The Pianist survives alone in burnt out Warsaw

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.

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

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 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.

Yom Kippur – Dr Mengele selects young boys for gassing


27 September 1944: Yom Kippur – Dr Mengele selects young boys for gassing

No, no, there was no other explanation; it was one hundred per cent clear to everyone why this was being done. All of us began stretching ourselves, each one wanted to be another centimetre higher, another half-centimetre. I also tried to stretch myself a little but I soon gave up in despair, for I saw that even boys taller than I was, failed to reach the required height – their heads did not touch the plank.

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

In the summer of 1944 approximately three thousand boys and aged between fourteen and sixteen were kept in a separate part of the camp at Auschwitz, not being used for forced labour. They were separated from their families when they arrived at the ramp after getting off the trains.

On September 17 1944: the Jewish festival of Rosh HaShanah began at sunset. On that day 1000 of the Jewish boys kept in Auschwitz were selected for the gas chambers. There was then a break while a number of transports arriving from Theresienstadt were dealt with.

On September 26 1944, Yom Kippur began at sunset – and this was the excuse for another ‘selection’. Joseph Zalman Kleinman described the process that followed during the trial of Adolf Eichman. He was fourteen years old in 1944, he and his brother had been separated from their father, mother and younger sister when they arrived at Auschwitz – they never saw them again:

What happened on Yom Kippur?

A. There were about two thousand youths left. We thought that perhaps that would be the end of the matter. Then, the day before Yom Kippur – I remember – in the morning the news spread around that they were going to distribute an additional ration of bread. Usually they would hand out a quarter or a fifth of a loaf of bread; that day they brought to our hut a ration of a quarter, a third of a loaf of bread, together with additions of cheese and other items. There had never been anything like that in Auschwitz. We were very glad that we would be able to fast the next day.

Q. That means, you thought that you would be able to eat more on the eve of Yom Kippur in order to fast the following day?

A. Yes. All day the boys spoke about this sudden generosity. And we were happy that we would be able to fast the following day. But we still did not know what was in store for us that day. During the afternoon, roughly at three o’clock, suddenly there was an order for a curfew. There was shouting in the street. We had hardly managed to get inside the barracks when a new order was given – all the boys were to go to the football field. There was a football field in the camp which evidently was intended for the Gypsies who had previously been in this camp and who were put to death a few weeks before. Each hut commander brought his boys to the football field.

A lot was happening there. The chief official, all the camp officials, every Kapo and the hut commanders were assembled on the field and arranged us in groups of hundreds. Someone started the rumour that they were going to take us to gather the potato harvest from the environs of Auschwitz. They formed us into groups – we were two thousand youths. Suddenly a shudder passed over the entire ground as if we had been struck by a electric shock. The “Angel of Death” appeared.

Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele

Q. Who was that?

A. Dr. Mengele appeared, riding his bicycle; someone approached him, took the bicycle from him and placed it near the hut. I was standing near the road with my group. Dr. Mengele folded his hands behind his back, he was tight- lipped as usual, he went onto the field, lifted his hand so that his gaze could take in the entire field. Then his glance fell on a small boy, about fifteen years old, possibly fourteen, something like that, who was standing not far from me in the front row; he was a boy from the Lodz Ghetto, I remember his face very well, he was blond, thin and very sunburnt. His face was covered in freckles. He stood in the front row, Mengele came up to him and asked him: “How old are you?” The boy was shaking and said: “I am eighteen years old.” I saw immediately that Dr. Mengele was very angry and he began shouting: “I’ll show you!” Then he started shouting: Bring me a hammer, nails and a “Leiste” – a sort of narrow plank.

Somebody ran off right away and we stood there, looking at him in absolute silence. The silence of death prevailed on the field; he was standing in the middle and all of us were looking at him. Meanwhile this man came back with the tools, and as soon as he approached, Dr. Mengele went up to one of the boys, standing in the front row; he had a round face and looked fine. Dr. Mengele went up to him, grabbed him by the shoulder and took him to the goal-post on the football field. There were two goal-posts for a game of football. He led him by the shoulder, and the man with the tools walked with him. He stood him against one of the goal- posts and gave orders to knock this plank in at a height above the boy’s head so that he formed a kind of inverted “L.” And then Dr. Mengele gave orders for the first group to pass underneath this plank. The first group began walking in single file.

Q. Did he say what was going to happen to you?

A. He did not have to tell us any longer – we understood.

Q. What did you understand?

A. We already understood that the smaller ones, whose height did not reach the plank, were destined to die.

Q. Did you think there could also be another explanation?

A. No, no, there was no other explanation; it was one hundred per cent clear to everyone why this was being done. All of us began stretching ourselves, each one wanted to be another centimetre higher, another half-centimetre. I also tried to stretch myself a little but I soon gave up in despair, for I saw that even boys taller than I was, failed to reach the required height – their heads did not touch the plank.

Presiding Judge: That means that all of them passed under the plank?

Witness Kleinman: Yes. All of them passed through in single file. And each one whose head did not touch this plank went to the other side of the field, together with the little ones who were doomed to die.

Attorney General: Did your brother succeed in touching the plank?

Witness Kleinman: Yes. My brother was standing next to me. In general I was so preoccupied with myself that I scarcely worried about him, for he was one of the taller boys – he was sixteen years old; by chance, that was his sixteenth birthday.

Q. Did he manage to touch the plank?

A. Yes. I stood there in total despair. I thought to myself “My life is ending here.” Suddenly my brother whispered to me, saying: “Don’t you want to live? Do something!” I woke up, as from a dream, and began searching for a way of saving myself. My mind worked rapidly. Suddenly I caught sight of pebbles scattered around me. I thought that perhaps I could be saved in this way. We were all standing in line, at attention. I bent down without being noticed and seized some handfuls of pebbles. I untied the laces of my shoes and began stuffing pebbles into my shoes. I was wearing shoes which were larger than my size. I filled my shoes with pebbles under my heels and I gained two centimetres. I thought that, perhaps, this would be sufficient.

