Auschwitz-Birkenau: Germany’s Largest Death Camp – Part II

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS INFORMATION ABOUT ANTISEMITISM, STARVATION, FORCED LABOR, BEATINGS, AND MASS MURDER. PICTURES IN THIS ARTICLE MAY BE DISTURBING TO SOME READERS!

PLEASE NOTE THAT ANY DEROGATORY TERMS USED IN THIS ARTICLE WILL ONLY BE USED IN QUOTATIONS AND ARE NOT MY PERSONAL CHOICE OF WORDS!

A guard tower inside Auschwitz-Birkenau

There will be no introduction for this one. You guys already know what it’s about and what sadness it will entail. This article is going to be a long one so please just stay with me.

Disclaimer: This is a sensitive subject for many people, and reader discretion is advised!

Rudolf Hoss born in 1900, was named the first commandant of Auschwitz when Heinrich Himmler ordered that the camp be established on April 27, 1940. The world probably would have been a slightly better place if neither of them had been born. Hoss lived with his wife and children in a two-story stucco house near the commandants and administration building. He served as commandant alongside his deputy Josef Kramer until November 11, 1943. Hoss joined the SS Business and Administration Head Office in Oranienburg as director of Amt DI, a position that made him deputy of the camps inspectorate. He was succeeded as a commandant by Arthur Liebehenschel. On May 11, 1944, Richard Baer became commandant of Auschwitz I and on November 23, 1943, Fritz Hartjenstein became commandant of Auschwitz II. Hartjenstein was succeeded by Josef Kramer on May 15, 144. Kramer remained commandant of Auschwitz II until the liquidation of the camp in January 1945. Heinrich Schwarz became commandant of Auschwitz III in November 1943.

Hoss returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau between May 8 and July 29, 1944, as the local SS garrison commander (Standortaltester) to oversee the arrival of Jewish people from Hungary. This made him the superior officer of all the commandants of the Auschwitz camps. We la de f***ing da. Roughly 6,335 people (6,161 of which were men) worked for the SS at Auschwitz throughout the death camp’s existence. In March 1941, there were 700 SS guards, in June 1942, 2,000, and in August 1944, 3,342. At the camp’s peak in January 1945, there were 4,480 SS men and 71 SS women working in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Most of the staff were from Germany or Austria, but as the war progressed, higher numbers of Volksdeutsche (Germans or people of German origins who did not hold German citizenship) from other countries, including Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia, and the Baltic states, joined the SS at the death camp. Guards were recruited from Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. So, not all of them were ethnically German. SS personnel made up about 75% of the camp guards and were members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande (“death’s head units”). Other SS staff worked in the medical or political departments. They also worked in economic administration, which was responsible for clothing and other supplies, including the property of deceased prisoners. Most of the SS viewed Auschwitz as a comfortable posting since it meant they were not on the front and had access to victims’ belongings.

SS officers socializing outside of Auschwitz-Birkenau (the one with the mark on his forehead is Dr. Josef Mengele, he performed sadistic experiments on prisoners, especially twins)

Certain prisoners, at first non-Jewish German but later Jewish and non-Jewish Poles were assigned positions of authority as Funktionshaftlinge (functionaries), which gave them access to better housing and food. The Lagerprominenz (camp elite) included Blockschreiber (barrack clerk), Kapo (overseer), Stubendienst (barracks orderly), and Kommandierte (trusties). Some of these prisoners developed a reputation for being sadistic as the power they held over other prisoners went to their heads. Very few of these Funktionshaftlinge were prosecuted after the war because determining which atrocities had been performed by order of the SS was very difficult.

Starting in 1942, the SS only oversaw the mass murders at each gas chamber, while the forced labor part of the work was done by prisoners known as the Sonderkommando (special squad). This group was made up of mostly Jewish people but included some other prisoners such as Soviet POWs. From 1940-1941 20 prisoners were acting as Sonderkommando since only one gas chamber was in operation. In late 1943, there were 400, and by 1944 the number had risen to 874 during the Holocaust in Hungary. The Sonderkommando removed prisoners’ belongings and the corpses of people who passed away from the trains upon arrival, guided victims to the dressing rooms and gas chambers, removed their bodies afterward, and took their jewelry, hair, dental work, and any precious metals from their teeth. All of the removed items were sent directly to Germany. Once the bodies were stripped of all valuable items, the Sonderkommando burned them in the crematoria.

