11. The Road to Wannsee

(1941–1942)

In October 1941 the Germans still appeared to be winning the war against the Soviet Union. During the giant encirclement action at Vyazma and Bryansk the Germans took 660,000 prisoners and it looked as if the road to Moscow was open. There was panic in the Soviet capital and Stalin’s train waited to take him further east to safety. ‘How are we going to defend Moscow?’ demanded Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD, the secret police, in the Kremlin on 19 October. ‘We have absolutely nothing at all. We have been overwhelmed …’1

But the course of the war in the east was about to change drastically. Stalin decided to stay in Moscow and rally his troops – a decision which coincided with the winter rains that turned the landscape around the capital into a morass of mud. Suddenly it seemed unlikely that the Germans could defeat the Soviet Union before the onset of the worst of the Russian winter. This was potentially disastrous for them: German supply lines were stretched almost to the point of collapse and German soldiers possessed little winter clothing, as the war against the Soviet Union had been supposed to last only a few weeks.

At this vital moment in the war Hitler returned from his field headquarters in East Prussia to Munich for celebrations to commemorate the anniversary of the Beer-Hall Putsch, and on 8 November 1941 he gave a speech at the Löwenbräukeller to the party faithful. He was not in the easiest of positions. Just a month before he had told his audience that the Red Army would ‘never rise again’, and yet it had appeared to do just that. Here he was, facing followers who wanted to bask in more good news, and he had no such news to offer. He could not announce that the war in the east had been won – he could not even say that Moscow had fallen, or was likely to fall in the next few days or weeks. In these difficult circumstances he needed someone to blame for what had happened. And for Hitler, of course, it was always easy to find a scapegoat – the Jews. In his speech he said that although the Jews had influence in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Britain, the ‘biggest slave’ of the Jews was the Soviet Union where ‘only stupid, forcibly proletarianized subhumans remain. Above them, there is a giant organization of Jewish commissars, who in reality are the slave-owners.’ He claimed that German forces in the east were fighting in pursuit of a noble goal: ‘in this struggle we finally want to free Europe of the danger posed by the east, and … at the same time, we [want to] prevent the east with its immense fertility, its immense richness in natural resources and ores, from being mobilized against Europe, and instead place it in Europe’s service.’ In pursuit of that objective, he said, in words tinged with menace, he would ‘make a distinction between the French and their Jews, between the Belgians and their Jews, between the Dutch and their Jews’.2

On 15 November, the Germans continued their advance towards Moscow after the mud had frozen, but their energy was almost spent. In a final effort in early December, some forward German units managed to advance to less than 20 miles from Moscow. But this was as far as they would ever get. The whole course of the war in the east – and as a consequence the whole of the war in general – was about to change. Indeed there is a strong case for saying that the events of December 1941 were both the turning point of the Second World War and one of the most decisive periods in the evolution of the Holocaust.

On 5 December the Red Army counter-attacked. Vasily Borisov, a soldier with one of the Siberian divisions now thrown fresh into the battle for Moscow, remembers that ‘When they [the Germans] saw Siberians fighting man-to-man they felt frightened. Siberians were very fit guys … They [the Germans] had been raised in a gentle way. They were not as strong as the Siberians. So they panicked more in this kind of fighting. Siberians don’t feel any panic. The Germans were weaker people. They didn’t like the cold much and they were physically weaker too.’3

Just as Hitler was absorbing the news of the fight-back of the Red Army, he learnt of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December. Four days later, on 11 December, Germany declared war on America. At first sight this seems a puzzling decision. Why bring into the war a powerful new enemy several thousand miles away across the Atlantic? But Hitler felt he was merely recognizing the inevitable. Ever since the Atlantic conference in the summer of 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had met off the coast of Newfoundland and signed the Atlantic Charter, America’s commitment to aiding the British war effort had been obvious. In his November speech, a month before declaring war on America, Hitler was already accusing Roosevelt of taking sides against Germany. He claimed that Roosevelt had been ‘responsible’ for Poland entering the war and that he had also been behind France’s decision to take part in the conflict.4

Crucially, Hitler thought that Roosevelt was controlled by the Jews. In his speech to the Reichstag on 11 December 1941, he said that behind Roosevelt’s decision to support Britain and oppose Germany was ‘the Eternal Jew’. Surrounding Roosevelt, he asserted, were a ‘circle of Jews’ who were ‘driven by Old Testament greediness’. It was the ‘satanic perfidy’ of the Jews which was responsible for the current state of affairs.5 As Hitler saw it, the Jews had finally achieved their secret objective – they had created a worldwide conflict from which they hoped to benefit.

On 12 December, the day after his Reichstag speech and Germany’s declaration of war on America, Hitler talked to fifty or so leading Nazis in the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Goebbels recorded what he said in his diary: ‘As regards the Jewish question, the Führer is resolved to clear the air. He prophesied to the Jews that if they were to bring about another world war, they would experience their own extermination. This was not a hollow phrase. The world war is here, the destruction of the Jews must be the inevitable consequence. The question must be seen without sentimentality. We are not here to take pity on the Jews, but only to feel sympathy with our own German people. Since the German people has once again sacrificed around 160,000 fallen in the eastern campaign, those who initiated this bloody conflict will have to pay with their lives.’6Goebbels could scarcely have been more explicit. Since ‘now’ there was a ‘world war’ – with the entry of America into the conflict – ‘the destruction of the Jews’ was ‘inevitable’. This was thus a pivotal moment. There was no ambiguity in Hitler’s words.

Hans Frank, ruler of the General Government, was another of the senior Nazis who listened to Hitler’s talk in the Reich Chancellery. Four days later, on 16 December, he spoke to key figures in the General Government about the forthcoming fate of the Jews. ‘As for the Jews,’ he said, ‘I will be quite blunt with you, they will have to be finished off one way or the other. The Führer said once: if the united Jewry once again succeeds in unleashing a world war, then the blood sacrifices will not only be made by the peoples who have been hounded into this war. But the Jews in Europe will [also] meet their end … As an old National Socialist, I have to say that if the Jewish rabble were to survive the war in Europe, while we had sacrificed our best blood for the preservation of Europe, then this war would only represent a partial success. With respect to the Jews, therefore, I will operate on the assumption that they will disappear.’7

As well as outlining the ideological reason why the Jews should ‘disappear’, Frank also mentioned a practical motive for their destruction. ‘The Jews’, he said, ‘are also tremendously harmful to us through the amount of food they gorge.’ Once again, the notion that the Jews were endangering the lives of ‘Aryan’ Germans simply by drawing breath played a part in explaining why they had to die. If, as a Nazi, you had any difficulty believing that the Jews had via some international conspiracy caused the war – an idea which might stretch the imagination of some, given the real circumstances behind the outbreak of hostilities – then there remained the justification that they were consuming food that otherwise would be eaten by non-Jewish Germans. It was a case, as Hitler always liked to put it, of either/or. If the Jews didn’t starve, then the Germans did.

On 7 December 1941 – the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and nine days before Frank gave this speech in Kraków – the first fixed-location killing facility built primarily in order to kill Jews began work in Poland. The site was at Chełmno, in the Warthegau, 160 miles to the north-west of Kraków. Greiser, ruler of the Warthegau, had moved ahead more quickly with plans to murder the Jews than his neighbouring Nazi baron Hans Frank. While Frank was just talking about ‘finishing off’ the Jews en masse, Greiser had actually made a start. A large part of Greiser’s motivation in establishing the murder facility at Chełmno was, as he saw it, practical necessity. As we have seen, the Łódź ghetto was enormously overcrowded, in large part because Himmler had decided in September to send tens of thousands of extra Jews from the Old Reich to the ghetto as well as thousands of Sinti and Roma. Chełmno was Greiser’s way out of the self-created Nazi ‘problem’ of ghetto overcrowding.

