During the course of 1942 the mass murder of the Jews of central Poland had become organised on an industrial scale. At least a million people had been gassed in the extermination camps, quite apart from the hundreds of thousands more who died in the ghettos or were shot by the mobile ‘Einsatzgruppen’. Until now the bodies had just been buried, usually in huge pits or ditches.
Now the Nazis changed their methods. In late 1942 it was decided that from now on the bodies would be incinerated. Not only those now being killed were to be burnt, but the corpses lying in the mass graves were to be removed and burnt as well.
Suddenly there had been a decision to find a way a way to remove all evidence of their crimes, to obliterate every trace of the remains of their victims, to reduce them to ashes. The reasons for this change in approach are not clearly documented. Now German troops were pulling back on a wide front in Russia and evidence of their atrocities was being uncovered, although nothing on this scale had ever been found.
And the Germans had discovered mass graves in the Katyn Forest – the graves of the Polish officers killed by Stalin. That was a crime they could pin on the Communists. They didn’t want their own crimes to be discovered when they were planning a propaganda coup.
For the few survivors who worked in the death camps this meant a new and terrible labour. The grisly business of exhuming the bodies and burning them was their new task. Chil Rajchman, in Treblinka, describes how a specialist, whom the they dubbed the ‘Artist’ was brought in the organise an efficient method of incineration. Parts of his account are just so gruesome that they cannot be included here:
After a few days he gets to work intensively. He orders the ovens to be dismantled and laughs at how things are done here. He assures our section chief that from now on the work will go much better. He lays down ordinary long, thick iron rails to a length of 30 metres.
Several low walls of poured cement are built to a height of 50 centimetres. The width of the oven is a metre and a half. Six rails are laid down, no more. He orders that the first layer of corpses should consist of women, especially fat women, placed with their bellies on the rails. After that anything that arrives can be laid on top: men, women, children. A second layer is placed on top of the first, the pile growing narrower as it rises, up to a height of 2 metres.
The corpses are thrown up by a special commando called the fire commando. Two fire-workers catch every corpse that is brought to them by the corpse carriers. One catches a hand and foot on one side, the second catches the other side, and then they throw the dead person into the oven.
In this way some twenty-five hundred corpses are piled on. Then the specialist orders dry twigs placed underneath and lights them with a match. After a few minutes the fire flares up so strongly that it is difficult to get any closer to the oven than 50 metres. The first fire is lit, and the test is successful.
The camp administration show up, and all of them shake the hand of the inventor. But he is not pleased with the fact that for the time being only one oven is working. Therefore he orders that the excavator that was used to dig the graves should now start digging out the corpses that have been lying in the ground for months …
The work is now even harder than before. The stench is terrible.
But the Artist walks around half-mad with rage because work still is not proceeding as well as he would like it to.
Soon afterwards, two new excavators are brought into the camp. The joy of the murderers knows no limits, since now the work will proceed tadellos (flawlessly). The next day all the excavators begin to function. For us this is simply hell, since the same number of workers now have to serve three corpse processors. Each time, the machines throw out dozens of corpses and we have to carry them immediately to the oven.