Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Devouring Part II

“…If genocide could take place on such a mass, industrialized and bureaucratized scale in one location, then it could happen anywhere, because it lies within the capabilities of mankind.” (Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

 

 Oswiecim, Upper Silesia, Poland

“The epicenter of Nazi brutality, the place where Nazism achieved its purest and most bestial form. “ (Auschwitz State Museum.)

 

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Art by Auschwitz-Birkenau Prisoner

 

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“All of us, who are members of the Germanic peoples, can be happy and thankful that once in thousands of years fate has given us, from among the Germanic peoples, such a genius, a leader, our Fuhrer Adolf Hitler,“  ( Himmler, Heinrich.)

 

 

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“You have arrived not at a sanatorium, but at a German concentration camp, from which the only exit is through the chimney of  its crematorium.” Schutzlaftlagerfuhrer Fritzsch’s welcome speech to newly arrived POWs.

  

Note: This post is a continuation of Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Devouring.

For one month in November, 2014, I was fortunate to have served as a volunteer in the preservation department of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. People have asked me to describe my feelings about the camp. I felt a sense of deep sadness and bleak desolation most of the time. I sensed hatred and violence in the very air I breathed, although those with whom I worked were kind and loving at all times. I felt unclean, for with each step I took, I wondered if the ashes of the innocent lay beneath my feet.

There are those who deny that the heartbreaking events that took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau actually occurred. Our society refers to those people as Holocaust deniers. During the month in which I volunteered, my assignments included de-acidifying primary documents, making storage containers for victims’ shoes that have deteriorated over time, and cleaning prisoners’  luggage. As I was carefully cleaning one small suitcase, I noticed the edge of a tiny label hidden beneath the interior lining in one corner. It was clear from the condition of the suitcase that it had been many years since it had been opened. I removed the label.  Printed on one side were the words, “Israeli Synagogue, 1942.” This label is now contained within the museum’s database.

 

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The story of Auschwitz-Birkenau is very difficult to tell. How can words accurately describe the extermination of more than one million people by deadly gasses? What vocabulary is powerful enough to portray the horror which Jewish prisoners felt when forced to burn the bodies of their people and later grind the remaining bones to powder? How can the pain of mothers and fathers, who witnessed the suffocation of their children as they succumbed to the poisonous vapors designed to kill rats, possibly be expressed by the lexicon of any nation? The capacity of humans to communicate  is limited to signs, symbols, and actions. Suffering and evil in the unprecedented degree that occurred in Auschwitz-Birkenau are impossible to put into words.

For that reason, I shall attempt to tell the story through photographs taken and information learned during my one month volunteer experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of the information will be taken from the following: displays located within the Auschwitz Museum; reliable resources recommended by the museum; voices of the victims and perpetrators; experts in the field of preservation who work diligently to keep the truth alive; and sources that speak with authority.

This post comes with a warning. It is my hope that only those who can put the details into historic perspective will actually read this information. Those who suffer from depression, or react to things with great emotion, would likely regret reading it. However, as I see the dramatic increase in anti-Semitism occurring throughout the world, it would be unconscionable for me  to fail to share the reality of what occurs when a nation loses its moral foundation. Therefore, please be forewarned that the story of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as told in our society, does not begin to represent the brutal, ugly, depraved truth of what actually took place.There are some details and stories that I will not share on this blog, for they are so very obscene that to do so would be to show disrespect for the victims who experienced those incidents.

Much of this document is presented in the actual words of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Kommandant, Rudolf Hoess, as recorded in his book  Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz. Edited by Steven Paskuly, this autobiography describes Hoess’ role in the extermination of innocent people throughout Europe, providing us with essential information and insight necessary to form even the simplest understanding of the horrors experienced by the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.  

 

“History will mark me the greatest if all perpetrators.”  (Hoess, Rudolf.)

 

“I commanded Auschwitz until December, 1943, and estimate that at least 2.5 million victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half-million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total of dead of about 3 million.”  (Hoess, Rudolf.)

