Military history



The mass murder of Jews – and of Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, itinerant gypsies, homosexuals and other 'undesirables' – began with the deprivation, disease and brutality of the ghettos of eastern Europe and slave labour camps like Dachau, Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald. In addition, more than a million Jews, together with non-Jewish Polish intellectuals and Soviet Communist officials, were massacred by mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen). What distinguished Nazi genocide from the Japanese and the Soviet equivalents was the industrialised slaughter known as 'The Final Solution', ordered by Hitler in December 1941 and organised at a conference of senior Nazi administrators held at the Wannsee Villa in Berlin on 20 January 1942. Following the Wannsee conference the remaining ghettos in eastern Europe were wiped out by mass executions and deportations while some nations allied to, or occupied by, the Germans also deported their Jewish citizens. Many thousands died of suffocation and thirst in trains taking them to the new extermination camps, all in Poland. The ultimate death factory was at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where four gas chambers could take two thousand people each compared to the ten chambers holding two hundred each at the next worst camp, Treblinka. The interviews conducted by The World at War team included the bitter testimony of the Slovak Rudolf Vrba, one of only five men to escape from Auschwitz, and the self-criticism of the Italian Primo Levi, who finally could not bear to continue living with his survivor guilt. There is a kernel of foul truth in Josef Stalin's aphorism that one death is a tragedy, a million a statistic, and the jolting memoirs in the following pages seek to keep the matter personal. At a time when the fate of Germany hung in the balance, the Nazis devoted enormous resources and ingenuity to killing millions of helpless people who posed no military, political or economic threat whatever, and they continued doing so until the last days of the war. You cannot read what follows and doubt the fundamental evilness of Hitler's regime.


Hitler's Armaments Minister

Hitler often mentioned his hating the Jews and he gave many examples already in the early time when I was with him. And I should have been warned that he is serious about it because he proved to be serious about other things he predicted too, for instance when he was trying to be the superior nation in Europe. I can't say that I neglected it, it's more or less cowardice, it was just to avoid something which is coming up to me, which would force me to make decisions. And I was running away from my responsibility, which was now as a human being.


British Foreign Secretary

There had been too much evidence of the persecution of the Jews before the war began in Hitlerite Germany and then as the war progressed some horrifying reports began to come out. At first it was very difficult to assess their accuracy and they were so horrible it was hard to believe they could be true. By the latter half of 1942 the evidence was so extensive that one could hardly fail to give credit and as a result of that we did get in touch with other governments, the United States in particular and the Russians, to exchange information and to discuss what we could do. We decided that one of the things we must do was to make a joint statement in each of our capitals at the same time declaring what our information was and what this horror was which was being perpetrated, and also make plain our detestation of it, and our determination that those responsible for it should be punished when the war was over.


Member of the Berlin Jewish Council set up by the Nazis

They were very friendly gentlemen who said, 'You are a Front Soldier, nothing much will happen to you. Perhaps you will be home again by this evening but just in case take the most necessary things with you, your shaving things, washing things, whatever you need.' So I went with them and believed it too. But when I came to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg camp outside Berlin I was immediately taught different. We were all shoved together with clubs and blows and had to stand in even ranks to be counted. Because I had been a soldier I didn't find that all very difficult but the others who didn't fall in quickly were beaten immediately. The most terrible thing was when somebody grabbed hold of a big, strong man and he said, 'Don't grab me.' The guard said, 'What, I shouldn't grab you?' and he gave him a blow and this man was immediately overpowered by three SS people. A block was brought and he was bound fast to it, and the camp commandant said he was sentenced to twenty-five lashes. Then a giant man came, an SS man with a huge ox-whip, and started to beat him. At first the man only groaned a bit but then he begged them to stop. The commandant said, 'What do you mean, stop? We'll start all over again from the beginning.' But after three more lashes the blood was spurting already and salt was rubbed in the wounds, or pepper – I don't know any more. The man was dragged away, unconscious or dead. We never saw him again.


Berlin housewife and Social Democrat

We knew that the concentration camps existed. We also knew where they existed, for example Oranienburg just outside Berlin. We sometimes knew which of our friends were there and we also knew of the cruelties in them right from the beginning. We heard what happened in those camps. I cannot say who the source of the information was, I can only say that one person passed it on to another and that we believed it to be true – I mean those of us in the Resistance. I don't think that the general population would have believed it all had they been told, or had they heard about it from somewhere. The camps were so cruel that one simply could not imagine that anybody could be so bestial if oneself was decent. We knew that lampshades were made from human skin, we knew that people starved to death and that newborn babies were hidden.


British journalist

One morning as they were being marched a Russian prisoner broke ranks and seized a pole and he ran to the electrified fence, and in a terrific effort, he leapt it. They were so astonished, it was the last thing they expected and they couldn't open fire. He got off into the forest and was lost for three days. But then with the use of dogs they roamed the whole countryside and they caught him and brought him back. They reported this to the SS. Himmler wouldn't believe it and they said, 'Right, come and see for yourself,' and they asked this chap would you repeat the jump and promised him his freedom. Hitler, the whole of the SS brass hats came to watch it, they re-staged it. They put him in the front, handed this man the pole and with a tremendous effort he cleared it. They took a film of it, photographed it and brought him back. Himmler shook him by the hand and then they took him out and shot him.


Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy

The biggest mistake of Hitler, I have to say the main fault, was that under his government these terrific exterminations of men happened, which went on behind the backs of the German nation, which would never have tolerated them, but the government kept these crimes completely secret from the German people. They were done through a small number of officials and primarily in the east outside Germany. There's no doubt that the German people knew almost nothing of the annihilation of the Jews. Such an action is not proper, human being could not imagine, that is why they could not have the slightest suspicion that such a thing could be done at all. I heard of these annihilations for the first time in the beginning of May 1945 in the American soldier's newspaper Stars and Stripes, which I had brought to me from the headquarters of Eisenhower. Immediately I demanded from Eisenhower that the highest German law court should prosecute these crimes, but Eisenhower did not answer my demands.


Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz survivor

We ran out of food in the house and one day my mother, may her soul rest in peace, asked me to go down to the bakery and stand there the whole night in order to get a loaf of bread the next day. I got up in the middle of the night and went down to get into the queue. When I arrived there were already masses and masses of people standing in line. At dawn a Pole, who was volksdeutsche [ethnic German] arrived with a rifle slung over his right shoulder, a band with a swastika on his left arm. He was supposed to keep order so that everyone should receive bread. Among us there were children, non-Jews, Poles, running around. They dragged that same volksdeutsche over and pointed at each person saying, 'That's a Jew, that's a Jew – Das Jude, das Jude, Jude' – so that these people would be taken out of the line and not get bread. My turn came. I turned and saw that the boy was a friend with whom I played. I said to him in Polish, 'What are you doing?' His answer was, 'I am not your friend, you are a Jew, I don't know you.' That same German with the swastika band was standing before me. I saw that he was a neighbour of ours and I spoke to him in Polish. His answer was in German: 'I don't know Polish, I don't know you.' He forcefully took me out of the line where I was waiting for bread and slapped me.


Jewish Slovak

The star was important because those in the general population who took the whole Jewish discrimination as a joke, suddenly when they were visiting, speaking to a Jew on the street, were subject to enquiries from the Fascist organisations, to be exposed perhaps as Jews, perhaps as people who are not aware of their national identity. And so a certain division between the Jews and the non-Jewish population because it was risky to speak with a Jew in the street, because he could be labelled as a plotter against the regime with the Jews, who's plotting against the new era free of Bolshevism and Anglo-American Jewry.


Member of the American prosecution team at Nuremberg

One thing I was missing – when did Hitler give the order to eliminate, or to liquidate, as he said, the Jews. Prosecutors have to have luck, that's the main thing. One day the team working on the Foreign Office files in Berlin sent me a whole batch of documents and the file had in the back the note: 'Final Solution of the Jewish Question'. One of my analysts read it and said to me, 'By God, now we have it,' and I said what do you think we have? We had discovered the organisation meeting for action how to kill the Jews and the Protocol about the Final Solution, which was called on 20th January 1942. All the men, the second men of the ministries, were assembled together with Gestapo boss SS Lieutenant General Reinhardt Heydrich with his, let's say, Executive Secretary SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who put the Protocol together. And there you could read that there were eleven million Jews in occupied Europe and that they had to go through with a fine-tooth comb from west to east, first to put them to labour and if they are no longer able to work, and I underline that, then they have to be liquidated. It is interesting to say that we discovered the Protocol not in time for the first big trial, only two or three years later when I prosecuted members of Hitler's cabinets and diplomats who participated and executed this programme. I put it into my desk so that others shouldn't see it right away, so that it should not become known before I had talked to all the living participants of this conference. Some said they were away, others said, 'I just went out of the room when this killing point was read,' and others said, 'I didn't hear anything, I can not remember.'


SS official in the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA)

I should like to describe Eichmann, so to speak, as a transporter of death, as a man with, basically, a small brain and an incredible organisational talent. He succeeded first of all in getting out the Jews who wanted to emigrate – two-thirds of the Austrian Jews were saved by this. And in exactly the same way he succeeded, later, once the extermination order was in force, to get the Jews into the extermination camps. And Himmler was in some ways an Eichmann type, perhaps on a somewhat larger scale. He did not have a great mind cither, but he had exactly the same devilish organisational talent. Eichmann did everything he was ordered to do. He was possessed by carrying out his duty: he had a certain inferiority complex; he had not achieved much in his life before he was in the SS and wanted to show how clever and hard working he was. And that was the bad thing about him and to the same extent with Himmler, too, who after all as a poultry breeder on his chicken farm had not been at all successful and also wanted to show what a great chap he was.


After some negotiation and near the end of 1942 I made this statement in the House of Commons, which I must say in dramatic effect far exceeded anything I had expected. It's a strange place, the House of Commons, you never quite know how it's going to react, but it was just exactly everything one could have prayed for. Jimmy Rothschild just got up and said simply, 'Mr Speaker, is there any way this House can express feelings unanimously about what we've been told?' And the Speaker, Algy Fitzroy, got up and said, 'It is for the House to rise if it wishes to express its feelings.' And the whole House got up. I remember Lloyd George coming to me afterwards and saying, 'In all my years in Parliament, I have never seen anything like this.'


