Military history

THE EXTERMINATION CAMPS

All the thirty odd principal Nazi concentration camps were death camps and millions of tortured, starved inmates perished in them.* Though the authorities kept records—each camp had its official Totenbuch (death book)—they were incomplete and in many cases were destroyed as the victorious Allies closed in. Part of one Totenbuch that survived at Mauthausen listed 35,318 deaths from January 1939 to April 1945. At the end of 1942 when the need of slave labor began to be acute, Himmler ordered that the death rate in the concentration camps “must be reduced.” Because of the labor shortage he had been displeased at a report received in his office that of the 136,700 commitments to concentration camps between June and November 1942, some 70,610 had died and that in addition 9,267 had been executed and 27,846 “transferred.”57 To the gas chamber, that is. This did not leave very many for labor duties.

But it was in the extermination camps, the Vernichtungslager, where most progress was made toward the “final solution.” The greatest and most renowned of these was Auschwitz, whose four huge gas chambers and adjoining crematoria gave it a capacity for death and burial far beyond that of the others—TreblinkaBelsecSibibor and Chelmno, all in Poland. There were other minor extermination camps near RigaVilnaMinskKaunas and Lwów, but they were distinguished from the main ones in that they killed by shooting rather than by gas.

For a time there was quite a bit of rivalry among the S.S. leaders as to which was the most efficient gas to speed the Jews to their death. Speed was an important factor, especially at Auschwitz, where toward the end the camp was setting new records by gassing 6,000 victims a day. One of the camp’s commanders for a period was Rudolf Hoess, an ex-convict once found guilty of murder, who deposed at Nuremberg on the superiority of the gas he employed.

The “Final Solution” of the Jewish question meant the complete extermination of all Jews in Europe. I was ordered to establish extermination facilities at Auschwitz in June 1941. At that time there were already in the General Government of Poland three other extermination camps: Belzec, Treblinka and Wolzek …

I visited Treblinka to find out how they carried out their extermination. The camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of half a year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto.*

He used monoxide gas and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Zyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from three to fifteen minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions.

We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We usually waited about a half hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies. After the bodies were removed our special commandos took off the rings and extracted the gold from the teeth of the corpses.

Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chambers to accommodate 2,000 people at one time, whereas at Treblinka their ten gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each.

Hoess then explained how the victims were “selected” for the gas chambers, since not all the incoming prisoners were done away with—at least not at once, because some of them were needed to labor in the I. G. Farben chemical works and Krupp’s factory until they became exhausted and were ready for the “final solution.”

We had two S.S. doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. These would be marched by one of the doctors, who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit to work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work.

Always Herr Hoess kept making improvements in the art of mass killing.

Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated, while at Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated.

We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy, but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz.

Sometimes, Hoess explained, a few “special prisoners”—apparently Russian prisoners of war—were simply killed by injections of benzine. “Our doctors,” he added, “had orders to write ordinary death certificates and could put down any reason at all for the cause of death.*58

To Hoess’s blunt description may be added a brief composite picture of death and disposal at Auschwitz as testified to by surviving inmates and jailers. The “selection,” which decided which Jews were to be worked and which ones immediately gassed, took place at the railroad siding as soon as the victims had been unloaded from the freight cars in which they had been locked without food or water for as much as a week—for many came from such distant parts as France, Holland and Greece. Though there were heart-rending scenes as wives were torn away from husbands and children from parents, none of the captives, as Hoess testified and survivors agree, realized just what was in store for them. In fact some of them were given pretty picture postcards marked “Waldsee” to be signed and sent back home to their relatives with a printed inscription saying:

We are doing very well here. We have work and we are well treated. We await your arrival.

The gas chambers themselves and the adjoining crematoria, viewed from a short distance, were not sinister-looking places at all; it was impossible to make them out for what they were. Over them were well-kept lawns with flower borders; the signs at the entrances merely said BATHS. The unsuspecting Jews thought they were simply being taken to the baths for the delousing which was customary at all camps. And taken to the accompaniment of sweet music!

For there was light music. An orchestra of “young and pretty girls all dressed in white blouses and navy-blue skirts,” as one survivor remembered, had been formed from among the inmates. While the selection was being made for the gas chambers this unique musical ensemble played gay tunes from The Merry Widow and Tales of Hoffmann. Nothing solemn and somber from Beethoven. The death marches at Auschwitz were sprightly and merry tunes, straight out of Viennese and Parisian operetta.

To such music, recalling as it did happier and more frivolous times, the men, women and children were led into the “bath houses,” where they were told to undress preparatory to taking a “shower.” Sometimes they were even given towels. Once they were inside the “shower-room”—and perhaps this was the first moment that they may have suspected something was amiss, for as many as two thousand of them were packed into the chamber like sardines, making it difficult to take a bath—the massive door was slid shut, locked and hermetically sealed. Up above where the well-groomed lawn and flower beds almost concealed the mushroom-shaped lids of vents that ran up from the hall of death, orderlies stood ready to drop into them the amethyst-blue crystals of hydrogen cyanide, or Zyklon B, which originally had been commercially manufactured as a strong disinfectant and for which, as we have seen, Herr Hoess had with so much pride found a new use.

