[The Van Pelt Report]: Electronic Edition, by Robert Jan van PeltTable of Contents
|II. Auschwitz and the Hol... >|
The concentrationary universe shrivels away within itself. It still lives on in the world like a dead planet laden with corpses.
Normal men do not know that everything is possible. Even if the evidence forces their intelligence to admit it, their muscles do not believe it. The concentrationees do know....They are set apart from the rest of the world by an experience impossible to communicate.David Rousset, The Other Kingdom. 32
The great majority of people who know anything about the Second World War know that Auschwitz played a pivotal role in the National Socialist attempt to exterminate European Jewry--a deed which the perpetrators euphemistically called the Endlösung der Judenfrage ("Final Solution to the Jewish Question"), which the victims experienced as a Sho'ah or Hurban ("Catastrophe "), and which today is commonly known as the "Holocaust." Since the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army (January 27,1945), forensic reports and historical studies, undertaken by many different people from different backgrounds living in different countries, have resulted in an increasingly detailed and sophisticated understanding of the origin, context and development of Auschwitz, and the way it assumed, as a result of often contingent circumstances and evolving ambitions, different and seemingly contrary functions during the almost 57 months of its existence.
In my own work, based on careful study of the site, primary archival sources and secondary studies, conducted in collaboration with Debrah Dwork over a period of ten years, I have distinguished ten functions.33
- 1. A concentration camp to serve local German security needs (1940-45). After the fall of Poland Hitler incorporated large areas of Poland into the Reich--amongst them the former Duchy of Auschwitz, located in eastern Upper Silesia. Hitler charged Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler with the task to Germanize the annexed territories by deporting the local Slav and Jewish populations to the occupied territories, the so-called Government General, and by moving in ethnic Germans from territories promised to the Soviet Union in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. As Reichskommissar für den Festigung deutschen Volkstums (Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of the German Nation), Himmler initially considered Auschwitz to be just one of the many towns in the annexed territories to be emptied of Poles and Jews and filled with Germans. But that formula did not work in Auschwitz. Due to the unique demographic and economic conditions in the German-annexed territory of eastern Upper Silesia, the Germans were unable to use mass-scale deportations of Poles into the adjacent Government General as a tool of repression. Some of the local Polish population could not be deported as they were employed in industry, and there were no skilled ethnic German workers to replace them. Therefore the SS created in 1940 a concentration camp in a suburb of Auschwitz to terrorize the Polish population of Upper Silesia's industrial area.34
- 2. A production site for gravel and sand (1940-44). Through its subsidiary DESt (German Earth and Stone Works), the SS had been heavily involved in the production of building materials since the late 1930s. Auschwitz, famous for the high quality gravel and sand from the Sola river, became one of the production sites of DESt.35
- 3. An execution site for the Gestapo Summary Court in Kattowitz (1940-44). Providing security, killing and cremation facilities, Auschwitz became an execution site for Poles condemned by the Gestapo Summary Court in Kattowitz. Those executed in the camp on orders of the Gestapo Summary Court (3,000 in total) were not registered in the camp.36
- 4. An experimental farm (1940-45). The area around Auschwitz became the focus of a massive ethnic cleansing operation in 1940. In order to service the incoming ethnic Germans with expertise and livestock and facilitate German agricultural development of the area, Himmler decided to create a large experimental farm in Auschwitz, using concentration camp labour. The camp claimed increasingly larger territories for this new function, and Himmler began to see that its future might be different from what he had originally envisioned. As a concentration camp it was assumed to be a temporary facility; as an agricultural estate it claimed permanence.37
- 5. A forced labour pool for the construction of the IG Farben Plant at Monowitz (1941-45). Himmler slated Auschwitz to be the jewel in his crown of the German East. From a small compound surrounded by a double barbed-wire fence the camp had grown into a 15-square mile SS "Zone of Interests." A huge influx of money and building materials was needed to develop this zone. In 1941 the camp became a pawn in Himmler's attempt to attract the huge chemical giant to Auschwitz. The terms of the bargain were that the camp was to supply inmate labour to construct Farben's synthetic rubber or Buna plant. In return, IG Farben was to finance and supply Himmler's Germanization project in the area with building materials.38
- 6. A forced labour pool for the construction of an IG Farben company town (1941-43). In order to convince IG Farben to move to Auschwitz in Upper Silesia and not to Rattwitz in Lower Silesia, Himmler promised the IG Farben management that he would initiate the construction of a new company town to house the employees. One hundred thousand Soviet prisoners-of-war were to be concentrated in Auschwitz to provide labour for that project of urban (re)construction. When in early 1942 the promised 100,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war did not materialize, Himmler decided that Jews were to take their place. He had by then assumed full authority over the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem, and could dispose of the Jews within German-controlled Europe as he pleased.39
- 7. An execution site for certain categories of Soviet prisoners (1941-42). In the summer of 1941 the SS, in agreement with the German army, began to separate various categories of prisoners (communist cadres, Jews, and so on) from the prisoner-of-war camps housing Soviet soldiers. Auschwitz became one of the execution sites for these selected prisoners.40
- 8. A selection and extermination site for Jews (1941/2-1944). When large-scale mass murder of Jews began in the summer and fall of 1941 in the wake of Operation Barbarossa, the SS in Auschwitz was still fully committed to Himmler's project to develop the town and the region. It was when Göring directed Soviet prisoners of war from Auschwitz to German armament factories in January 1942 that Himmler began to consider the systematic use of the slowly emerging program for the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem within the context of what he called "The Auschwitz Project." In early 1942 Himmler was still very much committed to make Auschwitz the centerpiece of his racial utopia. Only now this was not to be created on the backs of Soviet prisoners-of-war: Jewish slave labourers were to take their place. The Wannsee Conference gave Himmler (through Heydrich) the power he needed to negotiate with German and foreign civilian authorities for the transfer of Jews to his SS empire. The first transports of Jews fit for labour started to leave Slovakia for Auschwitz-Birkenau soon thereafter. When the Slovak government suggested that Himmler also take Jews unfit for labour in exchange for cash payments, Himmler decided to transform a peasant cottage in Birkenau into a gas chamber. Two months later, on July 4,1942, the first transports of Jews from