Polish–Jewish survivor of the Radun ghetto massacre, Poland,, witness at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 – 7 May 1942

We were all brought close to the cemetery at a distance of eighty to a hundred metres from a long, deep pit. Once again everybody was made to kneel. There was no possibility of lifting one's head. I sat more or less in the centre of the town people. I looked in front of me and saw the long pit then maybe groups of twenty, thirty people led to the edge of the pit, undressed probably so that they should not take their valuables with them. They were brought to the edge of the pit where they were shot and fell into the pit, one on top of another. At the same time I saw that the group of people that had dug the pit, about a hundred or less, were being taken out of the pit in the direction of the road, of the town. From afar I could make out the figure of my big brother and then, as if by a strong tie binding me to my brother, I decided to run to him. I hardly had a chance to say goodbye to my mother. She no longer held my hand, she no longer tried to keep me from going.


Polish–Jewish survivor of the Hansovic ghetto massacre, Poland, witness at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 – August 1943

When we arrived at this place, we saw naked people standing there already, so we thought maybe they are being tormented, perhaps there was still hope we would remain alive. To get away was impossible. I was curious to see whether anybody was below that hill where the people had to stand and I made a quick turn. I saw three or four rows, twelve people already killed. My little daughter asked, 'Mother, why are you wearing your Sabbath dress, they are going to kill us.' Even when we stood near the ditch she said, 'What are we waiting for? Come let's escape.' Some of the younger ones tried to run away. They hardly managed a few steps, they were caught and shot. Then came our turn. It was difficult to hold the children, they were shaking. We took turns. Parents took the children, took other people's children. This was to help us to get through it all; to get it over with, and not see the children suffer. Mothers took leave of their children, the mothers, the parents. We were lined up in fours. We stood there naked. Our clothing was taken away. My father didn't want to undress completely and kept on his underwear. When he was lined up for the shooting and was told to undress, he refused; he was beaten. We begged him, 'Take off your clothes, enough of suffering.' No. He insisted on dying in his underwear. They tore his things off and shot him. Then they took mother. She didn't want to go, but wanted us to go first. Yet we made her go first. They grabbed her and shot her. There was my father's mother who was eighty with two grandchildren in her arms. My father's sister was also there. She, too, was shot with children in her arms. Then my turn came. My younger sister also. She had suffered so much in the ghetto, and yet at the last moment she wanted to stay alive, and begged the German to let her live. She was standing there naked holding on to her girl friend. So he looked at her and shot them both. Both of them fell, my sister and her girl friend. My other sister was next.


Waffen-SS, Himmler's Chief of Staff

At Minsk I was forced by Himmler to watch an execution of about a hundred partisans among whom were also a great number of Jews, because they were the couriers for the Resistance in this extraordinary partisan war. I said, 'It really is no business of mine, this is nothing to do with the Waffen-SS, it's a police affair,' and then he said, 'You are fortunate enough to be in the very closest circle, so as to speak at King Arthur's Round Table, you must also learn what we have to expect from our troops since we are now involved in a life and death struggle with such a brutal power. You must see this happening at least once.' Not to go into too many unnecessary details an open grave had been dug and into this these partisans, who had not even been condemned by a proper hearing but had merely been taken by numbers, they had to jump into this and lie face downwards, and sometimes when already two or three rows had been shot they had to lie in the people who were already shot and then they were shot from the edge of the grave by members of the ordinary police, not, of course, the SS. While he was looking on, Himmler had the deserved bad luck that from one or other who had been shot in the head he got a splash of brains on his coat and I think it also splashed into his face and he went very green and pale. He was not actually sick but he was heaving and turned around and swayed, and then I had to jump forward and hold him steady and I led him away from the grave. To the commander of this small action group, SS Major Brasdfisch, I said, 'It serves him right that happened to him. It's quite right that he should see what he is ordering his people to do.'*46


I began jumping over the heads of those sitting near me. I jumped and fell, jumped and fell. I didn't care what would happen. And so, I don't know how, by some miracle they didn't notice me. I managed to reach the edge of the road at the rim of the ditch. I lay down and was afraid to get up and continue lest they notice me. Standing near me at that moment was Zelig, the carpenter of the town. He was a skilled worker and worked for the Germans in the Gestapo. He held a special certificate providing that he had to remain alive, he and his family. Altogether there were ten such men who had certificates at that time. He was holding this certificate in his hand and wanted to take out his family whom he had noticed in the large group being led to their death. At that moment a German came up to him, and thrust a revolver in his neck. I heard a shot. He turned dark all over, and continued saying, 'I have a certificate.' The German fired another bullet into him and he fell down near me, half a metre away. I waited a little and then continued crawling back to the road. I succeeded in reaching the group which was part of those digging the pits. At that moment a German approached and asked me, 'Who are you, what are you doing here?' I had a certificate to the effect that I was a sort of locksmith. I said to him, 'I am a good locksmith, I am a blacksmith,' and he went away. I remained there, lying down. I went forward towards my brother and I joined him in this group. My mother was killed – she was shot together with all the other Jews in the pit. Only afterwards did I learn that I had been the only one who somehow managed to escape.


