US troops liberate Dachau concentration camp

Jubilant prisoners greet the liberating US Army at Dachau on 29th April 1945.
Jubilant prisoners greet the liberating US Army at Dachau on 29th April 1945.

Dachau concentration camp was the first camp established by the Nazis, shortly after they came to power in 1933. At first the camp was used to detain enemies of the Nazi regime, political prisoners. Later many tens of thousands of other would pass through the camp and its numerous sub-camps, including groups of Jews, women and Clergy ( mainly Catholics) from all over occupied Europe.

Dachau was not an extermination camp with gas chambers, although the death rate from conventional executions, starvation and ill treatment was high and the camp was equipped with ‘ovens’ for the disposal of the dead. It was also the site of numerous medical experiments on detainees, many of whom died in the course of experiments, which included prolonged exposure to freezing water and simulated high altitude tests.

Survivors of the Dachau concentration camp demonstrate the operation of the crematorium by pushing a corpse into one of the ovens
Survivors of the Dachau concentration camp demonstrate the operation of the crematorium by pushing a corpse into one of the ovens

By the time the US Army arrived the camp was overcrowded with thousands of prisoners who had been transferred from other camps and there were far too many dead for the usual process of incineration to cope with.

The events of 29th April are contested. Some witnesses claim that the US troops massacred the SS men who were found guarding the camp on the day. Others suggest that this is a gross exaggeration of one incident where a single group of SS men were shot down, possibly for attempting to escape. Unusually in these circumstances there is also some photographic evidence.

One man provides eyewitness testimony. Nerin E. Gun was a Turkish journalist who had fallen foul of the Nazis for his reporting of the Warsaw Uprising – he had been arrested and sent to Dachau:

three SS men are still on their turret … they have pivoted their machine guns in the other direction, away from us, and they are peering into the distance

… a single man emerges from behind a cement mixer parked at the edge of the camp … wearing a helmut embellished with leaves and branches … he moves cautiously forward, submachine gun in one hand, grenade in the other … he is still far away but I imagine I see him chewing gum … he comes cautiously, but upright, stalwart, unafraid …I almost expect him to be followed by a pure white charger … we knew America only by its films

… this first image of the liberation was truly out of an American western … this soldier of the 3rd Battalion, 45th Combat Division was the very incarnation of the American hero … we will never forget those first few seconds … the memory of the unique, magnificent moment of your arrival … you had come at the risk of your life, into an unknown country, for the sake of an unknown people, bringing us the most precious thing in the world, the gift of freedom …

DACHAU, GERMANY – Shortly after Dachau’s liberation, American soldiers view the bodies inside one of the open railcars.  (Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Eric Schwab)
DACHAU, GERMANY – Shortly after Dachau’s liberation, American soldiers view the bodies inside one of the open railcars. (Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Eric Schwab)

The detachment under the command of the American major had not come directly to the Jorhaus, it had made a detour by way of the marshalling yard, where the convoy of deportees normally arrived and departed.

There they found some fifty-odd cattle cars parked on the tracks – the cars were not empty. The train was full of corpses, piled one on the other, 2310 of them to be exact. The train had come from Birkenau and the dead were Hungarian and Polish Jews, children among them. Their journey had lasted perhaps thirty or forty days.

They had died of hunger, of thirst, of suffocation, of being crushed or of being beaten by the guards. There were even evidence of cannibalism. They were all practically dead when they arrived at Dachau station.

The SS did not take the trouble to unload them. They simply decided to stand guard and shoot down any with enough strength left to emerge from the cattle cars. The corpses were strewn everywhere – on the rails, the steps, the platforms.”

“I never saw anything like it in my life,” said Lieutenant Harold Mayer, “Every one of my men became raving mad.”

Within a quarter of an hour, there was not a single one of Hitler’s henchmen alive.

See Nerin E. Gun: The Day of the Americans

Photograph allegedly showing an unauthorized execution of SS troops in a coal yard in the area of the Dachau concentration camp during its liberation—part of the Dachau liberation reprisals. 29 April 1945 (U.S Army photograph) The caption for the photograph in the U.S. National Archives reads, "SC208765, Soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Seventh Army, order SS men to come forward when one of their number tried to escape from the Dachau, Germany, concentration camp after it was captured by U.S. forces. Men on the ground in background feign death by falling as the guards fired a volley at the fleeing SS men. (157th Regt. 4/29/45)."
Photograph allegedly showing an unauthorized execution of SS troops in a coal yard in the area of the Dachau concentration camp during its liberation—part of the Dachau liberation reprisals. 29 April 1945 (U.S Army photograph)
The caption for the photograph in the U.S. National Archives reads, “SC208765, Soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Seventh Army, order SS men to come forward when one of their number tried to escape from the Dachau, Germany, concentration camp after it was captured by U.S. forces. Men on the ground in background feign death by falling as the guards fired a volley at the fleeing SS men. (157th Regt. 4/29/45).”

An alternative account was given by Lt. Col. Felix L. Sparks, a battalion commander of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division who stated that a young soldier was manning a machine gun keeping watch on a group of approximately 50 SS men in the coal yard. Sparks heard the soldier cry “They’re trying to get away!” and the sound of the machine gun being fired. He saw that about a dozen men had been killed in the incident and more wounded. He replaced the soldier with an NCO in charge of the machine and there was apparently no further shooting.

It was the forgoing incident which has given rise to wild claims in various publications that most or all of the German prisoners captured at Dachau were executed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The total number of German guards killed at Dachau during that day most certainly not exceed fifty, with thirty probably being a more accurate figure.

The regimental records for that date indicate that over a thousand German prisoners were brought to the regimental collecting point. Since my task force was leading the regimental attack, almost all the prisoners were taken by the task force, including several hundred from Dachau.

This and other incidents were investigated by the Seventh Army’s Assistant Inspector General, Lt. Col. Joseph Whitaker, who made recommendations that some US soldiers should face charges. However the Military Governor of Bavaria at the time he reported, General George S. Patton, chose to take no further action.

At the end of 1945 Colonel Charles L. Decker, an acting deputy judge advocate decided that there probably had been breaches of international law but:

in the light of the conditions which greeted the eyes of the first combat troops, it is not believed that justice or equity demand that the difficult and perhaps impossible task of fixing individual responsibility now be undertaken.

Hundreds of bodies clad in gray and white striped prison uniforms are laid out in rows at Dachau concentration camp. This is what US troops found after they took control of the camp.
Hundreds of bodies clad in gray and white striped prison uniforms are laid out in rows at Dachau concentration camp. This is what US troops found after they took control of the camp.

Thousands of dead and dying – liberation of Belsen

A general view of part of the squalor and filth in the camp at the point of its liberation by the British Army.
A general view of part of the squalor and filth in the camp at the point of its liberation by the British Army.