(Note: Hoess later recanted his testimony and provided a  significantly lower number of deaths.)

 

 

 

Auschwitz-Birkenau Gallows

The gallows on which Kommandant Rudolf Hoess was hanged, located beside Auschwitz I’s crematorium and gas chamber. Hoess requested to be shot. He felt death by hanging was a dishonorable way for a soldier of the Third Reich to die. His request was denied.

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Home of Auschwitz-Birkenau Kommandant Rudolf Hoess

Hoess lived in this home with  his wife Hedwig and their four children. It is located about 25 feet from his office where I lived for one month in 2014, and about 50 feet from Auschwitz I crematorium. 

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Office of Kommandant Rudolf Hoess

 The volunteer’s dorm in which I lived was on the top floor, the last room on the left. The staff of Auschwitz impressed me with their dedication to preserving the memory of those who suffered in the camp.

 

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View Outside of Kommandant Hoess’ Office

 

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Extent of Auschwitz-Birkenau Camps 

The territory in Upper Silesia in which Auschwitz and its more than forty sub-camps were located covers eighteen square miles and is approximately forty miles from Krakow. The sub-camps included mining, agricultural, armament, and other industries designed to support the German war effort.

 

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Auschwitz I Concentration and Death Camp

Auschwitz I was originally created as barracks for the Polish military.  Additional barracks were later added. The original 15,000 occupants from nearby homes and farms were relocated in order to provide room for expansion and ensure secrecy.

 

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Auschwitz-Birkenau Function

“Complete extermination of prisoners through terror and refined torture delivered by Nazi criminals through machinery of mass destruction.”(Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

Double fences at Auschwitz I contained 400 volts of electricity. Prisoners who entered the space in front of the first fence were shot at from the guard towers. (Auschwitz Museum.)

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“Designed to carry out Hitler’s program of subjugation, physical and moral degradation, and progressive biological destruction of conquered nationalists.” (Auschwitz Museum.)

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Results of Nazi Extermination Policy

“Of the circa 50 million people who died during WWII, around twenty million were victims of the unprecedented policy of extermination of the Third Reich.”  (Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

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“Most of  you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have gone through this and yet – apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness – to have remained decent, this has made us hard. This is the glorious page in our history that has never been written and never shall be written.”  (Himmler, Heinrich .) 

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Auschwitz II: Birkenau Death Camp 1942-1945

Birkenau operated only 3 years, yet 90% of Auschwitz deaths occurred in the camp.

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Birkenau was originally designed as a camp for Soviet POWs. It was composed of 50 brick barracks and 250 wooden barracks which held up to approximately 90,000 prisoners in 1944.

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Electrical fencing was approximately 11 feet high and fitted with 24 ceramic insulators with 750 volts of electricity. Throwing oneself on the fences was a common form of suicide.

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Arrival

Victims arrived by trucks and cattle car, most often at night, to spot lights, cursing, beatings, gun bursts, and attack dogs. They were required to surrender all valuables, identification, and clothing, including underwear. They were allowed to keep one handkerchief, and men were allow to keep a belt.

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Selection

 Selection was carried out by Nazi physicians. The young and healthy were granted a life of work designed for progressive biological annihilation. The elderly, sick, and children were, in most cases,  immediately gassed.

 

Daily Life of Prisoners

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Hygiene

An unclean body or clothing served as a pretext for punishment. Prisoners washed themselves at wells and their clothing in mud puddles. A lice plague resulted in typhus, and if lice were found on a prisoner, severe punishment resulted.

Once latrines were placed in the barracks, prisoners were allowed to use them twice each day for two minutes. Those who failed to follow these guidelines were beaten.

Roll Call

Prisoners arose at 4:30 in spring and summer and at 5:30 in autumn and winter. Roll call occurred without exception to freezing or extremely hot temperatures, snow, or pouring rain. During this time physicians selected those who looked ill and scheduled them for extermination. In order to ensure that the number of prisoners was correct, the bodies of those who died during the night were put on display to be included in the count. Roll calls could last several hours; the longest one lasted for 19 hours.