Then he got ready to shoot me. We stood there facing the ditch. I turned my head. He asked, 'Whom do I shoot first?' I didn't answer. He tore the child away from me. I heard her last cry and he shot her. Then he got ready to kill me, grabbed my hair and turned my head about. I remained standing and heard a shot but I didn't move. He turned me around, loaded his pistol, so that I could see what he was doing. Then he again turned me around and shot me. I fell down. I felt nothing. At that moment I felt that something was weighing me down. I thought that I was dead, but that I could feel something even though I was dead. I couldn't believe that I was alive. I felt I was suffocating, bodies had fallen on me. 1 felt I was drowning. But still I could move and felt I was alive and tried to get up. I was choking, I heard shots, and again somebody falling down. I twisted and turned, but I could not. I felt I was going to suffocate. I had no strength left, but then I felt that somehow I was crawling upwards. As I climbed up, people grabbed me, dragged me downwards, but I pulled myself up with the last bit of strength. When I reached the top I looked around but I couldn't recognise the place. Corpses strewn all over, there was no end to the bodies. You could hear people moaning in their death agony. Some children were running around naked and screaming, 'Mama, Papa.' I couldn't get up. The Germans were not there. No one was there. I got out naked covered with blood from the corpses whose bellies had burst. I got to my feet to see that horrible scene. The screaming was unbearable, the children shouting; I ran over to the children, maybe my daughter was there. I called out 'Markele' – I didn't see her. I did not recognise the children either. All of them were covered with blood.


We decided that we had nothing more to do in the ghetto. We could no longer look at the faces of those who had shot our dear ones. We couldn't look at the paths which were drenched in blood, and we resolved to escape from the ghetto. We hoped that perhaps father was still alive. We did not know whether he had succeeded in escaping or not. We wandered around, alone, in the forest for a few days, we managed to make contact, we learned that Father was alive and then we joined him. He had succeeded in fleeing from those who had to dig and who had revolted; they were fired upon and he managed to escape. At the time about seventeen persons, who had revolted and had succeeded in escaping, were saved. We went to establish the first contact with the partisans who were then beginning to organise themselves. The first operation the Jewish partisans carried out against the Gestapo was roughly two weeks after the slaughter, an operation by young Jews. They went out and, at a short distance from the pit, they laid an ambush for the gendarmerie which was in the village, for the Gestapo head of the town – if I am not mistaken he was called Kopke; they managed to wound and also to kill some of them.


Further off I saw two women standing up. I walked over to them. I didn't know them and they didn't know me. We asked each other for our names. At the far end a woman shouted for help with outstretched arms and asked to be saved, to be pulled out from the corpses, she was suffocating. We walked up to her, Ita Rosenberg, and pulled her out of the mass of corpses who were pulling and dragging her down and biting her. She asked us to pull harder; we didn't have any strength left. We struggled all night long and all day screaming and shouting. Looking around, we saw Germans again and people with hoses and shovels. The Germans ordered the gentiles to pile all the corpses together in one place. So they did. A lot were still alive. The children were all running around in the field. As I was walking I saw them and went over to them. The children were running after me and wouldn't leave. I sat down in the field and remained there. The Germans came and helped round up the children. They left me alone. I just sat and looked. There was no need for much shooting at the children. They fired some shots and children fell down. The Rosenberg girl begged the Germans to let her live; they shot her, too. The local people went away. The Germans drove away. They left the truck with the belongings standing there overnight. When I saw they were gone I dragged myself over to the grave and wanted to jump in. I thought the grave would open up and let me fall inside alive. I envied everyone for whom it was already over, while I was still alive. Where should I go? What should I do? Blood was spouting. Nowadays, when I pass a water fountain I can still see the blood spouting from the grave. The earth rose and heaved. I sat there on the grave and tried to dig my way in with my hands. I continued digging as hard as I could. The earth didn't open up. I shouted to mother and father, why 1 was left alive. What did I do to deserve this? Where shall I go? To whom can I turn? I have nobody. I saw everything. I saw everybody lolled. No one answered.


Polish resident in Auschwitz who took part in the construction of the camp

I was working on a locomotive on the narrow-gauge railway. They were moving large cobblestones and some SS surrounded the group. One of the SS picked up one of the stones and threw it into a prisoner's back. I saw him hit the prisoner's spine and his spine was twisted. The prisoner was lying on the ground motionless and he went up to him with a large pick handle which he laid on his neck, put one foot on one side and the other on the other. His legs twitched for a moment or two. There were also shootings. I was particularly struck by one SS man who had a boy from Krakow, he was his favourite: he let him go and bathe and go in the water during the summer. One day he just sort of began shooting live rounds at him. The boy swam off and he shot into the water near him and then hit him with the effect that he sank.


SS guard at Auschwitz-Birkenau

A block chief could even decide the life or death of a prisoner. I remember not just once but often when a Sonderkommando [prisoner work party] went past a block chief would call out to the kapo [prisoner trustee] very fiercely, 'Kapo, come here.' The kapo came over and – boom – he hit the kapo in the face so hard that he fell over, and was just about to put the boot in when the kapo got up very fast – if he was lucky. And then he said, 'Kapo, can't you beat them any better than that?' and the kapo ran off and grabbed a club and beat up the prisoner squad quite indiscriminately. 'Kapo, come over here,' he shouted again. The kapo came and he said, 'Finish them off,' and then he went off again and he finished the prisoners off, he beat them to death. Wherever you looked – beatings, blows and more blows. It was particularly bad at Auschwitz in 1941. Clubbed to death, clubbed to death wherever you looked. Today I would not condemn any kapo I knew. I often talked to kapos, and a kapo had to beat and club to save his own life.