It was about 5pm on 15 April when the miracle actually happened: the first British tank rolled into the camp. We were liberated! No one who was in Belsen will ever forget that day. We did not greet our liberators with shouts of joy. We were silent. Silent with incredulity and maybe just a little suspicion that we might be dreaming.

Survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

A prisoner, too weak to move as a result of starvation, sits by the wire fence with an expression of agony on his face.
A prisoner, too weak to move as a result of starvation, sits by the wire fence with an expression of agony on his face.

It was the pictures and stories from the first concentration camps liberated, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen, that first made a real impact on public consciousness of the Holocaust. It was these names that became closely associated with the worst horrors of the Nazi system of brutality, even though they were, in some senses, not the “worst” camps. These were not extermination camps like Auschwitz, where people were sent to be killed immediately if they did not survive ‘the selection’. They were nevertheless lethal systems of incarceration and no less murderous over time.

…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.

BBC radio broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in an historic broadcast just days after the liberation which alerted the British and the world to the real horrors of Nazism.

Women inmates prepare food in the open air, using the boots of the dead (which can be seen piled up in the background) as fuel for their fires.
Women inmates prepare food in the open air, using the boots of the dead (which can be seen piled up in the background) as fuel for their fires.

Bergen-Belsen had gone through a number incarnations, starting out as a Prisoner of War camp for Soviet prisoners, at a time when the Nazis seemed intent on letting them all starve to death. Some 20,000 died here. Then as an SS concentration camp for Jews who might be used as hostages, the regime was probably somewhat better than at many other work camps. Then a variety of different groups were sent or passed through, including may women and girls – Ann Frank died here.

Then at the end of 1944 Bergen Belsen started receiving prisoners who had survived the forced marches from the camps in the east. Soon its primitive facilities were overwhelmed by over 60,000 sick and malnourished people. They had been dying in their hundreds every day for months. They would continue dying in their hundreds every day for the next two months, despite the best efforts of the Allied medical teams.

But we went further on into the camp, and seen these corpses lying everywhere. You didn’t know whether they were living or dead. Most of them were dead. Some were trying to walk, some were stumbling, some on hands and knees, but in the lagers, the barbed wire around the huts, you could see that the doors were open. The stench coming out of them was fearsome.

They were lying in the doorways – tried to get down the stairs and fallen and just died on the spot. And it was just everywhere. Going into, more deeper, into the camp the stench got worse and the numbers of dead – they were just impossible to know how many there were…Inside the camp itself, it was just unbelievable. You just couldn’t believe the numbers involved…

This was one of the things which struck me when I first went in, that the whole camp was so quiet and yet there were so many people there. You couldn’t hear anything, there was just no sound at all and yet there was some movement – those people who could walk or move – but just so quiet. You just couldn’t understand that all those people could be there and yet everything was so quiet…

It was just this oppressive haze over the camp, the smell, the starkness of the barbed wire fences, the dullness of the bare earth, the scattered bodies and these very dull, too, striped grey uniforms – those who had it – it was just so dull. The sun, yes the sun was shining, but they were just didn’t seem to make any life at all in that camp.

Everything seemed to be dead. The slowness of the movement of the people who could walk. Everything was just ghost-like and it was just unbelievable that there were literally people living still there. There’s so much death apparent that the living, certainly, were in the minority.

British soldier Dick Williams

The bodies of victims in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
The bodies of victims in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

What happened was we were all allocated to a hut. We divided into pairs, as I said, and each pair was given a hut to cope with. And into the hut you went and it was designed, I think, to take about 60 soldiers. It was a typical army Nissen hut-type – only it wasn’t a Nissen hut because it wasn’t the same shape – and inside it were upwards of six or seven hundred people lying on the ground.

They were all totally emaciated. They were all in filthy rags – rags is literally what I mean, rags. They were all, or most of them, lying in pools of vomit and faeces and urine. A considerable number of the ones in the hut were dead and the first job to do each day was to go in, and with the help of two Hungarian soldiers – strangely enough we had a company of Hungarian soldiers to help as labourers – you’d go into the hut and pick out the dead bodies. You’d just go around and see who’s dead and who wasn’t.

It was sometimes very difficult to be certain who was dead and who wasn’t.

Remove the dead, take them outside, leave them in a heap and the Hungarians then moved them by truck to the mass graves where they were put in the mass graves. And having got rid of the dead you then made a sort of so say ward round to try and do what you could for the remainder, all of whom had diarrhoea, or the vast majority had diarrhoea.

They all had the most appalling coughs, they all had the most dreadful skin diseases, they were all filthy dirty and they were all absolutely skeletally thin… And we were dealing with the killer, the main killer, which was typhus. And typhus was killing a very large number of people every day.

Medical student Roger Dixey

A British soldier talks to an emaciated prisoner. The prisoner, Louis Bonerguer, was also British and had been dropped by parachute to work in German occupied territory in 1941. After his capture, he was interned at Belsen.
A British soldier talks to an emaciated prisoner. The prisoner, Louis Bonerguer, was also British and had been dropped by parachute to work in German occupied territory in 1941. After his capture, he was interned at Belsen.
Josef Kramer known as the "Beast of Belsen"
The camp commandant, Josef Kramer, known as the “Beast of Belsen”

These people had been degraded by the Germans. It was a systematic depersonalisation, degradingness. They’d been for as long as they’d – the Germans had degraded these people from the time they’d occupied their countries. They degraded them by putting them into ghettos, they degraded them by making them into second and third class citizens, they degraded them by herding them like cattle, by transporting them in conditions which were worse than animals would be transported, by totally dehumanising them.

Dr Laurence Wand

A young woman photographed two days after the British entered the camp; her face still bearing the scars of a terrible beating by the SS guards.
A young woman photographed two days after the British entered the camp; her face still bearing the scars of a terrible beating by the SS guards.

Something had changed for me after I’d seen that camp. Although I’d seen the terrible things in war, to have treated ordinary people like this. And there were so many theories and reasons as to who was responsible and everybody seemed to point a finger around until the finger came round in a circle and I had to think hard about it.

Why the Germans? They had their own culture, their own civilisation of a kind. They produced Beethoven, great scientists, how could it be?

The terrible discovery came to me, this sort of revelation like a flash of lightning, because it penetrated these terrible scenes to make me think – all the stories I’d heard about the persecution of people from my mother and father, here they were true.

But this was on a scale of – it had to be organised, it had to be done it could only be done with modern administrative service. It could only be done by moving masses of people by rail. It had to be planned and worked for. It was a sort of death by administration.

