In Auschwitz Dr Kremer was keeping a diary filled with the mundane detail of what he was having for lunch, when he turned the heating on, etc. He also made reference to “live extractions”:
10 October 1942
Extracted and fixed fresh live material from liver, spleen and pancreas. Got prisoners to make me a signature stamp. For first time heated the room. More cases of typhus fever and Typhus abdominalis. Camp quarantine continues.
11 October 1942
Today, Sunday, there was roast hare for lunch – a real fat leg – with dumplings and red cabbage for 1.25 RM.
12 October 1942
Second inoculation against typhus, later on in evening severe generalized reaction (fever). Despite this in the night attended a further Sonderaktion from Holland (1,600 persons). Ghastly scenes in front of the last bunker! (Hossler!) That was the 10th Sonderaktion.
13 October 1942
Untersturmfuhrer Vetter arrived. Sturmbannfuhrer Casar also gone down with typhus after his wife died of it only a few days ago. Attended the sentencing and subsequent execution of seven Polish civilians.
At his trial in Cracow in 1947 he was asked to explain what these references to extractions meant. “For a long time I had been interested in changes in the human organism as a result of hunger.” He had asked and was given permission to make a personal study of such cases. The subjects came from those prisoners in the Auschwitz who were reported to the sick bay:
During the course of these examinations the prison doctors presented the patients to the SS doctor and described the illness the prisoner in question was suffering from. The SS doctor then decided what the prospects were for this patient to recover, whether he was already unfit for work, whether he should be sent to the sick-bay or treated as an out-patient or else whether he should be liquidated.
I observed the prisoners in this group carefully and whenever one of them particularly interested me because of his advanced stage of starvation, I ordered the medical orderly to reserve him and to inform me when this patient would be killed by injection.
At the appointed time the patients I had selected were led into the same end block and taken to the room on the other side of the corridor, opposite the room where they had originally been examined and selected.
The patient was laid down still alive on the dissection table. I would go up to the table and ask the patient to give me some details essential for my research. For example, for his weight before his detention, how much weight he had lost since his detention, whether he had taken any medication recently, etc.
After I had been given this information a medical orderly would come and kill the patient with an injection in the heart area. To my knowledge all these patients were killed with phenol injections. The patient died immediately after being given such an injection.
I myself never administered fatal injections.
This was just a personal interest, a hobby, for Dr Kremer.
On the same day a group of Nazi doctors were reporting on a series of medical experiments that were conducted under authority. Apparently on behalf of the Luftwaffe, the idea was to discover how long someone could survive when plunged into cold water:
If the experimental subject was placed in the water under narcosis, one observed a certain arousing effect. The subject began to groan and made some defensive movements. In a few cases a state of excitation developed. This was especially severe in the cooling of head and neck. But never was a complete cessation of the narcosis observed.
The defensive movements ceased after about 5 minutes. There followed a progressive rigor, which developed especially strongly in the arm musculature; the arms were strongly flexed and pressed to the body. The rigor increased with the continuation of the cooling, now and then interrupted by tonic-clonic twitchings. With still more marked sinking of the body temperature it suddenly ceased.
These cases ended fatally, without any successful results from resuscitation efforts.
Report by Prof. Dr. Holzloehner, Dr. Rascher, and Dr. Finke, regarding cooling experiments, 10 October 1942
[Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals – Washington, U.S Govt. Print. Off., 1949-1953, Vol. I, p. 226-243]
Oscar Strawczynski arrived in Treblinka on 5th October 1942 on a transport from the town of Czestochowa. The women and children were immediately separated from the men and he never saw his mother, his wife Anka or his children, Guta and Abus, again.
He was in the group of men with his elderly father. The Germans asked for skilled craftsmen to step forward – a call that he ignored. However he was recognised by a Jew who was already a prisoner in the camp – a man who knew that he was a skilled tinsmith. Oscar was pulled from the ranks of the new arrivals, without even the time to bid farewell to this father.
From the thousands who arrived daily at Treblinka a relatively small number were retained to work for the Germans. They worked on the burial – later the cremation – of the victims, and on the sorting of the massive quantities of clothes and goods that were arriving daily on the transports.
The group to which I belonged, consisting of several hundred people, reaches the yard and begins working. On the blankets and tablecloths that are spread on the ground are piled all kinds of articles, from imported material and expensive suits to plain rags.
From the suitcases we remove lotions, cosmetics, soaps, matches, medicines. It seems that there is nothing that we do not remove here in quantities – all sorts, from the most expensive tins to the few potatoes that the poor Jews brought with them.
