Anus Mundi

On September 5, 1942, a few SS men marched into block 27 of the Birkenau women’s infirmary to assist the camp doctor during a selection. For the SS, such selections were part of their working life. For the prisoners, they were the worst torment. The sick women knew their probable fate and some desperately tried to hide. But to no avail. That day, hundreds of Jewish women were condemned to death and herded onto trucks. Near the gas chambers, they had to undress in broad daylight. Unlike Jews who had just been deported to Auschwitz, these prisoners understood what would happen inside the converted farmhouses. Some silently stood or sat in the grass, others sobbed. Among the supervising SS officers was a physician, Dr. Johann Paul Kremer, who later testified that the women had “begged the SS men to spare their lives, cried, and yet all were driven inside the gas chamber and gassed.” Sitting in his car outside, Dr. Kremer listened as the screams died down. A few hours afterward, he recorded a conversation with another Auschwitz doctor in his diary: “[Dr. Heinz] Thilo was right, when he told me today that we are at the anus mundi (the anus of the world).”1

It is easy to picture the balding, fifty-eight-year-old Dr. Kremer smirking at this expression (the diaries reveal his crude sense of humor). But he recognized some deeper truth in Dr. Thilo’s words. After all, Kremer had never planned to be in Auschwitz. Nor was he keen to stay. A professor of anatomy at the University of Münster, he had joined the SS medical service during the summer break, and to his surprise was posted to Auschwitz in late August 1942 for a number of weeks to replace a sick colleague. “There is nothing to excite one here,” he wrote on the day of his conversation with Dr. Thilo. The selections and gassings—he participated in more than one per week—certainly gave him little satisfaction.2 What is more, Dr. Kremer struggled with the climate. He complained about the humidity and the “masses of vermin,” including fleas in his room at the SS hotel in town. Then there was the “Auschwitz illness.” Within days, Kremer was struck down by this gastric virus, not for the last time. But what he really feared were other diseases, and for good reason. Earlier that year, an Auschwitz SS doctor had died of typhus, and during a ten-day period in October 1942, when Kremer was stationed in the camp, the SS counted some thirteen more suspected cases of typhus among its men, while the officer in charge of agriculture, Joachim Cäsar, caught typhoid, which had just killed his wife (Cäsar recovered and remarried a year later, wedding his laboratory assistant in the SS registry office inside the camp).3 Conditions for the Camp SS elsewhere in the occupied east were no better. Female guards in Majdanek, too, were in and out of the hospital with infections. The frustrations felt by the SS staff—disgusted by the primitive sanitary conditions and afraid of catching diseases from inmates—only increased their proclivity for violence.4

At the same time, the Camp SS found much to like in the east. Dr. Kremer, for one, made the most of his inadvertent posting to Auschwitz. His grim tasks in the camp did not spoil his love of the outdoors. In his spare time, he joined other SS men on sun loungers at his hotel and took a bicycle tour across the vast SS-controlled territory, marveling at the “absolutely beautiful autumn weather.” A man with a big appetite, Kremer devoured the generous helpings in the SS officer mess, dutifully recording all the delicacies in his diary, from goose liver and roast rabbit to the “glorious vanilla ice cream.” And he liked the entertainment in the camp. One Sunday afternoon in September he listened to a concert by the prisoner orchestra, and he also enjoyed the regular variety shows for the Camp SS in the evenings, sometimes with free beer; Kremer was particularly smitten by a performance of dancing dogs and small hens who could crow on command. Other times, Kremer made social calls on colleagues. After he spent the afternoon of November 8, 1942, at the Birkenau gas chambers—supervising the murder of some one thousand Jewish men, women, and children who had just arrived from ghettos around Bialystok—he relaxed in the evening with Dr. Eduard Wirths, the chief SS garrison physician, sampling Bulgarian red wine and Croatian plum schnapps. In addition to fun and food, Kremer found time to boost his career. He was delighted to get his hands on “virtually alive material of human liver and spleen” for his studies of the effect of starvation on human organs. Kremer apparently later published a paper on the topic in a medical journal.5

But the biggest bonus of Dr. Kremer’s brief stay in Auschwitz was financial. The belongings of murdered Jews filled the camp, and corrupt SS men like Kremer freely helped themselves. After he was initiated into the tricks of the trade, he took as much as he could from a storeroom near the ramp. The five bulging parcels he sent back home for safekeeping included soap and toothpaste, glasses and pens, perfume and handbags, and much else besides, to a total value of 1,400 Reichsmark. In just five weeks, Untersturmführer Kremer stole goods worth more than half the annual salary of a full-time SS officer of his rank.6 Many other Camp SS officials were on the make, too, in Auschwitz and elsewhere. In the end, corruption became so endemic that a special police commission was sent to the KL. In Auschwitz, the investigation was triggered in 1943 by an unusually heavy package that an SS man had sent to his wife; when suspicious customs officials opened it, they found a huge lump of gold, as big as two fists, melted down from the dental fillings of murdered prisoners.7

By this time, Auschwitz had become the center of the KL system, just as Dachau had dominated the first period of Nazi rule, and Sachsenhausen the early war years. Not that Auschwitz was entirely different; in other KL, too, there was hunger and abuse, selection and mass murder. But everything was more extreme in Auschwitz. No other camp held more staff and prisoners. The mass deportations of Jews had quickly put Auschwitz into a league all its own. During September 1942, the average daily prisoner population across all the KL stood at one hundred and ten thousand. An estimated thirty-four thousand of these prisoners were held in Auschwitz alone, of whom around sixty percent were Jews. They were ruled by up to two thousand Auschwitz SS staff, and many of these officials, as we shall see, felt similar ambivalence about their lives in the east as Dr. Kremer.8

The shadow of Auschwitz looms even larger when we turn to prisoner fatalities. According to secret SS figures, a total of 12,832 registered prisoners died across the KL system in August 1942; almost two-thirds of them—6,829 men and 1,525 women—perished in Auschwitz (excluding an estimated 35,000 unregistered Jews who were gassed that month after SS selections on arrival).9 In total, around 150,000 registered prisoners died in Auschwitz during 1942–43 (again excluding Jews murdered on arrival).10 Their deaths were recorded on various official papers, mostly giving fictitious causes, though rarely as blatant as in the case of the three-year-old Gerhard Pohl, who was recorded as having died in Auschwitz on May 10, 1943, of “old age.”11 Some of the forms ran to around twenty pages, with prisoner clerks typing day and night to keep up. Auschwitz SS doctors, meanwhile, complained about cramps in their hands from signing all the death certificates; to make their lives easier, they eventually commissioned special stamps with their signature.12


Heinrich Himmler and Oswald Pohl showed great interest in Auschwitz, as their largest death camp and greatest hub for forced labor. Back in 1940, when it was first set up, Commandant Höss had had to hunt for scraps of barbed wire. Now his superiors poured funds into the camp, diverting precious resources to their flagship in the east. “I was probably the only SS leader in the entire SS,” Höss later bragged, “who had such a comprehensive carte blanche for the procurement of all that was needed for Auschwitz.”13Earlier KL had resembled small cities; Auschwitz turned into a metropolis. By August 1943, it held some seventy-four thousand prisoners, at a time when there were two hundred and twenty-four thousand registered KL prisoners across all the camps.14 In view of the size of the Auschwitz complex, Pohl divided it in November 1943 into three main camps, each with its own commandant. Auschwitz I was the old main camp, led by the most senior local SS officer (who retained overall responsibility for the camp complex); Auschwitz II was the camp in Birkenau (with the gas chambers); and Auschwitz III contained the satellite camps dotted around eastern Silesia (fourteen by spring 1944), above all Monowitz.15

Conditions varied greatly across the vast Auschwitz complex, as we will see, just as they differed in the other KL in occupied eastern Europe during 1942–43. One Auschwitz prisoner likened his summer 1943 transfer from the main camp to Birkenau to a move from a major city to the countryside where everyone wore shabbier clothes. Another prisoner put it more starkly: the Auschwitz main camp—with its brick buildings, washrooms, and drinking water—was like paradise compared to the hell of Birkenau.16 Despite all their differences, though, the ultimate aim of SS concentration camps in occupied eastern Europe was the same. None of their registered Jewish prisoners—those who had been selected for slave labor rather than immediate extermination—were supposed to survive in the long run.


More than a year after her liberation from the Nazi camps, Nechamah Epstein-Kozlowski lived with her new husband in a Jewish cooperative in a castle near Lake Como in Italy, where they waited impatiently to move to Palestine. It was here, on August 31, 1946, that the twenty-three-year-old Polish woman, pregnant with her first child, talked to the American psychologist David Boder, who had recently arrived in Europe to interview displaced persons. Before their conversation, which was taped on a wire recorder, Boder noted that Epstein-Kozlowski seemed cheerful; but her story, which unfolded over the next ninety minutes, was one of unremitting horror.

Even before she was dragged to the concentration camps, Epstein-Kozlowski had cheated death several times, escaping from a train bound for a death camp and surviving the ghettos of Warsaw and Meseritz (Międzyrzec). In spring 1943, by which time her whole family had been killed, she was taken to Majdanek and began a two-year odyssey through the KL system, which led her to Auschwitz, back to Majdanek, to Plaszow, back to Auschwitz, to Bergen-Belsen, to the Buchenwald satellite camp of Aschersleben, and finally, following a two-week death march, to the Theresienstadt ghetto, where she was liberated on May 8, 1945.

When Epstein-Kozlowski had first arrived in Birkenau, on June 26, 1943, on a transport with 625 other women from Majdanek, they were forced into a road construction commando known as the Death Detail; within a month, she recalled, 150 of the women were dead. Many of those who survived were later murdered. Epstein-Kozlowski herself lived through several selections, including three in the Birkenau infirmary, where, delirious with malaria, she hid in the bunks of non-Jewish prisoners. Jewish children were most vulnerable to such selections, but for several months during 1944, Epstein-Kozlowski helped to protect an eight-year-old orphan called Chaykele Wasserman: “That child was very dear to me. I loved it very much. That child could not go anyplace without me.” Chaykele survived a selection in Plaszow by hiding in the latrine, and she also survived the later move to Auschwitz. But after Epstein-Kozlowski was chosen for a transport to Bergen-Belsen, they were finally separated: “And that child cried very much. When she saw that I was being taken, she cried very much and screamed, ‘You are leaving me. Who will be my mother now?’ But, alas, I could not help any … I cried very much. And the child was crying. And I parted from the child and left.”17 Chaykele probably died before the war ended, just like most other children in Auschwitz. Similarly, Nechamah Epstein-Kozlowski’s experience was shared by most other Jewish adults registered as KL prisoners in eastern Europe during the Holocaust, who faced destructive labor, violence, and constant selections. In one respect, though, her fate was unusual—she survived.

Slaves for IG Farben

Historians have long argued that the Holocaust highlights a sharp contradiction at the heart of Nazism: despite the desperate need for forced labor to feed the German war machine, the regime still went ahead with the mass extermination of European Jewry.18 But for Nazi hard-liners there was no contradiction. Economics and extermination were two sides of the same coin; both were needed for victory. Winning the war required the ruthless destruction of all perceived threats and the mobilization of all remaining resources for the war effort. In the case of Jews judged capable of work, the authorities fused both of these aims into the policy of “annihilation through labor.” Forced labor meant temporary survival for the selected Jews; but almost all of them were dead men and women walking, as far as the SS was concerned.19

KL labor in occupied eastern Europe varied enormously. At times, most notably in Majdanek, it was designed only for suffering.20 More often, the authorities pursued aims that included, but also went beyond, the desire to inflict pain. Typically, Jewish prisoners were exploited during the deadly construction phase of new camps, as well as during their extension and maintenance; in Auschwitz, around half of all employed female prisoners worked in the service of the camp itself.21 Beyond that, prisoners worked for SS enterprises, private companies, and the Nazi state. The experience of slave labor depended on many variables, such as the type, size, and supervision of the work details (few prisoners stayed for long in the same detail, moving frequently and often randomly elsewhere). Still, most Jewish KL laborers faced the same overall threat—labor and death.

This policy was pursued most consistently, perhaps, at the IG Farben site near Dwory. The only living things here, Primo Levi wrote, “are machines and slaves—and the former are more alive than the latter.” Auschwitz prisoners had worked on the construction of the factory since spring 1941. Initially, they still slept in the main camp, so they had to march every day for several hours along muddy roads to and from the building site, around four miles away (later, trains were used, too). IG Farben managers blamed these exhausting transports for the prisoners’ poor output and lobbied for a satellite camp right next to the factory grounds. SS officials agreed after some hesitation, swayed by the WVHA’s growing emphasis on productivity. Construction of the Monowitz concentration camp (or Buna camp) began in summer 1942, using the standard SS barrack model, and it opened in late October 1942. Built on the ruins of Monowitz village, the new camp cost some five million Reichsmark to construct; the sum was paid by IG Farben, which agreed to provide supplies and medical care as well. The SS, meanwhile, was in charge of prisoners inside the camp and outside.

