All these murders took place against the background of the bloodiest war in history. And the course of that war would, in turn, influence the extent to which the Nazis’ allies were willing to cooperate with the Holocaust. But it was not always easy, during 1942, for observers to work out exactly what the result of the war was likely to be.
While it was certainly true that the Red Army had prevented the Germans taking Moscow in December 1941, that Soviet victory had been followed by defeat. In May 1942 the Soviets had attacked the Germans around Kharkov in Ukraine, at a point where the Red Army had a large advantage, outnumbering the Germans two to one. But, in an action that demonstrated that numerical superiority does not guarantee success if tactics are deficient, the Soviet soldiers soon ran into trouble. The Germans retreated and allowed the Red Army to move forward, only to move in subsequently from the flanks and encircle large numbers of them. Soviet soldiers panicked. Many tried to run, but they were already caught in the German trap. More than a quarter of a million Red Army soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.
Boris Vitman, an officer in the Soviet 6th Army, was one of those who were taken prisoner. Once captured, he remembers how the Germans immediately demonstrated that they were fighting a brutal, ideological war. The Germans first looked for Jews and commissars among the Red Army prisoners, and when they found them, they split them into two groups. They took the commissars away and Boris Vitman never saw them again, but he did witness what happened to the ten or so Jews they had identified: ‘The Jews were given spades and told to dig a trench. It began to rain. After a while I could only see the tops of their heads. An SS man was hitting them to make them dig faster. When the trench was deep enough, he picked up a Russian machine gun and fired, shooting several salvos into the trench. We could hear them moaning. Then some more SS men turned up and finished them off. They were killed only because they were Jews. This had a shocking effect on me because then I saw what Nazism was. We were told [by the Germans] that the Jews and commissars cannot have control over us any more, that the Germans had come to liberate us and soon we’re going home. But I only knew I had to fight the Germans to the very end.’1
Having humiliated the Red Army at Kharkov, Hitler now launched his own offensive, codenamed Operation Blue. The idea was for the Wehrmacht to advance towards the River Volga in the south-east of the Soviet Union and then down into the mountains of the Caucasus and the Soviet oil fields that lay beyond. It was a wildly ambitious plan. And to start with, it seemed to be working. But the problem the Germans faced was that the further they advanced to the east, the more their supply lines were stretched, a difficulty that was exacerbated by Hitler’s decision to separate his forces and send one thrust south to the Caucasus and the other east to the Volga. As far as General Halder, Chief of Staff of the German Army, was concerned, Hitler was in danger of letting his over-confidence damage his judgement. ‘This chronic tendency to underrate enemy capabilities is gradually assuming grotesque proportions and develops into a positive danger,’ Halder wrote in his diary on 23 July 1942. ‘The situation is getting more and more intolerable.’2 Halder’s words were prophetic. A few months later the German Army was engaged in an intractable, war-defining fight in the streets of a city on the western bank of the Volga called Stalingrad.
The Germans didn’t have the resources or expertise to remove the Red Army soldiers from the rubble in Stalingrad. ‘The Russians had the advantage in trench warfare and hand-to-hand combat – there’s no doubt,’ says Joachim Stempel, a German officer who fought in Stalingrad. ‘As a tank unit, we were used to driving tanks and trying to bring the enemy down with tanks and then stopping, clearing the area and moving forward. But that was all forgotten in the past, a long time ago.’3 Now it was the turn of the Red Army to show that they could mount encirclement operations on a large scale. On 19 November 1942, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, an attempt to trap the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad. The plan worked and the Sixth Army finally surrendered on 2 February 1943.
Hitler had told the German people in a speech on 30 September 1942: ‘you can rest assured, no man will take us away from this place [Stalingrad].’4 Now his promise was revealed as worthless. To make matters worse for the Germans, the defeat at Stalingrad was part of a pattern that seemed to show by the start of 1943 that they were losing the war. In the autumn of 1942 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s forces had been defeated at El Alamein – less because of the talents of the British commander Bernard Montgomery than because Rommel’s soldiers, who were outnumbered by the Allies, didn’t have enough fuel to manoeuvre their tanks effectively. At sea, the German fleet was hampered by a combination of lack of fuel and inadequate air cover. Finally, on 8 November 1942, the Allies had landed in North Africa and begun the long fight that would eventually take them in the summer and autumn of 1943 first into Sicily and then on to the Italian mainland.
In January 1943, the Allies had publicly proclaimed at the Casablanca conference that they would accept nothing less from the Germans than ‘unconditional surrender’ and that they intended to ‘impose punishment and retribution in full’ on the ‘guilty, barbaric leaders’5 of the countries currently opposing them. But behind the scenes matters were not quite as clear cut. Take the case of Admiral François Darlan, the former Prime Minister of Vichy France and collaborator with the Nazis. He was captured during the Allied invasion of North Africa but he wasn’t imprisoned, or tried for any offence. Instead, in an extreme example of pragmatic politics, he was confirmed by the Allies as head of the civil government in French North Africa. The Allies needed to ensure the cooperation of the former Vichy forces in France as swiftly as possible, and this was one way to do it. Admiral Darlan remained deeply unpopular with the British and Americans, and was killed on Christmas Eve 1942 by an anti-Vichy assassin.