Since these prisoners were witnesses to mass murder, they lived separately from the rest of the camp population. However, this rule did not apply to the non-Jewish people in the group. These particular prisoners’ quality of life was improved by their access to the property of new arrivals. They would often trade these items within the camp, including with the SS guards. But no matter how much better their quality of life was the Sonderkommando’s life expectancy within the death camp was short; they were regularly murdered and replaced. This gave the prisoners little to no chance of spreading the word to others about what was really going on behind closed doors. They were also said to have been killed since many of them slowly lost their minds and their grip on reality. There are only so many heinous things a person can see before they snap.

Roughly 100 Sonderkommando survived to the camp’s liquidation. They were forced on a death march and by train to the concentration camp at Mauthausen. 3 days after they arrived, they were asked to step forward during roll call. None of them did. Since the SS did not have their records from Auschwitz-Birkenau stating their role as Sonderkommando, several of them survived.

Uniquely at Auschwitz-Birkenau, prisoners were tattooed with a serial number assigned to them. Soviet prisoners of war were tattooed on the left side of their chest and civilians were tattooed on their left forearm. Their serial numbers were also stitched on their clothing as was the protocol for all concentration camps. Triangular pieces of cloth stitched on their jackets above or below the serial number distinguished which category a prisoner belonged in. Political prisoners, who were mostly Polish wore a red triangle, criminals, who were mostly German, wore a green triangle, Asocial prisoners, which included vagrants, prostitutes, and the Roma, wore a black triangle, Jehovah’s Witnesses wore a purple triangle, and homosexual men, who were mostly German, wore a pink triangle. The number of homosexual men prosecuted under German Penal Code Section 175, which prohibited sexual acts between men, detained in concentration camps is estimated to be 5,000 to 15,000. An unknown number of those men were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jewish prisoners wore a yellow badge, the shape of the Star of David, overlaid by a second triangle if they also belonged to a second category.  

The nationality of the inmate was indicated by a letter stitched onto the cloth triangle since a racial hierarchy did exist inside the death camp. German prisoners were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by non-Jewish prisoners from other countries, and Jewish prisoners were at the bottom.  

Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner uniform (this one belonged to a Polish political prisoner)

Prisoners were transported to Auschwitz crammed in cattle wagons in horrid conditions. They would arrive near a railway station or at one of the multiple dedicated track side ramps, including one next to Auschwitz I. The Altejudenrampe (“old Jewish ramp”), part of the Oswiecim freight railway station, was in use from 1942 to 1944 for these transports. This ramp was located between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. Prisoners who arrived at this ramp had a 1.5-mile (2.5 km) walk to Auschwitz II and the gas chambers. Those who made the journey were accompanied by SS guards and a car with a Red Cross symbol that carried the Zyklon B, as well as an SS doctor in case one of the officers were poisoned by mistake. Victims who arrived at night or were too weak to walk, were taken by truck. A new railway line and ramp that led directly to the area around the gas chambers was completed in May 1944 for the arrival of Hungarian Jewish people. This ramp was located between sectors BI and BII in Auschwitz II.  

Prisoners arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau

An inmate’s day began at 4:30 am for the men (this was pushed back an hour in winter time) and even earlier for the women. The block supervisor would wake up the prisoners by sounding a gong. The inmates that did not get up and use the bathroom quick enough were beaten with a stick. The sanitary conditions inside the camp were unfathomable. There were only a few toilets and a lack of clean water. Each bathroom had to accommodate thousands of prisoners. In sectors BIa and BIb in Auschwitz II, there were two buildings that housed the bathrooms. These buildings contained troughs for washing and 90 faucets. The toilets were “sewage channels” covered by concrete with 58 holes for seating. There were 3 barracks with washing facilities and toilets to serve 16 residential barracks in BIIa, and 6 washrooms for 32 barracks in BIIb, BIIc, BIId, and BIIe.  

The bathrooms were poorly lit, full of draughts, with brick flooring covered by a layer of mud. The water was not clean and had a revolting smell; those who drank it often came down with dysentery that almost always resulted in death, and the walls were covered in vulgar drawings. I don’t want to inundate you guys with pictures but I just HAVE to show you the “bathrooms” inside Auschwitz-Birkenau. They are so unacceptable. So damn unacceptable.