Greiser realized that he already had at his disposal a murder machine that could swiftly be diverted to kill Jews – the gas van. On 7 December 1939, two years before the same machine was based at Chełmno, the gas van operated by Sonderkommando Lange had begun work murdering mentally disabled Poles at the Dziekanka Psychiatric Hospital in Gniezno in western Poland.8 Now with the approval of Himmler and Greiser, Lange and his gas van would be set to work killing Polish Jews. In the weeks before the facilities at Chełmno were made ready, Lange’s van had already started murdering Jews by taking them from the institutions in which they lived. At the end of October 1941, Lange’s van had driven up to a Jewish old people’s home near Kalisz, 60 miles west of Łódź, and removed the patients, fifty or so at a time, to be gassed.9 The following month the van was used to kill several hundred Jews from Bornhagen (Koźminek) labour camp near by.10

From the Nazis’ perspective, extending the work of the gas van to fulfil the task Greiser now required created several challenges. The first was obvious – a question of capacity. Lange had only one gas van, a large truck with the words ‘Kaiser’s Kaffee-Geschäft’ (Kaiser’s Coffee Company) emblazoned on the side. This was the same van that had driven around Poland for nearly two years killing the disabled. So, to increase the number of people Chełmno could murder, Lange was promised several more gas vans.11 They would finally arrive and be operational at the camp early in 1942. These vehicles, unlike the first van, which used bottled carbon monoxide to gas those trapped inside, murdered by directing the carbon monoxide from the exhaust gases of the engine into the rear compartment. This development in the method of murder used by the gas vans mimicked the evolution of the fixed gas chambers, which had also moved from bottled carbon monoxide to exhaust gas.

But increasing the capacity to kill via the addition of more gas vans did not solve a more fundamental problem the Nazis faced if they wished to use this method of killing to murder the ‘unproductive’ Jews of Łódź. Lange’s original van had travelled around Poland, bringing the gas chamber to where the victims lived, but that was clearly impracticable if the intention now was to kill Jews from the Łódź ghetto. Problems of body disposal and secrecy would arise if the vans were to drive up to the ghetto every day and take Jews away. Hence the selection of Chełmno as a base for the gas vans. The village was in the countryside, far away from any major city and yet with good transport connections to the rest of Poland, and just 40 miles north-west of Łódź. A run-down mansion across from the village church could be converted as a base for the gas-van operation, and the bodies of the murdered Jews could be buried in a nearby forest. The central benefit of the gas vans in the killing process – the mobility of the murder machine – was thus negated. But in exchange the Nazis believed they had gained another, more important advantage – secrecy.

After four to six weeks’ preparation, the killing facility at Chełmno was ready for work. The first Jews to be killed were from the surrounding villages, with around 700 Jews transported to Chełmno on 7 December 1941.12 They were imprisoned in the mansion overnight, having been told that they needed to be disinfected before travelling on to work in Germany.13 Starting the next day, they were forced in groups into the gas van, killed and their bodies buried in the forest a few miles away.

One of the SS guards at Chełmno, Kurt Möbius, described in detail after the war how the murder factory worked: ‘The Jewish people undressed [in the mansion in the village] – they were not separated into sexes – under my supervision. They had already had to give up their valuables; these were collected in baskets by the Polish workers. There was a door in the passage which led to the cellar. On it was a sign: “To the bath” … From the door in the passage a staircase led down to the cellar where there was a passage which at first went straight ahead but then, after a few metres, was cut off by another passage at right angles to it. Here the people had to turn right and go up a ramp where the gas vans parked with their doors open. The ramp was tightly enclosed with a wooden fence up to the doors of the gas van. Usually, the Jewish people went quickly and obediently into the gas van trusting the promises which had been made to them [that they were about to be “disinfected”].’14

Sometimes, admitted Möbius, the Jews did not go ‘quickly and obediently’ into the vans. Then Polish workers, forced to work for the Germans, whipped them up the ramp and inside. Zofia Szałek, an eleven-year-old girl living in Chełmno, remembers hearing the Jews as they were shoved into the vans. ‘How terribly they were screaming – it was impossible to bear it. Once they brought children and the children shouted. My mother heard it. She said the children were calling, “Mummy, save me!” ’15

Several of the Poles who were forced to assist the Germans in the killing process at Chełmno appear to have taken advantage of their situation in a shocking way. According to Walter Burmeister, one of the drivers of the gas van, ‘It happened sometimes that a woman was selected from the Jews delivered for gassing … probably the Poles themselves would choose her. I think that the Poles asked her if she would agree to have sexual intercourse with them. In the basement [of the mansion] there was a room set aside for this purpose where the woman stayed one night or sometimes several days and was at the disposal of these Poles. Afterwards, she would be killed in the gas vans with the others.’16 Another source suggests that there was also at least one instance of members of the SS raping a Jewish woman at Chełmno before murdering her.17

Chełmno had been created primarily to kill selected Jews from the Łódź ghetto. But the first transport sent to Chełmno from Łódź, on 2 January 1942, contained not Jews but those the Nazis called ‘Gypsies’. These Roma had been sent to Łódź in November 1941 from Austria and had been kept in particularly horrendous conditions. Isolated by barbed wire in a special area within the ghetto, nearly 5,000 Roma had been denied sufficient food and shelter. More than 600 contracted typhus. As a result, the Nazis wanted to destroy this Gypsy camp as a matter of urgency. By 9 January nearly 4,500 Roma from Łódź had been sent to Chełmno, murdered and buried in the forest.18

The first Jews from Łódź arrived at Chełmno on 16 January 1942. They had been selected from within the ghetto by the Jewish administration run by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. In a speech he gave on 20 December 1941, Rumkowski announced that ‘a special commission comprised of my most trustworthy co-workers determined the list of candidates for dispatch’19 and that priority had been given to deporting ‘undesirable elements’ who lived within the ghetto. While at this stage no one could be certain that those sent from the ghetto would be murdered, deportation was still a fate that most of the Łódź Jews feared. Better the known horror of the ghetto than the unknown terror that awaited them in German hands outside.

At Chełmno, the gas vans did not offer a quick death. It could take many minutes before those trapped inside were finally asphyxiated, and villagers sometimes heard screams from the vans as they passed by. Once the vans reached the forest and the doors were opened, a team of Jews – made to work for the Germans or face immediate execution – had to disentangle the bodies before throwing them into mass graves. One of the Germans who supervised the Waldkommando (forest commando) was billeted in Zofia Szałek’s house, and she remembers how his shoes stank ‘terribly’20 of decomposing bodies.

Estimates of how many died at Chełmno vary between 150,000 and 300,000 – huge numbers that represent a terrible crime, yet only a fraction of the 3 million Jews in Poland. If the Nazis really intended to kill not just the Jews of Poland but the Jews of Europe as well, they couldn’t rely solely on local initiatives like Chełmno – they needed a major coordinated action emanating from the highest reaches of the state. And on 20 January 1942, four days after the first Jews from the Łódź ghetto had arrived at Chełmno, a meeting was held at Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin that many think was convened for just such a purpose.

