Hungarian jews in Auschwitz-Birkenau


1. Auschwitz before 1944

 

The Third Reich’s largest camp complex was built 70 km south-west of the Polish city of Krakow, in Upper-Silesia annexed by Germany. The idea of building the camp was first broached at the end of 1939 by SS leaders in charge of punitive operations against the Polish intellectuals and the resistance movement, as, following waves of arrests, Polish prisons became quickly overcrowded. The Germans spent months looking for the ideal location. In early 1940 the decision was made: the camp was to be built on the grounds of an abandoned Polish army barracks outside Auschwitz (Oświęcim in Polish). At the end of April 1940, the SS Reich Leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the construction of a concentration camp in Auschwitz.


According to the original plan, the camp was designed to accommodate 10 thousand Polish inmates. SS-captain Rudolf Höss was appointed camp commander. He served in various concentration camps since 1934, and at his appointment he was a top officer at Sachsenhausen. The first stages of the work, the conversion of existing buildings and the erection of barbed-wire perimeter fences, was performed by local Jews and Poles. At the end of May a group of common criminals were transferred from Sachsenhausen to provide guard duty for future inmates. They were the first thirty inmates in Auschwitz to be registered by numbers from 1 to 30. The first transport of 728 Polish political inmates arrived on June 14, 1940 from the prison of Tarnów.


In the next phase, the evacuation of the local population and the demolition of their dwellings got under way. Salvaged building material was used for the expansion of the camp. By March 1941, some 10,900 inmates were taken to the camp. Following the forced removal of the native Polish population, the camp at Auschwitz became surrounded by a so-called ‘interest zone’ (Interessengebiet) with an area of 40 km2, hermetically sealed off by SS guards.


With the invasion of the Soviet Union and the protracted war, the original plans were drastically changed. Himmler issued orders to expand the camp’s capacity to 30 thousand inmates. Moreover, he ordered the construction of a new camp on the site of the village of Birkenau (Brzezinka in Polish) 2 km from Auschwitz, to receive 100 thousand additional inmates. Plants filling orders for the military were to be built on the site as well. Construction continued with renewed energy, but was never fully completed.


By 1944, the once minor concentration camp of some twenty one-storey brick buildings developed into a huge complex that eventually encompassed by a web of satellite-camps of various sizes, industrial structures, workshops and a string of mines. From the network of camps, three centres emerged: the original concentration camp of Auschwitz (Auschwitz I), the massive extermination camp at Birkenau erected between 1941–1943 (Auschwitz II), and the Monowitz forced labour camp (Auschwitz III).

The three camps worked together in symbiosis. Birkenau simultaneously functioned as a final destination camp and last stop, as well as the reservoir of fresh labour force. It received Jewish transports; here women, children, the elderly and the sick deemed unfit for work were selected and sent immediately to die in the gas chambers. Monowitz was the centre of military production where slave labourers worked in the factories of I. G. Farben, other German armament factories, synthetic fuel plants and construction sites as long as their health permitted them to. Once their condition deteriorated, they were sent to the gas chambers of Birkenau. Auschwitz became the administrative centre of all other camps; from its offices the SS controlled the life and death of tens of thousands of inmates and inspected thousands of SS guards. Political inmates were housed primarily in the other concentration camps where they worked in smaller workshops under strict supervision. With the expansion of the complex, the number of guards and inmates grew dramatically: in August 1944, 135 thousand inmates were guarded by 3342 SS soldiers.


2. The Non-Jewish Victims of Auschwitz

 

Between the years of 1940 and 1945, approximately 1.3 million people were deported to the Auschwitz complex. Of these, slightly over 400 thousand had been registered and the rest disappeared in the gas chambers without a trace. Approximately 200 thousand non-Jewish inmates were sent to Auschwitz, of whom 120-130 thousand perished.

 

Until the spring of 1942, the majority of camp inmates and victims were non-Jewish Poles. Along with resistance fighters, soldiers and partisans arrested on actual or trumped-up charges, there were thousands of other Polish men and women who refused to pay taxes, worked on the black markets, violated any of the new regulations introduced by the Germans or were accused of hiding Jews. Many of them were sentenced to death by a summary court and executed at the “Death Wall” in the courtyard of the camp Gestapo. By 1943, surviving Polish inmates occupied leading administrative positions and they also led the resistance movement in the camp. Half of the 140–150 thousand Polish inmates, between 70 and 75 thousand died here, while the rest were transferred and perished in other camps or survived to the end of the war.

The Nazis defined Roma as “anti-social” elements. From February 1943, large numbers of Roma were deported to the camp. At arrival the primarily German, Austrian and Czech Roma were not selected; instead, they were sent to the “Gypsy camp” (BIIe) set up in Birkenau. From a certain point of view Roma were treated as Aryans, therefore families were not separated and Roma were rarely made to work. However, due to the lack of adequate food and horrendous hygienic conditions, their death rate was extremely high. The sick were selected from the camp and many thousands were sent to the gas chambers. It was primarily the children who perished from malnutrition and diseases, and many of them became the objects of Dr. Mengele’s pseudo-medical experiments. In the end, at the order of Himmler, the Gypsy camp was closed down and the majority of its occupants were gassed on the night of August 2, 1944. Of the 23 thousand European Roma sent to Auschwitz–Birkenau, no more than 2 thousand survived.

 

The Nazis were particularly brutal in their treatment of Soviet prisoners of war brought to the camp from the second half of 1941. Ignoring all rules of military engagement, Communist political commissars were executed immediately, and the rest were ordered to build the camp at Birkenau. The POWs were barely given anything to eat. Due to a lack of sewage and clean drinking water, epidemics spread quickly. Guards were extremely brutal with the “Bolshevik enemy”. Due to constant beatings, summary executions, famine and disease, 90 percent of these inmates did not live to see the spring of 1942. Of the approximately 15 thousand Soviet inmates transported to Auschwitz, only a few hundred survived.

 

Along with the Poles, Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war, the camps held another 25 thousand Czech, Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Yugoslav, French, German and Austrian resistance fighters, slave labourers, common criminals and “anti-social” elements. More than 11 thousand persons were taken to Auschwitz to be “re-educated”. They included homosexuals, pacifist Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused military service, and Aryan citizens critical of Nazi propaganda.

 

3. Life in the Auschwitz Camps

 

Mass murder started with the arrival of the first transport in June 1940. As in other camps, initially inmates dropped like flies due to constant beatings, famine and disease. However, in autumn 1940, executions got under way: military operations by Polish resistance were avenged by the mass shooting of hostages transported to Auschwitz. Secret contacts with the outside world, escape plans or attempts were also punished by death: victims were first questioned and tortured, and finally hanged in front of other inmates as a deterrence. Others were starved to death in the basement of Block 11, under Gestapo headquarters, or shot in the head in the courtyard at the ‘Death Wall’. In the summer of 1941, a new method was introduced: the mentally and physically handicapped shipped to the camp as part of the “euthanasia program”, and inmates succumbing to starvation or disease were killed by an injection of fenolin to the heart. Tens of thousands were eliminated by this method.

In Auschwitz work only brought temporary reprieve from death. In some 200 companies of various sizes scattered around the camp, prisoners were forced to work 10-14 hours a day under appalling conditions and the constant beatings of SS guards and inspectors (capos and foremen) selected from among the ranks of inmates. The cynical sign above the camp gate (“Arbeit macht frei – Work makes you free”) suggested that honest work was the road to survival, while the systematic overworking of inmates constituted an integral part of the entire extermination program: in Nazi terminology “elimination through labour” (Vernichtung durch Arbeit). For its cheap labourers, the SS received 2-5 marks/day, somewhat less for women and unskilled workers, and more for healthy and skilled men. Officially, the SS spent 1-1.5 marks/day on each labourer. In reality even less, because SS guards and capos often plundered inmates’ ratios.