 

A “bathroom” inside Auschwitz-Birkenau

In the morning the prisoners received half a liter of a coffee or herbal tea substitute, but no food. A second gong sounded signifying the start of the morning roll call. Inmates lined up outside in rows of 10 by block and waited to be counted. As their serial number was called out the inmates had to announce their presence. Their number would be checked off on a clipboard by an SS guard and was compared to another clipboard a second SS guard held. The time of roll call could be extended depending on different situations such as the SS officer’s mood that day, if there had been an escapee, events causing punishment occurred, or if numbers didn’t add up. Extended roll calls could be tormenting for the prisoners, particularly in bad weather. During escape attempts, roll calls could go on for hours. The prisoners were expected to stand the entire time. Exhaustion would eventually set in and any victims caught dozing off or falling over were beaten or shot in the head. the Inmates who labored in places several miles away did not participate in roll call since they left early for work. Prisoners who worked in the hospital, kitchen, or orchestra were excused from roll call as well. Morning roll call was abolished in February 1944, to maximize the time spent laboring.

After the roll call was complete and all prisoners were accounted for; prisoners walked to their labor positions to the sound of the orchestra playing “Arbeitskommandos formieren” (“from work details”). The prison orchestra were forced to play cheerful music as inmates arrived at their work details. They would begin their work day which was approximately 11 hours long. Kapos were responsible for prisoners’ behavior while they worked and supervised the job throughout the day along with an SS guard. Most of the work took place outdoors at construction sites, gravel pits, and lumber yards. One inmate was assigned to the bathrooms to record the time the workers took to empty their bladders and bowels. The workers were given a lunch of three-quarters a liter of watery soup around midday. This soup was reported as tasting foul, and normally contained various meats four times a week and vegetables (mostly potatoes) three times a week. The prisoners were served dinner at the end of the work day. This consisted of 1 cup (300 grams) of often moldy bread, with 1 tablespoon of cheese or marmalade, or ¼ cup (25 grams) of margarine or sausage. Prisoners involved in more rigorous labor were given extra rations.

Another roll call took place in the evening, in the course of which inmates might have been hanged or beaten. If a prisoner was missing, the same protocol that took place during the morning roll call was in effect for the evening one. On July 6, 1940, roll call lasted 19 hours because a Polish prisoner had escaped. After another escape in 1941, a group of prisoners was selected from the escapee’s barracks and sent to block 11 to be starved to death. My barracks mates would hate me because I would snitch in 2 seconds. After the roll call was complete, prisoners were sent to their blocks for the evening. The prisoners had some free time before lights out to use the bathroom or receive mail. Only non-Jewish inmates were given the luxury of receiving letters and other packages from loved ones.

Sunday was not considered a work day, but prisoners had to clean their barracks and take their weekly showers. They were allotted time to write letters to their families and friends but were only allowed to write in German and the mail was closely censored by the SS. Inmates who did not speak or write German fluently would trade bread for help from other inmates. Most Jewish prisoners would try hard to keep track of the Hebrew calendar and Jewish holidays, including Shabbat, and the weekly Torah portion. No watches, calendars, or clocks were allowed inside the camp. Only two Jewish calendars made in Auschwitz survived until the end of the war. Prisoners would often ask new arrivals about the date to help keep track.

Roughly 30 percent of the registered inmates were female. The first mass transport of women, 999 non-Jewish German women from the Ravensbruck concentration camp, arrived on March 26, 1942. Women were often classified as asocial and political prisoners. They were brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau as founder functionaries of the women’s camp. They were issued serial numbers 1-999. A women’s guard from Ravensbruck, Johanna Langefeld, became the first Lagerfuherin in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The second group of women arrived from Slovakia later that same day. On March 28, 1942, the third mass transport of 798 Jewish women from Bratislava, Slovakia arrived at the death camp. Female prisoners were assigned to blocks 1-10 of Auschwitz I. On August 6, 1942, 13, 000 female inmates were transferred to the new women’s camp in Auschwitz II. This consisted at first of 15 brick and 15 wooden barracks in sector Bla but was later extended into Blb. By October 1943 it housed 32,066 women.

Between 1943 and 1944, approximately 11,000 women were living in the Gypsy family camp, as were several thousand in the Theresienstadt family camp. Conditions in the women’s camp were so poor that when a group of male prisoners arrived to set up an infirmary in October 1942, their first job was to distinguish the corpses from women who were still alive. There was one bathroom for up to 32,000 women and they were only allowed to use it at certain hours of the day. They stood in long lines to get inside a tiny building filled almost knee deep in human excrement. Many of these women suffered from dysentery, and soiled themselves while waiting for their turn in the bathroom; this added to the terrible odor already surrounding the camp. The bathroom consisted of a deep ditch with planks thrown across them at certain intervals. The female prisoners squatted on the planks, so close together that they could not help soiling one another. 

