Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Devouring Part I

“It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.” (Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz Survivor)

Auschwitz-Birkenau Guard Tower

Auschwitz-Birkenau Guard Tower


It was a cloudy, cold, and rainy day when I entered Auschwitz. The Sola River flowed peacefully nearby, its banks a carpet of lush green beneath a spring canopy of weeping willows. A tributary of the Vistula River which runs through Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine, the Sola is a source of life. Yet, during the terrible years of 1942 through 1944, rather than serving to preserve life, the river was destined to become a repository of death. According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, it was into her life-giving waters that each day Auschwitz’s Jewish slave laborers, the Sonderkommandos, emptied the human remains of Nazi victims, the Jews, Romani, Shinti, Lalleri, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish Catholics,  handicapped, and others who, because they were deemed unfit for life, had been gassed and cremated. It is on the beautiful banks of the Sola that today the skeletal remains of four gas chambers and four crematoria stand as sentinels, declaring to the world that more than one million lives were sacrificed in Auschwitz upon “the fiery altar” designed to implement the Nazi regime’s Final Solution.

Like many others throughout the world, I have always possessed a deep need to understand how systemic evil of this magnitude could actually have existed in a “civilized” world. It is within the stories, the parables passed down from those who actually experienced these events, that we begin to gain a deeper knowledge of the consequences that result when a culture devalues life. One such story was shared by author and Auschwitz survivor, Victor Frankl.

This young woman knew she would die in the next few days. “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” She could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously, I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.'” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, I am here-I am here-I am life, eternal life.”  (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl)

Auschwitz Crematorium Furnaces

Auschwitz Crematorium Furnaces


History has documented centuries of persecution for those known as the “Children of Israel.” However, during those blood-thirsty years in which the ashes of the innocent flowed from the Sola into the Vistula, the National Socialist Party, under the leadership of German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, took sanctioned persecution of European Jews to depths previously unexplored by man. The Romani, the Gypsies whose nomadic heritage made them easy victims of Hitler’s SS, aptly called the evil that occurred during this period porajmos, meaning “The Devouring.”

The epicenter of this persecution was Poland, the ancient land of the Celts and the Poles, the home of classical composer Frederic Chopin, world renowned writer Joseph Conrad, and Noble Laureate Marie Curie. With few natural boundaries to provide protection from foreign invaders, this central European country became easy prey for the Third Reich’s genocidal aggression. As a result, a nightmare of hatred and frenzied bloodshed occurred, devouring the innocent, the weak, and all those who did not fit the racial stereotype of the pure-blooded Aryan. The Treaty of Versailles and the harsh terms dictated to Germany following her defeat in World War I are the basis from which most historians explain the root causes of World War II. However, terms dictated by the allied nations at Versailles do little to explain the deaths of more than six million innocent people during the Nazi Holocaust.

Few doubt that anti-Semitism played the dominant role in the events that took place in the secret torture chambers of Dachau, Treblinka, Mauthausen, and Bergen-Belsen. Most of us have heard the stories of Nazis such as Ilse Koch, the Bitch of Buchenwald, and we have read in shock of the hideous medical experimentation on twins and dwarfs performed by Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death. We have seen pictures of emaciated captives with swollen, starved bellies as they stared with vacant eyes from behind barbed wire fences after they were liberated.

Yet, still the questions remain. Was there more to the story? Perhaps a true understanding requires that we penetrate that dark, brutal world where SS guards ruled with immunity and tribute was paid to absolute cruelty and tyranny. However, to do so ravages the emotions and leaves one vulnerable, with scars that haunt our dreams. There is another way to seek to fathom parts of this mystery. It requires that we follow a pathway, a simple timeline that was revealed in 1991 following the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

It is from documents released by Russia after the dissolution of the United Soviet Socialist Republics, that we find two additional ideological tenets closely related to the Third Reich’s conviction that the Germanic people were the master race. The first tenet was lebenstraum, the need for people of a superior culture to occupy lands belonging to those of an inferior culture. The National Socialist Party believed lebenstraum was essential in order to provide increased living space for the Aryan race and to regain the lands taken from them in the Treaty of Versailles. The second ideological component was that of racial hygiene, the need to maintain Aryan genetic purity. This tenet required that Aryans be restricted from interbreeding with other cultures perceived by the Nazis to be subhuman.