 

As work started at 6 a.m. and lasted till 5 p.m., the majority of inmates stayed in the camps only between 6 p.m. and 5 a.m. Night curfew started at 9 p.m. when the barracks were locked and guards fired at anything that moved after that time. The exhausted prisoners had 6-7 hours of sleep. However, with often two or three of them crowded on narrow wooden bunks, rest was all but impossible. The ordeal started all over again with the 4 a.m. reveille: inmates ran to the few latrines all at the same time and long lines formed within seconds. This was followed by roll-call, the dreaded appell, when in the heat of summer or the snows of winter inmates had to line up in rows of ten in front of their barracks waiting until SS guards and capos counted thousands over and over again. At times, this procedure lasted several hours. This was followed by pushing and shoving for the morning coffee or tea, no more than a half litre of warm and bitter-tasting liquid. In a few minutes, the inmates were on their way to their work sites (this time in rows of five), often at a distance of several kilometres. Here, under the blows of their captors, they had to perform heavy physical labour at a forced pace until 1 p.m. For lunch they were given a litre of thin soup and could rest for 30 minutes. Work continued until darkness fell. On their way back to the camp, they supported each other and carried their dead or wounded comrades. At the gate, a new round of torture awaited them: by the beat of military music performed by an inmate orchestra, they had to march through the gate in formation, while SS guards searched for hidden food or other banned items. This was followed by the agony of the night appell and the distribution of dinner ratios: 20-30 dkg of bread, 2.5 dkg of margarine and an occasional 2.3 dkg of sausage or a spoonful of marmalade. Their suffering was exacerbated by the lack of hygiene, proper clothing, medical treatment, constant over-crowding, the savagery of capos and SS guards, the aggression of brutalised prisoners, harsh winter conditions in Poland and the resulting frostbite, or hot summers without proper drinking water. In this environment, deportees were condemned to death within an average of 2 to 3 months of arrival.

 

4. The Beginning of Mass Murder

 

By January 31, 1942, a total of 36,285 inmates were taken to the camp. 26,288 were registered, primarily Polish political prisoners and 9997 Soviet prisoners of war. However, the actual headcount at the time stood at 11,449. 2435 persons were transferred, 5 escaped, 76 were released, while the rest (22,320 people) were executed or died due to inhuman conditions. In the first 18 months of its existence, Auschwitz was but one link in the chain of German concentration camps. After that, however, a radical change took place.

 

According to the memoirs of camp commander Rudolf Höss, in the summer of 1941 he was summoned by Himmler, leader of the SS, who informed him of Hitler’s orders to implement the “final solution of the Jewish question”. As it had excellent rail infrastructure, the camp at Auschwitz was selected as the killing ground of European Jewry. Höss and his staff soon started to search for the right technology of mass murder. In the autumn of 1941, they made a crucial breakthrough: in an experiment the agent hydrogen-cianide (Zyklon B), formerly used in the camp for disinfection and pest control, was successfully applied on 250 disabled and 600 Soviet inmates crammed into the Gestapo’s basement. The building was inside the camp, so during the experiment all other inmates had to be locked in. To keep the experiment secret, subsequent operations were moved to the crematorium, a few hundred yards beyond the barbed-wire fence. By that time the Nazis had converted a former Polish army warehouse into a crematorium to dispose of the large number of dead ‘produced’ by the camp. Now, the latest victims were gassed in the morgue of the crematorium.

In the spring of 1942, a new chapter was opened in the history of the camp: following successful extermination experiments using Zyklon B, masses of Jews locked in cattle cars were transported to Auschwitz from every part of Europe. Between 1940–1941 a total of 1500 Jews were sent there. This number increased to 3112 in March 1942, 21,496 in June and 41,960 in August, with the annual total reaching 200 thousand, primarily from German-occupied Poland (the so called General Government), France, the Netherlands and Slovakia.

 

It was impossible to gas this mass of people in the morgue next to the crematorium, which had a maximum capacity for 700 to 800 people per day. Therefore, Höss and Eichmann visiting the camp scouted for a new location more suitable for mass murder. Their choice fell on two Polish farmhouses a few hundred meters from each other in a forest at the western edge of the Birkenau camp. In the spring of 1942, an evacuated house of a Polish farmer was converted into a temporary gas chamber: the windows were walled in and two rooms were sealed off by massive doors. After the exposed brick walls, Bunker 1 was referred to as the ‘little red house’. In June, another whitewashed building was converted for the same purpose; this, however, contained four gas chambers. This was officially called Bunker 2, familiarly referred to as the ‘little white house’. In Bunker 1 and 2, with floor areas of 60–80 m2 and 105 m2 respectively, 500 to 700 and 800 to 1000 people could be gassed simultaneously.

During his visit in July 1942, Himmler watched the exterminations and, although Höss was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he was not fully satisfied with the results. Soon, new construction projects followed.


5. The Death Factory

 

The “old” crematorium of the camp at Auschwitz had a daily burning capacity of only 340 bodies, and there were frequent breakdowns. At the same time, thousands of people were gassed in the bunkers who, for lack of space, were buried in mass graves. This, however, posed the threat of epidemics. The mechanism of annihilation was far from perfect.

 

The procedure was repeated day after day: trains, packed for the most part with Jews, arrived at the ramp lying halfway between the camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Before July 1942, famished and exhausted people were gassed immediately, regardless of their value as potential labourers. Later, in response to increasing labour shortage, the Nazis changed their tactics; SS doctors selected those deemed fit for work right at the ramp. These included men between the ages of 16 and 40 and women in the same age group without children. Mothers with children, the elderly, the weak and the young, 70 to 80 percent of each transport, were separated and driven to bunkers two kilometres away, by lorries at night and on foot during the day. They were made to undress in wooden shacks serving as dressing rooms, and people were pushed into the gas chambers naked. Those left outside were shot in the head. At the signal of an SS doctor, an SS medical officer fed poison gas through ventilation ducts. A team of Jewish workers dragged the corpses behind the bunkers, lifted the bodies on tip-carts, pushed them to the edge of huge mass graves nearby and dumped their cargo.

 

The process involved a number of security risks and thus required a large contingent of SS guards. The Germans came up with a thoroughly novel solution: the concept of murder on an industrial scale, the idea of the death factory was born. In the summer of 1942, the construction of four crematoria was started at the western edge of the Birkenau camp. The project lasted almost a full year. Simultaneously, the exhumation of the mass graves got under way as well and, before the end of 1942, some 107 thousand corpses were burned in open pits.

 

Missing original deadlines and budgets, the four new crematoria (two smaller ones with identical design, and two larger, symmetrically arranged ones) were commissioned between March and June 1943. The new structures integrated under the same roof dressing rooms, gas chambers and furnaces suitable for the cremation of the bodies. Victims were successfully misled to the last minute: once inside the complex, there was no escape. Within one hour a transport of 2 to 3 thousand got undressed and suffocated in the gas chambers (within 3 to 20 seconds, depending on the temperature and humidity level). Within the next 2-3 hours the chambers were emptied, the hair of the dead was shorn off, their gold teeth were pulled and they were all cremated. In the underground gas chambers of ‘Large’ crematoria II and III (the original and rudimentary crematorium of Auschwitz was given the number I at that time) 2 to 3 thousand people could be killed simultaneously. According to  official figures, each of the five triple-deck furnaces operating in the crematoria had a capacity of 1440 bodies per day. In the gas chambers of ‘small’ crematoria IV and V, between 1500 and 2000 people could be murdered, while each had a daily cremation capacity of 768. The extermination of human beings by industrial methods had been accomplished: in the range of a few hours, huge masses entering the closed areas surrounding the crematoria vanished without a trace. Having achieved such efficiency, in 1943 Auschwitz crematorium I was converted into a bomb-shelter, Bunker 1. was demolished, and bunker 2. was put out of operation. Theoretically, the SS was capable of killing 7 to 10 thousand people approximately in every six hours, or between 28 and 40 thousand a day, so mass murder was limited only by the size of transports and especially by the limited capacity of the crematoria. It soon became evident that the latter problem continued to pose some difficulties; while officially a 4-5 thousand/day ‘output’ could be pushed to 7-8 thousand on some days, in practice this led to serious breakdowns: chimneys cracked, the inner lining of furnaces crumbled and fires broke out.