Slovakia were submitted to selection. Those who could work were admitted to the camp Those who could not were killed in the peasant cottage, now known as Bunker I. At that time, selected categories of Jews were killed at Auschwitz, but the camp still had not become the epicentre of the Holocaust. The main purpose of Auschwitz, at this time, remained construction (of a plant, a city, and a region), and not destruction (of Jews). The systematic extermination of Jews was still an auxiliary function of the camp. Around mid July 1942, Himmler increased his authority as Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of the German Nation, and acquired the responsibility for German settlement in Russia--an authority that he had coveted for more than a year. His view of Auschwitz and his plans for Auschwitz changed rapidly and dramatically. The "Auschwitz Project," was no longer of interest to him--at least not for the duration of the war. The camp could be used to serve the systematic killing of Jews. In Auschwitz the by then well-established practice of mass-killing became policy. The camp architects got the order to design crematoria (4 and 5) equipped from the outset with homicidal gas chambers on 20 August, 1942.41 The two crematoria under development (2 and 3), were retro-actively fitted with homicidal gas chambers.42
- 9. A forced labour pool for various German factories built in the surrounding region (1942-45). Following the precedent set by the agreement between the SS and IG Farben, the camp became a labour pool for other German factories, moved from the West to the Auschwitz area because of the threat of bombing. By 1944, the Stammlager Birkenau, and 27 satellite camps served these industries.43
- 10. A transfer station for Jews selected for work in the Reich (1944). In the Spring of 1944 the Germans, faced with a great shortage of workers, reversed their earlier policy not to allow any Jews within the boundaries of the German Reich. Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz; those considered "unfit for work" were killed conforming to existing policy; many of those considered "fit for work" were temporarily held in transit until they could be transported to concentration camps in the Reich as slave labour.44
These different functions show that Auschwitz was a very complex place with a tangled, complex, and confusing history. In a sense, it would be possible to write ten histories of Auschwitz: Auschwitz as a concentration camp for Poles, Auschwitz as a production site for gravel and sand, and so on. Each of these histories has their own political, institutional and financial context, each its own unique spatial impact on the site and temporal regularities, variabilities, and times of crisis and change. At times these histories run at cross-purposes, at times parallel without interfering with one another, at times they communicate, converge, and unite. As a result, a historian who desires to make a judgement about any aspect of the history of Auschwitz must take into account an often labyrinthine context, which is made even more difficult to negotiate because of intentional camouflage of certain aspects of the camp's history during the war and the willful destruction of archival and other material evidence at the end of the war.
The following example, using extensive quotes from the book on Auschwitz that Debrah Dwork and I co-authored, will suffice to show some the problems. As I have observed above, in early 1941,the promise to build a camp at Birkenau (Auschwitz II)served as a tool of negotiation between Himmler and the IG Farben management. At the time that IG Farben engineers identified Auschwitz as one of two possible sites for the establishment of a large synthetic rubber plant, Himmler had great financial and political interest in the area, and he believed that the influx of money and building materials, which would follow the establishment of the plant, would enable him to realize his own project to quickly Germanize the eastern part of Upper Silesia.
The creation of the camp at Birkenau, which by the end of 1942 had become a major center for the annihilation of Europe's Jews, was directly connected to Himmler's program to transform Auschwitz into a paradigm of German settlement in the East. To convince IG Farben that Auschwitz was the place to go, Himmler had to do more than make promises. On his first visit to the camp in March 1941 he therefore proposed not only to increase the camp population to 30,000, but also to establish a huge satellite camp of 100,000 prisoners in the agricultural estate area. Himmler "discussed this," Höss recalled, "and pointed out the approximate area that he wanted me to use." If Höss was surprised, the provincial authorities were chagrined. Upper Silesia was poor in water and they had identified the wetlands around Birkenau as a major water supply. Furthermore, they realized immediately that 100,000 prisoners would create a massive sewage problem. "Himmler just smiled and disposed of their objections saying, 'Gentlemen, this project will be completed; my reasons for this are more important than your objections.'"
Himmler's visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau and his instructions to build what later became the site where more than one million Jews were killed was a carefully staged event to impress the directors of IG Farben. He had no intention of beginning construction right away--that order came more than six months later--but wanted to declare his commitment to the future of Auschwitz. By ordering the establishment of a 100,000-inmate camp Himmler had taken care of labour availability, which (as we have seen) was key to the development of the region. Furthermore, the precedent of using inmates for municipal projects had been established in December 1940 when the camp and the town had agreed that chain-gangs of prisoners would improve the dikes along the Vistula and the Sola, and the trajectory of the two rivers; a few months later crews were put to work at demolition sites in the town. Himmler's gesture in Birkenau was to impress on the rest of the entourage that the camp would be able to service the town reconstruction project. All those present--IG Farben officials, Provincial Governor Fritz Bracht and other civic authorities, the SS liaison with IG Farben, Karl Wolff, and the SS head of agricultural affairs, Heinrich Vogel, as well as the camp officials--heard him, as did SS leaders a year later. The deployment of a massive army of slaves was a simple necessity in the cause of laying a stable foundation for a German future in the East, Himmler told his men. "If we do not create the bricks here, if we do not fill our camps with slaves--in this room I state these things precisely and clearly--with work slaves who will build our cities, our villages, and our farms, irrespective of losses, then, after a long war, we will not have the money to create settlements that will allow a truly Germanic people to live with dignity and to take root within one generation."45
In early 1941 Himmler was not in a hurry to commit resources to the construction of the camp. When the IG Farben managers made the decision to establish the large synthetic rubber plant in Auschwitz, the immediate purpose of Birkenau, which was at that time a mere promise, had been fulfilled. Yet six months later IG Farben called Himmler's bluff, and the latter was forced to make good on his promise given at March 1,1941. He negotiated the transfer of 100,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war from the army to his own SS, and ordered the construction of a camp in Birkenau to house them. Yet in the end only 10,000 of the 100,000 were to arrive in Auschwitz. By December 1941, the deal with the army fell apart.