The timeline revealed in the Russian documents is the key to unraveling the emergence and evolution of the Third Reich’s death camps. It indicates that genocide was not necessarily the original intent of the Nazi regime. The German government would have been content to simply send its prisoners to other parts of the world. However, after the other nations, those with the resources necessary to support the huge number of refugees, refused to accept the Jews, innovation and expediency in achieving these two tenets became necessary.

The first step was forced relocation of the captives into closely guarded urban quarters. This eventually proved ineffective, for the ghettos were not of sufficient size to accommodate the millions of prisoners. Nor was the Third Reich willing to provide  foods and other resources necessary for the prisoners’ survival. Therefore, starvation, disease, and insurrection were the natural outcomes. The second step was  liquidation, a thorough, periodic cleansing of each ghetto in order to house new groups of captives. As Germany’s successful invasion of Europe continued unabated and the number of prisoners amassed dramatically, it became clear to the Nazi leadership that more severe steps would be required. The third step would be the construction of the death camps in order to implement the Final Solution.

The time critical to our understanding was between 1939 and 1944. The process began immediately after the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Sudetenland.


Crematorium II and Gas Chamber

Crematorium II and Gas Chamber


German Invasion of Poland

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. The Wehrmacht’s strategy of blitzkrieg, initiated and sustained by formidable panzer divisions and air force (Luftwaffe), were the keys to Nazi military dominance. On that day, as the German armored tanks rolled across the fertile fields of Poland, the number of Jews under German control increased by approximately one-half million.

Three weeks later SS Security Chief Reinhard Heydrich, who in post-World War II would become known throughout the world as the Blonde Beast and the Butcher of Prague, ordered that all Jews in the occupied territories be relocated and segregated in secured and guarded quarters. This process continued throughout each successive campaign. The Warsaw Ghetto, where the most significant Jewish uprising in the history of World War II would eventually take place, housed more than 500,000 Jews. The Lodz Ghetto became the forced dwelling place of more than 150,000. Even then, omens indicated that the number of captives being taken by the German troops would overwhelm the system. By necessity, the Third Reich leadership would eventually be forced to reassess the process of dealing with the Jewish problem.

The history of World War II gives us cold, hard facts, the major events necessary for a very shallow look into the past. However, oral history, passed down from one person to another, allows us to gain a more thorough understanding. It is here that we find Paul Harvey’s “the rest of the story.” The story of the Thadeus Pankiewitz and his employees that took place in the Krakow ghetto is one such example.

The Plac Zgody (Square) of Krakow’s Podgorze District was a much smaller ghetto that those of Warsaw and Lodz. Originally it served as the home of 3,500 Krakow gentiles who had been forcibly relocated. Strategically located near the Zablocie Train Station, it was an ideal setting for housing forced laborers. Factories such as that owned by Oskar Schindler required large numbers of employees to produce the manufactured products necessary for Germany’s war. It was from this tiny ghetto that we find a unique parable, a story that touches our hearts and renews our faith in humanity.

The ghetto served as home for 17,000 Jews. One gentile who had been scheduled for relocation was the Catholic druggist Thaddeus Pankiewitz, owner of the Pharmacy Under the Eagle. Daring to petition the Germans, he requested  that he and his three women employees, who were also gentiles, be allowed to continue to run the small pharmaceutical business which had been in his family for generations. Surprisingly, Pankiewicz’s petition was approved. The druggist was granted the right to remain as a resident of the ghetto, and his employees were permitted to enter and exit through the guarded gates each morning and evening. As a highly respected citizen of Krakow, Pankiewicz maintained freedoms seldom granted by the Nazis. He could enter and exit the ghetto at will without being searched.

Righteous Among the Nations

Righteous Among the Nations

During the years of 1942 and 1943, Thaddeus Pankiewicz and his assistants were daily exposed to threats and intimidation by the SS guards controlling the small Judaic community. In the hidden back rooms of  his business, Pankiewicz held meetings to address the critical needs of the prisoners, arranged for secret food deliveries, designed and implemented strategies of escape through the sewers for those destined for death,  and carried letters from the ghetto to alert the Allies of the conditions within the guarded enclosure. His compassion seemed limitless, as he daily sedated the elderly and ill Jewish prisoners with valerian roots. Sedation diminished the fear and suffering they were experiencing as they watched outside their windows the shootings and beatings of their loved ones and friends. Under these dire conditions, Pankiewicz’s valor and decency never diminished. However, his courage had yet to be challenged as it would be following a  secretive meeting of the Nazi elite held in a small suburb of Berlin called Wannsee.