Female prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Johanna Langefeld was succeeded as Lagerfuherin in October 1942 by Maria Mandl, who quickly gained a reputation for her cruelty. Rudolph Hoss hired males to oversee the female SS supervisors, first Paul Muller, then SS Franz Hossler. Both Hossler and Mandl were excused by hanging after the war. Sterilization experiments were carried out in barracks 30 of the women’s camp by German gynecologist, Carl Clauberg, and another German doctor, Horst Schumann. How disgusting. 

German doctors performed a variety of experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They tested the efficacy of X-rays, as a sterilization device by administering large doses to female prisoners. Car Clauberg often injected various chemicals into women’s uteruses to try and glue them shut. I think I’m going to be sick. Many prisoners were infected with spotted fever (a potentially fatal disease) for vaccination research and exposed to toxic elements to study the effects. The most infamous doctor at Auschwitz-Birkenau was Josef Mengele, also known as the “Angel of Death”. He worked in Auschwitz II from May 30, 1943, to its liquidation. He was most interested in performing research on identical twins, dwarfs, and those with hereditary diseases. Mengele set up a kindergarten in barracks 29 and 31 for kids he was experimenting on, and for all Romani children under the age of 6. He started selecting twins and dwarfs from among the new arrivals during the “selection” process in May 1944 by shouting “Zwillinge heraus!” (“twins step forward!”). Mengele and other doctors would measure the twins’ body parts, photograph them, and subject them to dental, sight and hearing tests, x-rays, blood tests, surgery, and blood transfusions between them.

After his studies were complete, he would kill and dissect them. Kurt Heissmeyer, another SS doctor, took 20 Polish Jewish children from Auschwitz-Birkenau to use in pseudoscientific experiments at the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, where he injected them with tuberculosis to test a cure. In April 1945, the children were murdered by hanging in an attempt to conceal the project. A Jewish skeleton collection was obtained from a pool of 115 Jewish prisoners. They were chosen for their perceived stereotypical racial characteristics. Rudolf Brandt and Wolfram Sievers, general manager of the Ahnenerbe (Nazi research institute), delivered the skeletons to the collection of the Anatomy Institute at the Reischsuniversitat Straburg in Alsace-Lorraine. The collection was detained by Henrich Himmler under the direction of August Hirt, chairman of Reich University. A total of 87 inmates were shipped to Natzweiler-Struthof and murdered in August 1943. Brant and Sievers were executed in 1948 after being convicted during the Doctors Trial, part of the Subsequent Nuremberg trials.

Prisoners could be beaten and killed by guards and kapos for the slightest slip-up. Kapos were given nicknames such as “Bloody”, “Iron”, “The Strangler”, and “The Boxer”. A list of common fractions was: returning a second time for food at mealtimes, removing your own gold teeth to buy bread or other items, breaking into the pigsty to steal the pigs’ food, and putting your hands in your pockets. Beatings during roll calls were common. A flogging table named “the goat” immobilized prisoners’ feet in a box, while they stretched themselves across the table. Prisoners had to count the lashes and if they got the number wrong, the beating started from the beginning. Punishment by “the post” involved tying prisoners’ hands behind their backs with chains attached to hooks, then raising the chains so the victim was dangling by his or her wrists. If their shoulders were too damaged afterward to work, they might be sent to the gas chamber. Prisoners were sent to the post for helping a prisoner who had been beaten, and for picking up discarded cigarette butts. To extract information from inmates, guards would force their heads onto a stove, and hold them there, burning their faces and eyes.

Block 11 of Auschwitz I was a prison within the prison. This block was reserved for inmates suspected of resistance activities. Cell 22 in block 11 was a windowless standing cell split into four sections. Each section measured less than 11 square feet (1 sq m) and held 4 prisoners. The victims entered the cell through a hatch near the floor. There was a 1X1 inch (5×5 cm) vent for air, covered by a perforated sheet. Prisoners might have to spend several nights in cell 22. Prisoner Wieslaw Kielar spent 4 weeks in cell 22 for accidentally breaking a pipe. Several rooms in block 11 were called the Polizei-Ersatz-Gerfangins Myslowitz in Auschwitz (Auschwitz branch of the police station at Myslowice).