Shortly after Darlan’s death, President Roosevelt revealed the same deeply pragmatic side of his nature during discussions about the Jews with General Charles Noguès, the former Vichy commander in Morocco. At the time of the Casablanca conference, General Noguès remarked that it would be ‘sad’ if after the war the Jews could dominate the economy of North Africa. Roosevelt sought to dispel his anxiety by saying that if the Jews were restricted to a certain proportion of professions, this would ‘eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans have towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc, in Germany were Jews’.6 Leaving aside the obvious factual inaccuracies in Roosevelt’s statement – Jewish representation in these professions in Germany had certainly not been 50 per cent – his words demonstrated how even the leader of the largest Western democracy was prepared to give voice to slurs against the Jews.
This kind of confidential conversation was not made public during the war. So the message that went out from Casablanca remained one of unshakeable resolve to punish the ‘guilty’ and ‘barbaric’ leaders of the countries that opposed the Allies. For the Nazi leadership, of course, such threats were meaningless as they already knew there was no way back. In March 1943, Goebbels recorded in his diary a conversation with Hermann Göring that revealed their thinking: ‘Göring is fully aware of what we would be faced with if we weakened in this war. He has no illusions about this. Particularly when it comes to the Jewish question, we are so involved that there is no escape for us any more. And that is a good thing. Experience shows that a movement and a people that have burnt all bridges, fight with even more determination than those who still have an opportunity of retreat.’7
For those who collaborated with the Germans, the situation was not so clear cut. Many of them did not appear to think they had necessarily ‘burnt all bridges’. In France, for example, the French police were less cooperative with the Germans than they had been the previous year. The police particularly disliked arresting and sending French nationals to Germany as forced labour – a measure the Germans had introduced in February 1943.8
In Romania, events over the winter of 1942–3 had strengthened the resolve of Marshal Antonescu, and he now refused outright to hand over the remaining Romanian Jews to the Nazis. He met Hitler in April 1943 and resisted pressure to cooperate further on the Jewish question. The meeting was a clash between one political leader – Hitler – who believed that any setbacks on the battlefield should act as an incentive to treat the Jews still more harshly, and another – Antonescu – who was looking for a way out of the mess in which he and his country were now wallowing. Some members of Antonescu’s government were even trying to contact the Allies in order to extricate their country from the war – a development that Hitler knew about.9
Hitler was even more forthright in the discussions he held shortly afterwards with another ally, Admiral Horthy. In Hitler’s view, Horthy’s Hungary had been extremely dilatory in its treatment of the Jews. And like Antonescu, Horthy’s colleagues were attempting to sound out the Allies about a way of exiting the war. This wasn’t a surprising development, since Horthy knew better than most the scale of the Stalingrad defeat. The Hungarian Second Army, fighting alongside the Germans on the eastern front near Stalingrad, had been virtually annihilated. Half of the army of 200,000 soldiers were killed outright, and most of the rest were wounded or taken prisoner. A unit of Jewish forced labourers from Hungary, attached to the Second Army, also suffered appalling casualties. It was one of the worst battlefield defeats in Hungary’s history.
Hitler deployed all his powers of persuasion in an attempt to convince Horthy to keep fighting. He told him that ‘Germany and its allies were in a boat on a stormy sea. It was clear that anyone who wanted to get off in this situation would drown immediately.’ Hitler also attacked Horthy’s policy over the Jews, saying that ‘the pro-Jewish attitude in Hungary was completely incomprehensible to him … Why should the Jews be handled with kid gloves? After all, they had incited the world war.’ When the meeting resumed the next day Horthy demanded to know what more he was expected to do, since he had already stopped the Jews earning a living and ‘he could not kill them.’ Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister, replied that the Jews should be imprisoned in camps or ‘annihilated’. Hitler pointed out approvingly that the Jewish situation in Poland had been ‘thoroughly cleaned up’ and explained to Horthy that the Jews ‘were to be treated like tuberculosis bacilli that could infect a healthy body. This was not cruel if you considered that even innocent creatures of nature like rabbits and deer would have to be killed in [such a situation] in order that no harm would be caused. Why should the beasts that wanted to bring Bolshevism to us be spared?’10
The talks with Horthy were not a success from Hitler’s perspective. And Goebbels thought he knew the reason why. As he wrote in his diary on 7 May 1943, the ‘Hungarians are clear in their mind that a war cannot be won with words alone. They obviously know our weak position and are slowly adjusting to it.’11 Moreover, a report of 30 April by Edmund Veesenmayer, an SS officer sent to Hungary to assess the situation, revealed that the Hungarian authorities ‘see the Jews as a guarantee for the protection of ‘Hungarian interests’, and they believe that through the Jews they can provide proof that they waged this war alongside the Axis Powers only out of necessity, but that in practice they have indirectly made a contribution to the enemies of the Axis Powers through hidden sabotage [by not handing over the Jews].’12
Hitler responded to the vacillations of the Hungarians and Romanians in a typical way. He concluded – as he told his Gauleiters in May 1943 – that ‘small states’ should be ‘liquidated as fast as possible’. After all, he said, ‘today we live in a world of destroying and being destroyed.’13 It was an early sign that Hitler might contemplate a German occupation of Hungary if Horthy didn’t do what he was told.
