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Auschwitz-Birkenau. Death at a wave of a finger

As the years pass, the last witnesses to the nightmare of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death factory where more than a million Jews from all over Europe were exterminated, are passing away. What remains is the camp itself, and the objects within it that allow historians and conservationists to learn the stories of individuals. Their stories not only help to understand the tragedy of the victims who were exterminated here, but add a human, personal dimension to these memories.

November 23, 2022 - Bartosz Panek Jarosław Kociszewski - History and Memory

Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo: Konoplytska / Shutterstock

A boy in a navy uniform holds the hand of an elegant man in a tie, with a buttonhole and wearing a hat. Next to him walks an older, moustachioed man in a bow tie. Everything could be regarded as normal, if it weren’t for the Stars of David sewn onto their clothes, the freight wagons they’ve just disembarked on the railway ramp and the armed German soldiers. Agnieszka Sieradzka, art historian and curator of the art collection at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum posits that this scene most likely happened, and was immortalised in what she calls the most valuable extant piece of camp art: the Sketchbook from Auschwitz, drawn by an unknown artist. The sketchbook is extremely accurate, so much so that the SS truck registration numbers marked on the drawings match the documentation preserved in the camp.

Judenrampe

We are on the site of the so-called old Jewish ramp, or Judenrampe, at the place where the boy in the navy uniform got off the train. The artist who drew this scene probably understood the importance of a document created at the risk of his life, so he therefore hid it in a bottle in the foundation of one of the barracks. Two old freight wagons stand on the restored tracks between the grounds of the Auschwitz railway station and the contemporary houses of the village of Brzezinka, whose residents were displaced in 1941, and whose demolished houses provided the materials used to build the Birkenau camp.

“This place certainly looks a bit different now, if only because it has undergone some restoration work,” says Piotr Setkiewicz, head of the Research Centre at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. “The wagons that are on the tracks today are also inauthentic in the sense that it is not at all certain that they would have been used to transport deportees to Auschwitz. On the other hand, these are wagons from the era,” he adds.

The old Jewish ramp is located about halfway between the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. It was here that from 1942 the Germans began to bring in large transports of Jews condemned to extermination. It was also here that selections took place, during which a nod of the SS doctor meant life or death. According to surviving documents, 75-80 per cent of the Jews deported here from all over Europe were loaded onto trucks and taken straight to the gas chambers, where they were murdered.

“During selection, SS doctors were guided primarily by suitability for work in the camp,” underlines Jacek Lachendro, a historian from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, stressing the dual function of the death camp and the labour camp. “In the first instance, people who looked young or were fit for work had a chance of survival and were sent to the camp. Children, women with small children and the elderly were automatically sent to death. At the same time, there were periods during the operation of the camp when there was less need for manpower and therefore those who were potentially fit for work were also sent to the gas chambers.”

The first makeshift gas chambers were called red and white houses after the colour of the walls of the buildings from which the Germans had evicted the inhabitants and which they had adapted for their killing machine. Today, these buildings no longer exist; simple, multilingual plaques remind us of the places of execution. In total, around 1.1 million Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom barely 200,000 were deemed fit for work and registered in the camp. The remainder were murdered in the gas chambers.

Birkenau

 

“Birkenau was a huge camp, and in fact from the very beginning of its planning there was an intention to build a separate railway siding here, which was to direct wagons from the old Jewish ramp directly into the camp,” says Piotr Setkiewicz. “However, no such work was undertaken until the autumn of 1943 due to material difficulties. The ramp was finally completed in May 1944,” he adds, pointing out that the rails used to lay the tracks connecting the two ramps were imported from the Soviet Union by a German company which used slave labour.

The completion of the new ramp coincided with the so-called Hungarian Action, the deportation of more than 400,000 Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz. According to the historian, this streamlined the process of both selection and directing those selected to the gas chambers, which were much closer. From the ramp, it was also possible to go directly to the housing barracks, whether in the women’s camp or the men’s camp, located 100-200 metres away.

“Various publications say that the Birkenau camp was an extermination camp, while Auschwitz was only a labour camp,” points out Piotr Setkiewicz. “This is not true, because the fate of the prisoners was the same. If there was a need, prisoners were transferred from Birkenau to Auschwitz and vice versa. Prisoners in both camps received the same striped uniforms, numbers from the same series, tattooed on their forearms, and so on. The density of prisoners in the various rooms at Auschwitz and Birkenau was also similar. While a single barrack in the Auschwitz Main Camp housed about 500-600 prisoners, in Birkenau there were about 400 in a similar space. The main difference was that the crematorium and gas chambers in Auschwitz ceased operating at the turn of 1942 and 1943, while in Birkenau they remained open practically until the end of the camp’s operation,” he adds.

Jacek Lachendro stresses that the camp complex was much larger than Auschwitz-Birkenau itself, and throughout the period of the camp’s operation there were nearly 50 sub-camps set up in various locations. Some were in the immediate vicinity of the main camp, while others were near factories, mines, and steelworks in western Lesser Poland and Upper Silesia. Most of the prisoners in these sub-camps in 1943 and 1944 were Jews sent to do heavy work, although there were exceptional places, such as the Bobrek sub-camp, where all sorts of small components were made for the Siemens company and for this reason precision mechanics, turners and millers were employed there. The working conditions there were exceptionally good. In the mines, on the other hand, they were nightmarish and many of the Jewish prisoners sent there, who were not accustomed to hard physical work in such harsh conditions underground, lost their lives, including suicide.”

