The name Auschwitz is associated with the systematic murder of Jews by the Nazis during World War Two. Auschwitz, commanded by Rudolf Höss, was two places in the same locality with a multitude of local offshoots – but all with the same end product – the murder of those despised by the Nazi hierarchy.
Auschwitz was not initially built to house/murder Jews and other identified ‘untermenschen’ (sub-humans). It was first built to house Polish political prisoners who were deemed to be a danger to the occupying Nazis in Poland.
In April 1940, SS Captain Rudolf Höss was sent to Poland to take up a new posting – head of the concentration camp that was to be set up at Auschwitz. When he arrived at the designated camp, he found a series of dilapidated former barracks set around a large square used for the breaking of horses. Many of the buildings there had fallen into disrepair. However, they served their purpose – to house 10,000 Polish political prisoners.
Höss had worked in concentration camps since 1934 and he knew that the camp at Auschwitz – known as Auschwitz One – was there to spread fear and to intimidate so that others in Poland would guard against doing anything that the Nazis would not wish. To mirror what was written at the gates of Dachau, the gates at Auschwitz One had the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ written on them.
Höss was a competent administrator and a loyal Nazi. However, he found that Auschwitz One was not high on the list of Nazi priorities. Höss had to visit the areas around Auschwitz to scrounge for equipment such as barbed wire. In its early days, Berlin seemed to care little about the camp at Auschwitz and Höss was allowed to treat it as his fiefdom. In 1940, Auschwitz was seen as a backwater and Höss presided over 300 SS men with seemingly little accountability to senior SS officers.
The Poles held there were subjected to appalling treatment and of the 23,000 sent there, 50% were dead within 20 months. However, at this time, if a Polish Jew was at Auschwitz, it was because of political crimes as opposed to religious beliefs.
The whole emphasis of Auschwitz changed as a result of its location. The area around Auschwitz One was rich in lime and fresh water. Good quality coal was found just 20 miles from Auschwitz One. Such a combination of natural resources attracted the attention of I G Farben, a major industrial firm in Germany. I G Farben was researching into the production of artificial rubber and fuel. Both of these were seen as being vital to the Nazi war effort and the natural ingredients they most needed for this research was lime, fresh water and good quality coal. What was found in and around Auschwitz greatly interested I G Farben.
SS Reichsfűhrer Heinrich Himmler ordered Höss to triple the size of Auschwitz to 30,000 prisoners, all of whom were to work as forced labourers. Suddenly the small camp at Auschwitz One was to be transformed. Plans were drawn up to develop a model Nazi town around the camp. The local inhabitants were to be forcibly removed and accommodation was to be built for such senior figures such as Himmler. The new town was to be run by the SS who would provide I G Farben with all that it needed. Though the model town was never built and remained on paper only, the move to a business approach to Auschwitz did occur. Industrial development to serve to Nazi war effort and profit became the key motivators. The prisoners served no other purpose than to provide the ‘business’ with free labour. When labourers died, they would simply be replaced. However, at this stage, the vast bulk of prisoners held at Auschwitz were Polish political prisoners.
The one event that was the change the way Auschwitz was run came in June 1941 – Operation Barbarossa, the German attack on Russia. Within months, the German army was overrun with about three million prisoners-of-war. Some of these Russian POW’s ended up at Auschwitz. Their treatment was worse than that handed out to the Poles.
In Russia itself, SS Einsatzgruppen units roamed the country for Jews who were summarily executed. Their experiences were to have a major impact on Auschwitz.
Auschwitz attracted the attention of SS men associated with the murder of the physically and mentally handicapped in Germany. The so-called Adult Euthanasia Programme (AEP) was responsible for these murders (probably in the region of 70,000) and they visited Auschwitz to work out what could be done with those people who could not work anymore. Himmler wanted the work that the AEP had done, extended to the concentration camps as those unfit to work could not serve the Nazi cause. In the first move, 575 prisoners from Auschwitz were taken from the camp to Germany where they were gassed. The AEP used carbon monoxide poisoning. Therefore, the first prisoners at Auschwitz deliberately targeted for death were, ironically, gassed away from the death camp most associated with gas chambers.