Hitler had similar problems with another ally in the spring of 1943 – Bulgaria. The official communiqué after the meeting between Hitler and King Boris of Bulgaria on 3 April stated that they had ‘a long and cordial talk’, which was characterized by ‘the spirit of traditional friendship’ that existed between Germany and Bulgaria.14 But the reality was that the Bulgarians, like the Romanians and Hungarians, were wavering in their support – especially over the question of the Jews. In February 1943, Alexander Belev, the Bulgarian government’s Commissar for the Jewish Question, had agreed with Eichmann’s representative, Theodor Dannecker, that the Bulgarians would hand over 20,000 Jews to the Germans. Just like the French, the Bulgarian authorities found it much more acceptable to offer up Jews who were not Bulgarian citizens. The Bulgarians knew – or at least must have strongly suspected – that they were sending these Jews to their deaths, especially in the wake of the public statements of the Allies the previous December about the Nazis’ extermination programme. Notwithstanding this knowledge, towards the end of March 1943 the Bulgarians cooperated in the deportation of around 11,000 Jews from the Bulgarian-occupied territory of Thrace and Macedonia. Virtually every single one of these Jews perished in the gas chambers of Treblinka.
However, when the authorities moved to deport Jews from inside the old borders of Bulgaria, there were public protests. Anti-Semitism had never been much of a tradition in Bulgaria, and the government’s introduction of legislation that persecuted the Jews in late 1941 had been motivated less by ideological conviction and more by an attempt to please their German ally.15 Now, faced with the deportation of Jews who lived among them, many Bulgarian citizens and members of the government were unhappy – knowledge that the Germans had just lost at Stalingrad would almost certainly have played a part in their unhappiness, of course. Instead of sending the Jews to their deaths, the Bulgarian authorities now passed legislation that expelled Jews from their homes in the capital Sofia and distributed them around various provincial towns. This made it almost impossible for them to be deported, but also caused the Jews considerable hardship. After the war a number of Bulgarians sought to portray their country’s history as a noble one in which ‘their’ Jews had been saved. It was anything but an honourable history, especially given what happened to the Jews from Thrace and Macedonia.
During April and May 1943, Hitler was aware not only of the attitude of his allies towards the Jews, but also of the resistance that the Jews themselves were demonstrating in Warsaw. On 19 April German forces entered the ghetto to begin the deportation of the remaining Jews. They were met with small-arms fire, grenades and home-made bombs. Marek Edelman, then twenty-four years old, was one of the Jews who fought back against the Germans, and he reveals that he and his colleagues in the Jewish Combat Organization were motivated by the knowledge that the Germans wanted to transport them to their deaths – knowledge they had gained from a witness to events at Treblinka who had managed to return to Warsaw and told them what awaited at the camp. ‘It was difficult to believe that you were killed for nothing,’ says Marek Edelman. ‘But that’s the way it was.’16 After the initial shock of hearing the news about Treblinka, Marek and his comrades resolved to fight back. ‘It’s obvious’, he says, ‘that the death camps were the factor that caused the resistance.’ The decision of the Germans to split up families and send old people and children to Treblinka, leaving just healthy, fit Jews within the ghetto also played a part. The resistance fighters could now fight free of any family responsibilities.
Members of the resistance within the ghetto had armed themselves with guns obtained from the Polish Home Army and stolen from the Germans. They also, says Marek Edelman, ‘made grenades out of metal pipes and gunpowder’. Initially, the German forces entering the ghetto were surprised at the level of resistance and made little progress towards their objectives. As Marek Edelman puts it, ‘The first few days were our victory.’ Many of the resistance fighters, like Aharon Karmi, another young Jewish man, were exhilarated by the opportunity to confront the enemy: ‘I shot with my pistol into the mass [of Germans] that was passing by. The Germans yelled, “Help!” and took shelter behind a wall. It was the first time we saw Germans running away. We were used to being the ones who ran away from the Germans. They had no expectation of Jews fighting like that. There was blood and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I said, “German blood.” ’17
Neither Marek Edelman nor Aharon Karmi, nor most of the other Jews who attacked the Germans in the ghetto, had previously been trained as soldiers. But this did not hold them back. ‘It’s very easy to learn how to shoot,’ says Marek Edelman. ‘You don’t need to be trained. It’s not the front where the general plans a battle. This is guerrilla warfare. The German goes walking down the street and when there’s an opportunity you shoot at him. And if he doesn’t see the person who’s shooting all the better. You just have to have the will to fight and the weapons, that’s all.’18Against the superior firepower of the Germans, the resistance fighters knew they had no chance of eventual victory. ‘Yes,’ says Marek, ‘we knew we wouldn’t win but we had to show the Germans that we’re human beings like everybody [else]. During the war you’re a human being when you kill the enemy.’