Meanwhile I felt that I was unable to remain standing at attention with the pebbles in my shoes. It wasn’t easy. I told my brother I was going to throw the stones away. My brother said to me: “Don’t throw them away, I’ll give you something.” He gave me a hat. I tore the hat into two pieces and I began inserting the rags made from the hat into my shoes, so that it would be softer for me.

Q. Perhaps we could make it briefer, Mr. Kleinman. Did you pass the test?

Presiding Judge: But, nevertheless, let us hear how he got through.

Witness Kleinman: I stood for ten minutes with the stones and the rags inside my shoes. I thought that perhaps I might reach the required height. Meanwhile all the boys went on passing that spot. Two would reach the necessary height and two would not. I stood where I was. Ultimately my brother looked at me and said: “That is not high enough.” Then I began to fear, perhaps I would fail because of nervousness lest, when I began walking, they would realize that I had something in my shoes. I asked my brother and someone else, who could look around better, that they should estimate what my height was. Both of them said that I had no chance of reaching the desired height.

So I then began looking around for a way to escape and get to the taller ones who had already passed the plank, the selection. They were drawn up in ranks of hundreds, on the opposite side, and the shorter ones who had not reached the plank and the required height were lined up on the other side of the field. The shorter ones were trying to force their way into the second group. I also stole my way into the taller ones. For a short while I thought that I had already saved myself. Then one other boy tried to steal into the group of the taller ones.

Dr. Mengele noticed what was happening. He began shouting at the guards and at the Kapos: “What are do doing here – sabotage?” And he gave orders for the whole group to pass once again under the plank. On the way to the plank I again got away to the place where I had formerly been standing. There was a narrow passage, guards walked in front of each one and another behind; nevertheless I stole into my former group.

Attorney General: Those who passed under the plank?

Witness Kleinman: No, the ones who had not yet passed through. I thought it was worthwhile to live even for half- an-hour under an illusion. From there, a quarter of an hour later, I again stole my way into the taller ones – nobody noticed me. Thus the selection ended. About one thousand out of the two thousand did not reach the required height.

Q. What happened to them?

A. When this selection of the thousand ended, the thousand who reached the required height, that was not enough for Dr. Mengele. He examined our bodies. We had to undress to the waist.

Q. My question is: What happened to those who did not reach the required height?

A. Those who did not reach the required height were locked into Huts 25 and 26. Darkness was falling.

Q. What happened to them eventually?

A. They kept them locked up in the two huts until two days after Yom Kippur.

Q. And after that, what happened?

A. They were transferred to the gas chambers – they were exterminated in the gas chambers. There were a thousand of us who remained. Then we knew that this was the system.

Q. Did you see any connection between Yom Kippur and this method of selection?

A. We gained the impression that Mengele wanted to show us – there it was written in the prayer “He causes his flock to pass beneath his rod” – and he wanted to show the Jews of Auschwitz that he was the one who was causing us to pass, and no-one else.

Presiding Judge: Was Dr. Mengele so well-informed in such matters?

Witness Kleinman: Apparently he was well-informed in such matters, for there had never been such a selection in Auschwitz.

Attorney General: Did he want to prove that he was causing his flock to pass under his rod?

A. Yes. In this way one thousand boys remained. We realized that this was a method of exterminating on Festival days.

Read the whole of the evidence of Joseph Zalman Kleinman at the Trial of Adolf Eichmann

Jewish twins kept alive to be used in Mengele's medical experiments. These children were liberated from Auschwitz by the Red Army in January 1945.
Jewish twins kept alive to be used in Mengele’s medical experiments. These children were liberated from Auschwitz by the Red Army in January 1945.

Secret images taken by Auschwitz Sonderkommando







One photos shows one of the stakes at which bodies were burned when the crematoria could not manage to burn all the bodies. The bodies in the foreground are waiting to be thrown into the fire. Another picture shows one of the places in the forest where people undress before ‘showering’ – as they were told – and then go to the gas-chambers.

The original image of women undressing in the woods shortly after that have arrived at Auschwitz.
The original image of women undressing in the woods shortly after they have arrived at Auschwitz.
An enlargement of this image showing the women making their way to what they have been told are “Showers”.

Even as German forces retreated in the east and the west, the Nazi extermination camps were as busy as ever. Trains were still being sent from all round Europe, taking Jews to their deaths. On the 4th September 1944 Anne Frank and her family were stuck in a cattle car somewhere in Germany, en route to Auschwitz from the Netherlands.

Inside Auschwitz a small but very significant act of rebellion was taking place. The special squad of prisoners who worked in the gas chambers were smuggling out some pictures of the death camp in action. The ‘Sonderkammando’s duties included sorting out the huge quantities of victims’ property – it is very likely that the camera was acquired in this process.

The pictures were snatched covertly. This was the subsequent account of Alter Fajnzylberg:

[S]omewhere about midway through 1944, we decided to take pictures secretly to record our work… From the very beginning, several prisoners from our Sonderkommando were in on my secret: Szlomo Dragon, his brother Josek Dragon, and Alex, a Greek Jew whose surname I do not remember. Some of us were to guard the person taking the pictures.

In other words, we were to keep a careful watch for the approach of anyone who did not know the secret, and above all for any SS men moving about in the area… We all gathered at the western entrance leading from the outside to the gas-chamber of Crematorium V …

Alex, the Greek Jew, quickly took out his camera, pointed it towards a heap of burning bodies, and pressed the shutter… Another picture was taken from the other side of the building, where women and men were undressing among the trees. They were from a transport that was to be murdered in the gas-chamber of Crematorium V.