In Russia, Himmler visited a SS execution squad at work. This was at Minsk in August 1941. He was told in clear terms, that the work was affecting the morale of those SS men involved in it. Senior SS officers told Himmler that the shooting of unarmed civilians in cold-blood was sapping morale and that something had to be done to relieve this. Himmler ordered new methods to be investigated.
The SS came up with two ideas for mass executions. One was to put prisoners in some form of house and blow it up thus killing all who were in it. This was seen as being too messy. Another method tried was to put the victims in a building, seal it up and pump car exhausts into it, thus suffocating those in there. This was seen as being too slow.
It was a subordinate to Höss at Auschwitz who came up with a new idea. At Auschwitz, prisoner clothes had to be deloused and this was done using crystalised prussic acid. Manufactured for this purpose, it went under the industrial name of Zyklon B. The officer, Carl Fritsch, wanted to experiment on the prisoners held at Auschwitz.
He used men held in Block 11. This block was full of punishment cells and many who were sent there did not come out alive. Sometime between late August and early September 1941, Fritsch ordered that Block 11 was to be locked down. Windows and doors were sealed up. Russian POW’s were locked in and Zyklon B was used to gas them. The first dosage was too small and it took two goes to kill those in the locked-in cells. Höss had been away from Auschwitz during this time, but he was interested in what Fritsch had done when Fritsch reported back to him on his return to the camp. Höss had always been looking for a ‘cleaner’ way to kill prisoners as he felt that firing squads were bad for morale.
In the autumn of 1941, Auschwitz One was brutal and violent but it was not a death camp. However, this was to change.
The bombing of Hamburg by the Allies in 1941 had created a firestorm and great damage to the city. The Gauleiter in charge of the city was Klaus Kaufmann. He believed that those Hamburgers who had lost their homes had the right to the homes of the Jews in Hamburg whose homes had survived the raids. Kaufmann wrote to Hitler and requested that all the Jews in Hamburg should be deported to the east. It was a request that Hitler agreed to. The Jews of Hamburg were told in October 1941, that they were to leave the city for the east. They were given just 24 hours notice and could only bring with them one suitcase. They were sent by train to Lodz in Poland where a Jewish ghetto already existed. Lodz was already overcrowded and the arrival of the Hamburg Jews made matters worse. The SS wanted a solution to this problem – they found it in Chelmno.
At Chelmno, the SS set up a factory with one sole purpose – the killing of Jews who were considered to be unproductive in the Lodz ghetto. The factory was remote and served with a rail line. The SS built a similar factory at Belzec, outside of Lublin, to deal with the unproductive Jews from Lublin.
On December 16th, 1941, Hans Frank, the Nazi in charge of western Poland, gave a speech to both SS and army officers where he made it clear that the Nazi hierarchy was thinking about exterminating all the Jews in Poland. What was said at the meeting in Krackow was meant to have remained secret but the minutes of the meeting were discovered. What was said fitted in with what was discussed at the infamous Wannsee meeting on January 20th 1942. This meeting, chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, with the minutes taken by Adolf Eichmann, was also concerned with what was called the ‘Jewish Problem’. The minutes clearly show that the Nazis wanted all Jews in Europe to be worked to death in concentration camps and those who could not work were to be dealt with ‘appropriately’. This was the so-called ‘Final Solution’.
The work done at Chelmno and Belzec was small-scale and essentially ad hoc to start with. Gas vans were used at Chelmno, which were slow and could only deal with a small number at a time. The Wannsee meeting changed all of this. Its impact on Auschwitz was huge.
