16. Auschwitz

(1943–1944)

Only now did Auschwitz become central to the Holocaust. But it is important to remember that even after the new gas-chamber complexes had opened at Birkenau, vastly increasing the camp’s capacity to kill, Auschwitz continued to perform a variety of functions in the Nazi state – not just extermination.

One of the most surprising, given the reality of what took place there, was to provide a possible propaganda alibi for the Nazis. In early September 1943, 5,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz Birkenau from Theresienstadt, north-west of Prague.1 Uniquely among the Jewish prisoners, they were permitted to live in a ‘family camp’ within Birkenau. Though men lived in separate barracks from women, children were not sent directly to the gas chambers, but were allowed to live with one of their parents. The Jews were told to write postcards to their relatives still in the camp at Theresienstadt. The idea was that the Red Cross staff who inspected Theresienstadt would, via this ruse, believe that Birkenau was merely a labour camp. Several months later, once the Nazis had used them in this way, almost all of the Jews in the family camp were murdered in the gas chambers.

Another function of Auschwitz, which distinguished the place from the Reinhard camps, was the increasing instance of medical experimentation. The most infamous medical practitioner at Auschwitz arrived in spring 1943 – Dr Josef Mengele. His ‘research’ into twins and dwarfs would shock the world when it was revealed in all its cruelty. In his work he was assisted by a number of prisoners. One of them was Wilhelm Brasse, who had been sent to Auschwitz as a Polish political prisoner in 1940 at the age of twenty-two, and so by 1943 was one of the longest-serving inmates in the camp. He had trained as a photographer, and it was this skill that the German doctors at Auschwitz sought to exploit. ‘I spoke to Dr Mengele,’ he says. ‘He explained to me that he would send women to me, Jewish women, twins and triplets and all kinds of cases, and he wanted photos to show the whole person from the front, from the side, profile and from the back. Also naked [photos] … These women were very much ashamed and intimidated. The children were terribly intimidated. They were afraid even to speak to one another. As far as what they looked like those were young women, young girls just developing – they were not worn out. He [Mengele] would take them from the transports … I felt ashamed and it was painful, unpleasant …’ Wilhelm Brasse took pictures of some appalling sights. ‘He [Mengele] explained to me he would send from the Gypsy camp a case of water cancer. I’ve forgotten the other name of this illness, the professional name [a disease known as noma, which was prevalent in the Gypsy camp] … They sent a young Gypsy who had the cancer, water cancer on his face, you could see the whole jaw, you could see the bone visible, and he [Mengele] explained to me it must be photographed from profile so the bone would be visible … These things are constantly before my eyes. After the war I had recurring dreams, either of someone brought from Dr Mengele or they’re looking for me, taking me to be shot.’2

Dr Mengele and his activities have dominated the public memory about the corruption of medical ideals at Auschwitz. And it is not hard to see why. Mengele was thirty-two years old when he arrived at Auschwitz, a handsome, decorated veteran of the war. He was undoubtedly brave – he had won the Iron Cross for rescuing two soldiers from a burning tank – and he was always perfectly turned out. Survivors often remark, for instance, on his immaculate uniform and his beautifully polished boots. He was the opposite of the caricature image of the sweating, red-faced SS killer.

Mengele was a staunch Nazi. He had joined the party in 1937 and had demonstrated a commitment to the nationalist cause even before Hitler came to power. He was also a dedicated racist and believed he was a member of a master race. But nothing in his previous background before Auschwitz suggested that he had a capacity for sadism on a gigantic scale – yet that is what he demonstrated in the camp. He seemed to relish the power he had during selections, not just on the ramp but in the hospital barracks when he chose who was to die from among the existing inmates.

For Mengele, Auschwitz was an enormous medical playground. He could devise whatever medical experiments he liked in pursuit of his ‘racial’ research, limited only by his imagination. His special interest was always genetics, and how genes were passed on within families – he was thus particularly keen to experiment on twins. Vera Alexander, a Kapo who looked after twins selected by Mengele, recalls how they often returned to the block screaming with pain after his attentions. Having observed him at close quarters, she says that she simply cannot ‘understand his cruelty’.3The overwhelming advantage for Dr Mengele of studying twins was that once an experiment had been completed on one twin, both could be murdered and their bodies dissected to compare the two. As Dr Miklós Nyiszli, a prisoner who assisted Dr Mengele, said, ‘Where, under normal circumstances, can one find twin brothers who die at the same place and at the same time?’ But at Auschwitz ‘there were several hundred sets of twins, and therefore as many possibilities of dissection.’4