SS investigating magistrate

In Berlin they recognised that these were not individual cases but as they said in the higher SS circles, 'The whole area of the concentration camps is a pigsty.' It's wrong to think that a commandant could do as he pleased; it was quite the opposite: the prisoner should be treated strictly but justly. To torment people, harm them and harass them, to exploit them and then even kill them, that was not permitted, and every commandant when he entered the service had to sign the Führer-Command Number One and that read, 'Only the Führer and Reichschancellor shall decide the life of the enemy of the state'. That is why the top SS leadership was shocked and enraged by these abuses which I had exposed and they demanded punishment. So far nobody had succeeded in finding out anything really concrete in this area; it was so shrouded in secrecy that the police or law courts had been unable to see a way through. I heard one story about a district attorney in Dachau who dared to go into the concentration camp about the death of a prisoner and the camp commandant had ordered some hand-grenade practice very near the district attorney, and he got the point and stopped his investigations. But now an officer in uniform came with orders direct from Himmler personally, so they couldn't do anything against that. I got the job of investigating all big and punishable acts in concentration camps, and all the other police and legal authorities were instructed to hand all such cases over to me.


My view was a more technical one. I heard from my leading technicians that those people from the concentration camps was falling sick after a short while, and this was not possible for our production because when some workmen is falling sick, then the whole assembly line is disturbed and it needed six weeks or more to get him from apprentice really to the workman. In those six weeks was necessary another man, a skilled workman, to introduce him to his job and his time was lost too. So we objected and said it must be better nourishment and they must be treated better, they must have better housing and partly I think we succeeded. I read now that even Paul Hossler [Commandant at Auschwitz, then Belsen, hanged in 1945] gave orders from 1942 on for better nourishment of the concentration-camp inmates. When I visited the V-2 factory in the Harzburg mountains they were working in caves. I tried to do the utmost; it was a question mainly that there was no housing since they were living in the caves. I ordered some barracks should be built but then I myself dropped ill, just a few days afterwards, and I wasn't really again in my office until May 1944. After that I saw to it again and had some medical care for them and I heard that the things were better, were improving. Of course my only task was to produce as much as possible and I didn't look to the left or to the right what was happening there. I was just glad if I could get along with the things which I was responsible for and didn't bother for the responsibilities of other offices.


In Berlin the Reichs Criminal Police Office had obviously not been informed of my previous history because if they had I cannot imagine I would get a commission for a job which took me to Buchenwald. It may have been because one hands over the most unpleasant and difficult jobs to the new boy, so that he can prove himself or perhaps come to grief over it. I heard a whole string of unbelievable stories, among others that these SS officers at the time of the Jewish action way back in 1938, the infamous Kristallnacht, had quite unashamedly lined their own pockets, and had exploited the Jews. I was so enraged and shocked at all this, that I had the feeling something must be done about this. Obviously none of these local people here had the courage to do anything, but they all encouraged me and offered to support me. Then I took matters into my own hands: I went to the Weimar banks and without anyone asking me whether I had any orders to show, but just because I had a uniform on, and handled myself accordingly, I got all the accounts of the concentration camp – the private accounts of the SS Colonel Karl Koch. I went through them and I was able to establish that a sum, about a hundred and five thousand marks, had been embezzled by Koch and he had spread this very cleverly over various accounts, official, semi-official and also his private accounts. And that set off a whole avalanche because all those people who had been afraid of Koch, and they suddenly saw that there was a higher power still than even Koch represented, and they suddenly saw he was sitting in prison now and had no power any more. They all gave evidence against Koch and I didn't just establish embezzlement in his case but murders as well.*47


German railwayman at Auschwitz

Just before the exit of the camp after Auschwitz station a shunting train was standing and it happened that the engine was standing on the level crossing and the personal car of a high SS officer was standing at the level crossing. This man was drunk out of his mind and he kept shouting at the sentry who was standing at the gate, 'Shoot, shoot, shoot at him!' He didn't do it, he didn't take any notice at all. Meanwhile I had come up on my bicycle and stood in front of this SS officer's car and I said, 'The engine driver' – it was Polish personnel – 'will not move until he has his orders to move because a shunting train can only move forwards or backwards when he gets his orders from the shunting overseer.' You can imagine that this SS officer in his car was going wild and kept on shouting, 'Shoot, shoot, shoot.' I went over to the engine driver and said to him, 'You have nothing to fear. I will take full responsibility whatever happens. Should the SS officer attempt to get up on your train, push him down.' It didn't go that far but the SS officer jumped down from his car and went over to the SS sentry and tried to tear the rifle out of his hands, but the SS sentry grabbed his rifle and ran off. After a while the coupling of the train was complete and the signal came from the shunting chief. Then I said to the SS man, when the train had gone past and the level crossing was free, 'Please, now you can drive on.'**4


What triggered my investigation was an Army postal packet sent back home from Auschwitz and the customs had opened this packet and found there were one or two kilos of gold in it. And it was dental gold and then nobody could work out how this dentist had got hold of so much gold and I was supposed to go down there and find out what was behind it. As I had this job to do it was explained to me that the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau had a very special and particular role, the extermination of the Jews, the so-called 'Final Solution' as the code word put it. I heard, which was at first inconceivable, that human beings were being intentionally gassed and reduced to ashes and to judge by the quantity of dental gold, must mean hundreds of thousands of dead that this gold had been taken from. After I heard all this, I immediately set off for Auschwitz, I didn't even know where it was, I had never the name Auschwitz before and I found it on a map as Oswiecim, the Polish name, and I saw that it lay in the Upper Silesian industrial area. One morning very early I arrived by train and was very curious to see what sort of place it was, and somehow or other you had the feeling that a place where such incredibly ghastly things were happening on such a huge scale that it would somehow exude a frightful aura, that there would be something peculiar about it. But, no, there it was, a perfectly ordinary, grey, miserable, dirty industrial town. It was all perfectly normal, you didn't see anything of the concentration camp either. I was picked up in the commandant's car, and a few minutes later I found myself face to face with Commandant Höss. The man Höss is one of the strangest men I have ever met. I could describe him best if I say he was a man who seemed to be made only of pure stone, hardly a trace of emotion, hardly a movement. He spoke very softly, very ponderously, slowly, deliberately and I explained my business to him and asked him to show me, the whole concentration camp including his extermination machinery. Then he gave me a chap to guide me round and we made a very thorough tour.