Himmler believed that Auschwitz One was too near to the local inhabitants to serve any purpose as a mass extermination camp. Therefore, SS architects set to work on designing a new camp about one-and-a-half miles northwest from Auschwitz One. It was a lot more remote. However, their work had started as early as October 1941, so it seems more than likely that a decision had been taken to expand Auschwitz into a new type of camp months before the infamous Wannsee meeting. The new camp – to be known as Auschwitz-Birkenau – was to hold 100,000 prisoners at a time and they were to be crammed into barracks without mercy. The conditions that were to be found at Birkenau were worse than those found at Auschwitz One or Belsen. However, the original plans for Birkenau did not include Jews but Russian POW’s. In October 1941, 10,000 Russian POW’s arrived at Birkenau to start building the new camp. By the spring of 1942, only 200 of the original 10,000 were still alive. While they were alive at Birkenau, they were subjected to the most appalling treatment.
Even at this date – late 1941 – Höss still believed that the camps were to be used for just POW’s and Polish political prisoners. Recently discovered documents show that Höss had no idea that at this time the camp would be used to murder primarily Jews. However, the ‘solution’ found at Chelmno and Belzec was bound to impact Auschwitz-Birkenau, especially as it had a much better rail network connecting it to other major rail junctions – and the new camp at Birkenau was remote.
The first Jews to arrive at Auschwitz were from the new state of Slovakia. 90,000 Jews lived in Slovakia (mainly in the capital Bratislava). Nazi sympathisers in the Slovakian government agreed to start the deportation of the Slovakian Jews in April 1942. The Slovakian government would pay the Nazi government 500 Reichmarks for each Jew deported from Slovakia. 60,000 Slovakian Jews were handed over to the Nazis at a cost of 30 million Reichsmarks.
Höss knew that the enlarged camp would now no longer keep Russian POW’s as they were moved out to work as slave labourers elsewhere in Nazi occupied Europe. It was only in April 1942, that Höss knew that his camp would be used to house Jews.
Höss built two new gas chambers two miles from Auschwitz One. One was known as the ‘Little Red House’ and the other the ‘Little White House’. In fact, they were two remote cottages that had their windows and doors sealed up – just as Fritsch had done at Block 11 at Auschwitz One. On April 29th 1942, the first of the Slovak Jews arrived at Auschwitz. They were taken to the two gas chambers and murdered. Their bodies were buried in giant pits. This was the start of the mass murders with which Auschwitz is associated – the deliberate and planned murder of, in this case, Slovak Jews.
Höss, however, could not keep up with the demands made by Berlin. The two ‘cottages’ simply could not cope with the number of Jews being sent. Höss decided that the camp had to become more factory oriented – that Auschwitz would have to become a factory of death if it was to keep up with the planned arrivals of Jews.
The first West European Jews sent to Auschwitz were from France. Their deportation was organised by Adolf Eichmann. He originally wanted just adults sent to Auschwitz. But 4000 children from Jewish families were held at a camp at Drancy, in the suburbs of Paris. No one was sure what to do with them as their parents had already been deported. Eventually, all of them were sent to Auschwitz and murdered.
On July 19th, 1942, Himmler ordered that all Jews in Poland should be ‘re-settled’. This totalled 2 million people. The death camps that had been established at Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor were used. Treblinka was set-up 60 miles northeast of Warsaw. It was a very small camp when compared to Auschwitz but it did not need to be big as 99% of those arriving at it were dead within 2 hours. In all, 900,000 people were murdered at Treblinka.
The main problem experienced by Höss at Auschwitz, was a similar problem to that experienced by the commandant of Treblinka – how to dispose of the bodies. At Auschwitz, the bodies were buried in fields. However, during the hot Polish summers, the bodies started to putrefy. Höss ordered that Jewish prisoners had to dig up the bodies that were then burned. Höss examined ways in which the bodies could be better burned after gassing. It was found that if they were layered with wood and other combustibles and placed on top of a large metal grate, so that you had bodies, wood, bodies, wood etc in layers, they burned well.