Mengele was not the only Nazi doctor who conducted medical experiments at Auschwitz. In a specially equipped medical block, for instance, Professor Carl Clauberg and Dr Horst Schumann both conducted research into sterilization. Wilhelm Brasse, who took photos for Mengele, also took photographs of women under anaesthetic who had been subjected to these sterilization experiments. The women were placed in a special gynaecological chair and the doctors ‘would stretch the vagina and take the uterus out with forceps, and I would take photos of it. Not the whole person but just the sexual parts and the uterus. In several cases I used colour film. We didn’t develop it in our lab as we didn’t have a colour film lab, we sent it to Berlin … For me it was the worst – seeing this terrible sight. I had information that in many cases such operated women were [subsequently] given a shot [an injection] and killed.’5

Carl Clauberg had previously held the post of professor of gynaecology at the University of Königsberg, and was, like Mengele, a committed National Socialist. Himmler had taken an interest in his work and had personally approved his use of Auschwitz as a human research laboratory. As we have seen earlier in this history, sterilization was a subject of considerable interest for the Reichsführer SS. In pursuit of his experiments, Clauberg injected various substances into women in order to prevent fertilization. ‘Those women were in horrible pain, and had high temperature,’ says Silvia Veselá, a Slovak Jew who assisted Clauberg. ‘I measured their temperature, did X-rays, and so on.’6

While Clauberg experimented with the use of injections, his colleague Dr Schumann gave his subjects massive doses of radiation. Silvia Veselá recalls that ‘the impact of X-ray intensity on [the] small intestine was tested on them. It was more than awful. Those women were throwing up all the time. It was really terrible.’7 During her time in Auschwitz, Silvia confesses that she became emotionally numbed to suffering: ‘If you are beaten too hard, after a while you feel nothing. Do you know that feeling? No, you don’t, because you haven’t experienced such a treatment. But as I said before: if you are beaten too hard, after a while you feel nothing, because you are apathetic. That was the only rescue … To become apathetic.’8 She herself was forced to take part in one of Clauberg’s medical trials. ‘I was ill and they carried out some experiments on me … Unfortunately, after the war when I got married, in spite of those experiments I got pregnant. I had to undertake a very loathsome abortion. Doctors told me, “That’s enough! Don’t dare to be pregnant any more.” ’9

Medical experiments on inmates were not confined to Auschwitz. Doctors in other concentration camps also participated. Soon after the war began, doctors at Sachsenhausen exposed prisoners to mustard gas in order to measure the effect of the poison. But it was at Dachau that some of the most infamous experiments took place, supervised by Dr Sigmund Rascher. In 1942 prisoners were locked in airtight chambers and tested to see how much pressure their bodies could endure. Other prisoners were thrust into icy water to assess how long downed aircrew could survive in a freezing sea.

The potential value to the Luftwaffe of these experiments was obvious. But not everyone in the German Air Force was content that human beings had died in the course of the trials. When, in October 1942, Dr Rascher presented his findings to senior figures in the Air Ministry, he detected an element of disquiet among his audience. Just before the meeting Himmler had stated his own position on the subject in a letter to Dr Rascher: ‘I believe that people objecting to these human experiments still today, who would rather German soldiers died of the consequences of this hypothermia, are high traitors, and I shall not refrain from mentioning the names of these gentlemen to the authorities in question.’10 There is even evidence that Himmler sought Hitler’s approval for this research, and that Hitler took the view that ‘in principle as far as the welfare of the state is concerned, human experimentation has to be tolerated.’11

In one of the most bleakly bizarre episodes of Nazi human experimentation, Dr Rascher attempted to revive a prisoner who was unconscious as a result of exposure to freezing conditions, by placing him between two naked female prisoners. Himmler had been the one who had suggested the idea, because he thought that ‘a fisherwoman could well take her half-frozen husband into her bed and revive him in that manner.’12

In Dachau and Sachsenhausen many of the prisoners selected to be tortured for medical experimentation were non-Jews, but that wasn’t so surprising given that by the start of 1943 there were fewer than 400 Jews in the concentration camps in the Reich that had been built before the war.13Even in Auschwitz, as we have seen, Dr Mengele could choose Sinti and Roma to die just as easily as he could choose Jews. For someone like Mengele, Nazi ideology justified a raft of murderous schemes: from the extermination of the Jews to deadly medical experiments. It was all part of a world in which medical professionals were the arbiters of life and death within the racial state.