The film was smuggled out of the camp in a tube of toothpaste to the Polish Resistance on 4th September, with this message:

Urgent. Send two metal rolls of film for 6×9 as fast as possible. Have possibility of taking photos. Sending you photos of Birkenau showing prisoners sent to gas chambers. One photos shows one of the stakes at which bodies were burned when the crematoria could not manage to burn all the bodies. The bodies in the foreground are waiting to be thrown into the fire. Another picture shows one of the places in the forest where people undress before ‘showering’ – as they were told – and then go to the gas-chambers. Send film roll as fast as you can. Send the enclosed photos to Tell – we think enlargements of the photos can be sent further.

See Yad Vashem for more.

One of the original images believed to have been taken by Alex, Aleko or Alekos, a member of the Sonderkommando from Greece, often named as Alberto, Albert or Alex Errera, a Greek army or naval officer who died in Auschwitz in 1944.
One of the original images believed to have been taken by Alex, Aleko or Alekos, a member of the Sonderkommando from Greece, often named as Alberto, Albert or Alex Errera, a Greek army or naval officer who died in Auschwitz in 1944.
An enlargement of this image showing the bodies that have been taken out the gas chambers. They will be burnt in fire pits that were used when crematoria ovens did not have the capacity to deal with all the bodies.
An enlargement of this image showing the bodies that have been taken out the gas chambers. They will be burnt in fire pits that were used when crematoria ovens did not have the capacity to deal with all the bodies.

Primo Levi, who was a prisoner elsewhere in Auschwitz-Birkenau, subsequently described the work and fate of the men who found themselves selected to work in the Sonderkommando:

An extreme case of collaboration is represented by the Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps. Here one hesitates to speak of privilege: whoever belonged to this group was privileged only to the extent that — but at what cost — he had enough to eat for a few months, certainly not because he could be envied.

With this duly vague definition, ‘Special Squad’, the SS referred to the group of prisoners who were entrusted with the running of the crematoria. It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) who must be sent into the gas chambers; to extract the corpses from the chambers, pull gold teeth from jaws, cut the women’s hair, sort and classify clothes, shoes, and the contents of the luggage; transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee the opera- tion of the ovens; extract and eliminate the ashes.

The Special Squad in Auschwitz numbered, depending on the moment, from seven hundred to one thousand active members. These Special Squads did not escape everyone else’s fate; on the contrary, the SS exerted the greatest diligence to prevent any man who had been part of it from surviving and telling.

Twelve squads succeeded each other in Auschwitz; each one remained operative for a few months, then it was suppressed, each time with a different trick to head off possible resistance, and as its initiation the next squad burnt the corpses of its predecessors.

The Special Squads, since they were bearers of a horrendous secret, were kept rigorously apart from the other prisoners and the outside world.

Nevertheless, as is known to anyone who had gone through similar experiences, no barrier is ever without a flaw: information, possibly incomplete or distorted, has a tremendous power of penetration, and something always does filter through.

Concerning these squads, vague and mangled rumours already circulated among us during our imprisonment, and were confirmed afterwards by the other sources mentioned before, but the intrinsic horror of this human condition has imposed a sort of reserve on all the testimony; so even today it is difficult to conjure up an image of ‘what it meant’ to be forced to exercise this trade for months.

It has been testified that a large amount of alcohol was put at the disposal of those wretches and that they were in a permanent state of complete debasement and prostration.

One of them declared: ‘Doing this work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets accustomed to it.’ Another, though: ‘Certainly, I could have killed myself or got myself killed; but I wanted to survive, to avenge myself and bear witness. You mustn’t think that we are monsters; we are the same as you, only much more unhappy.’

See Primo Levi: The Drowned and the Saved

The third image also shows the process of burning the bodies.
The third image also shows the process of burning the bodies.

Report on the Majdanek death camp is “Unbelievable”


11 August 1944: Report on the Majdanek death camp is “Unbelievable”

The inside of this barrack was made of concrete, and water taps came out of the wall, and around the room there were benches where the clothes were put down and afterwards collected. So this was the place into which they were driven. Or perhaps they were politely invited to “Step this way, please?” Did any of them suspect, while washing themselves after a long journey, what would happen a few minutes later? Anyway, after the washing was over, they were asked to go into the next room; at this point even the most unsuspecting must have begun to wonder.

Crematory ovens at Majdanek with piles of human ashes still in front, as seen after liberation.
Crematory ovens at Majdanek with piles of human ashes still in front, as seen after liberation.

By August 1944 the Allies had mounting evidence of the Nazi plans to murder all the Jews in Europe. They had detailed accounts that the Polish Resistance had smuggled out to Switzerland and the world. The most recent reports from escapees from Auschwitz had arrived only recently. The Nazi treatment of Jews had been condemned at the highest levels. Yet the enormity of Nazi crimes made these reports “incredible”.

Now the advancing Red Army uncovered the physical evidence of the extermination camps. The camp at Majdanek, [also spelled Maidanek] in eastern Poland had been overrun on 23 July. Soviet reports on the scale of the killing there, and at nearby Treblinka, were already being published when respected British journalist Alexander Werth arrived at the camp in August.

The evidence was widespread, from the piles of human ashes the SS had used to fertilise their cabbages, from the mountains of shoes left behind by tens of thousands of men, women and children, and from the eyewitness accounts of the citizens of Lublin. But the enormity of the crime made it impossible to comprehend that industrial scale killing had actually taken place here.

“Unbelievable” it was: when I sent the BBC a detailed report on Maidanek in August 1944, they refused to use it; they thought it was a Russian propaganda stunt, and it was not till the discovery in the west of Buchenwald, Dachau and Belsen that they were convinced that Maidanek and Auschwitz were also genuine…

Majdanek, Poland, Skulls in the death camp, after the liberation.
Majdanek, Poland, Skulls in the death camp, after the liberation.
Majdanek, Poland, Postwar, Documents of those murdered in the camp.
Majdanek, Poland, Postwar, Documents of those murdered in the camp.

