July 17th, 1942 was a date that new Auschwitz inmate Rudolf Vrba would not forget – he had arrived in the camp at the beginning of the month and he was watching very carefully trying to learn the rules of survival in this new world.
All of the inmates were lined up outside their accommodation blocks. The camp orchestra – all prisoners – was playing “Why should we not be merry, when God gives us strength” from the Czech opera ‘The Bartered Bride”.
They were all waiting for Heinrich Himmler to arrive. Both prisoners and SS men were hoping that the formal visit would go without a hitch. Unfortunately at the last minute a transgression was discovered:
In the tenth row outside our Block, the Block Senior found Yankel Meisel without his full quota of tunic buttons.
It took some seconds for the enormity of the crime to sink in. Then he felled him with a blow. An uneasy shuffling whispered through the ranks. I could see the S.S. men exchange taut glances and then I saw the Block Senior, with two of his helpers, hauling Yankel inside the barrack block.
Out of sight, they acted like men who have been shamed and betrayed will act. They beat and kicked the life out of him. They pummelled him swiftly, frantically, trying to blot him out, to sponge him from the scene and from their minds; and Yankel, who had forgotten to sew his buttons on, had not even the good grace to die quickly and quietly.
He screamed. It was a strong, querulous scream, ragged in the hot, still air. Then it turned suddenly to the thin, plaintive wail of abandoned bagpipes, but it did not fade so fast. It went on and on and on, flooding the vacuum of silence, snatching at tightly-reined minds and twisting them with panic, rising even above the ugly thump of erratic blows.
At that moment, I think, we all hated Yankel Meisel, the little old Jew who was spoiling everything, who was causing trouble for us all with his long, lone, futile protest.
He was whimpering now. I saw an S.S. Officer, his face speckled with sweat, nod briefly towards our Block. Two non-commissioned officers ran to it. And then there was silence.
The S.S. men marched smartly from the stone building and returned to their places. The Block Senior and his clumsy fellow butchers shambled sheepishly after them, hurt by the injustice of it. Of all the Blocks, theirs had to make a public display of itself and with Himmler breathing down their necks. Of all the men, the quiet Yankel Meisel had to make a noise.
Rudolf Vrba learned fast and he forgot very little. He was also a born survivor. Eventually he would become one of the few people to escape from Auschwitz, bringing the story of the death camps to the outside world in 1944.
On 17th and 18th July 1942, Reichsführer Himmler visited the Auschwitz Birkenau complex for the second time. On the 17th he witnessed the complete process of a “Sonderaktion/ special action” [Document 12/II] on a Jewish convoy; he saw the detraining, the gassing of the latter in Bunker 2 and the removal of their bodies which were then buried in mass graves. In recognition of his untiring activity in the development of the camps, SS Major Hoess was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
See AUSCHWITZ: Technique and operation of the gas chambers Jean-Claude Pressac © 1989, The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation
Himmler is known to have personally reported to Hitler on his activities as often as two or three times a week.