Russian–Jewish survivor of Auschwitz

There was a French actress, Jewish. She was very pretty. One SS told her to undress in front of him. She refused; he forced her to undress. She began to undress but did not want to take off her underclothes. He forcefully tore them off, so she took a shoe and with the shoe hit the SS man on the forehead. His forehead started bleeding and while he was taking out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead she took his revolver from his holster. That same moment all the SS ran out. This French girl had only the revolver, no SS tried to fight her. They brought machine guns and shot into the room where people undressed. They all shot but none of them dared enter the room as the woman had the revolver. Real heroes.


One always thinks that people who do such terrible things must be marked in some special way, but they were mostly people who enjoyed a good sleep, had a good appetite and who in their behaviour and bearing were indistinguishable from the rest of the world. They were quite normal human beings. However, I did not understand this intimacy between SS extermination personnel and Jewish assistants – helpers. I was sitting in my guard room and there was an SS non-commissioned officer lying there on a couch and was making no attempt at all to behave like a military chap, but was quite unconcerned about an officer like me coming in – and a very pretty young Jewess was baking potato-puff cakes and sprinkling them liberally with sugar and served them up to him on his couch. And he ate them lying down like Nero in Rome, surrounded with his harem.


Jewish teenager at Buchenwald and Auschwitz

We were supposed to go in October 1942 from the transport straight to the oven but two minutes before we were to be sent Lieutenant Colonel Höss, the commander at Auschwitz, arrived and said, 'These Jews are not going to the crematorium. They have a trade and came from Buchenwald.' After that we were taken with no selection and put into showers. Those who came from Buchenwald were put to work in building. When we arrived we saw how the Jews were running to the electrified fence. There they stuck. They were tired of life; they could not continue in this fashion.


I arrested the Gestapo chief [SS Second Lieutenant Maximilian Grabner, hanged 1948] immediately and accused him; I was also able to bring evidence of crimes committed by Höss. Höss had started a love affair with a Czech female prisoner and made this girl pregnant, and that was reason enough for him to attempt to kill her. And he did it in a particularly horrible way. It had to be done discreetly and so I found this woman in a standing bunker, that was a cement construction in the cellar, very small and you to crouch right down to get in there and this woman was standing there for days and weeks naked, and hardly got anything to eat, only when sympathetic prisoners smuggled something to her, and I arrived just in time to save her. I immediately took her out of the camp and got her to a Catholic hospital near Munich and then when she had recovered her strength, she told me with great difficulty the story of her suffering. This woman's fear of Höss was indescribable.


The Jewish council provided the German authorities with my photograph, my description, et cetera, and finally I ended up where others ended up, in the train, except that I had been a bit damaged in the face and the body until they got me there. We were put in a sort of transit camp and because in the camp there was a strong force of young people, resistance was divided by dividing the camp with one part promised that they will work on the spot and stay in Slovakia, whereas the other part goes into the unknown destination. Because of course I have been a naughty boy who tried to avoid his duty to the state and to the Jewish nation by my lack of discipline – because instead of obeying and doing what others do I tried to cross the border towards Hungary into Yugoslavia and became the shame of the Jews by my lack of discipline and understanding – it was decided that it would be better for me if I go to the place where discipline will be taught to me.


There were twenty or twenty-five cars in every train like that and it had taken a long time until the Germans pushed multitudes into the train. I heard terrible cries. I saw how people attack other people so as to have a place to stand, how people push each other so that they could stand somewhere or so that they could have air for breathing. It was terribly, terribly stifling. The first to faint were children, women, old men, they all fell down like flies. Father was standing next to me and all of a sudden I see that he is falling, he has collapsed. With all my strength, as much strength as I had, I tried to lift him and bring him to, but I didn't succeed. Then I found a piece of wood on the floor of the car; I got up and began to beat with the piece of wood – it was a club or something – people who were standing around me in the car so that they would make room for father, so father could get up. I remember that I did not care about the suffering of others, their cries, their threats, only that father should get up, that I should not remain alone.


In the gas chambers was transported thousands of people from Bohemia and when they were gassed in the pocket of each of them was a ticket in which the German authorities promised them that on their arrival everything will be done that they should rejoin the members of their family – which were gassed in the same gas chambers a year before. So that promise was kept.


Dutch–Jewish teenage survivor of Auschwitz

I was afraid, yes, like a dog in a burning house is afraid, mostly because of the smell which was a terrible sweet smell. It had something to do with burning hair and burning chicken. I only know that I was thinking they are burning chickens; I didn't know the chickens were people. When we arrived it was the 6th of June and I remember one of the prisoners spoke to me, 'You have bad luck because the English arrived in France and you go out to the crematorium.' That's all what she said, and I was thinking what exactly is a crematorium? And I asked her, 'What do you mean crematorium?' and she said, 'Took' and then she pointed to the flames. 'You are going through the chimney, that's where you'll go through.'