No more Soviet prisoners-of-war arrived. As it became increasingly clear that Operation Barbarossa had failed as a Blitzkrieg, Germany had to mobilize all its resources to continue the war. With more men called up for service and more demands on German industry--especially the armaments industry--even the Soviet prisoners-of-war became a resource too precious to be wasted. "The lack of workers is becoming an increasingly dangerous hindrance for the future of the German war and armament industry," Field Marshal Keitel informed various military agencies and ministries on 31 October. "The Führer has now ordered that the labour of the Russian prisoners-of-war also should be utilized to a great extent by large-scale assignment for the requirements of the war industry." A week later Reich Marshall Hermann Göring gained control over all prisoners-of-war and he promptly announced that the Russians would be primarily employed in mining, railroad maintenance, armaments industry, and agriculture. Building was given a low priority.
Göring charged the Labour Allocation Division of the Office of the Plenipotentiary of the Four Year Plan with the creation and execution of a policy to exploit the labour potential of the Soviets. On 8 January the Division issued a decree. All prisoners-of-war were assigned to the armaments industry and to a selected number of other activities such as agriculture, forestry and mining. None could be employed for construction work.
The decree of January 8 brought an end to Himmler's plan to amass a large Soviet labour force to build the town of Auschwitz. He had to look elsewhere, and his eye fell on the Jews.46
Initially Birkenau was going to be filled with young and healthy Jews whom the SS considered to be fit for work. The SS decided to find these Jews in Slovakia, and in February 1942 the German and Slovak governments reached a deal that included the immediate deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Yet once the agreement was signed, the Slovaks realized that with the deportation of the young and healthy Jews they were left with those "not fit for work ": the very young and old people. Unwilling to feed and shelter them, the Slovaks once more approached the Germans, in the person of Adolf Eichmann. Initially Eichmann refused to discuss the matter, but quickly someone in the SS realized that it would be possible to make some money out of the deal by charging the Slovak government 500 Reichsmark per Jew to de deported (and the Slovaks would be allowed to recover this expense by expropriating the deportees belongings). Slovakia was close to Auschwitz, and if the camp was to be equipped with some discretely camouflaged extermination installation, the SS could take all the Slovak Jews, conduct a selection in Birkenau, admit those who could work, and kill the rest in an adjacent forest.
The Germans had a few practical problems to work out. As the Slovak Jews were to be brought to Birkenau and not to Auschwitz, and as killing them in crematorium 1 would interrupt the life of the main camp, they considered building an extermination installation close to the new satellite camp. [SS construction chief] Hans Kammler arrived in Auschwitz on Thursday 27 February to meet with [Kommandant] Höss and [camp architect] Bischoff. There are no minutes of this conference, but its content can be ascertained from a letter Bischoff wrote to Topf a week later. Kammler had decided to cancel their order for the back-up incinerators included in the Birkenau plan of 6 January, Bischoff explained. The large crematorium with five triple-muffle incinerators that had been designated for the main camp was to go to Birkenau instead. Obviously Kammler wanted construction to proceed quickly. Those furnaces had been ordered almost four months previously and he expected they would be available soon. Furthermore, the designs for the crematorium that was to house these incinerators had been both completed and approved. On paper, at least, everything was ready for the crematorium they had agreed upon the previous October. A blueprint of the prisoner-of-war camp shows that Kammler decided to locate the new crematorium in the north-western corner of Birkenau, adjacent to an abandoned cottage that had belonged to a Polish peasant named Wiechuja. The interior of this cottage, known as "the little red house," was converted into two gas chambers within a few weeks...
There is no doubt that Kammler's visit led to the Germans' reversal of their decision about the mass deportation of Slovak Jewry. Once Kammler had organized the construction of the crematorium in Birkenau, the Reich Security Main Office permitted the German Foreign office to negotiate seriously. On 3 March [Slovak Prime Minister]Tuka announced in the Slovak State Council that, pending certain financial arrangements, the Germans had agreed to take the remaining 70,000 Jews. The Germans were doing them a favour and were to be compensated at the rate of 500 marks for every Jew deported. For this sum, however, the Slovak government was guaranteed that "the Jews accepted as part of the de-Judaization of Slovakia will remain permanently in the Eastern territories and will not be offered any possibility of re-immigrating into Slovakia. "The state was free to seize Jewish property left behind 47.
With the creation of the gas chamber of "the little red house," also known as "Bunker 1," the mass murder of Jews mass became a fixture of life in Auschwitz, but it was not yet the camp's primary purpose. It was, in a sense, what the Germans so aptly term a Verlegenheitslösung an emergency solution. Only later, when the construction of the town came to a halt and Birkenau lost its purpose as a labour pool for that project, did killing cease to be an auxiliary activity and became one of the main purposes of Birkenau. But even then it competed with other functions.
Each changing use the SS had for Birkenau deposited its own archival and physical sediment, creating a superimposed set of historical layers which, in the end, were to be disturbed in the cataclysmic upheaval of the genocide that occurred at that site. To make matters worse, the speed with which the various deposits settled was not the same, so that the ultimate consequences of earlier events were to appear sometimes after the effects of later events had already become apparent. For example: the transformation of the little red house into a gas chamber only took a matter of days, but the design and construction of crematoria 2 and 3 took more than 18 months, and in this long period the function of Birkenau shifted and changed numerous times. Many of the intended purposes of these crematoria were obsolete even before the blueprints were completed.