The sorted articles are brought non-stop to the edge of the yard, where they are piled up and up. The suitcases with valuables have a special place; into them are put things made of gold, watches, rings, diamond’s. Wedding rings make up the greatest quantity of valuable articles.
There are also great quantities of foreign exchange, dollar bills and coins, pounds sterling and gold Russian coins. Polish money is gathered into large piles. From time to time some “gold-Jews” come to the yard and take suitcases full of valuables and money to their workshops and leave behind the empty suitcases that they brought with them. These are also filled up within a short time.
The entire yard gives the impression of a market. There is a special place for house-wares and bottles. Among the house-wares there are utensils of the most expensive nickel or aluminium as well as old broken pots.
I work in a group of twenty men. They make us sort packages from the transport from Czechoslovakia. I open a package and find underwear, suits, shoes, lotions, and so on.
I am still new at this work so I am not sure what to throw onto the pile of silk clothing, of partially silk clothing, wool, cotton. One must always be in motion; to rest or sit down is prohibited – one could pay for that dearly.
It was a precarious existence, entirely dependent on the whim of the guards, one of whom he remembered very well.
He walked through the camp with great pleasure and self-confidence. Barry, his big, curly–haired dog, would lazily drag along behind. Lalka would never leave the place without leaving some memento for somebody. There was always some reason to be found.
And even if there were no reason – it made no difference. He was expert at whipping, twenty-five or fifty lashes. He did it with pleasure, without hurrying. He had his own technique for raising the whip and striking it down.
To practice boxing, he would use the heads of Jews, and naturally there was no scarcity of those around. He would grab his victim’s lapel and strike with the other hand. The victim would have to hold his head straight so that Franz could aim well. And indeed he did this expertly. The sight of the Jew’s head after a “training session,” of this sort is not difficult to imagine.
Once Lalka was strolling along the platform with a double- barrelled shotgun in his hand and Barry in his wake. He discovered a Jew in front of him, a neighbour of mine from Czestochowa, by the name of Steiner.
Without a second thought, he aimed the gun at the man’s buttocks and fired. Steiner fell amidst cries of pain. Lalka laughed. He approached him, commanded him to get up, pull down his pants, and then glanced at the wound.
The Jew was beside himself with pain. His buttocks were oozing blood from the gashes caused by the lead bullets. But Lalka was not satisfied. He waved his hand and said, “Damn it, the balls haven’t been harmed!”
While one part of the Nazi state wanted to see all Jews exterminated, another saw them as a potential source of labour to be exploited at will to serve the war effort. So – alongside the camps that were dedicated solely to extermination – there were camps where those who were selected for work could survive, at least for a little while. Yet such were the attitudes to inmates in the concentration camp system that the objective of obtaining labour from them became confused with the objective of working them to death in the most brutal fashion.
Auschwitz was a camp which accommodated both extermination facilities and barracks where thousands were held for use as labour. They were shipped out to surrounding industrial centres. After surviving in Auschwitz for a time on a relatively benign work detail in the stores, Rudolf Vrba was transferred to the army of prisoners who left Auschwitz every day by train for Buna.
After we had waited, crammed together and cramped for half an hour, the train jerked and began to rumble slowly on its way. We were off to Buna and I realised, after what I had seen, that my attitude to Auschwitz would have to change. No longer was it simply a question of surviving. It was a question of surviving today without thinking too much about tomorrow.
The journey must have lasted about two hours, but it seemed endless. Jammed beside me was a man with dysentery, someone who would not survive the day. In a corner another, an arm broken by a kapo’s club, was retching with the pain of it. Even the fit found it difficult to breathe with the stench of sweat and blood and excreta.
At last, however, we dragged to a stop. The doors were whipped open and the kapos fell upon us again, tearing us out of the waggons, lashing at us wildly, working at an insane speed, shouting over and over again: “Faster, you bastards! Fasterl”.
The S.S. were there in force, too, with dogs and guns. They kept glancing at their watches, growling: “Quick . . . we’re late! Get them movingl Get them into line!”
They got us into line and they got us moving. The long line of battered zebras plodded towards Buna to the brisk music of constant blows and sporadic gun fire.
In front of me a man stumbled. A kapo clubbed him and he staggered out of line. Immediately an S.S. man fired at him, missed and brought down the man beside him. Another kapo roared: “Pick up that bloody bodyl This is not a graveyard! Carry it with you.”