 

6. Auschwitz before the Arrival of Hungarian Transports

 

By the end of 1943, the destruction of the Polish Jews had practically been accomplished. Of a community counting some 3 million in 1939, just a few hundred thousand survivors lingered on in ghettos and labour camps. That year, the Nazis started to clean up all the evidence: they burned the corpses, demolished the extermination camps and planted trees on razed sites. Occupied Soviet territories were ‘dejewified’ by the Einsatzgruppe. With the liquidation of Belżec, Treblinka, and later Sobibor, by November 1943 Auschwitz remained the last extermination camp in operation. The crematoria placed under production that year were left the task of devouring the Jewish populations of Western, Central and Southern Europe.

 

In 1943, 136 thousand Polish, 49 thousand Greek, 18 thousand Czech, 17 thousand German and Austrian, 16 thousand Dutch, 13 thousand French, 6 thousand Belgian, 4 thousand Yugoslav, 1661 Italian and 158 Norwegian Jews were shipped to the Auschwitz complex, a total of 270 thousand people including Jews transferred from other camps. In Birkenau, the construction of camp BII, containing seven sectors, was completed. To the left of the entrance, the so-called ‘Gate of Death’, stood the women’s camp (BIa), and later the men’s camp (BIb). The quarantine camp for new inmates (BIIa), standing to this day, lay opposite. This was followed by the family camp for Czech Jews (BIIb), men’s and women’s transit camp (BIIc and BIId), and the Gypsy’s family camp (BIIe). The hospital sector (BIIf) lay in the vicinity of crematoria III and IV Residents of the sector either recovered in a few days or were selected by SS doctors and sent to one of the gas chambers nearby. The camp warehouse complex, the so-called “Kanada” barracks (BIIg), lay beyond.

 

At the end of 1943, a team of visiting SS judges determined that the Gestapo and SS guards killed thousands of able-bodied inmates arbitrarily, against regulations (in theory, every execution required a written permission from higher authorities). Investigation of the mass murder of Jews was not on the judges’ agenda; this was considered to be legal. Widespread corruption was also uncovered; SS guards were found to steal gold, cash and other valuables from murdered Jews, while these assets were the rightful property of the Third Reich. (The entire investigation was prompted by the incident when one of the guards mailed a fist-sized gold ingot to his family, but the censors opened the package.) As a result of the ensuing scandal, several Germans were arrested, the head of the Auschwitz Gestapo among them. Höss, with distinguished party-, and SS-credentials and enjoying the protection of Himmler, was relieved of his post and promptly promoted: he exchanged places with SS lieutenant-colonel Arthur Liebehenschel, deputy commander of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps.

 

Thanks to new methods introduced under Liebehenschel’s command, soon a number of important changes were introduced: common criminals who regularly brutalised inmates in many places were replaced by political inmates, mainly German Communists and Polish political prisoners. As a result, the number of executions dropped significantly, capos and guards became less abusive, food rations were slightly increased and medical treatment improved somewhat. Standing up to the arbitrary practices of the Gestapo, Liebehenschel was even willing to co-operate with the resistance movement operating inside the camp. Stool pigeons and notorious sadists identified by the movement were transferred to other camps. Naturally, the system of mass murder continued to operate, but the plight of those selected for work improved. All this, however, was primarily due to the declining number of transports in the first four months of 1944. As a result, overcrowding was reduced and, as production could not be interrupted, the value of able-bodied prisoners appreciated.

 

7. Operation Höss

 

In the spring of 1944, the death factory puffed along at ‘half steam’. In the four months between January and April fewer than 25 thousand Jewish deportees arrived, primarily from France and Holland. Earlier, that figure amounted to a monthly average. All these developments and favourable news from the fronts filled many inmates with renewed hope – survival appeared as a distinct possibility.

 

However, with the occupation of Hungary, everything changed overnight. Eichmann, ordered to prepare the wholesale deportation of Hungarian Jews, visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the point of final destination. He was shocked to find the camps in a condition entirely unsuitable for the task: the crematoria were neglected and the planned direct rail-link to the crematoria had not been completed. His report led to immediate and grave consequences. On May 8, 1944, Liebehenschel, strongly criticised for his policies, was fired, along with his deputy, the commander of Birkenau (Auschwitz II). At the recommendation of Eichmann, the most experienced “expert” on genocide, Rudolf Höss, returned the same day.

 

Höss, relieved of his duties only a few months earlier, was given free reign and he got down to work with the energy expected of him. He ordered the reconstruction of the crematoria, the completion of the so-called ‘Jewish ramp’ lying between sectors BI and BII and the rail siding. Bunker 2, left to stand idle for over a year, was reopened and huge burning pits next to Bunker 2 and crematorium V were excavated. In preparation for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews, he beefed up the strength of the Jewish brigade operating the crematoria, the Sonderkommando and the so-called Kanadakommando, a special team handling deportees’ belongings. Simultaneously, he appointed new commanders to take over control of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Richard Baer was assigned the command of Auschwitz, while SS-captain Josef Kramer, later to be known as the beast of Belsen, was given command of the Birkenau extermination camp. In the extermination zone, command over all crematoria and Bunker 2 was taken over by SS sergeant-major Otto Moll.

 

The next week, work got under way at a feverish pace. Höss, before taking up his post in Auschwitz, travelled to Hungary, where he met Eichmann and Hungarian railway officials. At the order of Himmler, Eichmann planned to complete the deportation of Hungarian Jews in haste. Höss, aware of the limited capacity of the crematoria and the limits of the camp’s holding capacity, attempted to reduce the size of transports. In the end, his plans, backed by ‘expert’ arguments, prevailed: instead of daily four, an average of five transports with 40-50 wagons and a cargo of 3000-3500 persons each were to be received in every two days. The stage was set to begin the largest extermination project in the history of the Holocaust named after its leader and overall commander: Operation Höss.

 

8. Hungarian Jewish Transports to Auschwitz–Birkenau

 

The first Hungarian Jews arrived in Auschwitz in the spring of 1942 with transports from Slovakia. They were followed by those deported from Western Europe as alien Jews from Hungary (or, if they lost that status, as stateless persons) together with Belgian, Dutch and French Jews. Between 1942 and April 1944, few thousand Jews of Hungarian descent, birth or nationality were taken to Auschwitz. The great majority of them perished there.

 

Following the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, the first two transports left on April 29 and 30. The two groups of 3800 Jews, mostly men, arrived on April 30 and May 2, respectively. During the selection, 486 men (they received tattooed ID numbers 186645 through 187130) and 616 women (with ID numbers 76385 through 76459, and 80000 through 80540) were found fit for work. The rest (2698 persons) were gassed. Over the next few weeks, those spared were employed at the construction of the Birkenau ‘Jewish ramp‘.

