Shortly after three o’clock on the afternoon of July 17, 1942, a plane carrying SS leader Heinrich Himmler and his small entourage touched down at Kattowitz airport. Waiting on the ground were high-ranking party and SS officials, among them the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, who had busily prepared his camp for Himmler’s impending visit. Höss accompanied the SS leader and the other dignitaries on the drive south, heading for Auschwitz, where Himmler was formally welcomed over coffee in the officers’ mess.1 The whole camp complex had grown enormously since Himmler’s inaugural visit in spring 1941. The SS had greatly extended its local zone of interest. The main camp was also much changed and now included a makeshift section for thousands of female prisoners, who were poised for transfer to the huge new compound in Birkenau. Another major development was under way at the nearby IG Farben site, where a satellite camp (Monowitz) was being built. Most significant of all, Birkenau had recently become a camp for the systematic mass extermination of European Jewry.

During his two-day visit, Himmler was given a comprehensive tour of the Auschwitz complex. He was keen to check on various economic ventures, both agricultural and industrial. To discuss his ideas about farming, the trained agronomist Himmler set time aside for the dynamic local SS director of farms, Joachim Cäsar, and he also visited agricultural projects, apparently stopping at a cowshed for a glass of milk poured by a prisoner.2 Himmler also toured the IG Farben building site. Though impressed by the modern construction methods, he was impatient for the production of synthetic fuel and rubber to begin. Not for the last time, he pushed the company to speed things up.3 Inside the main camp, Himmler inspected the overcrowded women’s compound and watched as one female prisoner was whipped during corporal punishment.4 He was standing not far from the camp’s crematorium, where the gassing of Soviet POWs had taken place back in autumn 1941. By the time of his visit, however, the center of mass murder in Auschwitz had already shifted, away from the main camp to the new extension in Birkenau.

Well beyond the first nearly complete Birkenau prisoner sectors stood a couple of innocuous-looking farmhouses—a few hundred yards apart and hidden among the trees—that had lately been converted into gas chambers. Here, according to Rudolf Höss, Himmler closely observed the mass murder of a newly arrived transport of Jews: “He did not say anything at all about the extermination process, he just watched in silence.”5 The SS leader was a dispassionate observer, just as he had been during a massacre of Jewish men and women near Minsk, one year earlier.6

But Himmler was not silent for long. On the evening of July 17, 1942, he attended a festive dinner with the leading Auschwitz SS officers—all in full uniform—and made small talk about their jobs and families. Later he relaxed, during an informal get-together with Höss and his wife, and a few select others, in the modern mansion of the Nazi Gauleiter in a forest near Kattowitz, complete with golf course and swimming pool. Himmler was uncharacteristically lighthearted that night, even exuberant, though he avoided any direct references to the events of a few hours earlier. Still, the murder of European Jewry must have been on his mind and he even allowed himself a few glasses of red wine and a smoke. “I had never known him like that!” recalled Rudolf Höss.7 The following morning, back in Auschwitz, Himmler made a point of calling on Höss before his final departure. Visiting the commandant’s villa, Himmler was at his most affable and posed for the cameras with Höss’s children, who called him “Uncle Heini” (Höss later proudly displayed the pictures in his home).8 Perhaps he felt that such displays of civility were especially important in a place like Auschwitz, where his men were engaged in daily assault, plunder, and mass murder.

The visit of the Reichsführer SS to Auschwitz coincided with major developments in the Third Reich. Since spring 1942, Himmler had been pushing for forced labor in the KL to redouble, reflecting the new Nazi priorities. Following the failure of the rapid offensive against the Soviet Union and the United States’ entry into the war, the regime faced a lengthy battle and had to urgently boost war production. For his part, Himmler had decided in early March 1942 that the entire KL system—previously only loosely integrated into the wider SS organizational chart—would become part of the SS Business and Administration Main Office (WVHA), with the Camp Inspectorate forming Office Group D. The WVHA was the newly created organizational and economic hub of the SS, led by the single-minded Oswald Pohl, who had now reached the top echelon of the SS.9

But when Heinrich Himmler traveled to Auschwitz in July 1942, it was the Nazi Final Solution, not the SS economy, that was foremost in his mind. Himmler, the master of the KL, also oversaw the annihilation of European Jewry, which escalated in summer 1942. Just days before his trip to Auschwitz, he had met with Hitler and afterward pushed to speed up the genocide. And immediately following his inspection of Auschwitz, Himmler flew to Lublin to plot the extermination of Polish Jews in three new death camps in the General Government—Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. He visited Sobibor on July 19 and later that evening issued an order from Lublin for the rapid “resettlement of the entire Jewish population in the General Government”; except for selected forced laborers in the few remaining ghettos and camps, all local Jews had to be exterminated by the end of the year.10

So Himmler’s trip to Auschwitz in July 1942 came at a crucial moment. Productive labor was becoming more important than ever, at the same time as the program of deportations and mass killings of Jews from across Europe got under way. Himmler’s visit touched on both aspects, as Auschwitz was a focal point for SS economic ambitions and a center of the Nazi Final Solution. Before he left the camp on July 18, 1942, Himmler told Höss to push ahead with the economic exploitation of prisoners and the mass gassings, with deportations set to increase month by month. At the end of their meeting, Himmler spontaneously promoted Höss to Obersturmbannführer, in recognition of Auschwitz’s significance for Nazi plans.11 But how had the camp become part of these plans in the first place? And what function did it and the rest of the KL system have in the Holocaust?


Auschwitz has long been the symbol of the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered almost one million Jews here, more than in any other single place. And only in Auschwitz did they systematically kill Jews from all across the continent, deported to their deaths from Hungary, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Italy, and Norway. In part, Auschwitz was so lethal because it operated so much longer than other killing sites. In late spring 1944, when the three death camps in the General Government had long closed down again, Auschwitz was only just beginning to reach its murderous peak. And after Soviet troops finally liberated the camp in January 1945, much of the infrastructure of murder remained on-site, in contrast to Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, where the traces of genocide had been carefully concealed. This is one reason why we know so much more about Auschwitz than about the other death camps. Another is the abundance of testimony. Several tens of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners survived the war and many of them told their story. By contrast, hardly anyone left the other death camps alive, since they functioned purely as extermination sites; only three survivors ever gave testimony about Belzec.12

In view of Auschwitz’s preeminence in Holocaust memory, it is worth recalling once more that the camp was not created for the annihilation of the Jews. Nor was this ever its sole rationale. Unlike the single-purpose death camps in the General Government, Auschwitz was always a site with multiple missions.13 What is more, it was incorporated late into genocide. Contrary to some suggestions, it did not become a death camp for European Jews as early as 1941.14 This function gradually emerged during 1942, and only from summer of that year did the camp play a more prominent role.

Death Camps in the General Government

The genesis of the Holocaust was lengthy and complex. The days are long gone when historians believed that it could be reduced to a single decision taken on a single day by Hitler. Instead, the Holocaust was the culmination of a dynamic murderous process,propelled by increasingly radical initiatives from above and below. During World War II, the Nazi pursuit of a Final Solution moved from increasingly lethal plans for Jewish “reservations” to immediate extermination. There were several key periods of radicalization. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked one such moment, as mass shootings of Jewish men of military age soon grew into widespread ethnic cleansing, with daily bloodbaths of women, children, and the elderly. At the end of 1941, some six hundred thousand Jews had been murdered across the newly conquered eastern territory.

By then, the Nazi regime was already moving toward the extermination of European Jewry as a whole. Autumn 1941 saw the first systematic mass deportations from Germany to the east, following Hitler’s decision to remove all Jews from the Reich. Even though most of these victims were not yet murdered on arrival, it was clear that they would not live for long. At the same time, the slaughter of Jews expanded beyond the Soviet Union to Serbia and parts of Poland. Meanwhile, plans were made for several regional gassing facilities on occupied Polish and Soviet soil, targeting eastern European Jews, especially those judged “unfit for work.” Chelmno, in the Warthegau (the western Polish territory incorporated into the Reich), was the first such death camp to start up, on December 8, 1941. Within four months, more than fifty thousand people, mostly Polish Jews from the Lodz ghetto (some forty miles away), were murdered here in gas vans. Farther east, in the General Government, construction of the first stationary extermination camp in Belzec (Lublin district) began in early November 1941, followed by the establishment of a second death camp in Sobibor (also Lublin district) from February 1942.

It was around this time that the genocidal program was being finalized. From late March 1942, deportations from western and central Europe slowly expanded, with the first transports of selected Slovakian and French Jews to occupied Poland. SS managers started to prepare a comprehensive plan for Europe-wide deportations, which was launched from July 1942. Meanwhile, the killing in eastern Europe intensified, too. In the occupied Soviet Union, ghetto clearances and massacres were stepped up, and in occupied Poland, too, more and more regions were pulled into the inferno. The perpetrators moved with great speed, emptying one ghetto after another. According to Nazi figures, of the two million Jews who had once lived in the General Government, just three hundred thousand were still alive at the end of 1942.15

Most Jews murdered in the General Government in 1942 died in the three new death camps. Mass extermination in Belzec started in March, followed by Sobibor in early May; around the same time, construction began on a third camp, Treblinka (Warsaw district), in the north of the General Government, which was set up primarily for the murder of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto and operated from late July.16 In the historical literature, the mass extermination of Jews in the General Government is commonly referred to as “Operation Reinhard,” and these three death camps as “Reinhard camps,” after a Nazi code word chosen in memory of Reinhard Heydrich (assassinated in summer 1942).17 However, this terminology is misleading. The Nazi authorities did not restrict the code name “Operation Reinhard” to Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, but also applied it to the extermination of Jews and the plunder of their property at the SS concentration camps Auschwitz and Majdanek (the two KL operating simultaneously as death camps).18Despite their shared history, however, the three new death camps in the General Government did exist independently from Auschwitz and Majdanek (and the rest of the KL system), and to signify this distinctiveness, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka will be referred to here as the “Globocnik death camps,” after the SS and police leader in Lublin district, Odilo Globocnik.

Perhaps Himmler’s most obsequious follower and ferocious executioner, Odilo Globocnik had cut his teeth as a violent young fanatic in the illegal Austrian Nazi movement. His brief reign as Vienna Gauleiter after the Anschluss ended ignominiously, mired in suspicions of corruption. But as he did with many “old fighters,” Himmler gave him another chance, and Globocnik grasped it eagerly. In late 1939, after he was posted to Lublin, he quickly made his name as a champion of radical anti-Jewish policy. Since autumn 1941, he coordinated the mass extermination of Jews in his district, a task later extended to the entire General Government. “Globus” (globe)—as Himmler jokingly called him—was delighted when his master ordered him in July 1942, after his trip to Auschwitz, to oversee the immediate annihilation of Jews in the General Government. “The Reichsführer SS was just here and has given us so much new work,” he gushed. “I am so very grateful to him, that he can be certain that these things that he wishes will come true in no time.” As Rudolf Höss recalled, Globocnik’s hunger for deportations to his death camps became insatiable: “He could never get enough.”19

In the second half of 1942, the Holocaust unfolded with unremitting force inside the General Government. Train after train carried hundreds of thousands of Jews to Globocnik’s death camps. Few survived for more than a few hours; once they were crammed into the gas chambers, powerful engines started up, pumping carbon monoxide inside. The deportations were coordinated from Globocnik’s Lublin office. The death camps, meanwhile, were staffed with the experienced killers from the “euthanasia” program. Starting in autumn 1941, more than 120 T-4 veterans—mostly men in their late twenties and thirties—were transferred to the General Government to set up and run the new death camps. At the top stood Christian Wirth, a former police officer who had become the main troubleshooter during the “euthanasia” action. Wirth now used his murderous know-how as the local T-4 representative and inspector of the Globocnik death camps, earning himself the nickname “Wild Christian.” From summer 1942, as the Holocaust accelerated, he oversaw major changes in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, including the extension of the killing facilities, to ensure the smooth running of the genocide.20 The same aim was pursued farther west, in Auschwitz. Here, too, SS men were hard at work, refining and enlarging the machinery of death for the Holocaust.

“Jews into the KL”

In the early years of the Second World War, the concentration camps had stood on the sidelines of Nazi anti-Jewish policy; the present was largely about ghettos and forced labor camps, and the future about deadly reservations. Concentration camps, by contrast, were marginal. Even when the Third Reich began to move toward the systematic extermination of European Jews, there were no signs yet that the KL would become more prominent anytime soon. Their peripheral role was reflected in prisoner numbers: by early 1942, Jews made up fewer than five thousand of the eighty thousand KL inmates.21

On January 20, 1942, a crucial conference took place in the leafy Berlin suburb of Wannsee. At lunchtime, a group of senior party and state officials gathered to coordinate the Nazi Final Solution, under the overall control of the RSHA. The meeting was chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, who laid out the general direction. Some aspects were still in flux, but the overall aim was now clear: European Jews would be concentrated in the occupied east and murdered there, either straightaway or by working them to death. The vision of “annihilation through labor” was an important element of these plans. As Heydrich put it at Wannsee—according to minutes compiled by Adolf Eichmann, the RSHA desk officer who managed the deportations from western and central Europe—large labor gangs would be formed in the east for heavy road construction: “undoubtedly a large number of them will drop out through natural wastage.”22 Although the specifics remained vague, there was apparently no place for the concentration camps in these genocidal plans, neither as extermination centers nor as hubs for lethal labor. The KL were not on the agenda at Wannsee, and no representative of the concentration camp system had been invited to the gathering.