The courtyard between blocks 1- and 11, known as the “death wall”, served as an execution area, for political prisoners. The first executions, by shooting inmates in the back of the head, took place at the death wall on November 11, 1941, Poland’s National Independence Day. 151 accused were led to the wall one at a time, stripped naked and with their hands behind their backs. An estimated 4,500 Political prisoners were executed at the death wall, included members of the camp resistance. Another 10,000 Polish people were brought to the camp and executed without even being registered. Roughly 1,000 Soviet prisoners of war died by execution. Colonel Jan Karcz and Major Edward Gott-Getynski, both in the Polish Army were executed on January 25, 1943 with 51 others suspected of resistance activities. Jozef Noji, a well-known Polish long-distance runner, was executed on February 15 that year. In October 1944, 200 Sonderkommando were executed for their part in the Sonderkommano revolt. 

The SS worked to liquidate the camp on May 16, 1944, but the Roma fought them, armed with knives and iron pipes. The SS quickly retreated. Shortly after, the SS removed approximately 2,908 from the family camp and put them to work, and on August 2, 1944, gassed the remaining 2,897. 10,000 Romani inmates remain unaccounted for. 18,000 Jewish people were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, on September 8, 1943. 2,293 male and 2,713 female prisoners arrived there. They were all placed in sector BIIb as a “family camp”. These inmates were allowed to keep their belonging, wear their own clothes, and write letters to family; they did not have to shave their heads and were not included in the selection process. It is speculated that the Germans set up the camp to cast doubt on reports of the horrific conditions inside the camp, in time for a planned Red Cross visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The SS did not want word of the mass murders that occurred there getting out to the public. The women and girls lived in odd-numbered barracks and men and boys in even-numbered ones. Barracks 30 and 32 became an infirmary and barracks 31 became a school and kindergarten. Even though these living conditions were better than those inside the rest of the camp; they were still inadequate. 1,000 members of the family camp died within 6 months of arriving. On December 16 and 23, 1943 two other groups of 2,491 and 2,473 arrived at the camp from Theresienstadt. On March 8, 1944, 3,791 prisoners (men, women, and children) were sent to the gas chambers; the men were taken to crematorium III and the women later to crematorium II. Before they were executed, they had been ordered to write postcards to relatives, postdated between March 25th and 27th. Several sets of twins were held back for medical experiments. In July 1944 roughly 2,000 women from the family camp were moved to other camps and 80 boys were moved to the men’s camp. The remaining 7,000 were gassed later that month.

The first gassings at Auschwitz-Birkenau took place in early September 1941. Around 840 inmates, Soviet prisoners of war, and sick Polish people were murdered with Zyklon B in the basement of block 11 in Auschwitz I. The building proved unsuitable, so gassings were conducted instead in crematorium I in Auschwitz I. More than 700 could be killed at once in crematorium I. To keep victims calm, they were told they were undergoing disinfection and de-lousing; they were ordered to undress outside, then were locked in the building the gas was administered. Jewish people were being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving almost daily. Crematoriums II and III were eventually given elevators leading from the stoves to the gas chambers, Cremation pits were dug behind crematorium V. Incoming volume got so high that Sonderkommando restored to burning corpses in open-air pits as well as in the crematoria.

Of the 1,095,000 Jewish people deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, around 250,000 were registered at the camp and given serial numbers; 25,000 were sent to other camps, and 865,000 were executed soon after arrival. During the selection process children were told to walk towards a stick held at a certain height; those who could walk under the stick without having to bend were sent to the gas chambers. Inmates’ belongings were seized and taken to the “Kanada” warehouses to be sorted.

The crematoria consisted of a dressing room, gas chamber, and furnace room. In crematoria II and III, the dressing room and gas chamber were underground; in IV and V, they were on the ground floor. Crematorium II also contained a “dissection” room. Signs on the gas chamber door read “Desinfektionsraum” (disinfection room) or “Bade” (“bath”). Although, it is said that the languages of the signs changed depending on who was being executed. Some inmates were even given soap and a towel. The Zyklon B was delivered to the crematorias by a special SS bureau known as the Hygiene Institute. After the doors of the gas chambers were shut, SS men dropped the Zyklon B pellets through vents in the roof or holes in the side of the chamber. Victim were usually dead within 10 minutes. Rudolph Hoss testified that it could sometimes take up to 20 minutes. Leib Langfus, a member of the Sonderkommando, buried his diary (written in Yiddish) near crematorium III in Auschwitz II. It was found in 1952.  