British soldier Mike Lewis

British troops stand guard as German SS troops are made to load the bodies of the dead onto a lorry for transport to mass graves.
British troops stand guard as German SS troops are made to load the bodies of the dead onto a lorry for transport to mass graves.
Women SS camp guards remove bodies from lorries and carry them to the mass grave.
Women SS camp guards remove bodies from lorries and carry them to the mass grave.
One of the mass graves at Belsen concentration camp.
One of the mass graves at Belsen concentration camp.
Dr Fritz Klein, the camp doctor, standing in a mass grave at Belsen. Klein, who was born in Austro- Hungary, was an early member of the Nazi Party and joined the SS in 1943. He worked in Auschwitz-Birkenau for a year from December 1943 where he assisted in the selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. After a brief period at Neungamme, Klein moved to Belsen in January 1945. Klein was subsequently convicted of two counts of war crimes and executed in December 1945.
Dr Fritz Klein, the camp doctor, standing in a mass grave at Belsen. Klein, who was born in Austro- Hungary, was an early member of the Nazi Party and joined the SS in 1943. He worked in Auschwitz-Birkenau for a year from December 1943 where he assisted in the selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. After a brief period at Neungamme, Klein moved to Belsen in January 1945. Klein was subsequently convicted of two counts of war crimes and executed in December 1945.

As soon as possible, we were transferred to the tank training school six kilometres away for delousing and then to makeshift hospitals, where German doctors and nurses were made to look after us. I was unconscious for 10 days after we were liberated. Two days after I regained consciousness, on 27 April, my mother died aged 42 and was buried in a mass grave, together with the thousands of others who died from starvation and disease after the liberation.

Survivor Renée Salt

For more on the liberation of Belsen and its context in the concentration camp system see UK government information leaflet. Quotes from British soldiers are transcripts of some of the audio recordings made by the Imperial War Museum.

German nurses wash an emaciated man lying on one of the tables in the cleansing station at the newly established hospital at Hohne Military Barracks, nicknamed the "Human Laundry".
German nurses wash an emaciated man lying on one of the tables in the cleansing station at the newly established hospital at Hohne Military Barracks, nicknamed the “Human Laundry”.
French, Belgian and Dutch camp inmates prepare to leave Camp No 2 at Hohne Military Barracks after having been passed fit to return to their own countries.
French, Belgian and Dutch camp inmates prepare to leave Camp No 2 at Hohne Military Barracks after having been passed fit to return to their own countries.
Miss S J Reekie, a British trained nurse and child welfare specialist works with the very young children in the kindergarten set up at Belsen after the liberation of the camp. All the children in the photograph were orphans
Miss S J Reekie, a British trained nurse and child welfare specialist works with the very young children in the kindergarten set up at Belsen after the liberation of the camp. All the children in the photograph were orphans

British Commando raiders are executed in Sachsenhausen

Sachsenhausen concentration camp had operated since 1936 as punishment facility rather than an extermination site. About 30,000 people are believed to had died there from overwork, ill-treatment and malnutrition, although a proportion were put to death by shooting, hanging and, in later years, a gas chamber.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp had operated since 1936 as punishment facility rather than an extermination site. About 30,000 people are believed to have died there from overwork, ill-treatment and malnutrition, although a proportion were put to death by shooting, hanging and, in later years, a gas chamber.

On the 1st of February there had been elation in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, located 22 miles north of Berlin. The news reached the prisoners that the Red Army was just 60 miles east of Berlin. Rumours soon spread that they would soon be liberated, and that it might well happen in the next day or so.

The grim reality proved to be a deep disappointment the following day. Not only were the Nazis preparing to evacuate the whole camp but they were now starting to murder some of their more prominent prisoners. Odd Nansen, a Norwegian political prisoner, was keeping a secret diary in the camp, writing on the 3rd he recalled the events of the 2nd:

From the brightest and wildest optimism we’ve been plunged into gloomy pessimism.

When we got back from the job last night, we were met be the sinister announcement that the camp is to be evacuated. We’re all to start off on a trek. To the great majority the news was thunder from a clear sky, and many still refuse to believe it, such an utterly outrageous impossibility and insanity does it seem.

Forty thousand men on the tramp southward, southwest or west; miserably clad, with nothing to eat – for it can be only Norwegians who have any food to take with them – and in a worse than rickety condition. First we heard it as a rumour, and it penetrated slowly into our consciousness, which refused to accept it. Then it came as an official announcement in the block: “The camp will probably be evacuated”. Wahrscheinlich!

A hope still lingers in the interpretation of that lumpy German word, a little chance that the Russians may be too quick, the possibility of a change of mind with the ensuing counter-order, of which, indeed, we’ve known so many that they can almost be taken as the rule. But in that case there is another dark cloud in our sky, a cloud which has grown darker, blacker and more menacing in the last forty-eight hours. Liquidation! Vernichtung!

It is now being said that over two hundred men, including all the lackeys of the Sonderkommission, were shot last night. They were a frightful gang indeed, and no one laments them. They were the Gestapo’s henchmen among the prisoners. And so that was their reward.

When the truth about the events of the night gradually came out, when we learnt that our friends the Englishmen, John and Jack and Tommy and the rest, we knew them right back in Grini [a Nazi concentration camp in Norway], had in all probability been shot, and the Russian officers and many others, the atmosphere filled with gloom.

Rumour also had it that the coming night would be still worse. Last night many were awakened by shots in the camp. This was what happened: when a party of those who had been taken from the blocks under cover of darkness marched out of the gate and turned to the right, they realised where they were going, broke the ranks and ran into the little park there between the walls. The guards opened fire on them, and they were shot down there in the park. It was the rat—tat of the guards’ tommy-guns which broke the night silence, filling those who lay awake with horror and dread.

See Odd Nansen: Day After Day

The ‘English friends’ that Nansen was referring to were members of a British commando team that had been captured after a sabotage operation to Norway in 1943, Operation Checkmate. They had successfully sunk a German minesweeper and other ships with limpet mines but despite the fact that they had operated in uniform they fell victim to Hitler’s Commando Order when they were captured. They were not treated as Prisoners of War under the Geneva Convention.

In Sachsenhausen they had been forced to march 30 miles a day on cobbled roads, ‘testing’ German Army boots. It later emerged that, when they were led to execution, Temporary Lieutenant John Godwin, RNVR, who had led the team of Commandos and Royal Navy seamen, managed to snatch the pistol of the firing party commander and shoot him dead before being shot down himself.