The new KL Monowitz belonged to a bigger complex on the grounds. It was one of eight compounds on the huge IG Farben construction site, which together provided around twenty thousand workers by November 1942. Some of them, like German civilians, enjoyed comparatively good conditions, while others, like forced workers from the Soviet Union (both POWs and others), suffered deprivation. But the KL, the only compound around Dwory run by the Camp SS, was the worst. “We are the slaves of the slaves,” Primo Levi wrote, “whom all can give orders to.” The new concentration camp quickly grew in size, following mass arrivals from the Auschwitz main camp. At the beginning of 1943, there were already 3,750 prisoners, increasing to around 7,000 a year later. The great majority of them—around nine out of ten—were Jews.22

Initiated by IG Farben, the KL Monowitz aimed to feed the industrial giant’s appetite for labor. Work inside the compound itself was reduced to the bare minimum, so around four out of five prisoners toiled on the factory’s building site outside, a “huge entanglement of iron, concrete, mud and smoke,” as Levi described it. The great majority of prisoners ended up in large construction gangs. These commandos were all about unrelenting labor, largely performed without gloves, coats, or any other protection, even in winter. Prisoners erected huge concrete slabs and carried bricks, trees, and iron pipes across the site. Among the worst details was the cement commando—“a veritable murder commando,” one survivor called it—where prisoners had to run from trains to warehouses with bulging cement sacks on their backs; weighing 110 pounds, the load was heavier than many of the prisoners. In the eyes of the authorities, the men in these labor details were easily replaceable and counted for almost nothing. Only a few trained prisoners in sought-after positions fared better: Bully Schott, for example, survived until his escape in August 1944, because of his abilities as a mechanic. But even skilled inmates like him often faced ruinous labor in Monowitz. After Primo Levi joined a small commando of trained chemists, he had to carry heavy phenylbeta sacks: “our strength,” he feared at the time, “will not last out.” Only in the final weeks of Auschwitz did he actually work inside the sheltered laboratory.23

General disdain for the prisoners shaped conditions inside Monowitz. Overcrowding was endemic—around 250 men were crammed into barracks originally designed for fifty-five civilian workers—as was dirt and disease. The SS aggravated the suffering at almost any opportunity. For example, Jewish prisoners—and only Jewish prisoners—had to exchange their leather shoes for ill-fitting wooden clogs, which soon cut gaping wounds into their feet. Worst of all was the slow starvation, “that chronic hunger unknown to free men,” Levi wrote, “which makes one dream at night, and settles in all the limbs of one’s body.” The daily rations from the SS were pitiful and the additional Buna soup, which prisoners received courtesy of IG Farben, contained dirt and “plants which I have never seen growing before,” according to another inmate. Starvation and strenuous work led to extreme weight loss, on average between four and nine pounds per week. After three or four months at the IG Farben site, the former prisoner doctor Berthold Epstein testified in April 1945, “most people died as a result of exhaustion and overexertion.” Overall, around twenty-five thousand of all the thirty-five thousand prisoners sent to Monowitz lost their lives.24

Violent excesses hastened their deaths. One of the leading guards in Monowitz was report leader Bernhard Rakers, a brutal Camp SS veteran (he had signed up back in 1934). His violent record was long and he added to it every day, even though inmates tried hard to stay clear of the man they called the “Buna lion.”25 Then there were the Monowitz Kapos. Among the most notorious was the camp elder Josef (“Jupp”) Windeck, a German petty criminal in his early forties. On the day Monowitz was first opened, he gave a speech to the assembled prisoners. According to one survivor, he said: “You’re not here for fun, you’ll all get wrecked anyway, and you’ll all go through the chimney.” True to his word, Windeck—who used to parade around in riding boots, brandishing a dog whip—frequently beat other prisoners to a pulp.26

SS guards and Kapos were the usual suspects when it came to tormenting prisoners at work. But in Monowitz, the IG Farben paymasters had their say, too. Keen to wring as much labor power from prisoners as they could, company officials demanded strenuous efforts and strict discipline from the frail prisoners. While chief engineer Max Faust opposed some SS excesses—such as “shooting prisoners on the building site or pounding them half-dead,” as he put it in 1943—he still insisted on “punishment of a moderate kind,” which in practice often meant more violence, either beatings by Kapos and company officials or official whippings by the SS.27

IG Farben was an active partner in the policy of “annihilation through labor.” Instead of improving prisoner provisions and the treatment of the sick, the company received an assurance from the WVHA that “all weak prisoners can be deported” to be replaced by others fit for work. This was the basis for constant selections in Monowitz. They were most frequent in the camp’s infirmary, where an SS doctor came about once a week to “empty the beds,” as the SS called it. Walking briskly through the rooms—individual decisions often took no more than a few seconds—the physician picked out those who had already spent two or three weeks inside and others who were not expected to return to work anytime soon. In this way, thousands of prisoners—almost all of them Jews—were selected in the Monowitz infirmary and transported to Birkenau.28 Here, most were driven straight to the crematoria complex; as a former Birkenau block leader put it after the war, the doomed prisoners were “practically no longer alive” even before they were gassed.29

The Selection

To relieve the camp, it is necessary to remove simpletons, idiots, cripples, and sick people as quickly as possible through liquidation.”30 This is how an SS officer summed up, in late 1942, the purpose of selections in a concentration camp like Auschwitz. By then, such prisoner selections had become routine. But things were about to change. As economic imperatives became more pressing, the SS made half-hearted efforts to curb the enormous death rates in the KL system (chapter 8). This included restrictions on selections, at least in some camps.31 As early as December 1942, the Auschwitz camp compound leader Hans Aumeier complained to a colleague about a ban on gassing Polish invalids, who were supposed to die a “natural death” (as he put it) instead.32 This did not apply to registered Jewish prisoners, however. Murderous selections remained a hallmark of the KL for Jews in occupied eastern Europe. In mixed camps like Auschwitz and Majdanek, which held both Jewish and non-Jewish inmates, the SS now introduced a two-tier system. Whereas most registered prisoners were spared the lethal injections and the gas chambers, countless ill, injured, and emaciated Jews were still murdered after selections.33

There was no set pattern, as the Camp SS conducted routine selections and impromptu ones, mass selections and individual ones. In general, the period immediately after arrival was particularly perilous. In Auschwitz, some Jewish prisoners had only just survived the initial selection at the ramp when they, too, were condemned: as they stripped naked inside the camp baths, their clothes no longer concealed injuries and illnesses.34 Many more Jews followed over the coming days, picked out from the quarantine sectors that awaited most new inmates. Murders of selected new arrivals had slowly spread across the whole KL system during the early war years, as part of the wider SS assault on invalids. In summer 1942, the WVHA coordinated matters, ordering that new prisoners should be isolated in special blocks for four weeks after arrival; anyone who was sick would be removed and “treated separately.”35 Camp SS officials in eastern Europe understood this as an open invitation to mass murder in the quarantine sectors.36

Mass selections of Jews continued inside the main camp compounds. In the second half of 1943, for example, selections took place at least once a week during roll call in the Riga main camp. One survivor later described the SS man in charge: “He pulled women out of the ranks whose faces he somehow did not like, who wore glasses, had a spot on the face, even an injured finger, and gave orders for their extermination.” There were further actions during baths and before or after labor.37 Such SS selections often turned into grotesque spectacles. The Polish political prisoner Danuta Medryk, who witnessed several selections in Majdanek, described how the Jewish women had to hold up their skirts to expose their legs, as SS doctors picked out those with swollen and bleeding limbs; emaciated buttocks were also regarded as a sure sign of starvation. Those prisoners selected to die ripped off bandages and held their heads up as high as possible, even appearing to smile at their executioners, in the vain hope of a final reprieve.38

The conditions in eastern European KL often made it impossible to escape selection and death. Jewish prisoners everywhere were slowly starving to death; in Klooga, for example, the daily ration was thin soup with a piece of bread, partly baked with sand. Add maddening thirst, crippling labor, extreme violence, and the sanitary catastrophe, and it is clear why tens of thousands became Muselmänner within weeks of their arrival, and thus prime targets for the selections.39

Normally, the SS reflex was to blame prisoners for squalor and disease. But the state of the camps in the east was so appalling that even local officers called for improvements. In a meeting with SS construction boss Kammler, Auschwitz commandant Höss and his chief physician Wirths complained in May 1943 that the situation in Birkenau (still without central water supply) was woeful, lacking the most basic hygienic and medical standards. Höss had not suddenly turned into a humanitarian; he had more pragmatic concerns. From his point of view, too many prisoners died in the wrong way—that is, from illness, not economic exploitation—resulting in a “huge wastage of manpower.”40 Until conditions improved, local Camp SS leaders promoted murderous selections as the most effective defense against the danger of epidemics to themselves and their families. The gassing of sick and weak Jews, Höss assured his men, was necessary to prevent the spread of illness. In this way, local SS officials rationalized the slaughter of prisoners as an act of disease control and self-preservation, and contributed to the escalation of Nazi terror from below.41

In reality, SS selections actually helped to spread epidemics, by making the sick even warier of reporting to doctors. Most Jewish prisoners knew about the selections among patients. In Auschwitz, the initial selection came right after a prisoner was admitted to the infirmary; those judged too weak or sick to recover soon were isolated and killed.42 As for the others, the infernal conditions in most infirmaries offered little hope for recovery. The French prisoner doctor Sima Vaisman later described her first impression of the infirmary at the Birkenau women’s camp in early 1944: “A smell of corpses, of excrement … And the sick, skeletal beings, covered almost entirely in scabies, in boils, bitten to pieces by lice, all completely naked, shivering with cold under their disgusting blankets.”43 The infirmaries meant death for most Jewish prisoners; reporting for admission was a last resort, an enormous risk, like a game of Russian roulette with an almost fully loaded gun.

Among the infirmary personnel, lower-ranking officials, so-called SS orderlies (Sanitätsdienstgrade), played a key role in selections and were often decorated for their murderous deeds.44 One of these men was Oberscharführer Heinz Wisner. An eager SS activist, born in Danzig in 1916, Wisner worked for several years as a shipping clerk before joining the SS full-time during the war as a medic. In summer 1943, he was transferred from Flossenbürg to the Riga main camp, where he dominated the small infirmaries for women and men.45 Unlike the elderly SS camp doctor Eduard Krebsbach, who only appeared occasionally, the pompous Wisner made his rounds more than once a week. Wearing a white coat over his uniform, the would-be doctor pushed military discipline to perverse extremes; even the dying had to lie straight on their backs as Wisner moved from bed to bed, inspecting each inmate. After he had made his decision, he frequently marked the bed frames of the doomed with a large “X.” These inmates were then either shot in nearby woods or murdered in their beds by lethal injection (there were no gas chambers in Riga). Although he often left these injections to prisoner doctors, it was Wisner who became known in the camp as “the man with the syringe.”46

Of course, death could come anywhere and anytime, not just after selections; it was the ever-present shadow of Jewish prisoners. One of the first things he was told as he entered Birkenau in late 1942, a Polish Jew wrote not long after, was that no one survived the camp for more than three weeks.47 The sight of dead bodies—in beds and latrines, on trucks and building sites—was familiar to all, as was the smoke from the crematoria; Renate Lasker-Allais, a young German Jew deported to Birkenau in late 1943, threw up constantly because of the nauseating stench of burning bodies.48 Even though most Jewish prisoners clung to faint hopes of survival, they knew that few, if any, would get out alive. They even speculated about the relative merits of the different deaths the SS had in store for them: How long before one suffocated in a gas chamber? How painful was death by injection? Better a swift blow to the head, or to waste away in the infirmary? 49

The Auschwitz Special Squad

In the eyes of Primo Levi, the creation of the Auschwitz Special Squad—the prisoner detail that led the doomed to the gas chambers, burned their bodies, and scattered their remains—was “National Socialism’s most demonic crime.”50 Forcing prisoners to assist SS terror was nothing new, and the more strenuous and disgusting the work, the keener the Camp SS usually was to leave it to prisoners. This rule applied, above all, to work in the crematoria. In Dachau, for example, the small cremation commando was made up of German, Russian, and Jewish prisoners. Some of them were expected to do more than burn bodies. Soon after the German prisoner Emil Mahl joined the Dachau commando in early 1944, he was forced to participate in executions. “As a walking corpse,” Mahl later testified, “I had to do horrible things here.”51

But nothing compared to the Special Squad in Auschwitz. Initially, just a handful of prisoners had worked in the old Auschwitz crematorium. But after Auschwitz turned into a death camp in 1942, the SS established a large, permanent prisoner commando at the Birkenau killing complex. Their work temporarily saved these inmates from extermination, though often not for long. While the SS did not murder all Special Squad members at regular intervals (as some survivors and historians suggest), there were selections just as elsewhere in the camp; weak and sick prisoners—sometimes as many as twenty or more a week—were killed with phenol injections in the infirmary. Moreover, the SS occasionally killed a proportion of the prisoners, to reduce the relative size of the Special Squad, during periods when fewer deportation trains arrived. In the end, only a few survived from 1942 through to 1945, among them the brothers Shlomo and Abraham Dragon, whom we encountered earlier.

Overall, more than 2,200 men were forced into the Auschwitz Special Squad during its existence. There were some Polish and German supervisors, like the chief Kapo August Brück. A German prisoner with a green triangle, Brück had worked in the Buchenwald crematorium from 1940, before the SS transferred him to Auschwitz in March 1943 to oversee the Special Squad at the newly built Birkenau crematoria; in contrast to some other supervisors, Kapo August, as the others called him, was regarded asdecent (his privileges as a prominent prisoner could not protect him and he died of typhus in late December 1943). Almost all the rest of the Special Squad was made up of Jewish prisoners. They lived apart from the rest of the inmates, first in isolated blocks in Birkenau and later, from early summer 1944, on the grounds of the crematorium complex itself. Like other KL inmates thrown together as Jews, their backgrounds varied widely in terms of education, religion, and age; the oldest was in his fifties, the youngest not yet twenty. The men came from more than a dozen countries and often formed loose groups along national lines. Communication proved difficult across cultural and linguistic barriers, especially for those, like Greek Jews, who spoke neither Yiddish nor German, the two main languages used by the Special Squad prisoners.52

In a morbid twist of fate, it was the Jewish prisoners closest to the inferno of the Holocaust who enjoyed the best living conditions. Looking back in early November 1944 on his life in the Special Squad, in a secret letter to his wife and daughter that never reached them, the forty-three-year-old Chaim Herman, a Polish Jew, wrote that prisoners like him had everything but freedom: “I am very well dressed, housed and fed, I am in the best of health” (he was murdered by the SS three weeks later).53 The prisoners could help themselves to possessions left behind by those who had gone to the gas. They were dressed in warm clothes and proper underwear, and rarely suffered hunger. Among the effects of the dead, they found not only coffee and cigarettes, but delicacies from all across Europe: olives from Greece, cheese from Holland, goose meat from Hungary.54 And unlike other Jewish inmates in Auschwitz, Special Squad prisoners could move rather freely around their quarters. After the transfer to their new sleeping quarters under the roof of crematoria II and III, they had heated rooms, running water, and proper toilets—unimaginable luxuries for any other Jewish prisoners in the camp. Their quarters were furnished with the goods of the dead: tables covered with porcelain plates and tablecloths, and comfortable bedding and blankets on the bunks.55

The Special Squad prisoners also shared an unusual relationship with the SS, as working side by side inside the “death factory” created a certain bond. Prisoners still greatly feared the SS, and with good reason. But they built up personal relationships, which tended to lessen arbitrary violence. These prisoners were not part of a faceless mass but familiar to SS men by name. On some Sundays, when they were off-duty, the guards even played soccer against the prisoners, right by the crematorium. Other SS men and inmates watched, clapped, and shouted their support, Primo Levi wrote, “as if, rather than at the gates of hell, the game were taking place on the village green.”56

This close relationship with the SS only added to the loathing some other Jews in Auschwitz felt for the Special Squad. Its duties were widely known—details spread via the few non-Jewish Kapos, for example, who slept in regular barracks—and there was plenty of talk about its alleged brutality toward the doomed.57 There were also rumors that the SS selected only the most violent criminals for the Special Squad. Such hostile feelings were summed up by two Slovakian Jews in 1944: the men of the Special Squad were shunned by others, they wrote, because they “stink terribly” and were “completely degenerate and incredibly brutal and ruthless.”58 Even some of the doomed, on their way to the gas chamber, called the Special Squad “Jewish murderer[s].”59 The indicted prisoners knew that they were infamous. When Filip Müller met his father in the Birkenau compound, he was too ashamed to admit that he was part of the Special Squad.60 The stigma remained after liberation and has not vanished even today.61