Sleeping Quarters

Auschwitz I originally provided only straw for prisoners to sleep on. Eventually straw-filled mattresses were provided and finally wooden bunks. Often several prisoners slept in each bunk. Those who slept on the top bunks had a better chance of survival. To sleep on the bottom bunks meant that one could awaken in the morning covered in feces and urine because of the prevalence of starvation diarrhea.

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Prisoner assigned work detail in the latrines were in less danger than others.  With little opportunity to bathe or shower, their odor was so offensive to the SS guards that they avoided the latrine workers as much as possible.

Birkenau barracks were often overcrowded and it was not unusual for them to collapse with the weight of the prisoners. When first built, the barracks had no latrines. Buckets were used and emptied by prisoners each day in huge ditches. Prisoners who emptied the buckets each morning were often victims of the guards and suffered death by drowning in the ditches.

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Prisoner Numbers

This is one of many dates and numbers carved into Birkenau’s barracks. Prisoners were assigned numbers because the death rate was so high that it was impossible to identify corpses without a number. (Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

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Art by Auschwitz-Birkenau Prisoner

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Work Detail

Prisoners were forced to march to music as they left and returned from work detail. The orchestra was composed of prisoners who performed just inside the gate to Auschwitz I.

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“Hundreds of women in Birkenau used to toil in work details….Their guards were SS women wardens with dogs. If you were no longer able to move (from starvation or illness), the guards sent their well-trained German shepherd dogs to finish you off.” (Auschwitz Victim Testimony.)

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Clothing oneself in rags was often what kept the prisoners alive in the bitter Polish winter. Prisoners wore wooden clogs but many were often barefoot. Walking on the icy grounds of the camp in the wooden shoes was extremely dangerous in winter.

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Medical Care

 

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Childbirth

“Until mid-1943, all children born in Auschwitz, regardless of origins, were murdered – usually by phenol injection or drowning. Later, non-Jewish babies were allowed to live……. Due to the woeful conditions in the camp, few lived long.” (Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

Experiments
  • Sterilization through massive X-ray causing burns, inflammation, and often fatal wounds;
  • Injection with typhus in order to determine incubation period;
  • Biopsies on both healthy and sick women to determine cause of cervical cancer.Observations of the various stages of starvation and liver atrophy in prisoners before injecting their hearts with phenol in order to study their organs;
  • Racial and genetic research on Jewish and Roma twins; often killed the twins in order to autopsy them;
  • Phenol injections to the heart of prisoners with hereditary congenital anomalies in order to autopsy organs for comparative analysis; and
  • Sewed veins of children together, making them (artificial) Siamese twins

Diet

Daily food rations, 1500 to 1700 KCAL, caused constant starvation which led to starvation diarrhea and eventual death. (Auschwitz Museum.)

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Muselmann

 Muselmann  was camp jargon describing a prisoner in the terminal stages of physical and mental exhaustion, due to starvation. “Denied the necessary number of calories, the prisoner’s body would meet the deficit by consuming the energy stored in its own fatty tissue. After this energy was depleted, the prisoner’s muscles began to deteriorate. This reduced the body’s resistance and led to internal -organ damage.” (Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

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Euthanasia Program

“These (selected for euthanasia) included those with incurable mental diseases, tuberculosis, or those considered too weak to withstand the camp’s harsh conditions. … The doctor… injected a vial of phenol straight into the inmate’s heart, killing them immediately. ” (Harding, Thomas.)

 

 Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematoria and Gas Chambers

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Auschwitz I  Gas Chamber and Crematorium

Number of corpses Crematorium I was capable of burning in 24 hours: 340

“The process could be observed through the peep hole in the door (of the gas chamber). Those who were standing next to the air shaft were killed immediately. I can state that about one-third died immediately. The remainder staggered about and began to scream and struggle for air. The screaming, however, soon changed to gasping and in a few moments everyone lay still. ” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

 

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Zyklon B pellets were lowered down from holes in the ceiling. Death occurred in about fifteen minutes.