The summer sun scorched the back of my neck. The alsatian trotting beside me was panting. A man reeled from the ranks, fell and had the top of his head blown off by an S.S. man who did not even bother to stop as he fired. Farther up the line a man ran wildly into the road and was bowled over by a burst of machine gun fire.
The S.S. were kicking the kapos now and all the time they were shouting: “Faster, you bastards! We’re late! We’re late!”
This, I thought, must be the real hell of Auschwitz. Hell on the double, and an Auschwitz that until then I had managed to avoid; but I was wrong, for it was only a mild form of purgatory, an evil aperitif, so to speak, to prepare us for Buna itself.
I saw the work site ahead; piles of wood, cement mixers, and all the paraphernalia of building. Half-built houses thrust towards the sky and everywhere hundreds ofmen were scurrying, ant-like, driven on by the bellowing of the gangers.
It was a grim vista even from a distance; but as we drew nearer the entire canvas unrolled before me, revealing awful detail.
Men ran and fell, were kicked and shot. Wild-eyed kapos drove their blood-stained path through rucks of prisoners, while S.S. men shot from the hip, like television cowboys, who had strayed somehow into a grotesque, endless horror film; and adding a ghastly note of incongruity to the bedlam were groups of quiet men in impeccable civilian clothes, picking their way through corpses they did not want to see, measuring timbers with bright yellow, folding rules, making neat little notes in black leather books, oblivious to the blood-bath.
Rudolf Vrba learned fast and he forgot very little. He was also a born survivor – he and a friend found work under the protection of one of the civilians at Buna. Of the sixteen hundred men on the train they were the only two who survived the first five weeks of the work detail. This particular episode of his life in Auschwitz is undated in his memoirs.
Eventually he would become one of the few people to escape from Auschwitz, bringing the story of the death camps to the outside world in 1944.
As so often in many organisations, not least the military, the records of daily events are often routine returns and statistics with little description. Only when things go exceptionally well or exceptionally badly do we tend to get a fuller record.
So it was with the SS. We have records of train movements connected with the Holocaust and a variety of statistics of Jews that they wanted to kill or had killed. Rarely does an official report describe what happened on a daily basis.
On 10th September Schutzpollzei Zugwachtmeister Josef Jacklein was ordered to take charge of an escort of guards taking a trainload of Jews ‘for deportation’ – in practice to the death camp at Belzec. He was so frustrated with the events that followed that he filed a lengthy report:
At 20.50 [10th September 1942] the train departed from Kolomea [western Ukraine] on schedule. Shortly before its departure I divided up my escort squad, as had been planned beforehand, putting five men at the front and five men at the rear of the train. As the train was, however, very long – fifty-one cars with a total load of 8,200 Jews – this distribution of manpower turned out to be wrong and the next time we stopped I ordered the guards to post themselves right along the length ofthe train.
The guards had to stay on the brake housing for the entire journey. We had only been travelling a short time when the jews attempted to break out of the wagons on both sides and even through the roof. Some of them succeeded in doing so, with the result that five stations before Stanislau (Stanislav) I phoned the stationmaster in Stanislau and asked him to have nails and boards ready so that we could board up the damaged cars temporarily and to put some of his Bahnschutz (track guards) at my disposal to guard the train.
When the train reached Stanislau the workers from Stanislau station as well as the Bahnschutz were at the station waiting for our train. As soon as the train stopped work began.
An hour and a half later I considered it adequately repaired and, ordered its departure.
However, all of this was of very little help, for only a few stations later when the train was stationary I established that a number of very large holes had been made and all the [barbed] wire on the ventilation windows had been ripped out.
As the train was departing I even established that in one ofthe cars someone was using a hammer and pliers. When these jews were questioned as to why they had these tools in their possession they informed me that they had been told that they might well be of use at their next place of work. I immediately took away the tools.
I then had to have the train boarded up at each station at which it stopped, otherwise it would not have been possible to continue the journey at all.
At 11.15 [11th September 1942] hours the train arrived in Lemberg [Lviv]. As there was no replacement escort squad, my squad had to continue guarding the train until Belzec.
After a short stop at Lemberg station the train went to the suburban station of Kleparow where I handed over nine wagons to SS-Obersturmfuhrer Schulze which had been marked with an ‘L’ and had been designated for Lemberg compulsory labour camp.
SS-Obersturmfiihrer Schulze then loaded on about 1,000 more Jews and at about 13.30 hours the transport departed again.
At Lemberg the engine was replaced and an old engine was attached which was not powerful enough for the weight ofthe train. The train driver never managed to reach top speed with his engine so that the train, particularly when travelling uphill, moved so slowly that the Jews could jump off without any risk of injury.