But we must remember that the Special Squad members were caught in a hell made by the SS. None of them had volunteered and many felt, at first, that they would be unable to adapt. “I thought I was going insane,” one survivor recalled. Initially, they often worked in a trance, like robots. In secret papers buried in a jar near crematorium III in autumn 1944, Salmen Lewental, a Polish student who had arrived in Auschwitz in December 1942 with his family, wrote that during his first day in the Special Squad “none of us were fully conscious.”62

The men selected for the Special Squad soon realized that their only options were obedience or death. A few committed suicide. Others were murdered for insubordination; when five Jewish inmates reported sick after their first day in the crematorium, sometime in 1943, the SS killed them straightaway. Even small mistakes could prove lethal; at least one prisoner “dentist” was burned alive by the SS for sabotage because he had overlooked a gold tooth inside a corpse’s mouth.63 Most prisoners chose to comply and to live, at least for the moment. In his secret notes, Salmen Lewental captured the anguish of the Special Squad in an existential cry: “And the truth is that one wants to live at any cost, one wishes to live, because one is alive, because the whole world is alive.”64

Choosing life in the Birkenau Special Squad was one of the most impossible “choiceless choices” facing prisoners in Auschwitz.65 What kind of life was this, amidst all the dead? Some men became inured to the suffering, acting indifferent and cruel, and focused only on the material benefits. Others suffered from the daily corrosion of their souls, and escaped into drink. It was not just the horror of mass murder—the pleas, the screams, the bodies, the blood—that haunted them, but their deep sense of guilt, having been deprived by the SS “of even the solace of innocence,” in Primo Levi’s words.66 But there were also acts of kindness and courage. As they did not expect to survive, several Special Squad prisoners documented the crimes they witnessed, knowing that no other inmates would come closer to the Nazi heart of darkness. Writing such secret notes required bravery, teamwork, and ingenuity. The great personal risk was worth it, the prisoners felt, to preserve their voices for future generations. Nine different documents, buried on the grounds of the Birkenau killing complex, were recovered after liberation. Among them was a brief message by one of the last surviving members of the Special Squad—he has never been identified—written on November 26, 1944. Certain that he was about to be murdered, he added a final note to several others he had buried earlier in boxes and receptacles near crematoria II and III. At the end of his message, he made this last plea: “I am asking for everything to be arranged together and published with the title ‘Amidst a Nightmare of Crime.’”67

Women and Men

During the Holocaust, women moved from the fringes toward the center of the concentration camp system. For years, female prisoners had been marginal. But the 1942 decision to use camps in occupied eastern Europe for the “annihilation through labor” of Jewish prisoners irrespective of their gender changed everything. In Majdanek, Jewish women accounted for over one-third of all prisoners by spring 1943.68 In Auschwitz, the ratio of female to male inmates fell to less than 1:2 by the end of 1943; and the vast majority of these imprisoned women were Jewish.69 Back in Ravensbrück, female prisoners had initially remained insulated from some of the worst SS excesses. Not so in eastern Europe. From the moment they first set foot in Auschwitz in spring 1942, women faced dreadful conditions, ruinous labor, and extreme violence. Official SS statistics confirm the deadly reality of their lives. During July 1943, registered female prisoners were more than twenty times more likely to die in Auschwitz than in Ravensbrück.70 In all, an estimated fifty-four thousand registered women lost their lives in Auschwitz in 1942–43.71

Of all the female prisoners in the hands of the SS, Jewish women faced the gravest danger. Inside eastern European KL, their mortality rate was broadly similar to that of Jewish men.72 In fact, it was even higher, if one includes those killed without formal registration (since more Jewish women than men were singled out for immediate extermination on arrival). Overall, the gender-determined delay in Camp SS terror came to an end in 1942–43, at least for Jewish women in eastern Europe. However, this did not mean that their experiences were now identical to those of Jewish men. Many gendered differences remained, while others, such as pregnancy, gained new significance.

Previously, prisoner pregnancies had been regarded as a peripheral problem by the Camp SS. Overall numbers of female prisoners had been relatively small anyway, and there was also a ban (at least on paper) on sending pregnant women to state prisons and concentration camps.73 But as the war continued, this ban became increasingly meaningless, especially during the mass deportations of the Holocaust: the Nazi Final Solution targeted all Jews. In Auschwitz, visibly pregnant Jewish women were selected on arrival and gassed; a few were subjected to atrocities at the ramp, like a Greek woman who was kicked so hard in the stomach by an SS man in summer 1943 that she immediately aborted.74 Jewish prisoners whose pregnancy was discovered later on, after they had joined the ranks of registered slave laborers, were also regularly gassed, either before or after giving birth, and their newborns were killed, too. “Jewish children were immediately exterminated,” the former Birkenau camp compound leader Johann Schwarzhuber admitted after the war. In other KL in the east, too, babies born inside were murdered; in Riga, SS men even preserved the corpses of a few infants in a special solution. Meanwhile, some women returned to work after they had suffered a stillbirth or after prisoner doctors had carried out a secret abortion.75 In Auschwitz, prisoner doctors and orderlies even conspired to kill newborn children to save the mothers. “And so, the Germans succeeded in making murderers of even us,” Olga Lengyel, who worked in the Birkenau infirmary, wrote after the war. “To this day the picture of those murdered babies haunts me.”76

Male prisoners in Auschwitz had been incredulous when they heard about the new women’s compound.77 But contacts remained sporadic, at least in Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the prisoners were strictly separated by sex.78 For the most part, encounters with the opposite sex did not go beyond brief glimpses from afar, which often caused pity and horror. The destruction of masculine and feminine traits—reducing prisoners to bald and gaunt figures—demonstrated the powers of the SS. In the absence of mirrors, it was also a brutal reminder of each prisoner’s own desexualization and dehumanization.79 Occasionally, men and women in Auschwitz-Birkenau managed to exchange a quick word at the fence or to throw some food across. A few husbands and wives even corresponded by letter, carried by civilian workers and non-Jewish inmates. But such contacts were rare, and their impotence to fulfill gendered expectations—protecting female friends or relatives—deepened the anguish of some Jewish men.80

The situation was rather different in the new main concentration camps and satellites established in eastern Europe in 1943–44. Here, too, Jewish prisoners were normally separated by gender—in different compounds, barracks, or rooms—but the layout of these camps made strict isolation more difficult. The closer contact between men and women also reflected the previous use of some of these sites as ghettos or forced labor camps. In KL Plaszow, for example, men and women were still allowed to meet up in the evenings, walking through the unlocked gate that separated their compounds. Elsewhere, men and women worked in the same labor commandos.81 Once again, SS rules regarded as immutable in established concentration camps were eroded in the new camps for Jews.

The detention of male and female prisoners in the same camps soon gave rise to salacious stories among both prisoners and SS.82 After the war, the obsession with sex in the camps grew further, spawning a perverse pornography of pain. Following a spate of sadomasochistic films in the 1970s, Primo Levi pleaded: “Please, all you cinema producers, leave the women’s camps alone.”83 In reality, sexual activity had largely been the preserve of a few privileged prisoners. In the short lives of most Jewish KL prisoners during the Holocaust, it had played little or no role: starvation killed their sex drive before it killed them.84 An Austrian Jew, who had come to Auschwitz in 1942, recalled that his sexual urges had simply vanished.85 Most women experienced the same. A Jewish teacher deported from Hungary to Auschwitz in 1944 noted in her diary that she “ceased to be a sexual being” (for many younger women, such feelings were intensified because they stopped menstruating in the camps).86 Any encounters that did occur often involved an element of exploitation or force, at least in the case of Jewish prisoners. Most common was probably sex for survival, with prisoners making pragmatic decisions to become intimate with privileged inmates, mostly non-Jews, in exchange for essential goods like food or clothing.87 Instead of flowers, one survivor recalled, a man might bring a woman a piece of margarine. In this way, sex became another commodity to be exchanged in the camps’ flourishing underground economy.88


The Holocaust was unprecedented, it has often been said, because of the Nazis’ intention to annihilate an entire people, “down to its last member” in the words of Elie Wiesel.89 The program of all-out mass extermination meant that countless families were dragged to SS concentration camps together. On arrival, they were almost always ripped apart, and most were dead within hours, at least in a death camp like Auschwitz. The survivors suffered a dual trauma. In addition to the shock of Auschwitz, which hit all new prisoners, they soon learned that their wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, or children had already been killed in the nearby gas chambers.

After Salmen Gradowski was allocated a prisoner barrack in Birkenau, having just survived the initial selection following his deportation from Grodno ghetto (Bialystok district) in late 1942, he and other men on his transport immediately asked the more experienced inmates about the fate of their families: What had happened since their separation at the ramp? The veterans answered with brutal honesty, as Gradowski recorded in secret notes buried on the grounds of the camp: “They are already in heaven,” the veterans said, and: “Your families have already been let go with the smoke.” Auschwitz was an extermination camp, the newcomers were told, and the first rule was to “leave behind all sorrow about your families.”90

Many other recent arrivals were initiated similarly, but once the awful truth sank in, they reacted in very different ways. Some tried to repress their grief; when Dr. Elie Cohen, a thirty-four-year-old Dutch Jew who arrived in Auschwitz from Westerbork in September 1943, learned that his wife and son had been murdered in the gas chambers, he just wanted “to keep it up”—to go on living (as he later wrote).91 Other men and women broke down. Magda Zelikovitz remembers that she went “completely mad” after she realized that her seven-year-old son, her mother, and the rest of her family (with whom she had just been deported from Budapest) had been gassed: “I did not want to live anymore.” Other prisoners stopped her several times from throwing herself into the electric fence.92

The shock of Auschwitz was greatest for children who suddenly found themselves abandoned. Although the vast majority of Jewish children were murdered on arrival, thousands were registered as prisoners, here and in the other KL for Jews in the east. Albert Abraham Buton was just thirteen years old when he was separated from his mother and father at the Auschwitz ramp in April 1943, after their deportation from Salonika. His parents were taken straight to the gas chambers, leaving Albert and his brother behind. “We couldn’t think, we were so stunned,” he recalled, “we were unable to grasp what was happening.”93 As more child prisoners like Buton were registered (both Jews and non-Jews), the average age of the prisoner population fell. In Majdanek, the authorities responded by creating a new position in the prisoner hierarchy: in addition to the camp elder, there was now a camp youngest, who received special SS privileges.94

The SS was partially blind to the age of its prisoners and forced the younger victims to undergo many of the same hardships as adults. Many children, too, suffered abuse, hunger, and roll calls, as well as hard labor. Mascha Rolnikaite was sixteen years old when she had to carry heavy rocks and push carts full of stones and sand on construction sites near the Riga satellite camp Strasdenhof. Other youths worked as gardeners and bricklayers. As for those judged too young to work, small children in Majdanek had to march in circles all day.95 Nor were child prisoners exempt from SS beatings and official punishments like the penal companies.96 Some suffered an even worse fate. In the Vaivara satellite camp Narva, for example, ten-year-old Mordchaj was strung up, after a failed escape, by the SS commando leader as a warning to all others (the SS man later cut him down and he survived).97

Selections posed a constant threat, as the children learned only too well. After one of the periodic selections among Jews in the Birkenau quarantine camp, a prisoner doctor briefly spoke to a small boy from Będzin called Jurek, who was among those chosen to die. When the doctor asked him how he was, the boy answered: “I am not afraid, everything is so dreadful here, it can only be better up there.”98 Some SS sweeps targeted children only. In Majdanek, Jewish children and babies were taken to a special barrack, cut off from the women’s compound by barbed wire. At regular intervals, SS men emptied this barrack, driving the victims into the gas chambers. Some children escaped, only to be pulled out of hiding by guard dogs. Others struggled with the guards. “The children screamed and did not want to go,” the Majdanek survivor Henrika Mitron testified after the war. “The children were dragged around and thrown on the truck.”99

There was no room for innocence in the KL. Children had to live by the rules of the camp and were often forced to act like adults.100 Terror even seeped into the games they occasionally played, such as “Caps off” and “Roll call,” where older children pretendedto be Kapos or SS guards and chased the younger ones. In Birkenau, there was a game called “Gas chamber,” though none of the children wanted to enact their own deaths. Instead, they used stones to represent the doomed, throwing them into a trench—the gas chamber—and mimicking the screams of those pressed inside.101

No child could survive alone. Occasionally, adult prisoners tried to protect those who had been separated from their parents, acting as their so-called camp mothers or fathers. “We were … really well taken care of,” recalled Janka Avram, one of the small number of Jewish children to survive Plaszow, “because the thousands of Jewish women who had lost their children to the death camps treated us like their own.”102 More commonly, children stayed with one of their own parents, though their relationships invariably changed. While younger children were terrified of being separated, older ones often grew up fast; as their parents’ authority was eroded by helplessness and illness, they sometimes assumed the role of protector and provider.103

Several camps in the east, in addition to Majdanek, had special barracks for isolating Jewish children.104 In Vaivara, they were placed in the lower part of the Ereda satellite camp, together with sick prisoners. Conditions were dreadful. Built on marshy ground, the primitive huts offered no protection from the elements; in winter, it was so cold that the prisoners’ hair sometimes froze to the ground as they were sleeping. Among the children languishing here was a five-year-old girl who had been deported to Estonia in summer 1943 with her mother from the Wilna ghetto. Her mother was held in the upper part of Ereda, less than a mile away, and although it was forbidden, she tried to sneak past the SS guards every day to visit her daughter. When her girl became gravely ill, she smuggled her out of the children’s compound and hid her in a barrack for adults. But the girl was discovered by the SS camp leader just before a death transport left the camp. “I cried for a whole night,” the mother later wrote, “fell to his feet and kissed the boots of the murderer, he should not take my child from me, but it was no use.” The next morning, the girl was taken away with several hundred other children, and she was murdered a few days later in Auschwitz-Birkenau.105

Close to the Birkenau extermination complex, where these children from Ereda were gassed and burned, lay one of the most unusual compounds in any of the concentration camps: the so-called family camp, a special sector for Jewish families deported from Theresienstadt, the dismal Nazi ghetto for elderly and so-called privileged Jews in the Czech Protectorate, which shared some similarities with the KL.106 The Birkenau family camp had been set up after the arrival of two transports from Theresienstadt in September 1943, carrying some five thousand Jewish men, women, and children, almost all of them Czech Jews; in December 1943, further mass transports from the ghetto arrived in the family camp (this was not the only such compound in Birkenau, as the SS also forced families into the so-called Gypsy camp). Inside, Jewish men and women were divided into barracks on opposite sides of the path dissecting the compound, but they could meet before evening roll call or secretly in the latrines during the day.