Auschwitz had by now become a vast enterprise that encompassed many different functions and goals – and the lines between them all were sometimes blurred. That was certainly the case with the treatment of Polish political prisoners. The personal history of Tadeusz Smreczyński, for instance, demonstrates how the suffering of non-Jewish Poles became linked in the gas chambers of Birkenau with that of the Jews. Tadeusz was fifteen years old when the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. He lived with his family in Zator, only a few miles from Auschwitz. The Germans prevented Poles like him from receiving any further education and he was forced to leave school. In September 1940, at the age of sixteen, he was sent to Germany to work as a forced labourer, but in November he escaped, and fled to Kraków where he lived with an aunt. Five months later he returned home to Zator in the hope that the Germans had forgotten about him. He now started, on his own initiative, to work against the Germans. He helped people cross the nearby border between Upper Silesia, which had been incorporated into the Reich, and the General Government. He also produced leaflets criticizing the Germans. In December 1943 he developed a plan to help Poles imprisoned in the nearby camps and, as a first step, passed on several bread-ration cards to a friend. ‘He was planning to get some bread,’ says Tadeusz, ‘and give it away to the prisoners when SS men were not around. I arranged these coupons for him. Unfortunately he had a tendency to drink alcohol and he got involved in a brawl at the railway station in Auschwitz. He was subsequently arrested and those coupons were found on him. He told me later that he was beaten and had no choice but to disclose that I had fled Germany and that I had distributed the leaflets and assisted the fugitives.’14

Tadeusz was found, arrested and taken to Mysłowice prison – a place where inmates were ‘beaten and forced to confess’. Here, he signed the confession the Germans put in front of him since ‘there was no point in denying anything.’ At Mysłowice assessments were made in order to decide where the prisoners should be sent next. The place Tadeusz most feared was Auschwitz, because he knew that a ‘police court’ with a terrifying reputation was held inside Block 11 in the main camp. In the spring of 1944, he learnt his fate. He, and fifty or so other prisoners, were loaded on to a truck and driven out of the prison, escorted by police on motorbikes. ‘After the convoy turned left,’ he says, ‘we knew we were going to Auschwitz. We were all sitting quietly, thinking about our fate and our families because we knew that this was the last day of our lives.’

They arrived at Auschwitz main camp and marched under the entrance gate, inscribed ‘Arbeit macht frei’. They turned right, past the red-brick buildings where the inmates lived, until they reached the walled courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11. Here they were joined by more than a hundred prisoners who had been taken up from the cells in Block 11. Shortly afterwards, says Tadeusz, ‘The Gestapo commander, a Doctor of Law from Katowice, with two officers in tow arrived and the administration of justice began. Each one of us was called to report individually. We had to climb a few stairs leading from the courtyard to the block and then wait in a corridor. When my turn came I went into the room and was asked to provide my personal details. All the charges against me were read out.’ He was then told to join one of three groups of prisoners. There was no ‘trial’, no chance for him to defend himself; the ‘court’ merely announced which group each individual prisoner should join. ‘They [the members of the court] were taking lunch breaks and dinner breaks and so it all lasted till evening.’ Once the selection of all the prisoners was over, the first of the three groups was sent immediately to Birkenau and gassed. Among this group was a schoolteacher who had shared his cell at Mysłowice prison. ‘Before they left he said to me,’ says Tadeusz, ‘ “If you survive, tell Poland how we died.” ’15 The second group of prisoners was sent to the gas chambers of Birkenau two days later. Only the small number of prisoners in Tadeusz’s third group were admitted to the camp.

By this point in the evolution of Auschwitz the gassing of Polish political prisoners was not unusual. On 29 February 1944, for instance, 163 Poles who had been sent to Block 11 from Mysłowice prison were transported to Crematorium IV in Birkenau, along with forty-one other prisoners from Auschwitz. Among the condemned was a young Polish woman who, once she reached the crematorium, told the SS that everyone knew they were about to die in the gas chambers so the secrecy that had once surrounded this crime was no more. The Germans, she said, would one day be called to account for what they had done. As they entered the gas chamber, the Poles sang ‘Poland Is Not Yet Lost’ and ‘To the Barricades’.16 It is a reminder, both of the bravery of these individuals when faced with certain death, and that not only Jews perished in the gas chambers of Birkenau.

As for Tadeusz Smreczyński, he was ‘surprised’ that he had not been killed immediately after his ‘trial’ in Block 11. Once admitted to the main camp he benefited from a piece of luck. He encountered two prominent prisoners who felt a personal connection to him. The first was a Kapo: ‘That man apparently recognized me from Mysłowice where I used to carry pots of food around to various blocks. The man told me he was going to take care of my safety which was something extraordinary and which made me stronger psychologically.’

On the following day Tadeusz met the second man who would offer him support: ‘He introduced himself and said that he had known my father who he had worked with when my father was a mayor. He gave me his daily bread ration which was an extremely valuable gesture … and he said to me, “Do not let them kill you. Remember never to stand on the sides or at the front or at the back of the columns when marching or during assemblies. This is where they hit most often. So stick to the middle of the column,” and he repeated “Do not let them kill you” before he departed. He did not survive the camp. The beginning was in a psychological sense very favourable to me because I became aware that I was not alone.’ Tadeusz also soon learnt that it was vital to try and work ‘inside’ the camp. The work commandos that marched outside to dig ditches or build roads had to suffer in the freezing cold or the pouring rain and few survived for long. Tadeusz was assigned to a building commando that stayed within the confines of the main camp and so managed to avoid this fate.