As a consequence Werth’s report on his visit to Maidanek was not published at the time and dis not appear until after the war:

My first reaction to Maidanek was a feeling of surprise. I had imagined something horrible and sinister beyond words. It was nothing like that. It looked singularly harmless from outside. “Is that it? ” was my first reaction when we stopped at what looked like a large workers’ settlement. Behind us was the many towered skyline of Lublin.

There was much dust on the road, and the grass was a dull, greenish-grey colour. The camp was separated from the road by a couple of barbed-wire fences, but these did not look particularly sinister, and might have been put up outside any military or semi-military establishment. The place was large; like a whole town of barracks painted a pleasant soft green.

There were many people around – soldiers and civilians. A Polish sentry opened the barbed-wire gate to let our cars enter the central avenue, with large green barracks on either side. And then we stopped outside a large barrack marked Bad und Desinfektion II. “This,” somebody said, “is where large numbers of those arriving at the camp were brought in.”

The inside of this barrack was made of concrete, and water taps came out of the wall, and around the room there were benches where the clothes were put down and afterwards collected. So this was the place into which they were driven. Or perhaps they were politely invited to “Step this way, please?” Did any of them suspect, while washing themselves after a long journey, what would happen a few minutes later? Anyway, after the washing was over, they were asked to go into the next room; at this point even the most unsuspecting must have begun to wonder.

For the “next room” was a series of large square concrete structures, each about one-quarter of the size of the bath-house, and, unlike it, had no windows. The naked people (men one time, women another time, children the next) were driven or forced from the bath-house into these dark concrete boxes-about five yards square—and then, with 200 or 250 people packed into each box—and it was completely dark there, except for a small skylight in the ceiling and the spyhole in the door—the process of gassing began.

First some hot air was pumped in from the ceiling and then the pretty pale-blue crystals of Cyclon were showered down on the people, and in the hot wet air they rapidly evaporated. In anything from two to ten minutes everybody was dead… There were six concrete boxes – gas-chambers – side by side. “Nearly two thousand people could be disposed of here simultaneously,” one of the guides said.

But what thoughts passed through these people’s minds during those first few minutes while the crystals were falling; could anyone still believe that this humiliating process of being packed into a box and standing there naked, rubbing backs with other naked people, had anything to do with disinfection?

At first it was all very hard to take in, without an efiort of the imagination. There were a number of very dull-looking concrete structures which, if their doors had been wider, might anywhere else have been mistaken for a row of nice little garages. But the doors- the doors! They were heavy steel doors, and each had a heavy steel bolt.

And in the middle of the door was a spyhole, a circle, three inches in diameter composed of about a hundred small holes. Could the people in their death agony see the SS-man’s eye as he watched them? Anyway, the SS-man had nothing to fear: his eye was well- protected by the steel netting over the spyhole. And, like the proud maker of reliable safes, the maker of the door had put his name round the spyhole: “Auert, Berlin”.

Then a touch of blue on the floor caught my eye. It was very faint, but still legible. In blue chalk someone had scribbled the word “vergast” and had drawn crudely above it a skull and crossbones. I had never seen this word before, but it obviously meant “gassed” – and not merely “gassed” but, with that eloquent little prefix ver, “gassed out”. That’s this job finished, and now for the next lot. The blue chalk came into motion when there was nothing but a heap of naked corpses inside. But what cries, what curses, what prayers perhaps, had been uttered inside that gas chamber only a few minutes before?

Yet the concrete walls were thick, and Herr Auert had done a wonderful job, so probably no one could hear anything from outside. And even if they did, the people in the camp knew what it was all about.

It was here, outside Bad und Desinfektion II, in the side-lane leading into the central avenue, that the corpses were loaded into lorries, covered with tarpaulins, and carted to the crematorium at the other end of the camp, about half-a-mile away. Between the two there were dozens of barracks, painted the same soft green. Some had notice-boards outside, others had not.

Thus, there was an Effekten Kammer and a Frauen-Bekleidungskammer; here the victims’ luggage and the women’s clothes were sorted out, before they were sent to the central Lublin warehouse, and then on to Germany.

See Alexander Werth: Russia at War: 1941-1945

Reconnaissance photograph of the Majdanek concentration camp (June 24, 1944) from the collections of the Majdanek Museum, lower half: the barracks under deconstruction ahead of the Soviet offensive, with visible chimney stacks still standing and planks of wood piled up along the supply road; in the upper half, functioning barracks.
Reconnaissance photograph of the Majdanek concentration camp (June 24, 1944) from the collections of the Majdanek Museum, lower half: the barracks under deconstruction ahead of the Soviet offensive, with visible chimney stacks still standing and planks of wood piled up along the supply road; in the upper half, functioning barracks.

The SS murder the remaining prisoners at Treblinka


23 July 1944: The SS murder the remaining prisoners at Treblinka

We know about incredible orgies of the Germans, about how they raped girls and shot their forced lovers immediately afterwards, how a drunken German cut off a woman’s breast with a knife, how they threw people down from a top-floor window six metres from the ground, how a drunken company would take ten to fifteen prisoners from the barracks during the night and practise different methods of killing, without haste, shooting the doomed men in the heart, back of the head, eye, mouth, temple…

Treblinka, Poland, Bodies of inmates, shortly after the liberation. The Soviets did not have the facilities available to the British and Americans when they later uncovered the camps in the west - so the photographic record is not as complete.
Treblinka, Poland, Bodies of inmates, shortly after the liberation. The Soviets did not have the facilities available to the British and Americans when they later uncovered the camps in the west – so the photographic record is not as complete.