Conditions in the family camp were appalling—around one in four Jews perished within six months of their arrival in September 1943—but they were still better than in some other parts of the Auschwitz complex. Compared to other Jews in Birkenau, the prisoners enjoyed numerous privileges. They kept some of their possessions and clothes, even their own hair, and received occasional food packages from outside. Most strikingly, Jews were not subjected to SS selections, neither on arrival nor over the following months. The reason for these exceptions is not clear. Most likely, Himmler wanted to use the Birkenau family camp as a propaganda showcase in case of a visit by the International Committee of the Red Cross (just as the SS planned to deceive the Red Cross with the “model” ghetto Theresienstadt). Whatever the reason, other Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz looked with disbelief and envy upon the family camp.107

Among the prisoners in the Birkenau family camp were several thousand children. During the day, many of those under the age of fourteen were allowed into the children’s block, run by Fredy Hirsch, a charismatic twenty-eight-year-old German Jew who had already played a leading role in youth welfare in Theresienstadt. While there were barracks for children in other parts of Birkenau, too, the one in the family camp was unique, reflecting the compound’s special status. Despite shortages of everything, from paper topens, Hirsch and the other teachers drew up a full curriculum. There were songs, stories, and German lessons, as well as sports and games. Older children wrote their own newspaper and painted the walls of the barrack. And the children put on plays, including a musical based on the cartoon Snow White. But such eerie moments of normality in the midst of terror—epitomized by Jewish children dancing and singing Disney tunes, just a few hundred yards from the Birkenau gas chambers—did not last long. In the night from March 8 to 9, 1944, barely a week after Adolf Eichmann had inspected the family camp, the SS murdered some 3,800 inmates, who had arrived the previous September, in the gas chambers of crematoria II and III. Among the dead were many of the children; their mentor Fredy Hirsch had committed suicide hours earlier, after another prisoner had told him about the SS plans.108

The survivors included some twins spared for human experiments. Among them were Zdenĕk and Jiři Steiner. When the two boys surveyed the compound after the murders in March 1944, which had claimed their parents, it seemed eerily empty; all they saw were “flames flickering from the chimney of the crematorium.” The remaining inmates of the family camp were soon joined by thousands of new arrivals from Theresienstadt, following another wave of deportations in May 1944. But few of them would live for long, either. In July, following the selection of some 3,200 prisoners for slave labor, the remaining 6,700 inmates—mostly women, children, the elderly, and the infirm—were murdered in the gas chambers. In the eyes of the SS, the Birkenau family camp had outlived its purpose and was abandoned.109

Some Auschwitz SS men felt uneasy about the eradication of the family camp. It was not unusual for guards to hesitate when it came to the abuse and murder of prisoners whom they had come to know personally.110 This was especially true for the Jewish children in Birkenau, many of whom had spent several months inside. During that time, individual SS men had developed a soft spot for them, bringing toys, playing football with them, and enjoying their theater performances. When the orders came through to liquidate the camp, a few SS staff apparently tried to intervene with their superiors to save the children.111 But they still carried out their murderous orders, leaving them full of self-pity about the difficult tasks they had to perform for the German fatherland in the Nazi-occupied east. It was a complaint that had been heard many times before.


Early on Wednesday, September 23, 1942, WVHA leader Oswald Pohl and other senior SS officers, including his trusted construction chief Hans Kammler, arrived in Auschwitz for a day packed full of meetings and inspections.112 Just one week earlier, on September 15, Pohl and Kammler had met with Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who signed off on ambitious plans for the extension of Auschwitz (projected cost: 13.7 million Reichsmark), reflecting its increasing prominence in the Holocaust. The budget included more funds for the Birkenau killing complex, additional barracks, and other facilities. When all was done, Pohl expected Auschwitz prisoner numbers to reach one hundred thirty-two thousand, effectively quadrupling the current capacity.113 Pohl immediately informed Himmler about his deal with Speer, and then met him in person on September 19, once more accompanied by Kammler, to review some of the details.114

During their visit to Auschwitz four days later, Pohl and Kammler talked over the plans with SS experts from the local construction office. This was just one of many items on their agenda. Pohl also chaired a large meeting with party and state officials to resolve thorny issues about the place of the camp within the wider local community. In addition to the never-ending problem of the camp’s water supply and waste disposal, the officials discussed the ongoing efforts to turn the city of Auschwitz into a model settlement. The architect Hans Stosberg offered some particulars about the SS neighborhood and received Pohl’s permission to build a leisure park for local residents not far from the camp.115 On the afternoon of September 23, 1942, Pohl then embarked on a lengthy tour across the SS interest zone itself, visiting the main camp, Birkenau, Monowitz, and other sites. Pohl’s trip took longer than expected and he returned just in time for a lavish dinner in the officers’ mess, serving the best beer and as much fish as the men could eat.116

After the meal, Pohl spoke to the assembled senior members of the Auschwitz Camp SS. He thanked them for turning Auschwitz into the most important SS concentration camp, and reassured them that their work was no less important than frontline service in the Death’s Head divisions (to whom the Camp SS felt chronically inferior). Himmler’s orders for the KL were extremely important for victory, Pohl stressed, whatever the strain on individual officers. He was thinking, not least, about the mass murder of European Jewry, which he alluded to as “special assignments, about which no words have to be lost.” An inspection of bunker 2 in Birkenau had been on Pohl’s agenda during the previous afternoon, and he cannot have missed the dark plumes of smoke rising from the nearby open ditches, where the SS was burning corpses. Considering the so-called Final Solution, Pohl lauded his men for their dedication and their commitment to the cause.117 Straight after his speech, Pohl demonstrated his appreciation by offering a special reward. He approved the construction of a brothel for the Auschwitz Camp SS, the first of its kind, so that his men could seek some diversion after a long day of mass murder.118

Foreigners in the Camp SS

During his speech on September 23, 1942, Oswald Pohl praised the exemplary comradeship of the Auschwitz SS, firmly united under Commandant Rudolf Höss. But this was just an empty phrase: it was well known in the WVHA that there was plenty of friction within the Auschwitz ranks.119The acrimonious tone was set by the unforgiving Höss himself, who clashed frequently with his men. His disdain remained undimmed after the war. Sitting in his prison cell in Krakow, he wrote withering pen-portraits of Auschwitz officials who had crossed his path, dismissing them as devious, duplicitous, or plain dumb.120 The loathing between Höss and some of his men was mutual. There was much bickering behind his back, with subordinates complaining about his cold, prim, and ruthless manner.121 Of course, the Camp SS had never been a band of brothers; the picture of close comradeship was always a projection of SS leaders, covering up conflicts between Guard Troop and Commandant Staff, between officers and rank-and-file. Still, the spirit of the Camp SS became ever more fractured as the war wore on, especially in occupied eastern Europe.

The conflicts had much to do with personnel changes and shortages. Although the number of Camp SS men grew during the war, it never caught up with the huge expansion of the prisoner population. In March 1942, there had been around 11,000 prisoners and 1,800 SS men in Auschwitz (6:1). Two years later, there were some 67,000 prisoners and 2,950 SS personnel (23:1).122 The WVHA was well aware of the resulting strain on its staff. One solution was to reduce demands on them, by handing more powers to Kapos, by rationalizing procedures, and by using more guard dogs.123 The WVHA also tried hard to recruit new officials, especially for its expanding camps in eastern Europe. Expectations were low. Since he was no longer allowed to recruit men fit for frontline service as sentries, Camp Inspector Glücks was resigned to receiving “more and more physically disabled and cripples,” as he put it in 1942.124

Some vacant posts in eastern Europe were filled with experienced KL staff from inside Germany; in Auschwitz, around a hundred SS men arrived in 1941 from other concentration camps farther west. Such transfers to the east promised rapid advancement, since the SS had to fill many senior positions. The NCO Hans K., for example, moved in spring 1943 from a lowly position in Sachsenhausen to become labor action leader in Riga.125 Nonetheless, many German KL staff resented such transfers. They complained about being stuck in primitive backwaters and saw their new posting as a punishment (there was some truth in this, as Camp SS managers often reassigned officials to the east as a disciplinary measure).126 Additional men arrived from Waffen SS divisions, including injured fighters and invalids, though not all local commandants welcomed these veterans with open arms. Rudolf Höss, for one, complained about Eicke dumping men on the camps for whom he had no use anymore.127

The WVHA knew that it could never fill its needs with German nationals alone. Among the foreign associates of the Nazi regime during World War II were many tens of thousands of men who joined the ranks of the Waffen SS. As German losses at the front mounted from 1942, SS efforts to recruit from abroad redoubled, and before long, foreigners made up a large proportion of the Waffen SS.128 Many thousands of them became KL staff; often, they were dispatched to the camps after no more than two or three weeks’ perfunctory training.129 The vast majority of them hailed from eastern and southeastern Europe.130 Most were “ethnic Germans,” an amorphous term applied to those foreigners who were embraced by the Nazi authorities as part of the German people, though they were not normally German citizens. By autumn 1943, around seven thousand such “ethnic Germans”—around three thousand from Romania, the others largely from Hungary, Slovakia, and Croatia—served as sentries in the SS Guard Troops, accounting for almost half of their total strength.131 In addition, the KL recruited so-called alien auxiliaries, who joined not the Waffen SS but the SS retinue. Among them were several thousand men—mostly Soviet POWs—who had gone through the notorious SS training camp in Trawniki near Lublin. Many of these Trawniki men had first served in Globocnik’s death camps and were later redeployed, after the closure of these sites, as KL sentries in the occupied east and inside the old German borders.132

The transformation of the Camp SS into a multinational force—most pronounced in the eastern European camps—hastened its fragmentation, with deep rifts between German staff and foreign recruits.133 All across the occupied east, German officials held their foreign helpers in barely concealed contempt, and it was no different inside the KL. German superiors widely regarded the new Camp SS recruits as simpletons, brutes, or potential traitors.134 The newcomers’ poor command of German was held against them as well, and resulted in numerous dismissals. Despite half-hearted appeals by SS leaders to treat the foreigners as comrades, regular German staff were not afraid to vent their frustrations. When SS Private Marschall, who worked in the Birkenau administration, was stopped one day by block leader Johann Kasaniczky, an ethnic German, at the entrance of the women’s camp and asked why he wanted to enter, he gave him a sharp dressing-down: “That’s none of your damn business, and you better learn to speak proper German first if you want to talk to me.”135

Not surprisingly, foreign Camp SS men often felt alienated. For a start, many of them were not volunteers but had been drafted or pressed into SS service.136 Once inside the KL, they stood at the bottom of the staff hierarchy. In addition to the derision by their German colleagues, who occupied almost all positions of authority, they had few prospects of promotion. SS managers even canceled the leave of ethnic Germans, afraid that they would not return to the camps.137 Frustration must have been widespread among foreign guards, and in early July 1943, it boiled over among a company of Ukrainian sentries in Auschwitz. Not long after their arrival, fifteen of them escaped from the camp, armed with weapons and ammunition; the ensuing firefight left eight Ukrainians and three SS pursuers dead.138

It is hard to gauge what all this meant for the prisoners. Foreign SS men generally joined the Guard Troops around camps and work sites, and therefore had less direct contact with inmates. Some of the sentries still committed acts of extreme violence; prisoners suspected that ambitious ethnic Germans wanted to prove themselves as “real Germans” through displays of violence.139 On the whole, however, foreign SS men may have acted somewhat less maliciously than most of their German colleagues.140 Some openly pitied the inmates and admitted their own dissatisfaction with the Nazi regime and their miserable duties in the camps.141 Prisoners were always delighted to see such cracks in the SS armor, not least because it raised their hopes of striking deals for extra food and privileges. Such illicit contacts were eased by the fact that foreign guards and prisoners often spoke the same language.142 A shared language could also be dangerous, however. In Gross-Rosen, an eighteen-year-old prisoner from Kursk, who had taunted a Ukrainian guard as a traitor, was hanged in front of all assembled prisoners; the aggrieved guard watched the execution from the front row.143

Female Guards

Foreign men were not the only new faces among the Camp SS. As more and more Jewish women were detained during 1942–43, SS managers dispatched German women as guards to all main camps in eastern Europe and to many satellite camps as well; some were veterans from Ravensbrück, while others had been hurriedly trained for their new roles. Although the SS still drew the line at admitting these women to the ranks (they were consigned to the SS retinue), and although the total number of female German guards sent to the occupied east was small (in Majdanek, around twenty women worked opposite 1,200 men), their influx changed the Camp SS. Many male veterans saw the arrival of armed and uniformed women as an affront to their all-male paramilitary ideals. The fact that some female guards did not back down in conflicts with male superiors only heightened the anger of SS men.144 Insubordination and ill discipline of female staff were punished frequently by male commandants, so strictly that the WVHA called for more restraint.145 Rudolf Höss spoke for many chauvinistic Camp SS men when he dismissed the new female colleagues as lazy, dishonest, and incompetent, running around the compounds like “headless chickens.”146

Höss himself engaged in a particularly bitter dispute with the first senior supervisor of the Auschwitz women’s camp, Johanna Langefeld. In Ravensbrück, Langefeld had overseen the daily life of female prisoners. She expected similar powers in Auschwitz but met with strong opposition. In July 1942, Himmler waded into the row during his visit to Auschwitz, siding with Langefeld. But Höss had the last laugh, as Himmler’s order that a women’s camp should be led by a woman, assisted by a male SS officer, was torpedoed by Camp SS men. After all, Höss asked acidly in his memoirs, which male officer would subordinate himself to a woman? As for Langefeld, she was eventually ordered back to Ravensbrück and reprimanded by Pohl; in spring 1943, she was kicked out of SS service altogether and arrested.147

There was another side to the relationship between men and women in the service of the Camp SS, beyond spats and quarrels. The SS staff also enjoyed plenty of fun and banter, and just as in Ravensbrück and other mixed camps, romance blossomed in the eastern European KL. In Majdanek, the wooden barrack for female guards stood conveniently opposite the compound for male Guard Troops, and the official ban on illicit meetings could not put a stop to intimate liaisons. The young female guards enjoyed unusual liberties, compared to their more restricted lives back home (as did the few young women who had volunteered as SS telegraph and radio operators). In the end, four female guards ended up marrying SS men in Majdanek. There were also broken hearts, of course; one jilted Oberscharführer is even said to have attempted suicide in the Majdanek gas chamber.148

Prisoners often talked about the private lives of the SS guards. This was more than idle gossip, since these entanglements could have serious repercussions for the inmates. After all, SS violence often carried a theatrical element, as we have seen, and such performances were particularly pronounced in mixed camps, with male and female guards trying to impress each other through terror. Female guards often showed added venom in the presence of male colleagues, keen to prove that they were as tough as the men. This gendered dynamic went the other way, too. In a working environment where a cold heart and an iron fist were seen as essential parts of the male anatomy, SS men were all the more determined to appear hard in front of the supposedly weaker sex. The chief of the Majdanek crematorium, Erich Muhsfeldt, one of the Camp SS experts in the disposal of corpses, often indulged in macabre jokes, waving body parts of corpses at passing female guards. Such acts could be described as monstrous deeds of a sadistic madman. Or they could be read differently: as an attempt to get a rise out of “weak” women and a demonstration of what passed for masculine strength within the Camp SS.149

Camp SS men tried to demarcate some strictly male spheres. Traditionally, the use of firearms had been a male preserve, and this custom was jealously guarded in the KL. While uniformed female guards carried guns, too, social practice dictated that their use was left to SS men. In addition, female guards were excluded from the business of gassing and burning prisoners in Birkenau and Majdanek; apparently only men were thought to have the stomach for mass murder. Nonetheless, female guards in eastern European KL participated in selections and committed violent excesses—more so than in Ravensbrück—by slapping, hitting, whipping, and kicking the prisoners on a daily basis.150 Some of these assaults were so extreme that superior officers took the unusual step of issuingreprimands.151


Kurt Pannicke looked like a poster boy of Nazi propaganda. He was an attractive young man, tall and slender, with blond hair and blue eyes; the small scar on his cheek only enhanced his dashing looks.152 Pannicke was also a drunken thug and a thief, a torturer, and a mass murderer. As SS camp leader in Vaivara and several of its satellite camps in 1943–44, he committed countless crimes. This NCO in his mid-twenties saw himself as omnipotent—one of his nicknames was “King of the Jews”—and he knew no limits. Here was a man who would chat casually with inmates and dish out privileges to his favorites, before murdering them. “I shoot my Jews myself!” he told the prisoners over and over again.153 Pannicke’s public persona as a god of virtue and vengeance may havebeen unusual, but his overall conduct was hardly exceptional. He was one of many young and lower-ranking Camp SS men who basked in their powers, erecting a regime of terror across the KL of occupied eastern Europe.

