Auschwitz and Birkenau

Auschwitz and Birkenau were separate from each other,by about a 45 minute walk. Auschwitz was adapted to hold political prisoners in 1940 and evolved into a killing machine in 1941. Later that year a new site called Birkenau was found to extend the Auschwitz complex. Here a vast complex of buildings were constructed to hold initially Russian POWs and later Jews as a labour pool for the surrounding industries including IG Farben.

Following the January 1943 Wannsee Conference, Birkenau evolved into a murder factory using makeshift houses which were adapted to kill Jews and Russian POWs. Later due to sheer volume Birkenau evolved into a mass killing machine using gas chambers and crematoria, while Auschwitz, which still held prisoners, became the administrative centre.

The images show first Auschwitz main camp and then Birkenau and are carefully chosen to illustrate specific areas, like the Women’s Camp, Gypsy Camp, SS quarters, Commandant’s House, railway disembarkation, the ‘sauna’, disinfection area and the Crematoria. Maps covering Auschwitz and Birkenau explain the layout. This book is shocking proof of the scale of the Holocaust.

From a series of images taken one day in May 1944 when a train carrying Jews from Subcarpathian Rus arrived at the ‘ramp’ at Auschwitz.
Here the arrivals have just got off the train and are about to go through the ‘selection’ process. Prisoners in uniform are taking their possessions from them.

Men from the same train who have been selected for work are marched off to another section of the camp.

Women and children who have have been selected for the gas chambers walk off in another direction.

Alongside the images is an extensive history of the “camp”. This excerpt examines the period during which Auschwitz evolved from a punitive, often lethal, facility for housing Polish prisoners to become a centre for mass killings, under the direction of Commandant Hoss:

Since September 1940 the Auschwitz crematorium had been working at a steady pace burning the bodies of prisoners who had died of natural causes or had been killed or executed. Within weeks of it going into operation it was estimated that six bodies were being burnt every hour. This number soon doubled, and by 194l the crematorium had reached its maximum capacity of eighteen bodies per hour.

In direct response to the dramatic increase of deaths in the camp Hoss was prompted to authorise the expansion of the crematorium and approached the SS New Construction Office with an urgent request for a second double-muffle incinerator. The second incinerator was fitted at a reduced cost owing to the fact that it was attached to the ventilator of the first.

With the new second double-muffle incinerator the rate of cremation doubled, but still more and more people were found to liquidate. In the summer heat the stench was foul that the camp’s architect, Schlachter, installed a more sophisticated ventilation system so it could not only extract the bad odours but also provide a fresh supply of air from outside the building.

During the morning of 22 June Hoss received news that a massive assemblage of more than 3 million German troops had attacked the Soviet Union and were victoriously forging ahead. ln Hoss’s eyes Russia was a land ripe for plunder. He was firmly convinced that the Russians were an inferior race and had come to appreciate the Nazi theory of the connection between Communism and Judaism. Within days he was told about ruthless actions against Russian Jews, Communist politicians and political commissars.

Although Auschwitz remained a camp primarily for Polish prisoners, he received reports that the SS were actually weeding out commissars that were found hiding in German army PoW camps.

The first of these Soviet prisoners were transported to Auschwitz in July. Several hundred of them were marched through the main gate and from the moment they arrived they were treated much worse than the Polish inmates. They were hated at Auschwitz. Many of them were beaten and tortured, while some were shot in the gravel pits or were condemned to the cellars of Block 11. Here they were locked in the dark cold cells and left to starve to death.

As a result of these increased deaths at Auschwitz the crematorium was once again working to full capacity. Executions were now so frequent that Hoss was compelled to discuss at his meetings a more effective method of killing than just starving, shooting and hanging the victims, or having them murdered by lethal injection. He told his staff that to find an effective method was essential to guarantee the rapid effectiveness of cleansing the camp of what he deemed were undesirables, and those unfit for work. Hoss already knew, as did his closest associates, of the euthanasia programme.