Tadeusz Smreczyński was well aware that one of the functions of Auschwitz was to murder Jews. Indeed, once in the middle of the night he witnessed the emotional aftermath of a mass killing when he heard ‘some commotion’ outside his block: ‘I peeped through the window very discreetly so as not to be seen and shot. There were men – only young and middle-aged – all naked. Their families had been gassed and they were brought to the main camp. They were ordered to stand in compact groups of five but they were in panic and each wanted to be close to his nearest relative: brother, father or a friend. SS men with dogs and Kapos were beating them. It was a teeming mass of human bodies reflected in the light of the lamps. It was a horrible sight.’ He imagined how he would have felt if ‘my parents had just been gassed and I stayed alive. It must have been a terrible experience – that sense of helplessness in the face of fate. One could do absolutely nothing to save one’s loved ones.’

He tried to understand how the SS could be responsible for the appalling cruelty in front of him and yet still consider themselves civilized. In Birkenau he heard ‘the camp’s orchestra playing masterpieces by German, Austrian and Italian composers. SS men were sitting by the crematorium where children, mothers, women and men were burning, but they were just sitting there. Now I think that they were pleased to have properly completed their work and were due for a cultural entertainment. They had no dilemmas. The wind from Birkenau blew the smoke from the death camp in but they were just sitting and listening to Mozart and others. This is what a human being is capable of …’ Experiences like this confirmed the view of the world that he had formed as a child. ‘As a thirteen-year-old boy I used to read a lot and I listened to the radio, and I had the conviction that Earth is embraced by crime and there is so much evil among people. I came to a conclusion that life has no sense.’17

But for Oskar Groening, a member of the Auschwitz SS garrison, what was happening in the camp made at least a kind of sense. In 1943 he was twenty-two years old, and worked in the economic department of the camp, counting the money stolen from the arriving Jews. A committed nationalist, he had absorbed the key principles of Nazism: ‘We were convinced by our world-view that there was a great conspiracy of Jewishness against us, and that thought was expressed in Auschwitz – that it must be avoided, what happened in the First World War must be avoided, namely that the Jews put us into misery. The enemies who are within Germany are being killed – exterminated if necessary. And between these two fights, openly at the front line and then on the home front, there’s absolutely no difference – so we exterminated nothing but enemies.’18

It was one thing, however, to believe this in theory, quite another to watch mass murder in practice. Normally Oskar Groening could avoid the horror as most of his working hours were spent in an office, but when he saw the bloody evidence of the killings he was shocked. Once he came across bodies being burnt in the open at Birkenau: ‘The fire was flickering up and the Kapo there told me afterwards details of the burning. And it was terribly disgusting – horrendous. He made fun of the fact that when the bodies started burning they obviously developed gases from the lungs or elsewhere and these bodies seemed to jump up, and the sex parts of the men suddenly became erect in a kind of way that he found laughable.’19 But for the most part life in the camp was comfortable for Groening – almost luxurious compared to the other postings that he might have received. He, like many of the 3,000 SS serving in the Auschwitz complex, never had to bloody his own hands since only a tiny number of SS worked in the murder factories of the crematoria. For him, this ‘distance’ from the killing was ‘the decisive thing’ that enabled him to carry on working in a relatively contented way.20 So much so that in his leisure time he liked to participate in sports. For instance, he represented the Auschwitz SS athletics team at the high jump.

In many respects Auschwitz was thus an attractive posting for a member of the SS. Not only was there little danger of getting killed, but the food and drink were excellent – much of it stolen from the arriving Jews. There was also the opportunity to get rich. An SS officer tasked with investigating corruption in the camp in 1943 later said that ‘The conduct of the SS staff was beyond any of the standards that you’d expect from soldiers. They made the impression of demoralized and brutal parasites. An examination of the lockers yielded a fortune of gold, pearls, rings, and money in all kinds of currencies.’21

But it wasn’t just the chance to get rich that motivated the SS to work at Auschwitz. As Oskar Groening says, they were told that their work was important for the security of the Reich, that the Jews were behind Bolshevism, and that it was necessary to keep fighting in this war to prevent the Red Army destroying Germany. As a result, Groening and his comrades remained committed to participating in the mass murder of civilians – from the very old to the very young.

