Report on the Majdanek death camp is “Unbelievable”

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

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’

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

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

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

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.

The First Allied Aerial Reconnaissance Over Auschwitz

The first picture of Auschwitz taken by the Allies.
The first picture of Auschwitz taken by the Allies.

The photograph was taken by Lt Charles Barry of the 60 (Photoreconnaissance Squadron), South African Air Force (SAAF), operating from San Severo, Italy. He and his navigator Lt Ian McIntyre made the long trip in an unarmed de Havilland Mosquito IX aircraft and were over the target at an altitude of 26 000 feet [7 925 m] for a period of four minutes in the early afternoon.

Ian and I began our first photographic run from west to east, if memory serves correctly. He immediately advised me that the port camera was not working (the two long focal length cameras were mounted in tandem to give overlapping lateral coverage). This gave us a total lateral coverage of about 5 miles [8 km] on the 20 inch [50 cm] cameras. It was unhealthy to hang around with a second run in an unarmed aircraft because of possible enemy interception. Nevertheless we decided to do two runs instead of one to ensure positive coverage. Ian left the cameras running longer than usual and I believe that the over-run on the east to west run pulled in something of the death camp later known as Auschwitz.

You may also be interested to know that we had no inkling of the camp being there, and it wasn’t until the Holocaust Revisited report was published in 1979 that I and my surviving colleagues from 60 Squadron realised that we had unknowingly been involved in identifying the death camp.

See South African Military History Society.

This was just the first of a number of photographic missions over Auschwitz. At the time the main interest of the Allies was the industrial complex itself, rather than the concentration camp and the extermination facilities. However after the war the photographs were the subject of some scrutiny. The CIA concluded it would not have been possible to identify the killing centre from the evidence of the photograph alone:

On the photography of 4 April 1944, a small vehicle was identified in a specially secured annex adjacent to the Main Camp gas chamber. Eyewitness accounts describe how prisoners arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau, not knowing they were destined for extermination, were comforted by the presence of a “Red Cross ambulance.” In reality, the SS used that vehicle to transport the deadly Zyklon-B crystals. Could this be that notorious vehicle? While conclusive proof is lacking, the vehicle was not present on imagery of 25 August and 13 September 1944 after the extermination facility had been converted to an air raid shelter.

See the CIA retrospective analysis.

By coincidence during the first days of April one of the key survivors, and witnesses, to the horrors of Auschwitz, Filip Muller was to have dealings with this “Red Cross” van.

Some of the prisoners were aware that preparations were being made to receive many people in the gas chambers. There were rumours, from what the guards were saying, that they would soon be receiving people from Hungary, and this was the reason for the expansion of capacity, both for killing and cremation. The news gave added urgency for a planned escape by two inmates. It was hoped that they could take word of the true nature of Auschwitz to the outside world:

The most important piece of evidence which I gave them to take on their journey was one of those labels which were stuck on the tins containing Zyclon B poison gas. I tried for a long time to lay my hands on one of these tins. This was not an easy matter though.

After the ‘disinfecting operators’ had poured the lethal gas crystals into the gas chambers one of them took the empty tins back to their Red Cross ambulance while, as a rule, the other walked over to the changing rooms to see if there was any organizing to be done. Although on several occasions I was quite close to the ambulance, I never managed to grab hold of one of the tins. I was despairing as it looked as though I would never be able to. And then I had an idea.

One day after the ‘disinfecting operators’ had finished their handiwork, I informed Unterscharfuhrer Gorges that we needed two new tins in which to collect gold teeth because the old ones had become rather dented. Not suspecting my ulterior motive he sent me to the Red Cross ambulance in the yard where I proceeded to explain to the two SS men that Unterscharfuhrer Gorges had ordered me to collect two empty tins.

One of them took a couple of tins from the back of the ambulance and handed them to me with the words: ‘There you are, and now scram!’ The text printed on the labels read something like this: Zyclon B poison gas. Cyanogen compound. Danger! Poison .’ Tesch and Stabenov International GMBH. For pest control. To be opened by trained personnel only.

It was difficult to get the labels off without damaging them, and I only managed it partly with one of the tins. Where the paper had been torn and the name and address of the manufacturers become somewhat illegible I made the necessary additions in pencil.

See Filip Muller: Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chamber.

Zyklon B was originally used as a delousing insecticide. The hydrocyanic acid based pellets  vaporized when exposed to air. The poison was later used by the Nazis to gas over one million people in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. The label seen here comes from the airtight containers in which the poison was stored. The German word for poison is Gift, hence poison gas is Giftgas.
Zyklon B was originally used as a delousing insecticide. The hydrocyanic acid based pellets vaporized when exposed to air. The poison was later used by the Nazis to gas over one million people in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. The label seen here comes from the airtight containers in which the poison was stored. The German word for poison is Gift, hence poison gas is Giftgas.