Lieutenant JOHN GODWIN H.M.S. Quebec., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve who died age 25 on 02 February 1945
Lieutenant JOHN GODWIN H.M.S. Quebec., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
who died age 25 on 02 February 1945

There were no witnesses to Godwin’s resistance surviving at the end of the war, a fact that meant he could not be eligible for a gallantry medal. Instead he was awarded a ‘Mention In Despatches’. The citation, in The London Gazette, 9 October 1945, read:

“For great gallantry and inspiring example whilst a prisoner of war in German hands in Norway and afterwards at Sachsenhausen, near Oranienburg, Germany, 1942-1945”

The Commando Veterans Association has a gallery commemorating the other members of Operation Checkmate.

The Red Army liberate Auschwitz

Liberation by Soviet soldiers surviving prisoners of Auschwitz .Above the gate of the camp is the famous sign-slogan "Arbeit macht frei", - "Work makes you free". Concentration camp was discovered on January 27, 1945 by part of the 100th Infantry Division of General Fyodor Krasavina. 1st Ukrainian Front.
Liberation by Soviet soldiers of some of the surviving prisoners of Auschwitz. Above the gate of the camp is the famous sign-slogan “Arbeit macht frei” – “Work makes you free”. The concentration camp was discovered on January 27, 1945 by part of the 100th Infantry Division of General Fyodor Krasavina. 1st Ukrainian Front.

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz there are numerous press reports from across the world about the way the date is being commemorated. After 70 years there are around 300 survivors left who can speak directly of their experiences. Their testimony is as powerful, and necessary, as ever. See in particular The Guardian, and the Washington Post.

At the time the liberation by Soviet troops did not attract the attention that subsequent discoveries of other concentration camps, by the Americans, British and Canadians, would have. Reports of the first major death camp discovered by the Red Army, Majdanek, had been discounted as probable Soviet exaggerations. Even a report by respected journalist Alexander Werth had not been believed – the scale of the Nazi crimes was “incredible”. It would take the shocking newsreel footage taken at the camps located in Germany before the true horror of what had happened in the Holocaust began to be understood in the wider world.

The first report about Auschwitz-Birkenau appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda on the 2nd February 1945. At the time it did not attract much attention. The world already knew about Auschwitz because of the report made by Vrba and Wetzler – although many people could yet comprehend what this report really meant. Now reporter Boris Polevoi was cautious, he did not attempt to assess the number of people murdered here :

It will take weeks of long and careful investigations by special commissions before a full picture of the truly unparalleled German outrages at Auschwitz is established. What is noted here are only the outlines coming from a first glance acquaintanceship with the site of the monstrous outrages of the Hitlerite hangmen.

The name of the town “Auschwitz” has long been a synonym for bloody German atrocities in the lexicon of the peoples of the world. Few of its prisoners escaped the fires of its notorious “ovens.” From behind the wire of its numerous camps only a phantom echo had filtered of the wails from the lips of its thousands of prisoners. Only now, when the troops of the First Ukrainian Front had liberated Auschwitz, was it possible to see with one’s own eyes the entirety of this terrible camp, in which many of its tens of square kilometers of fields were soaked in human blood, and literally fertilized with human ash.

The first thing that strikes one about Auschwitz, and which distinguishes it from other known camps, is its enormous expanse. The territory of the camp occupied tens of square kilometers and in recent years had grown to absorb the towns of Makowice, Babice, and others.

It was an enormous industrial plant, having its own branch facilities, each of which received its own special charge. In one, the processing of the arrivals took place: prisoners were made of those who, before death, could be put to work, while the elderly, the children, and the infirm were sentenced to immediate extermination. In another, a division for those who were so exhausted and worn out as to be barely fit for physical labor, they were assigned the task sorting the clothes of the exterminated, and of sorting their shoes, taking apart uppers, soles, linings.

It is fair to say that all prisoners entering the branches of the industrial plant were to be killed and burned, either by being killed outright or through the many ordeals of confinement.

Around this industrial plant enormous fields and enclosures were established in the Sola and Vistula river valleys. The remains of the prisoners, burned in the “ovens”, had their ash and bones crushed in rolling mills and converted to meal, and this meal went to the fields and enclosures.

Auschwitz! Impartial commissions will establish the precise number of the people killed or tortured to death here. But already we can assert, based on discussions with Poles, that in 1941-1942 and at the beginning of 1943 five to eight trains of people arrived every day, indeed on some days so many came that the station could not handle them.

The people came from the surrounding territories occupied by the Germans, from the USSR, from Poland, from France, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. The wagons were tightly packed with people and were always locked. At the station, the Polish railway workers were replaced by a crew from the camp, which included several special railway detachments. The wagons would disappear behind the gates and return empty. In the first four years of the camp’s existence the railway workers did not see a single wagon coming back from the camp carrying people.

Last year, when the Red Army revealed to the world the terrible and abominable secrets of Majdanek, the Germans in Auschwitz began to wipe out the traces of their crimes. They leveled the mounds of the so-called “old” graves in the Eastern part of the camp, tore up and destroyed the traces of the electric conveyor belt, on which hundreds of people were simultaneously electrocuted, their bodies falling onto the slow moving conveyor belt which carried them to the top of the blast furnace where they fell in, were completely burned, their bones converted to meal in the rolling mills, and then sent to the surrounding fields. In retreat were taken the special transportable apparatuses for killing children. The stationary gas chambers in the eastern part of the camp were restructured, even little turrets and other architectural embellishments were added so that they would look like innocent garages.

But even so one can see the traces of the murder of millions of people! From the stories of prisoners, liberated by the Red Army, it is not difficult to make out all that the Germans tried so carefully to conceal. This gigantic industrial plant of death was equipped with the last word in fascist technology and was furnished with all of the instruments of torture which the German monsters could devise.

In the first years of the camp, the Germans maintained only a cottage industry of death: they simply led prisoners to a large open pit, forced them to lie down and shot them in the back of the head. When one layer was full, the next would be forced to lie down head-to-foot on the layer below. And so was filled the second layer, and the third, and the fourth … When the grave was full, to make sure that all of the people were dead, it was raked with submachine gun fire several times, while those for whom there was no room in the grave covered it up. Thus were filled hundreds of enormous pits in the eastern part of the camp, which bore the name of the “old” graves.

The German hangmen, noting the primitiveness of this method of killing, decided to increase the productivity of the industrial plant of death by mechanizing it, leading to the gas chambers, the electric conveyor belt, the construction of the blast furnace for burning bodies and the so-called “ovens.”

But for the prisoners of Auschwitz death itself was not the most terrible thing. The German sadists, before killing their confinees, tormented them with hunger, cold, 18 hour days, and monstrous punishments. They showed me leather-covered steel rods that they used to be beat the confinees. On the handle – the mark of the Krupp factory in Dresden. These articles were produced on an industrial scale. I saw, in facilities in the southern part of the camp, benches with straps on which people were beaten to death. They were covered with zinc so the blood of the victims could be washed off: the hangmen had a care for hygiene! I saw a specially constructed oaken chair, in which people were killed, after having had their backs broken. I saw massive rubber truncheons, all bearing the stamp of the Krupp factory, with which the confinees were beaten about the head and genitals.