Violence and murder were part of the daily Camp SS routine in the east. There were many forms of violence, with some, like slaps and kicks, far more common than others, such as sexual abuse. Still, there was sexual violence. In recent years, historians have become more alert to systematic sex crimes during ethnic cleansing and genocide, not least by German soldiers in the Nazi-occupied east.154 Inside the KL, too, some prisoners were raped by SS men, though other forms of sexual abuse were more widespread. Women were frequently molested upon arrival in the camps and during selections, as SS men—who were strictly forbidden to have intimate contacts with inmates—could always claim that they were just doing their job, such as searching for hidden valuables. In addition, there were cases where inmates engaged in intimate relationships with guards, in exchange for food and other privileges, although this carried considerable risks, not just for the prisoners but for the SS officials, too.155

“Every German in the camp was master over life and death, but not everyone exercised this power”—this was how a Majdanek survivor summarized the unpredictable behavior of the Camp SS.156 Numerous SS officials in the occupied east relished their jobs; even some of their colleagues suspected that these officials had found their true calling inside the KL.157 Among them was Auschwitz administration leader Karl Ernst Möckel, who announced in 1943 that he was so happy he never wanted to leave.158 It was not just bureaucrats like Möckel who enjoyed themselves. There was no shortage of enthusiastic torturers and killers—men who laughed after they gouged out prisoners’ eyes and urinated on the corpses.159 A few were pathological killers. Hauptscharführer Otto Moll, forexample, the chief of the Auschwitz crematorium complex, clearly took great pleasure in unimaginable acts of cruelty.160

By the same token, there were reluctant perpetrators. Just as some Camp SS men had struggled during the killing of Soviet POWs in 1941, others hesitated during the Holocaust; the daily slaughter of women and children, in particular, hit them harder than they cared to admit.161 A handful of SS officials evaded such murderous tasks or refused outright to participate; in Monowitz, one SS sentry openly told a Jewish inmate that he would never kill a prisoner: “It would go against my conscience.”162 But few others followed their lead, even though there was little risk of serious SS punishment. In fact, some men had been told by their officers that they could excuse themselves from certain unpleasant tasks.163

Even SS officials who put in for transfer away from camps like Auschwitz continued to do their duty until they departed. Among them was Dr. Eduard Wirths, who was appointed as chief garrison physician in September 1942, aged thirty-three, and served until January 1945. An ambitious doctor and committed National Socialist, with a particular interest in racial hygiene, Wirths cut a contradictory figure. He confided in Commandant Höss that he was troubled by the mass extermination of Jews and by prisoner executions, and repeatedly asked to be moved to a different post. At the same time, however, Wirths played a central part in the Holocaust in Auschwitz. He initiated new SS doctors and drew up their rosters, and supervised selections at the ramp and the subsequent gassings.164

As we have seen before, the participation in extreme violence can be partly explained by group pressure. This was true for the Holocaust, too: men who stepped outside their comrades’ circle of complicity were shunned and excluded from rewards and promotions.165 In his memoirs, Rudolf Höss claimed that even he had found the carnage hard to bear. However, he made a point of attending gassings and cremations, and of remaining “cold and heartless” throughout, to set an example to his men and to cement his authority as a tough leader. A perverse sense of pride came into play, too. During official inspections, Auschwitz SS men liked to flaunt their toughness by upsetting visitors with the grisly reality of mass extermination. Rudolf Höss took “great pleasure in showingthe ropes to a deskbound bureaucrat” like himself, recalled Adolf Eichmann, who claimed that he had shied away from watching the murders close-up.166

Camp SS perpetrators also gained tangible benefits from the Holocaust in the occupied east. As lethal as the KL were for Jews, they were safe havens for the SS men, at least compared to fighting at the front. This was one reason why even reluctant perpetrators did not volunteer for deployment elsewhere.167 Then there were the material advantages. In addition to gaining access to the property of murdered Jews, perpetrators received official recognition, like promotions and rewards (just as they had done during the murder of Soviet “commissars”).168 The troops also got a small bonus for each selection, gassing, and cremation. It did not take much to make men volunteer. The Auschwitz camp physician Dr. Kremer noted in his diary on September 5, 1942, that SS men were queuing up for “special actions” to get their hands on “special provisions”: five cigarettes, one hundred grams of bread and sausage, and, most important, seven ounces of schnapps, with the Camp SS once more using alcohol to ease mass murder (drink fueled the perpetratorsin Globocnik’s death camps, as well).169 SS Rottenführer Adam Hradil, one of the so-called gas chamber drivers, who steered trucks with old and sick Jews from the Auschwitz ramp to the gas chambers, testified after the war that he found the trips “not a lot of fun.” Nonetheless, he liked his job: “I was happy when I received a special ration of schnapps.”170

Previous experience with torture and abuse made it easier to participate in the Holocaust. The leading concentration camp officers in eastern Europe could look back on many acts of extreme violence. Some had made their mark outside the KL. Before Amon Göth joined the Camp SS as commandant of Plaszow in 1944, he had committed countless atrocities during ghetto clearances and as the commander of Plaszow forced labor camp.171 But most senior officers were veterans from the Camp SS, for whom the Holocaust was the climax of their cumulative brutalization.172Many of them had gone through the school of violence in the prewar SS camps. In the Auschwitz main camp, two of the three senior commandants (Rudolf Höss and Richard Baer) and four of the five camp compound leaders had begun their careers back in Dachau in 1933–34.173 There are similar biographies among the lower ranks. Gustav Sorge, who had joined the Camp SS in 1934 and became leader of the Sachsenhausen death squad, was transferred to eastern Europe in the second half of 1943. Sorge had frequently demonstrated his propensity for extreme violence against Jews in the past, and as camp leader of several Riga satellite camps, “Iron Gustav” (as he was known here, too) continued his crimes. One former prisoner testified that Sorge had devised a novel way of identifying male prisoners he wanted dead. During roll call, he would kick them with full force in the groin; then they were dragged away by the camp elder, never to be seen again.174

For Camp SS men like Sorge, the Holocaust was the crowning moment in a career of violence. But even these men did not commit atrocities mechanically. Experienced perpetrators still acted within the wider moral landscape delineated by their superiors. And although almost all acts were sanctioned during the Holocaust, there were some limits, for the sake of what Himmler called decency and for more tactical reasons. How such restraints affected even hardened Camp SS killers can be illustrated by briefly turning westward, to the Herzogenbusch concentration camp in the occupied Netherlands.

Herzogenbusch was staffed in January 1943 by several Camp SS veterans. The new work service leader was none other than Gustav Sorge (prior to his posting to Riga). He had been transferred from Sachsenhausen with several notorious block leaders, as well as a feared guard from the bunker, who became the new camp compound leader. The first commandant was another hardened SS man: Karl Chmielewski, who had proven himself as the murderous compound leader of the Mauthausen subcamp Gusen, not least during the mass murder of Dutch Jews in 1941.175 Gathering such violent veterans would seem like a recipe for atrocities. The reality turned out differently, however. As we have seen, the higher SS and police leader in the Netherlands, Hanns Albin Rauter, held considerable sway over the camp and believed that a more moderate regimen in the transit compound for Jews would mislead the inmates about the Nazi Final Solution. He urged similar moderation in the protective custody compound (opened in mid-January 1943), which mostly held Dutch men detained for alleged political, economic, and criminal offenses; conceived by Rauter to showcase the supposedly strict but fair German occupation policy, treatment here was comparatively mild, too.176

The unexpected demand for restraint in Herzogenbusch baffled SS veterans like Gustav Sorge, who complained that it went against all the established practices of the Camp SS.177 Over time, however, most guards adjusted to the unfamiliar requirements. Those who did not faced sanctions for prisoner abuses and other violations. Rauter was serious about preserving the façade of his “model SS enterprise,” as he called it, and initiated a number of cases in SS and police courts.178 The most prominent target was Commandant Chmielewski; after his taste for violence and corruption became open knowledge outside the camp, he was arrested in autumn 1943. The following summer, he was sentenced to fifteen years in a penitentiary and sent to Dachau as a prisoner.179

Location really mattered, then, in Herzogenbusch and elsewhere. It was of great importance where concentration camps lay in occupied Europe, with the occupation authorities treading more carefully in the west than in the supposedly “backward” east. In Herzogenbusch, such tactical considerations resulted in more lenient conditions, compared to other KL. In eastern Europe, where the German occupiers ran a far more draconian regime, Camp SS leaders had no such reasons for restraint. Here, deadly violence became so frequent, a former Majdanek sentry testified after the war, that “it did not attract any attention when a block leader murdered a prisoner, by shooting or beating to death.”180

Colonial Masters

The outlook of the Camp SS in the east rested on the supremacist ideology that shaped the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Soviet Union as a whole. Accordingly, SS staff stood at the top of the racial hierarchy, towering over Poles, Soviets, and Jews, who made up the great bulk of the prisoner population. The Camp SS had unleashed extreme violence against these groups for some time, and this violence was bound to escalate in the colonial setting of Nazi rule over eastern Europe.181 Encounters with prisoners reinforced SS prejudices, as the conditions in the camps in the east made some inmates resemble the miserable caricatures of Nazi propaganda.182 This was still not enough for some SS officials, who snatched any remaining shreds of dignity from prisoners; in Majdanek, inmates were occasionally forced to walk around the mud in ball gowns, high heels, or children’s clothes.183 The prisoners’ dehumanization often had the desired effect, making it easier for the Camp SS to commit genocide. As the SS man Pery Broad wrote in 1945, his colleagues in Auschwitz “simply did not see a Jew as a human being.”184

It has been argued that hands-on Nazi killers were untroubled by their actions because they believed them to be necessary.185 There is some truth in this. Rudolf Höss, for one, saw himself as something of an expert on Jewish matters—he had even been to Jerusalem during the First World War—and regarded Jews as existential threats who had to be exterminated.186 But the mass slaughter in camps like Auschwitz and Majdanek also sowed doubts in the minds of some officials, prompting their SS superiors to reaffirm the moral right of the Final Solution. In Auschwitz, Höss and other SS leaders gave regular pep talks, telling the block leaders that Jewish prisoners deserved to die because they had sabotaged the German war effort by blowing up bridges and poisoning wells (reviving old anti-Semitic tales).187 The murder of Jewish children was equally essential, Höss reassured his men. Echoing Himmler’s views, he explained that the children who looked so innocent would otherwise turn into the most dogged avengers. Höss illustrated his point with a revealing image: if little piglets were not slaughtered, they would grow into proper pigs.188

Such vicious propaganda must have fallen on fertile ground. It also added to the residual fears of Camp SS officials, for whom the initial shock about the basic living conditions in the east often gave way to general anxieties about their safety. They might have felt like colonial masters, but their sense of supremacy was undercut by the alien surroundings, fretting about partisan attacks from outside, and prisoner assaults and illness inside.189 The fear of epidemics, in particular, continued to haunt the Camp SS, despite partial vaccinations. The paranoid Unterscharführer Bernhard Kristan, for example, always pressed the door handle to the office of Jewish clerks in the Auschwitz political office with his elbow, rather than his hand, to avoid any contact.190 From this perspective, Jewish prisoners posed not just a general threat to Germany’s future, but a more immediate risk to the well-being of local SS officials.191

Especially important for the making of Holocaust perpetrators was their habituation to mass extermination. The Camp SS staff in the occupied east regarded bloodshed and murder as part of the job, with shifts and breaks, training and specialization.192 Genocide became routine, and even Camp SS officials not at the forefront of mass murder became immersed in it.193 It is particularly striking how quickly novices fit in. Take the SS physician Dr. Kremer. During ten weeks in Auschwitz in autumn 1942, he participated in the murder of Jews on thirteen RSHA transports, as well as other prisoner selections and experiments; he also attended corporal punishments and executions. For a man like Kremer, extreme violence turned into an everyday event.194

Even SS officials who were initially shaken by mass murder generally fell into line. A German soldier who spent a few days in Auschwitz in summer 1944 told an SS man that he could never participate in mass extermination. The man replied: “You will get used to it, too, everyone here becomes obedient and eats humble pie.”195 How this worked in practice becomes clear in the case of Dr. Hans Delmotte. A young SS physician, Delmotte suffered a breakdown after witnessing his first selection at the Auschwitz ramp. He appeared paralyzed and had to be escorted to his quarters, where he got drunk and vomited. The next day, still dazed, he demanded to be transferred to the front, as he could not participate in mass slaughter. But Delmotte soon calmed down. He was placed under the wing of his experienced colleague Dr. Josef Mengele, who gradually persuaded him of the necessity of mass extermination in Auschwitz. Delmotte was also reunited with his wife and before long, he had settled into his job, carrying out selections and even drawing praise from his superiors.196 The presence of his wife in Auschwitz may well have helped him to perform his murderous duties, turning the spotlight on another important aspect—the private lives of the Camp SS in the east.