Auschwitzh Concentration Camp

The Wannsee Protocol and Operation Reinhard

On June 21, 1941, Hitler violated his German-Soviet non-aggression pact and began the invasion of the Soviet Union in a movement called Operation Barbarossa. The invasion of the U.S.S.R. brought still more prisoners under German control. This time the number reached more than one million. The ghettos were overwhelmed. The leaders of the master race were faced with a problem that they, themselves, had created. They understood that the Jews, facing starvation and death by disease in the ghettos, would eventually rebel. History, in the form of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, would prove them to be correct in this assumption.

At a meeting in Wannsee in 1942, officials of the National Socialist Party gathered for the sole purpose of designing the Wannsee Protocol. The protocol articulated the Final Solution. In order to solve the problems created by the Third Reich’s military aggression, 11,000,000 European Jews under Nazi control were condemned to systematic ethnic cleansing. Under the leadership of German propaganda minister, Joseph Gobbels, those who were not of the master race had already been labeled as subhuman. Therefore, the Wannsee Protocol was not a huge leap to take in order to eliminate those already considered to be unfit for life.

Special attention was given to the 3, 300,000 Jewish captives of Poland. Extermination camps designated for the total destruction of all Jews in Poland’s occupied territory were set up in Sobibor, Belzsec, and Treblinka. The agreement reached by the Nazi leadership to accomplish this major task was called Operation Reinhard.  The total liquidation of the Polish ghettos began. Captives were to be shipped to the Operation Reinhard camps where they would be systematically put to death.

The liquidation of the Krakow ghetto occurred in three distinct waves. In 1942, approximately 4,000 Jews were deported to the Belzec extermination camp where all were put to death. Later in 1942, all “excessive” ghetto residents, the sick, handicapped, and small children were murdered. In addition, 4,500 more residents were deported to Belzec. In the last wave which occurred in 1943, several hundred captives were sent to Auschwitz, and all remaining ghetto residents were killed either in their homes or in the streets.

Undaunted, the courageous Thaddeus Pankieweicz and his assistants initiated their most daring plan. Sedating small children and babies with the barbiturate luminal and with opiates such as codeine, they prepared the tiny victims for escape from the clutches of the SS. Once the children were totally immobilized, Pankiewicz and his assistants carefully wrapped each small body. They gently placed the children in suitcases and briefcases. Facing immediate death from the SS guards if they were caught, they bravely walked through the heavily guarded ghetto gates carrying their precious cargo, the babies of the Krakow Jews, to freedom and to life.

The hero of Plac Zgody, Thaddeus Pankiewicz, would in later years receive the highest honor awarded a non-Jew who saved the lives of Jews of the Nazi Holocaust. Pankiewicz would be recognized as “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the World Center for Holocaust Research, Documentation, Education, and Commemoration.

Overall, the success of Operation Reinhard was undeniable. Of the more than three million Polish Jews targeted, only 300,000 survived the war. The Operation Reinhard death camps had mastered the process of mass murder. However, the names of Treblinka, Belsec, and Sobibor would eventually fade into the annals of history when compared with that of another death camp. Originally a place for housing migrant workers, Auschwitz-Birkenau would take its place center stage in the great twentieth-century tragedy that played out before the eyes of the world.

The Wannsee Protocol and Operation Reinhard became central to Auschwitz-Birkenau’s eventual notoriety. Conveniently built near several branch railroad lines of the Polish Rail System, the Auschwitz complex provided an easily accessible delivery system. It allowed Nazi Germany to deport prisoners from newly occupied nations to a remote and secluded location ideal for perpetrating and concealing the atrocities the Wannsee Protocol demanded. Following the Wannsee meeting, Auschwitz joined Sobibon, Belzec, and Treblinka in playing a dominant role in the genocide that occurred during World War II. It is estimated that between 1,100,000 and 1,500,000 Nazi victims died in the complex.

The Auschwitz Complex

Auschwitz was a network of camps designed to address several needs of the German government. It was composed of: Auschwitz I, a camp for housing forced laborers and prisoners of war; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), a concentration and extermination camp; and Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a camp for housing forced laborers, prisoners of war, and Romani (Gypsies). In addition, the complex contained forty-five sub-camps. Noted authors and Auschwitz survivors, Elie Wiesel, Victor Frankl, and Primo Levi have provided the world with firsthand accounts of their lives and experiences suffered within Auschwitz-Birkenau’s fortified walls.