The ‘Kinder Aktion’ in the Kovno ghetto

Two children in the ghetto in February 1944.  Any Jew could be summarily shot for not wearing a yellow star - the parents of these two obviously took the threat seriously. It would have made no difference when they  became targets of the Nazi 'Kinder Aktion' on 27th March.
Two children in the ghetto in February 1944. Any Jew could be summarily shot for not wearing a yellow star – the parents of these two obviously took the threat seriously. It would have made no difference when they became targets of the Nazi ‘Kinder Aktion’ on 27th March.
Girls working in the sowing shop on the Kovno ghetto where they made and repaired German informs.
Girls working in the sowing shop on the Kovno ghetto where they made and repaired German uniforms.

As the Red Army approached from the East the Nazis began to close down the remaining Jewish ghettoes left in eastern Europe. There were tensions within the Nazi high command. Some argued that the remaining Jews were needed as a work force, others were ideologically committed to killing all Jews.

The survivors of the Kovno ghetto, the largest of the Jewish ghettoes established in Lithuania by the Nazis, knew that their only chance of survival lay in being able to provide a useful service to the Germans. The Germans had no space for anyone who could not work – the young, the old and the infirm.

Since 1942 pregnant women were threatened with being shot. Many babies and young children were smuggled out of the ghetto and sent to live with Lithuanian families. Every effort was made to find older children useful employment in the workshops within the ghetto.

Then on the 27th March 1944 the Germans came for the remaining children of the ghetto. The 130 Jewish police within the ghetto were ordered on parade on the pretext of receiving ‘air raid instruction’. Instead they were taken at gunpoint to the 9th Fort, a nearby SS base that had been previously used as an extermination centre. Here they were tortured in an attempt to discover the hiding places for children – about 40 men were eventually shot.

Meanwhile the SS and the Ukrainian militia hunted down the children within the ghetto. Most of the parents were absent, having been marched off for forced labour, part of the daily routine:

After the work brigades were taken out for forced labour the ghetto was surrounded by reinforced guards. Soon lorries full of gestapo guards moved into the ghetto. A car with a loudspeaker was cruising the ghetto; people were warned to stay indoors – he who dared to come out would be shot.

Jewish police ordered to gather for a fire drill were surrounded by SS tommy-gunners.

“Enough! You won’t have a chance to fool Germans any more!” Kitel declared and ordered Jewish police to get into armoured buses. Policeman Levner who refused to obey the order was shot on the spot. Three heavily guarded armoured buses with the Jewish policemen went towards the 9th Fort. Some policemen tried to jump off the vehicles on the move but were caught by machinegun fire.

Everyone who could, tried to hide somewhere – in lofts, in barns and basements. Gestapo bandits searched from house to house. With axes and crowbars they opened up floorboards, walls, searched every suspicious corner – they were looking for people hiding. Children, old and sick people, invalids were taken out of the ghetto in lorries. Bloodthirsty murderers searched house after house and gloated:

“Any kittens left here? “(Germans called children “kittens”…) Mothers who refused to let their children go were badgered with German shepherd [dogs]. To muffle the terrible screams Germans turned on very loud dance and march music and broadcasted it through the loudspeakers on the lorries.

Children were hidden in and under beds. Some had suffocated as a result of that. One woman from Lutaro Street had no place to hide her child. She did the following: wrapped up her child in a tablecloth, tied it up and hung it up on a nail. “When Germans come I shall be quiet” the four-year-old child promised his mother. The child kept quiet even after one of the Germans pushed the parcel and asked what was in it. The boy was saved.

In the camp in Shanchai, Germans managed to carry out their evil “act” with more ease. Here in one place about thirty children were kept. Two executioners came in and started a “game”. Pretending to be bears they tied up children’s hands and took the whole chain out into the bus…

The round-up lasted until evening. Around nine hundred children, old and sick people and invalids were put into lorries and driven under guard to the west. As it became known later the people were taken to Auschwitz where gas chambers and crematorium awaited the unfortunate.

But those figures did not add up. From the available to them data Germans knew that a large number of old people and children had not been found yet. The next day round-ups had resumed. Every suspicious place was carefully searched, hand grenades were thrown into basements and lofts. All newly discovered people were put into lorries and sent to the 9th Fort. In spite of all brutality Germans managed to find only a smaller number of victims the next day – just about two hundred people were caught.