Italian–Jewish chemist at Auschwitz III (Monowitz), a labour camp I wrote a book about my stay in Auschwitz, and a chapter of my book [Survival in Auschwitz, 1958] has the title 'The Submerged and the Saved', in Italian I Sommersi e I Salvati [later the title of his last book of essays, published in 1986]. The Submerged as a rule are those who did not keep afloat, they did not carry the first shock and after one week of concentration camp were already lost – not materially lost but with no hope of survival. They were called 'musselmen' in the concentration and they were lucky to lose almost completely their sensitivity. There was also another way of losing your sensitivity and it was the opposite one – to climb, to be a social climber in the camp. Many particular qualities were needed to do that. You needed to understand German very well, to be very shrewd and to be very free of every solidarity with your mates.


The gentle or the brutal technique for unloading trains depended on conditions. If the SS knew many transports are coming it was brutal, but if there was only one transport it was much more interesting than sitting in the barracks so they might grant you the gentle technique: 'Ladies and gentlemen, we are so sorry for the inconvenience, which was caused by some idiot who organised this journey. We are awfully sorry, just look at this mess. How do they treat people like this? Would you please get out and please don't get in touch with these criminals [Jewish inmate working parties], they are placed here only for taking the luggage. And if you have got unmarked luggage and are afraid it might get lost then take it with you, but if you have names on your luggage don't worry, we are keeping a good eye that none of those criminals can take anything away and our German honesty, about which I hope you have got no doubt, is a guarantee that all your property will be given to you. Please don't make us any trouble so that we can give you water and allow you the basic sanitary conditions to be restored after this dismal journey.' Looking around at excrements and urine and blood around the wagon and pretending they don't realise what has happened, and there's a lot of humour and so the prisoners come out.


I remember that came a little girl who was dressed like a little SS woman in boots and a green outfit with a whip and we said, 'Look, this girl, she's from Friesland.' And she said, 'Hello, you are from Friesland, all of you? You go to gas chambers – they sent my parents to gas chambers as well.' She was not touched at all and said it the way I said it now. You know what happened to that girl? She was a little beautiful girl and one of the SS women took her like a little daughter, I don't know why, and she built a little SS woman out of her.


Holblinger said to me, 'Richard, are you interested in seeing one of the actions?' I said, 'Yes, very interested indeed' and he said, 'I'll take you with me this evening.' We drove out to Birkenau, not to where the ramp was later but where the train stopped on the big slope. It was a transport from Holland and the Dutch Jews who came to Auschwitz were very elegant and rich. He parked his ambulance there and I sat in it pretending to be the co-driver. Then they drove them all off in a lorry to Bunker One where there were four big halls. The halls did not have a proper roof, just a sloping top. At first Holblinger did not have anything to do. Then they went into the hall and the new arrivals had to get undressed, and then the order came, 'Prepare for disinfection'. There were enormous piles of clothing in there, and there was a board running around so that the piles did not all collapse. And the new arrivals, the Dutch people, had to stand on top of this great heap of clothes to get undressed. Lots of them hid their children under the clothes and covered them up then they shouted, 'Get ready' and they all went out, they had to run naked approximately twenty yards from the hall across to Bunker One. There were two doors standing open and they went in there and when a certain number had gone inside they shut the doors. That happened about three times, and every time Holblinger had to go out to his ambulance and they took out a sort of tin – he and one of his block chiefs – and then he climbed up the ladder and at the top there was a round hole and he opened a little round door and held the tin there and shook it and then he shut the little door again. Then a fearful screaming started up and approximately after about ten minutes it slowly went quiet.


Several minutes later the SS company sergeant major arrived. He was the head of all the crematoria. He received us very nicely and said, 'Here you will have enough to eat, but you will have to work a lot.' The doors were suddenly opened to the gas chambers. People, naked people, started falling out. We were all frightened, no one dared ask what it all was. We were immediately taken to the other side of this house and there we saw hell on this earth – large piles of dead people, and people dragging these dead to a long pit, about thirty metres in length and ten metres in width. There was a huge fire there, with tree trunks. On the other side fat was being taken out of this pit with a bucket. We remained almost unconscious and we did not know what to do in such a situation, but we had no alternative and we had to immediately begin working. Four people would take hold of one dead person but the SS came and said, no, each one of you will take one. He showed us how, with a simple walking stick, to take one under the chin, to put the stick on the neck and drag the dead to the pit as one would drag a rag or a piece of wood. At the pit there were still others who pushed the dead into the pit.


They opened the door – it was a prisoners' Sonderkommando who did that – then a blue haze came out. I looked in and I saw a pyramid. They had all climbed up on top of each other until the last one stood at the very top, all one on top of the other and then the prisoners had to go in and tear it apart. They were all tangled, one had his arm down by another's foot and then round it and back up again and his fingers were sticking in someone else's eye, so deep. They were all tangled, they had to tug and pull very hard to disentangle all these people. Then we went back to the hall and now it was the turn of the last lot to get undressed, the ones who had managed to hang back a bit all the time. One girl with beautiful black hair, a beautiful girl, was crouching there and didn't want to get undressed and an SS man came up and said, 'I suppose you don't want to get undressed,' and she tossed her hair back and laughed a little. Then he went away and came back with two prisoners and they literally tore the clothes off her then they each grabbed an arm and they dragged her across to Bunker One and pushed her in there. Then the prisoners had to check where the small children had been hidden and covered up. They pulled them out and opened the doors quickly again and threw all the children in and slammed the doors.