Within days of the Wannsee conference, however, SS leaders changed their tune. The trigger, it seems, was their final acceptance that the grandiose settlement plans in the east would never be realized with Soviet POWs; too few had arrived in the KL, and too many of those who had were already dead.23 The SS now looked for replacements and soon found them: instead of Soviet soldiers, Jews would build the gigantic settlements. On January 26, 1942, just six days after Wannsee, Himmler telexed Glücks to outline the change in direction. Since no more Soviet POWs could be expected in the near future, Himmler explained, he had decided to send large numbers of Jews to the KL: “Get ready to accommodate 100,000 male Jews and up to 50,000 Jewesses in the KL within the next four weeks.”24

The decision to substitute Jews for Soviet POWs was taken impulsively at the top of the Nazi state. On January 25, one day before he informed Glücks, Himmler had evidently discussed the use of Jewish workers with Oswald Pohl. Immediately afterward, Himmler had apparently raised his plan in the Führer’s headquarters. During lunch, Hitler ranted about the need to make Europe free of Jews: “If [the Jew] gets wrecked along the way, I cannot help it. I see only one thing: total annihilation, if they don’t go voluntarily. Why should I look at a Jew with different eyes than a Russian prisoner?” Soon after the meal, Himmler put Heydrich in the picture, calling him in Prague. The note for this call in Himmler’s office diary reads: “Jews into the KL.”25

SS Camp Inspector Glücks and his men were caught unawares by Himmler’s new scheme. In recent weeks, the IKL had devised its own, far more modest plan to exploit some Jewish prisoners. After it became evident that the colossal designs for Majdanek could not be achieved with Soviet POWs, the IKL ordered other concentration camps on January 19, 1942, to send Jewish prisoners “fit for work” to Majdanek. Just one week later, however, Himmler’s sudden message that huge numbers of Jews were on their way from elsewhere forced a volte-face. The IKL managers in Oranienburg immediately abandoned the small-scale transports from other camps to Majdanek and focused instead on preparing the KL system for the mass arrival of Jews from outside.26

But Himmler had jumped the gun when he announced the imminent influx of up to one hundred and fifty thousand Jewish prisoners. Not for the first time, his ambitions outstripped the SS abilities, and two months passed before the first transports got under way. During this time, several key decisions were made. One concerned the victims. Initially, Himmler had targeted German Jews for immediate deportation to the KL, but this plan was dropped.27 Instead, SS attention turned to Jews regarded as “fit for work” from two other countries, Slovakia and France.28 Meanwhile, the IKL confirmed the destination for the forthcoming mass deportations—Majdanek and Auschwitz.29 This was an obvious choice. Both camps had previously been designated for huge numbers of Soviet POWs; as Jews would replace them as forced workers, SS logic dictated that they would be taken to the same camps. In practice, Auschwitz became the primary destination for deportations of Jews from western and central Europe, because of its greater proximity, better transport links, and superior infrastructure.

The new role of Auschwitz prompted the SS authorities to take two major initiatives toward the end of February 1942. First, it resolved to build a large crematorium in Birkenau, capable of disposing of eight hundred bodies in twenty-four hours. The plans for a big crematorium were not new. Back in autumn 1941, with an enormous new camp for Soviet POWs scheduled at the Auschwitz complex, SS planners had decided to erect a high-capacity crematorium in the main camp, in order to deal with the anticipated surge in prisoner deaths. This location was now changed to Birkenau, during a local inspection on February 27, 1942, by the SS construction chief Hans Kammler.30 Large numbers of Jewish prisoners were expected to arrive in Birkenau soon, and all would eventually die through “annihilation through labor.” Why haul their corpses all the way back to the main camp, Kammler must have thought, when they could be burned in Birkenau?

Second, Auschwitz prepared for the mass influx of women, who were part of Himmler’s deportation plans. Himmler turned to his in-house experts in female detention in Ravensbrück. He visited the camp on March 3, 1942, and then briefed Pohl the following day, setting off a flurry of activity.31 On March 10, 1942, the IKL ordered two Auschwitz officers to head for Ravensbrück to “get acquainted with the running of a women’s concentration camp.”32 Soon after, Johanna Langefeld, the senior Ravensbrück camp supervisor, traveled in the opposite direction to oversee the new women’s compound in Auschwitz; she was later joined by more than a dozen female guards from Ravensbrück. When Langefeld arrived, the Auschwitz SS was already preparing the new compound for women, initially in blocks 1 to 10 of the main camp. On Höss’s orders, a wall was hurriedly erected to separate it from the men’s section.33 The scene was being set for the huge increase in female prisoners during the second half of the war.

Destination Auschwitz

Systematic mass deportations of Jews to Auschwitz began in late March 1942. The first RSHA train, carrying 999 women from Slovakia, arrived on March 26; the next transport from Slovakia, with another 798 women, came two days later. Then, on March 30, the first mass transport from France, holding more than 1,100 men, pulled up near the camp.34 The men on board had set off several days earlier, packed into dozens of freight cars with little food or drink; several died before the train reached its destination. Among those who arrived on the morning of March 30 was Stanisław Jankowski. Like many other Jews deported from France, the thirty-one-year-old carpenter was a Polish émigré. Jankowski had grown up in poverty in the city of Otwock, where he dedicated himself to the Communist movement. In 1937, he had traveled to Spain to fight in the civil war. Following the defeat of the Republican forces, his unit retreated over the French border in early 1939, where he was arrested. This was the beginning of more than two years of squalid internment on French soil, interrupted after Jankowski managed to escape from a camp in Argelès-sur-Mer and reached Paris. But he was quickly rearrested by the French police. First he was held in Drancy—a new internment camp for Jews in a Parisian suburb, from where the great majority of French transports to Auschwitz would depart—and later as a “hostage” of the German military authorities in Compiègne. It was here that Jankowski was isolated one day in March 1942, together with other Jewish prisoners, and told that he would be sent for heavy labor to the east.

In Auschwitz, Jankowski and the other men marched in rows of five toward the main camp, driven forward by the sticks of SS men. They faced more violence inside the compound—including their first taste of SS “sport”—and received a pitiful portion of food. Then they went on the move again. Surrounded by SS men on horses, they marched in double time to Birkenau, dragging their wooden shoes through the marshy soil. At the gate of the new enclosure, SS men and Kapos armed with clubs were waiting for them. Several prisoners were beaten to death, Stanisław Jankowski recalled, so that “the next ones had to jump over them to run inside the camp.” Here, they assembled for their first roll call in Birkenau, exhausted, bleeding, and terrified, with mud all over their new uniforms. These uniforms held special significance. Just like the Slovakian women who had arrived a few days earlier, the Jewish men from France wore the clothes of the murdered Soviet prisoners of war. The Camp SS probably saw this as a convenient solution to the endemic shortages of clothing. But it also symbolized the fate of the new arrivals: they had come to Auschwitz to replace the POWs and, like them, they, too, would soon be dead. This symbolism was not lost on the Jewish prisoners themselves, who learned about the fate of Soviet POWs; there were even rumors that thousands of soldiers lay buried right underneath the Birkenau barracks that now housed the Jewish men.35

In spring 1942, Auschwitz was still a long way from becoming the “capital of the Holocaust,” as the historian Peter Hayes has called it. To be sure, the camp was now involved in the emerging pan-European extermination program.36 But the number of Jewish inmates still lagged far behind the figures announced by Himmler back in late January. By the end of June 1942, after RSHA deportations had been going on for three months, sixteen transports from France and Slovakia had brought no more than around sixteen thousand Jews to Auschwitz.37 Also, none of these prisoners were supposed to be killed on arrival. They had been earmarked as forced laborers and the Auschwitz SS was meant to provide some minimal provision. Presumably, IKL managers were hoping to prevent a repeat of the rapid deaths of Soviet POWs; already a few months earlier, Arthur Liebehenschel had reminded commandants that “everything has to be done to preserve the Jews’ ability to work.”38

The reality turned out very differently. Even if Auschwitz was not yet a full-fledged death camp, it was already deadly for Jews; it is likely that two-thirds or more of all Jewish prisoners newly registered in spring and summer 1942 were dead within eight weeks.39 Some RSHA transports were almost completely wiped out; three months after their arrival on April 19, just seventeen of 464 male Jews from Žilina (Slovakia) were still alive. Among the dead were some boys, after the Slovakian authorities had begun to include families in the deportations; the youngest victim was seven-year-old Ernest Schwarcz, who had survived for barely one month.40

The Jewish men suffered dismal conditions, lethal violence, and draining labor in Birkenau. The local SS saw Birkenau as a camp for those condemned to die and oversaw a huge procession of death during spring 1942. The compound was still under construction and few of the primitive barracks were finished. Everything was caked in dirt and excrement, and even rudimentary facilities were lacking, as were medical supplies and food. Many Jewish men were forced into camp construction, though there was plenty of pointless labor, too. Prisoners who survived these rigors were shot, beaten to death, or killed in some other way, with selections of weak and unproductive inmates commencing in Birkenau around early May 1942.41

Less than two miles away, Jewish women in the Auschwitz main camp also faced a dreadful fate in spring 1942. They made up the great majority of prisoners in the new women’s compound, which rapidly grew in size. Provisionally run by the Ravensbrück administration (only in July 1942 was it organizationally integrated into the Auschwitz complex), it soon outstripped its parent camp. By the end of April 1942, over 6,700 women were held in Auschwitz, compared to around 5,800 in Ravensbrück; within a month, Ravensbrück had been surpassed by the hastily improvised site in Auschwitz—an early sign of the Holocaust’s impact on the wider SS camp system. More female prisoners arrived over the coming months, leaving the Auschwitz compound hopelessly overcrowded; by late June 1942, the SS had erected additional wooden barracks, squeezed between the old stone ones.

The women’s compound was a sanitary disaster. Dysentery, pneumonia, and open wounds were widespread, and typhus was on the rise, too, as were injuries sustained during heavy labor in agriculture and construction. Many sick and weak women were selected for extermination; some were gassed, others injected with phenol. The ensuing mass death of women in Auschwitz was unprecedented in the history of the KL. By the time the surviving women were transferred to the new sector BIa in Birkenau in August 1942, perhaps one-third of the fifteen to seventeen thousand women who had been forced into the main camp since late March were dead.42

A Regional Killing Center

The Holocaust started to change Auschwitz. The camp complex grew and prisoner numbers soared, from around 12,000 in early January 1942 to around 21,400 in early May, and included thousands of women.43 But Auschwitz was not transformed overnight; mass death, after all, had already marked the camp before, especially from autumn 1941, when Soviet POWs arrived and the extension in Birkenau was planned. And Auschwitz was still rather peripheral for the Holocaust in spring 1942. Its route to genocide took several months, with three key steps along the way. The first was the start of RSHA mass deportations from late March 1942, as we have just seen. The next one followed just a few weeks later.

In May 1942, Auschwitz became a regional death camp for the systematic slaughter of Silesian Jews.44 Just as nonworking Jews from the Warthegau were being killed in Chelmno, Silesian Jews selected as unfit for work were killed in Auschwitz.45 The Auschwitz SS now applied both elements of the Nazi Final Solution—immediate extermination and murderous forced labor—depending on where prisoner transports came from: “unfit” Silesian Jews would be murdered on arrival, while other Jews would be registered as regular inmates and worked to death. Again, such a parallel policy had precedents, mirroring the lethal approach of Auschwitz SS men to Soviet POWs in autumn 1941.46

The details of the development of Auschwitz into a regional Holocaust killing center remain shrouded in uncertainty. Original documents are missing, and postwar testimonies by key players like Rudolf Höss and Adolf Eichmann are inconsistent and inaccurate.47 What is known is that Eichmann repeatedly visited Auschwitz to coordinate the so-called Final Solution. He built a close relationship with his “dear comrade and friend” Höss, whom he admired for his “exactness,” his “modesty,” and his “exemplary family life.” The taciturn Höss recognized Eichmann as a kindred spirit, too, addressing him with the informal “Du,” and after a long day’s work, inspecting the camp or driving to one of the new buildings, these two zealous managers of mass murder would relax in each other’s company, smoking and drinking heavily, followed by a joint breakfast the next morning.48 It is likely that Eichmann first visited Auschwitz in spring 1942, probably in March or April. The RSHA deportations from France and Slovakia—which he masterminded—were getting under way, and he appears to have traveled to the camp to confer with Commandant Höss about these transports and about the next moves. Eichmann probably told him that transports of Jews, selected for immediate extermination, would soon arrive from Upper Silesia.49 This was just one of many meetings, of course. Over the coming months, Eichmann held frequent conferences with Höss and senior Camp SS managers, prior to mass deportations, to determine the “capacity” of Auschwitz; “after all,” Eichmann explained years later, the Auschwitz SS had to know “how much human material I was planning to send.”50

The growing significance of Auschwitz for the Nazi Final Solution must have been on the agenda during a visit of WVHA boss Oswald Pohl around early April 1942, his first official visit to the camp since he had taken charge of the KL system.51 Pohl was in close touch with Himmler during this period—meeting him repeatedly in mid-April—and he was no doubt in the picture about the general plans of Nazi leaders, who were finalizing the outline of their pan-European extermination policy.52

The death transports of Silesian Jews began soon after Pohl’s visit to Auschwitz. During May 1942, around 6,500 Jews—selected as unfit for work—arrived from several towns in Upper Silesia. Many of them came from Będzin, just twenty-five miles away, where the first victims were rounded up by the German police and Jewish ghetto militia in a large “action” on May 12, inside the desolate and overcrowded Jewish sector of the small town, which had previously been an important hub for Jewish cultural and economic life in the region. During the following month, another estimated sixteen thousand Jews were deported from Silesia to Auschwitz, leading Nazi officials in several localities to proudly declare themselves “free of Jews.”53