See the Kovno Ghetto Diary. For more about the children of the Kovno ghetto see US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Sources vary on the fate of the children, some say they were shot at the 9th Fort, not deported to be gassed at Auschwitz.

Boys employed in the Kovno ghetto at soup kitchen for workers. From 1943 all over 12 years old were registered as workers.
Boys employed in the Kovno ghetto at a soup kitchen for workers. From 1943 all over 12 years old were registered as workers.
A street corner somewhere in the Kovno ghetto.
A street corner somewhere in the Kovno ghetto.

Survival in Auschwitz – understand the system

The Nazi concentration camp system ran on a  system of brutality that had been refined ever since they had established camps for their political enemies when they first gained power.
The Nazi concentration camp system ran on a system of brutality that had been refined ever since they had established camps for their political enemies when they first gained power.

With the German takeover of Italy in September of 1943 conditions rapidly worsened for the Jewish population. Although Mussolini had run anti-semitic policies which made life very difficult for Jews, the Italian state had not pursued and persecuted them with the same zeal as the Nazis. Now Jews were being deported to Germany and to the deaths camps in Poland.

Primo Levi managed to avoid detention for a few months but was caught by the Italian militia after a short spell with the Partisans in the hills. Conditions in his Italian run detention camp were basic but the rations were adequate and the regime was not lethal by design, as in the German camps. All that changed on the 21st February when the Germans took over and deported the Jewish inmates by rail car to Auschwitz.

Levi was sent to Monowitz, one of the Auschwitz sub camps. The average survival time for a Jewish inmate was about three months. To survive meant learning fast about the rules of life and death in this inhuman hell.

Levi was to be an exception because he had the inner strength, and the luck, not only to survive but to live to tell the tale afterwards. His capacity to tell that tale established him as one of the great individual chroniclers of Holocaust:

We had soon learned that the guests of the Lager are divided into three categories: the criminals, the politicals and the Jews. All are clothed in stripes, all are Haftlinge [detainees], but the criminals wear a green triangle next to the number sewn on the jacket; the politicals wear a red triangle; and the Jews, who form the large majority, wear the Jewish star, red and yellow.

SS men exist but are few and outside the camp, and are seen relatively infrequently. Our effective masters in practice are the green triangles, who have a free hand over us, as well as those of the other two categories who are ready to help them – and they are not few.

And we have learnt other things, more or less quickly, according to our intelligence: to reply “Jawohl,” never to ask questions, always to pretend to understand.

We have learnt the value of food; now we also diligently scrape the bottom of the bowl after the ration and we hold it under our chins when we eat bread so as not to lose the crumbs. We, too, know that it is not the same thing to be given a ladleful of soup from the top or from the bottom of the vat, and we are already able to judge, according to the capacity of the various vats, what is the most suitable place to try and reach in the queue when we line up.

We have learnt that everything is useful: the wire to tie up our shoes, the rags to wrap around our feet, waste paper to (illegally) pad out our jacket against the cold. We have learnt, on the other hand, that everything can be stolen, in fact is automatically stolen as soon as attention is relaxed; and to avoid this, we had to learn the art of sleeping with our head on a bundle made up of our jacket and containing all our belongings, from the bowl to the shoes.

We already know in good part the rules of the camp, which are incredibly complicated. The prohibitions are innumerable: to approach nearer to the barbed wire than two yards; to sleep with one’s jacket, or without one’s pants, or with one’s cap on one’s head; to use certain washrooms or latrines which are “nur fir Kapos” or “nur fir Reichsdeutsche”; not to go for the shower on the prescribed day, or to go there on a day not prescribed; to leave the hut with one’s jacket unbuttoned, or with the collar raised; to carry paper or straw under one’s clothes against the cold; to wash except stripped to the waist.

The rites to be carried out were infinite and senseless: every morning one had to make the “bed” perfectly flat and smooth; smear one’s muddy and repellent wooden shoes with the appropriate machine grease; scrape the mudstains off one’s clothes (paint, grease and rust-stains were, however, permitted); in the evening one had to undergo the control for lice and the control of washing one’s feet; on Saturday, have one’s beard and hair shaved, mend or have mended one’s rags; on Sunday, undergo the general control for skin diseases and the control of buttons on one’s jacket, which had to be five.

See Primo Levi: If This Is a Man / The Truce, published in America as Primo Levi: Survival In Auschwitz.