Under the command of SS Brigadeführer (Brigadier) Jürgen Stroop, German forces entered the ghetto and began setting fire to buildings, block by block. Marek Edelman remembers flames engulfing the ghetto as the Germans tried to burn them out, and that he and his comrades had to move from house to house as the fire pursued them. ‘Until we left the ghetto there was no peace, [but] the Germans couldn’t say they had won before we left.’ Both Marek Edelman and Aharon Karmi eventually managed to escape from the ghetto, just two of the handful of Jews who were able to cross to the non-Jewish side of Warsaw – most of them smuggled out via sewers or tunnels.
The ghetto uprising was suppressed by the middle of May, and in his report Stroop claimed that he and his soldiers had captured 56,065 Jews – a figure that appears to be an overestimate19 – at a cost of only a hundred or so German casualties. In purely military terms the Warsaw Jews had achieved little, other than to postpone for a short time the inevitable destruction of the ghetto and the murder of the majority of the Jews. But symbolically the importance of their resistance was enormous. The Jews had fought back in large numbers and demonstrated tremendous courage. ‘When they started liquidating the ghetto we had to resist,’ says Marek Edelman. ‘It was not an uprising, it was a defence of the ghetto. When the Germans wanted to liquidate us then they met with resistance, that was the point … What would you like me to say [to them]? Please kill me immediately?’
Just days before the Germans entered the Warsaw ghetto in an attempt to clear the area of Jews, an event of enormous importance occurred in the development of Auschwitz. In March 1943, the first of a series of new killing facilities opened at Auschwitz Birkenau. Originally, as we have seen, the SS intended to place this crematorium/gas chamber in the main camp, but they subsequently changed its location to Birkenau. During the design stage various changes were made so that the building could function not just as a crematorium but also as a gas chamber. In August 1942 three more crematoria had been ordered – one virtually the same as the existing commission, and two of a different design. These two new crematoria, eventually to be known as Crematoria IV and V, marked a radical change.
The revolution encapsulated in the design of Crematoria IV and V was simple. They were the first buildings at Auschwitz that from the initial design stage were intended to function solely as places of murder. They had undressing rooms, gas chambers and crematoria ovens all on one level – a kind of conveyor belt of death. The other two new crematoria still betrayed in their design their origins as places to burn human remains, rather than to kill them as well. Crematoria II and III had the undressing room and gas chamber in the semi-basement, because the function of these rooms had originally been to store dead bodies. Now that they had been converted, it meant that once people had been murdered their bodies had to be transported in a corpse lift up to the level of the crematorium to be burnt.
These four buildings at Auschwitz Birkenau – numbered Crematoria II to V, since Crematorium I still existed in Auschwitz main camp – represented a new stage in the evolution of the Holocaust. In part this was because they were solid and looked from the outside like factories. By contrast, the Reinhard death camps of Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka were all temporary places, and once their murderous work was completed, they would be destroyed. The new red-brick crematoria/gas-chamber buildings at Auschwitz, however, were an integral part of a growing SS presence in Upper Silesia. They were at the centre of a vast network of nearly thirty Auschwitz sub-camps which provided forced labour for a range of industrial operations, including cement works, armaments factories and – biggest of all – the IG Farben chemical plant at Monowitz in the suburbs of Auschwitz town. The crematoria/gas chambers of Birkenau were – in essence – the physical manifestation of the idea of extermination through labour. Once Jewish workers at Monowitz, for example, could no longer function as required, they were transported the short distance to Birkenau for annihilation. These buildings were something more than a means of killing the men, women and children the Nazis hated and feared; they symbolized a system in which only the productive deserved to live. They were inhumanity memorialized in brick.
All four of the new crematoria/gas-chamber complexes at Birkenau were working by the summer of 1943. Karl Bischoff, the SS officer in charge of their construction, wrote that in total the ovens could dispose of 4,416 corpses in twenty-four hours – that is to say that Auschwitz Birkenau now had the capacity to turn 1.6 million people into ashes in one year.20 This, it should be said, was a low estimate. According to eyewitness testimony, the number burnt could be as high as 8,000 bodies a day, by the simple expedient of putting more than one corpse into an oven at a time.21
The process of killing was broadly similar to that employed in the Operation Reinhard camps. New arrivals were ushered into the undressing room and told that they had to take their clothes off before having a shower. They were then directed into the gas chamber, which they were told was the shower room. Once the hermetically sealed door was closed, and everyone was trapped inside, crystals of Zyklon B were inserted through hatches in the roof (in the case of Crematoria II and III) or high in the wall (in the case of Crematoria IV and V). After everybody had been murdered, the residual gas was cleared, and Sonderkommandos entered. Only the means of gassing, Zyklon B as opposed to carbon monoxide, and the fact that the women’s hair was shaved after death rather than before, marked a significant difference from the way in which the operation was conducted in the Reinhard camps.
Just like the Reinhard camps, the murder factories in Birkenau needed only a handful of SS men to oversee the whole process. The manual labour – including the horrendous task of untangling the dead from the gas chambers – was performed by Sonderkommandos. But, revealingly, it was always SS personnel who dropped the Zyklon B into the gas chambers.