Happy Days in Auschwitz

In early 1947, as he was writing his memoirs in the Krakow prison, filling 114 double-sided pages with his small and neat script, Rudolf Höss looked back nostalgically at his family life in Auschwitz. Although he himself had been preoccupied with the camp, his family had enjoyed a great time, he remembered. “Every wish of my wife, of my children, was met.” They lived together in a spacious villa adjacent to the main camp, mostly furnished in natural wood, the favored SS style. Here, Höss and his wife hosted many dinner parties for local SS men and other dignitaries. His children “could live free and easy,” Höss reminisced, while his wife “had her paradise of flowers.” Her gardener was a Polish prisoner, Stanisław Dubiel, who grew exotic plants for her, and Frau Höss used numerous female prisoners (including Jews) as personal tailors, hairdressers, and servants. Meanwhile, the four children (a fifth was born in September 1943) became attached to two female prisoners, elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses from Germany, who looked after them. Höss’s children liked to play with horses and ponies, and with animals caught for them by inmates, like turtles, cats, and lizards. But their greatest pleasure, Höss remembered, was a swim “with daddy” in the Sola River or the paddling pool in the garden, no more than a stone’s throw from the main camp.197

The social life of the Auschwitz SS largely turned around the camp. Sports were particularly popular, reflecting the SS emphasis on physical exercise and competition. On July 14, 1944, Höss even used his staff circular to congratulate an Unterscharführer Winter who had just been crowned the Upper Silesian champion in the shot put, discus, and javelin. Camp SS men also competed against teams from outside. On the afternoon of September 6, 1942, for example, they played a soccer match on the local athletic field against visitors from the Oranienburg SS (just a few hours after the game, hundreds of Jews arriving from Drancy were gassed in nearby Birkenau). To relax after physical exercise or after a day inside the camp, SS men of all ranks could frequent the Commandant Staff sauna. And there was plenty of entertainment. An old theater on the camp grounds was used for shows featuring dancers, actors, acrobats, and jugglers (some of whom toured through different concentration camps). As late as December 1944, just weeks before the camp was abandoned, Jupp Hussels, famous across the Third Reich as a film comedian and the sunny voice of German breakfast radio, arrived to entertain the Auschwitz SS troops.198

Music played an important part, too. There were several orchestras in the Auschwitz complex, including an eighty-strong symphonic orchestra and the only women’s ensemble in a concentration camp (led by the prisoner Alma Rosé, the daughter of a famous Viennese violinist). While their main role was to play as the prisoner commandos departed for work (and returned), setting the tempo for all the marching columns, they put on regular concerts, as well. Many SS officials valued these occasions, not just for the music itself but also as signs of the supposed ordinariness of Auschwitz. In addition, prisoners had to give private performances, just as in other KL, ranging from classical music for more high-minded officials to renditions of popular songs and dance music. The Dutch prisoner Richard van Dam, for instance, was frequently ordered to the Auschwitz political office, the scene of so much gruesome torture, where he had to sing jazzy American tunes like “I’m Nobody’s Sweetheart Now,” accompanied on the accordion by Rottenführer Pery Broad, an SS official known as much for his sly interrogations as his musical skill.199

Diversions beyond the camp complex included a cinema in Auschwitz town, though the favorite stomping ground of the Camp SS and their guests was the Haus der Waffen SS, near the railway station, which offered rooms to visitors and a large Germans-only bar and restaurant; female KL prisoners were forced to work as chambermaids and cooks. SS officers, meanwhile, had their own exclusive building, a little closer to the main camp, where they met in the evenings to eat, drink, and play cards. As a special treat, they could visit the Camp SS weekend retreat, the so-called Sola-Hütte. The rustic log cabin, built by prisoners on an idyllic spot some twenty-five miles away from the Auschwitz main camp, accommodated around twenty people, who could swim in an adjacent lake in summer or go skiing in winter.200

Then there were the brothels for Camp SS men. Inside the German heartland, SS men normally frequented existing municipal brothels. As there were none in Auschwitz, the authorities set up a new brothel with German prostitutes, in line with the order Oswald Pohl had given during his September 1942 inspection of the camp. SS leader Heinrich Himmler generally approved of such establishments, as he feared that his troops were becoming sex starved. But the new Auschwitz brothel was not open to all Camp SS men. Nazi racial thinking dictated that Ukrainian SS men had to visit another site, set up for IG Farben foreign workers.201

Although the Auschwitz SS largely kept to itself, it did build up local contacts outside the camp. Told to avoid the Polish population, SS officials developed social contacts with other Germans in town, who arrived as part of the general “Germanization” program. The plans for Auschwitz town were vast, with big apartment complexes, major roads, parade grounds, and several stadiums. As the Holocaust unfolded inside the camp, the nearby town was turned into a major building site (only a few projects were completed by the time the Germans fled in early 1945). The makeup of the local population was transformed, too. Nazi ethnic cleansing had led to the deportation of thousands of Poles and Jews and the influx of some seven thousand Germans by autumn 1943; most of them had been attracted by the financial rewards of employment in the east and worked for IG Farben. The new civic elite built ties to the Camp SS, mingling during theater and variety evenings, Christmas celebrations, and dinner parties.202

The SS presence in Auschwitz town was hard to overlook. The SS settlement grew into a district of its own, as SS managers grabbed more and more buildings to accommodate the swelling ranks. The nicest houses were reserved for officers, with most of the rank-and-file staff living in large barracks. Married officials received visits from their families, often for several weeks at a time. Sometimes whole families relocated to Auschwitz. Among them were children who had spent all their life in the Camp SS entourage. The son and daughter of the first Auschwitz camp compound leader, Karl Fritzsch, for example, had been born in the Dachau SS settlement; after seven years, during which the children had attended the local SS nursery, the Fritzsch family packed up and went to Auschwitz, moving into the first floor of a large house. They soon met some familiar faces, including former neighbors from Dachau. In fact, so many families moved into town that the local SS leadership put a stop to it in summer 1944.203

What made Auschwitz so attractive to the families of SS staff? Apart from the desire to be reunited with their loved ones, married SS men were keen to move from barracks into private accommodation. Their wives and children, meanwhile, often enjoyed greater peace of mind after relocating, as they felt safer from Allied bombing than deeper inside Germany. Besides, life in the shadow of the camp often meant social advances: nobodies became somebodies. The families of Auschwitz SS officers occupied an elevated social status, and enjoyed a lifestyle well beyond their normal means. Men and women from humble backgrounds lived like members of the upper middle class back home, in lavish villas set in large gardens full of flowers and fruit trees, waited on by servants.204

The presence of their families also made the job easier for some Camp SS officers, as we saw in the case of Dr. Delmotte. The company of children and wives provided stability and emotional support—some officers hurried home from the Auschwitz camp to eat lunch with their family—and helped to normalize their actions inside the camp. After his family moved out of the SS settlement, leaving him behind, chief garrison physician Dr. Eduard Wirths wrote to his wife in December 1944: “When you and the little ones were with me in Au[schwitz], one could feel nothing of the war!”205

The camp was not taboo in the homes of the Auschwitz SS, despite an official ban on discussing their duties.206 True, there were some limits. When Rudolf Höss found his children playing “Kapo and Prisoner” in the garden, he angrily ripped the colored triangles off their clothes; seeing his children enact the camp in his own private sanctuary was too much for him.207 Still, Auschwitz SS men frequently spoke about the camp to relatives and friends, just like SS officials in the other KL.208 Even Commandant Höss himself ignored his own orders and discussed the Nazi Final Solution with his wife, who apparently referred to her husband as the “special commissioner for the extermination of Jews in Europe.”209

The lives of local SS families were inseparable from the camp. Food, furniture, clothes, and even toys came from the Auschwitz compounds, as did prisoners used as servants and handymen. The wives and children of SS men also attended official Camp SS functions, such as Christmas parties, films, and puppet shows.210 As for the crimes in the camp, the smoke and stench from the Birkenau crematorium “permeated the entire area,” Höss later noted, including the SS settlement; when SS men returned home in the evenings, their uniforms and shoes gave off the camp’s distinctive smell of decay and death.211

Even the Auschwitz compounds themselves were open to relatives of the Camp SS staff. Although it was forbidden, SS men regularly showed their wives or girlfriends around, perhaps to satisfy their curiosity.212 SS families made use of the SS medical facilities inside the camp—one located opposite the old crematorium, the other near the so-called Gypsy camp—and treated the prisoners as a source of entertainment. In summer 1944, Birkenau camp compound leader Johann Schwarzhuber forced Soviet prisoners to dance at the electric fence, for the amusement of his family, who watched from the other side. Some children of SS men also entered the compounds, despite attempts by their mothers to protect them from witnessing abuses. In fact, such visits became so widespread that in July 1943 Commandant Höss banned unaccompanied children of SS staff from the camp and its labor commandos. Any direct contact with prisoners, Höss noted sternly, was morally indefensible.213

In short, the truth about the camp was well known among Auschwitz SS families. This did not stop the wives from supporting their husbands and from enjoying their time in the SS settlement. In some cases, at least, such support was ideologically rooted. Several wives were fervent followers of the Nazi cause. Frau Höss, for one, had met her husband on the far-right fringes during the 1920s. Several of these women may have treated individual prisoners rather humanely, but they stood behind the camps and condoned their husbands’ crimes, tacitly or openly. By performing their role as SS wives and creating a semblance of normality at the anus mundi, these women became complicit in the atrocities.214

Part of the attraction of Auschwitz for the wives of SS officers was material gain; few, if any, of them ever lived in greater style and luxury. The same was true for SS wives in other KL in occupied eastern Europe. Talking frankly in the late 1970s, the widow of the former Plaszow commandant Göth looked back at her time in the camp with great sorrow—not sorrow for the crimes, but for the “beautiful time” that had long since passed: “My Göth was the king, and I was the queen. Who wouldn’t have traded places with us?”215 Frau Höss, too, felt so happy that she stayed behind in Auschwitz with her children after her husband was transferred to WVHA-D headquarters (formerly the Camp Inspectorate) in Oranienburg in autumn 1943. Her lavish lifestyle was fed with riches takenas a matter of course from local SS supplies and from Jews killed in Birkenau. Her wardrobe was filled with murdered women’s dresses and shoes, and her pantry was bulging with sugar, flour, chocolate, meat, sausages, milk, and cream. Even the gardening supplies for her exotic flowers had arrived from the camp. When the time finally came to leave the commandant’s villa in late 1944, as the Soviet troops approached, the Höss family needed a couple of railway trucks to transport all their possessions to safety.216 Of course, they were not the only pilferers in the Camp SS; corruption was rife across the KL, and nowhere more so than in occupied eastern Europe.


Heinrich Himmler was a mass murderer greatly concerned with decorum. He had long cultivated an image as a deeply principled man, and during the Second World War he became a prominent preacher of a new kind of Nazi morality that saw mass killing as a sacred duty to protect the German people from its mortal enemies.217 Contrary to the views of some historians, Nazi perpetrators like Himmler did not see themselves as nihilists.218 Himmler regarded the Nazi Final Solution as a righteous act, committed out of necessity, idealism, and “love for our people,” as he put it in a notorious speech to SS group leaders in Posen in the early evening of October 4, 1943. That the killers had remained unblemished and “decent” during the mass slaughter of Jews was a truly “glorious page in our history,” he told himself and the other SS grandees.219

In his Posen speech, Himmler also outlined the rules governing the use of the murdered Jews’ property. On his orders, Himmler said, all the “riches” were going to the Reich, via Oswald Pohl’s WVHA: “We did not take any of it for ourselves.” In Himmler’s moral universe, state-sponsored mass murder and robbery was just, but individual theft was a sin: “We had the moral right, we had the duty towards our people, to kill this people [the Jews] which wanted to kill us. But we do not have the right to enrich ourselves with so much as a fur, with a watch, with a Mark or with a cigarette or with anything else.” The handful of SS men who had broken this hallowed rule, Himmler shouted, briefly betraying some emotion, would be punished “without mercy” and executed on his own personal orders. After all, they had not stolen from Jews but from the Nazi state, which owned all the loot.220

Himmler knew only too well that this vision of the SS as a virtuous order was deeply disingenuous. He and his judges were in fact rather sympathetic to thieves within the SS ranks and regarded the tempting availability of valuables belonging to murdered Jews as an extenuating circumstance; even big-time thieves were sentenced to no more than detention (often on probation). Moreover, theft and corruption in the SS was not rare, as Himmler suggested, but rampant: in 1942, property offenses accounted for almost half of all sentences passed by SS courts (a far higher proportion than among soldiers in the German armed forces, who had fewer chances to enrich themselves). Theft was particularly widespread in the KL, above all in those at the forefront of the Holocaust. In a camp like Auschwitz, where the WVHA was engaged in a gigantic operation of robbery on Himmler’s orders, his insistence on the “sanctity of property” was bound to fall on deaf ears: if it was right for the state to rob the Jews, local SS officials asked themselves, why should it be wrong for them to do the same?221

Looting for Germany

Official SS plunder was meticulously arranged during the Holocaust. In Auschwitz, a well-rehearsed routine was followed as soon as a deportation train reached the camp. The Nazi authorities allowed Jews to bring some luggage for the promised “new life” in the east, including clothes, food, tools, and other personal items. These possessions were seized at the ramp by a special prisoner unit, piled up, and put on trucks to be sorted. Meanwhile, edible goods were taken to a food warehouse. Once the ramp was empty, another prisoner unit scoured the area for money and valuables discarded before or after the selections.222

A second phase of plunder followed near the gas chambers. Here, prisoners from the Special Squad gathered up clothes, shoes, and other personal effects, such as glasses and watches, after the victims had undressed. Following the gassings, the Special Squad also searched the dead for valuables hidden on their bodies. The hair of women, shorn after they were dead, was collected and dried in rooms above the crematoria, and later used for the production of felt and threads (contrary to rumors, no soap was made from human fat). Gold teeth were cleaned and melted down in a special workshop, together with other precious objects, such as jewelry. According to a secret report compiled by Auschwitz prisoners, some ninety pounds of gold and white metal were extracted from the teeth of murdered Jews in the second half of May 1944 alone (at the height of the extermination of Hungarian Jewry).223

Most loot in Auschwitz ended up in a special section of the camp known among inmates (and later the SS) as Canada, named after the faraway country associated with great riches. As the Holocaust had gathered momentum, Commandant Höss asked in early June 1942 for the urgent assembly of wooden barracks to store the property of murdered Jews. In the end, six barracks near the main camp were used, but these warehouses (Canada I)—inspected by Oswald Pohl during his visit on September 23, 1942—soon proved too small. The Camp SS killed faster than it could process its plunder, and despite the use of additional huts, the bags and suitcases kept mounting up. Eventually, a much larger compound of thirty barracks was opened in Birkenau (Canada II) in December 1943. But it, too, could not keep up with the pace of genocide, and luggage piled up between the new barracks or had to be moved to other sites.224