As the Red Army pushed westwards into Poland they surprised the SS who were stilling running the concentration camps and extermination camps in the area. They were under orders to kill off the remaining inmates, demolish the camps and obliterate all traces of what had happened. Through a mixture of incompetence and surprise this proved to be impossible in the time available. But there was still time to murder almost all of the remaining workers, workers who had been spared until now solely for the purpose running down and dismantling the camps.

Russian journalist Vasily Grossman arrived only days later and discovered what happened at Treblinka on 23 July 1944:

The camp was divided into rectangles. Barracks were built in absolutely straight lines. Birch trees were planted along the sand-covered paths. Asters and dahlias grew in the fertilised soil. Concrete pools were made for the water fowl, there were pools for washing with comfortable steps, outbuildings for the German personnel, a model bakery, a barber’s shop, garage, petrol station, warehouses.

The camp of Lublin—Majdanek and dozens of other labour camps where the Gestapo had planned a long and serious operation were organised according to the same formula, with little gardens, drinking fountains and concrete roads.

Camp No. 1 existed from the spring of 1941 until 23 July 1944. Surviving prisoners were annihilated when they could already hear an indistinct faraway rumble from Soviet artillery. In the early morning on the 23 July, guards and SS soldiers drank some schnapps for courage and began the liquidation of the camp. By the evening, all prisoners at the camp were killed and buried.

A carpenter from Warsaw, Max Levit, survived. He was wounded and lay under the corpses of his comrades until it was dark, and then he crawled into the forest. He told us how, when he was already lying in the trench, he heard the team of thirty boys from the camp sing the song ‘My Motherland is Vast’ just before the execution.

He heard how one of the boys shouted: ‘Stalin will avenge us!’ He heard how the leader of the boys, the camp favourite, red-haired Leib, who fell down into the trench after the salvo, lifted himself a little and asked: ‘Papa guard, you’ve missed. Please could you do it once again, one more time?’

But Grossman was to uncover much more than the last hours at Treblinka. Around 40 survivors and other witnesses from the local area were found and he was able to piece together a whole history of the murderous establishments at Treblinka. Treblinka I had operated ‘only’ as a ‘labour camp’, where forced labourers toiled in a quarry or cut wood in the forest. The murderous regime, which killed over half the prisoners who entered, was a grotesque mix of barbarism and sadism:

Now we know the whole story about German Ordnung at this labour camp…

We know about the work at the sand quarry, about those who did not fulfil the norm and were thrown into the pit from the cliff. We know about the food ration: 170 grams of bread and half a litre of slops which they called soup. We know about death from starvation, about the swollen people who were taken outside the barbed wire on wheelbarrows and shot.

We know about incredible orgies of the Germans, about how they raped girls and shot their forced lovers immediately afterwards, how a drunken German cut off a woman’s breast with a knife, how they threw people down from a top-floor window six metres from the ground, how a drunken company would take ten to fifteen prisoners from the barracks during the night and practise different methods of killing, without haste, shooting the doomed men in the heart, back of the head, eye, mouth, temple…

We know about the chief of the camp, the Dutch German Zan Eilen, a murderer, lover of good horses, a fast rider and lecher. We know about Stumpfe, who was seized by fits of involuntary laughter every time he killed one of the prisoners, or when an execution was carried out in his presence. He had the nickname ‘Laughing Death’…

We know about the one-eyed German from Odessa, Svidersky, whose nickname was ‘Master Hammer’. He was considered the unsurpassed specialist in ‘cold’ death, and it was he who had killed, in the course of several minutes, fifteen children aged from eight to thirteen, who had been declared unt for work.

We know about the thin SS man Preie who looked like a Gypsy, whose nickname was ‘Old Man’. He was gloomy and reticent. He worked off his boredom by sitting by the camp’s rubbish pit and waiting for prisoners who came secretly to eat potato peelings. He made them open their mouths and shot into their open mouths.

We know the name of professional murderers Schwarz and Ledeke. It was they who amused themselves by shooting at prisoners walking back from work at dusk. They killed twenty, thirty or forty people every day.

All these people had nothing human in them. Their distorted brains, hearts and souls, words and deeds, their habits were like a frightening caricature barely reminiscent of the features, thoughts, feelings, habits and deeds of normal Germans.

The order in the camp, and the documentation of murders, and love of monstrous jokes that somehow reminded one of those of drunken German soldiers, and the singing in chorus of sentimental songs among the puddles of blood, and the speeches with which they constantly addressed the doomed men, and their preaching, and religious sayings printed neatly on special pieces of paper — all these were the monstrous dragons and reptiles that developed from the embryo of traditional German chauvinism, arrogance, egoism, self-assurance, pedantic care for one’s own little nest, and the iron-cold indifference to the destiny of all that is living on the Earth, from the ferocious belief that German music, poetry, language, lawns, toilets, sky, buildings are the greatest in the Universe…

Grossman went on to record the the full horrors that later developed when Treblinka II was established as an extermination centre, an efficient killing machine that accounted for between 800,000 and 1,200,000 men women and children.

Grossman’s fully researched article did not appear until November 1944, it is regarded as one of his most eloquent and important works. It was so authoritative that it was part of the evidence accepted at the post war War Crimes Trials. Yet Grossman could barely cope with the enormity of what he had learnt, it would take him months to recover from the experience.

See A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945

Auschwitz ‘should be bombed to save the Jews’


29 June 1944: Auschwitz should be bombed to save the Jews

Presumably, a large number of Jews in these camps may be killed in the course of such bombings (though some of them may escape in the confusion). But such Jews are doomed to death anyhow.The destruction of the camps would not change their fate, but it would serve as visible retribution on their murderers and it might save the lives of future victims. It will be noted that the inevitable fate of Jews herded in ghettos near the industrial and railroad installations in Hungary has not caused the United Nations to stop bombing these installations.