Auschwitz I and Auschwitz III

Prisoners arrived at Auschwitz after having ridden for many days, standing and packed tightly in railway cattle cars. Those who survived the trip entered through a gate with the inscription “Arbeit macht trei,” which means “Work Will Make You Free.” Upon exiting the railroad cars, the captives were forcefully and brutally separated from their family members by SS guards. This process was for the purpose of dividing the prisoners into two groups. It was performed under the direct supervision of German physicians and was called simply “Selection.”

Those in the first group, approximately 25% of each day’s arrivals, were selected to join the work force and were housed at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz III. They were selected based on fitness, strength, health, and youth.


Auschwitz Concentration Camp





Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

The destination of prisoners in the second group was Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a death camp created for the purpose of implementing the Final Solution. Its design focused on two specific goals. The first goal was an inexpensive and expedient method of committing mass murder. Experimentation had shown that this could be easily accomplished with the use of Zyklon B, an insecticide that upon exposure to air became deadly. Zyklon B had been created specifically for eradicating rats. It had proven effective in destroying both rodents and insects.

Zyklon B Cans

Zyklon B Cans

The second, and equally important, goal was eliminating the stress experienced by the SS who had been assigned the task of executioners. Guards had complained to their supervisors of depression and inability to sleep following their participation in the mobile killing units called Einsatzgruppen. The leadership of Nazi Germany felt that it was essential to protect the mental and emotional health of the SS guards who were assigned to carry out the mass executions.

The answer to the problems was simple. Four gas chambers and four crematoria were placed at the farthest reaches of Birkenau.  Although the bricked walls of the chambers were thick, it was still necessary to disguise the frantic screams from the victims as they were being poisoned. To address that problem, large engines were positioned near the chambers to run during each gassing.

Most of the captives who entered Auschwitz had come from long distances. They were unaware of what awaited them. Led to believe they had been sent to the camp to work, they went unsuspectingly down the long pathway that led to a beautifully wooded area upon the banks of the river. Here, they were encouraged to rest. The prisoners were informed that they would be required to shower in order to kill lice which were rampant in the complex. They waited patiently, most unaware of the terrible rumors being whispered throughout the Polish countryside of the carnage being committed within Auschwitz’s parameters.

Eventually, slave laborers who had been assigned to work detail exited the showers, carrying buckets and mops. The captives thought little of this, believing that the showers were being cleansed from normal usage. They were then led into a long chamber where they were forced to undress and finally herded like animals into the showers.  Inevitably, some of the prisoners attempted to rebel; however they were surrounded by well-armed Ukrainian guards. Escape was impossible.


Entrance to the Ante Room

Entrance to the Ante Room for Undressing


Interior of Gas Chamber

Interior of Gas Chamber

  “The Devouring”

On January 31, 1943, one of the most decisive battles of World War II took place. Against the recommendations of his generals, Hitler made a devastating military miscalculation. Like Napoleon in 1812, he invaded Russia during the summer, without adequate preparation for the brutal winter approaching. Russia’s scorched earth policy, Germany’s failure to provide troops with adequate supplies, and Russian soldiers willing to face death in order to protect their motherland resulted in Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad. The Soviets were ready to begin their slow systematic march through heavy snows toward Berlin where Hitler was in hiding, his physical and mental health believed to have been quickly deteriorating from neuro-syphilis.

Although Hitler was still convinced of his invincibility, Heinrich Himmler, one of the chief architects of the Final Solution, recognized the dangers the regime was facing. As the Soviet Army began to advance on Berlin, Himmler began  frantically dismantling the Auschwitz extermination camp and burning evidence in order to conceal his war crimes. Identifying all prisoners who were still strong enough to walk, he began a forced march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen in Germany.  In the cold, bleak Polish winter, 58,000 prisoners, many shoeless and without warm clothing, finally left the confines of Auschwitz.  Of that 58,000, only 20,000 captives survived the march. The freezing snows of the Eastern Europe and the lack of food had taken their brutal toll.

Auschwitz Liberation

At the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian Army, Soviet troops discovered more than 7.7 tons of human hair. Its purpose was for use in making yarn, sacks, and socks for German soldiers. Shaved from the heads of the victims after they were removed from the gas chamber, the hair revealed traces of Zyklon B.  The prisoners’ gold teeth were also removed immediately after death by the Sonderkommandos. The teeth were melted down to provide revenue for the German government. The Soviet soldiers also discovered  thousands of Jewish prayer shawls, eye glasses, luggage, money, clothing. and shoes, including those of infants. These articles had been stolen from prisoners during “Selection.”