It is not hard to understand why the Wannsee conference is, in popular culture, considered the most important single meeting of the Holocaust – indeed, the moment at which the crime was finally decided upon. The evolution of the Holocaust is complex and occasionally counter-intuitive. How much simpler it would be if there was one key moment at which everything was resolved – if not a decision by Hitler in the autumn of 1941, then a meeting by a lake outside Berlin in January 1942. But it is a mistake to think that history happened that way. Wannsee was no more than a staging post along a journey.

Reinhard Heydrich wrote to state secretaries, selected SS officers and other relevant functionaries and asked them to attend a conference at 56–58 Am Grossen Wannsee outside Berlin. He enclosed with his invitation a copy of Göring’s 31 July 1941 letter authorizing him to organize a Final Solution to the ‘Jewish question’. So none of the fifteen people who attended could have been in any doubt about the purpose of the gathering or Heydrich’s right to convene it. The SS officers who were invited ranged from the very senior – SS Gruppenführer (Major General) Heinrich Müller, head of the Gestapo, SS Gruppenführer (Major General) Otto Hofmann, head of the SS Race and Settlement Office, and Heydrich, who was an SS Obergruppenführer (Lieutenant General) as well as head of the Reich Security Main Office – to the relatively junior – SS Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Adolf Eichmann, the SD’s so-called Jewish ‘expert’, and SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Dr Rudolf Lange. The latter was asked because of his direct, personal experience of murdering Jews in Latvia with Einsatzgruppe A. Other attendees included Martin Luther, under-secretary at the Foreign Ministry, Dr Roland Freisler of the Reich Ministry of Justice, and Hans Frank’s own state secretary from the General Government, Dr Josef Bühler. The original date for the meeting was 9 December 1941, but this was later postponed to 20 January 1942.

The decisions taken at Wannsee had to be acted on by different departments within the government of the Reich, and so it was necessary for them to be recorded. Oral commands alone would never have sufficed. A copy of the minutes, taken by Adolf Eichmann, survived the war, and though they were written in deliberately euphemistic language, they nonetheless offer an insight into the thinking of senior figures involved in the implementation of the Final Solution.

Heydrich announced that with Hitler’s ‘permission’ there was now the possibility of ‘evacuating’ the Jews ‘to the East’ rather than forcing their ‘emigration’.21 This would not have been new information to those present in the room. Thousands of Jews from the Old Reich had already been deported. What was new was the scale of the ‘evacuation’ that Heydrich now outlined. He said that more than 11 million Jews within Europe were potentially subject to the Final Solution including Jews in countries that the Nazis did not even control, like Spain and Britain (which was referred to as ‘England’). He outlined how the Nazis now intended to send all of these Jews – or as many as they could get their hands on – to the east to work in ‘large labour gangs’. In the course of this work, a ‘large number’ of the Jews would, said Heydrich, ‘drop out’ through ‘natural wastage’. He singled out for special mention the small number of Jews who would survive this ‘natural selection’, because they would have proved to be the ‘fittest’ and could form a ‘germ cell’ from which the Jewish race could ‘regenerate itself’. Consequently, these Jews would have to be ‘dealt with accordingly’ – by which he could only have meant they should be murdered.

Heydrich was therefore announcing not a fresh strategy, but the extension of an existing one. It was the evolution of a policy that had begun with the desire to see Jews expelled from the Reich to some foreign country, had then morphed into a plan to deport the Jews to the extremity of Nazi-controlled territory once the war was over, and had now become a scheme to work the Jews to death in the Nazi east while the war was still being fought. Heydrich admitted that the ‘timing’ of each ‘large-scale evacuation’ would depend on how the war was going. There was no immediate schedule put in place to accomplish this vast task. Indeed, the Nazis would only gradually over the next six months create the killing capacity necessary to murder large numbers of Jews.

Josef Bühler, the representative of Hans Frank, asked if the Final Solution could begin in the General Government. The Jews to be killed were already there, he said, so any ‘transport problem’ was not serious. After Bühler’s request, the meeting discussed ‘various’ possible ‘solutions’ to implement the Final Solution – an obvious euphemism for a variety of potential ways to murder the Jews. Much of the rest of the meeting was taken up with an inconclusive discussion about definitions. In particular, just what should be done with those who were considered Mischlinge – part-Jews? Heydrich also announced that a small number of Jews – such as those with war decorations – might be transported to a special ‘ghetto’ at Theresienstadt, north of Prague, rather than directly to the east. This remark confirmed, despite the euphemistic nature of the minutes, that almost all of the Jews were to be sent to a terrible fate.

It is worth noting what was not said at the Wannsee conference. Heydrich did not say that the Jews would be taken to camps in Poland and ‘dealt with accordingly’ there. He was explicit that Jews would be sent east in order to work in labour gangs. If he had wanted to say that the Jews were to be killed in Nazi-occupied Poland then the minutes could certainly have euphemistically reflected that reality. But they didn’t. Heydrich did mention that the Jews were to be ‘initially’ sent to ‘transit ghettos’ before they were transported ‘further east’.22 So it is not hard to imagine that, in the months after Wannsee, Poland became out of practical necessity the furthest east the Jews were ever sent, and that consequently they came to be murdered on Polish soil. However, at the moment he chaired the Wannsee conference, Heydrich still appears to have believed that the Jews would eventually be deported into the occupied Soviet Union.

The Wannsee conference was also an opportunity for the SS to assert a pre-eminent role in the Final Solution. Heydrich, for instance, would have been pleased that Josef Bühler, on behalf of Hans Frank, appeared to support the leading role that the SS would play in this vast new operation. Bühler had been a late addition to the list of those invited, after the SS representative in the General Government had warned Himmler that Hans Frank might seek to control Jewish policy in his area.23 Heydrich and Himmler would not have wanted a repeat of the conflict between Frank and the SS at the time of the deportations of Poles into the General Government. It was also important for Heydrich and Himmler to ensure that the Foreign Office – represented at the meeting by the under-secretary Martin Luther – also accepted the leading position of the SS in the Final Solution. Heydrich and Himmler would have remembered that the Foreign Office had sought at one stage in the summer of 1940 to take a proactive role on the Madagascar plan. Thus gathering all the interested parties together at Wannsee was an obvious attempt by Heydrich to clear a way through the bureaucratic jungle ahead.

According to Eichmann, Heydrich was pleased with the way the meeting had gone: ‘After the conference … Heydrich, Müller [the head of the Gestapo] and little me sat cosily around a fireplace. I saw for the first time Heydrich smoking a cigar or cigarette, something I never saw; and he drank cognac, which I hadn’t seen for ages. Normally he didn’t drink alcohol.’24

No wonder Heydrich was pleased. No one had raised any objection to the dominance of the SS. It appeared that there would be no infighting within the Nazi leadership over this matter of crucial policy. Nor had anyone protested at the principle of deporting the Jews of Europe to the east to be worked to death. Not that Heydrich would have expected any opposition. After all, he would have reasoned, Soviet Jews had been shot on the eastern front since June, and German and Austrian Jews had been dying in the ghettos of Poland and elsewhere since October. What remained were merely practical questions to do with the expansion of the deportations to western Europe and an intensification of the amount of killing capacity required to eliminate even more Jews than before.