 

Operation Höss started on the afternoon of May 16. On this day the first of the Jewish mass transports from Hungary arrived. The entire camp of Birkenau was immediately sealed off. Within a few hours, another transport of Hungarian Jews came. Approximately 10 thousand people were transported on the very first day. 7000 to 8000 were murdered immediately. And this was only the beginning. The gendarmerie districts of Kassa, Kolozsvár and Marosvásárhely kept sending the Jews of Carpatho-Ruthenia and northern Transylvania. According to Hungarian records, between May 15 and June 7, 288,333 and according to German records, 289,357 Hungarian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz–Birkenau. This was more than all Jewish and non-Jewish inmates sent to Auschwitz between June 14, 1940 and December 31, 1942, i.e., the first 31 months in the existence of the camp, or roughly the same numbers as received in the entire year of 1943. All this was accomplished in just 24 days. For the first time in the history of the camp, the head of the SS photo laboratory received permission to record Operation Höss. This was eventually collected in what became known as the Auschwitz album containing some 200 photographs.

 

These first transports were followed by more from gendarmerie district headquarters in Székesfehérvár, Miskolc, Szeged, Debrecen, Szombathely and Pécs. By the end of June, the number of deportees exceeded 410 thousand. Finally, despite the fact that under international pressure followed by the publication of the Auschwitz Protocol Regent Horthy stopped the operation, in early July Jews from Pest County and the suburbs of Budapest also arrived. As part of the mass deportation campaign, the last transport sent from Hungary arrived at Birkenau ‘Jewish ramp’ on July 11, 1944. It brought a “cargo” of 1924 men, women, children and old people entrained at Békásmegyer station outside the city limits of Budapest. As on so many other occasions, that day the transport was received by Dr. Mengele.

 

The last two transports secretly smuggled out of the country by Eichmann from Kistarcsa and Sárvár internment camps with a total of 2720 persons arrived on July 22 and July 26. Of the 445 thousand Hungarian Jews deported between the end of April and the end of July, 10-15 thousand ended up in Strasshof, Austria. The rest were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In addition, smaller Hungarian groups continued to arrive until October 1944, so the number of Hungarian Jews deported to the Auschwitz complex exceeded 430 thousand persons.

 

9. On the Ramp

 

In most cases, Hungarian Jews arrived at the Birkenau ‘Jewish ramp’ after a three-day journey. In the summer heat heart attacks were common and those suffering from respiratory diseases often suffocated during the journey. Many thousands died in the overcrowded wagons but the dead bodies were left locked in with the survivors. In the searing heat, the unfortunates were almost dehydrated and became completely exhausted by starvation. Trains arriving in Birkenau were received by a few SS guards and prisoners in striped garments. After the doors were opened, men and women were separated and ordered to stand in rows of five. The deportees were marched in front of SS doctors who decided upon their fate in a matter of seconds. In the summer of 1944, Dr. Mengele, Dr. Thilo, Dr. Wirths and the Hungarian-speaking Dr. Capesius, originally from Transylvania, were on duty.

 

Those obviously unfit for work, the elderly and the children were immediately placed in a separate group. In other cases, the doctors asked deportees their age, occupation or potential health conditions. The Germans were looking for healthy labourers between the age of 16 and 40. Following the short interview, a wave of the hand decided one’s fate. Healthy mothers were often advised to leave their children with older women, promised to rejoin them inside the camp anyway. Under these circumstances, any decision was equally unbearable: if the mother resisted, she could also be declared incapable of working and killed, whereas if she followed the advice, later she would feel that, although unintentionally, she was the one to cause the death of her child.

 

In the meantime, members of the Kanadakommando removed the dead from the rail cars and piled up the suitcases of the newly arrived left on the ramp. They were also responsible for directing the crowd, helping the weak and the handicapped. Seeing these sullen, brutish robots in their prison uniforms, the new arrivals took them for common criminals. The ‘Kanadians’ were forbidden to speak to the deportees; the German guards kept them under constant scrutiny. Still, despite their limited opportunities, they frequently tried to help: they attempted to separate healthy young girls from their unemployable mothers, they gave small children to the elderly condemned to death, they whispered to older men in German to claim to be under 40 and adolescents to give their age as over 16. Of course, many did not understand the odd behaviour of these ‘criminals’ in striped garments, and there was no time for explanations.

 

During selection, the Germans acted firmly, but with feigned courtesy. They avoided all theatrical gestures, arguments, there was no hint of violence, because that could have led to resistance (without any chance of success) and would only have hindered the quick and efficient execution of the operation.

 

On average, 20 to 30 percent of the deportees of each transport were found employable. The rest, the elderly, children, women and men, the ill and the weak marched in long rows in the direction of two innocuous looking buildings with tall stacks, standing at each side of the ramp.

 

Lorries were parked next to the ramps, often with red crosses painted on the sides as part of the game of deception. The weak, the handicapped and those unable to walk were allowed to board; the luggage was also transported on these lorries. The rest of the crowd paid little attention to these vehicles and no one took notice of the tin barrels loaded on some of them. There were metal canisters in them with the label: Zyklon B.

 

10. Extermination

 

The most experienced members of the Sonderkommando, survivors of the camp, Commander Höss, the SS guards and the member of the camp Gestapo all agreed that the summer of 1944 was the bloodiest chapter in the history of Birkenau.

 

SS doctors worked 10-12-hour shifts selecting on the ramps and camp administration was overloaded beyond capacity. The gas chambers were constantly full, and the furnaces were in operation day and night. A column of heavy, suffocating smoke rose from the huge chimneys, with meter-high flames shooting up into the night sky. On many occasions, as the dead of one transport were dragged out of the gas chambers, the next group was ordered to undress under the open sky, while a new transport arrived at the ramp. The victims suffered from exhaustion, hunger and especially from thirst. The Germans gave encouraging speeches, made excuses for the delays, and promised water, soup and coffee to the disoriented multitude of Jews. For the most part, they were successful in drawing attention away from the surrounding events and confusion. The majority suspected nothing to the last minute. In silence, they stifled their anxieties caused by the humiliating circumstances and their grim premonitions.

 

In the dressing room some had already doubted whether the doors closing behind them would ever open again. Two orthodox Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia asked members of the Sonderkommando in the room whether the time had come to recite the “vidduj”, the prayer of atonement before death. When they got a yes for an answer, they started to pray, took out a bottle of vodka and drank “for life” (“le chaim”). Following the ceremony, they asked members of the Sonderkommando to avenge their death and, under the tearful eyes of the Sonderkommando, marched into the gas chamber with their heads held high.

 

While the majority of the victims entered the building of the crematorium without suspecting anything, a number of groups from Carpatho-Ruthenia and Transylvania attempted to resist. On the night of May 26, for instance, several hundred deportees tried to break out of the closed sector of crematorium V. However, using high-powered search lights, the SS killed everyone. Two days later there was a similarly unsuccessful attempt. Learning from these incidents, Höss ordered that electricity in the barbed wire perimeter fence remain switched on throughout the night. Certain smaller groups at some occasions resisted, grabbed sticks and stones, but they were usually calmed down by the reassuring speeches of the SS.

 

The continuous arrival of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews put the crematoria under unprecedented strain. Although not long before, the stacks were reinforced by steel girders and furnace linings were replaced, none of these measures proved to be sufficient. During Operation Höss, it became evident that the crematoria built for over almost an entire year at a considerable cost were unable to handle such overload. The gas chambers produced many more corpses than could be burned in the furnaces available. The system of extermination by the conveyor-belt method was on the brink of collapse.

 

11. Bunker 2 and the Cremation Pits

 

The mechanism of destruction was saved by the commander of the crematoria, Otto Moll. Behind Bunker 2 and crematorium V, he ordered the excavation of a total of nine huge burning pits (each 40-50m in length, 8m wide and 2m deep). The pits were filled with corpses arranged in rows of three. Petrol-soaked rags were stuffed between the bodies that were also generously doused with combustible liquids. Then the pile of bodies was set on fire. Narrow channels dug at the centre of the pits and slanting slightly towards the edge collected human fat produced by the burning. So, instead of impeding, the large quantity of fat was actually used to feed the fire: the fat was caught in buckets and sprinkled on the burning pyre in small amounts to increase burning efficiency. The burning pits had a daily capacity of 10 thousand persons and, together with the crematoria of Birkenau, a total burning capacity of 15-20 thousand persons a day.