Of the approximately one and one-half million prisoners who entered through Auschwitz-Birkenau gates, about 7,00 remained alive to welcome their liberators, the Russian soldiers who served in the First Army of the Ukrainian Front.

Luggage of Victims Taken to Gas Chambers

Luggage of Victims Taken to Gas Chambers


Shoes of Birkenau Victims

Shoes of Birkenau Victims


Victim's Eye Glasses

Victim’s Eye Glasses


Clothing of Children Who Were Sent to the Gas Chambers

Clothing of Children Who Were Sent to the Gas Chambers

Belongings of Disabled Polish WWI Vets

Belongings of Disabled Polish WWI Vets



Those most instrumental in the implementation of the Final Solution were: Adolf Hitler, Führer of the Third Reich; Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS;  Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German Secret Police; and Herman Goring, head of the Luftwaffe. The Auschwitz prisoner and author, Primo Levi, stated, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” Therefore, it should never be forgotten that total implementation of the Final Solution  would have been impossible without the non-coerced participation of thousands of minor functionaries such as Hans Frank, Governor-General of Occupied Poland, and Rudolf Hoess, Chief Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Approximately 6,500 SS staff served at Auschwitz during World War II. Allowed to torture, molest, murder, and perform heinous medical experiments on those they guarded, they led double lives. The prisoners whom they were assigned to guard, exhausted from their torturous journey without food and water, arrived at Auschwitz disoriented and frightened. Upon disembarking from the cattle cars many were emotionally unable to cope with the new camp surrounded by electrical fences and guarded by burly, well-armed Ukrainians. Separated from those they loved and their possessions taken from them, they were lost and terrified. Their identities had been taken from them.

Auschwitz survivor testimony states that  the Nazis gently reassured the elderly and soothed the frightened children, even holding their young hands as they led them toward the death chambers. The SS convinced the parents of the very young to sit and relax beneath the trees on the banks of the river  so that their children could run and play as they awaited their turns at the showers. They intentionally gained the trust of those they led to death. They performed this duty in order to ensure that the systematic ethnic cleansing ran smoothly, quickly, and without undue stress or confusion.

Once the victims entered the gas chambers, the duty of the SS was completed and the Sonderkommandos, Jewish prisoners forced to participate in the gassing and cremation of prisoners, took charge of the process. The Nazi soldiers exited the prisoners’ complex and entered the living area designated only for employees. There some relaxed in  their warm, comfortable shelters, took laps in the complex swimming pool, and watched movies in the Auschwitz theater. Others sipped tea as they chatted among themselves in the employees’ coffee house and scanned the German newspapers in the SS  library for news of the war. A few even felt the need to visit the brothel provided for their pleasure. Fortunately, the victims’ screams that were coming from the gas chambers were drowned out by the noise of the great engines placed strategically to disguise the sound.

Of those 6,500 Nazi soldiers, only 750 were ever convicted. 85% of Auschwitz’s staff members were never brought to trial. Of the most notorious, Heinrich Himmler committed suicide, Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated in Czechoslovakia, and Rudolf  Hoess, Camp Commander, was executed near the site of Auschwitz’s first crematorium. When questioned about their participation in the massacres that were committed at Auschwitz, the most common explanation provided by the SS staff members was that they had done nothing wrong, but were simply “following orders.”



Gallows Where Rudolf Hoess Was Put to Death in 1947

Gallows Where Rudolf Hoess Was Put to Death in 1947


Although the gas chambers of Birkenau now lie in ruins beneath the weeping willows of the Sola, and nature has reclaimed the Polish fields upon which the Operation Reinhard death camps performed their terrible rituals of death, the dangers have not abated. The anti-Semitism that claimed the lives of the “Children of Israel” in the ovens of Auschwitz-Birkenau no longer lurks like a thief in the shadows of history. Anti-Semitism has discarded the shame inflicted upon it at the Nuremberg Trials where the Allied nations forced the  Nazi leadership to face the evidence brought by their accusers. It has emerged from the darkness, a force to once again be reckoned with, for, in the words of the great Irish statesman Edmund Burke, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”



The international monument in memory of the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It reads:





Auschwitz-Birkenau Website

Yad Vashem

A Week in Auschwitz

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