The Little Red House

The mass murder of Silesian Jews was witnessed by Filip Müller, a twenty-year-old Slovak Jew who had come to Auschwitz on April 13, 1942, and soon joined a special prisoner detail at the main camp crematorium, which had doubled as a gas chamber since autumn 1941. After the war, Müller testified to the arrival of several transports of Polish Jews in May and June 1942, including many elderly men and women, as well as mothers with children and babies. SS men led the prisoners into the yard outside the crematorium and told them to undress for a shower. Then they locked the victims into the dimly lit, windowless gas chamber inside the crematorium. Panic soon spread among the trapped prisoners. SS men shouted back: “Don’t burn yourselves in the bath.” Loud engine noises were supposed to drown out the sound of the death struggle, but those standing close to the crematorium, like Filip Müller, caught everything: “We suddenly heard coughing. And the people screamed. You could hear the children, and all of them screamed.” After some time, the screams died down and then they stopped altogether.54

The mass murder which began in the gas chamber of the main camp crematorium (later called crematorium I) soon continued in new killing facilities in Birkenau.55 On a secluded spot near the birch forest, the SS turned an empty farmhouse into a gas chamber. Known as bunker 1, or the “little red house,” the small building was easily transformed; windows were bricked up, doors insulated and reinforced, and small holes (concealed by flaps) drilled in the walls for the insertion of Zyklon B pellets. Hundreds of prisoners could be forced into two rooms, with wood shavings on the floor to soak up blood and feces.56 Bunker 1 probably went into operation sometime in mid or late May 1942, and gassings in the main camp crematorium ceased a few months later.57

The SS killers saw the relocation of mass gassings to Birkenau as a solution to the practical problems of genocide. Mass murder and the disposal of corpses was proving increasingly cumbersome in the creaking and overused old crematorium, and it attracted too much attention in the main camp; moving the gassings to the isolated Birkenau farmhouse would be more efficient and covert.58 Moreover, as Birkenau became a large camp for doomed inmates—with many more on their way—mass selections among the registered inmates there grew more widespread. From the perspective of the SS men, it would be far easier to kill these selected prisoners in Birkenau itself, rather than transport them back to the gas chamber in the main camp. And so Birkenau was designated as the new center for mass extermination in the Auschwitz complex.


On June 11, 1942, several SS managers of genocide, led by Adolf Eichmann, met in the offices of the RSHA Jewish Department in Berlin to discuss details of their Europe-wide deportation program. Their mood was grim. Just two days earlier, Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s closest accomplice, had been buried during a bombastic state funeral, following his assassination by two British-trained agents from Czechoslovakia. Nazi leaders were already wreaking brutal vengeance against the Czech population and agreed that Jews would have to pay, too. During his eulogy for Heydrich on June 9, Himmler told SS generals that the time had come for “a clean sweep” against Jews: “We will wrap up the mass migration of the Jews within a year, no doubt; afterward, none of them will be migrating anymore.” Auschwitz figured large in Himmler’s thinking. As Eichmann explained two days later, during the meeting in the RSHA, Himmler had ordered the deportation of large numbers of Jewish men and women for forced labor to Auschwitz. The SS managers then hammered out the details: starting in mid-July 1942, some one hundred and twenty-five thousand Jewish men and women would be taken by train from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands to the camp. Himmler still envisaged most of these prisoners as slaves; the bulk of Jews deported to Auschwitz, he ordered, should be young (between sixteen and forty years) and ready for work. But he made a crucial exception: the transports could also include a smaller proportion of Jews—some ten percent—who were unfit for work. Their fate was clear to Eichmann and the other SS managers. They would be murdered on arrival.59

Preparing for Genocide

In Himmler’s eyes, Auschwitz was ready to play a major part in the Holocaust. It had been designated as a large forced labor camp for Jews in early 1942, and he now decided that it could also become a sizable death camp. It was isolated enough for secretive mass murder, but close enough to receive deportations from western and central Europe, thanks to its good railway links.60 What is more, the basic infrastructure for genocide was already in place, following the mass gassing of alleged commissars from the Soviet Union and of Jews from Silesia. After Auschwitz had proved itself as a regional extermination camp, it was promoted to the first rank of Nazi death camps. As Commandant Höss proudly put it the following year, the Auschwitz SS had been given an important new task: “the solution of the Jewish question.”61

The new plans for Auschwitz triggered hectic activity among the Camp SS in June 1942. It was no coincidence, surely, that the head of the company distributing Zyklon B was called to Berlin around this time; the orders of gas deliveries for Auschwitz soon increased dramatically.62 Inside the WVHA, key discussions involved Oswald Pohl, who was at Himmler’s side on June 18 and 20, 1942.63 Just a few days earlier, his KL manager Richard Glücks (now chief of WVHA office group D) had traveled to Auschwitz for face-to-face talks with the local executioners. Rudolf Höss complained after the war that Glücks did not like to hear about the so-called Final Solution.64 This may have been true later on, when Glücks was increasingly sidelined, but initially he was hands-on, keeping in close touch with Adolf Eichmann and holding regular talks with his own opposite number in the RSHA, Gestapo head Heinrich Müller.65 What is more, he was keen to impress his new boss, Pohl, with whom he met regularly to confer about the Holocaust.66

Glücks arrived in Auschwitz in the late afternoon of June 16, 1942, and probably stayed until the following day. He must have talked about Nazi extermination policy, since the death rate of registered Jewish prisoners shot up dramatically right after his visit.67Glücks also toured the camp. His itinerary apparently included the old crematorium in the main camp (now undergoing repairs) and the storeroom for the clothes of murdered prisoners.68 Glücks must have been especially keen to see the new extermination facilities in Birkenau. Bunker 1 was already in use. Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away, SS men were turning a second, slightly larger farmhouse—the “little white house”—into another gas chamber, almost certainly as a result of the recent decision to make Auschwitz a European death camp. Bunker 2 probably went into operation in late June or early July 1942.69

Just one week after Glücks’s trip to Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss traveled to the WVHA headquarters in Berlin-Lichterfelde, where Pohl had called a meeting of all camp commandants for the evening of Thursday, June 25, 1942. The impending mass deportations to Auschwitz were no doubt on Höss’s mind as he set off for the German capital. Not long before he left the camp on June 24 to catch the overnight train to Berlin, his staff sent a secret cable to Glücks, asking for a private appointment the following morning or afternoon, so that Höss could “discuss urgent, important matters with you, Brigadeführer.” Glücks’s staff quickly scheduled a meeting in the office of SS engineer Hans Kammler, who was intimately involved in all the major building projects in Auschwitz.70 We do not know what the three Camp SS officers plotted during this meeting. But they must have touched on the preparation of Auschwitz for the arrival of vast numbers of Jewish deportees destined to die in the camp.

Mass Deportations

Deportation trains from across Europe started to arrive in Auschwitz, as planned, from July 1942. In previous months, mass transports of Jews had still been more sporadic. Now, especially from mid-July 1942, they became routine. The transports, usually carrying around one thousand people, arrived on a daily basis; occasionally, two trains came on the same day. In all, more than sixty thousand Jews were taken to Auschwitz during July and August 1942, from France, Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Slovakia, and Croatia.71 Determined to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible, the RSHA pushed for even more deportations. During a meeting in Berlin on August 28, 1942, Adolf Eichmann told his men to step up transports from Europe over the coming months. This was news to Commandant Rudolf Höss, who had been summoned from Auschwitz to attend the meeting (the following day, Höss briefed Glücks about it). From autumn 1942, regular transports rolled from the Greater German Reich, initially from Theresienstadt (Terezín) and Berlin. Then, in spring 1943, trains from Salonika arrived; the first four transports in March brought ten thousand Greek Jews to the camp. And in October 1943, after German forces had poured into Italy following its defection to the Allies, the first RSHA train left from Rome for Auschwitz, with some 1,031 Jewish prisoners on board. Despite the geographical extension across Europe, however, Polish Jews still made up the largest group among the 468,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz during 1942–43.72

While the reach of the RSHA steadily grew, the number of death trains fluctuated wildly, rising and falling in line with the general pace of the Holocaust. In July 1943, for example, the RSHA deported fewer than 7,200 Jews to Auschwitz. One month later, more than fifty thousand arrived, after a renewed push to destroy ghettos in east Upper Silesia.73 Most trains arrived from such ghettos and from transit or internment camps. As in the case of Stanisław Jankowski, the prisoners had often been shunted from one camp to another, with the KL the last link in a long chain. There were many Jewish camps across Europe, some like Westerbork (Netherlands) still well known, others like Žilina (Slovakia) long since forgotten.74 Not all these sites were staffed by German authorities. Drancy, for example, was guarded by French policemen until the SS took over in summer 1943.75Conditions in the camps varied greatly; though they were often poor, they were generally not lethal. Crucially, none of these transit camps were run by the WVHA as SS concentration camps, except for Herzogenbusch (Vught) in the Netherlands.

Herzogenbusch, in the district of Noord-Brabant, was not initially conceived as a KL. In summer 1942, Hanns Albin Rauter, the higher SS and police leader in the Netherlands, decided to set up an additional large camp for Jews: before they “depart for the East,” they would be held there during the “general cleanup in the Netherlands.” But in December 1942, the site was placed under the WVHA as an official concentration camp (Rauter still stayed in the picture, though, resulting in repeated conflicts with the WVHA). The so-called transit camp for Jews was opened on January 16, 1943, with “many buildings only half-finished,” recalled Arthur Lehmann, a German Jewish lawyer in his early fifties. The new camp quickly filled and by early May 1943, more than 8,600 Jewish men, women, and children were detained here. Many had been officially exempted from immediate deportation, giving them false hope that Herzogenbusch would become a regular ghetto in all but name.76

At this time, Herzogenbusch bore only superficial similarities to a KL like Auschwitz. True, there were purpose-built barracks, roll calls, SS guards, and work. But here the resemblance ended. To deceive the Jewish inmates about their ultimate fate, the Herzogenbusch SS acted with far more restraint. For a start, prisoners were allowed to keep their own clothes and belongings; Arthur Lehmann, with his glasses and tussled hair, looked more like a professor than a prisoner. Conditions during labor—which later included work for the Philips electronics company—were mostly bearable. And although prisoners were divided by gender, with children joining their mothers, the men and women were allowed to visit each other regularly. Most important, much of the internal organization lay in the hands of imprisoned Jews themselves, just like in Nazi ghettos. Jewish leaders like Lehmann, who became chief of the internal administration, controlled funds for purchases from the canteen, organized food distribution, and maintained links with lawyers and relatives outside the camp. There was also a Jewish camp police (Ordnungsdienst), which patrolled the camp and its storeroom, and met new arrivals at the railway station. Inmates accused of theft and other infractions came before a prisoner court, headed by a former judge, rather than facing SS punishment. Overall, there was little abuse inside the camp, and the Camp SS maintained a low profile. All this was reflected in the comparatively small mortality rate, with around one hundred deaths—almost all of them infants or elderly—among all the twelve thousand Jews who passed through the camp.

Jews arriving in the Herzogenbusch transit camp were relieved that conditions were better than they had feared. When Helga Deen, an eighteen-year-old from Tilburg, came to the camp on June 1, 1943, she noted in her secret diary that “until now, it is not as bad as all that,” adding: “there is nothing dreadful here.” But the lethal SS intentions were merely masked; terror lurked and it soon raised its head. In July 1943, after barely one month in the camp, Helga Deen and her family were deported to the east and murdered. This was part of a larger SS action in summer 1943, during which the great majority of Jewish prisoners in Herzogenbusch—more than ten thousand—were sent to their deaths in Sobibor; for them, life in the KL had been no more than a brief lull on the road to a death camp. Among the small number of prisoners left behind, who now had their privileges cut, were some skilled workers at the Philips factory and a few Jewish leaders, such as Arthur Lehmann. The truth about Nazi intentions was slowly dawning on them, but their special status in the camp could not save them from deportation, and in early June 1944, the SS removed the last group of Jews from Herzogenbusch. “I am very melancholic,” one of them scribbled in a note on the train to Auschwitz. Lehmann himself had already been taken away in March 1944, and eventually ended up in the Auschwitz satellite camp at Laurahütte. Compared to a KL like Auschwitz, he later wrote, conditions in Vught had been “extraordinarily good.”77

Although Auschwitz played an increasingly important part in the Holocaust from summer 1942, it was a junior partner early on, far surpassed by other sites of terror. The main hubs for lethal Jewish forced labor were still located elsewhere. At the end of 1942, just 12,650 Jewish prisoners were registered in Auschwitz. By comparison, nearly three hundred thousand Jews were still alive in the General Government, according to the SS, most of them toiling in large ghettos like Warsaw (fifty thousand inmates). Ghettos in other parts of Nazi Europe, such as Lodz (eighty-seven thousand) and Theresienstadt (fifty thousand), also held far more Jews than Auschwitz. Even in Silesia itself, Auschwitz was still outstripped by regional forced labor camps for Jews under SS Oberführer Albrecht Schmelt.78 As for Auschwitz as a death camp, it was eclipsed by Globocnik’s death camps. In 1942, around 190,000 Jews died in Auschwitz, the great majority of them in the Birkenau gas chambers.79 By contrast, the three Globocnik death camps claimed around 1,500,000 victims that year; more than 800,000 were murdered in Treblinka alone, a small number of Gypsies among them.80 It was only during 1943—when Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were wound down, having fulfilled their mission of murdering most Jews in the General Government, and when most of the remaining ghettos and labor camps were eradicated, too—that Auschwitz moved into the center of the Holocaust.81