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“After half an hour the doors were opened and the bodies were pulled out…. All the work was done by a special contingent of Jews (the Sonderkommando). They had to help with those who were about to die with the undressing, …… the removal of the bodies. …….. Himmler specified that the gold teeth were to be pulled from the mouths of the bodies and the hair was to be cut from the dead women.  They (Sonderkommando)…. were to be killed after each large extermination action.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

  

“Occasionally some women would suddenly start screaming in a terrible way while undressing. They pulled out their hair and acted as if they had gone crazy.Quickly, they were led behind the farmhouse and killed by a bullet in the back of the neck.” (Hoess, Rudolf.) 

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“Those in charge of burning the bodies were capable of looking at a group of prisoners and estimating the temperature necessary to cremate their bodies. A group with a large number of heavy people needed less heat that one with thin people.” (Auschwitz Preservation Dept. Conservationist.) 

“As the bodies were being pulled out of the gas chambers, one member of the Sonderkommando suddenly stopped and stood for a moment as if thunderstruck. ….. He had discovered his wife among the bodies.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

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Birkenau Gas Chambers and Crematoria

Number of corpses each crematoria in Birkenau was capable of burning in 24 hours. (Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

Crematorium II: 1440

Crematorium III: 1440

Crematorium IV: 768

Crematorium V: 768

 

Birkenau Undressing Room

Prisoners were told they were to undergo a shower to kill lice.

 

“I had to see everything that was being done. Day or night, I had to watch bodies being collected up and burnt, I had to see teeth being broken out, hair cut off, I had to witness all these horrors for hour after hour. I had to stand there myself in the dreadful, sinister stench that arose when mass graves were dug and bodies burnt. I also, at the request of the doctors, had to look through the peephole into the gas chamber  and watch the inmates dying.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

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The ashes were taken by trucks to the Vistula (River), where they immediately dissolved and drifted away.  When the number of victims exceeded the  capacity of the crematoria ovens, bodies were buried in mass graves. Many of the bodies were eventually exhumed and burned to hide the evidences of the murders.

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Mass Graves

 

Art by Auschwitz-Birkenau Prisoner

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Ashes of Victims

“Anytime ashes are found on the artifacts brought to the lab, they are taken back to location from which they were found, in respect for the victims.” (Auschwitz Preservation Dept. Conservationist.)

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Prisoners who worked in the crematoria (Sonderkammandos) were forced to use wooded mallets to crush the skulls and bones that would not burn. The ashes were emptied into the Vistula and Sola Rivers, used as fertilizer on farms, scattered in the forests, and mixed with gravel used to build roads. (Rees, Lawrence.)

The crematoria could not keep pace with the gas chambers in exterminating the massive number of Hungarian Jews. As a result, huge numbers of bodies were buried in mass graves. Toward the end of 1944, Himmler attempted to hide the evidence of the atrocities by exhuming the bodies and burning them. Containers were placed underneath alternate layers of bodies and wood in order to collect the fat from the human corpses, which was then poured onto the flames to increase the amount of heat necessary for the cremation of the bodies.

Number of Victims

Rudolf Hoess: “At least 2,500,000 were gassed, 500,000 perished from emaciation and disease.”

Alter Feinsilber, Sonderkommando: “ I estimate the unregistered individuals (alone) who were burned to exceed several million.”

Szlama Dragon, Sonderkommando: “Between December 9, 1942, to January, 1945, I estimate the number of people gassed to death to have been more than four million.”

Poland Commission for Investigation of German Crimes: “At the very least, more than 2,500,000 were brought to the camp for immediate extermination.”

Auschwitz Museum and Memorial: “Our research does not indicate that the number (of perished) could have been higher than 1.5 million.”