Henryk Mandelbaum, a Polish Jew, worked as one of the Sonderkommandos in the new Auschwitz crematoria/gas chambers in 1944. ‘You can’t really think about it,’ he says. ‘I thought I was in hell. I remember that sometimes when, if I did something wrong at home, my parents would tell me don’t do it because you’ll go to hell. But when I saw many human corpses, people who were murdered through gassing and they were being burnt … It was beyond anything I could imagine and I didn’t really know what to do. If I refuse [to work there] then I’ll be gone right? I knew they would kill me. I was young. I lost my family. They were gassed – my father, my mother and my sister and brother. So I was aware of it and I wanted to live and I fought. I struggled to live all the time.’
Henryk Mandelbaum remembers that, despite the efforts of the SS to keep an atmosphere of calm as the Jews were ushered into the gas chamber, sometimes people ‘started to sense something was wrong. There were too many people and some wanted to withdraw, but the SS men would hit them on the head with sticks and blood was flowing. So there was no chance of withdrawing or getting out, but by force they would be pushed into the gas chambers. When it was full they would lock the door – the doors were hermetic like in refrigerators.’ He recalls that behind every transport ‘there was an ambulance with a red cross [on it]’ and, in a cynical act, ‘in that red cross ambulance they [the SS] had Zyklon B gas [crystals].’ Once the crystals had been thrown into the gas chamber, ‘the gassing lasted about twenty minutes to half an hour. After the gassing, after the twenty or thirty minutes, we opened the doors. You could see how these people died – standing. Their heads were to the left or to the right, to the front, to the back. Some vomited or had hemorrhaged, and they would shit with loose bowels. Before the burning we had to cut their hair and pull out the gold teeth. And also had to look whether people kept anything in their nostrils, or valuables in the mouth – women in their vaginas.’22
Eventually, in the spring of 1944, a railway spur would be constructed, right into the heart of Birkenau, which allowed trains to deliver transports to within easy reach of the gas chambers in Crematoria II and III. Before that transports still arrived at the ramp – the unloading area halfway between Auschwitz main camp and Auschwitz Birkenau. For many of those arriving at Auschwitz, this was the first stage in their journey to the gas chambers. Günther Ruschin, a young German Jew, remembers that when he arrived at the ramp and saw women with children separated out, ‘I was thinking, a fool that I was, that they were going into a family camp.’ Selections at the ramp were always conducted by an SS doctor. This preserved the fiction that Auschwitz was an institution governed by scientific principles – that those to be murdered were chosen not out of arbitrary vindictiveness but by medical criteria. It was a lie, of course, even in Nazi terms, as there was never any proper medical examination, merely a glance at each individual. The SS would also trick new arrivals by asking if anyone wanted a lift in a vehicle to Birkenau, rather than walk to the camp. Sometimes fit young men and women would accept the ride. But everyone who chose not to walk to the camp was sent straight to the gas chambers.23 They had, the SS thought, betrayed their weakness and so did not deserve to live.
Günther Ruschin was taken with others who had been selected for forced labour to the camp at Monowitz, next to the IG Farben works. Several days later his father, who had also been selected for work, was injured in an accident. Günther was told that his father would be sent to ‘hospital’ for ‘an X ray’. But shortly afterwards a Polish Jew told him that his father would not receive medical treatment, but would be ‘gassed’ instead. Günther’s immediate reaction was that he wanted to be selected for Birkenau so as to be near his father since maybe by some miracle he still lived. ‘This is the feeling’, he says, ‘of a boy who was very close to his father.’ But the Polish Jew convinced Günther that his father was dead and that he should remain working at Monowitz. So Günther decided to stay where he was and vowed to try and survive. ‘We went to work in lines of five men in groups,’ he says. ‘I always tried to be in the middle, so as not to be hit by the SS, and that helped. And I tried always not to be seen by the troops. I am not a man who says I must do something, some sabotage or something, no. I wanted to stay alive, to try to help others.’