I ordered the train driver on numerous occasions to drive faster but this was impossible. It was particularly unfortunate that the train frequently stopped in open country.
The escort squad had meanwhile used up all the ammunition that had been brought with us as well as an extra 200 bullets that I had obtained from some soldiers, with the result that we had to rely on stones when the train was moving and fixed bayonets when the train was stationary.
The ever-increasing panic among the jews, caused by the intense heat, the overcrowding in the wagons, the stink of the dead bodies – when the wagons were unloaded there were about 2,000 dead in the train – made the transport almost impossible.
At 18.45 the transport arrived in Belzec and I handed it over to the SS-Obersturmfuhrer and head of the camp at 19.30 hours. Towards 22.00 hours the transport was unloaded. I had to be present during unloading. I was not able to establish the number of jews that had escaped.
Perhaps one of the cruelest aspects of the Holocaust was the way the Nazis manipulated their victims into co-operating in their own demise. In every ghetto they appointed a Jewish council – a Judenrat – to administer civil affairs on their behalf. The Jews themselves became responsible for implementing the demands of the Nazis. At first this amounted to registering people, organising work, organising the distribution of food.
Then as the deportations to the death camps began the Judenrat were expected to select the individuals who would be ‘resettled in the East’. At first the thin fiction that people were genuinely [permalink id=18725 text=”going to be ‘resettled'”] was maintained. But as the deportations continued more and more people left the ghetto on cattle trucks, never to be heard from again. Few now clung to the illusion that deportation was anything other than a death sentence.
In the Lodz ghetto, the Chairman of the Judenrat was Chaim Rumkowski, a man who firmly believed that by dealing with the Nazis he could mitigate the worst of their persecutions. He established the Lodz ghetto as a centre of numerous workshops that produced goods for the German war effort – believing that by making themselves useful they would be spared.
Yet his belief that he could deal with the Nazis was being undermined. On the 2nd September the Nazis had demanded that the sick from the hospitals be deported. Now they demanded most of the children under ten.
The crowd gathered in the Lodz ghetto noticed that Chaim Rumkowski had physically changed, becoming white haired and haggard over the course of a few days. As he stood to address them in the late afternoon of the 4th September 1942, it became apparent why:
A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess … the children and the elderly.
I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children.
I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me!
Fathers and mothers, give me your children! [Transciber’s note – Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd.]
I had a suspicion something was about to befall us. I anticipated “something” and was always like a watchman on guard to prevent it. But I was unsuccessful because I did not know what was threatening us.
I did not know the nature of the danger. The taking of the sick from the hospitals caught me completely by surprise. And I give you the best proof there is of this: I had my own nearest and dearest among them, and I could do nothing for them.
I thought that that would be the end of it, that after that they’d leave us in peace, the peace for which I long so much, for which I’ve always worked, which has been my goal. But something else, it turned out, was destined for us.
Such is the fate ofthe Jews: always more suffering and always worse suffering, especially in times of war.
Yesterday afternoon, they gave me the order to send more than 20,000 Jews out of the ghetto, and if not – “We will do itl” So, the question became: “Should we take it upon ourselves, do it ourselves, or leave it for others to do?”
Well, we – that is, I and my closest associates – thought first not about “How many will perish?” but “How many is it possible to save?” And we reached the conclusion that, however hard it would be for us, we should take the implementation of this order into our own hands.
I must perform this difficult and bloody operation – I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself – I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well, God forbid.
Kurt Gerstein had been imprisoned by the Nazis before the war because of his religious convictions and anti-Nazi views. In 1941 he succeeded in joining the SS with the purpose of investigating the euthansia extermination camps. He very rapidly rose through the ranks of the SS because of his education and scientific background.
In August 1942 SS-Obersturmfuhrer Kurt Gerstein was on a tour of inspection of the extermination camps, in his capacity a Hygiene Inspector for the SS. He was being consulted about the methods to be used for disinfecting the vast quantities of clothing coming into the hands of the Nazis. He now saw at first hand the work at Belzec, Treblinka and Majdanek.
As soon as the war was concluded Kurt Gerstein completed a long account of what he had witnessed for the Allies. The evidence was accepted at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials and was corroborated by other witnesses:
18th August 1942
The next morning, shortly before 7 a.m. someone announced to me: “In ten minutes the first transport will come!” In fact the first train arrived after some minutes, from the direction of Lemberg. 45 wagons with 6,700 people of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Behind the barred hatches children as well as men and women looked out, terribly pale and nervous, their eyes full of the fear of death. The train comes in: 200 Ukrainians fling open the doors and whip the people out of the wagons with their leather whips.