Far from being the single most significant meeting in the history of the Holocaust, the Wannsee conference was a forum for second-level functionaries to discuss ways of implementing their master’s wishes. None of the key players attended the meeting. Not Himmler, not Frank, not Goebbels – certainly not Hitler himself. Vital decisions about the fate of the Jews had been taken in the weeks and months before the Wannsee conference. Even then, there had not been one single decision – one day on which Hitler announced ‘all the Jews must die, in this way and within this timescale’ – but a series of decisions that built, one upon the other, until those around the table at Wannsee would have felt that the extermination of the Jews was inevitable. They still did not know for sure how this end could be achieved, or how long it would take. There remained, for instance, the question of the destruction of the 3 million Polish Jews – a final timetable for their murder, as we shall see, was not to be announced for many months.

There is another aspect of this history that the conference illustrates. The word ‘Holocaust’ leads us to think that there was one single plan to murder the Jews. But that was not how the Nazis looked at this issue at Wannsee. From their perspective, there were a number of different ‘solutions’ to their ‘Jewish problem’. There was one overall vision, that is true, one that emanated from Hitler – the desire to eliminate the Jews. But how that task was achieved could take many forms. At Wannsee, Heydrich talked first of one ‘solution’ – the removal of the Jews of Europe to the wastes of the Soviet Union where they would build roads in terrible conditions and perish eventually over a period of time. This idea was not so very far from the Madagascar plan – send the Jews away and let them wither and die over years if necessary. Then there was another sort of ‘solution’, also discussed at Wannsee, which was the more immediate problem, for the Nazis, of the enormous number of Jews in the General Government. They would potentially be murdered over a shorter timescale and in a different way – though that issue was not finally resolved at the meeting. All this was set against the background of another ‘solution’, one that already existed – the murder by shooting of the Jews in the Soviet Union. Today, all of these separate Nazi killing actions have been given the collective name ‘Holocaust’. But they were not treated as one entity at the time. They were all evolving at different speeds.

And yet – even knowing all this – there is still something about the Wannsee conference that gives it an immense emotional significance. Surely it is this. Those who attended were not mad. They were not deranged. They were all successful men, holding down tough and difficult jobs. Most were highly educated – of the fifteen who sat round the table at Wannsee, eight held academic doctorates. They discussed the extermination of the Jews in elegant and convivial surroundings. The invitation that Heydrich sent out for the meeting had mentioned that lunch would be provided and during the discussions cognac was served. The building they sat in was a stylish villa, with a terrace overlooking the lake – one of the most beautiful and popular recreation spots for Berliners.

It’s not just the obvious contrast between the circumstances of these men at Wannsee and the horror experienced by Jews who were simultaneously living and dying in the Łódź ghetto. It’s not only that as these men sat in luxurious surroundings and sipped their brandy their victims were choking to death in the back of a gas van at Chełmno. It’s that this meeting seems to represent what sophisticated, elegant and knowing human beings are capable of. Not many of them, perhaps, could kill a Jew personally – Eichmann claimed he had a ‘sensitive nature’ and was ‘revolted’ at the sight of blood25 – but they could enthusiastically endorse a policy to remove 11 million people from this world. If human beings can do this, what else can they do?

Finally, it is important to understand the Wannsee conference in the context of the war. As Heydrich and his colleagues met on the outskirts of Berlin, the German Army was struggling to survive west of Moscow. Deprived of warm clothes and equipment capable of working properly in freezing temperatures, and fighting fresh troops from Siberia, the German soldiers only narrowly prevented a breakthrough by the Red Army. The myth of the invincibility of the Wehrmacht had been destroyed.

 ‘The German Army near Moscow was a very miserable sight,’ says Fyodor Sverdlov, a company commander fighting the Wehrmacht on the eastern front that winter. ‘I remember very well the Germans in July 1941. They were confident, strong, tall guys. They marched ahead with their sleeves rolled up and carrying their machine guns. But later on they became miserable, crooked, snotty guys wrapped in woollen kerchiefs stolen from old women in villages … Of course, they were still firing and defending themselves, but they weren’t the Germans we knew earlier in 1941.’26

Against this background, it might seem surprising that the Nazi leadership spent time planning the deportation of millions of Jews. Would it not have made more sense for them to devote all their time to winning the war? Why tie up any resources in an ambitious plan for the mass deportation of civilians at the same moment that the German Army was fighting to avoid catastrophe?

The answer is that men like Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Heydrich did not see this as a contradiction at all. They believed that the Jews behind the front line were just as much an enemy as the Red Army soldiers the Wehrmacht was fighting outside Moscow. Perhaps more so, since the Jews had already demonstrated during the First World War, so Hitler and his colleagues maintained, that they could undermine morale at home and ‘stab’ the German Army ‘in the back’.

As Hermann Göring said: ‘This is the great racial war. In the final analysis it is about whether the German and Aryan prevails here, or whether the Jew rules the world …’27 Göring was parroting Hitler’s core belief. Hitler had always maintained that this war was not a conflict like any other, but an existential struggle for the future existence of the German nation. ‘We are clear in our minds that the war can only end with either the eradication of the Aryan peoples, or with Jewry vanishing from Europe,’ said Hitler in a speech in Berlin on 30 January 1942, the anniversary of his appointment as Chancellor. ‘I have already spoken out about this on 1 September 1939 in the German Reichstag.’ Hitler had not, of course, made this ‘prophecy’ on 1 September 1939 but seven months before, on 30 January. He found it convenient to redate it to 1 September because that was the day the German Army had invaded Poland and brought about the war. For Hitler the link between the war and the fate of the Jews transcended any desire he might have had for historical accuracy. ‘The outcome of this war will be the annihilation of Jewry,’ he continued on 30 January 1942. ‘This time, the genuine old Jewish law will apply for the first time: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!” And the more the fighting expands, the more – world Jewry may mark these words – anti-Semitism will spread. It will find nourishment in every prison camp, in every family whose members are informed about why they have to make their sacrifices at the end of the day. And the moment will come when the most evil enemy of the world of all time will be finished with for at least a millennium.’28

Those who had attended the Wannsee conference, held just ten days before Hitler’s speech, would thus have been well aware of the importance of their work – they were playing a part in confronting ‘the most evil enemy of the world’. Not that the Wannsee conference resulted in a sudden outburst of activity far away from the serenity of the villa at Am Grossen Wannsee. While the gas vans continued to operate at Chełmno, and the first fixed gas chambers built to kill Jews remained under construction at Bełżec, at Auschwitz there was no action taken in January to construct new killing facilities. The crematorium in the main camp, which had been the location for experimental killings in the autumn, carried on functioning as an improvised gas chamber.

By now, in addition to selected Soviet prisoners of war, Jews from the local area who had been identified as unfit to work were also dying in the Auschwitz crematorium. No one knows for sure when the first transport of these Jews arrived, but it was some time between the autumn of 1941 and the start of 1942. Their deaths marked a change in the function of Auschwitz, as these Jews were never formally admitted to the camp as prisoners, but were taken to the gas chamber directly from the surrounding district.