Arrival in Auschwitz

One freezing morning in late 1942, a large column of Polish Jews set off from a square outside the gates of Mława ghetto (Zichenau district) and marched through sludge and snow on the open roads toward the town’s railway station. The men, women, and children were cold and exhausted, having spent the previous night among the dark ruins of a large mill on the ghetto grounds. But belligerent German guards set a brisk pace and the Jews stumbled forward, carrying rucksacks, suitcases, and bundles with their last possessions. Among them was Lejb Langfus, a religious scholar in his early thirties, his wife, Deborah, and their eight-year-old son, Samuel. Like many others on the march, they had recently been deported to Mława from the small ghetto Maków Mazowiecki, which was liquidated by the Nazi authorities during the second half of November 1942. Bathed in sweat, Langfus and the others eventually arrived at the railway station, where police and SS men forced them to line up alongside a train and then pushed them inside. Some families were separated in the confusion, but Langfus held on to his wife and son, and they squeezed into one of the boxcars. After all the doors were sealed, sometime around midday, the train slowly pulled away. It was heading for Auschwitz.82

Conditions inside were unbearable, as on most trains to death camps from eastern Europe. Since mass deportations of Jews had started in summer 1942, the German authorities in the east relied on closed, windowless freight trains, which quickly filled with the stench of the sick, urine, and excrement on the floor. Lejb Langfus and the others were standing upright, pressed together so tightly that they could not sit, kneel, or lie down, or reach the provisions in their bags. Soon, everyone in the stifling car was desperate for something to drink. “Thirst ruled everything,” Langfus later wrote in secret notes in Auschwitz. An eerie silence settled over his car. Most people were only half-conscious, too drained to talk. The children were listless, too, with their “cracked lips and completely dried-out throats.” There was only one moment of respite: when the train briefly stopped, two Polish policemen appeared at the door and gave prisoners some water, in exchange for their wedding rings.83

In addition to hunger and thirst, there was crippling fear. Most men, women, and children on this and other deportation trains did not know that they were heading to Auschwitz, and to their deaths. But many Polish Jews had heard of the camp. Langfus, for example, knew it as a notorious punishment camp and a destination for Jewish transports. There were also rumors about mass extermination inside. Jews who lived closer to Auschwitz even heard about prisoners being thrown into “furnaces” or “gassed to death,” as a local girl from Będzin noted in her diary in early 1943. Despite such rumors, some deported Polish prisoners remained defiantly upbeat. “We are off to work. Think positive,” declared a letter thrown from another train en route from a Polish ghetto to Auschwitz in late 1942. But there was no way of masking the underlying anxieties. While Jews deported from central and western Europe had lived far from the epicenter of the Holocaust and often remained more hopeful that all that awaited them was hard labor (as German officials had promised them before departure and as postcards by friends and relatives, written under duress from the SS, seemed to confirm), Polish Jews had already suffered many months of misery and violence in the ghettos. Langfus and his family had lived through shortages and epidemics, and had witnessed beatings, slave labor, public executions, and murders. Like elsewhere in occupied Poland, talk about Nazi massacres in ghettos and camps had spread during 1942, and when the inhabitants of Maków Mazowiecki were told that they, too, would soon be deported, they were gripped by anxiety. Little Samuel Langfus sobbed inconsolably, screaming again and again: “I want to live!” His distraught father feared the worst, too. Shortly before he boarded the train to Auschwitz, Lejb Langfus spent a restless night in Mława, agonizing with others about their fate: “We were thinking about what would await us at the end of this journey: death or life?”84

The Auschwitz SS knew the answer. The camp authorities were routinely alerted about impending transports—by the responsible local police authorities or the RSHA (or both)—so that preparations could be made.85 Once a train approached, which could happen at all hours, the well-oiled SS machine got into gear. The officer on duty blew a whistle to alert the Commandant Staff, shouting: “Transport is here!” SS officers, doctors, drivers, block leaders, and the rest quickly took their positions. Medical orderlies sometimes drove straight to the gas chambers in Birkenau. Meanwhile, dozens of SS men climbed on trucks and motorcycles, and headed for the “Jews’ ramp” (Judenrampe), part of a new freight station between the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau (from May 1944, transports arrived at another ramp inside Birkenau itself). As the train pulled up along the lengthy wooden platform, SS guards formed “a chain around the transport,” SS officer Franz Hössler testified in 1945; then the order was given to open the doors.86

The shock of arrival in Auschwitz was overwhelming. Lejb, Deborah, and Samuel Langfus, and the other Jews from Mława, had been in a daze for over a day when their train came to a sudden halt, late on December 6, 1942. Then everything seemed to happen at once. The doors flung open, and SS men and some inmates in striped uniforms hurried the Jews off the trains. To speed things up, they screamed and pushed those who hesitated. There were kicks and blows, though the guards rarely went further. Restraint was more likely to guarantee order and compliance, since it helped to deceive the victims about their fate. In great haste, the 2,500 or so Jews from Mława spilled onto the platform, clutching each other and their belongings; left behind were the bodies of old people and children who had been crushed to death during the journey.

Emerging from the dark train, the dazed prisoners blinked into harsh lights that “clouded their minds,” Lejb Langfus wrote some months later, in secret. Lampposts illuminated the large area around them, teeming with SS men with weapons and guard dogs. Amid the turmoil and terror, the bewildered Jews were forced to move away from the train and leave behind their bags, bundles, and suitcases, which were then piled up by inmates from the so-called Canada Commando. The loss of their possessions paralyzed the new arrivals, but they had no time to think before the SS told them to line up in two groups, men on one side, and women and most children on the other. The order left many prisoners numb. They had arrived in large families, but the guards quickly drove them apart, as siblings and spouses, sons and daughters, frantically tried to embrace one more time. “Dreadful crying could be heard,” noted Lejb Langfus, who had to let go of his wife and son. As the two columns formed, several yards apart, many prisoners lost sight of their loved ones and never saw them again. The columns, with five prisoners in each row, soon moved forward toward a small group of SS men who, as Langfus learned, decided their destiny: “The selection began.”87

In Auschwitz, regular SS selections of Jews on arrival had started in summer 1942, following Himmler’s decision that Jews unable to work should join the RSHA deportation trains.88 Since all Jews on board were doomed, Himmler had apparently approved selections as a means to determine when and how they would perish. Some would be registered for murderous forced labor; the rest would be gassed straightaway. By the time Lejb Langfus and the others from Mława arrived in Auschwitz—on one of the more than a dozen deportation transports in December 1942—such selections had long become routine.89 SS men were in a hurry and acted “pretty haphazardly,” according to the postwar confession of Rottenführer Pery Broad from the Auschwitz political office; often, the selections were over in one hour. As individual Jews stumbled forward to the head of the ramp, the SS officer in charge—mostly the camp doctor on duty, supported by other senior officials like the camp compound leaders and labor action leaders—had a quick glance, asked some of them about their age and occupation, and then gave a nod or wave, casually pointing to the left or the right. At the time, few prisoners knew that this brief gesture meant immediate death or temporary reprieve.90

The Auschwitz SS officials agreed on broad benchmarks for the selection of Jews, going beyond the criteria they had established during the earlier selections of suspected Soviet commissars.91 Dr. Fritz Klein, one of the Auschwitz SS physicians, put it succinctly: “It was the doctor’s job to pick out those who were unfit or unable to work. These included children, old people, and the sick.”92 Like everywhere else during the Nazi war on Jews, children were most vulnerable. Between 1942 and 1945, around 210,000 were deported to Auschwitz. Those under the age of fourteen were almost all gassed on arrival; so, too, were most of the older ones. In all, fewer than 2,500 Jewish children survived the initial selections.93 Many Jewish women were in great danger, too, even if they were in good health, as the SS murdered most mothers with younger children, rather than separating them at the ramp.94 Some mothers, meanwhile, abandoned their children with the best of intentions. After Olga Lengyel arrived in Auschwitz, she was determined to protect her son, Arvad, from what she feared would be hard labor. When she was asked by Dr. Klein how old her boy was, she insisted that he was under thirteen, although he looked older. Dr. Klein duly sent Arvad to the gas chambers. “How should I have known,” Lengyel wrote in despair after the war.95

Some new arrivals learned the truth just in time. As they climbed off the trains or waited at the ramp, inmates from the Canada Commando defied SS orders and told them three basic rules for the selections: act strong and healthy, claim to be between sixteen and forty years old, hand young children to elderly relatives.96 Such advice saved a number of Jews, at least temporarily.97 But it also caused dreadful dilemmas. Mothers, in particular, faced a split-second decision. To abandon their children on the barely comprehensible advice of a stranger? Or to join them and stand with a group ominously made up of the elderly and frail? There was no right decision based on ordinary moral norms. Instead, it was one of the “choiceless choices” in Auschwitz, as the scholar Lawrence Langer called them.98

Most Jews were murdered within hours of the selections at the ramp. In general, Commandant Höss always wanted more slaves; when SS Oberführer Schmelt interrupted deportation trains bound for Auschwitz and pulled out Jewish men for his own labor camps,Höss and Eichmann agreed to foil such preselections, which deprived Auschwitz of the best workers.99 When it came to selections at the Auschwitz ramp, however, Höss was adamant that “only the very healthiest and very strongest Jews” should be spared. Otherwise, the camp would be overburdened by needy prisoners, creating worse conditions for everyone.100 Although there was some internal criticism of Höss’s hard-line approach, many Auschwitz SS men shared it. Despite all the talk of forced labor, Rottenführer Pery Broad testified, these men saw “the annihilation of the largest number of ‘enemies of the state’ as their primary task.”101 Some senior SS officers agreed, among them Reich physician Ernst Grawitz, who observed the mass murder in Auschwitz and supported extensive gassings as a radical weapon against illness in the KL.102 By contrast, Oswald Pohl and senior WVHA managers repeatedly reprimanded Höss, arguing that the Auschwitz SS should select as many Jews as possible for forced labor, including weak ones who could be deployed for a short period of time only.103 SS leader Heinrich Himmler, the ultimate authority, wavered between both sides of the argument.104

In the end, the default option for SS officers at the Auschwitz ramp was to point toward the gas chambers; on average, only around twenty percent of Jews were selected for forced labor and registered as Auschwitz prisoners (though there were significant variations between transports and over time).105 The SS applied a similar measure on the night of December 6, 1942, to the transport from Mława. Only 406 young and strong men were temporarily spared (unusually, the SS condemned all women on board). Among the chosen few was Lejb Langfus. His wife, Deborah, and his son, Samuel, disappeared into the other group, more than two thousand people strong. Langfus watched intently as women and children calmly climbed on board large SS trucks, illuminated in the bright lights. Many prisoners were deceived by the sight of polite SS men aiding ailing Jews onto the trucks, mistaking it as a sign of charity. Other SS men reassured the remaining Jewish men that they would soon meet their loved ones again; Langfus was told that he would see his family once a week in a special barrack. Then the trucks drove off and made their way to the gas chambers.106

Fire and Gas

The other Jews selected for the gas normally followed the same road as the trucks, marching for one and a half miles from the ramp, past the Birkenau camp and across a meadow, toward the converted farmhouses. “This is a one-way street,” Charlotte Delbo (who arrived from France in early 1943) later wrote, “but no one knows it.” During the march, SS men normally kept the prisoners in line with guard dogs. But they also kept up the deception, casually asking Jews about their jobs and background, and telling them that they were heading to the baths, for disinfection. Some prisoners were relieved to notice that they were followed by an ambulance, which was driving slowly at the rear of the column; occasionally, it even carried Jews unable to walk. But the ambulance was not meant to provide medical care. Its real purpose was to carry the SS doctor to oversee the gassing. The tins of Zyklon B were also on board. “Nobody was bothered in the slightest,” Commandant Höss recalled, “about profaning the sign of the Red Cross by driving to the extermination facilities.”107

When the final destination came into view, the first impression was reassuring: a little farmhouse and two wooden barracks (for undressing), surrounded by fruit trees. On site were more SS men and a group of inmates from the so-called Special Squad (Sonderkommando), who had to assist in mass murder. By the time the prisoner column had come to a halt, those who had earlier arrived by truck were often already inside the farmhouse. Before long, the others had joined them. Those who moved too slowly were hit by SS men and attacked by the dogs. As they stumbled inside, the last thing they saw was a sign on the open doors: “To the Baths.” Once the rooms had been crammed full of men, women, and children, the heavy doors were locked and the SS physician ordered the medical orderly to throw in the gas. SS doctor Johann Paul Kremer, who supervised numerous gassings in autumn 1942, later testified that he drove off after the “screams and noise of the victims” had died down.108 The gas chambers remained off-limits for some time, often overnight, as there was no mechanical ventilation in bunkers 1 and 2 to draw out the fumes.109

Once the doors were opened, prisoners from the special squad set to work. One of them was Lejb Langfus. After the SS had separated him from his wife and son at the ramp on December 6, 1942, he had marched into the Birkenau compound, together with the other Jewish men selected that day for slave labor. The next morning, they had been led from their barrack to the so-called Birkenau sauna for the usual admissions procedure. After a shower, they had their heads shaved and received striped uniforms; then they were tattooed. Two days later, on the evening of December 9, 1942, SS officers led by Hauptscharführer Otto Moll suddenly appeared in the prisoners’ barrack and announced that they would choose some strong inmates for a special assignment in a rubber factory. Each prisoner stepped forward and Moll took his pick. None of the three hundred or so Jewish men knew that they had really been selected for the Special Squad. Neither did they know that at the same time the corpses of their predecessors—the first Birkenau Special Squad—were burning inside the old crematorium.