The people were then forced to undress and packed into the Gas chambers:
The people stand on each other`s feet. 700-800 people in an area of twenty-five square metres, in forty-five cubic metres! The SS literally cram them together as much as possible. – The doors close. Meanwhile the others are waiting outside naked in the open air.
Someone said to me: ‘It`s like this in winter as welll’ ‘Yes, but they could catch their death,” I say. ‘Well, that’s exactly what they’re there for,’ said an SS man to me.
Now I finally understand why the whole institution is called the Hackenholt Foundation. Hackenholt is the driver of the diesel motor, a little mechanic who designed the installation. The diesel exhaust fumes are meant to kill these people. But the engine is not working! Hauptmann Wirth arrives.
You can see that he is embarrassed that it should happen today of all days, when I’m here. So yes, there I am watching! I wait. My stopwatch has registered everything faithfully. 50 minutes 70 seconds – the engine still has not started! The people are waiting in their gas-chamber. In vain. You can hear them crying, sobbing …. Hauptmann Wirth hits the Ukrainian who is supposed to be helping the Unterscharfuhrer with the engine, twelve or thirteen times in the face with his riding-crop.
After two hours, forty-nine minutes – the stopwatch has registered everything – the diesel engine starts. All this time the people have been inside the four chambers, four lots of 750 people in four lots of forty-five cubic metres! A further twenty- five minutes pass. Right, many are now dead. One can see that through the tiny window as the electric light illuminates the chambers for a moment. After twenty-eight minutes only a few are still alive. Finally, after thirty-two minutes all are dead!
Chaim Kaplan had been recording the impact of the war on the Jewish community in Warsaw in his diary since 1st September 1939. He had chronicled their [permalink id=7640 text=”ever worsening situation”], had been a witness to [permalink id=10202 text=”individual cruelties”] and had clear sightedly recorded the [permalink id=19993 text=”ultimate fate”] of the Jews.
Now the Nazis were clearing out the ghetto. Every day a trainload of Jews had to be despatched for ‘resettlement in the East’. Few had any illusions that this would be anything other than fatal, least of all Kaplan.
Each day a residential block was selected for evacuation:
4th August 1942
In the evening hours
I have not yet been caught; I have not yet been evicted from my apartment; my building has not yet been confiscated. But only a step separates me from all these misfortunes. All day my wife and I take turns standing watch, looking through the kitchen window which overlooks the courtyard, to see if the blockade has begun. People run from place to place like madmen.
[ He describes how a friend has obtained a factory job by bribery]
My lot is even worse because I have neither money nor a factory job, and therefore am a candidate for expulsion if I am caught. My only salvation is in hiding. This is an outlaw’s life, and a man cannot last very long living illegally. My heart trembles at every isolated word. I am unable to leave my house, for at every step the devil lies in wait for me.
There is the silence of death in the streets of the ghetto all through the day. The fear of death is in the eyes of the few people who pass by on the sidewalk opposite our window. Everyone presses himself against the wall and draws into himself so that they will not detect his existence or his presence.
Today my block was scheduled for a blockade with Nazi participation. Seventy Jewish policemen had already entered the courtyard. I thought, ‘The end has come.’ But a miracle happened, and the blockade was postponed. The destroyers passed on to the Nalewki-Zamenhof block.
When the danger was already past I hurried to escape. Panic can drive a man out of his mind and magnify the danger even when it no longer exists. But already there is a fear that my block will be blockaded tomorrow. I am therefore trying to lay plans to escape with the dawn. But where will I flee? No block is secure.
Thousands of people in the Nalewki-Zamenhof block were driven from their homes and taken to the transfer point. More than thirty people were slaughtered. In the afternoon, the furies subsided a bit.
The number of passers-by increased, for the danger of blockade was over. By four in the afternoon, the quota was filled: 13,000 people had been seized and sent off, among them 5,000 who came to the transfer of their own free will. They had had their fill of the ghetto life, which is a life of hunger and fear of death. They escaped from the trap. Would that I could allow myself to do as they did!
If my life ends – what will become of my diary?
These were the last words written by Chaim Kaplan. How he met his end is not known, he may have been caught up in the blockade the following day. He may have evaded capture for a little longer – most probably he will have been sent to Treblinka along with thousands of others – by the end of the year at the latest.
Kaplan’s war diary was discovered almost intact after the war on a farm outside Warsaw, preserved in a kerosene can, the notebooks were legible and in good condition. How they got there and who helped hide them away is not known.