Józef Paczyński, a Polish political prisoner, witnessed how a group of male Jews were killed in the crematorium in the main camp. He worked in the SS administrative building directly across from the crematorium, and managed to climb up to the attic, push aside a roof tile and see what was happening below. ‘They [the SS] were very polite with these people,’ he says. ‘ “Please take your clothes, pack your things.” And these people undressed, and then they made them go in [to the crematorium] and then the doors were locked behind them. Then an SS man crawled up on to the flat roof of the building. He put on a gas mask, he opened a hatch [in the roof] and he dropped the powder in and he shut the hatch. When he did this, in spite of the fact that these walls were thick, you could hear a great scream.’29 Because of the screaming, the SS started up ‘two motorcycles’ to try and drown out the noise, but still he heard ‘people yelling for fifteen or twenty minutes and becoming weaker and weaker. If someone had seen me I would have been gassed as well.’30

Hans Stark, a member of the SS at Auschwitz, told interrogators after the war that in October 1941 he had been present at just such a killing. Indeed, he had been ‘ordered’ to ‘pour Zyklon B into the opening’ himself as ‘only one medical orderly had shown up.’ He said that since the Zyklon B ‘was in granular form, it trickled down over the people as it was being poured in. They then started to cry out terribly, for they now knew what was happening to them … After some time had passed … the gas chamber was opened. The dead lay higgledy-piggledy all over the place. It was a dreadful sight.’31

The gas chamber in the main camp at Auschwitz was, as we have seen, improvised within a mortuary in the crematorium. The site always presented problems for the SS of noise, secrecy and capacity. These were issues that Christian Wirth, late of the adult euthanasia scheme and now overseeing the construction of the gas chambers at Bełżec, would have hoped to avoid.

Since Bełżec would become the model for the other specialized death camps – Sobibór and Treblinka – it is worth spending time examining the thinking behind its construction. In conception, Bełżec was very different from the place that would become the most infamous of the camps – Auschwitz Birkenau. Bełżec, unlike Auschwitz, was small. The camp was roughly square, with each side about 300 yards long, and with one side built parallel to the nearby railway line. Within that space the camp was divided into two. The area nearest to the railway contained a roll-call square, barracks where the arriving Jews undressed, accommodation for guards and a small Jewish workforce, and a storage area for the goods stolen from the Jews. The second part of the camp was the place of extermination. This was separated by a fence from the arrival area and connected to it by a narrow passageway known as the ‘tube’. Within the extermination section of the camp was space for bodies to be burnt and buried, as well as the three gas chambers themselves. These had been placed in wooden huts disguised as shower blocks and – in an attempt to seal the space hermetically – the double walls had been filled with sand and lined with tin on the inside.

Wirth and his construction team had clearly drawn on their experience in the adult euthanasia scheme in the construction of the camp. Like the patients in the euthanasia centres, the Jews to be murdered at Bełżec were told that they were to take a shower. The only difference was that the gas that came through tubes to kill them was not from bottled carbon monoxide, but from a diesel tank engine placed outside the fake shower blocks.

Unlike Auschwitz, Bełżec was solely a place of murder. The camp had a singularity of purpose that Auschwitz always lacked. That, of course, explains why Bełżec could be so small. There was no need for space given that virtually all of the people who arrived at the camp would be dead within a matter of hours. Equally, since there was a finite number of people that the Nazis wanted to kill, a specialized death camp like Bełżec would inevitably have a finite period of existence. Unlike Auschwitz, which was planned as a near-permanent feature of Nazi rule, Bełżec was a temporary place. Many of the structures at Auschwitz were built of solid brick, those at Bełżec mostly of wood. All of the specialized death camps would have a transient feel to them – places that were botched together.

In addition, unlike Auschwitz, the Nazis wanted to keep the existence of Bełżec and the other death camps totally secret. Auschwitz, in the tradition of concentration camps like Dachau and Sachsenhausen, was built near a large town. There was no pretence at concealment. Indeed, as a place of terror, it was a positive advantage for the Nazis if the general public knew of its existence. Only when the camp also became involved in mass murder via gas chambers was it necessary to hide part of the function of the place. Bełżec, on the other hand, was a clandestine place from the very beginning. So much so that the 150 Jews who had been forced to build the camp were murdered after they had completed their work. They were the first to die in a test of the new gas chambers.32

Just as Chełmno was created to murder the ‘unproductive’ Jews from the Łódź ghetto, so Bełżec was created to murder the ‘unproductive’ Jews from the Lublin area, stretching as far as Kraków in the west and Lwów in the south-east. By March 1942 the camp was ready to start killing. Jews were deported from both Lublin and Lwów to Bełżec that month and by the middle of April around 45,000 Jews had been murdered in the gas chambers of the camp and their bodies buried near by.

Bełżec functioned as a killing centre from March 1942 until the end of 1942. No one knows exactly how many people died at Bełżec, but one reliable estimate is that between 450,000 and 550,000 lost their lives there. The vast majority of them were Polish Jews, though a number of Sinti and Roma also perished in the Bełżec gas chambers. Only a handful – some reports say just two – of those sent to Bełżec managed to survive the war. That marks another difference with Auschwitz. For a variety of reasons – not least that the complex of camps we know collectively today as Auschwitz were both work and death camps, and Auschwitz was never focused entirely on the destruction of the Jews – many thousands of people survived incarceration there. But virtually the only chance of emerging from Bełżec alive was to be one of the tiny number selected to work in the camp on arrival and then somehow to effect an escape.

Rudolf Reder, sent to Bełżec from the Lwów ghetto in August 1942, was the only person to write a personal account of the camp. By the time he was travelling in a freight wagon to Bełżec, he believed he knew what awaited him. Despite the desire of the Nazis to keep their activities secret, there were rumours about ‘what was going on at Bełżec’.33 On board the train en route to the camp, ‘No one said a word. We were aware that we were headed for death, that nothing could save us; apathetic, not a single moan.’ Once they arrived at Bełżec they were ordered to jump down from the trucks – more than 3 feet off the ground – in one huge mass. Some, particularly the elderly and young children, ‘broke arms and legs’.

The Jews were gathered together and an SS man gave a speech. ‘Everyone wanted to hear,’ wrote Rudolf Reder, ‘hope dawned suddenly in us – “If they are speaking to us, perhaps we’re going to live, perhaps there will be some sort of work, perhaps after all …” ’34 The Jews were told by the SS that first they would have to take a bath, and then they would be used as forced labour. ‘It was a moment of hope and delusion. For an instant, the people breathed easy. There was total calm.’

Men were separated from women. The men were told to undress before they were forced straight through the ‘tube’ to the gas chambers. The women were taken to a barracks where their hair was cut. The Germans used the women’s hair after their deaths in a variety of industrial processes – for example, in the making of felt. It was as their heads were shaved, says Reder, that the women realized that they were to die, and ‘there were laments and shrieks.’

Once their hair had been cut, the women followed the men into the gas chambers. Just like death in the back of a gas van, death in the gas chambers of Bełżec was not quick. Reder remembers hearing the ‘moans’ and ‘screams’ of those trapped inside the gas chambers for up to fifteen minutes’.35

Reder was spared immediate death only because he was selected to become one of the team of several hundred Jews who were forced to work in the camp, performing tasks like emptying the gas chambers of the dead and burying the bodies. If the SS felt any workers had not performed adequately during the day, they were taken in the evening to the edge of a mass grave and shot. The next day a few more Jews would be selected from an incoming transport to take their place.