Perpetrators

Through the large windows in the tower above the entrance gate you can see almost the entire Birkenau camp. Today it is rows of barracks and brick chimneys left over from the wooden structures that were already dismantled after the war. Both from here and from the lower towers, the SS guards could see everything that happened on the ramp with an unhindered view. In turn, the towers near the crematoria gave a good view of the prisoners sent to their deaths in the gas chambers as they descended the stairs to their place of execution. Piotr Setkiewicz stresses that the SS men at Birkenau must have known what kind of place they were serving in.

In January 1945, the camp’s staff numbered more than 4,000, and during the entire period of the camp’s operation around 8,000 guards passed through the place, of whom about 7,000 survived the war. Only a few died while at the camp or of disease. More lost their lives after being transferred to the Eastern Front. All the guards were Germans or Volksdeutsche. The only exception was a company of Ukrainians brought here in 1943, however, these quickly rebelled and were expelled from the camp after three months.

The SS men posted to Auschwitz could consider themselves lucky to be on quiet, safe duty. Relatively few, perhaps 300 or 400 of them, directly killed prisoners. The team of “disinfectors” trained in the use of the poisonous Zyklon B gas, released from pellets poured from cans through holes in the roof of the gas chambers, numbered a few dozen at most.

“Those SS men who were on duty in the guard battalion, that is, more or less 80 per cent of the entire Auschwitz staff, even if they did not shoot anyone, by the fact that they did not allow escapes, also ultimately contributed to the mass deaths of prisoners,” Piotr Setkiewicz points out.

Documents and correspondence show that there was a plague of drunkenness among the SS, which the commanders tried to combat by managing the soldiers’ free time. Sports and cultural events were organised in the camp. The crew even had their own resort. Conditions were very good and, in the case of the lower-ranking SS men, resembled life in barracks in peacetime. Officers, on the other hand, could count on comfortable accommodation, sometimes entire villas with a garden and servants. Some also tried to enrich themselves illegally by stealing money and valuables taken from prisoners that formally belonged to the Reich. There were investigations into this and even some sentences were handed down.

After the war, some members of the Auschwitz-Birkenau staff answered for their crimes. Until the end of the 1940s, the Allies had no problems in issuing and executing death sentences on these people. Some 700 of them were extradited to Poland, where most stood trial in group trials. Due to limited contact between guards and prisoners, it was difficult for witnesses to identify them. Hence, they were sentenced to one to two years in prison “for belonging to a criminal organisation, the concentration camp crew”. Most left for the Federal Republic of Germany after serving their sentences.

Poles in the camp

A small booklet with the dedication ‘Son, remember that courage is the most important thing in life’, kept at the Museum, helps to tell the story of Bernard Świerczyna, a Polish Auschwitz prisoner and member of the camp resistance movement. Prisoners employed in the offices found books of fairy tales that most likely belonged to murdered Jewish children. Illustrations and texts were copied and illegally sent home to maintain relationships with relatives or to leave behind mementos. One such booklet, telling the story of a hare whose home was taken away by a wolf but rescued thanks to the help of other animals, was made by Bernard Świerczyna for his son Felicjan.

Hidden in a German dictionary, the booklet was handed to the boy’s mother without a word by an anonymous SS man after Świerczyna had already been hanged in the last execution carried out at the camp on 30 December 1944. After an unsuccessful escape from Auschwitz, he and several other prisoners were caught and, after an investigation, executed.

More than 140,000 Poles were registered at Auschwitz, half of whom died here. Setkiewicz points out that this was a significantly higher mortality rate than among prisoners in other German concentration camps, which was probably already due to the way Auschwitz was designed, where a stationary crematorium was first put into operation. It should be noted, however, that in 1943 the conditions of Aryan prisoners, including Poles, improved when, worried about manpower, the Germans allowed food parcels to be sent to the camp. Jews were not allowed to take advantage of this privilege.

“We also know from prisoners’ accounts that there were many more motives, reasons or ways in which one could survive being a Pole in the camp,” says Piotr Setkiewicz. “For example, a strong psyche. It could also have been the help of colleagues or participation in the resistance movement. Nevertheless, survival in Auschwitz was most often decided by chance. Even a Polish prisoner in a good kommando could have contracted typhus at any time, which was a very common disease in the camp. Then he would either die or be murdered by the SS.”

Despite the terror and terrible conditions at Auschwitz, there were also several resistance groups, although relatively few prisoners knew about it. They could only observe its effects, such as the disappearance of a particularly cruel kapo or the escape of fellow prisoners. The most important organisation of this kind was the military conspiracy centred around Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki, to which the imprisoned officers belonged. One should also remember the leftist underground, headed by Józef Cyrankiewicz, a well-known pre-war PPS activist. One of the most important achievements of the conspirators was the collection and transmission outside the camp of information and data on what was happening inside. Figures on incoming transports, registered or dying prisoners or production were smuggled outside the camp and, thanks to the conspirators’ networks and the work of couriers, reached the Polish government in London. These activities involved great risks, and discovered members of the underground were subjected to cruel investigations, torture and then murdered, as was the case with Bernard Świerczyna.