The following day, December 10, most men from the new Special Squad were escorted out of the Birkenau compound, not to any rubber factory, but to the gas chambers, which were operating at full capacity that day (with almost 4,500 Jews arriving on transports from Holland, Germany, and Poland). Surrounded by SS men with guard dogs, Moll addressed the new Special Squad prisoners. They did not yet know that this small, blond man, who looked rather amiable, with his round and freckled face, was feared across the camp. Not only was he exceptionally brutal, Moll was also one of a small group of Camp SS experts in mass murder and cremation. After he had instructed the prisoners about their real task, he threatened anyone who refused to participate with beatings and wild dogs.110

The prisoners of the two Special Squads—one for each of the converted farmhouses—now split into different groups. Among the dozen or so prisoners who had to pull bodies out of the gas chambers on December 10, 1942, was a burly twenty-year-old with broad shoulders called Shlomo (Szlama) Dragon. Born in a small Polish town, he had lived for more than a year in the Warsaw ghetto, where his father and sister were to die, before escaping together with his older brother, Abraham. Exhausted, after hiding for months without papers, the two brothers eventually joined a transport to what they assumed was a forced labor camp. On December 6, 1942, they arrived in Auschwitz, on the same train that brought the muscular Lejb Langfus to the camp; like Langfus, the Dragon brothers were selected for the Special Squad.111

Wearing masks, Shlomo Dragon and the other men from his commando had to enter the gas chambers after they were opened on December 10, 1942; “it was very hot” inside, he testified a few years later, “and one could feel the gas.” Next, they had to drag out the entangled corpses. Complaining that the prisoners from the Special Squad were moving too carefully, Moll showed them how it was done. “He rolled up his sleeves,” Dragon recalled, “and threw the corpses through the door into the yard.” Here, other Special Squad members stripped the dead of anything the SS regarded as valuable. Some prisoners had to cut the hair of the dead, while so-called dentists pried open the corpses’ foaming mouths to rip out gold teeth (some “dentists” took regular breaks to vomit). Once the building was empty, Special Squad prisoners had to wash the floors, scatter more wood shavings, and touch up the white walls, until the bunker was ready for the next transport.112 From now on, this would be the life of Shlomo and Abraham Dragon, Lejb Langfus, and the others from the Special Squad.

Like many mass murderers before them, the Auschwitz SS men soon realized that it was easier to kill than to dispose of the victims. In their haste to create a large death camp, SS planners had given little thought to the corpses. When the mass extermination transports began in summer 1942, there was no working crematorium: the old one was out of commission, while the new one in Birkenau was not yet built. As the bodies of Jews gassed in Birkenau mounted up, the SS resorted to the same makeshift solution it hadused months earlier, during the mass deaths of Soviet POWs, and buried the bodies in ditches in the Birkenau forest (together with thousands of deceased registered prisoners). But this soon proved impractical. By the time Himmler visited in mid-July 1942, the camp was engulfed in a sickening smell. In the heat of the summer, rotting body parts spilled out of mass graves, and there were concerns that the groundwater would be contaminated, threatening the whole region. With more extermination transports on the way, the Camp SS hurried to accelerate the completion of the new crematorium in Birkenau.113

Looking ahead, the WVHA construction experts around Hans Kammler agreed that a single new crematorium would no longer suffice, given the role of Auschwitz in the Holocaust. By August 1942, they had settled on three additional crematoria for Birkenau; together, the four new buildings would be able to burn one hundred and twenty thousand corpses each month. Soon, SS planners added an additional feature to the emerging Birkenau crematorium complex—gas chambers. Moving the gassings from the converted farmhouses into the new crematoria would allow the SS to murder and burn the victims in the same location (just like in the main camps’ old crematorium). Genocide would become more efficient. The almost identical crematoria II and III were now redesigned for mass murder, by turning the morgues in the basement into undressing rooms and gas chambers; mechanical ventilation was fitted to draw out the gas, and a lift was added for moving corpses to the incinerators on the ground floor. By contrast, the smaller crematoria IV and V had simpler structures, as they were designed from the start to accommodate mass gassings; both were long above-ground brick buildings, with undressing rooms, gas chambers (naturally ventilated), and incinerators, all on one level.114

Until this new cremation complex in Birkenau was operational, the SS decided, the dead would be put into flaming pits. Shortly after his mid-July 1942 visit to Auschwitz, Himmler decreed that all the rotting corpses in Birkenau had to be dug up and burned. Standartenführer Paul Blobel, an SS expert in open-air cremation, was sent to teach the Auschwitz guards. A former commander with the murderous task forces in the occupied Soviet Union, Blobel had recently been appointed by Himmler to run a secret SS unit devising the most efficient way of destroying corpses of Holocaust victims. Experimenting in the Chelmno death camp, where huge numbers of corpses had accumulated, Blobel quickly arrived at an effective procedure: burning the dead in holes, grinding their bones, and scattering the remains. On September 16, 1942, shortly after Blobel’s visit to Auschwitz, Commandant Höss himself traveled to Chelmno to watch the mass cremations in action. He was so impressed that he immediately placed an order for the necessary equipment, including a heavy bone-crushing machine. Within days, the new procedures were in place, largely modeled on Chelmno.

For several weeks in autumn 1942, the SS forced Special Squad prisoners to unearth all the corpses buried in Birkenau, working day and night with their bare hands. By the end, the prisoners had pulled out more than one hundred thousand bodies (by the estimate of Rudolf Höss). One of the Special Squad prisoners, Erko Hejblum, later described the task: “We waded in a mix of mud and decaying bodies. We would have needed gas masks. The corpses seemed to rise to the top—it was as if the earth itself was turning them back.” Many Special Squad prisoners could not bear the nightmare. After one week, Hejblum “felt like I was going mad” and decided to kill himself; he was saved by a friend who engineered his transfer to a different work detail. Several prisoners who refused to carry on were shot point-blank. The others had to continue to stack the decomposing bodies for burning, first in huge pyres, later in long rectangular ditches. Meanwhile, the bodies of new victims deported to Auschwitz for mass extermination were cremated in other pits, near bunkers 1 and 2. Ash and bone fragments were dumped into rivers and marshes. They were also used to grit the roads in winter and to fertilize the surrounding fields, where Himmler’s cherished agricultural experiments were under way. The roots of Germany’s future settlements were supposed to grow from the remains of its slaughtered victims.115

The Birkenau Killing Complex

The new facilities in Birkenau—four huge crematoria with integral gas chambers—promised state-of-the-art genocide. But the construction of the new killing complex took much longer than anticipated. The Camp SS continued to push for its completion, blaming the persistent problems on Topf & Sons, the private contractors building the incinerators. After months of delays and recriminations, the four crematoria became operational between March and June 1943.116 At the end of June 1943, the head of the Auschwitz SS construction authority, Sturmbannführer Karl Bischoff, reported to his superiors in Berlin that the four crematoria could turn 4,416 corpses into ash within twenty-four hours.117 So pleased was Bischoff, he even displayed pictures of the crematoria in the Auschwitz main building, for all visitors to see.118 Senior SS officials were proudly shown around the new site. In March 1943, WVHA officers attended the first incineration in crematorium II, and once the entire complex was ready for use, SS tours often included the new facilities. When Oswald Pohl came to Auschwitz in August 1943, for one of his regular visits, he carried out a thorough inspection of the new crematoria area. Himmler also sent leading party and SS men to watch and learn. “They were all deeply impressed,” Rudolf Höss recalled.119 Following the hurried initial conversion of Auschwitz into a death camp, the SS had now created more lasting and methodical procedures. In the words of Primo Levi, the camp became an inverted factory: “trains heavily laden with human beings went in each day, and all that came out was the ashes of their bodies, their hair, the gold of their teeth.”120

This image of Auschwitz as a factory of death evokes its modern nature, with the reliance on bureaucracy, railways, and technology.121 The use of machinery even extended to the bookkeeping of the dead. After each selection on arrival, an SS man from the Auschwitz political office—which oversaw the process of mass extermination at the crematoria—established how many Jews had been sent to the gas chambers. He then raced back by motorcycle to his office to prepare a statistical report noting the transport’s date of arrival and place of departure, the total number of Jews on board, and the number of men and women selected for forced labor and for “special accommodation” or “special treatment” (the Camp SS continued to use camouflage language in documents, with only rare slips). The Auschwitz political office then transmitted these details by telex to the RSHA and the WVHA, mostly within a day of the killings; sometimes the officials added a brief explanatory note, such as the following from a February 1943 telex: “The men were specially accommodated because of excessive frailty, the women because most of them were [with] children.”122In this way, SS managers in Berlin, such as Adolf Eichmann and Richard Glücks, gained an immediate picture—almost in real time—of the progress of the Holocaust in Auschwitz.

But assembly-line mass murder was not smooth, automatic, and clean, as some historians have suggested.123 The Birkenau killing complex was less efficient than the SS men had hoped.124 And however much routine they developed, killing did not become a purely mechanical process, devoid of agency and emotion. Every victim had perpetrators.125 The doomed prisoners’ last hours—between arrival and death—were marked by exhaustion, fear, and torment. Following the traumatic separations by the SS at the ramp and the transfer to Birkenau, the doomed faced humiliation and violence outside the gas chambers. Women who refused to undress were assaulted, the clothes ripped from their bodies. Anyone who refused to enter the gas chamber was shot on the spot or beaten inside.126 What happened next, when dim suspicion became horrible certainty—with prisoners squeezed against one another in the darkness of the gas chambers, barely able to breathe even before the gas pellets were inserted—cannot be described. Standing outside, inmates from the Special Squad could hear that the death struggle lasted for several minutes; some of the dying threw themselves against the doors, sometimes smashing the glass peepholes and grilles protecting them, and crushing others who already lay on the ground.127 On occasion, the gas chambers were so packed that the SS forced some prisoners to wait nearby until it was their turn. They listened to the agony of those inside and waited for hours for their own deaths, suffering “the most terrifying pain in the whole world,” as Lejb Langfus wrote in his secret notes. “If you have not experienced it, you cannot picture it, even remotely.”128

Another myth—also attached to the image of Auschwitz as a factory of death—is that of wholly passive victims.129 Here, the doomed appear like inert objects, drifting to their deaths without disrupting the steady flow of industrialized mass murder. This view was taken to the extreme by the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, himself a survivor of the prewar KL (having been held in Dachau and Buchenwald between June 1938 and May 1939). In a brief paper written in 1960, still unsettling decades later, he launched an all-out attack on the victims: the Jews of Europe had given up the will to live and then, “like lemmings,” voluntarily walked “themselves to the gas chambers.”130

Bettelheim was grievously wrong. To start with, only a small number of Jews arriving at the Auschwitz gas chambers were certain that they were about to die. The burning ditches and smoking chimneys of the crematoria were ominous signs, but even those who feared the worst often clung to hope. Such hopes were continually fanned by SS men. Despite flashes of violence, the Camp SS tried to deceive its victims to the end, in order to prevent any defiance by the doomed. Before the killings began, SS officers normally made a brief announcement outside the gas chambers, along the following lines: “Stay calm, you are about to take a bath—so get undressed, fold your clothes neatly and then walk into the shower-room. Afterwards, you will receive coffee and something to eat.”

To further reassure the doomed, prisoners from the Special Squad generally repeated the same story, well aware that anything else might lead to their own death (in summer 1943, a Special Squad prisoner, who had informed a young woman that she would be gassed, was burned alive in front of his comrades). Racked by their helplessness, the Special Squad prisoners concluded that telling the truth would only add to the agony of the victims.131 “It was all lies, what we said,” one of them told an interviewer after the war. “I always tried not to look into [people’s] eyes, so that they wouldn’t catch on.”132 Some inmates elsewhere in the Auschwitz complex understood only too well the impossible dilemma of the Special Squad.133

Even when prisoners were told about their impending death, an organized uprising was impossible. They were disorientated—tired, famished, hurried along by guards—and had no time to think or confer. After a transport of Jews from Tarnów ghetto heard from Special Squad prisoners at the gas chambers that they were about to be killed, they “became serious and silent,” according to one of the Special Squad. Then, with broken voices, “they started saying the Vidui” (the ritual confessional prayer before death). Not everyone could believe that they had been condemned, though; a young man stepped on a bench to calm the others, telling them that they would not die, as the wholesale slaughter of innocents, in such barbaric fashion, could not happen anywhere on earth.134 All this anguish—which would sometimes turn into spontaneous defiance—was a long way from “a voluntary walk into the Reich’s crematoria,” as Bettelheim had claimed.135


The Holocaust transformed the concentration camp system as a whole in 1942–43. Geographically, it was split in two. In the western KL, there were soon hardly any Jewish prisoners left at all, after the SS made its camps inside Germany’s prewar borders almost entirely “free of Jews.” In the eastern KL, by contrast, Jews selected for murder through labor (instead of immediate extermination) now often made up the largest group among registered inmates. By autumn 1943, many tens of thousands of Jews were held in the east (hundreds of thousands more had already been murdered), not just in Auschwitz, but also in Majdanek and in several new concentration camps, which had been established solely for Jewish prisoners.