I saw thousands of martyrs at Auschwitz – people, so worn out that they swayed like shadows in the wind, people, whose age it was impossible to determine.

The Red Army saved them, and pulled them from hell. They honor the Red Army as the avengers for Auschwitz, for Majdanek, and for all the pain and suffering which the fascist hangmen have brought to the people of Europe.

The online exhibition and video at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum provides more context.

Captured German photograph of some of the children incarcerated in Auschwitz. Millions of camp photographs taken by the SS for their records were destroyed before the camps were liberated - but a few survived.
Captured German photograph of some of the children incarcerated in Auschwitz. Millions of camp photographs taken by the SS for their records were destroyed before the camps were liberated – but a few survived.

Murders continue as Auschwitz lies in limbo

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

Startled by the speed of the Soviet advance the Nazis had finally abandoned Auschwitz on the 18th January. Before then most of the prisoners had been forced out into the freezing weather to endure one last murderous ordeal – most would die in the forced death march to other concentration camps in the west.

Left in the camp were still thousands of prisoners who were too ill to move. It is very likely that the SS intended to kill them all off, certainly that seemed to be the intention for the remaining Jews. But the last flight of the Germans had been very abrupt, they had not had time to complete their killings before they left in a panic.

Primo Levi, an inmate of Auschwitz for almost a year, was struck down by Scarlet Fever on 11th January, and had been moved to an isolation ‘ward’. He had watched the Germans disappear and then seen the long columns of German troops retreating westwards past the camp. Then as his strength gradually recovered he found himself caring for the other very sick men in his ward, then he began to gradually explore the unguarded camp:

January 22nd

If it is courageous to face a grave danger with a light heart, Charles and I were courageous that morning. We extended our explorations to the SS camp, immediately outside the electric wire-fence. The camp guards must have left in a great hurry.

On the tables we found plates half-full of a by-now frozen soup which we devoured with an intense pleasure, mugs full of beer, transformed into a yellowish ice, a chess board with an unfinished game. In the dormitories, piles of valuable things.

We loaded ourselves with a bottle of vodka, various medicines, newspapers and magazines and four first-rate eiderdowns, one of which is today in my house in Turin. Cheerful and irresponsible, we carried the fruits of our expedition back to the dormitory, leaving them in Arthur’s care.

Only that evening did we learn what happened perhaps only half an hour later. Some SS men, perhaps dispersed, but still armed, penetrated into the abandoned camp. They found that eighteen Frenchmen had settled in the dining-hall of the SS-Waffe.

They killed them all methodically, with a shot in the nape of the neck, lining up their twisted bodies in the snow on the road; then they left. The eighteen corpses remained exposed until the arrival of the Russians; nobody had the strength to bury them.

But by now there were beds in all the huts occupied by corpses as rigid as wood, whom nobody troubled to remove. The ground was too frozen to dig graves; many bodies were piled up in a trench, but already early on the heap showed out of the hole and was shamefully visible from our window.

Only a wooden wall separated us from the ward of the dysentery patients, where many were dying and many dead. The floor was covered by a layer of frozen excrement. None of the patients had strength enough to climb out of their blankets to search for food, and those who had done it at the beginning had not returned to help their comrades.

In one bed, clasping each other to resist the cold better, there were two Italians. I often heard them talking, but as I spoke only French, for a long time they were not aware of my presence. That day they heard my name by chance, pronounced with an Italian accent by Charles, and from then on they never ceased groaning and imploring.

Naturally I would have liked to have helped them, given the means and the strength, if for no other reason than to stop their crying. In the evening when all the work was finished, conquering my tiredness and disgust, I dragged myself gropingly along the dark, filthy corridor to their ward with a bowl of water and the remainder of our day’s soup.

The result was that from then on, through the thin wall, the whole diarrhoea ward shouted my name day and night with the accents of all the languages of Europe, accompanied by incomprehensible prayers, without my being able to do anything about it. I felt like crying, I could have cursed them.

See Primo Levi: Survival In Auschwitz

Sachsenhausen concentration camp – new arrivals

Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, was established in 1936 for German detainees. It was also an administrative and training centre for the SS. Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, December 19, 1938.
Sachsenhausen, north of Berlin, was established in 1936 for German detainees. It was also an administrative and training centre for the SS. Prisoners in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, December 19, 1938.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Oranienburg, which, along with its more than 50 satellite camps, provided the armaments industry in northern Germany with cheap slave labor, particularly during the Second World War. Roll call on a winters day, undated.
Sachsenhausen concentration camp, north of Oranienburg, which, along with its more than 50 satellite camps, provided the armaments industry in northern Germany with cheap slave labor, particularly during the Second World War. Roll call on a winters day, undated.

As the Nazis realised that they would have to start closing down their death camps in the east, prisoners were transferred further west to established concentration camps. Typically these were not extermination camps but concentration camps designed to punish rather than kill all of the inmates. Conditions would change with the new arrivals.

At first trains were used for transferring such prisoners, if none were available then forced marches were used. The conditions on the marches were appalling and often became instruments of torture and death themselves. Although Jews were prominent among their number, many other people were caught up, including the citizens who had been forcibly displaced from Warsaw.

Sachsenhausen had been opened in 1936 for German political prisoners. The regime was harsh, executions were common, as well as deaths from other causes. But the prisoners here saw a step change in conditions with the arrival of the transferees from the east.

Odd Nansen was a political prisoner from Norway, with a relatively privileged position, able to receive occasional food parcels from home. His diary, kept in secret at great risk, covered events in the camp – and he also sought to record the stories of other inmates:

13th December.

One big transport after another is arriving in camp. From Auschwitz, from other camps in Poland, from camps in Germany, and “evacuated” Jews by thousands from Hungary.

Two thousand six hundred Jews arrived the other day from Budapest. The transport hadn’t taken more than three days. Eighty died on the way, and when they got here they were left standing out in the cold most of the night. Eight died on the parade-ground. None had had a drop of water for three days. Food they had brought from home.

I remember, when the first transport of “evacuees” arrived from Warsaw, we were indignant that women, children and the aged should be dragged off in such transports. Now there aren’t many who react. Children, some under ten years old, are detained as convicts here and in other camps. The women are sent to camps of their own.

The aged are allowed to die here. The process is short, but not painless. It’s terrible to see them. Those who come from Poland, for instance, have nothing to put on but the rags issued here, and it’s the depth of winter. Only a very few have anything on their feet but wooden boards tied on with straps or string.