Photo of the German extermination camp at Birkenau, taken by a United States Army Air Force plane, August 25, 1944 Poland. Crematoria II and III are visible. Annotations made by the CIA in 1978 when the bombing controversy was re-examined.
Photo of the German extermination camp at Birkenau, taken by a United States Army Air Force plane, August 25, 1944 Poland. Crematoria II and III are visible. Annotations made by the CIA in 1978 when the bombing controversy was re-examined.

At the end of June 1944 Auschwitz was operating at full capacity. Trains were arriving from Hungary every day and the process of killing and cremating the victims was as efficient as it had ever been. By now the Allies had substantial evidence that thousands of people were being murdered every day.

By mid June 1944 Roswell McClelland, the U.S. War Refugee Board representative in Switzerland, had received the report written by Auschwitz escapers Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. The report arrived in Washington on June 16, about a month after Auschwitz started receiving the Jews from Hungary. It was one of the catalysts for the first firm proposal for the Allies to bomb the camps. The proposal to bomb Auschwitz – Birkenau was made by Benjamin Akzin, a junior member of the U.S. War Refugee Board on 29th June 1944:

In view of the preeminent part evidently played by these two extermination camps in the massacre of Jews, equipped to kill 125,000 people per month, it would seem that the destruction of their physical installations might appreciably slow down the systematic slaughter at least temporarily.

The methodical German mind might require some time to rebuild the installations or to evolve elsewhere equally efficient procedures of mass slaughter and of disposing of the bodies. Some saving of lives would therefore be a most likely result of the destruction of the two extermination camps.

Though no exaggerated hopes should be entertained, this saving of lives might even be quite appreciable, since, in the present stage of the war, with German manpower and material resources gravely depleted, German authorities might not be in a position to devote themselves to the task of equipping new large-scale extermination centers.

Aside from the prevenve signicance of the destruction of the two camps, it would also seem correct to mark them for destruction as a matter of principle, as the most tangible — and perhaps only tangible — evidence of the indignation aroused by the existence of these chamel houses. It will also be noted that the destruction of the extermination camps would presumably cause many deaths among their personnel—certainly among the most ruthless and despicable of the Nazis.

It is suggested that the foregoing be brought to the attention of the appropriate political and military authorities, with a view to considering the feasibility of a thorough destruction of the two camps by aerial bombardment.

It may be of interest,in this connection, that the two camps are situated in the industrial region of Upper Silesia, near the important mining and manufacturing centers of Katowice and Chorzow (Oswiecim lies about fourteen miles southeast of Katowice), which play an important part in the industrial armament of Germany. Therefore, the destruction of these camps could be achieved without deecting aerial strength from an important zone of military objectives.

Presumably, a large number of Jews in these camps may be killed in the course of such bombings (though some of them may escape in the confusion). But such Jews are doomed to death anyhow.The destruction of the camps would not change their fate, but it would serve as visible retribution on their murderers and it might save the lives of future victims.

It will be noted that the inevitable fate of Jews herded in ghettos near the industrial and railroad installations in Hungary has not caused the United Nations to stop bombing these installations. It is submitted, therefore, that refraining from bombing the extermination centers would be sheer misplaced sentimentality, far more cruel than a decision to destroy these centers.

Even amongst those concerned with the rescue of the Jews the proposal was controversial. It was argued that such raids would allow the Nazis to claim that Jews had been killed by Allied bombing. The military were to reject the proposal on practical grounds – it would be difficult to achieve accurate bombing and that in any event the Germans were adept at repairing bombed railway lines.

First Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz


16 May 1944: First Hungarian Jews arrive in Auschwitz

Almost daily several trains consisting, on average, of forty to fifty cattle trucks, arrived on the newly built ramp at Birkenau. The trucks into which up to 100 people had been crammed were bolted; they were unlocked only when the train had reached its destination. The people were parched with thirst since, during their journey lasting several days, they had been given not a drop of water. Many died en route from the rigours of the journey.

Part of a sequence of pictures taken by Nazis at Auschwitz, documenting the process of ‘selection’ on the ‘ramps’. Taken in late May or early June 1944. The woman, together with the baby in her arms, has not survived the ‘selection’.

By May 1944 word of the Holocaust had reached the outside world and had been condemned by the United Nations. The report of Rudolf Vrba, who had escaped from the camp in April, had also been circulated by the Slovak resistance.

The Allied leaders believed the best course of action was concentrating on ending the war as soon as possible. Yet there were was still time for the Nazis to kill a lot more people.

At this time Auschwitz was not the leading ‘camp’ in the business of killing, far more Jews had been killed in the ‘Operation Reinhard’ death camps, which had begun industrial scale murder in 1942.

Then Auschwitz was chosen to receive the Hungarian Jews. There were at least another 500,000 men, women and children that the camp authorities expected to receive. The extermination facilities had to be expanded, and so too the means for disposing of the bodies, so as to leave as little trace as possible.

Filip Muller survived at Auschwitz as a prisoner in the Sonderkommando, dealing with the victims’ property. He was one of the few eye witnesses to survive the camp and write a detailed description of the process:

The two new pits had considerably increased the capacity of the four crematoria at Birkenau.

It was just a matter of adding the finishing touches. There was a constant stream of trucks delivering materials of all kinds, such as old railway sleepers, conifer branches, waste wood, beams, rags, large quantities of wood alcohol, barrels of waste lubricating oil, rammers, coarse and fine-meshed iron sieves, cement, wooden planks, boards and barrels of chlorinated lime. Wherever the fuel was stacked in the open, it was roofed over.

It was the middle of May 1944 when the first transports of Hungarian jews arrived in Birkenau. By now the Sonderkommando had been increased to 450 men, a number soon to be almost doubled. At the time when the machinery of extermination was running at full speed there were about 450 Hungarian, 200 Polish,180 Greek, 3 Slovak and 5 German Jews as well as 19 Russian prisoners of war, 5 Polish prisoners in ‘preventive custody’ and one Reichsdzutscher Kapo. Three more cremation pits were dug in the back yard of crematorium 5, making up the five Moll had ordered.