The work was the stuff of nightmares. As Reder and the other Jewish workers tried to bury the dead, ‘We had to walk across from one edge of a grave to the other, to get to another grave. Our legs sank in the blood of our mothers, we were treading on mounds of corpses – that was the worst, the most horrible thing …’36 The effect of all this was that ‘We moved around like people who had no will any more. We were one mass … We went mechanically through the motions of that horrible life.’37

News about the extermination of the Jews soon reached Goebbels. In his diary, on 27 March 1942, he gave an insight into not just the extent of his own knowledge of the fate of the Jews, but the overall context in which the decision to kill them was taken. Crucially, he points to Hitler’s role as the driving force behind the genocide: ‘A rather barbaric procedure, that is not to be spelt out, is applied here, and there is not much that remains of the Jews themselves. All in all, we can say that 60% of them have to be liquidated, whereas only 40% can still be used for work … A judgement is executed upon the Jews that is indeed barbaric, but which they fully deserve. The prophecy in which the Führer said what they would receive in case of a new world war begins to become reality in the most terrible manner. One must not let sentimentality rule in these matters. If we didn’t ward off the Jews, they would destroy us. It is a life-and-death struggle between the Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus. No other government and no other regime would be able to muster the strength to resolve this question in such a wide-ranging manner. Here, too, the Führer is the steadfast champion and spokesman for a radical solution that is necessary under the circumstances and therefore seems inevitable. Thankfully, we have a whole raft of possibilities now during the war that would be blocked in times of peace. The ghettos that become free in the towns of the General Government are now being filled with the Jews deported from the Reich, and after a certain period of time the procedure is supposed to be repeated here. The Jews’ life is no bed of roses, and the fact that their representatives in England and America today organize and propagate a war against Germany has to be paid for very dearly by their representatives in Europe; that is only appropriate.’38

After the Wannsee conference, the first Jews from a foreign country to be handed over en masse to the Nazis came from Slovakia. But the history of why Slovak Jews were crammed on to freight trucks on their way to Auschwitz in the spring of 1942 demonstrates once again that the development of the Nazis’ Final Solution was anything but straightforward.

We have already seen how Slovakia was formed only in the spring of 1939 as Czechoslovakia disintegrated under Nazi pressure. The Slovak government was, from the beginning, supportive of the Nazis in general and their anti-Semitic views in particular. As early as 20 October 1941, for instance, Himmler had suggested during a meeting with the Slovak President and Prime Minister that it might be possible to deport some of the 90,000 Jews in the country to the General Government.39

In a parallel initiative, the Germans were keen for the Slovaks to hand over workers who could be used as forced labour. The Slovak government were not that eager to help – until they thought of an alternative. They asked if perhaps 20,000 of these workers could be Jews. The Slovak government, strongly anti-Semitic, would be glad of the opportunity to deport them. The German Foreign Office replied to this proposal on 16 February 1942, saying that they would be prepared to accept these Jews ‘in the course of the measures taken toward a final solution of the European Jewish question’.40 But it subsequently transpired that the Slovaks wanted to hand over entire Jewish families, and the Germans had no desire to take them. They just sought Jews who could work. In the light of the Wannsee conference, this appears a curious development. Didn’t the Nazis want to have all the Jews they could find deported to the east? But it is still part of a pattern. Eichmann and others charged with the practical application of the strategy outlined at Wannsee were well aware that there simply wasn’t the current capacity in camps in Poland to accept non-working Jews from Slovakia. In February 1942, for example, Bełżec was still a month away from opening.

The Slovak authorities held firm. The matter was discussed at a meeting that February between Eichmann’s representative in Slovakia, Dieter Wisliceny, and the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Vojtech Tuka, together with Dr Izidor Koso, the chief of his office. The Slovaks maintained that it was ‘unChristian’ to separate families. Wisliceny understood this to be a hypocritical remark that actually meant that it would be expensive and troublesome for the Slovak authorities to look after those Jews left behind once their breadwinners had been deported.41 Perhaps, suggested the Slovaks, they might reimburse the Germans for the ‘expenses’ incurred in taking not just those who were fit to work but whole Jewish families?

The two sides eventually hammered out a deal that was breathtaking in its cynicism. The Slovaks would pay the Germans 500 Reichsmarks for every Jew they took. In return, the Germans promised that they would not assert ownership over the property the Jews left behind, and that the Slovak Jews would never return to Slovakia. This meant that a European country, whose head of state was a Catholic priest – Jozef Tiso – agreed to pay the Nazis to take their Jews away on condition they never came back. Although, at the time they discussed this deal, the Slovak authorities did not have detailed knowledge of precisely what was going to happen to these Jews, they did know that they were being sent into appalling danger. How could the Slovaks pretend otherwise, since just days before their meeting with Wisliceny, Hitler had said in a speech in the Berlin Sportpalast, ‘The outcome of this war will be the annihilation of Jewry’?42

Heydrich did not finally sign the agreement with the Slovaks until 10 April, and so the initial transports sent to Auschwitz from Slovakia contained only the young and the fit. Linda Breder, an eighteen-year-old Slovakian Jewish woman, was one of the first to be forcibly deported. ‘On 24 March 1942,’ she says, ‘the Hlinka guards [the Slovak People’s Party militia] came to every house and collected all the girls from sixteen to twenty-five.’ Linda and the other girls were held in a hall in the town of Stropkov in eastern Slovakia. She wasn’t ‘scared’ because ‘they told us you are going to Germany to work and you will send money to your parents and then they will join you. So what can I feel? I was happy. Because we would work and then they will have money and then they will come with us.’43

The Hlinka Guard now had the Jews in their power – and the opportunity to humiliate them. ‘Some of those Slovak soldiers behaved in a really silly way,’ remembers Silvia Veselá, another young Jewish woman taken by the Hlinka Guard in March 1942. ‘For example, they deliberately crapped on the floor and we had to clean the dirt manually. They called us “Jewish whores” and they kicked us. They behaved really badly. They also told us, “We will teach you Jews how to work.” But all of us were poor women that were used to work … It’s a really humiliating feeling when your personality is being taken away. I don’t know whether you can understand it. You suddenly mean nothing. We were treated like animals.’44

Michal Kabáč was one of the Hlinka guards who guarded the Jewish women and later forced them on to freight wagons for their journey north to Poland. He was in his early thirties, a staunch Slovak nationalist who believed the anti-Semitic propaganda of his party. ‘It was all politics,’ he says. ‘The state was telling us the Jews were liars and were robbing the Slovaks and never wanted to work, but live an easy life. That is why we were not feeling sorry for them.’ Kabáč’s own anti-Semitism was more opportunistic than ideological. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘I used to date this Jewish girl. Her father used to have a huge store. He gave me a gift. It was a portrait of a Jew. I knew I’d get imprisoned if they found out I had such a portrait. I had to throw it into the river.’45

Kabáč says he had a ‘good life’ in the Hlinka Guard: ‘We had a good salary, accommodation and canteen. We could not complain.’ The guards also had the opportunity to steal the possessions of the Jews. Kabáč himself admits he stole a pair of shoes. ‘When the Jews came to the camps we used to take their belongings and clothes,’ he says. ‘All Jews had to show us their belongings and the guards took the more valuable things from them.’46 Kabáč is relaxed about his role in the Holocaust. ‘I was not transporting them to the gas chambers! I was only transporting them to the Polish borders where Germans took over the transport. God knew where they were transported afterwards.’47

While in the custody of the Hlinka Guard, Linda Breder clung to the belief that she would be sent to Germany to work. But on 26 March when she was taken to the station to board a train, she saw ‘only cattle cars’. ‘Where is the regular train?’ she asked. ‘We already started to feel that something is not right. In the cattle car when you came in there were two buckets there. One with water full, the other one empty to use like a toilet.’ Shortly afterwards she realized, ‘We are not going to Germany, we are going to Poland.’