In fact, the 14f13 programme had already reached Auschwitz with effective results. Inmates had been removed from the camp and transported to special killing centres in Germany, where vans had been converted into mobile gas chambers built to look like shower rooms. The sick, chronically ill or physically disabled were sent to the compartment of a converted van, the airtight doors were then slammed shut, and the victims inside were asphyxiated by bottled carbon monoxide. Both Hoss and his deputy, Fritzsch, thought the idea of asphyxiation was probably the most effective means of homicide. It was thus proposed that they considered it further as a killing process at Auschwitz.

As Hoss and Fritzsch pondered on ways of killing by asphyxiation, in late August SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Adolf Eichmann travelled from the RSHA in Berlin to meet with the commandant at Auschwitz. Eichmann was a Jewish emigration specialist who had been given the task of facilitating and managing the logistics of mass deportations of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Eastem Europe. He had been sent specifically to Auschwitz to discuss new deportation plans and to look at the camp’s facilities. Eichmann made it clear that Himmler wanted the Jewish question solved once and for all, and it was the SS that was to implement that order.

Preparations for the mass deportation of Jews were now going to take place, and with the excellent railway network to Auschwitz coupled with the expansion programme of the camp, it was considered the most viable location to which to transport Jews. He made it quite clear that Himmler envisaged Auschwitz as the main hub of a huge semi-industrial complex. Here the transports would arrive and then selected Jews would be sent to work at one of the many sub-camps being built nearby. Then, when they were no longer required or deemed unfit for work, they could be transported the few miles back to the camp, and exterminated.

But for now the area was still not regarded as a viable transit point, so it was agreed that the Jews would have to remain in the ghettos until Auschwitz was prepared ready for them.

Another important question on Eichmann’s list was the design of an improved killing facility at the camp which would be capable of exterminating larger numbers of inmates. Since early summer Hoss had been aware of growing plans to systematically murder prisoners at Auschwitz. Initially the condemned had just been the sick and disabled, now Eichmann announced that Himmler had decided about grander plans of producing a factory-like killing installation that was capable of removing anyone deemed a threat to the Reich or unfit for slave labour.

Russian PoWs were regarded as subhuman and on the ReichsfUhrer’s agenda for liquidation, and it was suggested that it would be practical to use the Russian PoWs in a killing experiment. It was agreed that carbon monoxide chambers used in the mobile gas chamber vans were far too expensive. lnstead, Hoss proposed using hydrogen cyanide and to construct a delousing installation at Auschwitz where he could perhaps use a lethal substance made up of hydrogen cyanide.

On 3 September, an experiment was undertaken to gas Russian PoWs using crystallized prussic acid, which was sold in tins marked under the name of Zyklon B.

The basement of Block 11 was used for the gassing. Windows and other areas ofthe basement were made airtight before removing the condemned from their sickbeds and hovels. Under the cover of darkness they were escorted down to Block 11 where they were herded tightly into the underground cells. Zyklon B crystals were then thrown into the room where Russian prisoners and the sick inmates were standing.

Although many of them were asphyxiated within twenty minutes of the gassing, some prisoners did in fact survive the ordeal, and had to be shot. While it was deemed the gassing experiment was a success it was agreed that the basement was not ideal for use as a gas chamber. A solution was soon found in using the camp’s crematorium. It not only had a flat roof, but could easily be adapted with various openings in order to allow the Zyklon B crystals to be poured in. The new powerful ventilation system that had just been fitted in the morgue would be more than capable of dealing with the poisonous gas.

Almost immediately men were set to work to modify the crematorium into a gas chamber. On the flat roof three square portholes were made through the morgue roof and covered with wooden lids. It was through these portholes that the Zyklon B crystals were to be poured. Once the crematorium had been prepared for a mass killing experiment, 900 Russian soldiers were chosen to be gassed.

The gassing of the Soviet soldiers took place on 16 September. Prior to the gassing, an area around the crematorium was sealed off and it was forbidden to look at the roof ofthe crematorium, which was visible from the windows of the SS hospital on the first floor.

The crematorium forecourt too was closed off to all prisoners wonking in the camp while it was being utilised as an undressing area for the victims. First the victims were ordered to undress and then they were herded naked into the morgue where they were gassed with Zyklon B crystals.

Auschwitz had now finally evolved into an efficient killing machine using a tried and tested gassing procedure. The success of this murder factory now depended on how its facilities were going to cope with the growing influx of prisoners that were sent to their deaths.