The historian of Auschwitz must not forget the Russian proverb that one cannot drive straight on a twisted lane. Anyone who seeks to make a contribution to our understanding of the history of Auschwitz must account for and contend with the historical complexity of the site. If, in the words of the historian Schleunes, the road to Auschwitz proved twisted, so did the road in Auschwitz. This implies that one should be very careful in assessing the evidence and the conclusions drawn on the basis of it. Irving, for example, has argued that "since documents have now been found in the Auschwitz files held in former Soviet archives indicating that Auschwitz prisoners were actually released to the outside world," the camp was not an extermination camp because the documented release "seems incompatible with the character of a top-secret mass extermination centre."48 Irving's conclusion is the result of the combination of the following two syllogisms:
Yet the syllogism is fallacious when applied to Auschwitz because the term Auschwitz covers a very manifold and complex reality. If Auschwitz had only been a (top-secret)mass extermination center, located in one place, such an argument may have been conclusive. Yet Auschwitz encompassed many different sites, and as an institution was engaged in many different functions, and furthermore functioned as a (top-secret)mass extermination center for only part of its history. If the released prisoners had included the so-called Sonderkommando who operated the crematoria, Irving would have a point. They did not. In fact, no Jews were ever included in the category of Erziehungshäftlinge or "re-education inmates," the only prisoner category from which releases did occur.49 Most of the Sonderkommando were put to death after a few months on the job--to protect secrecy. The few who survived did so because they either escaped from the death march that concluded the camp's history, or because, amidst the chaos of Germany's collapse, they were able to merge (after the death march) in the general camp population in the receiving concentration camps in the West.50
Given the dichotomy between the very complex nature and history of Auschwitz and the habit of many to consider the camp only as a "top-secret mass extermination center," many people, including bona-fide historians, survivors, and not so bona-fide holocaust deniers, often commit the fallacy of composition: they reason from the properties of the part of Auschwitz that was engaged with mass extermination to the properties of Auschwitz as a whole. A favourite example of the negationists is the so-called swimming pool in Auschwitz I. They argue that the presence of a swimming pool, with three diving boards, shows that the camp was really a rather benign place, and therefore could not have been a center of extermination. They ignore that the swimming pool was built as a water reservoir for the purpose of firefighting (there were no hydrants in the camp), that the diving boards were added later, and that the pool was only accessible to SS men and certain privileged Aryan prisoners employed as inmate-funcionaries in the camp. The presence of the swimming pool does not say anything about the conditions for Jewish inmates in Auschwitz, and does not challenge the existence of an extermination program with its proper facilities in Auschwitz II.
Auschwitz is a prime example of a place where, in the words of Alexander Pope, "fools rush in where angels fear to tread." The labyrinthine history and the resulting intricacy of the evidence demands careful attention to both detail and circumstance. No Holocaust denier has ever come close to the level of historic professionalism that the study of Auschwitz demands. Least of all David Irving. Beyond that, of course, is another issue that transcends the simple issue of "professionalism." It is the recognition that anyone who seeks to understand Auschwitz must do so with a sense of humility in face of the evidence and diffidence in face of our own inability to truly grasp the historical reality that was Auschwitz. As early as 1946 Hannah Arendt observed in a review of The Black Book: The Nazi Crime Against the Jewish People--an account of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry--that any attempt to write a history what a later generation was to define as "The Holocaust " was to end in failure.
The facts are: that six million Jews, six million human beings, were helplessly, and in most cases unsuspectingly, dragged to their deaths. The method employed was that of accumulated terror. First came calculated neglect, deprivation, and shame, when the weak in body died together with those strong and defiant enough to take their own lives. Second came outright starvation, combined with forced labor, when people died by the thousands but at different intervals of time, according to their stamina. Last came the death factories--and they all died together, the young and the old, the weak and the strong, the sick and the healthy: not as people, not as men and women, children and adults, boys and girls, not as good and bad, beautiful and ugly--but brought down to the lowest common denominator of organic life itself, plunged into the darkest and deepest abyss of primal equality, like cattle, like matter, like things that had neither body nor soul, nor even a physiognomy upon which death could stamp its seal.
It is in this monstrous equality without fraternity or humanity--an equality in which cats and dogs could have shared--that we see, as though mirrored, the image of hell.
Beyond the capacities of human comprehension is the deformed wickedness of those who established such equality. But equally deformed and beyond the reach of human justice is the innocence of those who died in this equality. The gas chamber was more than anybody could have possibly deserved, and in the face of it the worst criminal was as innocent as the new-born babe. Nor is the monstrousness of this innocence made any easier to bear such adages as "better to suffer ill than do ill. "What mattered was not so much that those whom an accident of birth condemned to death obeyed and functioned to the last moment as frictionlessly as those whom an accident of birth condemned to life (this is so well known, there is no use hiding it). Even beyond that was the fact that innocence and guilt were no longer products of human behavior; that no possible human crime could have fitted this punishment, no conceivable sin, this hell in which saint and sinner were equally degraded to the status of possible corpses. Once inside the death factories, everything became an accident completely beyond control of those who did the suffering and those who inflicted it. And in more than one case, those who inflicted the suffering one day became the sufferers the next.
Human history has known no story more difficult to tell. The monstrous equality in innocence that is its leitmotif destroys the very basis on which history is produced--which is, namely, our capacity to comprehend an event no matter how distant we are from it.51
Thirty-five years later, philosophers were still grappling with the impossibility to grasp the world of the camps. "There is something in the nature of thought--its patient deliberateness and care for logical order--that is alien to the enormity of the death camps," the late Arthur A. Cohen wrote in his short but magisterial The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust (1981).
There is something no less in the reality of the death camps that denies the attentions of thought. Thinking and the death camps are incommensurable. The procedures of thought and the ways of knowing are confounded. It is to think the unthinkable--an enterprise that is not alone contradictory but hopeless--for thought entails as much as moral hope (that it may be triumphant, mastering its object, dissolving the difficulties, containing and elucidating the conundrum) as it is the investment of skill and dispassion in a methodic procedure.