At Auschwitz women who went directly to the gas chambers had their hair removed after their bodies were moved by the Sonderkommando. At Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka their hair was removed before entering the dressing room. By February 6, 1943 6,613 pounds (3,000 kg) of women’s hair had been sent to the Reich Economic Ministry. Before being sent out the hair was cleaned in a solution of sal ammoniac and dried on the brick floor of the crematoria. After it was dry it was combed and placed in paper bags. When the camp was liberated in 1945, the Red Army found 15,432 pounds (7,000 kg) of human hair in bags ready to be shipped. Gold removed from the teeth of the victims were sent to the SS Health Service and used by dentists to treat the SS and their families. By early 1944, 22-26 pounds (10-12 kg) of gold were being extracted monthly from victims’ teeth.

 At least 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945. Approximately 1.1 million of those people died. 400,207 were registered in the camp: 268,657 male and 131,560 female. The Germans of course tried to conceal these horrific figures. According to Rudolf Hoss’s post-war memoir, Höss received an order from Heinrich Himmler, via Adolf Eichmann’s office and SS commander Paul Blobel, that “All mass graves were to be opened and the corpses burned. In addition, the ashes were to be disposed of in such a way that it would be impossible at some future time to calculate the number of corpses burned.” 

Following the death camps liberation, the Soviet government issued a statement on May 8, 1945, stating that 4 million people had been murdered on the site. This figure was based on the capacity of the crematoria. Hoss later told prosecutors at Nuremberg that at least 2,500,000 prisoners were gassed there, and another 500,000 had died of starvation and disease. Around 1 in 6 Jewish people died in Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Holocaust. The greatest number of Jewish victims at the camp came from Hungary (430,000), followed by Poland (300,000), France (69,000), Netherlands (60,000), Greece (55,000), Bohemia and Moravia (46,000), Slovakia (27,000), Belgium (25,000), Germany and Austria (23,000), Yugoslavia (10,000), Italy (7,500), Norway (690), and others (34,000). 

From the first escape on July 6, 1940, by Tadeusz Wuejowski (serial number 220), at least 802 prisoners tried to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Out of the 802 attempts, 144 were successful, 327 were caught, and the fate of 331 is unknown. 4 Polish prisoners Eugeniusz Bendera (serial number 8502), Kazimier Piechowski (serial number 918), Stanislaw Gustaw Jaster (serial number 6438, and Jozef Lemaprt (serial number 3419) escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau successfully on June 20, 1942. The group broke into a warehouse where they stole guard uniforms. 3 of the men dressed as SS officers and stole rifles as well as an SS staff car. The fourth man was handcuffed and drove off the property with the other men under the scenario that the male was being transported for unknown reasons. The escapees later wrote a letter to Rudolf Hoss apologizing for the loss of the vehicle. Polish inmate, Jerzy Bielecki dressed in an SS uniform, and using a fake pass, managed to cross the camp’s gate with his Jewish girlfriend, Cyla Cybulska, pretending that she was wanted for questioning on July 21, 1944.

Jerzy Tabeau (serial number 27273, registered as Jerzy Wesolowksi) and Roman Cieliczko (serial number 27089), escaped on November 19, 1943. Tabeau managed to make contact with the Polish underground and between December 1943 and early 1944, wrote what became known as the Polish Major’s Report about the situation inside the death camp. On April 27, 1944, Rudolf Vrba (serial number 44070) and Alfred Wetzler (serial number 29162) escaped the camp and made their way to Slovakia, where they carried detailed information about the gas chambers to the Slovak Jewish Council. The distribution of the report Verba and Wetzler wrote, helped halt the deportation of Jewish people from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arnost Rosin-Mordowicz (serial number 29858) and Czeslaw Mordowicz (serial number 84216) also escaped to Slovakia, a report the two men wrote was added to the Vrba-Wetzler and Tabeau reports. This became known as the Auschwitz Protocols. The reports were first published in November 1944 by the United States War Refugee Board as The Extermination Camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau in Upper Silesia.  

Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army and prime minister-in-exile, Wladyslaw Sikoriski, arranged for a report to be forwarded to Air Marshal Richard Pierse, head of RAF Bomber Command in January 1941. The report had been written by prisoners around December 1940 and described the camp’s horrific living conditions. In the report, the prisoners asked the Polish government-in-exile to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau. Pierse replied that it was not possible to bomb the camp without harming the prisoners. In May 1944 a Slovakian rabbit, Michael Dov Weissmandl, suggested that the Allies bomb the rails leading to the camp. Auschwitz III would be bombed 3 times between August and December 1944.