Oskar Groening would have likely understood the reasoning behind the sentiments Adolf Hitler expressed in a speech on 30 January 1944 – the eleventh anniversary of his appointment as Chancellor. Hitler chose to deliver his speech at his headquarters in East Prussia and to have his words broadcast on the radio. Gone were the days of the fawning crowds at the Berlin Sportpalast. There was little good news to celebrate, and so Hitler preferred to hide himself from the masses. In his speech he still seemed bemused that ‘England’ – as he persistently called Great Britain – had chosen to side with the Soviet Union rather than Germany. ‘The victory of Germany means the preservation of Europe,’ he declared, ‘and the victory of the Soviet Union means its annihilation.’ The problem was, according to Hitler, that ‘the guilty war criminals in London’ now found they had no way of ‘liberating themselves from their own entanglement’ because their ‘way back’ had been cut off by ‘their Jewish wire-pullers’. They had made a mistake in dealing with the Jews, said Hitler, as ‘every state, once it has devoted itself to Jewry like England, will die from this plague, unless it pulls itself together at the last minute and forcibly removes these bacteria from its body. The view that it is possible to live peacefully together or even reconcile one’s own interests and those of this ferment of the decomposition of peoples, is nothing else than hoping that the human body is able to assimilate plague bacilli.’22

Hitler’s worldview, as he demonstrated in his 30 January 1944 speech, remained as consistent as it was warped and murderous. The Jews were to blame for Germany’s misfortune. Just as they had sabotaged the war effort in 1914–18, they were sabotaging the war effort now. All that was clear to Hitler. The only thing that was incomprehensible was why the ‘English’ didn’t come to their senses and realize that they were being duped by the Jews.

It is impossible to quantify how many Germans actually believed this fantasy when they heard Hitler speak these words in January 1944. What is certain is that approval for Hitler and his regime was in decline after the defeat in Stalingrad at the start of 1943. A whole host of indicators demonstrated that truth – not least the Nazi party’s own reports of the public’s mood. A typical one stated that members of the public were now ‘daring to express open criticism of the person of the Führer and to attack him in hateful and mean fashion’.23 One of the many jokes now told was that Hitler was currently writing a follow-up to Mein Kampf – My Struggle – to be called Mein Fehler – My Error.24 Of course, if such views had reached the Gestapo then the retribution inflicted on the individual concerned would have been draconian.

But the threat from the ‘Bolsheviks’ in the east remained real whether one believed Hitler’s rhetoric or not – arguably, even whether Germany surrendered or not. The Italians could change sides in this war and face a comparatively benign occupation by the Western Allies. The Germans knew that their soldiers were fighting a ‘war of extermination’ on the eastern front and that the Red Army was approaching. That reality meant that Hitler’s warning that a defeated Germany faced ‘annihilation’ sounded less like a rhetorical exaggeration and more like an accurate forecast of the future. In such circumstances there seemed little practical option to many people but to fight on. As Fritz Darges, Hitler’s SS adjutant, puts it, one cannot ‘get off a moving train’.25

Hitler, when he spoke in private to his generals on 26 May 1944, emphasized the importance of the battle against the Jews in the context of the rest of the war. ‘By removing the Jew,’ he said, ‘I have eliminated the possibilities of the formation of any revolutionary nucleus. Of course, you can say to me: “Well, couldn’t you have solved this more simply – or not more simply, because everything else would have been more complicated, but more humanely?” Gentlemen, officers, we are in a life-or-death struggle.’26

Consequently, the war against the Jews continued, indeed it intensified. The capitulation of Italy, combined with the German occupation of the whole of France and the resulting changes in French security personnel, meant that the Germans were in a stronger position to enforce the deportation of Jews in a number of territories than they had been before. In France, the appointment of Joseph Darnand in December 1943 as General Secretary of the Police symbolized the desire of the Germans to move swiftly against French Jews.27 Darnand, leader of the Milice, the French paramilitary collaborators, had previously accepted the SS rank of Sturmbannführer (Major). This meant that by the end of 1943 a French SS man ran the French police force. There was now a sudden increase in the number of Jews deported from France – between 20 January and 17 August 1944 nearly 15,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz.28 All pretence that the French security forces were somehow protecting French Jews was cast aside.

Early in 1944, Ida Grinspan, a teenage Jew hiding in the village of Le Jeune Lié in the south-west of the country, was shocked when French police came for her. ‘I didn’t understand,’ she says. ‘I thought they would be German policemen. I didn’t know that the French police were making arrests. So when the policemen arrived I said, “How can French policemen arrest someone like me, a French girl who was born here?” I felt a sort of contempt. And that’s why I held in my tears, and that I did not want to cry, I stayed firm.’29

Once she arrived in Auschwitz that same strength of will enabled her to cope: ‘You had to adapt to that way of life. Do you see what I’m saying? You had to adapt to sleeping in conditions like that, you had to adapt to working hard, you had to adapt to spending hours and hours being ordered about, poorly dressed. Yes, when the mentality is there the body adapts. If you’re not there mentally, the body won’t follow suit … That is why young people managed much better than those who were thirty-five or forty years old. Forty was the maximum. The will to survive was stronger in us younger ones.’

