"Thinking the Unthinkable"
Criminology and the Holocaust
by Paula Bowles
Speech by Chaim Rumkowski, Chairman of Łódź Jewish Council, 17 January, 1942
“ONLY WORK CAN SAVE US”
Brothers and sisters. Today in a corner of the ghetto, we celebrate an anniversary which, under present circumstances, is quite an achievement. A certain analogy comes to mind, concerning religious holidays. Every year we celebrate the holiday of Succoth. However, the joy of those days depends entirely on the weather. When the weather is good, the religious Jew occupies his succah with pleasure, but during cold and inclement days he is forced to abandon this time-honoured tradition. It’s the same with today’s celebration. We rejoice at our accomplishments of the year, at our having successfully traversed twelve months. But clouding our joy is that fact that the present moment coincides with yet another affliction.
We live today beneath the specter of deportation. Only recently, at tremendous sacrifice, we accepted into our population of 140,000 an additional 23,000 exiles. I am proud to say that these exiles can consider themselves lucky, for the merciless fate which befell them, nevertheless extended them some good fortune in bringing them here to our ghetto. It is good fortune in misfortune. However, I cannot remain silent on the subject of the 10,000 people we are now deporting. Unfortunately, I received a most uncompromising order, one I had to carry our so as to prevent others from doing it. Within the bounds of my ability, in this case as in other sad predicaments, I’ve tried to mitigate the severity as much as possible.
I did so as follows: I assigned for deportation that element of our ghetto which was a festering boil. And so the list of exiles includes members of the underworld and other individuals harmful to the ghetto. I’ve been criticized many times that smuggling into the ghetto continues. This was irrefutable, and I couldn’t deny it. Now, when I am deporting all kinds of connivers and cheats, I do it fully convinced that they asked for this fate.
A commission of my trusted aides determines the list of deportees. This commission guarantees, basically that it will only designate people for deportation if they deserve it. I realize, of course, that in acting with all deliberate speed the commission might make errors, but the fact remains that there is absolutely no malice on the part of those who decide.
Some people ask others to intervene on their behalf and don’t care what crooked means are used. These interventions are to no avail. My expectation, based on authoritative information, is that the deportees’ fate will not be as tragic as is expected in the ghetto. They will not be behind wire, and they will work on farms.
A gossip hydra has sprung up on the margins of the deportation procedure. I must condemn, in the strongest terms, the act of disturbing the common peace. I’ve stated many times that you build your peace only on work, and the influence of gossip can only undermine this iron foundation which work represents.
Every ghetto citizen should identify himself by means of his work identification card, and that identification card should be without blemish. A work identification card with court remarks on it is worse than no card at all. We are now on the threshold of very bad times, and everyone needs to be aware of this.
Only work can save us from the worst calamity.
Speech by Chaim Rumkowski: “Give Me Your Children” (4th September, 1942)
A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers, give me your children!
[Transcriber’s note – Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd.]
I had a suspicion something was about to befall us. I anticipated “something” and was always like a watchman on guard to prevent it. But I was unsuccessful because I did not know what was threatening us. I did not know the nature of the danger. The taking of the sick from the hospitals caught me completely by surprise. And I give you the best proof there is of this: I had my own nearest and dearest among them, and I could do nothing for them.
I thought that would be the end of it, that after that they’d leave us in peace, the peace for which I long so much, for which I’ve always worked, which has been my goal. But something else, it turned out, was destined for us. Such is the fate of the Jews: always more suffering and always worse suffering, especially in times of war.
Yesterday afternoon, they gave me the order to send more than 20,000 Jews out of the ghetto, and if not – “We will do it!” So, the question became: “Should we take it upon ourselves, do it ourselves, or leave it for others to do?” Well, we – that is I, and my closest associates – thought first not about “How many will perish?” but “How many is it possible to save?” And we reached the conclusion that, however hard it would be for us, we should take the implementation of this order into our own hands.
I must perform this difficult and bloody operation – I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself! – I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well. God forbid.
I have no thought of consoling you today. Nor do I wish to calm you. I must lay bare your full anguish and pain. I come to you like a bandit, to take from you what you treasure most in your hearts! I have tried, using every possible means, to get the order revoked. I tried – when that proved to be impossible – to soften the order. Just yesterday I ordered a list of children aged nine – I wanted, at least to save this one age group, the nine-to-ten year olds. But I was not granted this concession. On only one point did I succeed, in saving the ten-year-olds and up. Let this be a consolation in our profound grief.