The experience of Auschwitz was a terrible one for me and I had planned to cross the border and go into Switzerland. But then on this long journey I reconsidered it all – if you go and tell them all this, who will believe you? I could hardly believe my eyes and ears when I saw it all for the first time and something where there has never been anything like it before, and it all seems absolutely impossible anyway – how should I prove it? And I was genuinely afraid they would just say to me, 'He's an agent provocateur, a spy or a madman.' I just couldn't imagine any positive result from it. It could only lead to me or my parents having to suffer an awful lot, pointlessly too since I could not change anything. But I said to myself, even if I can't get those who are responsible for this extermination of millions, I can at least bring the executives to justice in so far as they deviate from the path of so-called legality and act on their own initiative to enrich themselves, to cover up crimes, or out of power-mania, or whatever all the reasons were for violating prisoners. For that I could bring them to justice, to shut these monsters up and put an end to their activities. I kept trying to arouse an examination of it all, but how can you change a system, particularly when there's a war going on?


A pile of women's bodies, an enormous pile, you have probably seen the photographs, but the smell and the horror of it. There were little children playing touch around the pile of these bodies and that was the final, horrible end. In the huts typhoid, everything, had broken out and you couldn't hear yourself speak for the death rattle. There were people lying on top of each other, sick, vomiting, withered bodies crawling on their hands and knees. I went into one area where they had to seal it off because of typhus; through the wire came what I thought were broken twigs, they were the arms of people and the voice, the croaking sound of voices that had withered at the roots, and I'll never forget it. Sometimes you wake up at night and you hear sounds and you think you're in Belsen again, that horrible, awful sick smell and the final indignity of taking the human body and bulldozing it as if it was worth nothing. You were surrounded by this neutral pine forest and I can't look at Christmas trees sometimes without remembering Belsen behind it. It was sealed off in this dark north German plain and you felt you'd reached the cesspit of the human mind.


Auschwitz was very long range as far as our people were concerned, and certainly until the later stages in the war I should imagine out of range. There are some Jewish organisations who feel to this day it would have been good if we could have bombed Auschwitz. I don't really know how it could have helped anybody even if we could have done it. You can't bomb with that accuracy, it certainly would have killed a lot of people, and then of course it was in enemy territory and even if as a result of the bombing some people had got out, they would have been in a hostile country – where could they have got to or was there any real hope that they could have escaped? I hardly think so. We decided against it, and we didn't even ask Bomber Harris to consider the project. So we may have been right or wrong, but that was how the decision was taken. As one considers all the possible alternatives one comes back to what was the main thing to do, which was to win the war, not disperse our effort more than we absolutely had to. It was only by winning the war that we could hope to save the lives of any unfortunate Jews who were still survivors from the terrible and unforgivable treatment to which they were subjected.


American historian

Jews realised overwhelmingly that when push comes to shove a Jew can only look to another Jew for support. This gave a tremendous boost to Zionism, which had been an important force before the war among world Jewry but not decisive in the way that it was to become after the war. The only solution for the Jews was to have their homeland back and so they took it. The Jews had moral capital piled up in the West upon which they could draw for a long time. It seems to be running out, but immediately after the war the West had a very guilty conscience about what had happened. Had Hitler not attacked Poland and instead concentrated his efforts exclusively on eliminating Germany's Jews, it's perfectly evident the West would have allowed him to do so. He could have killed all Germany's Jews and no one in the West was going to raise a finger to stop him.


We were brought to freedom in a train, not with those SS people but with soldiers, old-men soldiers. They told us you are lucky, you go to Sweden and Hitler is dead. One of the girls said, 'Hitler is dead, now I'll see my daughter again.' She never had told us during all the years she had a daughter. We couldn't believe we were free until we saw for the first time of our life English soldiers. Then I knew we were in Denmark and the people from Denmark were running to the train with bread and cigarettes and I remember that one woman took out her lovely white shoes and gave them to me. I took of course the shoes in my hands but my feet were not clean and I was sick – but I like to say I came out of the war with a pair of white shoes.


Polish–Jewish lawyer and Auschwitz survivor

I had to drink urine in the wagon. A couple of months later, on the yacht of a rich Swedish lady, I drank a glass of champagne. Then I told her that our generation had to note in their lives enormous contrasts such as between drinks – urine and champagne. This was received, rightly, with disgust although at the time the joke seemed to me excellent, excellent. This was already the first contact with the fact that what we went through will be difficult to understand even for our contemporaries, and much more difficult for the generations that have already no personal experience from those days.


Rabbi Frankforter had one wish. He gave me his will. He said, 'You see what they are doing with us day in, day out. They are finishing us. I will be the first victim here, as I am a rabbi. This is why they will want to finish me before the rest.' He asked me to do one thing. He blessed me and said, 'You are still young and you will remain alive. I have only one request for you that you should never let people forget. Tell everyone what they did to us at this small camp, in Buchenwald. Wherever you go tell this, also to your children so that they should pass it on.' This is why I insist on it even today – 'To remember and not to forget'.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!