 

One of the SS doctors supervising the operation recorded a comment by Dr. Thilo who, once, following a ‘special operation’, remarked that Auschwitz–Birkenau was the anus of the universe. Auschwitz, more accurately, Birkenau has been described by many as hell on earth. According to eye witnesses, what had occurred day after day at the camp’s extermination zone along its western edge surpassed the capacity of human imagination and far exceeded Dante’s most terrifying nightmares of the netherworld.

 

If Bunker 2 and crematorium V lay at the bottom of this earthly hell, Otto Moll was the Devil incarnate. In all likelihood, the most unfortunate of all were those Hungarian

Jews who, due to the overload of the crematoria, were driven to Bunker 2. In front of the building described by Sonderkommando members simply as the “funeral pyre”, these people were received by Moll’s friend, a Hungarian of German ethnic background, SS-sergeant-major Eckardt. This area had no flowerbeds, comforting posters, clean dressing rooms or fake showerheads. Under steady blows, these unfortunates were driven inside primitive wooden barracks. They were made to undress in haste, after which they were dragged into a dilapidated thatched roof farmhouse, where death by gassing awaited them.

 

Towards the end of Operation Höss, when Zyklon B stockpiles were running low, thousands were simply pushed and thrown alive into the burning pits. Others were shot to death; in many instances, the sharpshooter Moll did not bother to aim accurately. On the other side of the little grove, those waiting in the courtyard of crematorium V looked on in horror at the naked and screaming figures trying to flee a few hundred meters off. At the same time, they peered with foreboding at the three-meter high hedgerow blocking their view of the area behind the crematorium. The more inquisitive were threatened by armed SS guards. They did not realise that the thick black smoke rising overhead was produced by the burning bodies of the previous transport.

 

While the majority of Hungarian Jews taken to crematorium V died inside the building, others suffered even more unspeakable horrors. From time to time Moll appeared among the deportees in a white uniform and led pretty nude girls behind the fence. He made them stand over the pit and forced them to look into the burning inferno. If the terrified women attempted to throw themselves at the barbed-wire fence, Moll set his dog on them. The dog mauled the women and pushed them back to the edge of the pit. They were finally shot in the head in an act of ‘mercy’. Moll took special pleasure in tearing small children from the arms of their mothers in the dressing room and throwing them live into the boiling human fat. At Bunker 2 and crematorium V, he killed hundreds with his own hands. His sadism mingled with sexual perversion, making him a uniquely evil executioner even among Nazi murderers.

 

12. Hungarians in the Auschwitz Complex

 

As the Nazis destroyed most of the documents, one can only estimate the total number of Hungarian Jews sent to the camp: on the average, twenty to twenty-five percent of the deportees, or approximately 80 to 100 thousand people were found suitable for work.

 

These men and women were led in separate groups to a bath-house, the so-called Sauna. Here, they were made to undress and all their body hair was shaved off. This was followed by a quick shower under the gaze of the guards. Their civilian clothes were taken away and replaced by other clothing, usually rags left behind by those already murdered. As no one bothered to match shoe or clothing sizes, inmates tried to take care of themselves as best they could and exchanged what they received.

Auschwitz was the only camp where inmates were tattooed. In 1944 the Nazis wanted to prevent prisoners from learning their total numbers. On May 13, for both men and women, they introduced a new numbering system starting with the letter “A” and number 1. (This was followed by a new series in the summer, starting with the letter “B”. Concurrently, the old series were continued as well; on that date the series assigned stood at 187882 for men and 79424 for women.) With the arrival of the Hungarians, the registration system simply collapsed from overload. Tens of thousands of Hungarians were not tattooed at all and the individual photographing of inmates was abandoned.

 

Due to overcrowding, several thousands of employable Hungarian Jews were immediately transferred to other concentration or labour camps without registration. Many were sent to smaller satellite camps surrounding Auschwitz, the coal-mines of Fürstengrube and Janinagrube, the ammunition plant at Gleiwitz, the Buna works at Monowitz (Auschwitz III), the cement factory at Golleschau or the agricultural farms of Rajskó and Plawy. Smaller groups were stationed at the central camp of Auschwitz.

The number of women in Hungarian transports was particularly high (the majority of Jewish men were in the labour service system). Due to lack of space, more than 30 thousand Hungarian Jewish women were taken to the new Birkenau camp’s sector (BIII) still under construction. Conditions in the unfinished camp, called Mexico by the inmates, (with barely any drinking water or plumbing) were atrocious even by Birkenau standards. For security reasons the Nazis gave most of the women barely any clothing: they thought that women covered in torn rags, blankets or night-shirts, often partly or fully naked would feel even more vulnerable and powerless, unable to put up any resistance.

 

Many thousands were sent to the men’s and women’s transit camp (BIId, BIIc). On May 16, 1944, a few hours before the arrival of the first Hungarian transport of civilians, the Nazis attempted to liquidate the Gypsy camp (BIIe) in Birkenau. The barracks were needed for the Hungarians. However, the six thousands residents of the camp sensed what was to come and, to the great surprise of the SS, put up resistance. They grabbed sticks, knives and stones. After a few minutes of consultation, dumbfounded SS officers called off the operation. They could not afford to have a riot on their hands on the very day the flood of transports form Hungary was set in motion. Gradually, over the next few months, the Germans scattered the Roma to other camps and their place was occupied by Hungarians. On the night of August 2, 1408 Roma men and women capable of working were taken to Buchenwald. The rest, the feeble, the ailing, the elderly and the children, 2897 people in all, were gassed in crematorium V. The bodies were burnt in pits behind the building.

 

The several thousand unregistered Hungarian Jews held in ‘Mexico’ and the transit camps were utilised by the SS as a reserve labour force. Work efficiency was extremely low. Often, these inmates lingered for weeks and months without work; a good part of their time was taken up by interminable and exhausting roll-calls. When fresh labour was needed in the complex or any of the other camps in the Reich, the required number of inmates were selected, tattooed and shipped to the site. However, due to poor conditions and starvation, many were soon emaciated and succumbed to a variety of diseases. They were removed from the camp during weekly selections. This meant having to file naked in front of an SS doctor who waved the unemployable to one side. Those selected in this manner were taken by lorries to crematoria to be gassed. The frugal Nazis did not waste gas on smaller groups of victims; they were simply shot in the head by special, small-calibre pistols in the execution chamber attached to the crematorium. For the most part, these executions were performed by SS sergeant-major Erich Muhsfeldt.

 

As all other deportees, Hungarian Jews were treated by guards and capos with extreme brutality. Even the slightest infraction (being late from roll-call, going to the latrines without permission) provoked the most vicious beating. The SS female supervisors and mostly Slovak Jewish women capos tortured Hungarian Jewish women with ferocious cruelty, often without provocation. According to survivors’ accounts, the most notorious SS supervisors, Margot Drexler, Irma Greese and Maria Mandel caused the death of hundreds of Hungarian Jewish women.

 

Hungarian Jewish capos abused their countrymen with equal zeal: taking advantage of their position, they stole their food rations and clothing. Capos who showed any favour towards their fellow-inmates were soon replaced.

 

13. The Kanadakommando: the Plundering of Victims

 

The new arrivals had the first encounter with camp inmates in striped uniforms on the ramp. While the Germans were busy with selection, male members of the cleaning brigade (Aufräumungskommando) quickly emptied the rail cars. The deportees’ luggage was loaded on lorries and taken to Birkenau’s warehouse complex (BIIg, Effektenlager), popularly known as ‘Kanada’ (Canada). (The appellation came from Polish inmates, who, in the destitute years of the 1910s envisioned the North American country as the Promised Land.)