Women in the camp

With the first transport of women to Auschwitz in March 1942, 999 German women prisoners from Ravensbrück were brought in to form a women’s camp. An identical number of young Jewish women from Slovakia arrived on the same day. Initially, the camp authorities did not seem to know what to do with such a large number of women. It was difficult to find suitable work for them all. It was not until the summer that most of the already 17,000 women prisoners were transferred to the so-called Frauen-Lager (German: women’s camp) in Birkenau, where they were employed in construction and agricultural work. Educated women, especially those with knowledge of foreign languages, were employed in the administration, and medical staff were sent to the camp hospitals.

“The women who were incarcerated in the camp underwent physical changes very quickly,” says Teresa Wątor-Cichy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. “Already during registration at the camp, most had their heads shaved. They were losing something that is an element of beauty, of care, a recognition of being a woman. Female prisoners said that they stood in a group as colleagues who had known each other for many years and suddenly could not recognise each other. Working beyond their strength in the camp and the minimal amounts of food caused them to lose weight. The lack of sanitary facilities, and therefore the possibility to wash themselves, caused their skin to become grey and rough. Another element that was of great concern to the female prisoners were the changes related to physiology: the stoppage of menstruation, precisely because of the loss of weight, because of the fear, the traumatic experiences they went through and witnessed,” she adds.

The Museum’s collection includes a dozen or so portraits of female prisoners drawn by Zofia Stępień-Bator. The women look beautiful, have long hair and are elegantly dressed. Agnieszka Sieradzka emphasises that in this way the humiliated, deprived of identity and ailing female prisoners regained not only their beauty, but also their dignity and humanity.

Minorities in the camp

Members of various ethnic, religious or sexual groups and minorities were victims of the racist policies of the Third Reich. In Birkenau, 21,000 members of the Roma and related Sinti communities were registered. Disease, starvation and later their planned extermination meant that only one in seven of them made it out alive after the camp’s liquidation.

An unusually high mortality rate was also recorded among the approximately 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war brought to the camp. Some of them, in particular political officers, were not registered but were sent to their deaths straight away. Only a few of the 12,000 registered survived. The prisoners of war brought to Auschwitz after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941 were subjected to torture, assigned to the hardest labour and treated worse than other groups of prisoners, with the exception of the Jews. Their situation began to gradually improve from mid-1942, when the Germans needed more hands to work. Initially, registered Russian prisoners of war were given a number on scraps of cloth to sew onto their uniforms. However, it turned out that many were dying and the others were taking parts or whole garments together with the numbers from the dead, which caused confusion in the camp registers. Hence the idea of tattooing the numbers on the left side of the chest. Only later, from the spring of 1942, did the Germans start systematically tattooing numbers on the left forearm of all registered prisoners.

Around 400 “Bible Students”, whom we would now call Jehovah’s Witnesses, were also deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They ended up in the concentration camps because of their deep commitment to their beliefs. They refused not only military service, but even work in the armaments industry, which was punishable in the Third Reich. They had the possibility of regaining their freedom in exchange for a written renunciation of their religious principles. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, no one signed such a document.

It is extremely difficult to ascertain exactly how many homosexuals were sent to the camp. According to Bogdan Piętka of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, there may have been 77. Jacek Lachendro points out that German researcher Rainer Hoffschildt puts the number at over 130. The inaccuracies are due to the ambiguous marking of this category of prisoner. Some received pink triangles signifying imprisonment under the paragraph condemning homosexuals, but there were also those who might have received red triangles intended for political prisoners or green triangles signifying criminals. In contrast, historians’ research suggests that these people were among the most mistreated groups.

Death, or the slightest chance for survival…

Once again, the unknown author has drawn a boy in a navy uniform who is being forcibly dragged away from an elegant man in a hat by an SS man. The boy and the man helplessly extend their hands to each other. The child finds himself on the same side as an elderly, moustachioed Jew with a Star of David sewn on. Knowing the double role of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one can guess that the boy and the older man were facing immediate death. The elegant man, later stripped of his dignity, dressed in a striped suit, with a number instead of an identity, had a chance of being sent to the camp, which in itself did not yet mean survival.

Bartosz Panek is a radio feature documentary maker and reporter with over 20 years’ experience. Recipient of Polish and international awards, including the Prix Italia for best radio documentary. His work has been highlighted in competitions in Italy, France and Croatia. His first book – on the Polish Tatars – was published by Czarne in summer 2020.
 
Jarosław Kociszewski is a broadcast and print journalist. Long-term Polish media corresponent in the Middle East and formerly of Polish Radio. He works with NGOs with a special focus on the Middle East and East Africa. Currently he is the editor of the Nowa Europa Wschodnia portal and an expert for Security and Development Foundation Stratpoints.
 

The article was produced as part of the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański Eastern Europe College project funded by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2022”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

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