Nazis order that children be ‘deported’

The chairman of the Lodz ghetto Judenrat, Chaim Rumkowski, makes a speech in the ghetto.

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.

[Horrible wailing.]

See The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-44.

Children leaving the Lodz ghetto during the deportations. They would have been gassed upon arrival at Chelmo death camp, usually within 24 hours of leaving the ghetto.
More children leaving the Lodz ghetto for the death camp at Chelmno. Co-operation by the Jews made the Nazi mass murder easier to achieve – whether there was any alternative remains controversial.

SS man spends a day at the Gas Chambers

Jews are forced into boxcars destined for the Belzec extermination camp. Lublin, Poland, 1942.

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

Belzec

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.

Lorenz Hachenholt operated the Gas chambers at Belzec extermination camp.

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.

Christian Wirth, commander of Belzec death camp.

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!

See The Gerstein Report

Waiting for the end in the Warsaw ghetto

Jews being deported from the Warsaw ghetto march to the freight trains. Warsaw, Poland, July-September 1942. Courtesy: Leopold Page Photographic Collection,USHMM.

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.

See The Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan.

ALSO ON THIS DAY …. ON THE EASTERN FRONT

See this letter giving an account of the fighting around Rzhev on 4th August 1942, first published in 2016.

The ‘Gross Aktion’ begins in the Warsaw Ghetto

The first people to be selected for ‘deportation’ were the homeless and destitute – many of these had been brought into the ghetto area from towns and villages outside Warsaw.
Numerous workshops and factories had been established in the ghetto – supplying goods for the German army. The workers were promised that they were not be deported – a lie that the Nazis maintained for as long as possible.

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.

See The Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan.

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.

US troops liberate Dachau concentration camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Nerin E. Gun: The Day of the Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thousands of dead and dying – liberation of Belsen

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

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

Survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British soldier Dick Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medical student Roger Dixey

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

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

Dr Laurence Wand

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

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

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

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

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

British soldier Mike Lewis

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

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

Survivor Renée Salt

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

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

British Commando raiders are executed in Sachsenhausen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Odd Nansen: Day After Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Army liberate Auschwitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murders continue as Auschwitz lies in limbo

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

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

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

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

January 22nd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Primo Levi: Survival In Auschwitz