 

Kanada II (Kanada I was in the main Auschwitz camp) consisted of 30 huge warehouse barracks. When the Hungarian transports started to arrive, the strength of the commando was increased to an unprecedented 2000 persons. In the summer of 1944, healthy Hungarian women selected from the May transports made up the majority of the ‘Kanadians’. They all wore grey smocks and the various brigades were distinguished by scarves of different colour. In fact, many were allowed to ware civilian clothes. Those sent to work in the warehouse were among the most fortunate. Despite strict regulations and frequent random checks, they maintained their physical strength and health by eating the food found in suitcases and changing underwear every day. When caught, they received 25 lashings.

 

First, Kanadians went through deportees’ luggage. They sorted shoes, underwear, men’s and women’s clothing. In the summer of 1944, mountains of belongings were piled up inside the barracks and under the open sky. Next, they split coat linings and hems, and ripped open the soles of shoes looking for hidden valuables. Frequently they found cash, gold and jewellery. Subsequently, they removed yellow stars from already sorted and searched garments. This was necessary, because clothing, shoes, spectacles, bedding, combs, baby carriages and tools filling hundreds of rail cars were distributed among the German civilian population (primarily ethnic Germans settled in occupied eastern territories) and the origin of the loot had to be concealed. Shaving kits, wallets and torch-lights were given to members of front-line Waffen SS units, while more valuable wrist-watches were presented to soldiers decorated for bravery in action. Delicacies (i.e., Dutch cheese, Hungarian salami or Russian caviar) and alcohol were reserved for SS units guarding the camps. Blood-soaked, bullet-ridden clothes and poor quality shoes were distributed among the inmates; seized bread and potatoes were sent to the camp kitchen.

 

Cash, exchange instruments, bonds, jewellery and gold found among deportees’ belongings were packed in huge suitcases and shipped on lorries first to SS Economic Administration Main Office, then to the Reichsbank, the German Central Bank. Gold teeth ripped from the mouths of the dead and cast into bars in the furnaces of the crematoria ended up in the central bank. With the few grams of jewellery stolen from individual Hungarian Jews, the SS came into the possession of several tons of precious metal. According to documents and eye-witness accounts, valuables stolen from deportees were returned to the SS through the state budget. The organisation used the seized foreign currency to buy raw material in neutral countries for the German military industry, while revenues from the sale of jewellery sold primarily in Switzerland were used to enrich SS cash funds kept in Swiss bank vaults. With this, the foundations of self-financing genocide were laid: Hungarian Jews (and other deportees) paid for the system organised for their destruction and the cost of their own annihilation; the same funds were also used to prolong the war.

The total value of goods stolen in camps amounted to several hundred million dollars. The camps at Auschwitz–Birkenau became the largest contributors.

 

14. The Sonderkommando and Resistance

 

In the extermination camps, the most horrific jobs were reserved for special units, the  Sonderkommandos, made up almost exclusively of Jews. Under tight SS guard, they operated the gas chambers and the crematoria. The first Auschwitz Sonderkommando was organised in the spring of 1942 with a force of 80 prisoners. They were responsible for the interment and burning of bodies gassed in crematorium I and the Bunkers. In the autumn of the same year, a new brigade of 150-300 inmates was ordered to exhume and burn buried corpses on huge pyres. With the arrival of Hungarian Jews, the Sonderkommando reached its highest force level: working 12-hour shifts, a total of 900 persons manned the four crematoria, Bunker 2 and the nine burning pits.

 

They hosed down the dead bodied, shaved the hair of female corpses, and searched body cavities for valuables, while dentist removed gold teeth and dentures. Next, they burned the corpses in furnaces and open pits. Many of those assigned to these brigades committed suicide on the first day, while others sank into indifference in a few days and turned into human robots. The monotony of horror was broken every day by personal tragedies when members of the brigade recognised their loved ones among the victims.

 

In the summer of 1944, 200 Polish, 180 Greek, a few Slovak and German Jews, and some 20 Russian prisoners of war worked along with 450 Hungarian Jewish men under the watchful eyes of capos. Three Hungarian doctors who had worked in the Sonderkommando are known by name: a pathologist from Nagyvárad, Miklós Nyiszli was the chief physician of the unit and, under the orders of Dr. Mengele, he led dissections in crematorium II. Dénes Görög, a pathologist and university professor from Szombathely worked as his subordinate, while Dr. Zoltán Péter from Munkács worked in crematorium IV.

 

Between 1940 and 1945, close to 700 inmates escaped from the Auschwitz complex. Several minor underground operations were attempted in that period as well. On one occasion, members of the penal company revolted. In another case Russian prisoners of war and subsequently Polish inmates with contacts to the outside world attempted to organise mass breakouts. A Jewish female dancer shot an SS officer to death in a basement dressing room and wounded another one. In May 1944, Roma put up resistance and members of two Hungarian transports tried to break out from the sector of crematorium V. At another time Hungarian women, becoming suspicious when the wind brought the smell of burning human flesh from nearby pits, grabbed sticks and stones. Almost invariably, uprisings were put down immediately and the participants were executed. Although over time the camp’s resistance movement gained strength, the uprising planned for years never materialised.

 

Not surprisingly, the most significant uprising was the 1944 mutiny of the Sonderkommando in Birkenau. Members of the unit were aware that as key witnesses of the Endlösung their fate was sealed. Following larger extermination operations the cautious Germans, ever on guard, from time to time liquidated the majority of the Sonderkommando brigade. (In 1943, Sonderkommandos in two other camps, Treblinka and Sobibor, revolted as well.)

 

In the summer of 1944, learning of a planned uprising, for security reasons the Germans moved the Sonderkommando from the special block in the BIId sector to the attics of the large crematoria and the dressing rooms of the smaller ones. The SS believed the situation could be best controlled if the Sonderkommando was confined to closed sectors; this way they hoped to prevent the spread of any potential trouble. This represented a heavy blow for the organisers of the resistance who, for some time already, had been co-ordinating plans with the camp’s central underground movement for a general uprising extending to all sectors of the camp.

 

The situation was further exacerbated by the summer execution of the Sonderkommando capo, one of the leaders of the plot. Following the extermination of Hungarian Jews, in September 1944 the SS decided to reduce the unit’s force level. 200 of them were said to be taken to a camp nearby for ‘light work’. However, the central leadership of the resistance movement sent information that the inmates were killed in the main camp’s disinfecting buildings. The remaining members of the Sonderkommando decided to mount a resistance on the next occasion. In the early afternoon of October 7, the SS planned to take another group of 300 persons. The unit of crematorium IV. was lined up in the courtyard. It was primarily Hungarian and Greek men recently assigned to the unit that were selected to be taken away and killed. First, the Hungarians climbed on waiting lorries without resistance. The Greeks were more restive and several of them ran into the crematorium to hide. The SS guards pursuing them were first met by a hail of stones thrown by Polish Jews, and bottles filled with explosives smuggled in from nearby factories were also detonated. At the sound of explosions and gunfire, the SS closed crematorium sectors III. and V. They arrived too late to crematorium II, however: hearing the noise of battle, inmates there killed a capo in the inceneration room and threw themselves at the SS. Taking advantage of the general confusion, they used concealed tools to cut through the barbed-wire. The fact that their action was guided by unselfish motives gained symbolic significance: despite the heavy fire of approaching SS guards, they managed to cut a hole in the fence surrounding the women’s camp, too. Most of them died in the crematorium courtyard and at the fence, while others escaped in the direction of the nearest settlement, Rajsko, where, in the evening, they were surrounded by SS troops. In the ensuing fire fight everyone was either killed or captured. The inmates that returned to Birkenau attacked their guards again with bare hands. All were shot to death. In the meantime, inmates under siege at crematorium IV. set fires; when the explosives and petrol products stored in the building ignited, the whole structure went up in smoke. The defenders were killed. As night fell, of an original force of 663 all but 212 survived; 451 people died, Zoltán Péter and the majority of Hungarian Sondercommando members among them. Crematorium IV. was completely destroyed.

