The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house and rail entrance.

The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house and rail entrance.

The killing centres in the East were working their way through the Jewish population of Poland. Try as they might only a minority of Jews in Warsaw would ultimately avoid this fate.

Further west, Auschwitz, was dealing with victims from the occupied countries of the west and Germany itself. Auschwitz functioned as both a concentration camp and a killing centre. There was usually a ‘selection’ on the ‘ramp’ as soon as the trains arrived, the more able bodied would become prisoners who could be worked to death in the concentration camp side of the facilities. The old, the infirm and the children would go straight to the gas chambers.

Rudolf Vrba was amongst those selected to live and he was doing his best to remember every detail, intending eventually to bear witness. But now only the most terrible incidents would be remembered as remarkable:

In January, 1943, a transport with several hundred inmates from Dutch Jewish mental hospitals arrived after a ghastly twelve day iourney under unspeakable conditions. Some of them were violently mad; some only slightly so; some were the sane who had tried to evade deportation with the aid of a psychiatrist’s report; and the result of it all was a nightmare that not even the most hardened S.S. man present could ever forget.

Apart from its cargo there were two unusual aspects of this transport. In the first place it arrived in daylight because Mr. Eichmann’s time tables were getting over-loaded. Secondly, this was the only time we prisoners were allowed to be in close contact with the victims for any length of time.

For this the S.S. had sound reason. When they opened the waggons, the sight was so revolting that they could not face it. So they whipped in the prisoners to handle some of the dirtiest work that even Auschwitz had witnessed.

In some of the trucks nearly half the occupants were dead or dying, more than I had ever seen. Many obviously had been dead for several days, for the bodies were decomposing and the stench of disintegrating flesh gushed from the open doors.

This, however, was no novelty to me. What appalled me was the state of the living. Some were drooling, imbecilic, live people with dead minds. Some were raving, tearing at their neighbours, even at their own flesh. Some were naked, though the cold was petrifying; and above everything, above the moans ofthe dying or the despairing, the cries of pain, of fear, the sound of wild, frightening, lunatic laughter rose and fell.

Yet amid all this bedlam, there was one spark of splendid, unselfish sanity. Moving among the insane, were nurses, young girls, their uniforms torn and grimey, but their faces calm and their hands never idle. Their medicine bags were still over their shoulders and they had to fight sometimes to keep their feet; but all the time they were working, soothing, bandaging, giving an injection here, an aspirin there. Not one showed the slightest trace of panic.

“Get them out!” roared the S.S. men. “Get them out, you bastards!”

Finally, after great difficulty, all the mentally ill were loaded onto the waiting trucks. Now the SS paused for thought.

The Dutch nurses were kept apart, waiting to travel on to a destination unknown to them, with their patients. Normally such young people would have been selected to go to the concentration camp.

Vrba saw an argument amongst the SS. In charge of the selection that day was Dr Mengele, Auschwitz’s chief ‘Medical officer’.

I saw him shake his head vigorously and hold both his hands up to end all further discussion. One of the S.S. officers shrugged and shouted: “Get the girls aboard! It seems they’ve got to go, too.”

The nurses climbed up after their patients. The lorry engines roared and off they swayed to the gas chambers. For once there had been no selection. For once it had not been necessary.

See Rudolf Vrba: I Cannot Forgive





Evading deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto

20th January 1943: Evading deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto

There was one small electric lamp installed by the owners of the bakery, who had their own families among the crowd. Their children were the only youngsters in the bunker. Though the place seemed safe enough, the danger of discovery was considerable. The SS-men directing operations in the street would stop in the bakery above us, since the bakers had to provide them with food and drinks every day. The slightest noise would have betrayed us.




Welcome to the British Army in North Africa

19th January 1943: Welcome to the British Army in North Africa

It was a vast concrete arena. We queued for an hour. When that had passed we queued for blankets. Next, find somewhere to sleep, like a football stadium in North Africa. We dossed down on the terraces. After ship`s hammocks it was murder. If only, if only I had a grand piano. I could have slept in that.




No end to the bitter struggle on Guadalcanal

18th January 1943: No end to the bitter struggle on Guadalcanal

On the Marine front last night a Jap came in with his hands up, saying ‘Me sick, me sick.’ The Major, knowing there were other Japs watching, motioned him to come on in – told his men not to fire. One Marine raised his rifle and the Major knocked it down – but on the other side of him another dope brought up a shotgun and blew the Jap apart. The Japs watching melted away – they’ll never give up as prisoners now.




RAF Bomber Command visits the ‘Big City’

17th January 1943: RAF Bomber Command visits the ‘Big City’ two nights running

Then I thought about the message from the Chief of Bomber Command which had been addressed to us tonight and read out at Briefing, ‘Go to it, Chaps and show them the red rose of Lancaster in full bloom.’ Someone behind a desk had given an order to a great organization and here we were a few hours later, one of the pawns in the game, sitting up over the North Sea with the temperature at minus 30° Centigrade, wondering if we would ever see England again.




Royal Artillery open up for another attack

16th January 1943: Royal Artillery open up for another attack

The Jocks (ours are Gordons and Black Watch) are I suppose forming up, and somewhere a few thousand yards ahead, Germans and Italians know something is in the wind but not that an hour from now a curtain of steel and an armoured wall will move in to destroy them. The enemy guns are nervously banging away all the time. We are completely silent.




The agony continues in Stalingrad

15th January 1943: The agony continues in Stalingrad

They had no weapons, often no shoes. Their feet wrapped in rags, their emaciated faces encrusted with ice, suffering from their wounds, they dragged themselves deeper into the Kessel. At the edge of the road lay the dead and dying. I saw people crawling on their knees because their feet were entirely consumed by frostbite.




Churchill and Roosevelt meet at Casablanca

14th January 1943: Churchill and Roosevelt meet at Casablanca

Admiral King then did so, and it became clear at once that his idea was an ‘all-out’ war against Japan instead of holding operations. He then proposed that 30 per cent of the war effort should be directed to the Pacific and 70 per cent to the rest. We pointed out that this was hardly a scientific way of approaching war strategy!




Chance escape for the sole survivor from U-224

13th January 1943: Chance escape for the sole survivor from U-22

As soon as his head appeared, “U 224″ was peppered with gunfire. Danckworth says he remembered seeing the bow of a ship bearing down on him, and after that he remembered nothing more except that he was at one moment some 5 to 6 yards below the surface and automatically making swimming movements.




Living the German nightmare in Berlin

12th January 1943: Living the German nightmare in Berlin

To think Hitler as the Master of Europe! The picture supplement we had to get out for our New Year issue was entitled ‘The German Soldier Keeps Watch’ – in the Russian winter, under the African sun, in submarines in the Atlantic, beneath the palm trees of Southern France, in the ice of Finland. How can we possibly hold such an extended front for any length of time?