 

 

Approximate Number of Deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau by Groups

Jews: 960,000

Poles: 70,000 to 75,000

Gypsies: 21,000

Soviet Prisoners of War: 15,000

Other Nationalities: 10,000 to 15,000

 

 Victims

Victims included Poles, Roma, Russian POWs, Jehovah Witnesses, Czechs, Belarusians, Germans, French, Russians, Yugoslavians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Ukranians, Albanians, Belgians, Danes, Greeks, Spaniards, Netherlanders, Lithuanians, Luxembourgers, Latvians, Norwegians, Romanians, Slovaks, Swiss, Hungarians, and Italians.  (Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

Note: There is no intent to leave out the victims of any nation. Pictures were selected based on lighting conditions necessary for photography.
 

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Jehovah’s Witnesses

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Roma and Sinti (Gypsies)

“The gypsies were as trusting as little children.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

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“Most Roma and Sinti were deported from Germany, Austria, the Protectorate of Bohemia, and Moravia. The Jews were the largest group to face extermination, with Poles the second largest, and Gypsies the third.”  (Auschwitz: Nazi Death Camp.)

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Hungary

 

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Slovakia

 

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Czech Lands

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France

 

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Poland

“Poland was to become the biggest racial experiment the world has ever seen. In the process, the belief that 21st Century Europe was home only to civilized people would be forever shattered.” (Rees, Lawrence.)

“6,000,000 Poles died in the war, about 18% of the entire population.”  (Rees, Lawrence.)

 

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Children

232,000 children arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. They included 216,000 Jewish, 3,000 Polish, 1,000 Slavic, and 11,000 Roma/Sinti children. Only 700 were left alive to be liberated.

 

“I had to appear cold and heartless…… Coldly, I had to stand and watch as the mothers went into the gas chambers with their laughing or crying children.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

 

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Evidence

 

Eyeglasses of Victims

Note: The tons of human hair removed from the women prisoners is considered too personal to be photographed or preserved in any way. The hair was sent to Bavaria to be utilized for the Nazi war effort.  Much of it was still in the camp when it was liberated.

 

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Photo: Prosthetics Taken from Victims

 

“Approximately twenty freight cars were loaded each day with the stolen effects of the  prisoners.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

 

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Prisoners’ Luggage

“In early 1944, the SS obtained from 22 to 26 pounds of gold per month from victims’ teeth. “ (Camp Resistant Movement.).

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Victims’ Clothing

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Mass Graves

At the request of nearby fish farmers who complained that poisonous contaminants from the mass burials were causing the fish to die off, Hoess had most of the mass graves dug up and the corpses burned. He also made the decision based upon the need to conceal evidence.

 “SS Colonel Paul Blobel, the organizer of  the Babi Yar massacre in late September 1941 in Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were murdered, tried using dynamite to blow up the corpses, but he had very little success with this method. After the  mass grave only a short distance from my housing.

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Primary Source: Auschwitz Museum Document

List of prisoners killed with phenol injections in 1942

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Primary Source: Auschwitz Museum Document

Page from Death Book of 1944 listing the deaths of Dutch Jews

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Primary Source: Auschwitz Museum Document

 

Document showing the presence of feces bacteria in victims’ food

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Crimes 

 

 

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“All in unison, they (the Russian POWs)….. threw themselves into the pile of potatoes. .. Some of them died while digging into the pile; others died while still chewing, their hands full of potatoes.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

 

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¨Himmler had given instructions that after the extermination of each transport, the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners who were forced to remove the bodies, were to be killed. However, this did not always occur.” (Hoess, Rudolf.) 

 

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Starvation

“Cases of cannibalism happened quite often in Birkenau. Once I found the body of a Russian lying between two piles of bricks.  The body had been ripped open with a dull instrument. The liver was missing. They beat each other to death just  to get something to eat.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

 

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Perpetrators

 

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Auschwitz-Birkenau Staff

  • 5.5% had received degrees in higher education.  (These were the physicians.)
  • 73% had completed basic education.
  • 42.5 were members of the Catholic Church.
  • 36.5% were Protestant.

 

 Adolf Eichman: Main Security Office of the Reich (RHSA)

Eichman was assigned to arrange all deportations into occupied Poland. Hanged in 1962.