The Majdanek Death Camp

Majdanek in the General Government was the only other KL, apart from Auschwitz, which also operated as a Holocaust death camp. Its conversion followed a rather similar trajectory. Just as in Auschwitz, mass deportations of Jews began in spring 1942, initially to replace Soviet slave laborers for the projected SS settlements. In all, around 4,500 young Slovak Jews came to Majdanek between late March and early April 1942. One of their first tasks was to flatten the mass graves of Soviet POWs who had died during the previous months—a grim harbinger of the Jews’ own impending fate.136 Over the coming months, thousands more Jewish men arrived from Slovakia, as well as from the General Government, occupied Czech territory, and the German Reich.137 Majdanek now grew at a rapid rate. On March 25, 1942, the camp had stood almost empty, with little more than one hundred prisoners, none of them Jewish. Just three months later, on June 24, 1942, some 10,660 men were held inside, almost all of them Jews. Soon, they were joined by women. Following the example of Auschwitz, Himmler ordered in July 1942 that a camp for female prisoners should be set up in Lublin; the WVHA attached it to Majdanek. The first prisoners arrived in October 1942, and by the end of the year, some 2,803 women were held in the camp, again overwhelmingly Jews.138 As Majdanek was pulled into the current of the Holocaust, it turned into a concentration camp for Jews.

Majdanek was still a big building site, spread across dirty fields. There was no electricity, sewer system, or proper water supply, and most prisoners were packed into bare, crowded, windowless wooden barracks, freezing in winter, baking hot in summer (only in 1943 did the situation improve somewhat). One of these prisoners was Dionys Lenard, a Slovakian Jew who had been deported to Majdanek in April 1942. After a few months, he fled and recorded his experiences later that same year. Lenard writes graphically how the prisoners were forced to build the camp, erecting more barracks, leveling the ground, and performing other grueling tasks, always hounded by the SS. The frantic pace was set by Commandant Karl Otto Koch, who had arrived in early 1942; he was joined by trusted SS veterans from the Buchenwald Commandant Staff, fresh from participating in the mass execution of Soviet “commissars.” It says much about slave labor in Majdanek that prisoners volunteered for the “shit commando” to escape from the construction details; in Majdanek, Lenard notes, heaving buckets full of feces was still better than being chased across the yard while carrying heavy loads of brick or wood.

Prisoners like Dionys Lenard were forever tormented by hunger and thirst. The food in Majdanek was as disgusting as it was meager, consisting mostly of thin soup with weeds. There was barely anything to drink, either, since inmates were initially forbidden to use the only well, which stood right next to the overflowing latrines and was said to be contaminated. The desperate water shortage also meant that prisoners could only clean themselves once a week. Lenard did so more often by using the warm liquid (so-called coffee) prisoners received in the mornings: “one could not use it for anything else, anyway.” Fleas and lice spread everywhere, and half the inmates, Lenard observed, were suffering from diarrhea. And then there was the dirt. As soon as it rained, even a little, the whole camp was submerged in sludge. “Anyone who has not seen the mud in the Lublin camp, has no idea what mud really looks like,” wrote Lenard. He could barely walk across the soggy fields without getting stuck with his wooden clogs. A slip could be fatal. Once, an old Slovakian Jew tripped and brushed the trouser legs of a passing SS man, who instantly “drew his gun and shot him.”139

Lenard was one of a small number of registered Jews who survived Majdanek in 1942. Most succumbed to neglect and abuse; that year, more than fourteen thousand registered Jewish prisoners died in the camp, as well as around two thousand other inmates. As a WVHA official noted after an inspection in January 1943, the two incinerators in Majdanek could “barely keep up” with all the dead.140 Many prisoners were murdered after SS selections in the infirmary and the main compound. As typhus spread in summer 1942, for example, thousands (mostly Slovakian Jews) were isolated and shot by the SS. In a secret message dated July 14, 1942, following the mass selection of some 1,500 prisoners, a Polish inmate noted that the victims had been driven to a nearby forest, shot, and buried. “This is how the typhus epidemic is fought in Majdanek,” he added.141

Even though death was ever-present by mid-1942, the SS did not yet use Majdanek as a death camp (hence there were no selections on arrival). When it came to the so-called Final Solution in the General Government, the SS looked to Globocnik’s death camps instead, even if this meant longer transports. As the SS decimated the Lublin ghetto in spring 1942, leading away some thirty thousand of the thirty-six thousand inhabitants, it routed the transports not to Majdanek, just a short march away, but by train to Belzec. Over the following months, the functional separation between Majdanek (detention and lethal forced labor) and Globocnik’s death camps (immediate extermination) continued. In fact, deportation trains en route to Belzec and Sobibor occasionally interrupted their journey in Lublin. Here, Jewish men considered fit for labor were pulled out and sent to Majdanek for construction work; the others remained on the trains to death camps.142

The position of Majdanek only changed during the second half of 1942. Since summer, the local Camp SS had planned to build gas chambers, and the new building was completed around October. Despite the secrecy of the SS, which designated the small stone building by the camp entrance as “baths,” everyone soon knew what really was inside. Unusually, the gas chambers were equipped for both Zyklon B (like Auschwitz) and carbon monoxide (like the Globocnik death camps). In the first months, most of those murdered inside were typhus-ridden registered Majdanek prisoners. But the Camp SS also carried out its first selections on arrival, picking out weak and sick Jews from Lublin labor camps and the local Majdan Tatarski ghetto (which had replaced the old Lublin ghetto).143

The transformation of Majdanek into a death camp was completed from late 1942. This was linked, apparently, to the sudden end of mass deportations to Belzec, in mid-December 1942.144 Over the next two weeks, until December 31, many thousands of Polish Jews were taken to Majdanek instead and murdered in its gas chambers.145 Further extermination transports arrived from spring 1943, bringing the first children to the camp, as the SS stepped up the liquidation of the remaining ghettos. Entire families from Warsaw and elsewhere were deported to Majdanek, where SS men now carried out regular selections upon arrival. First and foremost, the SS sent children, women, and the elderly to the gas chambers, as in Auschwitz. Rywka Awronska came in spring 1943 from Warsaw with a transport of several hundred women and children. In the baths, they had to undress. The SS then picked out those “who looked healthy enough for labor,” registered them, and escorted them to the camp; the others, Awronska recalled, “were immediately taken away; I think they were gassed.” In all, at least sixteen thousand Jews died in Majdanek between January and October 1943, many of them in the new gas chambers. Their corpses were burned in large pyres in a forest, some distance away. To learn how this was done, the Majdanek crematorium chief, SS Oberscharführer Erich Muhsfeldt, had traveled to Auschwitz in February 1943 to seek inspiration from his SS colleagues.146

But Majdanek never rivaled Auschwitz. As a camp for slave labor, it remained insignificant. The SS focused its resources and prisoners on Auschwitz, the KL showcase in the conquered east. Majdanek, by contrast, was regarded by Inspector Glücks as a “difficult camp”—dilapidated, distant, and dirty. Inmates, too, were struck by the difference between the two camps. When Rudolf Vrba looked back in April 1944 to his transport from Majdanek to Auschwitz, nearly two years earlier, he recalled that “after the filthy and primitive barracks in Lublin, the brick buildings [in the Auschwitz main camp] made a very good impression. We thought we had made a good deal.” While Auschwitz pushed ahead with economic prestige projects, most prisoners at the far smaller site at Majdanek continued to work on the construction and maintenance of the camp itself; despite the high death rates, there were normally more prisoners than jobs.147 As a Holocaust death camp, too, Majdanek stood in the second rank. The WVHA and RSHA managers regarded Auschwitz as a far more convenient target for transports from western and central Europe, while most Jews rounded up in the General Government were deported to Globocnik’s death camps.148

The Operation Reinhard Camps: An Anatomy

Historians tend to draw a clear line between the Globocnik death camps (Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka) and the two SS concentration camps most closely involved in the Holocaust (Auschwitz and Majdanek). There were indeed fundamental differences between these two types of camps, both structural and organizational. To begin with, they came under different authorities, Globocnik’s office (in Lublin) and the WVHA (in Berlin) respectively. The Globocnik death camps were staffed by the Chancellery of the Führer with key personnel from the “euthanasia” program, and these men mostly stuck together, even after their murderous mission in the east was completed in autumn 1943. Camp SS officers, meanwhile, as the self-styled shock troops of Nazi terror in the KL, looked down on Globocnik’s motley gang of killers as a “true selection of total failures,” in the words of Rudolf Höss.149

Just as the perpetrators of the two types of camp differed, so did their victims. The great majority of Jews murdered in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka came from the General Government, while the great majority of those murdered in Auschwitz came from more western and southern parts of Europe.150 And their operation differed sharply, too. Globocnik’s death camps were built for one purpose only: the rapid mass extermination of deported Jews. By contrast, Auschwitz and Majdanek continued as slave labor reservoirs, even after they had become Holocaust death camps; their hybrid nature was epitomized by the mass selections of deported Jews on arrival. There was no real equivalent in Globocnik’s death camps; selections had taken place before the transports departed—in ghettos and elsewhere—and all those on board were destined for extermination. The SS authorities in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka only needed a very small number of prisoners to keep the camps running; it has been estimated that one out of every hundred prisoners survived for more than a few hours. Even at the height of mass murder in autumn 1942, the three death camps together held no more than 2,500 so-called “work Jews,” who maintained the sites, assisted in mass extermination, and sorted the belongings of the dead. Consequently, these camps were small in size. The grounds of Sobibor, for example, initially measured about 600 × 400 yards; its core staff included twenty or thirty German officials, some two hundred foreign helpers (so-called Trawniki men), and perhaps two or three hundred Jewish prisoners temporarily spared for labor. By contrast, the so-called interest zone of the Auschwitz SS measured around twenty-five square miles (excluding several more far-flung satellite camps); at the end of January 1943, some 40,031 prisoners (including 14,070 Jews) were held across the Auschwitz complex, surrounded by several thousand SS guards.151 Compared to Auschwitz, terror was greatly compressed in Globocnik’s death camps, down to its very essence.

And yet, the links between the two types of death camp were closer than is commonly assumed. To begin with, there were parallels in the mechanics of mass murder. As with the WVHA death camps (and Chelmno), Globocnik’s camps relied on a combination of deception, speed, threats, and violence. When Eliasz Rosenberg, one of the few survivors of Treblinka, arrived in the camp in August 1942, on a deportation train from Warsaw, he saw a large sign telling Jews that their “way leads to the bath. Receipt of fresh clothes there and then transfer to another camp.” There were neat flower beds and reassuring speeches, with SS men telling the victims that they would move to a work camp as soon as they had washed and their clothes were disinfected (some of this trickery was later abandoned, after knowledge of the mass extermination had spread among Polish Jews). Separated by gender, the victims had to undress in a special barrack and were forced, at breakneck speed and with frequent blows, into the gas chambers. After each mass killing, a group of Jewish prisoners, held in isolation from the rest of the camp, was forced into action. Just like the wretched Special Squad in Auschwitz, they had to dispose of the corpses, rip out gold fillings, and prepare the next gassing. In Treblinka, one of theseprisoners was Eliasz Rosenberg. At running pace, he and another inmate had to carry the dead to huge mass graves (later, railway trolleys were used instead). In late February 1943, the SS supervised the exhumation of these rotting corpses, which were thrown on iron rails above shallow ditches and burned.152 The similarities with Auschwitz and Majdanek are evident, and owed much to the influence of SS cremation experts like Paul Blobel and of the mass killing techniques pioneered during the “euthanasia” program.153

As for life inside the small labor compounds of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, many of the basic structures were borrowed directly from the KL system, probably by some of the former Camp SS men who had arrived via the T-4 operation and now occupied leading positions in Globocnik’s death camps. There were daily roll calls, for example, as well as strict prisoner hierarchies, with camp elders, work supervisors, and block elders. Prisoner punishments were familiar from the KL, too. One Sobibor NCO testified after the war that “work Jews” were frequently whipped, enduring ten to twenty-five lashes in front of the assembled prisoners, in order “to maintain discipline in the camp.”154

The connections between the WVHA and Globocnik’s apparatus extended well beyond such structural similarities. There were operational links, too, resulting from the participation of both of these agencies in the Holocaust. In summer 1942, Himmler put the WVHA in charge of processing all the valuables amassed during Operation Reinhard, including the goods plundered in Globocnik’s death camps; senior WVHA officials inspected the death camps to ensure that central orders about the plunder were implemented.155 In addition to stealing from the dead, both agencies cooperated in the exploitation of Jewish forced workers.156 The closest contacts existed in Majdanek. Regional Nazi chieftains often meddled in the affairs of the nearest concentration camp.157But Globocnik’s endless interference in Majdanek was quite exceptional. He got closely involved in construction projects, and even diverted some cash, plundered from Jews, to fund Majdanek’s extension.158 And although the concentration camp came under the authority of the WVHA, he was allowed to enter the grounds without formal identification, and frequently dropped by, sometimes at night; his main area of interest, it seems, was the new gas chambers, which he had apparently initiated.159 At times, Globocnik treated Majdanek like one of his own camps, giving orders directly to the Camp SS and even proposing its commandant, Hermann Florstedt, for promotion.160

This is not to say that the various parts of Operation Reinhard added up to a seamless whole. As we have seen, the Holocaust camps run by the WVHA and by Globocnik, respectively, had separate identities and structures. There were also rivalries between officials on both sides, competing to kill and plunder more effectively. Globocnik’s main adversary was Rudolf Höss in Auschwitz, who recalled after the war that his rival “was absolutely determined to be at the top with ‘his’ exterminations.” But Höss saw himself as the real master of genocide and dismissed Globocnik as a loudmouth and dilettante who hid the “utter chaos of the Lublin Action Reinhardt [sic]” behind a façade of distortions, exaggerations, and lies.161

These personal tensions were exacerbated by visits to the rival death camps. Höss toured Treblinka, Globocnik’s most lethal camp, and left unimpressed. He regarded the use of carbon monoxide as not “very efficient,” as the motors did not always pump enough gas into the chambers to kill straightaway. “Another improvement we made over Treblinka,” Höss noted, “was that we built our gas chambers to accommodate 2,000 people at one time”; even in Allied captivity, Höss was bursting with professional pride about his murderous inventions.162 For his part, Odilo Globocnik and his men apparently resisted pressure to switch their gas chambers from carbon monoxide to Zyklon B, as pioneered in Auschwitz.163 Globocnik also used the occasion of a visit to the new crematoria and gas chamber complex in Birkenau to disparage the local operation, much to Höss’s irritation. Far from being impressed with the up-to-date machinery of mass murder, as other visitors had been, Globocnik claimed that his men worked much faster, and lectured Höss about the greater killing capacities of his own camps. He “exaggerated outrageously, at any opportunity,” Höss wrote after the war, still seething about Globocnik’s attempts to outdo him as the greatest mass murderer of the Third Reich.164 This genocidal competition between Höss and Globocnik illustrates once more the entanglement of their camps. Looking at these and all the other points of contact, it is no longer possible to suggest that there were no institutional and organizational connections between Globocnik’s camps and the KL system.165 The Holocaust in the different Nazi death camps of eastern Europe was a collective SS endeavor.