Auschwitz did well financially as a factory. In modern terms, it made a profit of £125 million. It had 45 sub-camps dotted around next to it with Birkenau at the centre. As trainloads of Jews arrived, they were stripped of all that they possessed. These possessions were sorted out at a section of Auschwitz call ‘Canada’. Most of those who worked here were young women. The elderly had gone straight to the gas chambers. The young men, if selected to live, worked elsewhere. All items were put into separate piles – shoes, glasses, jackets etc. After thousands had been murdered, the Sonderkommando took out gold teeth from the bodies.
Corruption among the SS troops at Auschwitz was rampant, especially those who worked in ‘Canada’. In the autumn of 1943, senior members of the SS investigated this corruption. They were appalled at what they found – goods meant for Berlin, were being systematically kept by men who had taken an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Though Höss was never accused of participating in this corruption, he was found guilty of running a lapse command in that he did not control his men effectively. However, his competence for the job that he was doing in running the camp as an entity was recognised and he was promoted to work in Berlin in Concentration Camp Administration. His family remained at their home in Auschwitz, on the edge of the camp. In 1944, Höss returned to Auschwitz as much of the evidence gathered by the SS and Gestapo had been destroyed in a fire – so Höss had no case to answer. His return in 1944 coincided with the killing at Auschwitz reaching a peak. 760,000 Jews were to be deported from Hungary and 400,000 ended up at Auschwitz.
Höss had a railway built directly to Birkenau, which now had four working crematoria. The new railway meant that the one-and-a –half mile walk from the station at Auschwitz One was no longer an issue. 75% of each consignment of Hungarian Jews was gassed.
Auschwitz also dealt with Eastern Europe’s gypsies. They, too, were deemed by Hitler to be sub-human. 23,000 gypsies were ‘housed’ at Auschwitz in appalling conditions. On August 2nd, 1944, the order was given to destroy them. 21,000 were murdered in the gas chambers as a result.
The number of murders a day peaked in May 1944 with 10,000 a day being killed. By the end of the year, and with the war turning against Hitler’s Germany, the killings had dropped to 1,000 a day. Specific details of what happened at Auschwitz during these dates are difficult to know as the Nazis destroyed what evidence they could. When the Russians liberated the camp in February 1945, they found some documents, which were sent back to Moscow. It is only in recent years that these documents have come to light.
The Allies knew about Auschwitz long before its liberation. One of the questions most frequently asked is why the camp was not bombed by the Allies – the Polish Resistance had certainly informed London as to what was going on at Birkenau and this had been confirmed by the tiny handful who had actually managed to escape from the camp. Bombing would have been, it was believed, a merciful end to those who suffered unimaginable horrors there. At the very least, the rail lines could have been bombed to end the shipment of Jews to the camp.
Both the Americans and British considered such an idea “impracticable”. Yet the British had managed a pinpoint raid on the Ruhr dams in the legendary Dambusters Raid and bombers could certainly fly the distance escorted by Mustang fighter planes. In August 1944, the I G Farben factory just 4 miles from Auschwitz had been bombed – so why not the camp itself? The question has never been fully answered.
The liberation of Auschwitz should have been the start of a 'better' time for the Jews and other prisoners held there. This was not necessarily the case. The few surviving Russian POW’s held there were arrested by their own police and charged with being trained as spies. Many went from Hitler’s Auschwitz to Stalin’s gulags. Some women prisoners at Auschwitz claimed that they were raped by Russian soldiers - a charge that the Russian authorities deny to this day. Former Jewish prisoners returned to their hometowns to find that their property had been taken over by someone else. In an extreme irony, the one group who came out well in this were the SS guards at Auschwitz. Very few were prosecuted after the war had ended - over 90% escaped prosecution. Höss was executed, as was Eichmann in 1962. Joseph Mengele was never caught and therefore not charged. The same was true for many other SS guards at Auschwitz.