Linda Breder was part of the first transport from Slovakia to Auschwitz at the end of March. They were also the first female prisoners to enter the camp. On arrival they were marched under the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ – ‘Work makes you free’ – gate at Auschwitz main camp and crammed into one of the prison blocks. There was a struggle, as hundreds of Slovak women were ‘screaming and pushing’ in an attempt to use the handful of toilets in the block. She and the other women slept on the bare floor, huddled together for warmth since ‘it was bitter cold in March in Poland’. The next day she had to undress in front of the SS and a ‘gynaecologist’ probed her most intimate parts to check if she was ‘hiding gold’, before she was forced to bath naked in disinfected icy water: ‘The SS said to us, “You Jews are dirty, you have lice, you have to be clean.” ’48

All of the Slovak women were admitted directly into the camp. The infamous process of selection on arrival at Auschwitz, by which a proportion of each new transport was sent directly to be killed, had not yet begun. That was not just because the first transports contained only Jews who had been judged fit for work before they left Slovakia, but also because the only gas chamber at Auschwitz in the crematorium of the main camp was an impractical method of killing people on a large scale. One difficulty the Nazis had, as we have seen, was that it was impossible to conduct the killings discreetly in the crematorium because the building was close not just to SS administrative offices, but to the barracks where the prisoners lived.

This ‘problem’ was about to be solved by the SS at Auschwitz, because a new camp was under construction a mile and a half away from Auschwitz main camp, at a village the Poles called Brzezinka and the Germans Birkenau. In September 1941 Himmler had ordered the creation of a camp at Birkenau capable of holding 100,000 prisoners. Birkenau had originally been intended for Soviet prisoners of war, but at the end of October 1941 Hitler had decided that the Soviet POWs should be used elsewhere in the Reich as forced labour. As a consequence Himmler now said that Birkenau could be a place to send Jews. Subsequently, on 27 February 1942,49 the commandant of the camp, Rudolf Höss, met with other SS officials and resolved to move the location of the proposed new crematorium from the cramped surroundings of the main camp to the wide spaces of the new Auschwitz Birkenau.

While they waited for the new crematorium to be built at Birkenau, the SS at Auschwitz conceived a stop-gap measure – one designed not just to increase the number of prisoners who could be gassed, but to ensure that the murders could be conducted in greater privacy. In a remote corner of Birkenau, far away from any other habitation, the SS bricked up the windows of a small cottage – known as the ‘Little Red House’ or ‘Bunker I’ – and converted two rooms inside so that they could be used as gas chambers. High up in the walls of the cottage they fashioned hatches, through which they could throw Zyklon B crystals. It was a primitive killing machine, but unlike the gas chamber within the crematorium in the main camp, here no one would hear the screams of the Jews as they were asphyxiated. But while the SS had solved one of their problems, they had created another – how to dispose of the dead. Bodies from the Little Red House could not be burnt in the ovens of a crematorium as there was not one near by. The only answer appeared to be to bury them in pits, but that was labour intensive and a potential health hazard for both the inmates and the SS – especially since the ground at Birkenau had notoriously bad drainage.

Notwithstanding the difficulties the SS encountered in disposing of the bodies, the creation of the Little Red House meant that they could murder larger numbers of ‘unproductive’ Jews than before. Especially when, a few weeks after the killings began in the Little Red House, another cottage about a hundred yards away, known as the ‘Little White House’, was converted in a similar way into gas chambers.

In early summer 1942, family transports began to arrive from Slovakia for the first time. The SS now began a selection process on the dusty ground next to the railway line, halfway between Auschwitz main camp and Auschwitz Birkenau. In this area, known as the ‘ramp’, SS medical personnel spent a few seconds assessing each new arrival, and sent those picked to work as forced labour to one side, and those they had chosen to die to another.

In July 1942, Eva Votavová arrived at Auschwitz as a seventeen-year-old with her family. It was the culmination of years of persecution. As a schoolgirl she had heard the Hlinka guards celebrate Slovak independence by shouting ‘Slovakia belongs to Slovaks, Palestine belongs to Jews.’ ‘It was obvious at first sight’, she says, ‘that they were militants with no moral values.’50 She felt rejected by the country of her birth and was distraught. ‘I could not cope with this,’ she says, ‘even today, I can’t.’ In 1942, a commander of the Hlinka Guard lived in her village and wanted her family’s house. So he arranged that they would be one of the first Jewish families to be deported. As a result, Eva, together with her father and mother, left Slovakia on 17 July, crammed into ‘animal cargo trucks’.

Once on the ramp at Auschwitz her father was selected to join one line and Eva and her mother another. ‘From that moment I heard nothing about my father,’ she says. ‘When I saw him for the last time he looked worried, sad and hopeless.’51 Her father was taken away and murdered in the gas chamber, while Eva and her mother were assigned to a construction commando. The work was physically demanding and the prisoners received little food or water. As a result, Eva’s mother became sick: ‘She had a fever and a dark film on her upper teeth – which was an unmistakable sign of deadly typhoid fever. Of course, I did not know this at the time. She told me that evening she needed to go to the hospital [in the camp]. I cried and begged her not to go there at least for one more day. No one ever came back from there.’ By now Eva knew that ‘people were taken straight to the gas chambers’ from the hospital. When Eva came back from work the following day she learnt that her mother had, despite her pleas, been admitted to the hospital. Three days later someone who worked in the hospital told Eva that her mother ‘had gone’. Shortly afterwards, Eva was assigned to the ‘corpse commando’ and collected bodies from all over the camp. Among the pile of human remains, Eva found a pair of glasses. ‘I knew they were my mother’s – the left glass was broken after my mum had been slapped by a German Kapo.’ Holding the glasses, Eva cried, and saw ‘all of her [mother’s] pain, sickness and misery in front of my eyes’. She kept ‘the glasses as the last memory of my mother until stomach typhoid fever infected me. Then they had to burn the pillow I used to hide them in. That is how I lost the last memory of my mother.’52

Even if they had been selected for work, many of the new arrivals were now dying at Auschwitz in a matter of weeks – particularly in the newly created women’s section of the main camp. Auschwitz had become in a short space of time, and with little or no preparation, one of the biggest women’s camps in the Nazi system. Over 6,700 women were held in the main camp in April 1942 and by the time the women’s camp was moved to Auschwitz Birkenau in August 1942, an estimated one in three of these women were dead.53 At Birkenau, conditions were no better. Disease was rife, the Kapos could be brutal, the food was inadequate and the work was often back-breaking – especially for those forced to dig massive ditches to help the drainage.

‘We found ourselves in Birkenau,’ says Frico Breder, a male Slovak Jew who was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. ‘I didn’t know anything about that camp at that time. However, as soon as I saw it I thought I was in hell.’ One night, shortly after Frico’s arrival in Birkenau, his Kapo approached him and said he needed someone ‘to do loading’ – without mentioning what was to be ‘loaded’. He promised Frico that those who completed the task would receive some bread. Frico soon discovered that the task was ‘loading dead bodies’ on to a cart. As he began moving the corpses, he saw the body of a ‘very beautiful woman’. ‘She is still in my head,’ says Frico. ‘She must have come to the camp very recently – she must have committed suicide or something like that … It was a clear night and the moon was shining on her … It was very beautiful.’54

From the moment the camp was established in spring 1940, death had been a constant presence at Auschwitz. But the arrival of the Slovak families and the consequent selections held on the ramp heralded a new era of horror. Those chosen to die were the most temporary visitors imaginable. The old, the sick, the children, all waited by the converted cottages to be gassed. ‘They used to sit there,’ says Otto Pressburger, a Slovak Jew who worked on the ‘corpse commando’. ‘They must have been eating their food from home. SS men were around them with dogs. They, of course, didn’t know what was going to happen to them. We did not want to tell them. It would have been worse for them. We were thinking that the people who brought them here were not humans but some wild jungle creatures.’55

Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, wrote in his memoirs that Jews walked to their death under the ‘blossom-laden fruit trees of the cottage orchard’. He recorded that one woman, who clearly realized what was about to happen to her, whispered to him, ‘How can you bring yourself to kill such beautiful, darling children? Have you no heart at all?’56 Höss claimed he found such scenes ‘shattering’, but these incidents made no difference to his absolute commitment to the killing process.