En route to Auschwitz, when Günther’s train had stopped at a station in eastern Germany, the Jews in the freight wagons had shouted out, ‘Please give us some water.’ But ‘the people who were there [said], “Damned Jews! Didn’t they kill you yet?” ’ Günther was ‘depressed and upset’ by what happened at the station, but he still didn’t believe that his fellow Germans could possibly want to murder him. ‘We knew that we weren’t going first class,’ he says. ‘But we didn’t know that the majority of us would go into the gas chambers. We didn’t know of the existence of the gas chambers.’24
The SS did what they could to keep the new crematoria/gas-chamber buildings at Birkenau separate from the rest of the camp. The buildings were fenced off and the Sonderkommandos lived on site. Paradoxically, the Sonderkommandos – who had the worst jobs in the whole of Auschwitz – lived in better conditions than most of the other prisoners. ‘We had nice quarters, with beds,’ confirms Dario Gabbai, one of the Sonderkommandos who worked at Birkenau in 1944. ‘We ate well. We didn’t need the soup from the camps.’25 The SS usually allowed the Sonderkommandos to keep the food left behind in the undressing room by the Jews taken to the gas chambers. This led to an atmosphere of plenty in the Sonderkommandos’ quarters in the crematorium. Dr Miklós Nyiszli, a Romanian Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz, described a memorable dinner with them. ‘The table awaiting us’, he wrote, ‘was covered with a heavy silk tablecloth … The table was piled high with choice and varied dishes, everything a deported people could carry with them into the uncertain future: all sorts of preserves, bacon, jellies, several kinds of salami, cakes and chocolate.’26
Some Sonderkommandos took the valuables of the Jews who were killed – in particular jewellery that had been secreted either in their clothes or within the orifices of their bodies. They then tried to exchange these valuables for other goods they wanted. They could do this because, despite the isolation of the crematoria, contact between the Sonderkommandos and other prisoners in the camp was still possible. Otto Pressburger, sent to Auschwitz in 1942 from Slovakia, remembers how he had an opportunity to visit the Sonderkommandos because he drove a horse and cart transporting various goods around Birkenau. And he was always keen to do ‘business’ with them. ‘They [the Sonderkommandos] wanted alcohol and cigarettes, and they had plenty of gold [to pay for them]. The “business” in the crematorium was the best. I always wanted to be delivering cargoes to the crematorium. You could always buy things there … Once I came to the crematorium asking if they had something to sell. I got offered a jewelled spider. Very rich Jews who used to have jewellery stores came to the camp at that time. I asked what they [the Sonderkommandos] wanted for the spider. They said a hundred cigarettes. I said if the spider is worth it then I will bring the cigarettes. We used to trust each other. The spider was beautiful. There was a big stone in the middle and the legs were covered in brilliant [jewels]. I took the spider to our Polish civilians [construction workers who lived outside the camp but worked inside during the day] and offered it to them … Each of us made a profit.’
This trade was strictly prohibited and Otto Pressburger risked his life to pursue it. ‘There was always an SS man at the gates to the crematorium,’ he says. ‘I used to make up fake reasons for my arrival. Most of the time I said I was told to deliver sand to the crematorium. But of course I was coming to do “business”. So they let me in. Sand was never a reason and I always dumped it. The problem was to hide the goods. They [other prisoners involved in the trading] made me a little wooden storage box [on the cart] under my feet … Once I was delivering a thousand cigarettes to the crematorium. As I was taking them out of my storage box someone hit me on my back and over my head. It was an old SS man. He always used to ride a bicycle around and watch for prisoners doing “business” … He asked where I got the cigarettes from and accused me of doing “business”. But I lied. I said I was only hungry and had stolen a bag believing I would find a sandwich inside. Instead I found the cigarettes. He said that was a lie … He was only a corporal but I called him officer, which apparently helped a lot. He punched me in my face and I pretended it hurt much more than it really did. At the end he took my cigarettes and let me go. If he had reported the incident I would have been killed the same day.’ As Otto Pressburger saw it, he had ‘no choice’ but to get involved in ‘doing “business” ’ within the camp because he ‘wanted to live’.27
The Sonderkommandos formed relationships not just with prisoners in the rest of the camp, but also with the SS who supervised their work in the crematoria/gas chambers. The SS had already discovered at death camps like Sobibór that it was counter-productive for them to kill all the Sonderkommandos after a brief period and then select a new group. Similarly, at Auschwitz it became common for the Sonderkommandos to be kept alive for many months. As a result, and because of the proximity in which they worked with the SS, a kind of intimacy developed, with the SS overseers often treating the Sonderkommandos much better than other prisoners at Auschwitz. Dr Miklós Nyiszli even witnessed them playing football together – a team of Sonderkommandos versus a team of SS.28 Dario Gabbai remembers one Dutch member of the SS almost with fondness, describing him as ‘a very nice guy’.29 Morris Venezia, another Sonderkommando, confirms that this Dutchman was ‘The best guard we had in the crematoria. He treated us sometimes to a cigarette. Sometimes we treated him to a cigarette. A very, very good man, very friendly with us.’ But even this ‘nice guy’, says Morris, ‘was always willing to go and kill people. And he was one of the best of our guards. I couldn’t understand that – why?’30
Other SS working at the crematoria/gas chambers took the opportunity to indulge their sadistic desires. In testimony written at the time by a member of the Sonderkommando and discovered only after the war, a chronicler describes how one particular SS man liked to feel the sexual parts of naked young women as they walked by him on the way to the gas chamber.31