A new round of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto had now begun. The first train left on 22nd July.
By now there were [permalink id=19993 text=”few illusions”] – almost everyone in the Warsaw ghetto accepted that the “Deportation” of people for “Resettlement” meant that those chosen were going to be killed. But still the Nazis managed to maintain the fiction that there was hope for some. It was announced that:
“All Jews qualified for labour are exempt from deportation and may remain in the ghetto; those Jews who were not heretofore included in the labour force may henceforth be included. They will be taken to barracks where they will work.”
Amongst the thousands who were not registered for work was Chaim Kaplan, now suddenly threatened. Somehow he managed to keep writing his diary of life in the ghetto:
23 July 1942
The ghetto residents found some consolation in the paragraph which speaks of ‘all Jews qualified for labour’. Labour – that can mean both physical and mental; no age limit is specified. That means even men who are over sixty.
Everyone suddenly became eager for work. Everyone is prepared to give up hot meals and a comfortable bed at home to go and live in barracks, if only to stay put. To be deported means to prepare for death, and it is a lingering death which is the hardest kind of all.
The deportees are, to begin with, taken for killing. They are not qualified for work. And as to food, even if a crust of bread were available, would the Nazis give it to them? It has become known that the Nazis flay their corpses, remove the fat, and incinerate the bodies.
This accords with a prestated plan: The strength of the healthy and productive is to be exploited for the needs of the German army; the weak, the crippled, and the aged are to go to eternal rest.
Such a plan could have been invented only by Satan.
This is no more than a curiosity of history. The Jews aid the Nazi victory so that the Nazis can expel them from Europe and destroy them. Their cynicism is such that the Nazis say this bluntly. Sometimes a labourers work pleases them; then they praise him and say, ‘May you be recompensed by being the last one to be shot.’
The industriousness of the ghetto is a credit to everyone. It produces three times what was demanded. This is skilled and industrious work which produces goods for the use and enjoyment of the Nazis. The Jewish worker is compensated by having his relatives deported to a valley of death and destruction, while he is left locked within the walls of the ghetto.
The expulsion has already begun. It is being carried out by the Jewish people under German supervision. On the first day the Jewish police furnished the requisite number of 6,000 people; the second day of the expulsion, the police could round up only 4,700 men, women, and children. The Nazis filled in the deficit.
We remember the words of the elegist: ‘On this night my sons will weep.’ In these two days the emptiness of the ghetto has been filled with cries and wails. If they found no way to the God of Israel it is a sign He doesn’t exist.
A new death ‘camp’ had opened at Treblinka on 22nd July – the final destination for most of the Jews in Warsaw from this time on. This was the last of four extermination centres set up by the Nazis under what became known as ‘Operation Reinhard’, [permalink id=16260 text=”Chelmno”], [permalink id=17868 text=”Belzec”] and [permalink id=19348 text=”Sobibor”] were already operating. The objective was to kill all the Jews in what remained of Poland by the end of 1942.
These were not concentration camps where people might exist as slave labourers. The victims, the vast majority of them Jews, were brought here by the trainload and then immediately gassed. The only prisoners who survived for a short time in these camps were the small number selected to assist in the killing process – removing the bodies from the gas chambers and burying them. Later the process of burning the bodies was introduced, including those previously buried.
Dachau concentration camp was the first camp established by the Nazis, shortly after they came to power in 1933. At first the camp was used to detain enemies of the Nazi regime, political prisoners. Later many tens of thousands of other would pass through the camp and its numerous sub-camps, including groups of Jews, women and Clergy ( mainly Catholics) from all over occupied Europe.
Dachau was not an extermination camp with gas chambers, although the death rate from conventional executions, starvation and ill treatment was high and the camp was equipped with ‘ovens’ for the disposal of the dead. It was also the site of numerous medical experiments on detainees, many of whom died in the course of experiments, which included prolonged exposure to freezing water and simulated high altitude tests.
By the time the US Army arrived the camp was overcrowded with thousands of prisoners who had been transferred from other camps and there were far too many dead for the usual process of incineration to cope with.
The events of 29th April are contested. Some witnesses claim that the US troops massacred the SS men who were found guarding the camp on the day. Others suggest that this is a gross exaggeration of one incident where a single group of SS men were shot down, possibly for attempting to escape. Unusually in these circumstances there is also some photographic evidence.
