, 2019

Auschwitz - Birkenau

There were an estimated 9.7 million Jews in pre-World War II Europe and 3.4 million of them, more than one-third, lived in Poland. I had no idea. Jews were ten percent of the population of Poland. The Warsaw ghetto (400,000) had more Jews than all of France (300,000); the Lodz ghetto had more Jews (160,000) than all of the Netherlands (140,000); Krakow had more Jews (70,000) than all of Italy (46,000). Any medium sized town in Poland had more Jews than all of Scandinavia. However, by the end of the war, about 3 million of the Polish Jews, 88.25% of the total, were dead, about one-half of the estimated 6 million Jews killed during the war. The carnage and impact on the Jewish communities can hardly be imagined. 

The camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau killed about 1 million Jews, one-sixth of the total, the single biggest Jewish slaughter-house. Jews from all over Europe were taken there. Of that 1 million, about 300,000 were from Poland, carried by freight trains from ghettos and transit camps like Bytom, Olkusz, Otwock, Lomza, Ciechanow, Krakow, Sosnowiec, Bedzin, Dabrowa and Lodz. Surprisingly, there were more Jewish Hungarians killed there than Polish, about 430,000. In addition there were 69,000 Jews from France; 60,000 from the Netherlands; 46,000 from Bohemia and Moravia; 55,000 from Greece; 27,000 from Slovakia; 25,000 from Belgium; and 23,000 from Germany and Austria. 

Auschwitz is about 41 miles west of Krakow. It was originally a Polish army barracks with 20 brick buildings, 6 of which were two-story. It was approved as the site for a concentration camp for political prisoners by Heinrich Himmler in April 1940. The first prisoners arrived in June 1940 and by August 1940 the first crematorium, known as Crematorium I, was operational (construction started at the end of June). The Crematorium I was not intended for mass murder, but for prisoners that were executed or died in camp. By the end of 1940 Auschwitz was surrounded by a double ring of electrified barbed wire fences and watchtowers. By March 1941 it had 10,900 prisoners. The 14 single story brick buildings had a second story added and 8 new blocks were built. By 1943, Auschwitz could hold 30,000 prisoners.  
Crematorium I at Auschwitz. 
The ovens that burned so many dead bodies. 

The two story brick buildings at Auschwitz. 
Living behind electrified barbed wire fences at Auschwitz. 

Auschwitz: the stuff of nightmares. 
Near the entrance to Birkenau.
Some time during 1941 Hitler's ideology toward the Jews changed. He determined that the Jews must be totally annihilated. Nazi victories over the Soviet Union in the summer and fall of 1941, part of Operation Barbarossa, gave Germany control over all of Poland and further east. On July 31, 1941, Hermann Goring gave written authorization to Reinhard Heydrich to prepare and submit a plan for the "Final Solution" of the Jewish question. The plan for extermination of all European Jews was formalized at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 in Berlin.

With the annihilation of the Jews in mind, construction at Birkenau, about 1.8 miles from Auschwitz, began in October 1941. Birkenau was designed as both a labor camp and an extermination camp. There were to be 174 barracks, four crematoria, and a reception building. Two temporary crematoria were built, the first was operational by March 1942, and the second by June 1942. Crematorium II (Crematorium I was at Auschwitz) was operational by March 1943 and the two temporary crematoria were shut down. By June 1943 all four of the new crematoria at Birkenau (Crematoria II, III, IV and V) were operational. 
The outside entrance to Birkenau and the railroad tracks that carried train loads of victims to it. 
At Auschwitz, gassings of prisoners using Zyklon B were first conducted in September 1941 in the basement of Block 11. There were problems, so gassings were moved to Crematorium I where more than 700 people could be killed at once. SS men would dump Zyklon B pellets through vents in the roof and the people inside were dead within 20 minutes. Jewish prisoners known as sonderkommandos, wearing gas masks, would drag the dead bodies from the chamber to be burned in the nearby incinerator. The ashes were then buried, thrown in the river, or used as fertilizer. By May 1942 three ovens had been installed in Crematorium I to help burn the additional dead. The new ovens could burn 340 bodies in 24 hours. Gassings at Crematorium 1 continued until December 1942, when they ceased, leaving the killing to the more efficient Crematoria at Birkenau where the vast majority of people were gassed, although tens of thousands of people were killed at Auschwitz.  

The greatest number of people were killed in the gas chambers from April to July 1944 when 437,000 Hungarian Jews were brought in by train, about 12,000 per day. A newly completed rail spur leading to Crematoria II and III increased the efficiency of the killings.
These railroad tracks continued inside Birkenau all the way down to Crematoria II and III.
One of the railroad cars that took Jews to the slaughter-houses. 
When inmates arrived by train there was an immediate selection process as they got off the train. Those deemed unfit for work, about 75% of the arrivals, such as children, women with small children and the elderly, were immediately sent to the gas chamber. If they were not sent immediately to the gas chamber, they were tattooed, shaved, disinfected and given a striped prison uniform. Jews wore a yellow badge, the shape of the Star of David on their uniform. At Auschwitz they left by a porch that faced a gate with a deceptive sign saying: "Arbeit macht frei" or "Work sets you free". 
The back of the sign "Arbeit macht frei"
Within Auschwitz, the blocks became known for different functions. Block 11 was where prisoners who violated camp rules were punished. It had a basement with dark cells where prisoners basically suffocated. The courtyard between block 11 and block 10 had a wall known as the "death wall" where Poles sent to death by a criminal court, not inmates at Auschwitz, were executed by shooting. 
The death wall between block 10 and 11. 
At Birkenau, each of the 174 barracks was to hold 744 inmates, making the planned capacity 125,000. Each barrack measured 116 by 36 feet, with 62 bays each of 43 square feet.  
Women's housing in barracks at Birkenau, behind an electrified barbed wire fence and a sentinel guard tower. 

Inside one of the women's barracks. Many women would be crammed into each one of those spaces, hardly able to move. 
Some Jewish prisoners, known as Sonderkommandos (special squads) helped with the work of the camps. Some removed corpses from incoming trains, guided victims to the dressing rooms and gas chambers and worked in the "Canada" barracks where the victims possessions were sorted and stored. 

Each crematorium had a dressing room, gas chamber and furnace room. SS officers told those arriving that they were going to take a shower and undergo delousing. They undressed in the dressing room, walked into the gas chamber disguised as showers, following signs in German that said "To the baths" and "To disinfection."
This is the "shower"/gassing area of Crematorium I at Auschwitz. 

Right across from Crematorium I is where the first commander of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hess, was hanged in 1947 for war crimes. 
A significant fraction of the arrivals were registered, 400,207 total (268,657 male and 131,560 female). Registration included a photo and something about them. My recollection is that the Nazis wanted a record of them in the event of an escape, so that they could identify them if caught. 
These registration photos were tough. They put a name and a face on each prisoner and to imagine that a million of them died...
Toward the end of the war as the Nazis realized they were going to lose, they tried to cover up the mass atrocities that were committed. Mass graves, from a time when the crematoria were not sufficient to burn all of the people being killed, were opened and the corpses were burned. 
I believe this is the roof to the underground gas chambers of Crematorium II. The concrete roof was covered with grass turf. It was dynamited by the SS near the end of the war. 
This is part of the oven area of Crematorium II at Birkenau, near the gas chambers, also dynamited by the SS near the end of the war. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a very good description of how the Nazis managed to kill so many Jews. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a terrible place, but one everyone should see. Although we've been to several Holocaust museums, none of them compares to the horror of the actual camp.