Inside the Auschwitz storage areas, hundreds of male and female prisoners from the so-called Canada Commando worked around the clock to sort the spoils. The largest labor details were combing through the mountains of clothes, which were fumigated, searched for valuables, separated, and stacked. As they emptied jackets and coats, prisoners from the Canada Commando sometimes found letters or photos. “I never dared to look at them,” the Polish Jew Kitty Hart wrote after the war. “Only a few meters away from us—and perhaps at the very same moment—the people, to whom all this had belonged, were burned.” Meanwhile, a specialist SS unit sifted through the banknotes and other valuables; German money was deposited in a designated WVHA account, and the rest was itemized and packed up.225

Some of the loot stayed inside the camps. In Majdanek and Auschwitz, the SS supplemented its stock of prisoner clothing with suits, shoes, and hats of murdered Jews.226 But the bulk was shipped elsewhere in Poland and Germany. The transports of human hair, for instance, went to the Reich Economic Ministry and to private companies, some of them hundreds of miles away; in a wool combing plant in faraway Bremen, workers one day discovered small coins inside thickly woven plaits cut from the heads of Greek girls back in Auschwitz. Human hair arrived from other concentration camps as well. From summer 1942, the WVHA had issued instructions to several KL to collect the hair of registered prisoners (including men), though the plan to use it for the production of socks for submarine crews and other goods in an SS workshop was soon dropped.227

Most garments amassed during the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Majdanek were sent to agencies designated by the Reich Economic Ministry. Other shipments of clothes went to the Ethnic German Liaison Office (VoMi), an SS office that facilitated the settlement of ethnic Germans in the Nazi-occupied east. Under the new Nazi Order, German settlers would not only take over some houses and farms of murdered Jews, but also their clothes. By early February 1943, Auschwitz and Majdanek had sent 211 railway carts of clothing to VoMi, including 132,000 men’s shirts, 119,000 women’s dresses, and 15,000 children’s overcoats. The new owners were not supposed to know about the murderous provenance, so the SS leadership gave strict instructions to remove all yellow stars from the clothing.228

At the center of SS plunder in the concentration camps stood the WVHA. As we have seen, it masterminded the looting of property amassed in all Operation Reinhard camps (the two WVHA camps Auschwitz and Majdanek, and the three Globocnik death camps). In the words of the U.S. judges who sentenced WVHA chief Oswald Pohl to death in 1947, his office had become the “clearinghouse for all the booty.”229 In addition to issuing detailed directives for the processing and dispatch of the spoils, and supervising the accounts, the WVHA handled many of the goods.

By autumn 1942, SS couriers regularly dropped crates full of watches, alarm clocks, and fountain pens at the WVHA-D office in Oranienburg. They were repaired in a special workshop in Sachsenhausen by around 150 skilled prisoners, some two-thirds of them Jews; like prisoners in the camp’s counterfeiting commando, these men lived under privileged conditions (SS plans to set up a similar workshop in Auschwitz never came to pass). The finished goods were then distributed via WVHA-D—on Himmler’s orders—to officers and men from the Waffen SS; the navy and air force benefited, too. Indeed, different agencies competed for the spoils, with gold watches and pens in particular demand; one SS Obergruppenführer asked Himmler in 1943 for “large quantities” to give “real pleasure” to wounded SS men at Christmas time. The ongoing genocide meant that the supply did not dry up, and as late as November 1944, the WVHA-D officials still sat on more than twenty-seven thousand watches and clocks, as well as five thousand fountain pens. (When he later heard about this scheme, Adolf Eichmann could not believe that the “weirdos” in the WVHA had wasted their precious time on such “bullshit.”)230

Meanwhile, jewelry, foreign currency, dental gold, and other precious metals amassed in the Operation Reinhard camps were delivered to the central WVHA headquarters in Berlin; Odilo Globocnik frequently appeared in person to hand over valuables from hiscamps. The goods were then taken by SS Hauptsturmführer Bruno Melmer in locked crates to the German National Bank (Reichsbank).231 Melmer was a busy man: between summer 1942 and late 1944, he made no fewer than seventy-six trips. Normally, the National Bank deposited the equivalent value of the goods in a special account. Purified gold was melted into bars by the Prussian Mint, while other metals were supposed to be sent on for further refining.232 At the same time, the National Bank handled gold extracted in other KL. In the early war years, dental gold of dead prisoners had been used for the fillings of SS men and their families. But by autumn 1942 the SS had stockpiled enough supplies to last for several years, and so the WVHA decided to deposit the surplus with the National Bank.233

The total value of the SS booty in Auschwitz and Majdanek is impossible to determine, but it is likely to have amounted to several hundred million Reichsmark; some was retained by the SS, but most went into the coffers of the German Reich.234 Still, this was only a fraction of the property seized by the Nazi regime from its victims across the occupied continent—European Jews had been systematically stripped of their belongings long before they reached the KL—and it was rather insignificant for the wider German war effort.235

Above all else, the plunder in the KL reveals the murderous utilitarianism of SS managers. Everything had to be harnessed for Germany, they believed, including the dead—even in the face of cold economic logic. There was no profit to be made from human hair, after all, which had to be laboriously collected, dried, packaged, and shipped, only to be sold off at bargain prices: 730 kilograms of hair shaved off the heads of Majdanek prisoners between September 1942 and June 1944 netted just 365 Reichsmark, less than the value of a single gold cigarette case looted during Operation Reinhard.236 It was not enough for the SS to murder the Jews and steal their property; all traces of Jewish life had to be erased. Once the Nazi Final Solution was complete, nothing would be left behind: the dead turned to dust, their belongings into booty.

Robbing the Doomed

Corruption was a structural feature of Nazi rule, based as it was on patronage and nepotism.237 And it burgeoned at all levels during World War II. Inside Germany, a rampant black market developed as a result of shortages and rationing.238 Elsewhere, the Nazi plunder of Europe fueled personal corruption, with the Holocaust offering the greatest profits for the German occupiers, their foreign supporters, and local opportunists.239 The Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl later recalled that when he had first arrived in the camp in September 1942, local SS men had told him that “there was more money and stuff around than one could dream of, all there for the taking: all one had to do was help oneself.”240

The Camp SS in the east made the most of these opportunities, lining its pockets with the riches of murdered Jews. Compared to the “gigantic corruption in Auschwitz,” wrote the Jewish survivor Benedikt Kautsky, who experienced several KL following his arrest in 1938 as a prominent Austrian Socialist, the regular thefts by SS men in older camps like Buchenwald were negligible.241 Some rank-and-file SS men became jealous of the riches amassed by their commanding officers, but corruption was all-inclusive; most Camp SS staff in the east were on the make.242

The centers of corruption were Auschwitz and Majdanek, the two KL most closely involved in the Holocaust. SS men working near the crematoria, the storage rooms, and the ramps had the easiest access to money and valuables. Georg W., a sentry stationed near the Majdanek gas chamber complex, later confessed that he used to walk “over to the places where jewelry was lying” to take it. Ordinary SS members became wealthy overnight; an Auschwitz official by the name of Franz Hofbauer once pocketed ten thousand Reichsmark in a day. Even train drivers who had steered the deportation transports used to linger nearby—pretending to fix the train engine—after Jews had marched off to their deaths, in the hope of finding some discarded valuables.243 Living in an upside-down world, some perpetrators saw the Nazi Final Solution as their lucky break.

The Camp SS in the east stole from registered prisoners, not just from new arrivals. Goods earmarked for distribution inside the KL were regularly sold for profit. In Plaszow, most prisoner rations were exchanged by the SS on the local black market, with the blessing of Commandant Göth, who liked to feed the meat intended for prisoners to his dogs instead. SS men also seized prisoner clothing. In Warsaw, for instance, the Camp SS sold underwear to local Poles, leaving the prisoners without a change of clothes.244Although such deals with civilians were a profitable way for the SS to market stolen goods, most of its exchanges took place inside the KL, with prisoners.

Each concentration camp had its own underground economy, where inmates offered pretty much anything up for sale. Black markets, vital in all the camps, gained added importance in occupied eastern Europe. Since conditions were more ruinous than elsewhere, survival turned even more on the prisoners’ ability to improve their lot through barter. They had to “organize” to stay alive, and the spoils of the Holocaust provided them with the opportunity to do so. In Auschwitz, the prisoners in the Canada Commando were the envy of the camp, because they had ready access to food and clothes—not just for their own use, but for barter on the black market. The members of the Birkenau Special Squad also used their unique position. The “dentist” Leon Cohen, for instance, traded golden teeth with an SS man for schnapps, chicken, and other food.245 Barter was always on the minds of prisoners, even if they had nothing to trade. As they walked around Auschwitz, they often kept their eyes fixed on the ground, hoping to see something—perhaps a button or a piece of string—that could be exchanged later.246

Deals were made at all times and places. In many KL, the black market actually existed as a physical space. In Klooga, it was located in the lower hall, which started to resemble “a market fair in a shtetl,” as one Jewish inmate noted in his diary, where one could get milk, fruit, honey, cans of food, and much more.247 In Monowitz, it could be found in the corner farthest away from the SS barracks. Primo Levi recalled that it was “permanently occupied by a tumultuous throng, in the open during the summer, in a wash-room during the winter, as soon as the squads return from work.” Among the crowds were starving prisoners, who hoped to trade a small piece of bread for something better, or to exchange their shirt for food (prisoners who “lost” their shirts were invariably beaten by Kapos). At the other end of the scale were professional traders and thieves with access to the SS kitchens or storage rooms. The main currency among prisoners was bread and cigarettes, with prices for items in regular stock (such as the daily soup) fairly stable, while others fluctuated in line with supply and demand.248

Most exchanges on the black market were made between prisoners. But their most prominent customers were SS officials, and the greatest riches inevitably ended up in their hands. After all, what good was a gold coin to a prisoner who was starving to death? Greedy SS men exploited desperate prisoners, who had little choice but to make deals. In Majdanek, where Jewish inmates were going mad with thirst, Lithuanian sentries gave them small cups of water in return for their clothes and shoes.249 SS men offered many other services, too, if the price was right, including transfers to privileged prisoner squads and delivery of secret letters. Some SS men also blackmailed prisoners, promising to spare them violence or death as long as they could pay.250

The illicit encounters between SS and prisoners blurred the lines between them; for a brief moment, they were united by shared interests. But they were far from being equal partners. For a start, the SS staff often cheated prisoners. In one spectacular case, an SS man helped an Auschwitz prisoner to escape, only to shoot him point-blank after he had been paid for his services.251 Inmates who knew too much about SS deals were sometimes murdered as well, as were inmates who had resisted advances by corrupt SS officials. And if a deal went wrong, prisoners knew better than to name the guilty SS party; otherwise, the inmate was liable to be beaten to death or shot before he could make any more damaging revelations.252

SS officials found plenty of uses for all their ill-gotten gains. On occasion, they shared the riches. The Auschwitz SS, for example, ran a secret account—replenished with tens of thousands of Reichsmark stolen from its victims—to pay for alcohol-fueled parties.253 Many more individual perpetrators smuggled their spoils out of the camps and posted them back home, just as Dr. Kremer had done. Local SS officers also relied on continual thefts to maintain their family’s lavish lifestyle in the occupied east. Dinner parties in Auschwitz would not have been the same without all the wine and delicatessen, the linen tablecloths and stylish evening dresses. But greed could be dangerous. When the wife of SS report leader Gerhard Palitzsch, who had lived in a house about five hundred yards outside the main camp, died of typhus in autumn 1942, prisoner rumors had it that she had been infected by lice from clothes stolen from the Canada depot. Following his wife’s death, Palitzsch himself lost his last inhibitions; he stole even more brazenly and forced himself on female guards and prisoners. His crimes eventually caught up with him and he was locked into the same bunker in which he had tortured so many inmates. Like other Camp SS veterans, he later got a second chance as the leader of an Auschwitz satellite camp, but Palitzsch was eventually kicked out of the SS and sent to the front (he died in Hungary in December 1944).254 His fall from grace was far from unique. He was one of a number of corrupt Camp SS men arrested in the second half of the war, during an SS campaign to restore the “decency” of Himmler’s black order.

The SS Investigates Itself

In summer 1942, the world of the Camp SS was briefly shaken from within, after two senior commandants were sacked for corruption. Sturmbannführer Alex Piorkowski, who had succeeded Hans Loritz as Dachau commandant, was suspended for orchestrating a major racket in the camp; Himmler promptly demanded that the SS courts take action against the sickly Piorkowski, who had already fallen out of favor before.255 An even more prominent casualty was Oberführer Hans Loritz himself, the highest-ranking KL commandant. Back in March 1942, it had come to light that several Sachsenhausen SS men had systematically embezzled food from the camp kitchen, storerooms, and gardens. Such thefts were run of the mill, and so was the response of Loritz, who quickly put a lid on the affair, blaming one of the prisoners. But this strategy failed, for once. A disgruntled SS man informed the Gestapo, pointing directly at Loritz: everyone in the camp knew the commandant to be the “greatest racketeer of all,” a claim backed by a long list of indiscretions. Meanwhile, an anonymous letter with further allegations—by the wife of a Sachsenhausen guard, as it turned out—was sent to Heinrich Himmler.256

The Reichsführer SS promptly initiated an official investigation. Amid the endemic corruption it exposed—with prisoners forced to make carpets, paintings, vases, furniture, and even a sailing boat for Loritz—perhaps the most damaging revelation concerned a villa under construction near Salzburg. Back in 1938, Loritz had bought a large piece of land in the sleepy village of St. Gilgen on the Wolfgangsee, and ordered prisoners to build his dream house there, complete with terraced gardens and water features. By the time Loritz came under scrutiny in 1942, most of the work was done, and his wife and sons had already moved in, watching from the windows of their new villa as prisoners put on the finishing touches.257 Asked to explain himself, Loritz protested in June 1942 with great pathos that his honor as an SS officer was being sullied, laying bare the inordinate sense of entitlement of Camp SS officers; Loritz simply could not understand why he, of all people, was pulled up for conduct that was tolerated elsewhere. He was not even the only Camp SS leader who liked to live large on the Wolfgangsee. Not far from his home on the lake, KL prisoners were building another private residence, for Arthur Liebehenschel from the WVHA.258

So why did the SS leadership move against Loritz in summer 1942? During the second half of the war, when hardships for many ordinary Germans grew, the Nazi leadership became less tolerant of corruption in the ranks, concerned that criticism of crooked officials could erode the already brittle popular mood. In spring 1942, Hitler announced that leading figures of the regime had to demonstrate an exemplary lifestyle, and in summer 1942, Himmler acknowledged that corruption cases caused outrage among the wider public (though his own family continued to live in considerable luxury).259 In this spirit, Himmler decided to make an example of Loritz, whose transgressions had become known beyond Sachsenhausen.