The lives of the pathologists were saved by Mengele: he needed their continued services. The SS had three casualties. While no one managed to escape, before they died several of the victims had hidden written notes underground intended for posterity.

 

15. Medical Experiments

 

Physicians played an important role in the life of the camp. They received arriving transports at the ramps and, with a wave of the hand, sent thousands to the crematoria every day. No gassing operation could proceed without the presence of a physician: he gave orders for the introduction of Zyklon B, he established the proof of death and gave permission for opening the gas chamber doors.

 

The treatment of sick inmates was not the primary objective of SS doctors. The majority of them never touched the filthy and impaired patients; inmate doctors tried to treat them as best they could with the woefully inadequate supplies available. SS doctors were responsible for the “ecology” of the camp. Standing on the ramp, they controlled the number of those allowed to enter depending on prevailing conditions behind the barbed-wire fences. When barracks were overcrowded, the condition, accommodation and thus usefulness of individual prisoners declined. In these cases, the selection criteria for new transports were tightened and only the fittest were given a chance of survival, for food supplies and the number of accommodations could not be increased. As a result, the higher number of admitted inmates increased the overall labour force only temporarily; their admittance actually led to the deterioration of general camp conditions and, with the growing number of unemployable inmates, the balance was re-established in a few days.

 

When the camp suffered from labour shortage, doctors on the ramp were more lenient and selected even the less robust for work. Before the arrival of large transports, SS doctors first made selections in the infirmaries and, if this proved to be insufficient, they eliminated the weakest inmates in the barracks. Normal ethical considerations were turned upside down; doctors at the ramp and inmates in the barracks were locked in constant conflict of interest. Camp residents either prayed that fewer will be sent to the gas chambers which, however, meant that their living conditions deteriorated even further and more of them were to be selected to die in the next round, or they put their own interest first and hoped that instead of them, more of the new arrivals were sent straight to the crematoria. This delicate balance was maintained by doctors on duty at the ramps. In the final analysis, the outcome left both the doctors and the SS indifferent. From the ramp and the camp the fate of all deportees eventually led to the gas chambers.

 

In the camps many inmates became victims of various pseudo-scientific experiments. The unlimited supply of available subjects condemned to death tempted many doctors to pursue criminal practices. In their eyes inmates were subhuman, without any hope of leaving Auschwitz alive, anyway. In fact, they were condemned to death the minute they arrived in the camp.

 

Most experiments were in some way related to Nazi racial theory on human biology. Dr. Horst Schumann studied the quick and cost effective sterilisation of undesirable human groups. He subjected his young patients to X-ray radiation and following the procedure he removed the testicles of men and the ovaries of women for further testing. Patients who suffered severe burns either died as a consequence of the inhuman treatment or were sent to the gas chambers as unfit for work.

Block 10 in Auschwitz was ruled by the gynaecologist dr. Carl Clauberg who also experimented with sterilisation techniques and the artificial inducement of infertility. On average, 300 to 400 Jewish women between the ages of 20 and 40 lived in this block in constant fear. They received better provisions than other inmates, but they paid a heavy price. Clauberg pumped various caustic agents into their wombs or ovaries, naturally without anaesthesia despite the unbearable pain. As a result of the operation, women often suffered from peritonitis or ovaritis. On many occasions, following the ‘treatment’, their wombs and ovaries were removed. In all, several hundred Hungarian Jewish women had been sterilised in Auschwitz–Birkenau. Many found out only years later that their infertility had been caused by substances referred to by SS doctors as ‘vitamin injections’. Doctors transferred from Auschwitz continued their experiments at the Ravensbrück camp for months. Young Hungarian Gypsy girls deported from the Fort of Komárom in the autumn were among their last victims.

 

16. Dr. Josef Mengele

 

Of all SS doctors, Dr. Josef Mengele became the most notorious. His personality integrated the essential characteristics of a medical doctor serving evil purposes and a murderous SS officer. After being injured at the front, Mengele, who had already conducted race biological experiments, was sent to Auschwitz in May 1943 at his own request. In 1943 he served as chief doctor of the Gypsy camp (BIIe), and from the fall of 1944 as that of the entire hospital sector (BIIf). He started his experiments with Gypsy children, studying the widespread occurrence of facial gangrene (noma faciei) caused by starvation.

 

However, his interest soon took a different direction. He started his experiments with Gypsy children and continued with Jewish inmates. Many Hungarian survivors of the Holocaust remember the slightly built, elegant and handsome SS officer who, all through the summer of 1944, stood on the ramp calling out: „Zwillinge heraus!” (“Twins, step out!”). In all, he collected several hundred twins, young children and old people alike. The majority of them were Hungarian Jews. Mengele arranged accommodation for the twins in various parts of the camp complex (barracks BIIe 29 and 31., barracks BIa 22. and 1. and barrack BIIf 15.) where inmate doctors under his command examined everyone and took exact measurements of body parts. Mengele saved the twins (and, in many cases, their mothers) from instant death in the gas chambers; they received better treatment than the rest of the inmates. The doctor was usually kind to them, and occasionally even brought them sweets. The twins gave him the name ‘The Angel of Death’ (in contrast to Dr. Thiló, who was much feared, and called the ‘Devil of Death’). However, this apparently agreeable relationship was only a camouflage to hide a gruesome reality. Mengele, studying the secrets of twin births probably with the purpose of increasing German population growth, did not shrink from any methods in his research. If one of the twins died, he shot the other to examine in the autopsy if the sibling suffered from the same disease. He killed Roma and Jewish twins with an injection of chloroform to the heart; he attached the veins of brothers creating artificial Siamese twins, and destroyed many others by unknown means and for unknown reason. During regular examinations, children stood in the cold naked for hours and large amounts of blood was taken from them. In his extensive and, for the most part, patently useless experiments he devoted a lot of effort to the research of certain developmental deficiencies found among Jews. He intended to prove that these abnormalities occur frequently among inferior Jews. This is the reason why he so avidly collected Jewish dwarfs, the handicapped and hermaphrodites. He personally killed or ordered the killing of many, had the bodies boiled and, along with the ‘results’ of his twin studies, sent their skeletons to Berlin. Mengele was also interested in eye-colour abnormalities (heterochromia – the phenomenon of different eye colour).  At times, trying to change his patients’ eye-colour, he injected blue dye in their eyes, only causing temporary or permanent blindness.

 

The Mengele ‘legend’ has been woven with many strands. Unlike his colleagues, he did not stuff his pockets with stolen gold, and he did not turn to alcohol to block out reality. Other, often depressed SS doctors admired him for his even temperament and sense of mission. They saw him as a war hero with his own mind, who, at the same time, was ready to follow orders. His behaviour at the liquidation of the Gypsy camp, an operation he strongly opposed, is a good example of his character. Once final orders were given, he lured Roma children, who called him affectionately ‘Uncle Mengele’, from their hiding places and drove them to the crematoria in his own car. Inmates saw in this well-groomed, clean, perfumed and elegant, handsome and self-confident man the exact opposite of their own selves. They saw him as the ultimate arbiter of life and death. Whistling classical opera arias, in the spring of 1944 he sent tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to their deaths. Looking for twins, he often appeared on the ramps on his days off. Other times, fearing the outbreak of scarlet fever in the Hungarian Jewish women’s camp (BIIc), he sent entire barracks to the gas, the healthy ones along with the infected ones. He often selected unregistered Hungarian Jews; at these times an abscess, a scar or a rash were enough for this pedantic doctor to condemn a person to death. He loved to play god: following Old Testament practices, during the 1944 Jewish autumn holidays he ordered hundreds of young Jewish boys to walk under a suspended rod. The ones whose head did not touch the rod were sent to the gas chambers.