The death camps are a reality which, by their very nature, obliterate thought and the humane program of thinking. We are dealing, at the very outset, therefore, with something unmanageable and obdurate--a reality which exists, which is historically documented, which has specific beginnings and ends, located in time, the juncture of confluent influences which run from the beginnings of historical memory to a moment of consummating orgy, never to be forgotten, but painful to remember, a continuous scourge to memory and the future of memory and yet something which, whenever addressed, collapses into tears, passions, rage. The death camps are unthinkable, but not unfelt. They constitute a traumatic event and, like all decisive trauma, they are suppressed but omnipresent, unrecognized but tyrannic, silted over by forgetfulness but never obliterated.52
Cohen's insight must, in the end, apply to anyone who has seriously tried to understand the Holocaust in general, or Auschwitz in particular. Elie Wiesel recorded that, after the end of the Eichmann Trial, he met by chance one of the judges, a "wise and lucid man, of uncompromising character."
He refused to discuss the technical or legal aspects of the trial. Having told him that side was of no interest to me, I asked him the following question:
"Given your role in this trial, you ought to know more about the scope of the Holocaust than any living person, more even than those who lived through it in flesh and in their memory. You have studied all the documents, read all the secret reports, interrogated all the witnesses. Now tell me: do you understand this fragment of the past, those few pages of history?"
He shuddered imperceptibly, then, in a soft voice, infinitely humble, he confessed:
"No, not at all. I know the facts and the events that served as their framework; I know how the tragedy unfolded minute by minute, but this knowledge, as if coming from outside, has nothing to do with understanding. There is in all this a portion which will always remain a mystery; a kind of forbidden zone, inaccessible to reason. Fortunately, as it happens. Without that ..."
He broke off suddenly. Then, with a smile a bit timid, a bit sad, he added:
"Who knows, perhaps that's the gift which God, in a moment of grace, gave to man: it prevents him from understanding everything, thus saving him from madness, or from suicide."53
Having studied for years the evidence this judge had to consider, it is difficult not to agree with him. For all our knowledge, the world of the camps continue to offer an ever-receding horizon that seeks to escape our understanding every time we seek to close in on it. It is with this in mind that I present at the end of this first chapter the end of the last chapter of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present. The main protagonist, Sarah Grossman-Weil, is a very dear friend of mine, and an aunt of my co-author Debrah Dwork. Her testimony was one of the invaluable gifts that allowed us to write and complete our book--a gift that somehow helped us to negotiate that gap between knowledge and understanding.
In August 1944,as the Hungarian Action came to an end and the crematoria stood idle, Sara Grossman-Weil, her husband Menek, her mother-and father-in-law Feigele and Wolf, her brother-in-law Adek, his wife Esther, their adolescent daughter Regina, and their little girl Mirka were herded into a train of cattle cars in Lodz, the last of the hundreds of ghettos the Germans had established to cleanse the German East of Jews.
The ghetto of Lodz, which had been organized in early 1940 as a holding pen for the Nisko project, had survived at the expense of most of its inhabitants as a vast workshop. The German-appointed Eldest of the Jews, Chaim Rumkowski, had developed a policy to make the ghetto indispensable to the German war effort. If work would not set Jews free, it should at least guarantee survival. The Germans agreed, with a caveat: if the ghetto were an enormous workshop, only those who were capable of work could stay. Selections were instituted, and Sara put rouge on her gaunt cheeks to look healthy. "You would try to look straight, not to look sick. You would not bend, because this would suggest that you're not capable of doing the work you're doing. You would walk straight, or as well as you could, to show them that you are fit to remain."
But there were those who could not be saved by all the rouge and posture in the world. In early September,1942, the Germans decreed that those who could not work--children under ten and old people over sixty-five--would have to leave. Forcing Rumkowski, his Jewish Council and the Jewish ghetto police to share moral responsibility, the Germans ordered them to execute the order. Their families would be exempt. When the decree was made known, it seemed that the nadir of perdition had been reached. "The sky above the ghetto is unclouded," Josef Zelkowicz recorded. "Like yesterday and the day before, the early autumn sun shines. It shines and smiles at our Jewish grief and agony, as though someone were merely stepping on vermin, as though some one had written a death-sentence for bedbugs, a day of Judgement for rats which must be exterminated and wiped off the face of the earth." Like Josef Zelkowicz and everyone else, Sara witnessed dragnet operations to catch infants, toddlers and elementary school children. "The children were taken away; thrown, literally thrown, on to the wagon. And when the mother objected, either she was taken with them, or shot. Or they tore the child away from her and let her go. And all the children, small children, little ones, five-, six-, four-, seven-year-old ones were thrown, literally thrown, into this wagon. The cries were reaching the sky, but there was no help, there was no one to turn to, to plead your case, to beg." Mirka Grossman was one of the few children to survive the selection.
With the action against the children and the elderly, the two-year death knell of the last Jewish community on Reich territory had begun. It ended on Wednesday,2 August 1944 when the German mayor of Lodz informed Rumkowski that the ghetto would be resettled, workshop by workshop. "Factory workers will travel with their families," Rumkowski's final proclamation read. Sara Grossman-Weil left with her husband's family. They were herded to the train station and ordered on to the cattle cars. "You couldn't throw a pin in, one was sitting on top of the other, with the bundles. We were in this cattle car, this wagon, and we were riding, riding, riding. There was no end to it. And the little one asked, in Polish, 'Daddy, isn't it better that today it's a bad day, but tomorrow it will be better?' She was five years old. And her father said, 'Today doesn't matter, tomorrow will be much better.'"