WVHA chief Oswald Pohl had his own reasons for cracking down on Hans Loritz. Following the recent incorporation of the KL system into his domain, Pohl was keen to establish his authority. And what better way to demonstrate it than to sack a man like Loritz, a stalwart of the Camp SS since its early days and a protégé of Pohl’s old rival Theodor Eicke?260 At the same time, Pohl used the opportunity to present himself as incorruptible, which may account for his theatrical sacking of Alex Piorkowski; apparently, Pohl ordered the Dachau commandant to Berlin and demoted him on the spot, even though he had no authority to do so, completing Piorkowski’s humiliation by stripping him of his ceremonial dagger, the very symbol of virility among the SS.261

But SS leaders like Pohl were reluctant to tackle the real roots of corruption. Although the WVHA knew that a large number of concentration camp guards were guilty of misconduct, few allegations were taken seriously.262 And even cast-iron cases like the ones against Loritz and Piorkowski were only pursued cursorily, perhaps because they did not become all-too-widely known beyond SS circles. Though Himmler eventually threw Piorkowski out of the SS, the threat of criminal proceedings was not followed up.263 As for Loritz, he kept his SS rank and was redeployed to a new post, setting up a network of forced labor camps in Norway; his family, meanwhile, continued to live in the villa on the Wolfgangsee.264

Heinrich Himmler was still conscious of appearances, however, and in 1943 he sanctioned another, more concerted push against corruption, triggered by the investigation of another Camp SS veteran, Karl Otto Koch. Koch was one of the most prominent prewar commandants, but his career went off the rails during the war, and his fall would be the most spectacular of any Camp SS official. Spared by Himmler in late 1941, following his first arrest for corruption, Koch was given another chance as commandant of Majdanek, as we have seen. But he soon failed again. On the night of July 14, 1942, more than eighty Soviet POWs fled the camp, climbing over the barbed wire and disappearing into the night. To cover up the ease with which these prisoners had vanished, Koch ordered the immediate execution of dozens of Soviet POWs who had stayed behind, informing his superiors that the slaughtered men had participated in the mass breakout. He also tried to shift the blame for the escape, denouncing the provisional state of the camp, the poor quality of the guards, and the two hapless sentries at the scene, one of whom was the appropriately named Gustav Schlaf (his surname translates as “Sleep”). Unimpressed, Himmler, who visited Lublin days after the escape, ordered on July 25, 1942, that Koch be recalled and investigated for negligence by the SS courts. Koch moved back to his old Buchenwald home to await the outcome. In the end, the case against him was dismissed, though he was not reinstated.265

Koch soon found himself in more trouble. In March 1943, Himmler visited Buchenwald and was surprised to find Koch and his wife still living in the opulent commandant’s villa. Himmler asked for the “tired and lazy” Koch, as he called the man who was just three years his senior, to be kicked out and sent to the front.266 His order had not yet been implemented when further evidence for Koch’s corruption came to light, prompting Himmler to sign off on a new investigation. Koch’s villa was searched the next day, and on August 24, 1943, he was arrested together with his wife, Ilse, and taken to the Gestapo prison in Weimar.267

The case against Koch was led by an arrogant young SS jurist named Konrad Morgen, who spent several months in Buchenwald from summer 1943, gathering incriminating material. Born into a poor family in 1909, Morgen had worked his way up to university to study law. He briefly served in a regular Nazi court, and then pursued a career in the SS, joining the newly established SS Main Office for legal matters as a judge in 1940. Sent to the General Government, Morgen gained a reputation for tackling SS corruption and deviance, and following his transfer to the RSHA in late June 1943, on Himmler’s personal orders, he took charge of the Koch case.268 After the war, the canny Morgen testified against some former Camp SS men, portraying himself as a tireless campaigner for law and order. Several historians have fallen for this pose, as did some judges.269 But his postwar testimony was self-serving, riddled with omissions and brazen lies.270 Konrad Morgen had been a committed SS officer. During his investigation of Koch, he condoned RSHA executions, the killing of prisoners in medical experiments, and the murder of supposedly sick and infectious inmates. His main aim was not to stop prisoner abuse but to root out personal corruption (and other cases of insubordination).271 In short, Morgen was no champion of common decency, but a crusader for Himmler’s peculiar brand of SS morality, which tried to exorcise any blemishes from the uniforms of “virtuous” SS killers.

While Koch stood at the center of Morgen’s investigation, which spanned the former commandant’s reign over both Buchenwald and Majdanek, many other SS men were soon implicated, too. For example, Morgen found that almost all NCOs under Koch in Majdanek had become “completely corrupt,” openly stuffing valuables into their pockets. In the end, though, only close associates of Koch were prosecuted.272 Among them was Hauptscharführer Gotthold Michael, who was accused of running some of his master’s fraudulent operations, as well as stealing prisoner property for his own use, including valuable leather suitcases.273 A more senior defendant was Hermann Hackmann, who had risen in the slipstream of his patron Koch to adjutant in Buchenwald and camp compound leader in Majdanek, in a typical example of Camp SS nepotism. Hackmann was sentenced to death by an SS court on June 29, 1944, for persistent theft, but the judgment was not carried out and he was released after half a year in Dachau to fight against the advancing U.S. troops.274

Meanwhile, the case against Karl Otto Koch dragged on. Himmler had authorized the use of torture to break those who might know about SS corruption, and in March 1944 Koch was forced into a partial admission of guilt—the blind support from his superiors had turned him into a megalomaniac, he said—only to recant his confession.275 Koch’s trial finally began in September 1944 before an SS and police court in Weimar, but it was quickly adjourned and only resumed on December 18, 1944. Ilse Koch, who had been accused of involvement in the corrupt dealings, was found not guilty. But her husband was sentenced to death. SS leaders hesitated to carry out the sentence. Then, in early April 1945, just before the war ended, Koch was taken from the Weimar police jail to Buchenwald and executed by an SS firing squad. In a final gesture of bravado, he refused a blindfold, clinging to the macho spirit of the Camp SS to the very end.276

A Judge in Auschwitz

As evidence for large-scale corruption in Buchenwald mounted up in 1943, Heinrich Himmler authorized the extension of the internal SS investigation into several other KL.277 By early 1944, a few dozen officials were working under Konrad Morgen, who led the investigative teams, and a special SS and police court had been established to deal with the more complex cases.278 The reach of the corruption probe was limited, however, and Morgen’s team investigated no more than half a dozen concentration camps.279 Much of the focus was on the occupied east, where the ready availability of “Jewish property” had resulted in “familiar manifestations of corruption,” as Morgen wrote in 1944.280 A number of Camp SS men were arrested, including two commandants. Hermann Florstedt,who had led Majdanek since November 1942, had initially been praised by his superiors for turning the camp around after Koch’s chaotic reign. By and by, Florstedt turned out to be no less crooked than his predecessor, and in autumn 1943 he was arrested on suspicion of embezzlement, among other charges. His case never came to court, though, and in late March 1945 he was still held on remand in a Weimar police jail; his subsequent fate remains unclear.281 In Plaszow, meanwhile, Commandant Amon Göth—notorious for his lust for gold—was arrested in September 1944, but like Florstedt, he was never sentenced by the SS.282

From around autumn 1943, Konrad Morgen and several members of his team worked in Auschwitz to investigate SS larceny and fraud, following the aforementioned discovery of dental gold posted by a medical orderly.283 To stop Morgen’s investigation in its tracks, the Auschwitz SS leadership reminded its officials “one last time” that prisoner property—including gold and valuables—was out of bounds; all those who “sullied themselves with such a dirty deed” as theft would be kicked out and prosecuted.284 But corruption was too deeply ingrained to cease on command. After several months in Auschwitz—searching lockers and barracks, examining paperwork, and interrogating suspects—Morgen’s men arrested several people (twenty-three NCOs and two officers, according to a former investigator). Once more, however, the threat of draconian sanctions evaporated. Even major offenders got away with a few years of detention or less. Others were punished even more lightly. Franz Wunsch, for example, an NCO in the Canada storage area who was caught carrying stolen gloves, knives, cigarettes, and more, only received five weeks in solitary confinement.285

The SS investigation in Auschwitz continued well into 1944. There was even talk of broadening its remit: in June, Morgen heard that Himmler would ask him to head a major inquiry leading “from Hungary to Auschwitz.” Apparently, the mass murder of Hungarian Jews in Birkenau, which had recently begun, yielded less bounty than the SS authorities expected, raising renewed suspicions of embezzlement; it is unclear, however, if this new inquiry ever got off the ground.286 Ultimately, the most high-profile victim of Morgen’s corruption investigation was the head of the Auschwitz political office, Maximilian Grabner. The role of political offices, which were closely involved in mass death and executions, grew sharply across the KL system during the Second World War, and nowhere more so than in Auschwitz, where its many tasks included the supervision of the crematoria and gas chamber complex. Grabner, who had joined the Camp SS from the Vienna Gestapo, carved out a powerful place for his office, almost independent ofCommandant Höss, and became perhaps the most feared SS man in the camp.287 Using his privileged position, Grabner helped himself freely to the property of murdered Jews, sending home whole suitcases stuffed with loot.288 His schemes eventually caught the eye of Morgen’s investigators, and on December 1, 1943, he was removed from his post.289

Grabner’s trial before the special SS and police court in autumn 1944 soon took an unusual turn, revealing the full absurdity of SS justice. Grabner was not only charged with corruption, he was the only Auschwitz SS man also to be indicted for arbitrary prisoner killings, outside the chain of command.290 To Grabner, this must have seemed like a preposterous accusation: Had he not acted according to the general principles of Nazi terror? Some of his old Auschwitz colleagues, called as witnesses, duly came to his defense. Rudolf Höss argued that Grabner’s deeds were hardly worth mentioning, in view of the daily mass murder all around the camp. One of Grabner’s former subordinates, Wilhelm Boger, went even further and is said to have exclaimed: “We have killed far too few for Führer and Reich!”291 Such radical sentiments were probably shared by Heinrich Himmler, who normally backed autonomous acts of Camp SS violence. Even on the rare occasion when he reproached individual SS officials for having gone too far, he was willing to accept that they had acted in the right spirit.292 Predictably, given Himmler’s views and the all-out terror in the KL, it was impossible to prove that Grabner had overstepped his authority. The trial against him was adjourned, amid general confusion, and never resumed.293

Keeping Up Appearances

The fanatical Wilhelm Boger spoke for many of his Camp SS comrades, in Auschwitz and elsewhere, when he described Konrad Morgen’s investigation as “a ridiculous theater.”294 And yet, most Camp SS officials did not feel like laughing, as Morgen’s commission was a potential threat; they relied on thefts and fraud as a second income and were in no mood to compromise their lifestyles. These men feared and hated Morgen and did their best to obstruct, sabotage, and undermine his team.295 It was surely no accident that, one day in December 1943, the Auschwitz barrack that held much of the evidence gathered by Morgen’s team mysteriously went up in flames.296

Compared to most Camp SS men, Heinrich Himmler’s stance on corruption was more ambiguous. He always presented himself as a paragon of propriety. And he was instrumental in launching the investigation into the KL, following the Holocaust-related rise in larceny. Himmler personally approved Konrad Morgen as the head of the anticorruption force and continued to back him, despite opposition from senior Camp SS officials. As late as summer 1944, Himmler expressed his appreciation for the special SS and police court and asked for Morgen’s promotion to Sturmbannführer.297 At the same time, Himmler’s threat of unforgiving punishment for corrupt Camp SS men was empty; behind the scenes, he was reluctant to push for harsh sentences. Himmler also had no desire to broaden Morgen’s small-time operation, since he must have realized that a more systematic probe into SS sleaze would destabilize the entire KL system; after all, corruption was the glue that helped to hold it together. So why did Himmler support Morgen at all? Primarily, it seems, the investigation served a symbolic function. With other Nazi leaders only too aware of the allegations of corruption in the concentration camps, the Reichsführer’s willingness to castigate a few Camp SS offenders was offered as proof of the purity, rigor, and decency of the SS.298

If Heinrich Himmler was two-faced about corruption, his chief of the KL system was even more duplicitous. Officially, Oswald Pohl and his WVHA managers had no choice but to back the campaign against theft and fraud.299 Pohl was even willing to sacrifice individual SS officers—especially if this strengthened his own hand, as in the case of Loritz. But Pohl balked at a more far-reaching investigation of the KL and repeatedly torpedoed the anticorruption drive, complaining that it undermined prisoner discipline and war production.300

There was an obvious reason for Pohl’s obstructionism: like other SS leaders, he was hugely profiting from Nazi terror. Divorced in 1938, Pohl had remarried on December 12, 1942, in Himmler’s East Prussian headquarters (Himmler had handpicked the much younger bride, Eleonore von Brüning, a rich heiress).301 The couple enjoyed a feudal lifestyle. In Berlin, they occupied a large villa, “aryanized” from a Jewish woman who later died in Ravensbrück. The Pohls lived rent-free and made themselves comfortable in their new home; it was rebuilt by prisoners from Sachsenhausen, and five inmates remained permanently on hand as servants.302 Pohl joined the new Nazi nobility, which included other pompous leaders like Hermann Göring.303 To announce his arrival, he even made up his own coat of arms, depicting a knight’s helmet with closed visor and a proud horse on its hind legs.304

Above all, Pohl fancied himself as a landed nobleman—he lied to Himmler, claiming that he came from a long line of farmers—and duly acquired not just one but two manors in the country. His wife had brought into the marriage a beautiful property in the Bavarian countryside, which was renovated by prisoners from Dachau, though the couple did not make much use of it until the closing stages of the Third Reich.305 Instead, they spent time on the Comthurey estate in northern Germany, with its vast grounds and roaring fireplaces. The estate was set up as a satellite camp of Ravensbrück, six miles or so away, with dozens of prisoners serving as slave laborers; some worked in agriculture, others waited on the Pohls, and still others landscaped the gardens and rebuilt the manor house, adding a sauna and other comforts. The bill for Pohl’s extravagance came to several hundreds of thousands of Reichsmark, paid for by the SS.306

His growing property portfolio also included a splendidly appointed apartment on the Dachau SS plantation, which he used during his wartime trips to southern Germany (Pohl was no stranger to Dachau, having lived in the SS settlement with his first wife in the prewar years). He was a workaholic, but in Dachau, of all places, he sometimes relaxed. Lounging on a deck chair, he was served by prisoners, including a waiter wearing a white jacket; he also sampled meals prepared by his private cook and went on hunting trips, accompanied by his personal master of the hunt.307

Oswald Pohl’s entire existence was enmeshed with the KL. To him, the camps were not remote abstractions. He lived and breathed them. During meetings and inspections, and during his charmed private life, he was surrounded by prisoners, violence, and death. The Dachau inmate Karel Kašák, who observed Pohl close-up, described him as a typical Nazi upstart who acted like “a god and emperor.” Setting an example for local Camp SS men, Pohl treated prisoners as his personal property and thought nothing of walking around in his dressing gown while ordering them to shine his boots.308 For him, prisoners were slaves to be exploited at will.

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