Soon after she arrived she was told by other inmates that ‘there are gas chambers here,’ but it just didn’t seem possible that such places could exist. ‘Nobody believed them,’ says Ida. ‘Not one of us believed them. It was beyond belief. We said either they’re joking or they’ve lost their minds.’ Only after she smelt the noxious odours coming from the Birkenau crematoria did she ‘finally’ accept that ‘perhaps they were right about the smell, that they were actually burning people.’

Ida says she never felt ‘why me?’ as she tried to survive in Auschwitz. She always knew who was really guilty for her arrest and her subsequent suffering. And to this day, as a proud Frenchwoman, she has never forgotten the role her fellow countrymen played in facilitating the Nazis’ murderous assault on the Jews.30

Even though Jews from all over occupied Europe were now dying in the gas chambers of Birkenau, and the whole mechanism of what we now call the Holocaust had long been established, the overall picture was still not a straightforward one. For example, while the majority of ghettos in Poland had been liquidated, there remained one major exception – the Łódź ghetto, a place where large numbers of Jews still survived. The continued existence of the Łódź ghetto into 1944 demonstrates once again how the way the Holocaust was implemented could alter from place to place. At the start of 1944 there were still more than 75,000 Jews in the Łódź ghetto, permitted to live because Arthur Greiser, the ruler of the Warthegau, had convinced Himmler that the work produced by the Jews justified their continued existence.

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the leader of the ghetto, had done whatever he thought necessary in order to please the Germans. Notoriously, in September 1942, he had collaborated with the Germans in the deportation of thousands of the most vulnerable Jews. On 4 September 1942, he gave a speech in the ghetto in which he said: ‘I never imagined that I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers, give me your children!’31Rumkowski spoke those words because the Nazis had told him that they wanted to reduce the number of ‘useless eaters’ in the ghetto – and, since small children could not work, in the eyes of the Nazis they were ‘useless’. The reaction of the audience was one of ‘terrifying wailing’ at the news that children would be taken from their parents and sent out of the ghetto. But Rumkowski didn’t only say the children would be deported. The sick would also have to leave. ‘There are, in the ghetto,’ he said, ‘many patients who can expect to live only a few days more, maybe a few weeks. I don’t know if the idea is diabolical or not, but I must say it: “Give me the sick. In their place, we can save the healthy.” ’32 Rumkowski pleaded with the inhabitants of the ghetto to ‘think logically’ and to put themselves in his place. Then, he claimed, ‘you’ll reach the conclusion that I cannot proceed any other way.’33

Many who listened to him felt very differently about the plan. ‘I was seventeen when I heard that speech,’ says Lucille Eichengreen. ‘I could not comprehend how somebody could ask parents for their children. I still cannot comprehend that. People were crying out, “How can you ask this? How can we do this?” ’34 Jacob Zylberstein was another Jew in the ghetto who heard the speech, and he too was outraged by it. ‘Rumkowski was such a coward,’ he says. ‘He should have killed himself before giving the children away.’35

When the Jewish police came for the children and the sick, the scenes were – predictably – emotionally devastating. ‘And it’s no use that the child is clinging with both little arms to the mother’s neck,’ wrote Josef Zelkowicz in his diary. ‘It’s no use that the father throws himself down before the threshold and howls like a dying ox: “Only over my dead body will you take my child.” It’s no use that the old man clings with his bony arms to the cold walls and bed: “Let me die here quietly” … It’s no [use] that the old woman falls at their feet, kisses their boots, and pleads: “I have grown grandchildren just [as old as you].” It’s no use that the sick man buries his feverish head in the damp, sweat-covered pillow and there sobs out perhaps his last tears. It’s no use. The police must deliver their consignment.’36

The German security forces, who worked alongside the Jewish police in organizing the deportations, were extremely brutal during the action. When one mother refused to give up her four-year-old daughter she was given three minutes to reconsider her decision. When she still refused, both she and her daughter were shot.37

Estera Frenkiel, a young woman who worked in the ghetto administration, remembers that as the children were snatched from their parents ‘their screams reached the sky.’ But she herself, in the context of the ghetto, was relatively fortunate. Though she had no children herself, she had been given ten release forms that would save the lives of ten children or sick people – and she could choose who to give them to. Just like the Jewish police who participated in the action, members of the ghetto administration staff could save their own loved ones. ‘I also had close family,’ she says. ‘I had an uncle who had to be saved. I had a cousin. To me, one’s own family is always closer. I had to take care of them all. Out of these certificates I had first to consider my own relatives … in these cases tears are shed, but when there are so many tears, then one thinks only of one’s own situation.’38

The fact that a small proportion of Jews could save their own families – and that those who benefited were often the very ones charged with taking the children of others – caused considerable resentment. The Łódź ghetto chronicle, a record of life in the ghetto compiled by Jews at the time, mentioned that those who were saved from deportation in this way ‘were not people who were making any contribution to society, not even people able to perform any especially valuable work in the ghetto but were, we repeat, people with connections’.39