Tomorrow proved him wrong. The train with the survivors of the Lodz ghetto passed by Kattowitz and Myslowitz, and crossed the Vistula at Neu-Berun. They arrived at the station of Auschwitz. The train turned into a spur and stopped. When the sun began to set, the train backed onto another spur, through a gate, and entered the enormous compound of Birkenau. It came to a halt. The bolted doors were opened. Sara Grossman, her relatives, and the rest of the people on the train were hauled out and told to form two columns, one of men, and one of women and children.
I was standing there not knowing what's going on, overwhelmed with the amount of people around us, not believing that they threw us all out from these wagons in the manner they did. How they pushed and shoved and screamed. And these SS men with the dogs in front of us. I lost sight of what was going on. It's crazy. And I was standing with my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law with her little girl, when someone approached us, and said, "give this child to the grandmother." And my sister-in-law gave the child to my mother-in-law. They went to the left, and we went to the right.
Sara and the other women considered fit for work entered the camp. "As we were marching, I saw columns of women marching on the other side in the opposite direction who were half naked, shaven heads, stretching out their arms. 'Food, food. Give me your bread!' Screaming, shouting. I was overwhelmed. I thought that I found myself in an asylum, in a madhouse, in a place with only crazy people." This was the place she had heard about, always in whispers and always with dread. "They always called it Auschwitz, but we didn't know what it meant."
They arrived at the delousing station, were registered, shaved and showered, and handed some rags and wooden shoes.
From there they gathered us again in columns, in rags like the people whom I had seen an hour ago in the columns marching in the opposite direction. We had the same look, except we weren't shouting. We looked like crazy people, just like the rest of them. We were led to a lavatory where we had to take care of our needs, and from there we went to a barrack, which was the house where we would be staying. In this barrack we were given a bunk. The size of the bunk was approximately the size of not quite a twin bed, I would say considerably smaller. And on this bunk bed, five people had to find their sleeping quarters. And this was our new home.
Sara remained in Birkenau for ten days, and then she was brought on another transport to a munitions factory at Unterlüss, 18 miles northeast of Celle. Most of the inmates were Hungarian women. Sara recalled that sulphur was everywhere, "in the air, and in the bread that you were given as a ration at work, and in your mouth, eyes, hands, fingers, everything turned yellow. I was sick with the smell."
Production at Unterlüss came to an end in March 1945. The satellite camp was closed, and the inmates were sent to Bergen-Belsen where Sara was put in a barrack with hundreds of other women. "On the outside were hundreds of women dying of thirst, thirst, and thirst again."
It was a sight that is beyond any description or understanding or imagination. You cannot, because when you see the pictures of the dead bodies, you just see pictures. You don't see the bodies, the eyes that talk to you and beg you for water. You don't see the mouths quietly trying to say something and not being able to utter a word. You see and you feel as I did, the agony of these people for whom death would be a blessing. They are just dying and can't die.
All around the camp were mounds of bodies, and Sara was ordered to move corpses to a large pit.Sara survived, and was liberated on her birthday, the 15th of April.
These mounds that you see on some of the pictures that are being shown about the Holocaust, they were real people. They were living, breathing, eating, feeling, thinking people, thousands upon thousands of them. Mothers and daughters and children. These pictures are real. And I saw it, I smelled it, I touched them. They were very, very real. This was Bergen-Belsen in March and the beginning of April in 1945.
There were no mounds of corpses in Auschwitz. The crematoria took care of that. "I was standing with my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law with her little girl, when someone approached us, and said, 'Give this child to the grandmother.' And my sister-in-law gave the child to my mother-in-law. They went to the left, and we went to the right. And I said, 'Why?' My mother-in-law took the little one and went to the left." None of the new arrivals knew what "left " meant, and no one who went to the left survived to give testimony. It is from the accounts and reports of the slave or willing workers, and from documents and drawings, that we can follow the route that Feigele and Mirka took. They went to the left, crossed a train track, and came to a road parallel to the rails, running from the gate building at their left to two relatively large buildings at their right. An SS man directed them to the right, towards the two buildings. Another SS man 500 yards down the road told them to turn left, into a compound surrounding one of the two identical brick buildings with their square, squat chimneys. They were not led to the large entrance below the chimney, but walked past the building and then, beyond, along a 70-yard-long terrace. At the end of the paved asphalt they were told to take a sharp turn to the left, and descend a staircase ending at a door leading into a basement.
Today, in 1995, that underground space, and a room connected to it at right angles, are shallow pits overgrown with grass. In 1944 this place, originally designed as a mortuary, served as the penultimate stage in a process of destruction that had begun with the identification of Feigele and Mirka as Jews, and had continued with their incarceration in the Lodz ghetto, their deportation to Auschwitz, and their selection at the station. Robbed of their home and financial assets in 1939, of most of their other property during the four long years in the ghetto, and of their suitcases at the Auschwitz station, they now were to surrender the last things they owned: the clothes they wore. The basement they entered served as the undressing room.
Very few of the hundreds of thousands people who entered that basement survived. One of them was Filip Müller. "At the entrance to the basement was a signboard, and written on it in several languages the direction: To the baths and disinfecting rooms. The ceiling of the changing room was supported by concrete pillars to which many more notices were fixed, once again with the aim of making the unsuspecting people believe that the imminent process of disinfection was of vital importance to their health. Slogans like Cleanliness brings freedom or One louse may kill you were intended to hoodwink, as were numbered clothes hooks fixed at a height of 1.50 meters."
Feigele, Mirka and the other Jews who had survived the Germans' abuse until that point were told to undress, and then herded into a small vestibule. Someone pointed to the right, to the doors of an oblong white-washed room resembling the one they had just left. But, as Filip Müller knew, there were some important visible, and even more important invisible differences between the two rooms. "Down the length of the room concrete pillars supported the ceiling. However, not all the pillars served this purpose: for there were others, too. The Zyklon-B gas crystals were inserted through openings into hollow pillars made of sheet metal. They were perforated at regular intervals and inside them a spiral ran from top to bottom in order to ensure as even a distribution of the granular crystals as possible. Mounted on the ceiling was a large number of dummy showers made of metal. These were intended to delude the suspicious on entering the gas chamber into believing that they were in a shower-room." Feigele, Mirka and the others were crammed in, the doors closed, and the lights were turned off.