In addition, the farmhouse which had served as a place of extermination in 1942, was put in running order. Its four rooms served as gas chambers while an additional four cremation pits were dug outside. The changing rooms were located in three wooden barracks, and the whole complex was known as bunker 5.

There were now nine of these large pits in addition to the crematorium ovens, making it possible to burn an almost unlimited number of corpses. All these installations originated in the brain of mass murderer Moll who had succeeded in turning a small corner of the earth’s surface into something of such unspeakable vileness that it made Dante’s Infernow appear like a pleasure garden.

From the outset the camp authorities took rigorous care to obliterate all traces of their crimes. For this reason the ashes of the burnt corpses were thrown into fishponds or the river Vistula. In this connection Moll had thought up a new technique to expedite the removal of ashes. He ordered an area next to the pits adjoining crematorium 5 and measuring about 60 metres by 15 metres to be concreted; on this surface the ashes were crushed to a fine powder before their final disposal.

At the time this concreting work was in progress, the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry was in full swing. It seems incredible that eleven months before the end of the war it was possible for long trains to travel constantly back and forth between Hungary and Birkenau when one would have thought they were urgently required for the war effort.

Almost daily several trains consisting, on average, of forty to fifty cattle trucks, arrived on the newly built ramp at Birkenau. The trucks into which up to 100 people had been crammed were bolted; they were unlocked only when the train had reached its destination. The people were parched with thirst since, during their journey lasting several days, they had been given not a drop of water. Many died en route from the rigours of the journey.

Long columns of those who during the selections had been chosen for the walk to the gas chambers struggled along the dusty roads, exhausted and in low spirits, mothers pushing prams,taking the older children by the hand. The young helped and supported the old and sick. Some had strayed into this procession because on the ramp they had implored the SS not to separate them from their frail and helpless relatives; how were they to know that only hours later their relatives would require no more help.

The road from the ramp to the gas chambers led past long barbed-wire fences. Behind them the victims walking to their death could see emaciated figures in zebra-striped prison garb, moving about apathetically. Those who arrived at night looked into the glare of thousands of lamps spreading over the lifeless landscape a pale and ghostly light, the sombre effect enhanced by the SS guards on their watch-towers with their machine-guns at the ready.

So bleak was the sight which met new arrivals day or night that somehow it plunged them into a state of apathy. In addition they were invariably plagued by raging thirst, particularly during the summer heat, and the thought of water so preoccupied them that they seemed no longer able to think of anything else or of paying more than the most cursory attention to the unusual surroundings in which they found themselves.

See Filip Muller: Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chamber. Some sources say the first Hungarian Jews arrived on the 16th May, others believe it was earlier, possibly the 2nd. Filip Muller says ‘in the middle of May’.


Another photograph from the same sequence of images showing some of the victims. There was no room for these children at Auschwitz an they would have been sent to the gas chambers within hours of arriving at the 'camp'.
Another photograph from the same sequence of images showing some of the victims. There was no room for these children at Auschwitz, and they would have been sent to the gas chambers within hours of arriving at the ‘camp’.

The bombing of Semlin Judenlager


17 April 1944: The bombing of Semlin Judenlager

Besides the dead, there were several hundred wounded, so the surviving pavilions were turned into hospitals. There were no beds, and certainly no bandages or surgical equipment, although we did have several doctors and surgeons among the interns

Semlin camp was based in Pavilions used for a pre war Trade Fair and was a short distance from central Belgrade.
Semlin camp was based in Pavilions used for a pre war Trade Fair and was a short distance from central Belgrade.
The post raid evaluation of bomb strikes with the target area marked in white and the area of Semlin subsequently make in red.
The post raid evaluation of bomb strikes with the target area marked in white and the area of Semlin subsequently marked in red.

After the war there were many arguments that the Allies could have done more to bomb the Nazi death camps. It was argued that it should have been possible to breach the perimeter wires and enable inmates to escape, or to blow up the crematoria, putting a halt to the killings. Although the Allies had a lot of evidence of the Nazi programme to kill Jews, and others, by 1944, there was no strategic plan to save people, either by bombing or other means. It was argued that the best course of action to help the Jews was to seek to bring the war to a close as soon as possible.

There would have been many difficulties in accurately bombing the camps. Although many claims were made for the “precision bombing” at the time all the evidence shows that this was very difficult to achieve, and impossible to achieve consistently.

There is one example of what could have happened had the Allies chosen to to bomb the concentration camps. Semlin (Sajmište in Serbian) Judenlager was established by the Germans in Serbia in 1941 and first used for the killing women and children using gas vans in the spring of 1942. Thereafter it was used to detain political prisoners and anyone else caught up in the Nazi persecution in Serbia, where it was the largest camp.

The USAAF bombed Belgrade on 17th April 1944, Semlin was not part of the area targeted but it was hit. Bombs hit the camp and the perimeter fence, enabling some inmates to attempt to escape. The outcome was not what the inmates would have sought. This is the account of Dr Dragomir Stevanović:

On the second day of Easter, we found ourselves in what felt like the middle of Mount Etna, or a scorching geyser. Above and below us everything shuddered, flared, and burned, while we suffocated in clouds of dust and smoke. I lived through the [German] bombing of April 1941, but it was never like this. The square [in the middle of the camp] was covered with corpses and torn bodies, and the sand was saturated with fresh and coagulated blood: a real carnage! We lost around 190 people.

Besides the dead, there were several hundred wounded, so the surviving pavilions were turned into hospitals. There were no beds, and certainly no bandages or surgical equipment, although we did have several doctors and surgeons among the interns …

[…] During the bombing, the fence was damaged and a number of concrete poles that were holding it in place were dislodged. Several groups of interns tried to escape. However, because of the bareness of the terrain leading towards the River Sava and to Zemun, they were all mowed down by gunfire. Their bodies were brought back to the camp. We never found out how many died.