 “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me  a source of extraordinary satisfaction.”  (Eichman, Adolf.)

 

“To sum it all up, I must say that I regret nothing.” (Eichman, Adolf.) 

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 Reinhard Heydrich: Chief of RHSA

Considered one of worst of the Nazi perpetrators, he was assassinated in Prague in 1942. Directly responsible for Einsatzgruppen, the special task forces which travelled in the wake of the German armies and killed over one million people, including Jews, by mass shootings. Believed to have been second only to Heinrich Himmler in the Nazi hierarchy.

 

“Killing people with exhaust gasses is inadequate, because the death toll is too low.”  (Heydrich, Reinhard.)

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Josef Kramer ( The Beast of Belsen): Hauptsturmführer

Assisted Hoess in the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. Hanged in 1945.

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Joseph Mengele: Physician and German Schutzstaffel, (SS) officer

 Called “The Angel of Death, “ Mengele sent tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers during Selection. Mengele fled to South America where he managed to evade capture. He was  guilty of the following crimes:

  • Supervision, with a team of other doctors, of the use of Zyclon B in Birkenau gas chambers IV and V;
  • Study of children with Noma disease; having them killed in order to preserve their organs;
  • Study of twins, including such acts as sewing conjoined twins together, unnecessarily amputating their limbs; infecting them with typhus and other diseases; transfusing blood from one twin to another;
  •  Experimentation with dwarves to include drawing blood and extracting healthy teeth; and
  • Injection of chemicals into the eyes of inmates who suffered from heterochromia iridum before killing them in order to send their eyes to Berlin for study.

Although Mengele was one of  the most notorious of the Auschwitz-Birkenau physicians, others should be noted for their crimes. They include, but are not limited to, Carl Clauberg, Hereta Oberheuser, and Karl Brandt.

 

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Otto Moll:  SS-Hauptscharführer and Head of Crematoria

“From time to time, he (Moll) appeared among the deportees, leading naked people behind the brush fence. There, he made them stand at the edge of the pit, and shot them in the back of the head. Sometimes, he threw babies alive into the (burning) pits.” (Auschwitz Museum.) Moll was executed  in 1946.

“When I was in charge of these excavations (of mass graves of Hungarian Jews)…we put between 30,000 and 40,000 people in these mass graves. It was the most terrible work that could be carried out by any human being.. ” (Moll, Otto.)

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Auschwitz-Birkenau Auxiliary 

Celebrating at a nearby retreat as victims are being gassed.

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Karl Fritzch: SS-Hauptsturmführer

Fritzch’s successful experimentation with Zyclon B led to the deaths of millions. He  is believed to have died at the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

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Heinrich Himmler: Head of the SS

Himmler  committed suicide while in custody in 1945.

 

“The Jews are the eternal enemies of the German nation and must be extirpated. All Jews that come into our hands during the war will be exterminated without exception. If we are unable to destroy the biological forces of Judaism, then the Jews will one day destroy the German nation.” (Himmler, Heinrich.)

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Hoess, Rudolf: Kommandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau

icked man.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)  

“Let the public go on thinking of me as a bloodthirsty brute, a cruel sadist, the murderer of millions. For that is the only way the vast majority will be able to imagine the kommandant of Auschwitz. They would never understand that he, too, had a heart, and was not a wicked man.” (Hoess, Rudolf.)

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 Bibliography and Suggest Resources

 

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

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Suggested Resources

 Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

A Week in Auschwitz: 2012.

Harding, Thomas. Hanna and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Simon and Schuster. 2014.

Hoess, Rodulf and Pausky, Steve. Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant of Auschwitz. De Capo Press. 1996.

Nazi Doctors

Nizkor International Military Tribunals Nuremberg Trials

Rees, Lawrence. Auschwitz: A New History. Public Affairs. 2006.

Rees, Lawrence. The Nazis: A Warning from History. London: BBC, 2005.

Virtual Museum: Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Studies

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