 

For Mengele, Birkenau was a never returning opportunity, and the twins meant relaxation after a long day’s work. He was the happiest when he would discuss with his pathologist, the Hungarian-born Miklós Nyiszli, some of the more interesting cases. If some event failed to meet his expectations, the soft- spoken, dispassionate doctor in a second turned into a raging SS officer reaching for his gun – a clear sign of a split personality.

 

Some of the inmates used as guinea pigs, several Jewish twins among them, lived to see the liberation of the camp. In January 1945 Mengele left the camp with the ‘results’ of his research. The Angel of Death or Dr. Auschwitz, as others called him, was never brought to justice and after hiding in South-America for decades, he drowned during a picnic in 1979 at Embu, Brasil.

 

17. Why Gas Chambers Were Never Bombed?

 

The reasonable question why rail lines leading to Auschwitz and the crematoria of Birkenau were never bombed has been raised many times. In its war propaganda, the Soviet Union made little use of news of the Final Solution. Stalin failed to lift even a finger to save the Jews; the deployment of the Red Army’s air force for that purpose was never even considered.

 

The Western Allies, following their advances in Italy, just in the spring of 1944 had occupied air fields within bombing range of the Auschwitz region. Allied planes made their first reconnaissance flight over the Buna Works in Monowitz on April 4, 1944. Of the twenty photographs developed, three show Auschwitz from a distance of 4 to 5 km for the first time. In a later sortie, besides Auschwitz and Monowitz, the extermination camp of Birkenau was also photographed. Images shot on June 26 provide the clearest documents: photos show people disembarking form trains standing along the Jewish ramp and walking in long lines in the direction of the crematoria.

From international Jewish organisations, the Jewish community in Palestine and from Hungarian and Slovak Zionists, between April and June the Allies received more or less accurate information on preparations for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, on the starting date of mass transports and on planned routes. By the end of June, after long and inexplicable delays, the Auschwitz Protocol giving a detailed description of mass extermination finally reached Geneva. Over the following few weeks the European and American press published hundreds of articles reporting what had taken place in Auschwitz–Birkenau. A cursory comparison of the accounts of escaped inmates from Auschwitz and the aerial photographs would have demonstrated to Allied military commanders the mechanics of the Holocaust beyond any doubt. However, inmates looked up to the sky in vain: the bombers failed to appear over the crematoria.

 

Hearing news of the extermination of Hungarian Jews, on July 7, 1944, British minister of foreign affairs Anthony Eden asked the air force to investigate the possibility of a bombing raid over Birkenau. The minister of air defences, Sir Archibald Sinclair responded that, due to the huge distance, nothing could be done; the planes could not make the return trip to their bases. In response to a similar request, U.S. under-secretary for foreign affairs, John J. McCloy called the operation unfeasible and was of the opinion that the bombing of the gas chambers would stretch military resources too thin. John Pehle, the director of the American War Refugee Board wrote in a letter that his office had found no sufficient reason to call for the sacrifice of American soldiers for this cause. Others talked about huge losses that may be caused by the German air force and air-defence system, the need to protect the lives of camp inmates and of bad weather. However, in hindsight, all these arguments appear to be no more than empty excuses.

 

Until August 1944, no more than 20 anti-aircraft guns would have reached planes attacking Birkenau. The Buna Works in Monowitz, only 6-7 km from Birkenau, were defended by many more batteries. Yet, in 1944, the production facilities there were bombed by the Allies on four separate occasions. In fact, there were several fog machines trying to blanket the area over Monowitz, while there were none in Birkenau. In this period of successful raids against the Buna Works between August and December of that year, of a total of 367 planes only 29 were lost or went missing. Compared to other operations, this 8% loss rate was rather low. Of the 96 B24 bombers that flew over Birkenau on September 13, 1944 by mistake, only three were shot down and, seeing the planes, SS guards immediately ran for cover. During these operations, the Allied air force met but a few German planes, primarily after the raids. Fair weather conditions were reported over the area until September.

Moreover, Allied Forces had bombed other camps where there were inmates. In August, they attacked Buchenwald: the bombs killed 384 inmates and 80 SS soldiers. However, instead of the crematorium, here they destroyed plants manufacturing parts for Hitler’s ‘wonder weapon’, the V2. On other sorties, they dropped supplies to resistance fighters in Warsaw, and attacked oil refineries in Ploiesti/Rumania, suffering heavy losses.

 

The bombing of Birkenau would have been carried out by the Allied Southern-European air command, which, between the spring and autumn of 1944, had an average of 15-20 thousand planes at its disposal. According to the subsequent opinion of experts, in a raid with an accuracy rate of 75 percent, and the deployment of 160 aircraft, 12 planes would have been lost with a crew of 120 men. With smoke constantly rising from tall stacks, the crematoria were easily recognisable from the air. Moreover, they were lined up in a row and in an attack from the south even misguided bombs would have fallen on wooded areas, instead of barracks in sectors BIII and BIIf. By the end of June 1944, the Allies were in possession of all the information; an attack launched at the time would have destroyed members of the Sonderkommando and the Kanadakommando, condemned to death anyway, and perhaps several hundred camp inmates. Reconstruction of the crematoria would have required 8 to 10 months, effectively putting a halt to mass murder by gassing and cremation. During those weeks, the number of Hungarian Jews killed each day reached and, on some days, even exceeded 10 thousand people.

 

Today, we can only guess at the true motivations of political and military leaders opposing the operation: in the background besides indifference and internal conflicts anti-Semitism could also be suspected. One thing is certain – much more risky operations were undertaken for a variety of political and military reasons, while preventing the annihilation of Jews was not considered to be one of them.

 

18. Evacuation, Liberation

 

By the autumn of 1944 the number of transports had dwindled. The last shipments arrived from the Lódż ghetto, liquidated after four years of operation, and Slovakia, where anti-German revolt had broken out. At the orders of Himmler, in November selections and gassing were stopped. At the end of the same month the demolition of the crematoria started and attempts were made to clear all traces. The Sonderkommando underwent the last selection on November 26, survived only by 100 men.

With the approach of the front lines, the evacuation of the entire Auschwitz complex got under way. Tens of thousands of prisoners were shipped to camps located around the inner parts of the Third Reich. The majority ended up in Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Bergen-Belsen and the Ravensbrück women’s camp. The last general appel (roll-call) was held on January 17, 1945 with the participation of 67 thousand inmates. In the next few days, most inmates were driven from the camp on foot. Famished and emaciated, they fell to the wayside by the hundreds. Stragglers were shot on the spot. Others, before being admitted by one of the camps, travelled for weeks without food or water in unheated rail cars that soon turned into death trains. The Auschwitz complex abandoned by the Germans was liberated on January 27, 1945 by the Red Army. 297 soldiers of the 100th Infantry Division of the First Ukrainian Front sacrificed their lives to bring freedom to some 7 thousand inmates hovering between life and death. Among them, there were several hundred Hungarian survivors. Soviet soldiers never forgot the images of barracks and open pits filled with dead bodies, and of inmates no more than skin and bones crawling around on all fours.

 

The last Hungarian victims of Auschwitz died in the spring of 1945 of terminal exhaustion and diseases contracted in the camp. Estimates of Hungarian Jews killed in the Auschwitz complex and during evacuation is put to around 400 thousand. The majority perished in the gas chambers of Birkenau gasping for air. Their corpses were cremated, their bones were pulverised with clubs on concrete blocks, and their ashes were scattered in nearby fields and ponds, or dumped into the Vistula River. There are no graves in Auschwitz–Birkenau, yet it is the largest burial ground in Hungarian and world history.