Of course they get pneumonia, tuberculosis and other illnesses and succumb in hundreds. They totter round for a while, go into the Revier [the camp ‘hospital’ or sickbay] (unless they’re Jews, in which case they’re not admitted) and there the crown is set on the work, especially in the Schonungsblocken [a block within the sickbay area], where they’re treated more like animals than anything else.

If one goes through one of the Schonungsblocken (as I have been doing regularly of late), one keeps on seeing living skeletons. Starving Poles, especially those with Durchfall (diarrhoea) who can’t retain any of the miserable fare they get. Diet? One can only laugh. An unknown concept.

A Jewish builder from Budapest, whom I’ve got to know, and who was on the terrible march from South Serbia to Germany, told me that one of his arms began to swell up and ache. He went to the doctor, who diagnosed periostitis, put the arm in splints and bandaged it, explaining that it was due to under-nourishment and the lack of certain substances in his food. He must eat more, a more nourishing and varied diet-fat for one thing. Merely a gibe; a frigid sneer.

The other evening I was talking to an old Pole in that Schonungsblocken. He was sixty-seven, but looked ninety-seven; bones, sinews and skin apart, I’ll wager his flesh and stomach didn’t weigh five kilos.

That he could hold himself up was a miracle, but obviously a miracle which would soon cease. He had great difficulty in speaking, and he spoke nothing but Polish. An interpreter translated. He was a Polish peasant from the Warsaw district, and had been “evacuated” here, starving and suffering; of the rest of his family, children and wife, he knew nothing. They had lost each other during the “evacuation”.

Now he had Durchfall and couldn’t eat. He had already gone out, was no longer a man, only a poor, suffering, still living creature waiting for peace. There are hundreds and thousands like him, innocent, harmless—suffering human beings.

See Odd Nansen: Day After Day

18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in 1941 after a three-month march across Germany - Sachsenhausen was used as an experimental site for the gas chambers.
18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in 1941 after a three-month march across Germany – Sachsenhausen was used as an experimental site for the gas chambers.

Sonderkommando of Auschwitz face up to their deaths

An Allied reconnaissance photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau taken on 29 November 1944, annotated by the CIA in 1978.
An Allied reconnaissance photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau taken on 29 November 1944, annotated by the CIA in 1978.

As the Russians continued their advance in the east the Nazis were finally compelled to consider the future of Auschwitz. The mass murder by gassing of trainloads of men, women and children had continued through to November. Now the Nazis began the process of demolishing some of the killing facilities.

As well as demolishing the crematoria the Nazis had decided to kill off the men who worked in them, the men employed in the Sonderkommando. These were the men with the grisly job of removing bodies from the Gas chambers and sorting out the personal effects. Records show that a demolition team was chosen from among these existing prisoners on 5th December.

A previous attempt to ‘select’ some of the Sonderkommando in October had resulted in a revolt, when the prisoners had attacked the SS with stones, only to be cut down by machine guns. Unlike new arrivals at Auschwitz these men were fully aware of their intended fate and knew thy had nothing to lose. Now as the SS began one of their final selections, they were taking no chances and those awaiting their fate were surrounded by heavily armed SS guards.

Filip Muller was one of those who narrowly escaped one more time, selected to live a little longer in order to keep just one of the crematoria in operation:

For a start, the three pathologists and their assistants were sent to one side and after them the thirty prisoners, including myself, billeted in crematorium 5. Finally the SS chose a third group of some seventy prisoners who were to form the demolition team.

The rest were told they would be transferred to camp Grossrosen. What happened to them we never learned, but we all realized that their time had come.

Suddenly from out of the ranks of doomed prisoners stepped the young Rabbinical student who had worked in the hair-drying team. He turned to Oberscharfuhrer Muhsfeld and with sublime courage told him to be quiet.

Then he began to speak to the crowd:

‘Brothers!’ he cried, ‘it is God’s unfathomable will that we are to lay down our lives. A cruel and accursed fate has compelled us to take part in the extermination of our people, and now we are ourselves to become dust and ashes. No miracle has happened.

Heaven has sent no avenging bolts of lightning. No rain has fallen strong enough to extinguish the funeral pyres built by the hand of man. We must submit to the inevitable with jewish resignation. It will be the last trial sent to us by heaven. It is not for us to question the reasons, for we are as nothing before Almighty God. Be not afraid of death!

Even if we could, by some chance, save our lives, what use would that be to us now? In vain we would search for our murdered relatives. We should be alone, without a family, without relatives, without friends, without a place we might call our own, condemned to roam the world aimlessly. For us there would be neither rest nor peace of mind until one day we would die in some corner, lonely and forsaken. Therefore, brothers, let us now go to meet death bravely and with dignity!’

The SS did not interrupt him while he spoke. When he had finished there was complete silence among the selected men. The sight of muzzles aimed at them from all sides had convinced them very forcibly of the futility of any resistance and the words they had just heard only underlined the hopelessness of their situation.

Among this desperate crowd of men I recognized Dr Pach, most selfless and devoted of doctors, as well as the two dental mechanics whose job had been to melt down the gold taken from the mouths of the dead. As long as they were in the Sonderkommando they had consciously existed like corpses waiting their turn. And now the time they had dreaded, the hour they had hoped and prayed would pass them by, had come at last.

I, too, felt wretched and depressed for, though so far I had managed to slip through the selection net I knew it could not be long before my turn would come.

Once the gassings had finally ceased, only one crematorium was kept working, burning the corpses of prisoners who had died in the main and auxiliary camps. In the same building behind a wooden partition was the dissecting room where Dr Mengele and his assistants continued with their pseudo-medical experiments.

See Filip Muller: Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers

British soldiers discover horrors of Vught camp

Vught Concentration Camp: The electrically charged barbed wire fence around Vught concentration camp near Hertogenbosch in Holland.
Vught Concentration Camp: The electrically charged barbed wire fence around Vught concentration camp near Hertogenbosch in Holland.
Vught Concentration Camp: A high wall surrounding part of the concentration camp at Vught topped with steel spikes and broken glass.
Vught Concentration Camp: A high wall surrounding part of the concentration camp at Vught topped with steel spikes and broken glass.

The 4th King’s Own Scottish Borderers had arrived in France in late October and, in late November, found themselves taking over positions from the Canadians in Holland.

Unusually they found themselves billeted in military barracks which had been captured from the Germans. Peter White was one of the officers who soon discovered more about the history of their new base:

Our billets were mostly in a large incomplete German barracks consisting of pleasant red-brick buildings sprinkled in a pine wood on sandy soil beside a lake. These SS barracks struck us as delightful in their appearance and surroundings. They were modern, spacious, airy and only marred by harsh war-theme mural paintings.