During the action, Jacob Zylberstein discovered that his mother was about to be deported from a hospital within the ghetto. Panic-stricken he ran to the hospital and discovered two Jewish policemen standing outside the entrance. Luckily, one of them was a friend called Romek. He and Romek went into the hospital and Jacob started shouting, ‘Mamma, Mamma, Mamma!’ The hospital was packed, and it was hard to find her. But eventually he heard his mother calling back, ‘Here! Here!’ from behind a locked door. Jacob opened the door, and let loose an avalanche of people. ‘I grabbed my mother,’ says Jacob, ‘and went to the second floor, because the Jewish police started to run to put everybody back into the room.’ Using Romek as an intermediary, he attempted, with the offer of a watch, to bribe a German policeman who now guarded the entrance to the hospital. But that failed. ‘The only way out’ was via the window. So, with his mother hanging on to him, Jacob climbed down a cast-iron drainpipe to the ground and took her back home. Then, says Jacob, they had ‘the biggest celebration ever’.40

Although no one in the ghetto could be certain that the children and the sick were being sent to their deaths, they knew that a horrible fate of some kind awaited them. After all, they reasoned, why would the Nazis want to care for children or the sick? So those left in the ghetto – the parents in particular – were tormented by the idea of the suffering that their loved ones would now be forced to endure on their own.

Over time, knowledge of the existence of the death camps seeped through the ghetto. By the start of 1944, for instance, Jacob Zylberstein knew all about Auschwitz. He had met a Polish carpenter on a building site who had said to him, ‘I was in Auschwitz.’ Jacob ‘took no notice, because I never heard of the city of Auschwitz. And I passed by. On the way back, he stopped me and said, “Do you know what Auschwitz is?” And I said, “Where is Auschwitz?” And he said, “Not far from Kraków. But you know what they do there? They are gassing and killing Jews.” And I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “I was there, I was working as a carpenter there.” Of course, for me it was the biggest shock ever.’ Jacob hurried to seek an audience with Rumkowski, to tell him what he had heard. Having listened to him, Rumkowski slapped Jacob in the face and ‘started to scream at me, “I’ll send you out from the ghetto [he said], if you say one word to anybody I’ll send you out from the ghetto” ’.41

After the deportations of September 1942, the ghetto entered a period of comparative calm. But within the Nazi leadership a power struggle developed over the future of the place. Arthur Greiser wanted to keep the ghetto within his aegis. Almost certainly he was motivated in large part by personal greed, since he siphoned off money from the ghetto for himself. Even those in the ghetto administration, like Estera Frenkiel, knew that the Nazi in direct charge of the ghetto, Hans Biebow, was sending Greiser backhanded payments. ‘Biebow took it for granted’, says Estera, ‘that if he turned up with presents for high-ranking people then he would be allowed to keep the ghetto going and he would still be master of life and death.’42

In 1943 Himmler tried to gain control of the ghetto by turning it into a concentration camp. But he faced opposition not just from Greiser but from the Wehrmacht, who saw the ghetto as a useful source of forced labour. The dispute rumbled on, with Greiser’s staff at one point demanding a huge payment for handing over the ghetto – a request which was refused.43 By May 1944 Himmler had finally lost patience with the negotiations and ordered that the ghetto should cease to exist. External events shortly made such a course of action inevitable, since the following month the Red Army began a major advance that threatened to break through towards Łódź. As a consequence, on 23 June the first of ten transports, taking in total around 7,000 people, left for the 40-mile journey to the gas vans at Chełmno – the murder facility that had been reopened for the task of murdering the Łódź Jews.

In 1942 the static facilities at Chełmno had been destroyed, after the initial transports of Jews selected from Łódź and elsewhere in Poland had ceased and the Reinhard death camps had been established. This attempt to erase the evidence of the crime had included blowing up the building known as the ‘mansion’ that had served as the base for the gas vans in Chełmno village. Now that the killing squad had returned, under the command of SS officer Hans Bothmann, they had to rethink the mechanism of the murder process. They decided, instead of basing the gas vans in the village, to transfer the killing operation to the nearby forest where the bodies had previously been buried. They built barracks, which they pretended were part of a larger camp, and a crematorium near by. When the first transport arrived from Łódź in June 1944, the Jews were taken to spend the night in the church in the village. The next day they were transferred to the barracks in the forest in groups – the number in each group determined by the capacity of the gas vans that were now based in the forest. Once assembled outside the barracks, the Jews were told that they were to be sent to Germany to work. A specific city was always named as their destination. This was a more sophisticated attempt to reassure the Jews than usual, as the name of the city was identical to the one the Jews had been told was their ultimate destination on leaving the Łódź ghetto. The SS then said that the Jews would have to be medically examined and disinfected in a delousing station, so it was necessary for them to take their clothes off. Once inside the barracks, after a mock examination by an SS man dressed in a white coat masquerading as a doctor, the Jews were led forward into a space they thought was the disinfecting chamber. In fact, it was the back of the gas van. ‘The doors were closed, locked and bolted,’ said Szymon Srebrnik, a member of the Chełmno Sonderkommando. ‘The motor was started. The exhaust gas was directed into the van by a special exhaust pipe and it poisoned the people inside … Screams and knocking on the walls of the van continued … When the screams ceased, the van moved and took the bodies to the crematorium.’44