While Feigele and Mirka were driven into the underground room, a van marked with a Red Cross sign parked along its side, which projected 1.5 feet above ground. Two "disinfecting operators " climbed on the roof of the basement, carrying sealed tins manufactured by the Degesch Company. They chatted leisurely, smoking a cigarette. Then, on signal, each of them walked to a one foot high concrete shaft, donned a gas mask, took off the lid, opened the tin, and poured the pea-sized contents into the shaft. They closed the lids, took off their masks, and drove off.
Müller witnessed everything from a short distance. "After a while I heard the sound of piercing screams, banging against the door and also moaning and wailing. People began to cough. Their coughing grew worse from minute to minute, a sign that the gas had started to act. Then the clamor began to subside and to change to a many-voiced dull rattle, drowned now and then by coughing." Ten minutes later all was quiet.
An SS man ordered Müller and the rest of the death squad workers to take the lift down into the basement. There they waited for the ventilating system to extract the gas from the room and, after some twenty minutes, unbolted the doors to the gas chambers. Contrary to Höss's assertion that he had adopted Zyklon-B as a killing agent because it offered an easy death, the victims showed the marks of a terrible struggle.
This is the place where and the method by which Germans killed Feigele, Mirka, and countless other human beings. Within hours of their arrival in Auschwitz nothing of the Jews remained but smoke, ashes, and our memory of them. Their bodies were brought to the ground floor with the same lift that Müller had used to go down to the basement, and there they were cremated in one of the five incinerators with three muffles each in the center of the crematorium.
Today we know where Feigele and Mirka died: in a town the Germans always called Auschwitz. We know they built the town in 1270, and a Polish king bought it in 1457. We know the town declined under Polish rule. We know it had a modest existence along a major railway line in the nineteenth century. We know that the region became the object of German rage in the 1920s. We know the National Socialists annexed the town to the Reich in 1939. We know that they intended to repeat the initiatives of the middle ages.
Today we know that Feigele and Mirka died in a camp originally created as a labour exchange, that then served as a Polish army base, and that the Germans adapted into a concentration camp to terrorize a local population too useful to deport. We know that the camp accrued one function after another: it became a production site for sand and gravel, an execution site for the Gestapo in Kattowitz, the center of a large agricultural estate to support ethnic German transplantees, a labour pool to construct a synthetic rubber plant and a new town. We know that, throughout these transformations, Auschwitz remained the centerpiece of Himmler's ambitions in the recovery of German history in this one-time area of German settlement. We know that it became a centre of extermination when he lost interest in the town and the region, and that it also served as the heart of a network of satellite camps to service various industries in the region, and that it finally became a labour exchange again, only this time the labourers were Jewish slaves.
Today we know who designed the building: Georg Werkmann, Karl Bischoff and Walther Dejaco. We know who constructed the furnaces: the Topf and Sons Company in Erfurt. We know the power of the forced-air system (over 4 million cubic feet per hour) to fan the flames. We know the official cremation capacity (32 corpses) per muffle per day. We know that it was Bischoff who took the decision to change the larger morgue into an undressing room, and the smaller one into a gas chamber. We know that Dejaco drafted the plan that transformed a mortuary into a death chamber. We know the specifications of the ventilation system that made the room operable as a site for mass extermination: seven horsepower is required to extract the Zyklon-B from the gas chamber in 20 minutes. We know that the building was brought into operation on 13 March 1943 and 1,492 women, children and old people were gassed. We know about the difficulties the Germans had getting everything just the way they wanted. We know who paid the bills and how much was paid.
We know all of that. But we understand very little about many issues central to this machinery of death. Research about the history of the region, the intended future of the town, the development of the camp, and the changing design of the crematoria has been useful, but is not the whole story about the Holocaust at Auschwitz. It is the questions of the victims and the survivors which loom large.
When Sara Grossmann faced selection upon arrival at Auschwitz in August 1944,
I lost sight of what was going on. It's crazy. And I was standing with my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law with her little girl, when someone approached us, and said, give this child to the grandmother. And my sister-in-law gave the child to my mother-in-law. They went to the left, and we went to the right. And I said, 'Why?' My mother-in-law took the little one and went to the left. Regina, Esther, and I went to the right. To the left were all the people who were led to the gas chambers, crematorium, however you call it.
"Gas chambers, crematorium, however you call it." Half a century later, Sara Grossman was not precise. What mattered was that the men were separated from the women, and that the grandmother Feigele and the little girl Mirka went to the left, and the adolescent Regina, and the two sisters-in-law Esther and Sara to the right. And she is correct. That process of selection is the core and moral nadir of the horror of the Holocaust--the selection, and not the gas chambers and crematoria. The Germans and their allies had arrogated to themselves the power to decide who should live and who would die. "As though," Hannah Arendt accused Eichmann, "you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world."
Mirka, Sara, and hundreds of thousands of other deportees lined up for selection by a physician. Had he worked alone, he could have done little harm. But he did not. His work was but a small part of a system envisioned by ideologues, organized by bureaucrats, financed by industrialists, serviced by technocrats, operated by ordinary men, and supported by millions of Germans whose daily lives were improved by the goods shipped home to the Reich for their use.