New Camps for Jews

The longer the Holocaust lasted, the more closely involved became the concentration camps. The role of the KL system in Nazi genocide grew during 1943, as the focus of mass extermination began to shift from the killing fields of eastern Europe and Globocnik’s death camps to the new killing complex in Birkenau and, to a lesser extent, Majdanek. At the same time, the KL system became a bigger hub for Jewish slave labor. Back in October 1942, Himmler had informed Oswald Pohl and other SS leaders that remainingJewish forced workers in the General Government should be pressed into concentration camps, until these Jews, too, would “disappear some day in accordance with the Führer’s wish.” During the following year, Himmler relentlessly pushed for the liquidation of labor camps and ghettos on occupied Polish and Soviet soil. To ensure that work on essential projects could continue, the SS set up several new KL in former ghettos and labor camps, extending its control over the remaining Jewish forced workers.166 Oswald Pohl had contemplated the construction of new concentration camps almost as soon as his WVHA had taken control of the KL system.167 From spring 1943, expansion became reality, at a brisk pace. Within a few months, the WVHA had opened four main camps in eastern Europe (Warsaw, Riga, Vaivara, Kovno), as well as dozens of satellite camps. Unlike other SS concentration camps, these new camps were set up explicitly for the exploitation of Jewish slave labor.


One of these new concentration camps in the occupied east was opened in July 1943 in Warsaw, among the ruins of what had once been the largest ghetto. After a German attempt to round up Jews for deportation in January 1943 met with an armed response, an incensed Himmler had ordered the destruction of the entire ghetto. The German assault began on April 19, 1943, against desperate resistance. After four weeks of carnage, the uprising was crushed, leaving many thousands of Jewish men, women, and children dead. Himmler then ordered the WVHA to flatten what was left of the ghetto. This scheme included plans for a new KL (such plans had been on the table since autumn 1942), whose prisoners would help to demolish the remaining buildings. Despite some large prisoner transports, however, the Warsaw camp remained smaller than anticipated; instead of 10,000 men, just 2,040 were working in demolition by February 1944. The camp itself was set up in a former military prison, extended with materials from the destroyed ghetto. The work in the ruins—breaking down walls, collecting scrap metal, stacking bricks—was hard and dangerous, and having to toil in a ghost town haunted by Nazi mass murder weighed heavily on the prisoners. “The streets of the ghetto were a dreadful sight for us,” recalled the Polish Jew Oskar Paserman, who had arrived from Auschwitz in late November 1943. Months after the uprising, Paserman still stumbled over decaying bodies. “It stank of corpses, which were lying in the bunkers and under ruins. The streets were covered with pieces of furniture and burned clothes.”168

In the wake of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, SS leaders redoubled their attempts to wipe out the remaining labor camps and ghettos in the occupied east. Much of their focus turned to the Reich Commissariat of the Eastern Land, that is, the territory under German civilian administration that included parts of Belorussia as well as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, the three Baltic States annexed by the Soviet Union after the Hitler-Stalin pact. On June 21, 1943, Heinrich Himmler ordered the closure of all ghettos in the Eastern Land. The surviving Jews would be forced to work in concentration camps instead, while those who were superfluous to slave labor would be killed. Despite some objections from German officials in the army and the civilian administration, who worried about losing “their” Jewish workers and possible repercussions for war production, the order was implemented over the coming months.169

The first new KL complex in the Baltic region emerged in Latvia. Local SS officials had lobbied for a concentration camp for Jews around Riga since the German invasion of summer 1941. According to an internal SS memorandum that autumn, such a local camp promised several advantages over a ghetto: prisoners could be exploited more fully for forced labor, and the separation of men and women would “put an end to the further procreation of the Jews.”170 But it was not until the SS extended its hold over Jews in the Baltic territories that it finally established a KL. In March 1943, around the time of a visit by Himmler to Riga, five hundred prisoners from Sachsenhausen arrived to erect the camp in the small suburb of Kaiserwald (Mežaparks), known in the interwar years as an exclusive seaside resort. The early dimensions of the new camp were modest by SS standards, with four prisoner barracks for men and four for women, separated from each other and the outside world by electrified fences. The camp filled up with Jewish inmates from July 1943 onward, including large numbers of German and Czech Jews who had been deported to the Baltic region back in 1941–42. The prisoners initially came in large columns, laden with their remaining belongings, from the nearby Riga ghetto, which had been emptied by November 1943; later transports arrived from other Baltic ghettos farther afield and from Hungary (via Auschwitz). But most inmates did not stay put for long. The SS quickly realized that it would be impractical to move all local ghetto workshops into the small Riga main camp, and set up satellite camps near these sites of work instead. In all, at least sixteen such camps were established, most of them in Riga itself. The main camp in Kaiserwald now functioned primarily as a transit hub; after registration, new inmates were quickly shunted to one of the satellite camps. By March 1944, the various satellite camps of Riga held around nine thousand prisoners, compared to an estimated two thousand in the main camp.171

This imbalance was even more pronounced in another new Baltic concentration camp, Vaivara, a settlement in northeast Estonia. A small contingent of SS men had to improvise here, Richard Glücks conceded, setting things up “completely from scratch.”Officially opened on September 19, 1943, after hasty preparation, the KL complex grew within weeks to include at least eleven satellite camps; several of them—such as Klooga, some one hundred and fifty miles to the west—rivaled or surpassed the Vaivara main camp in size. Among the prisoners were many families, and it was the young and the elderly who succumbed most quickly to the SS regime of violence and exhausting labor, which included construction work, the production of explosives, and the extraction of oil shale from marshy terrain. In November 1943 alone, at a time when 9,207 prisoners were held across the Vaivara KL complex, some 296 prisoners died. Hundreds more followed during the bitter winter.172

A third main concentration camp in the Reich Commissariat of the Eastern Land was set up in the Lithuanian city of Kovno (Kaunas). Just as in Riga, regional SS forces had already proposed a KL for Jews here in summer 1941, but it was established only in autumn 1943. During the final SS push for the liquidation of ghettos, it turned the Kovno ghetto into a main concentration camp, which held some eight thousand Jewish prisoners at the end of the year. Other former ghettos and labor camps in the region became satellites of Kovno. Among them was the largest Lithuanian ghetto, Wilna. Suspected by the SS as a hotbed of Jewish unrest, it was decimated in summer and autumn 1943. Some fourteen thousand Jews were deported, mostly as KL slave laborers for shale extraction in Estonia, a priority project for Himmler. One of the deported prisoners sent a letter from Vaivara to friends back in Wilna: “We are still alive and working … It rains hard here and it’s very cold. Conditions are hard enough … Good that you stayed.” In fact, those left behind faced lethal violence as the Camp SS established itself in the former ghetto. By late 1943, just 2,600 Jews were still alive in Wilna, spread across four satellite camps.173

There was something novel about the new eastern European concentration camps. Already at first sight, the compounds looked very different from the KL model devised in the 1930s. Many prisoners were still wearing civilian clothing, and sometimes whole families lived together. In a former ghetto like Kovno, they even continued to occupy the same houses as before (the Jewish Council initially remained in place, too). Another contrast to older KL complexes was the rapid proliferation of satellite camps across the Baltic lands, where prisoner numbers began to outstrip the main camps. Turning to the new camps’ administration, they did not adhere to the strict division of the SS Commandant Staff into five departments, which had been the standard in the KL since the mid-1930s. Instead, the internal SS organization was significantly pared down.174 The local Camp SS staff was also supervised in a novel way; while the ultimate power still rested with WVHA headquarters, the commandants in the Baltic region reported not only to Berlin but to a regional WVHA office in Riga, led by a so-called SS economic officer (SS-Wirtschafter), which was responsible for the KL and other economic and administrative matters in the area.175

But the new camps in the occupied east were not alien bodies in the KL cosmos. For a start, the camps still belonged to WVHA, and most rules and staff were drawn from the regular Camp SS. Moreover, the whole KL system was changing from autumn 1943, becoming far more disparate and decentralized, epitomized by the shift away from main camps to a vast network of satellite camps. From this perspective, the new sites in the east embodied the improvised type of concentration camp that would characterize the KL system toward the end of Nazi rule, when the grip of the central authorities weakened and some established practices were thrown overboard in a desperate attempt to shore up the sinking Third Reich.

Action “Harvest Festival”

At the same time as the Camp SS was putting down roots across the Baltic, it continued its expansion in occupied Poland. Numerous new camps were added to the KL portfolio in the incorporated Polish territory. From September 1943, the WVHA began to take over the remaining large forced labor camps in Upper Silesia from SS Oberführer Albrecht Schmelt; around twenty camps were turned into Gross-Rosen satellite camps, and several more into satellite camps of Auschwitz. Among the largest was Blechhammer (Blachownia): when it was attached to Auschwitz in April 1944, more than three thousand prisoners were toiling there on the grounds of a synthetic fuel factory.176 Farther to the east, in the General Government, former labor camps for Jews came under the WVHA, too. Details of their takeover were settled in a high-powered meeting on September 7, 1943, between Pohl, Glücks, and Globocnik, who agreed that his labor camps in the Lublin district, around ten in all, would turn into satellite camps of Majdanek. In addition, larger labor camps elsewhere in the General Government would also become KL, all “in the interest of a general clearing-up,” as Pohl put it; a few weeks later, following local inspections by his men, Pohl signed off on a list of prospective new KL sites, including Radom and Krakow-Plaszow.177

The WVHA expansion plans were abruptly disrupted in early November 1943 by a vast bloodbath in the General Government. In the Lublin district alone, SS and police forces slaughtered some forty-two thousand Jews in forced labor camps. Apparently, Himmler had ordered this action in response to a recent prisoner uprising in Sobibor, the only one of Globocnik’s death camps still operational. Mass murder in Sobibor had continued at a lower pace in 1943 than during the previous year, and once Himmler had abandoned his plan to turn it into a KL (following an intervention by Pohl and Globocnik), it was only a question of time until the camp and its last remaining prisoners were liquidated. Before the SS could implement its plans, however, the prisoners rose up. On October 14, 1943, they attacked and killed twelve SS men and two Ukrainian auxiliaries, and more than 350 prisoners attempted to escape, many successfully. SS leaders were already on a knife edge, following a similar revolt in Treblinka two months earlier and the Warsaw uprising in spring, and amidst mounting SS hysteria about the dangers of the last ghettos and labor camps, Himmler ordered the large-scale mass murder of Jewish forced workers in the eastern parts of the General Government.178

Majdanek stood at the center of the slaughter. Under the idyllic code name Action “Harvest Festival,” some eighteen thousand Jews were murdered here on November 3, 1943. That morning, the eight thousand Jewish prisoners in the camp had been isolated; those who tried to hide were pulled out by SS men and guard dogs. Driven on by the Camp SS, the prisoners were marched along the main camp street, joined by some ten thousand prisoners from nearby Lublin labor camps. They stopped behind the building site of the new crematorium (under construction since September 1943), at the far corner of the camp. Here, the men, women, and children were forced to undress and lie in large ditches; then they were shot in the back of the head or mown down by machine guns; any wounded survivors were buried alive under the bodies of those shot after them. Most of the killers were SD and policemen, who had been specially dispatched to Majdanek. After the war, one of the killers, Johann B., casually talked about the victims to a film crew, in his jovial Bavarian accent: “Well, they did do some griping. They griped, some came up to us with raised fists. And ‘Nazi pigs,’ they screamed. You couldn’t really blame them, we might have done the same, if we’d got it in the neck.”