Chief among these sadists was Otto Moll, the SS man who supervised the operation of the crematoria. Dario Gabbai remembers how he liked to kill naked girls by shooting them ‘on their breasts’. In 1944, when the arrival of enormous numbers of Hungarian Jews meant that bodies had to be burnt in the open air in giant pits – since the crematoria could not cope with the volume – Moll on occasion threw children directly into the flames so that they were burnt alive.32 Alter Feinsilber, one of the Sonderkommando, witnessed another of Moll’s sadistic acts. Moll ordered a naked woman to jump about and sing on a pile of corpses near the flaming pit while he shot prisoners and threw their bodies into the fire. When he had finished shooting them, he turned his gun on the woman and killed her.33 Such was Moll’s all-pervasive sadism that long after the war was over Dario Gabbai’s heart still ‘bumps at maybe two hundred a minute’ whenever he hears a motorcycle engine – because Moll used to arrive at the crematoria on a motorbike. ‘When you see this guy [Moll],’ says Dario, ‘it’s just problems – nothing else. You don’t want to be around him. In 1951 I was going to the city college in Los Angeles to learn English, and the first thing that teacher told me was to write something about the camps you were in. The first thing I wrote – I still have it from 1951 – I wrote two pages about Moll.’34
Many of the Sonderkommando were profoundly troubled by their work. Not just the appalling nature of it, but the knowledge that they were assisting the SS in the destruction of fellow Jews. ‘We became animals,’ says Morris Venezia. ‘We feel that we should kill ourselves and not work for the Germans. But even to kill yourself is not so easy.’ Dario Gabbai found that ‘After a while you don’t know nothing. Nothing bothers you. That’s why your conscience gets inside of you and stays there until today. What happened? Why did we do such a thing?’ The only explanation Dario can give is that ‘You always find the strength to live for the next day,’ because the desire to live is so ‘powerful’.35
One account, written by a member of the Sonderkommando during the war, described how children from Lithuania, just before they died, admonished the Jews who were helping the Germans. One young girl shouted at a Sonderkommando who tried to undress her younger brother, calling him a ‘Jewish murderer’. She said that she was her brother’s ‘good mummy’ and that her brother ‘will die in my arms, together with me’. Another child asked a Sonderkommando why fellow Jews were taking the children to be killed – was it, the child suggested, ‘only in order to live’ themselves? Was their life among the ‘murderers’ really worth ‘the lives of so many’ other Jews?36
‘We got liberated,’ says Morris Venezia. ‘For what? To remember all those barbarous things? We didn’t want our lives actually. This is the way we feel – we’re still feeling. Until now I’m just saying, why [did] God let me live, for what? To remember all those things? Always, even now, when I’m going to bed, everything comes in my mind before I close my eyes. Everything, everything, every night, every night.’37
The purpose-built crematoria/gas chambers of Birkenau began their murderous work after the majority of Jews had died in the Holocaust. Around 1.1 million were killed in 1941 and 2.7 million in 1942.38 Most of these Jews died either in the Einsatzgruppen actions in the east, or in the Reinhard death camps within Poland. Auschwitz accounted for 200,000 deaths in 1942, a fraction of the total catalogue of murder. In 1943 the number of dead fell to 500,000 – with around half that number murdered in Auschwitz. The newly created murder machinery in Auschwitz Birkenau was thus functioning well below capacity. In part this reduced figure for 1943 reflected the difficulties that the Nazis encountered in finding and transporting Jews to the death camps once it became clear that the Germans were losing the war.
During 1943, the Nazis didn’t just transport Jews to Auschwitz. They also sent other categories of people they considered a threat, including Sinti and Roma – those the Nazis called ‘Gypsies’. A Gypsy camp was created within Birkenau, and the first transport of several hundred Sinti and Roma arrived at Auschwitz in February 1943. At its height the Gypsy camp at Birkenau contained 15,000 people. Unusually, the Sinti and Roma were not selected on arrival but were permitted to stay in family groups. This was most probably because a final decision about their collective fate had not yet been taken, but the fact that they could remain together did not mean that the Sinti and Roma received preferential treatment in any physical sense – they were still brutally mistreated. Hermann Höllenreiner, who came from a Sinti background and was sent to Birkenau as a child, remembers that he and the other children were so hungry that ‘We would pull out the grass like rabbits so that we could just eat it. And if an SS caught us we would get beaten. That was also bad. But then everything that happened in Birkenau was bad … We lived in constant fear. Every moment we thought now they will beat my father or my mother to death, or that we will be gassed; we knew that every moment could be the one we are gassed.’39
Franz Rosenbach, also from a Sinti family, was fifteen when he was sent with his mother to Auschwitz Birkenau. He remembers that when he arrived at the camp he was shocked that he and his mother had to get completely undressed in front of each other. ‘I don’t know if you know that we have our own customs,’ he says. ‘A mother would never get undressed in front of her children, nor would the father. There is some kind of sense of shame and respect. But in this instance, we were forced to do it. We were undressed and I called out, “Mum, where are you?” She was standing behind me, she was hiding behind me. And when her hair was cut off – her braid – I wanted to go and grab it. So I was hit a few more times on the back with a rubber truncheon or something like that, some kind of hosepipe. You know, it was a sight that you cannot imagine. The SS came in with a cane and hit the men’s penises, making a point of [saying] … please excuse the expression, I can’t say it, something like “Gypsy dick” or whatever you call it … that kind of thing, derogatory terms, discriminatory terms.’40
Imprisoned with his mother in the Gypsy camp, Franz Rosenbach was ‘totally shocked’ at the conditions in which the Sinti and Roma existed. ‘The atmosphere was terrible, because many of the small children and [other] people in the blocks were ill, everyone was mixed up together. The children were screaming, “Mum, I’m hungry, Mum, [give me] something to eat, do we have anything to drink?” They weren’t allowed to drink the water because of the risk of [catching] typhoid fever and that kind of thing. “Mum, [give me] …” this and that. And the women had nothing to give them, they didn’t have anything. We were beaten, kicked, degraded, but you didn’t know why, you had no idea why … You know, these young SS men, the older ones too, had been trained, [to think] that we, the Sinti and Roma, were not human beings. We weren’t people. We were to be destroyed. Anyone could do whatever he liked to us. The Sinti were fair game to them, do you understand?’