Read more about Semlin Judenlager

One of the Pavilions that was hit by the bombing and subsequently demolished.
One of the Pavilions that was hit by the bombing and subsequently demolished.

Escape from Auschwitz – to warn the World


7 April 1944: Escape from Auschwitz – to warn the World

This was it. For a moment we both hesitated, for we knew that, once we were covered up, there was no going back. Then together we skipped quickly up on top of the wood and slid into the hole. The planks moved into place over our heads, blotting out the light; and there was silence. Our eyes soon got used to the gloom and we could see each other in the light that filtered through the cracks. We hardly dare to breath, let alone to talk.

The main gate at Auschwitz - Arbeit Mach Frei - work will set you free.
The main gate at Auschwitz – Arbeit Mach Frei – work will set you free.

Nazi Germany had occupied its ally Hungary in March. Learning of the imminent arrival of Hungarian Jews for the gas chambers of Auschwitz, two of the more experienced prisoners now made a desperate attempt to warn the outside world. Rudolf “Rudi” Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg, Vrba was the name given to him by the Slovak resistance) and Alfred Wetzler (Fred in Vrba’s account) had planned their attempt for some time. They were to take with them evidence of the extermination facilities.

They knew they stood little chance of getting completely away from the camp in one move. They therefore chose to hide in a cavity within a pile of planks that lay in the work area of the camp. For this they needed the assistance of a few other prisoners. After a last minute encounter with an SS guard, who nearly searched him, Rudolf Vrba found the hiding place:

I could see the wood now and the Poles on top of it, apparently working. Fred was there, too, and the three of them gaped a little when they saw me, for they felt sure I was already in the punishment block. Nobody spoke, however. The Poles moved the planks and gave us an almost imperceptible nod.

This was it. For a moment we both hesitated, for we knew that, once we were covered up, there was no going back. Then together we skipped quickly up on top of the wood and slid into the hole. The planks moved into place over our heads, blotting out the light; and there was silence. Our eyes soon got used to the gloom and we could see each other in the light that filtered through the cracks. We hardly dare to breath, let alone to talk.

I took out my powdery Russian tobacco and began pulling it into the narrow spaces which separated some of the planks, while Fred sat, watching me in the gloom.

It took me at least an hour to impregnate our temporary prison thoroughly with dog repellant. Then I sat down, leaned against the rough, wooden wall and concentrated on some positive thinking. I forced my mind away from all thoughts of discovery and told myself over and over again: “There’ll be no more rolls calls. No more work. No more kow-towing to S.S. men. Soon you’ll be free !”

Free – or dead. I felt the keen blade of my knife and swore to myself that, if they found me, they would never get me out of the cavity alive. Time stood still. I glanced at the watch which had nearly cost me my life and saw that it was only half past three. The alarm would not be raised until five thirty and suddenly I realised I was longing to hear it. I felt like a boxer, sitting in his corner, waiting for the bell, or like a soldier in the trenches, waiting to go over the top. I feared the wail of that siren. Yet I could not bear the waiting. I wanted the battle to begin.

We could not stand up and became cramped sitting. We did not dare to talk and that made time hang even more heavily. The movements of the camp, movements we both knew by heart, drifted faintly into our hole in the wood, but somehow it all seemed far away in time, as well as in distance, for already my mind was free in advance of my body.

For the next hour I kept glancing at my watch, holding it to my ear occasionally to see whether it had stopped. Then I disciplined myself to ignore it, grinning in the dark as I thought fatuously of my mother in her kitchen back home, shaking her finger at me and saying solemnly: “A watched pot never boils!”

In fact it was never necessary for me to look at my watch, for the noises in the camp outside told me roughly what time it was. At last, after what seemed a week, I heard the tramp of marching feet and at once every fibre was alert. The prisoners were coming back from work. Soon they would be lining up in their neat rows of ten for roll call. Soon we would be missed; and then there would be the siren, the baying of the dogs, the clatter of S.S. jack boots.

We heard the distant orders, faint, disembodied, like lonely barking at night. We saw in our minds the entire scene which would never be part of our lives again. The rigid rows of the living. The silent piles of the dead. The kapos and block leaders, snapping at their charges, fussing, panicking. The S.S., aloof, superior, totting up their units.

See Rudolf Vrba: I Cannot Forgive

Rudolf Vrba in 1960
Rudolf Vrba in 1960
Alfred Wetzler after the war.
Alfred Wetzler after the war.

Vrba and Wetzler were to lie in their hideout, concealed within the woodpile for three days. They knew from previous escape attempts that the SS would maintain their guards around the outer perimeter for this period, whilst repeated searches were made of the area inside and outside the perimeter. Their defences against dogs sniffing them out were put to the test on several occasions during the next there days. Finally on the 10th they emerged and managed to make their way across country back to their home in Slovakia. They arrived on the 25th April and had written their report by the 27th. Having passed on the report to the underground Slovak Jewish Council, further action was out of their hands.

The report did not arrive in time to prevent the first transports of Jews from Hungary, which began in mid May 1944. Nevertheless it was instrumental in the deportations later being halted by the Hungarian government on 7th July, saving the lives of over 120,000 – 200,000 Jews. The report was first published in the USA in November 1944.

A sketch from the  Vrba-Wetzler report.
A sketch from the Vrba-Wetzler report.
The gassing takes place as follows: the unfortunate victims are brought into hall (B) where they are told to undress. To complete the fiction that they are going to bathe, each person receives a towel and a small piece of soap issued by two men clad in white coats. They are then crowded into the gas chamber (C) in such numbers there is, of course, only standing room. To compress this crowd into the narrow space, shots are often fired to induce those already at the far end to huddle still closer together.