The Sonderkommando who worked in the crematoria were witnesses to the mass murders and were often murdered themselves. On October 7, 1944, following an announcement that 300 Sonderkommandos were going to be sent to a nearby town to clear away rubble (“transfers” were a common ruse for the murder of prisoners) a group of them staged an uprising. They attacked the SS with stones and hammers, killing 3 of them. They set crematorium IV on fire using rags soaked in oil they had hidden. Hearing the commotion, the Sonderkommando at crematorium II thought that an entire camp uprising had started and threw their Oberkapo into a furnace. Damn, that’s vicious. After escaping through a fence using wire cutters, the group managed to reach the village of Rajsko, where they hid in the granary of an Auschwitz satellite camp. The SS guards followed the prisoners and killed them by setting the granary on fire.  

By the time the rebellion at crematorium IV had been suppressed, 212 members of the Sonderkommando were still alive and 451 had been killed. Among the dead included Zalmen Gradowski, who kept records of his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau and buried them near crematorium III. After the war, another member of the Sonderkommando showed prosecutors where to dig for the records. They were published in different formats, including as a book in 2017.

Smoke rising from the fire set in crematorium IV

The last mass transports to arrive in Auschwitz were 60,000-70,000 Jewish people from the Lodz Ghetto, roughly 2,000 from Theresienstadt, and 8,000 from Slovakia. The last selection at the death camp took place on October 30, 1944. Between November 1 and 2, 1944, Henrich Himmler ordered the SS to pause the mass murders by gassing. Himmler ordered that Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers and crematoria be destroyed on November 25th that year. The Sonderkommando and other prisoners began the job of tearing down the buildings and cleaning up with site. Engelbert Marketsch, a German criminal transferred from Mauthausen, became the last prisoner to be assigned a serial number in Auschwitz-Birkenau (serial number 202499) on January 18, 1945. 

In January 1945, Himmler ordered the evacuation of all death camps. The stolen goods from the “Kanada” barracks, as well as building supplies were sent to the German interior. Between December 1, 1944 and January 15, 1945, over 1 million items of clothing were packed and shipped out of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 95,000 such items were sent to concentration camps in Germany. On January 17, 1945, approximately 58,000 Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners were evacuated under close supervision, at first heading west on foot, then by open-topped freight trains to concentration camps in Germany and Austria: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Bachau, Flossenburgm Gross-Rosen, Mauthausen, Dora-Mittelbau, Ravensbruck, and Sachsenhausen. Less than 9,000 prisoners remained at Auschwitz-Birkenau, having been deemed too sick to move.  

During the grueling marches, the SS shot or abandoned anyone who had been unable to continue; “execution details” followed the marchers, killing prisoners who lagged. On January 20, 1945, crematoria II and III were blown up, and on January 23, the “Kanada warehouses were burnt down. The part of crematorium IV that had not been destroyed by the Sonderkommando revolt was later destroyed. On January 26, 1945, crematorium V was blown up.

The first camp in the complex to be liberated was Auschwitz III, a soldier from the 100th Infantry Division of the Red Army entered the camp around 9:00 am on Saturday, January 27, 1945. The 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front (also part of the Red Army) arrived in Auschwitz I and II at approximately 3:00 pm. 7,000 prisoners were found alive in the 3 main camps and 500 in the other sub-camps. Over 600 dead bodies were discovered. Items found by the Red Army included 837,000 articles of women’s clothing, 370,000 men’s suits, 44,000 pairs of shoes, and 15,432 pounds (7,000 kg) of human hair. Some of the hair was examined by the Forensic Science Institute in Krakow, where it was found to contain traces of hydrogen cyanide, the main ingredient of Zyklon B.

The Soviet military medical service and Polish Red Cross set up field hospitals that cared for 4,500 prisoners suffering from starvation. Local volunteers helped until the Red Cross team arrived from Krakow in early February. In Auschwitz II, layers of excrement on the barracks floors had to be scraped off with shovels. Water was obtained from snow and fire-fighting wells. Before more help was able to arrive, 2,200 patients were looked after by a few doctors and 12 PCK nurses. All the patients were later moved to the brick buildings in Auschwitz I, where several blocks were turned into a hospital. Medical personnel took turns working 18-hour shifts to care for the patients. 