There are, in the ghetto, many patients who can expect to live only a few days more, maybe a few weeks. I don’t know if the idea is diabolical or not, but I must say it: “Give me the sick. In their place, we can save the healthy.” I know how dear the sick are to any family, and particularly to Jews. However, when cruel demands are made, one has to weigh and measure: who shall, can and may be saved and those who have a chance of being rescued, not those who cannot be saved in any case.
We live in the ghetto, mind you. We live with so much restriction that we do not have enough even for the healthy, let alone for the sick. Each of us feeds the sick at the expense of our own health: we give our bread to the sick. We give them our meagre ration of sugar, our little piece of meat. And what’s the result? Not enough to cure the sick, and we ourselves become ill. Of course, such sacrifices are the most beautiful and noble. But there are times when one has to choose: sacrifice the sick, who haven’t the slightest chance of recovery and who also may make others ill, or rescue the healthy.
I could not deliberate over this problem for long: I had to resolve it in favour of the healthy. In this spirit, I gave the appropriate instructions to the doctors, and they will be expected to deliver all incurable patients, so that the healthy, who want and are able to live, will be saved in their place.
I understand you, mothers, I see your tears, all right. I also feel what you feel in your hearts, you fathers who will have to go to work the morning after your children have been taken from you, when just yesterday you were playing with your dear little ones. All this I know and feel. Since four o’clock yesterday, when I first found out about the order, I have been utterly broken. I share your pain. I suffer because of your anguish, and I don’t know how I’ll survive this – where I’ll find the strength to do so.
I must tell you a secret: they requested 24,000 victims, 3000 a day for eight days. I succeeded in reducing the number to 20,000, but only on the condition that these would be children below the age of ten. Children ten and older are safe. Since the children and the aged together equal only some 13,000 souls, the gap will have to be filled with the sick.
I can barely speak. I am exhausted; I only want to tell you what I am asking of you: Help me carry out this action! I am trembling. I am afraid that others, God forbid, will do it themselves…
A broken Jew stands before you. Do not envy me. This is the most difficult of all the orders I’ve ever had to carry out at any time. I reach out to you with my broken, trembling hands and I beg: give into my hands the victims, so that we can avoid having further victims, and a population of a hundred thousand Jews can be preserved. So they promised me: if we deliver our victims by ourselves, there will be peace…
[Shouts: “We all will go!” “Mr Chairman, an only child should not be taken; children should be taken from families with several children!”]
These are empty phrases! I don’t have the strength to argue with you! If the authorities were to arrive, none of you would shout.
I understand what it means to tear off a part of the body. Yesterday I begged on my knees, but it didn’t work. From small villages with Jewish populations of seven to eight thousand, barely a thousand arrived here. So which is better? What do you want: that eighty to ninety thousand Jews remain, or, God forbid, that the whole population be annihilated?
You may judge as you please; my duty is to preserve the Jews who remain. I do not speak to hotheads. I speak to your reason and conscience. I have done and will continue doing everything possible to keep arms from appearing in the streets and blood from being shed. The order could not be undone; it could only be reduced.
One needs the heart of a bandit to ask from you what I am asking. But put yourself in my place, think logically, and you’ll reach the conclusion that I cannot proceed any other way. The part that can be saved is much larger than the part that must be given away.
Postwar deposition about the use of gas chambers in Belzec in August, 1942
…on 10 March 1941 I joined the SS… In January 1942 I became the department head of the Department of Health Technology… I took over in this capacity the whole technical disinfection service, including disinfection with highly poisonous gases.
In this capacity I received a visit on 8 June 1942 from SS-Sturmführer Günther from the Reich Security Main Office, at that point unknown to me.
…He gave me the order, immediately for an extremely secret Reich mission to obtain 100kg. of hydrocyanic acid and with it to travel to an unknown place by car, which was only known to the driver of the car. We drove then a few weeks later to Prague. I could figure out approximately the type of mission, and took it, however, because this gave me by chance a long desired opportunity to look into these things….
We drove then by car to Lublin, where SS-Gruppenführer Globocnek expected us… Globocnek said: “This entire matter is one of the most secret things, which exist at the moment, one can say the most secret. Whoever, speaks about it, will be shot on the spot. Just yesterday two chatterboxes were shot.” Then he explained to us:
At the moment – this was on 17 August 1942 – we have three installations in operation, namely :
1. Belzec, on the road and train route Lublin-Lemberg, on the intersection with the demarcation line with Russia. Top capacity per day 15,000 persons.