Surviving prisoners watching from blocks nearby remembered how for a time the signal for the orderlies to pour the crystals down the vents was given by a Sergeant Moll. “Na, gib ihnen schon zu fressen” (“All right, give ‘em something to chew on”), he would laugh and the crystals would be poured through the openings, which were then sealed.

Through heavy-glass portholes the executioners could watch what happened. The naked prisoners below would be looking up at the showers from which no water spouted or perhaps at the floor wondering why there were no drains. It took some moments for the gas to have much effect. But soon the inmates became aware that it was issuing from the perforations in the vents. It was then that they usually panicked, crowding away from the pipes and finally stampeding toward the huge metal door where, as Reitlinger puts it, “they piled up in one blue clammy blood-spattered pyramid, clawing and mauling each other even in death.”

Twenty or thirty minutes later when the huge mass of naked flesh had ceased to writhe, pumps drew out the poisonous air, the large door was opened and the men of the Sonderkommando took over. These were Jewish male inmates who were promised their lives and adequate food in return for performing the most ghastly job of all.* Protected with gas masks and rubber boots and wielding hoses they went to work. Reitlinger has described it.

Their first task was to remove the blood and defecations before dragging the clawing dead apart with nooses and hooks, the prelude to the ghastly search for gold and the removal of teeth and hair which were regarded by the Germans as strategic materials. Then the journey by lift or rail-wagon to the furnaces, the mill that ground the clinker to fine ash, and the truck that scattered the ashes in the stream of the Sola.*

There had been, the records show, some lively competition among German businessmen to procure orders for building these death and disposal contraptions and for furnishing the lethal blue crystals. The firm of I. A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, manufacturers of heating equipment, won out in its bid for the crematoria at Auschwitz. The story of its business enterprise was revealed in a voluminous correspondence found in the records of the camp. A letter from the firm dated February 12, 1943, gives the tenor.

TO THE CENTRAL CONSTRUCTION OFFICE OF THE S.S. AND POLICE, AUSCHWITZ:

SUBJECT: Crematoria 2 and 3 for the camp.

We acknowledge receipt of your order for five triple furnaces, including two electric elevators for raising the corpses and one emergency elevator. A practical installation for stoking coal was also ordered and one for transporting ashes.60

The correspondence of two other firms engaged in the crematorium business popped up at the Nuremberg trials. The disposal of the corpses at a number of Nazi camps had attracted commercial competition. One of the oldest German companies in the field offered its drawings for crematoria to be built at a large S.S. camp in Belgrade.

For putting the bodies into the furnace, we suggest simply a metal fork moving on cylinders.

Each furnace will have an oven measuring only 24 by 18 inches, as coffins will not be used. For transporting the corpses from the storage points to the furnaces we suggest using light carts on wheels, and we enclose diagrams of these drawn to scale.61

Another firm, C. H. Kori, also sought the Belgrade business, emphasizing its great experience in this field since it had already constructed four furnaces for Dachau and five for Lublin, which, it said, had given “full satisfaction in practice.”

Following our verbal discussion regarding the delivery of equipment of simple construction for the burning of bodies, we are submitting plans for our perfected cremation ovens which operate with coal and which have hitherto given full satisfaction.

We suggest two crematoria furnaces for the building planned, but we advise you to make further inquiries to make sure that two ovens will be sufficient for your requirements.

We guarantee the effectiveness of the cremation ovens as well as their durability, the use of the best material and our faultless workmanship.

Awaiting your further word, we will be at your service.

Heil Hitler!
C. H. KORI, G.M.B.H.62

In the end even the strenuous efforts of German free enterprise, using the best material and providing faultless workmanship, proved inadequate for burning the corpses. The well-constructed crematoria fell far behind at a number of camps but especially at Auschwitz in 1944 when as many as 6,000 bodies (Hoess put it at as many as 16,000) had to be burned daily. For instance, in forty-six days during the summer of 1944 between 250,000 and 300,000 Hungarian Jews alone were done to death at this camp. Even the gas chambers fell behind and resort was made to mass shootings in the Einsatzkommando style. The bodies were simply thrown into ditches and burned, many of them only partly, and then earth was bulldozed over them. The camp commanders complained toward the end that the crematoria had proved not only inadequate but “uneconomical.”

   The Zyklon-B crystals that killed the victims in the first place were furnished by two German firms which had acquired the patent from I. G. Farben. These were Tesch and Stabenow of Hamburg, and Degesch of Dessau, the former supplying two tons of the cyanide crystals a month and the latter three quarters of a ton. The bills of lading for the deliveries showed up at Nuremberg.