Little press attention was given to the liberation of the death camp at the time. The Red Army was focusing on its advance toward Germany and liberating the camp had not been one of its key aims. In April 1945 Western Allies arrived in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau, and only then did the liberation begin receiving extensive media coverage.

Auschwitz-Birkenau being liberated by the Red Army

Only 789 Auschwitz-Birkenau staff, approximately 15% of people who worked at the death camp, stood trial for their crimes. Most cases were pursued in Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany. Commandant Rudolf Hoss was arrested by the British on March 11, 1946 near Flensburg, northern Germany, where he had been working as a farmer under the alias Franz Lang. He was imprisoned in Heide before being transferred to Minden for interrogation. After being interrogated he was taken to Nuremberg to testify for the defense in the trial of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Hoss was upfront about his role in the mass murders and said he followed the orders of Heinrich Himmler. He was extradited to Poland on May 25, 1946. Hoss went on trial before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw on March 11, 1947. He was sentenced to death on April 2nd. Rudolf Hoss was hanged at the gallows in Auschwitz I on April 16, 1947. The same spot he had condemned so many innocent prisoners to die. 

The Auschwitz trial began in Krakow on November 25, 1947, when Poland’s Supreme National Tribunal brought 40 former Auschwitz staff to court, including commandant Arthur Liebehenschel, women’s camp leader Maria Mandel, and camp leader Hans Aumeier. The trials came to a close on December 22, 1947. 23 death sentences were handed down, 7 life sentences, and 9 prison sentences ranging from 3 to 15 years. Hans Munch, an SS doctor who had several former prisoners testify on his behalf, was the only person to be acquitted of war crimes. Hans is my homie. He was nicknamed the “Good man of Auschwitz” for his refusal to take part in the mass murders and came up with various schemes to help keep prisoners alive. He also conducted “human experiments” which were most often a farce that went on much longer than needed, since the subject of the experiments were killed after they were deemed to be of no use anymore. Dr. Munich passed away in 2001 at the age of 89.

Other former Auschwitz-Birkenau staff were hanged for war crimes in the Dachau Trials and the Belsen Trial, including camp leaders Josef Kramer, Franz Hossler, and Vinzenz Schottl; doctor Friedrich Entress; and guards Irma Grese and Elisabeth Volkenrath. Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher, the owner and chief executive officer of the firm Tesch & Stabenow, one of the suppliers of Zyklon B, were arrested by the British after the war and were executed for knowingly supplying the chemical for use on humans. The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials were held in West Germany and lasted for 180 days. Between December 20, 1963, and August 1965, 22 defendants were tried, including 2 dentists, a doctor, 2 camp adjutants, and the camp’s pharmacist. The 700-page indictment, presenting the testimony of 2,547 witnesses, was accompanied by a 300-page report about Auschwitz-Birkenau, Nationalsozialstische Konzentrationslager, written by Martin Broszat and Helmut Krausnick (along with other German historians). The court convicted 19 of the defendants, handing down 6 life sentences and 13 prison sentences lasting between 3 and 10 years.

Auschwitz-Birkenau still stands to this day. No longer as a concentration camp but as a museum. It was established by the Polish government to help us remember the “the martyrdom of the Polish nation and other nations in Oswiecim” as part of a law establishing the site as a state memorial. In 2018 the Polish government passed an amendment to its Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, making it a criminal offense to violate the “good name” of Poland by accusing it of crimes committed by Germany during the Holocaust. This would include referring to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps as “Polish death camps”. 

Thanks for hanging in there and reading such a sad, long article. I’m sorry if any information mentioned in the first part was repeated in the second. There was a lot of research to comb through and a lot of it really messed with my head. I felt such a range of emotions while working on this article from anger to sadness. Sadness for the people who suffered and for those who lost their lives. Anger for the men and women who helped put it all in motion. Anger that at one point in time such evil lived on this earth. As time goes on, I often find myself wondering if this kind of evil ever really left our planet. Aren’t people are still persecuted for their beliefs and the way they live their lives right now? And won’t they continue to be for years to come?  

Remember to always respect one another. Be kind and spread smiles. We might be different but that’s how we learn from one another, and we’re all humans on the inside. 

Sources:

“Auschwitz concentration camp” – Wikipedia

“Auschwitz-Birkwnau Museum” – Auschwitz.org

“Auschwitz” – Holocaust Encyclopedia

“Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp” – YouTube

“Hitler’s Circle of Evil” – Netflix

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