A few of the Jews were spared immediate death and told to write postcards back to the ghetto, pretending that they were already in Germany. Once they had done this, they too were killed. The sinister trick seemed to work. ‘Thirty-one postcards have arrived,’ reads an entry in the Łódź ghetto chronicle for 25 July 1944, ‘all of them postmarked July 19, 1944. Fortunately, it is apparent from these cards that people are faring well and, what is more, that families have stayed together … The ghetto is elated and hopes that similar reports will soon be arriving from all the other resettled workers.’45

While the gas vans, from the Nazi perspective, had many advantages as a method of murder, chiefly that they could be deployed swiftly, they also had many weaknesses – most obviously that they could not murder in large numbers. That had been the case in the spring of 1942 when the gas vans had been unable to compete with the fixed gas chambers at places like Bełżec and Sobibór, and it remained the case now when compared with the potential murder capacity of Auschwitz Birkenau. The SS realized that it would take a considerable time for Chełmno to kill all the remaining Łódź Jews, and so the plan was changed. Deportations to Chełmno stopped on 15 July, and when they began again in August the destination for the Łódź Jews was not Chełmno but Auschwitz Birkenau.46

Just over 70,000 Jews from Łódź ghetto arrived in Auschwitz that summer. Among them were Max Epstein and his mother.47 ‘The ghetto was no picnic,’ says Max, ‘and I’m not trying to defend the style there, but it was still home. It was still families … as pitiful as it was, it was something.’48It took Max a mere ‘twenty minutes’ to realize that Auschwitz was an altogether different place. ‘The smell,’ he says, ‘it was like burning film or hair, you know, organic. So it was crystal clear [that the SS were killing people].’ Because Max’s transport contained skilled workers who had specialized in the repair of communications equipment, they were not selected on arrival but admitted straight into the camp.

Shortly after they arrived Max remembers: ‘I was sitting with my mother and they brought us water. Now in the ghetto we had a lot of typhoid fever, so we never drank unboiled water. So I turned to my mother and I said, “I presume it’s not boiled.” So she got into hysterical laughter, I mean, she has got on her hands an idiot of a kid, who thinks that now he’s going to worry about boiled water. The people around, who are sitting there, thought that she’d become hysterical because she heard about the crematorium.’49 Max’s mother was sent to the women’s quarantine camp at Birkenau. While he was ‘upset’ to see his mother leave, he didn’t ‘start screaming’. He realized that he had to contain his emotions or ‘I wouldn’t be living two minutes afterwards.’ Subsequently he shouted through the wire to his mother, ‘Why are you crying, why are you crying? We are going to be dead anyway, so what’s the point?’

Max and his mother were unusual, because they survived the war. Most of the Jews from the Łódź ghetto sent to Auschwitz died there – including Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. In the end all his collaboration, all his machinations, did not save him from the gas chamber. But, ultimately, what other realistic options did he have, other than to bow to German demands? His counterpart in Warsaw, Adam Czerniaków, killed himself when the deportations from the ghetto began, but that was of little help to his fellow Jews.

Whether or not Rumkowski should be criticized because of his eager collaboration with the Germans is debatable. What is certain is that he should be utterly condemned because of his personal conduct towards his fellow Jews – especially the way that he used his immense power within the ghetto to sexually assault young women. There had been rumours about his sexual behaviour before the war when he ran an orphanage, and once he had power in the ghetto he assaulted women with impunity.50 Lucille Eichengreen, for example, remembers vividly how Rumkowski ‘molested’ her when she was a teenager in the ghetto. She felt that, if she did not let him do what he wanted, ‘her life was at stake’ since he had the power to have her deported. He chose to exploit her intense vulnerability for his own sexual pleasure.51 Other Jews confirm that Rumkowski was a sexual predator.52 His abuse of the Jews he led was a terrible crime for which, had he lived, he should have been called to account.

By the time the Jews from Łódź arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau in the summer of 1944 the camp contained inmates from many different countries, including Italy, Belgium, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Slovakia and Greece. Jews had even been sent to Auschwitz from the Channel Islands. But it was the deportations from one particular place that came to dominate the camp during 1944 – Hungary. And, for a whole variety of reasons, the history of the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews at Birkenau sheds light on the unparalleled nightmare of the Holocaust.

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