And Sara's question remains: "And I said, 'Why?'"54
31. Today the word "Auschwitz" has various meanings. As a proper name, it referred at various periods between 1270 and 1919, and more importantly between 1939 and 1945, to the town of Oswiecim located at the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers in today's Republic of Poland. As an abbreviation, it refers to the Konzentrationslager Auschwitz O/S a particular concentration camp which was established in the Spring of 1940 in the suburb Zasole of Auschwitz/Oswiecim,and which in the next four and half years was to grow until it encompassed by 1944 a complex of many camps subject to the main camp or Stammlager in Zasole. As a synecdoche, it denotes the Holocaust as a whole, defined here as the murder of six million Jews during the Second World War, and as a metonymy it may denote genocide(s) or massacre(s) elsewhere and at other times, or (some)evil (event)in general. In this report, I will use the word "Auschwitz " as an abbreviation for the concentration camp as an organization, which encompassed, from 1941/2 onwards, various camps, including the Stammlager at Zasole and the very much larger camp at Birkenau. When I refer to the Stammlager only, I will use either the words "main camp," "Stammlager," or the official German designation "Auschwitz I" When I refer to the camp at Birkenau only, I will use either the proper name "Birkenau," or the official German designation "Auschwitz II."
32. David Rousset, The Other Kingdom, trans. Ramon Guthrie (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock,1947), 168f.
33. The history of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, like the history of any place or event, will remain subject to revision. While I take pride in having contributed, on the basis of ten years of study of a great variety of newly available evidence, a major shift in our understanding of the context, development and operation of the camp, I hope that future scholars will revise, on the basis of evidence not available now, some of my conclusions. Like all historians, I do know that in my reconstruction of the history of the camp, there is range of certainty due to the availablity and nature of the evidence available to me. And as a responsible and professional historian, I have indicated in Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present my own dissatisfaction with the nature and amount of evidence available. For example: the exact nature of Himmler's changing ambition for the camp in the summer of 1941 remains problematic. I have already engaged scholars in a legitimate debate concerning the validity of my reconstruction of this issue. Yet, as a professional and responsible historian who has devoted ten years of his life to an intense study of the camp, studying the site, the archival sources created at the time, interrogating witnesses, studying the trial records and the secondary literature, I affirm after a careful weighing of all the evidence available, using both technical expertise, skepticism to the reliability of the evidence, common sense that admits of a varying degree in the strength of evidence, and what one may call a certain practical wisdom in human affairs that the following propositions may be asserted with what the seventeenth-century philosopher John Wilkins defined as moral or indubitable certainty--that is that we may have an assurance which does not admit of any reasonable cause of doubt. This is the certainty about matter of fact and is based on such evidence as excludes the possibility of error for all practical purposes.
34. Robert Jan van Pelt and Debrah Dwork, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (New Haven and London: Yale University Press,1996),163ff.
41. The Germans built in Auschwitz five crematoria: one the main camp (Auschwitz I), and four in Birkenau (Auschwitz II).The official German designation was as follows:the crematorium in the Stammlager was designated as crematorium 1,the two large crematoria at the end of the Birkenau Rampe were designated crematoria 2 and 3, and the two smaller crematoria at the end of the main Lagerstrasse were known as crematoria 4 and 5. Yet sometimes inmates and even Germans used a different numbering for the Birkenau crematoria. Ignoring the existence of crematorium 1 in the main camp, they numbered the crematoria 2 to 5 in Birkenau as 1 to 4. In quotations of original German sources and memoirs we will encounter both systems. This creates confusion. One solution is to adopt one standard designation, and change the numbering in some of the quotes. For the sake of scholarly precision, I decided against that. Therefore, for the sake of clarity, I will preserve in the quotes the number given, but for the convenience of the reader use arabic numerals when the numbering follows the official German nomenclature (1,2,3,4 and 5), and latin numerals when it follows the informal nomenclature of the Birkenau crematoria (I, II,III,IV). Outside of quotations, I will systematically use the German nomenclature. In general I will ignore a third nomenclature, used by the SS building office in Auschwitz. The architects referred to the various buildings under construction by means of a project number. Crematorium 1 was BW (Bauwerk or building) 11; crematorium 2 (I) was BW 30;crematorium 3 (II)was BW 30a; crematorium 4 (III)was BW 30b; and crematorium 5 (IV)was BW 30c. This nomenclature will occasionally surface in footnotes referring to documents in the Auschwitz and Moscow archives.
42. Van Pelt and Dwork, Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present 301ff.
48. David Irving, "Reply to Defence of Second Defendant," 5.
49. The late Tadeusz Iwaszko, chief archivist at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, have determined that 1,500 inmates were released from Auschwitz.All of these were so-called Erziehungshäftlinge (re-education inmates)--some 9,000 Polish men and almost 2,000 Polish women who had been arrested for problems in the workplace, and who were brought to Auschwitz for a six-to eight-week long introduction to German work habits. Of these inmates, who were not given a tattoo and whose prison uniform was marked with an "E " instead of with a coloured triangle, ten percent died before the end of their "course," and most were kept in the camp after completion of their six-month re-education course. Initially the Erziehungshäftlinge were housed in a special block in Auschwitz I. From early 1943 onwards, they were assigned four barracks in Auschwitz III, the labour camp adjacent to the Buna works in Monowitz. In short, these prisoners were lodged at a considerable distance from the centre of killing in Birkenau. See Tadeusz Iwaszko, "Les Détenus 'E ' d 'Auschwitz," Bulletin d'Information. Comité internationale d'Auschwitz (1977),issue 9/10,4;(1978),issue 1,4 and issue 2,4.
50. For a collection of excellent oral histories of surviving Sonderkommando see Gideon Greif, Wir weinten tränenlos: Augenzeugenberichte der jüdischen "Sonderkommandos" in Auschwitz (Cologne, Weimar and Vienna:Böhlau,1995).
51. Hannah Arendt, "The Image of Hell," in Hannah Arendt, Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954 Jerome Kohn ed.(New York, San Diego and London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), 198f.
52. Arthur A. Cohen, The Tremendum: a Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust (New York: Crossroads,1981),1f.
53. Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time (New York:Schocken,1982), 181f.
54. Van Pelt and Dwork, Auschwitz : 1270 to the Present, 343ff.
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