Red triangle: political prisoners: social democrats, socialists, trade unionists, Freemasons, communists, and anarchists. Green triangle: "professional criminals" (convicts, often working in the camps as Kapos). Blue triangle: foreign forced laborers, emigrants. Purple triangle: Jehovah's Witnesses and other Bible Student groups. Pink triangle: sexual offenders, mostly homosexual men but rarely rapists, zoophiles and paedophiles. Black triangle: people who were deemed "asocial elements" and "work shy" including: Roma (Gypsies), who were later assigned a brown triangle, the mentally ill, Alcoholics, Vagrants and beggars, Pacifists, Conscription resisters, Lesbians, Prostitutes, some anarchists, Drug addicts. Brown triangle: Roma (Gypsies) (previously wore the black triangle). Uninverted red triangle—an enemy POW, spy or a deserter.
Red triangle: political prisoners: social democrats, socialists, trade unionists, Freemasons, communists, and anarchists.
Green triangle: “professional criminals” (convicts, often working in the camps as Kapos).
Blue triangle: foreign forced laborers, emigrants.
Purple triangle: Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Bible Student groups.
Pink triangle: sexual offenders, mostly homosexual men but rarely rapists, zoophiles and paedophiles.
Black triangle: people who were deemed “asocial elements” and “work shy” including: Roma (Gypsies), who were later assigned a brown triangle, the mentally ill, Alcoholics, Vagrants and beggars, Pacifists, Conscription resisters, Lesbians, Prostitutes, some anarchists, Drug addicts.
Brown triangle: Roma (Gypsies) (previously wore the black triangle).
Uninverted red triangle—an enemy POW, spy or a deserter.

Morgenthau argues for direct action to help the Jews

Although the Allies had substantial evidence of the Holocaust by 1944, the true scale of what the Nazis were doing was not fully realised until the camps were liberated and pictures emerged.  Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for "scientific" experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division. May 7, 1945. Lt. A. E. Samuelson. (Army)
Although the Allies had substantial evidence of the Holocaust by 1944, the true scale of what the Nazis were doing was not fully realised until the camps were liberated and pictures emerged.
Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for “scientific” experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division. May 7, 1945. Lt. A. E. Samuelson. (Army)

While Roosevelt was setting out his objectives for post war security, not every member of his administration was was confident that they were doing all they could to prevent current Nazi crimes against the Jews.

When US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, the only Jewish member of Roosevelt’s cabinet, tried to establish mechanisms to assist Jews to leave Europe he ran into perceived obstruction from the State Department

Treasury officials John Pehle, Randolph Paul, and Josiah DuBois presented Morgenthau with an 18-page memorandum entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of Jews” on January 13, 1944. The report formed the basis for Morgenthau’s discussion with Roosevelt on 16th January:

One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated.

This Government has for a long time maintained that its policy is to work out programs to serve those Jews of Europe who could be saved.

I am convinced on the basis of the information which is available to me that certain officials in our State Department, which is charged with carrying out this policy, have been guilty not only of gross procrastination and wilful failure to act, but even of wilful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.

I fully recognize the graveness of this statement and I make it only after having most carefully weighed the shocking facts which have come to my attention during the last several months.

Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.

Although only part of the facts relating to the activities of the State Department in this field are available to us, sufficient facts have come to my attention from various sources during the last several months to fully support the conclusions at which I have arrived.

(1) State Department officials have not only failed to use the Governmental machinery at their disposal to rescue the Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews.

The public record, let alone the facts which have not as yet been made pubic, reveals the gross procrastination and wilful failure to act of those officials actively representing this Government in this field.

(a) A long time has passed since it became clear that Hitler was determined to carry out a policy of exterminating the Jews in Europe.

(b) Over a year has elapsed since this Government and other members of the United Nations publicly acknowledged and denounced this policy of extermination; and since the President gave assurances that the United States would make every effort together with the United Nations to save those who could be saved.

(c) Despite the fact that time is most precious in this matter, State Department officials have been kicking the matter around for over a year without producing results; giving all sorts of excuses for delays upon delays; advancing no specific proposals designed to rescue Jews, at the same time proposing that the whole refugee problem be “explored” by this Government and Intergovernmental Committees. While the State Department has been thus “exploring” the whole refugee problem, without distinguishing between those who are in imminent danger of death and those who are not, hundreds of thousands of Jews have been allowed to perish.

The full text of the report can be found at PBS American Experience Primary Reference.

As a consequence of the meeting President Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the War Refugee Board (WRB) on January 22, 1944.

It is the policy of this government to take all measures within its power to rescue the victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war.

The War Refugee Board is estimated to have save the lives of around 200,000 Jews from eastern Europe by funding emigration.

The railway entrance to Auschwitz in January1945.
The railway entrance to Auschwitz in January1945.