One man provides eyewitness testimony. Nerin E. Gun was a Turkish journalist who had fallen foul of the Nazis for his reporting of the Warsaw Uprising – he had been arrested and sent to Dachau:
three SS men are still on their turret … they have pivoted their machine guns in the other direction, away from us, and they are peering into the distance
… a single man emerges from behind a cement mixer parked at the edge of the camp … wearing a helmut embellished with leaves and branches … he moves cautiously forward, submachine gun in one hand, grenade in the other … he is still far away but I imagine I see him chewing gum … he comes cautiously, but upright, stalwart, unafraid …I almost expect him to be followed by a pure white charger … we knew America only by its films
… this first image of the liberation was truly out of an American western … this soldier of the 3rd Battalion, 45th Combat Division was the very incarnation of the American hero … we will never forget those first few seconds … the memory of the unique, magnificent moment of your arrival … you had come at the risk of your life, into an unknown country, for the sake of an unknown people, bringing us the most precious thing in the world, the gift of freedom …
The detachment under the command of the American major had not come directly to the Jorhaus, it had made a detour by way of the marshalling yard, where the convoy of deportees normally arrived and departed.
There they found some fifty-odd cattle cars parked on the tracks – the cars were not empty. The train was full of corpses, piled one on the other, 2310 of them to be exact. The train had come from Birkenau and the dead were Hungarian and Polish Jews, children among them. Their journey had lasted perhaps thirty or forty days.
They had died of hunger, of thirst, of suffocation, of being crushed or of being beaten by the guards. There were even evidence of cannibalism. They were all practically dead when they arrived at Dachau station.
The SS did not take the trouble to unload them. They simply decided to stand guard and shoot down any with enough strength left to emerge from the cattle cars. The corpses were strewn everywhere – on the rails, the steps, the platforms.”
“I never saw anything like it in my life,” said Lieutenant Harold Mayer, “Every one of my men became raving mad.”
Within a quarter of an hour, there was not a single one of Hitler’s henchmen alive.
An alternative account was given by Lt. Col. Felix L. Sparks, a battalion commander of the 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division who stated that a young soldier was manning a machine gun keeping watch on a group of approximately 50 SS men in the coal yard. Sparks heard the soldier cry “They’re trying to get away!” and the sound of the machine gun being fired. He saw that about a dozen men had been killed in the incident and more wounded. He replaced the soldier with an NCO in charge of the machine and there was apparently no further shooting.
It was the forgoing incident which has given rise to wild claims in various publications that most or all of the German prisoners captured at Dachau were executed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The total number of German guards killed at Dachau during that day most certainly not exceed fifty, with thirty probably being a more accurate figure.
The regimental records for that date indicate that over a thousand German prisoners were brought to the regimental collecting point. Since my task force was leading the regimental attack, almost all the prisoners were taken by the task force, including several hundred from Dachau.
This and other incidents were investigated by the Seventh Army’s Assistant Inspector General, Lt. Col. Joseph Whitaker, who made recommendations that some US soldiers should face charges. However the Military Governor of Bavaria at the time he reported, General George S. Patton, chose to take no further action.
At the end of 1945 Colonel Charles L. Decker, an acting deputy judge advocate decided that there probably had been breaches of international law but:
in the light of the conditions which greeted the eyes of the first combat troops, it is not believed that justice or equity demand that the difficult and perhaps impossible task of fixing individual responsibility now be undertaken.
It was about 5pm on 15 April when the miracle actually happened: the first British tank rolled into the camp. We were liberated! No one who was in Belsen will ever forget that day. We did not greet our liberators with shouts of joy. We were silent. Silent with incredulity and maybe just a little suspicion that we might be dreaming.
Survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
It was the pictures and stories from the first concentration camps liberated, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen, that first made a real impact on public consciousness of the Holocaust. It was these names that became closely associated with the worst horrors of the Nazi system of brutality, even though they were, in some senses, not the “worst” camps. These were not extermination camps like Auschwitz, where people were sent to be killed immediately if they did not survive ‘the selection’. They were nevertheless lethal systems of incarceration and no less murderous over time.
…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
BBC radio broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in an historic broadcast just days after the liberation which alerted the British and the world to the real horrors of Nazism.
Bergen-Belsen had gone through a number incarnations, starting out as a Prisoner of War camp for Soviet prisoners, at a time when the Nazis seemed intent on letting them all starve to death. Some 20,000 died here. Then as an SS concentration camp for Jews who might be used as hostages, the regime was probably somewhat better than at many other work camps. Then a variety of different groups were sent or passed through, including may women and girls – Ann Frank died here.