Women imprisoned in the Gypsy camp were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Hermann Höllenreiner recalls how Kapos would come into the camp at night, select individual women – the ‘beautiful Gypsies’41 – and then take them outside to be raped. Franz Rosenbach, also imprisoned in the Gypsy camp, recalls members of the SS committing the same crime. ‘I witnessed this twice,’ he says. ‘At night, young SS men would come in with a torch and approach the women. Most of the time the women didn’t know what was going on, they had to take off their headscarves so that they could get a look at them. Sometimes they picked out young women and [took them] behind the block … you didn’t hear a shot ring out, you didn’t hear a thing. Next morning they’d be lying there dead. They’d been murdered.’42 According to Sonderkommando Alter Feinsilber, there were also instances of women in the Gypsy camp selling themselves out of desperation. He said that prisoners from outside the Gypsy camp, ‘who could afford a bribe’, would give cigarettes to the Blockführer of the Gypsy camp and then enter the camp ‘with the SS man’s leave. There they had sexual relations with Gypsy women, who were starving and were ready for sexual intercourse to get some cigarettes or some other trifle. The husbands or fathers of the Gypsy women put up with this state of things as they were starving, too …’43
Though around 23,000 Sinti and Roma were sent to Auschwitz, Nazi policy about the Gypsies remained confused. The Nazis, for instance, never put the same kind of pressure on their allies to send Sinti and Roma to the camps as they did Jews. Not that Sinti and Roma escaped persecution. While, for example, the considerable Sinti and Roma population in Romania was not subjected to systematic extermination, thousands were still deported to Transnistria. In Croatia, during the same period, the Ustaše targeted ‘Gypsies’, passing discriminatory legislation, imprisoning them in camps and eventually murdering around 26,000 Sinti and Roma.44 Undoubtedly, enormous numbers of Sinti and Roma died during the war – the precise figure is unknown, but it was certainly more than 200,000.
Part of the reason for the lack of clarity in Nazi policy towards Sinti and Roma was that Himmler himself did not offer precise guidelines to those under his command. On the one hand the Einsatzgruppen in the east regularly killed Sinti and Roma along with Jews, and thousands of Sinti and Roma were deported to ghettos in Poland from the Old Reich, but on the other hand Himmler issued a decree on 13 October 1942 stating that ‘racially pure’ Sinti might be allowed to wander over designated areas under ‘Gypsy headmen’.45 This order arose from the work conducted by Dr Robert Ritter, Himmler’s ‘expert’ on Gypsies. Ritter had concluded that ‘racially pure Gypsies’ living in the Reich were not a threat, but that the much larger number of Sinti and Roma who had ‘mingled’ their blood with other races were potentially dangerous. This was not just bad science, but produced a discriminatory policy almost impossible to implement in practice.
Even so, when Himmler issued a further decree on 29 January 1943 which resulted in the deportation of the Sinti and Roma to Auschwitz, specific exceptions were made – for example, for those considered ‘racially pure’, for Gypsies married to Germans who could be vouched for by the police and so on. They were still liable to sterilization, but they had – in theory at least – a chance to escape Auschwitz and the other camps. In practice, however, all these various distinctions were largely ignored during the deportation process.46
At the same time as the Sinti and Roma suffered in Auschwitz, Hitler was digesting what for him was dispiriting – almost disastrous – news on the military front. The surrender of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad had been bad enough for the Germans at the start of 1943, but the series of defeats that followed made matters even worse. By mid-May that year the Wehrmacht had lost their campaign in North Africa, and Hitler – according to Goebbels – feared that the defeat of the Germans at Tunis might ‘be on the scale of Stalingrad’.47 That same month Grand Admiral Dönitz ordered U-boat action in the north Atlantic to stop – Allied counter-measures had made it almost impossible for the U-boats to wage war successfully.
None of these setbacks, serious as they were, altered Hitler’s desire to murder the Jews. He told Goebbels on 13 May 1943 that because they were ‘parasites’ there was ‘nothing else open for modern people to do other than to eradicate the Jews’. He added, ‘World Jewry believes it is on the brink of a world victory. This world victory will not come … The peoples who were the first to have recognized and fought the Jew will instead gain world domination.’48
Hitler’s obsession with Jews had not abated. If anything it seemed to have intensified – as events in the summer and autumn of 1943 would confirm in the most disturbing ways imaginable.