We had not, however, yet seen the whole camp. The beauty and birdsong, the lake and the pinewoods were but a facade to a hidden horror which really staggered us. Vught, we soon found, included a notorious concentration camp.

Pitifully few of the original inhabitants had survived to be liberated and the buildings now housed Dutch Quislings and German civilians bombed out from Aachen.

Tammy, Charles and I strolled over to have a look. When we arrived these new inmates were being stripped and sprinkled with DDT powder to de-louse them. It all looked very. peaceful and orderly.

The same careful planning and construction had been lavished here as in the barracks, but in this case on scientific, modern, chromium-plated torture and methods of lingering and mass death as applied by painstaking Teutonic minds. We walked as in a-daze from one monstrous site to another.

Here were chambers where people were gassed to death, then for experimental variety others where they were locked in and steamed to death. A guard was reported to have said: ‘You can tell when they are dead when the screaming stops,’

Near this was a vivisection room where people were trussed on marble slab operating tables thoughtfully provided with grooves to drain off the blood. Six-inch iron spikes formed a carpet with a possible use we shuddered to think about. Then there were the more orthodox and classical tortures of thumb-screws, racks for stretching and solitary-confinement cells and other horrors we could only guess the use of.

Concrete operating table for the dissection of dead prisoners at Vught concentration camp.
Concrete operating table for the dissection of dead prisoners at Vught concentration camp.

Some of the confinement cells were small brick structures the size of dog-kennels in which the victim was locked doubled—up to fit in.

Outside stood a gibbet with a well-worn noose. Under this structure were two wooden blocks that tapered to a tiny base. The purpose was to string the victim up by the neck precariously balancing on tip-toe on the wobbling blocks. Here we were told the agonised victim might sway for hours until either fatigue or desperation caused the slight movement necessary to topple the blocks and complete the execution.

Beside the gibbet stood a triple crematorium, one unit being mobile. The walls of this building were shelved with little earthenware jars for the ash. This ash lay like thick grey flour all over the floor and on our boots while another pathetic little scattering of it dusted a well-worn metal stretcher which was used for the cremation.

The remains of 13,000 other victims, who had arrived too swiftly for the crematoria to cope, had been buried in a part open lime pit at the door.

We had started to get a clearer idea not only of our enemy, but more important to us, the reason for our presence in Europe. Tammy, Charles and I were far more thoughtful as we returned past the watch towers, electric and barbed-wire fences and ditches which surrounded the camp than we had been on our way in.

We were staggered to think that such monsters could exist to staff and run such a place, yet some news from the front showed that apparently any German unit with a stiffening of SS troops was capable of this. Just down river from our arc of, front, west of the blown rail-bridge, the Canadians whom we were taking over from reported that German troops had herded men women and children into Heusden church and there burned them to death.

See Peter White: With the Jocks: A Soldier’s Struggle for Europe 1944-45

Vught had been liberated by the Canadians on the 26th October. Around 500 bodies lay in the grounds, executed earlier that day as the SS sought to close down the camp. Another 500 people were waiting to be executed but were rescued by the unexpectedly swift advance of the 4th Canadian Armor Division.

Vught had served two functions. It had been a transit camp for Jews deported from France, Belgium and Holland, en route to the extermination camps further east. It had also been the main security camp (Schutzhaftlager) for political detainees from Belgium and Holland. Anyone suspected of opposing the Nazis might be sent here – and many died here.

A portable gallows for executions in Vught concentration camp.
A portable gallows for executions in Vught concentration camp.
The crematorium oven at Vught concentration camp. In the foreground is a pile of the ashes of human bodies.
The crematorium oven at Vught concentration camp. In the foreground is a pile of the ashes of human bodies.

The Pianist survives alone in burnt out Warsaw

Burnt out tram amongst the ruins of Marszałkowska Street (looking south) in Warsaw after the Uprising's surrender. The building in the right foreground was Cinema Capitol on 125 Marszałkowska Street. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.
Burnt out tram amongst the ruins of Marszałkowska Street (looking south) in Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender. The building in the right foreground was Cinema Capitol on 125 Marszałkowska Street. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.
Ruins of Szpitalna Street in Warsaw after the Uprising's surrender. Note the ruins of the Prudential skyscraper in the background. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.
Ruins of Szpitalna Street in Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender. Note the ruins of the Prudential skyscraper in the background. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.
Ruins of an unidentified street in Warsaw after the Uprising's surrender. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.
Ruins of an unidentified street in Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

After the Germans finally ended the Warsaw Uprising they deported the entire remaining population and set about razing the city to the ground. A few hundred Poles managed to escape the deportations, choosing to live on in hiding places in the city. Many were Jews who had been hiding from the Nazis since before the end of the Jewish ghetto.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was one such survivor. He had had many narrow escapes since he had played Chopin on Polish Radio as the Nazis invaded Poland and bombed Warsaw in 1939. Until 1942 he had lived with his family in the ghetto – until they were all sent to be murdered in Treblinka. On that occasion he had been plucked from the lines waiting to board the cattle wagons on a whim of a Jewish policeman.

His survival since then had similarly been dependant on luck and a few brave Poles prepared to help him. In despair during the Uprising he had attempted suicide, but the pills he took were too weak.

Wladyslaw Szpilman believed himself to be alone, he had no contact with anyone else in the city:

I was alone: alone not just in a single building or even a single part of a city, but alone in a whole city that only two months ago had had a population of a million and a half and was one of the richer cities of Europe.

It now consisted of the chimneys of burnt-out buildings pointing to the sky, and whatever walls the bombing had spared: a city of rubble and ashes under which the centuries-old culture of my people and the bodies of hundreds of thousands of murdered victims lay buried, rotting in the warmth of these late autumn days and filling the air with a dreadful stench.

People visited the ruins only by day, riff-raff from outside the city furtively slinking about with shovels over their shoulders, scattering through the cellars in search of loot. One of them chose my own ruined home. He mustn’t find me here; no one was to know of my presence. When he came up the stairs and was only two floors below me, I roared in a savage, threatening voice, ‘What’s going on? Get out! Rrraus!’ He shot away like a startled rat: the last of the wretched, a man scared off by the voice of the last poor devil left alive here.

Towards the end of October I was looking down from my attic and saw the Germans picking up one of these packs of hyenas. The thieves tried to talk their way out of trouble. I heard them repeating again and again, ‘From Pruszkow, from Pruszkow,’ and pointing to the west. The soldiers stood four of the men up against the nearest wall and shot them with their revolvers, despite their whimpering pleas for their lives.

They ordered the rest to dig a grave in the garden of one of the villas, bury the bodies and get out. After that even the thieves kept away from this part of the city. I was the only living soul here now.