Then at the end of 1944 Bergen Belsen started receiving prisoners who had survived the forced marches from the camps in the east. Soon its primitive facilities were overwhelmed by over 60,000 sick and malnourished people. They had been dying in their hundreds every day for months. They would continue dying in their hundreds every day for the next two months, despite the best efforts of the Allied medical teams.
But we went further on into the camp, and seen these corpses lying everywhere. You didn’t know whether they were living or dead. Most of them were dead. Some were trying to walk, some were stumbling, some on hands and knees, but in the lagers, the barbed wire around the huts, you could see that the doors were open. The stench coming out of them was fearsome.
They were lying in the doorways – tried to get down the stairs and fallen and just died on the spot. And it was just everywhere. Going into, more deeper, into the camp the stench got worse and the numbers of dead – they were just impossible to know how many there were…Inside the camp itself, it was just unbelievable. You just couldn’t believe the numbers involved…
This was one of the things which struck me when I first went in, that the whole camp was so quiet and yet there were so many people there. You couldn’t hear anything, there was just no sound at all and yet there was some movement – those people who could walk or move – but just so quiet. You just couldn’t understand that all those people could be there and yet everything was so quiet…
It was just this oppressive haze over the camp, the smell, the starkness of the barbed wire fences, the dullness of the bare earth, the scattered bodies and these very dull, too, striped grey uniforms – those who had it – it was just so dull. The sun, yes the sun was shining, but they were just didn’t seem to make any life at all in that camp.
Everything seemed to be dead. The slowness of the movement of the people who could walk. Everything was just ghost-like and it was just unbelievable that there were literally people living still there. There’s so much death apparent that the living, certainly, were in the minority.
British soldier Dick Williams
What happened was we were all allocated to a hut. We divided into pairs, as I said, and each pair was given a hut to cope with. And into the hut you went and it was designed, I think, to take about 60 soldiers. It was a typical army Nissen hut-type – only it wasn’t a Nissen hut because it wasn’t the same shape – and inside it were upwards of six or seven hundred people lying on the ground.
They were all totally emaciated. They were all in filthy rags – rags is literally what I mean, rags. They were all, or most of them, lying in pools of vomit and faeces and urine. A considerable number of the ones in the hut were dead and the first job to do each day was to go in, and with the help of two Hungarian soldiers – strangely enough we had a company of Hungarian soldiers to help as labourers – you’d go into the hut and pick out the dead bodies. You’d just go around and see who’s dead and who wasn’t.
It was sometimes very difficult to be certain who was dead and who wasn’t.
Remove the dead, take them outside, leave them in a heap and the Hungarians then moved them by truck to the mass graves where they were put in the mass graves. And having got rid of the dead you then made a sort of so say ward round to try and do what you could for the remainder, all of whom had diarrhoea, or the vast majority had diarrhoea.
They all had the most appalling coughs, they all had the most dreadful skin diseases, they were all filthy dirty and they were all absolutely skeletally thin… And we were dealing with the killer, the main killer, which was typhus. And typhus was killing a very large number of people every day.
Medical student Roger Dixey
These people had been degraded by the Germans. It was a systematic depersonalisation, degradingness. They’d been for as long as they’d – the Germans had degraded these people from the time they’d occupied their countries. They degraded them by putting them into ghettos, they degraded them by making them into second and third class citizens, they degraded them by herding them like cattle, by transporting them in conditions which were worse than animals would be transported, by totally dehumanising them.
Dr Laurence Wand
Something had changed for me after I’d seen that camp. Although I’d seen the terrible things in war, to have treated ordinary people like this. And there were so many theories and reasons as to who was responsible and everybody seemed to point a finger around until the finger came round in a circle and I had to think hard about it.
Why the Germans? They had their own culture, their own civilisation of a kind. They produced Beethoven, great scientists, how could it be?
The terrible discovery came to me, this sort of revelation like a flash of lightning, because it penetrated these terrible scenes to make me think – all the stories I’d heard about the persecution of people from my mother and father, here they were true.
But this was on a scale of – it had to be organised, it had to be done it could only be done with modern administrative service. It could only be done by moving masses of people by rail. It had to be planned and worked for. It was a sort of death by administration.
British soldier Mike Lewis
As soon as possible, we were transferred to the tank training school six kilometres away for delousing and then to makeshift hospitals, where German doctors and nurses were made to look after us. I was unconscious for 10 days after we were liberated. Two days after I regained consciousness, on 27 April, my mother died aged 42 and was buried in a mass grave, together with the thousands of others who died from starvation and disease after the liberation.