The directors of both concerns contended that they had sold their product merely for fumigation purposes and were unaware that lethal use had been made of it, but this defense did not hold up. Letters were found from Tesch and Stabenow offering not only to supply the gas crystals but also the ventilating and heating equipment for extermination chambers. Besides, the inimitable Hoess, who once he started to confess went the limit, testified that the directors of the Tesch company could not have helped knowing how their product was being used since they furnished enough to exterminate a couple of million people. A British military court was convinced of this at the trial of the two partners, Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher, who were sentenced to death in 1946 and hanged. The director of the second firm, Dr. Gerhard Peters of Degesch of Dessau, got off more lightly. A German court sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment.63

Before the postwar trials in Germany it had been generally believed that the mass killings were exclusively the work of a relatively few fanatical S.S. leaders. But the records of the courts leave no doubt of the complicity of a number of German businessmen, not only the Krupps and the directors of the I. G. Farben chemical trust but smaller entrepreneurs who outwardly must have seemed to be the most prosaic and decent of men, pillars—like good businessmen everywhere—of their communities.

How many hapless innocent people—mostly Jews but including a fairly large number of others, especially Russian prisoners of war—were slaughtered at the one camp of Auschwitz? The exact number will never be known. Hoess himself in his affidavit gave an estimate of “2,500,000 victims executed and exterminated by gassing and burning, and at least another half million who succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total of about 3,000,000.” Later at his own trial in Warsaw he reduced the figure to 1,135,000. The Soviet government, which investigated the camp after it was overrun by the Red Army in January 1945, put the figure at four million. Reitlinger, on the basis of his own exhaustive study, doubts that the number gassed at Auschwitz was “even as high as three quarters of a million.” He estimates that about 600,000 died in the gas chambers, to which he adds “the unknown proportion” of some 300,000 or more “missing,” who were shot or who died of starvation and disease. By any estimate the figure is considerable.64

   The bodies were burned, but the gold fillings in the teeth remained and these were retrieved from the ashes if they had not already been yanked out by special squads working over the clammy piles of corpses.* The gold was melted down and shipped along with other valuables snatched from the condemned Jews to the Reichsbank, where under a secret agreement between Himmler and the bank’s president, Dr. Walther Funk, it was deposited to the credit of the S.S. in an account given the cover name of “Max Heiliger.” This prize booty from the extermination camps included, besides gold from dentures, gold watches, earrings, bracelets, rings, necklaces and even spectacles frames—for the Jews had been encouraged to bring all their valuables with them for the promised “resettlement.” There were also great stocks of jewelry, especially diamonds and much silverware. And there were great wads of banknotes.

The Reichsbank, in fact, was overwhelmed by the “Max Heiliger” deposits. With its vaults filled to overflowing as early as 1942, the bank’s profit-minded directors sought to turn the holdings into cold cash by disposing of them through the municipal pawnshops. One letter from the Reichsbank to the Berlin municipal pawnshop dated September 15 speaks of a “second shipment” and begins, “We submit to you the following valuables with the request for the best possible utilization.” The list is long and itemized and includes 154 gold watches, 1,601 gold earrings, 132 diamond rings, 784 silver pocket watches and “160 diverse dentures, partly of gold.” By the beginning of 1944 the Berlin pawnshop itself was overwhelmed by the flow of these stolen goods and informed the Reichsbank it could accept no more. When the Allies overran Germany they discovered in some abandoned salt mines, where the Nazis had hidden part of their records and booty, enough left over from the “Max Heiliger” account to fill three huge vaults in the Frankfurt branch of the Reichsbank.66

Did the bankers know the sources of these unique “deposits”? The manager of the Precious Metals Department of the Reichsbank deposed at Nuremberg that he and his associates began to notice that many shipments came from Lublin and Auschwitz.

We all knew that these places were the sites of concentration camps. It was in the tenth delivery in November, 1943, that dental gold appeared. The quantity of dental gold became unusually great.67

At Nuremberg the notorious Oswald Pohl, chief of the Economic Office of the S.S., who handled the transactions for his organization, emphasized that Dr. Funk and the officials and directors of the Reichsbank knew very well the origins of the goods they were trying to pawn. He explained in some detail “the business deal between Funk and the S.S. concerning the delivery of valuables of dead Jews to the Reichsbank.” He remembered a conversation with the bank’s vice-president, Dr. Emil Pohl.

In this conversation no doubt remained that the objects to be delivered [came from] Jews who had been killed in concentration camps. The objects in question were rings, watches, eyeglasses, gold bars, wedding rings, brooches, pins, gold fillings and other valuables.

Once, Pohl related, after an inspection tour through the vaults of the Reichsbank where the valuables “from the dead Jews” were inspected, Dr. Funk tendered the party a pleasant dinner in which the conversation turned around the unique origins of the booty.68*

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