The first day of November was approaching, and it was beginning to get cold, particularly at night. To keep myself from going mad in my isolation, I decided to lead as disciplined a life as possible. I still had my watch, the pre-war Omega I treasured as the apple of my eye, along with my fountain pen. They were my sole personal possessions. I conscientiously kept the watch wound and drew up a time-table by it.

I lay motionless all day long to conserve what little strength I had left, putting out my hand only once, around midday, to fortify myself with a rusk and a mug of water sparingly portioned out. From early in the morning until I took this meal, as I lay there with my eyes closed, I went over in my mind all the compositions I had ever played, bar by bar.

Later, this mental refresher course turned out to have been useful: when I went back to work I still knew my repertory and had almost all of it in my head, as if I had been practising all through the war.

Then, from my midday meal until dusk, I systematically ran through the contents of all the books I had read, mentally repeating my English vocabulary. I gave myself English lessons, asking myself questions and trying to answer them correctly and at length.

When darkness came I fell asleep. I would wake around one in the morning and go in search of food by the light of matches — I had found a supply of them in the building, in a flat that had not been entirely burnt out.

I looked in cellars and the charred ruins of the flats, finding a little oatmeal here, a few pieces of bread there, some dank flour, water in tubs, buckets and jugs.

I don’t know how many times I passed the charred body on the stairs during these expeditions. He was the sole companion whose presence I need not fear. Once I found an unexpected treasure in a cellar: half a litre of spirits. I decided to save it until the end of the war came.

See Wladyslaw Szpilman: The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945

Graves in the ruins of an unidentified street in Warsaw. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.
Graves in the ruins of an unidentified street in Warsaw. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.
Ruins of Szpitalna Street in Warsaw after the Uprising's surrender. Note the ruins of the Prudential skyscraper in the background. The building in the right foreground is the Wedel House on 8 Szpitalna Street. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.
Ruins of Szpitalna Street in Warsaw after the Uprising’s surrender. Note the ruins of the Prudential skyscraper in the background. The building in the right foreground is the Wedel House on 8 Szpitalna Street. Photograph probably taken on 20 November 1944.

An Italian family arrives in Auschwitz

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

Italy had a long established Jewish community that was almost completely integrated into society. It was not until late in the Mussolini’s regime that he passed anti-semitic laws. It was only after September 1943, when the Nazis effectively took control of the country, that real persecution began.

The Sonnino family from Genoa managed to evade the arrests and deportations for just over a year. When they were eventually discovered in October 1944 they were almost immediately put on a transport bound directly for Auschwitz.

Piera Sonnino was twenty-two years old when she arrived in Auschwitz with the seven other members of her family:

Night and cold, enter through the window slit of the boxcar when the train stops yet again. We are sunk in a somnolence that has possessed us for hours — as if consciousness had been reduced to the point of forgetting oneself. This stop is lasting a long time, but we aren’t paying attention.

Suddenly an inferno of shouts and whistles explodes outside. It’s as if a thousand dogs were barking in a battle. The doors of the cars are jerked open violently. Beams of light blind us. Soldiers in black and gray uniforms shout incomprehensible words at us. We jump to our feet, terrified. A big truck is maneuvering to approach the freight car. When it stops, the untranslatable orders multiply. A wooden plank is thrown down between the door of the car and the truck.

A soldier orders a woman to move. The plank is a narrow, quivering bridge, but we must cross it. I am among the first, in the group of young women. The old women have withdrawn to the back of the car; one of them has fainted. I have time to glance at the place we’re in while I struggle, with my injured ankle, to get across the plank before the tent roof of the truck onto which we are being loaded is lowered.

Images that last fractions of a second. Images of eternity. In the distance, a long line of little lights, and in the fog immense pylons, like skeletons. A sea of mud, a plain of mud. A freezing, dark, muddy madness. I feel as if I had entered a dimension where nothing is human, that is utterly hostile to everything human, a dimension that has absorbed even its own creators, becoming a cold machine, muddy and dark, fatal and inexorable, topped by a small flame that I see for an instant as in the distance it breaks the darkness, as if the sky were burning: I don’t yet know what it is.

The truck transports us to a large shed. We get out. We wait for the others. We wait for our brothers. Signora Saralvo asks us: “Do you think they will bring the men here, too?” The pregnant woman has her hands on her stomach as if she wished to protect what is in it. Gradually the shed grows crowded.

We are at the center of the nightmare that ten years earlier had sent us its messengers. All Europe is in its power, even if by now its days are numbered.

The hours pass slowly in the shed. A jolt of horror when the door opens and a skeleton enters, eyes bright, wearing a striped uniform that hangs loosely on his incredibly thin body. The men crowd around. The skeleton is holding a bucket. He stops for a few moments, then with slow steps crosses the shed and disappears. Others follow. They are assigned to the camps latrines. Night shift.

One of them stops in front of me. He points to my bandaged ankle and makes a sign to take off the bandage right away. I hesitate because I don’t understand. The word “selection” strikes me among others. The skeleton turns to the men and speaks agitatedly. He speaks in German.

Someone translates. We must immediately remove any sign that might reveal physical impairment. Wounds or illnesses. The selections are becoming more and more severe. The gas chambers and the ovens are functioning non-stop. Anyone who is unable to work is eliminated. I immediately take off the thin paper bandage that binds my ankle. The words seem to come not from the mouth of a man but from the night.

We beg Papa to do the same with his cast. Papa shakes his head. He doesn’t seem to understand what we’re saying. He sinks down among us and remains motionless, eyes closed. Mamma takes his hand and grips it. Roberto, Paolo, Maria Luisa, Bice, and I gather around our parents and Giorgio. We spend the rest of the night like that, and whatever I could say of that time, it wouldn’t make sense translated into words; it would be a thin shadow of that reality. I would be stealing it from myself, from what is mine, desperately mine alone.

Gray fingers at the windows of the shed signaled that dawn had come when the SS burst in. Machine guns raised, they array themselves around us, enclosing us in a circle. Three officers, one of whom wears the insignia of a doctor, order us to stand and line up. As each of us is called, he takes a step forward, and the doctor inspects, examines, tests the arm muscles.

We are divided into three groups: the old, the young men, and the young women. Everything happens rapidly. We don’t even have time to exchange farewells: the group of young women is the first to leave the shed amid a storm of orders shouted in a loud voice.

Not even once can we turn, not a single time, to see Mamma and Papa and our brothers again. We are shoved brutally outside, into the mud that sticks to our shoes, into the freezing air. Signora Saralvo isn’t with us: weeping, she told the doctor she was sick. She was added to the group of the old and the infirm.

It is October 28, 1944.

See Piera Sonnino: This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz. Piera Sonnino was the only survivor from her family. She wrote her memoir for her daughters and it was only published after her death in 1999.