In an effort to camouflage the salvos, the Majdanek Camp SS piped light music—Vienna waltzes, tangos, and marches—across the ground, using specially erected loudspeakers. Finally, late in the evening, the shots and the music fell silent, after the last prisoner had been executed. Several volunteers from the Camp SS who had participated in the shootings returned to their quarters and held a wild party, drinking much of the vodka they had received as a special reward; some did not even bother to wash off the blood from their boots before they reached for the bottle.179 What they celebrated was the largest single massacre ever in an SS concentration camp. More people were murdered in Majdanek on November 3, 1943, than any other day in any other KL, including Auschwitz. The massacre also marked the end of Majdanek as a Holocaust camp. Mass gassings had already stopped in September 1943, and now all the remaining Jewish slave laborers were dead; at the end of November, there was not a single Jewish prisoner left inside the main camp.180

The wave of mass murder in early November 1943 affected the KL system more widely. Several Jewish labor camps destined for WVHA takeover were effectively wiped out, among them Globocnik’s large camp at the old airport in Lublin, which had functioned as a central collection point for the clothes of murdered Jews.181 Several other labor camps were still incorporated into the KL system from early 1944 onward, though this process now took longer than the SS had anticipated: some camps were established as late as spring 1944, just months before they were abandoned again in the face of the Soviet advance. Among the new camps were three larger former labor camps in Bliżyn, Budzyń, and Radom, which became satellite camps of Majdanek, as did a smaller camp on LipowaStreet in Lublin itself. By mid-March 1944, these four new satellite camps held some 8,900 prisoners (mostly Jews), almost as many as the Majdanek main camp.182

Only one of the Jewish labor camps absorbed by the WVHA in early 1944 was turned into a main concentration camp—Plaszow (Płaszów), the third main KL in the General Government and the last to be established in occupied eastern Europe. In autumn 1942, the German authorities had started to set up a forced labor camp in the Plaszow district on the outskirts of Krakow, mainly for Jews from the local ghetto that was about to be liquidated. Only in January 1944 was this camp transferred from the authority of the regional SS and police leader to the WVHA. By March 1944, Plaszow had overtaken Majdanek in size, holding some 11,600 Jewish men, women, and children (as well as 1,393 Poles in a separate compound). Several thousand more prisoners were detained in six attached satellite camps; unlike at Riga and Vaivara, however, the focal point of forced labor remained the main camp itself, with prisoners pressed into workshops, construction, and a quarry.

Plaszow’s conversion into a concentration camp resulted in various administrative changes, including the introduction of the WVHA camp rules. The inmates themselves, some now wearing the typical striped uniforms, had initially placed great hopes in the new rulers, the former prisoner Aleksandar Biberstein wrote after the war. But these hopes were soon dashed. Instead of better conditions, terror became more efficient under the auspices of the Camp SS. “The random murders and shootings of Jews ceased,” Biberstein recalled, only to be replaced by the systematic “extermination of the rest of the Jewish camp inhabitants,” with frequent selections and some transports to Auschwitz.183 Here, the victims may well have encountered some of the last Jewish survivors of the older KL within the Third Reich’s prewar borders, who had been deported together to Auschwitz back in autumn 1942.

SS Exceptions: Jewish Prisoners Inside Germany

On September 29, 1942, Heinrich Himmler inspected Sachsenhausen, guided by Inspector Richard Glücks and Commandant Anton Kaindl, who tried to impress him with various economic ventures. Although Auschwitz had already grown into the largest KL, Himmler retained an interest in his older camps, and he probably knew that just a few months earlier the Sachsenhausen SS had committed the bloodiest anti-Semitic massacre inside the German heartland since the 1938 pogrom. In “revenge” for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, SS men had executed around 250 Jews on May 28–29, 1942, apparently inside the neck-shooting barrack built for Soviet POWs. Most victims had been rounded up in Berlin for execution. The others were prisoners randomly selected in Sachsenhausen itself, who begged for mercy as they were dragged away. The massacre had been observed by senior SS and RSHA officials. Other Nazi leaders applauded from afar. “The more of this dirty scum is eliminated,” the Berlin Gauleiter Joseph Goebbels noted in his diary, “the better for the security of the Reich.”184

When Himmler came to Sachsenhausen on September 29, 1942, there were only a few hundred Jewish prisoners left inside. Murder and lethal conditions had decimated the already small group of Jews in concentration camps within Germany’s prewar borders; overall, there were no more than around two thousand Jewish prisoners left across these KL, mostly German and Polish Jews.185 But even such a small number was too large for Himmler. At the time, Hitler was pushing for the complete removal of all Jews from the German Reich, and Himmler was keen to comply; during his visit to Sachsenhausen, he ordered the deportation of Jews from all the KL on German soil.186 Written directives followed a few days later; apart from inmates in important positions (who could be temporarily exempted), all Jewish prisoners would be taken to Auschwitz or Majdanek. In this way, concentration camps in the Reich would finally become “free of Jews,” the WVHA informed its commandants.187 Meanwhile, it ordered the Auschwitz SS to dispatch some Polish prisoners as replacements.188

Deportations trains to the east soon started to roll. Gross-Rosen was among the first camps to realize Himmler’s wishes, dispatching its last group of Jewish prisoners on October 16, 1942.189 In Sachsenhausen itself, the deportations triggered an unprecedented mutiny. When the Camp SS rounded up Jewish prisoners on the evening of October 22, 1942, and ordered them to hand over their belongings, panic spread as inmates feared a repetition of the May massacre. A small group of young Jewish men ran onto the roll call square, pushed over some of the SS guards, and shouted: “Just shoot, you dogs!” The Camp SS quickly restored control, though there were no immediate repercussions. The SS men were determined to keep the deportations on schedule, and for once refrained from punishing rebellious prisoners. That same night, a train with 454 Jewish men departed for Auschwitz, including the former boxer Bully Schott, whom we encountered earlier. Arriving on October 25, the prisoners were led to the Auschwitz main camp and registered. But they were not spared for long. Just five days later, the SS carried out a large-scale selection among prisoners recently deported from the westerly KL. Some eight hundred of them, among them Bully Schott, were sent to the IG Farben building site near Dwory for murder through labor. Hundreds more were led straight to the Birkenau gas chambers.190

Before long, almost all Jewish prisoners had been deported from concentration camps inside the German heartland; by the end of 1942, the KL in the Reich (excluding Auschwitz) imprisoned fewer than four hundred Jews.191 The majority of them were held in Buchenwald, which continued to receive some more arrested Jews from the Gestapo, much to the irritation of the local commandant.192 In late 1942, there were 227 Jewish men left in Buchenwald. Most of them had been trained as bricklayers and were needed for urgent construction work. Their status as skilled laborers protected them from deportation and from some of the worst SS excesses. For the time being, they were safer than almost any other Jewish prisoners in the KL system. The twenty-eight-year-old Austrian Jew Ernst Federn, for example, worked on an SS prestige project outside the camp. Prisoners here received double the rations of ordinary Buchenwald inmates, while SS guards acted “in every way humanely and correctly,” as Federn recalled, because they were restrained by the presence of civilians around them.193

In Sachsenhausen, too, a few skilled workers were saved from deportation. Back in summer 1942, the WVHA had begun to assemble a small group of Jewish draftsmen and graphic designers in barrack 19, for a project of national importance, though none of them knew what it could be. Then, in December 1942, a senior SS officer from the RSHA foreign desk, Bernhard Krüger, came to initiate them into a top-secret mission ordered by Himmler and backed by Hitler. Code-named Operation Bernhard (after the shameless Krüger), the prisoners would forge foreign banknotes and stamps.

The Sachsenhausen counterfeiting commando eventually grew from 29 to more than 140 Jewish men. Most of them had arrived from Auschwitz. One of them, Adolf Burger, felt “as if I had come from hell into heaven.” The prisoners were no longer beaten and enjoyed sufficient food, worked in heated rooms, had time for reading, cards, and radio, and slept in proper beds. Their main task was forging British currency (attempts to copy U.S. dollars never went past the experimental stage). Overall, the prisoners later estimated, they produced banknotes to the value of 134 million pounds. The RSHA only deemed a fraction of this to be good enough to buy gold and foreign goods, and to pay off spies; some of the remaining banknotes were dropped over England to destabilize its currency. For this outlandish plan to succeed, the whole of Operation Bernhard had to remain secret. This was why the forgers remained almost completely isolated from the rest of the Sachsenhausen camp (though their secret still leaked out). And this was why the RSHA had selected only Jews, since they could be killed at any time. In the end, through a series of flukes, the prisoners survived the KL. The products of their labor, which had ultimately saved their lives, also endured, as many of the forged banknotes remained in circulation for years to come.194

The story of the Sachsenhausen counterfeiting commando was exceptional. But such exceptions matter, not only because they saved Jews like Adolf Burger, but because they demonstrate that the Nazi authorities could be pragmatic if they had to—in this case by partially suspending Himmler’s autumn 1942 directive to remove Jewish prisoners from the Reich. This points to a wider truth about the Holocaust: in their pursuit of the wholesale extermination of European Jewry, SS leaders were always willing to consider “tactical retreats.”195 This willingness was nowhere more obvious, perhaps, than in the 1943 order to set up a new KL for Jews, right inside the German Reich.

As the genocide of European Jews reached a frenzied climax during the second half of 1942, the leaders of the Third Reich decided to spare a few victims and exploit them as “valuable hostages,” as Heinrich Himmler called them. Obsessed by global conspiracy theories, Nazi leaders had long contemplated the use of Jewish “hostages” as leverage against enemy nations supposedly ruled by Jewish politicians and financiers. Now both the SS and the German Foreign Office agreed that some selected Jews and their families—those with connections to Palestine or the United States, for example—might be exchanged for Germans interned abroad or else for foreign currency and goods. With Hitler’s agreement, Himmler in spring 1943 ordered the establishment of a collection camp for Jews who might be used in these prisoner exchanges. He made clear that conditions should be such that the Jewish prisoners “are healthy and remain alive.”196

The new camp was set up in Bergen-Belsen, between Hanover and Hamburg in northern Germany, on the half-empty grounds of an existing POW camp.197 Despite its unusual mission, reflected in the official title “residence camp” (Aufenthaltslager), Himmler designated it as an SS concentration camp run by the WVHA. It was initially staffed by SS men from Niederhagen, the camp at Wewelsburg castle that had just closed down. The first large prisoner contingent came from Buchenwald, on April 30, 1943, to prepare the site for the so-called “exchange prisoners,” who arrived from July 1943 onward; by December 1944, a total of around fifteen thousand Jewish prisoners had been taken to Bergen-Belsen, where they were held in different sectors, depending on their backgrounds. The proliferation of compounds added to the camp’s confusing layout, which turned into a shantytown of barracks and tents. To further complicate matters, the SS later added a KL compound for regular protective custody prisoners, though numbers here remained small, at least initially; during 1943 and 1944, Bergen-Belsen was predominantly a camp for Jews.198

The Jewish prisoners in Bergen-Belsen dreamed about leaving on exchange transports. Fanny Heilbut, who had arrived with her husband and two sons (a third son had died in Mauthausen) from Westerbork in February 1944, recalled that the hope of freedom “went a long way to keep us going.” But this dream only came true for a small proportion of Jewish inmates. By the end of 1944, only some 2,300 prisoners had been allowed to exit the Third Reich. Fanny Heilbut and her family were not among them. One of the lucky few was Simon Heinrich Herrmann, who departed from Bergen-Belsen on June 30, 1944, with 221 other prisoners bound for Palestine (in exchange, a group of ethnic German settlers from the Protestant Templar sect, who had been interned by the British in Palestine, were sent to Germany). As the former prisoners left Bergen-Belsen behind, Simon Herrmann later wrote, “an invisible hand removed the shackles from our bodies and souls, opening the doors and windows in our hearts.” Herrmann and the others safely landed in Haifa on July 10, 1944. Not many other transports left the camp in 1943–44, and by no means all of those headed for freedom. In fact, more than two thousand Polish Jews were deported from Bergen-Belsen to Auschwitz. The German authorities had deemed them unsuitable candidates for exchanges, unwilling to recognize their prospective Latin American citizenship certificates (so-calledPromesas). By far the largest such transport, with some 1,800 inmates, left on October 21, 1943; all of them were murdered two days later in Auschwitz.199

Most Jews remained trapped in Bergen-Belsen, tormented by their receding hopes of freedom. Conditions varied across the different sectors. In 1943 they were worst in the so-called star camp, the largest compound of the exchange camp, named after the yellow stars the Jews had to wear. There was never enough food (official rations were identical to other concentration camps) and all adults, except for the elderly, had to work hard, often in camp maintenance. But even in this compound the authorities initially allowed privileges unheard of elsewhere in the KL system, except for Herzogenbusch, the other camp for “privileged” Jews. In the star camp, inmates wore civilian clothing and kept some of their belongings. Families met up during mealtimes and evenings (there were hundreds of children). As in ghettos, some of the internal administration was left to a Jewish Council and a camp police. And just like in Herzogenbusch, there was a Jewish prisoner court. As for SS guards, they were instructed to address prisoners by name, not number. There were some SS abuses, but nothing like the daily orgies of other KL. Overall, conditions were poor but sufferable, until they began to deteriorate from spring and summer 1944; over the following months, Fanny Heilbut’s husband and one of her sons perished, as did many thousands of others.200

Bergen-Belsen was an anomaly in the KL system during the middle of World War II. At the time, it was the only concentration camp inside Germany’s prewar borders that held large numbers of Jewish prisoners, and the only KL for Jews not geared toward their eventual death. Virtually all other Jewish concentration camp prisoners found themselves in eastern Europe, which meant likely death. This was true, above all, for Auschwitz, the largest of all the Holocaust camps. From summer 1942, most Jews deported to this camp were murdered within hours of their arrival, as we have seen. It is the fate of the others, those selected as SS slaves in Auschwitz and other KL in eastern Europe, to which we must turn next.

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