Jews from Slovakia were not just deported to Auschwitz. At least 24,000 Slovak Jews were transferred to a new murder facility at Sobibór, about 50 miles north-east of Lublin. Sobibór was, after Bełżec, the second camp built as an extermination centre with fixed gas chambers. Like Bełżec the camp was close to a railway line, but the location was even more remote – in forest and marshland a few miles from the River Bug. The countryside around Sobibór was peaceful and picturesque, and the camp was designed to look inviting. ‘I imagined Sobibór as a place where they burn people, where they gas people, so it must look like hell,’ says Toivi Blatt who was sent to the camp in April 1943, at a time when ‘rumours’ about the true function of the place had been circulating for months. ‘And now what I see is actually nice houses, plus the commandant’s villa, painted green with a little fence and flowers.’57

In May 1942, when the first large transports of Jews arrived to be gassed, the commandant of Sobibór was a thirty-four-year-old veteran of the T4 euthanasia action called Franz Stangl. Before taking charge at Sobibór he had visited Bełżec and been struck by the ‘smell – oh God, the smell. It was everywhere.’ He saw pits with ‘thousands of corpses’ in them, and learnt first hand the practical problems of managing a death camp. He was told that ‘one of the pits had overflowed. They had put too many corpses in it and putrefaction had progressed too fast, so that the liquid underneath had pushed the bodies on top, up and over, and the corpses had rolled down the hill.’58

At Bełżec, Stangl became reacquainted with Christian Wirth, whom he had known – and disliked – from the euthanasia actions. Wirth was now Stangl’s boss, and when he had visited Stangl during the construction of Sobibór he had been dissatisfied with the way the work was progressing. Stangl learnt that Wirth had arrived, ‘looked around the gas chambers on which they were still working and said, “Right, we’ll try it out right now with those twenty-five work-Jews: get them up here” ’. Wirth ordered the Jews pushed into the gas chamber and murdered. According to one of Stangl’s colleagues, ‘Wirth behaved like a lunatic, hit out at his own staff with his whip to drive them on. And then he was livid because the doors hadn’t worked properly.’59

Stangl claimed after the war that he had been shocked by the task that had been assigned to him, and that he hadn’t wanted to complete it. But eyewitnesses who saw him in the camp at the time tell a different story. ‘What was special about him was his arrogance,’ said Stanislaw Szmajzner, a Jewish survivor of the camp. ‘And his obvious pleasure in his work and his situation. None of the others – although they were, in different ways, so much worse than he – showed this to such an extent. He had this perpetual smile on his face … No, I don’t think it was a nervous smile; it was just that he was happy.’60 Erich Bauer, the SS man at Sobibór responsible for the working of the gas chambers, offered another perspective on Stangl, which also contradicts the notion that the commandant did his work unwillingly. ‘In the canteen at Sobibor I once overheard a conversation between Frenzel, Stangl and Wagner [all members of the SS at the camp]. They were discussing the number of victims in the extermination camps of Belzec, Treblinka [the last death camp to be built] and Sobibor and expressed their regret that Sobibor “came last” in the competition.’61

Despite the experience they had gained in the construction and operation of the death camp at Bełżec, the SS did not create an efficient killing installation at Sobibór. While the remote location was an advantage for them, the railway had only one track. This obviously limited the capacity of the line. An even bigger issue was the nature of the countryside. During August and September 1942 no train could travel to Sobibór because sections of the railway had sunk into the marshland and repairs had to be made.

Even when the camp had been functioning, the SS had created a bottleneck in the killing process. In the early days of the camp’s operation, when a train arrived at Sobibór station the SS waited until the Jews who were capable of walking unaided had entered the camp and then gathered up those who were left – the old, the disabled and the injured – and put them on to a horse-drawn cart. The SS told these Jews who were unable to walk that they were to be taken to a hospital. This was said in an attempt to calm them, but it was also a black joke. Because the ‘hospital’, 200 yards into the forest, consisted of a group of executioners standing by a pit. All of those who had been taken to the ‘hospital’ on the horse and cart were murdered in sight of each other.

This process did not work as well as the SS wanted. It was time-consuming to get the old and sick on to the horse-drawn cart and for the cart to get to the ‘hospital’, so the SS made a change to their operating procedure. They constructed a narrow-gauge railway track from Sobibór station up to the killing zone of the ‘hospital’ so that the weaker Jews could be carried more efficiently to their deaths. The horse and cart were now redundant, replaced by more modern technology.62

Only thirty or so SS were needed to staff Sobibór, supported by just over a hundred former Soviet prisoners of war. Many of these men were from Ukraine and had been offered the chance to leave their POW camps, where they stood a high chance of dying of disease or starvation, to work for the Nazis. Trained at Trawniki camp, south-east of Lublin, they were often the most brutal of all the guards. Partly this was because the Germans were keen to give the Ukrainians the bloodiest jobs.63 At Sobibór, for instance, most of those who shot the Jews at the ‘hospital’ were Ukrainians.

Just as at Bełżec, the largest category of people working in the camp were the Jewish Sonderkommandos. Every major extermination camp utilized prisoners who were selected from the new arrivals and made to perform a variety of tasks related to the killing process – from the ‘Bahnhofskommando’ who took the Jews from the station up into the camp, to the most horrific jobs of all which were undertaken by the Sonderkommandos who were forced to empty the gas chambers of the bodies and bury them. Again, as at Bełżec, all of the Sonderkommandos were just a moment away from death themselves. Any of the Sonderkommandos who did not perform as the SS required were murdered and replaced by selected Jews from a new transport.

Toivi Blatt, who at the age of fifteen was selected as a Sonderkommando at Sobibor, was astonished at how the horrific circumstances of the camp could alter the character of those who worked there. ‘People change under some conditions,’ he says. ‘People asked me, “What did you learn?” and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves … All of us could be good people or bad people in these [different] situations. Sometimes, when somebody is really nice to me, I find myself thinking, “How will he be in Sobibor?” ’64

As the first anniversary of the invasion of the Soviet Union approached, Hitler and his followers had travelled a long way in a short time – not just in terms of the physical progress the German Army had made inside the Soviet Union, but in the conceptual decisions the SS and others had made about the fate of the Jews and the means by which they sought to kill them.

By June 1942, the first death factories of the Holocaust were in place, and the Nazis had created a method of killing that allowed them to murder in considerable numbers and experience little psychological torment. What they sought now were large numbers of Jews to kill. But since the Nazis could not find every foreign Jew for themselves, they needed willing collaborators. The story of how they acquired them is one of the most troubling parts of this whole history.

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