2. Treblinca, 120 kilometers northeast of Warsaw. Top capacity 25,000 persons per day.
3. Sobibor, also in Poland, I don’t know exactly where. 20,000 persons top capacity per day.
4. – Then in preparation – Maidanek near Lublin…
The next day we drove to Belzec. A small special train station had been built for this purpose on a hill just north of the Lublin-Lemberg road… Close to the little two-track station was a large barracks, the so-called changing room, with a large valuables counter. Then followed a room with about 100 chairs, the hair-cutting room. Then a small path outside under birch trees, right and left surrounded by double barbed wire, with the signs: “To the Inhalation and Bathing Rooms!” In front of us a kind of bathhouse with geraniums, then some steps, and then right and left 3 rooms each 5 by 5 meters, 1.90 meters high, with wooden doors like garages. On the back wall, in the darkness not easily visible, large wooden loading doors. On the roof as a “clever little joke” the star of David! – In front of the building a sign: Heckenholt Foundation! – I was not able to see more on that afternoon.
…On the next morning, just before seven o’clock I was told: in ten minutes the first transport arrives! – In a few minutes the first train from Lemberg did actually arrive, 45 boxcars with 6700 people, of which 1450 were already dead on their arrival. Behind the barred windows, dreadfully pale and fearful children looked out, eyes full of mortal fear, further men and women. The train pulls in: 200 Ukrainians rip open the doors and whip the people with their leather whips out of the cars. A large loudspeaker gives the next instructions: “Completely undress, including prostheses, glasses, etc. Turn in valuables at this window, without receipt. Tie shoes carefully together; (for the textile collections), since in the pile at lest 25 meters high nobody would be able to find the shoes that went together. Then the women and girls to the hairdresser, who with two or three swipes of the scissors cuts of all the hair and it disappears into potato sacks. “That is intended for some special purpose for submarines, for sealing or the like!” says the SS-Unterscharführer who is on duty there.
Then the column moves off. At front a pretty young girl, they go down the path, all naked, men, women, children, without prostheses. I myself stand with Captain Wirth up on the ramp between the chambers. Mothers with their babies at the breast, they come up, hesitate, step into the death chambers! – At the corner stands a strong SS-man, who says to these poor people with a pastoral voice; “Nothing in the least will happen to you! You must only breathe deeply in the chambers, that expands the lungs, this inhalation is necessary against sickness and epidemics.” To the question what would happen to them, he answers: “Yes, naturally the men must work, building houses and roads, but the women don’t need to work. Only if they want they can help in the household or in the kitchen.” – For some of these people a small glimmer of hope, which is enough that they go without opposition the few steps to the chambers – the majority knows what is happening, the smell announces their fate! – So they climb up the steps and then they see everything. Mothers with children at their breast, little naked children, adults, men and women, all naked – they hesitate, but they step into the death chamber, pushed by others behind them or driven by the leather whips of the SS.
The majority without saying a word. A Jewess of about 40 years with burning eyes calls the blood which will be spilled from here onto the murderers. She gets 5 or 6 blows with the whip in the face, from Captain Wirth personally, then she too disappears into the chamber. – Many people pray. I pray with them. I press myself into a corner and cry loudly to my and their God. How much I would like to go with them into the chamber, how I would like to die with them. Then they would find a uniformed SS-officer in their chambers – the incident would be understood and treated as an accident, and unceremoniously forgotten. So I may not yet, I must still make known what I experience here! – The chambers are filled. “Pack them full” – so commanded Captain Wirth. The people stand on each others’ feet. 700-800 on 25 square meters, in 45 cubic meters! The SS forces them together, as much as possible. – The doors close. Meanwhile the rest wait outside, naked. Someone says to me “In winter too, the same thing!” “Yes they could catch their death of cold,” I say, “Yeah that’s just what they’re here for!” says an SS-man in his dialect. – Now I finally understand also, why the whole plant is called the Heckenholt Foundation. Heckenholt is the driver of the diesel engine, a little engineer, also the builder of the facility.
With the diesel exhaust gases the people are supposed to be killed. But the diesel engine doesn’t work! Captain Wirth comes. One sees how painful it is for him, that this happens today, when I am here. Yes, I see everything! And I wait. My stopwatch faithfully records it all. 50 minutes, 70 minutes – the diesel doesn’t start. The people wait in their gas chamber. Futilely. One hears them crying, sobbing… Captain Wirth hits the Ukrainian, who should help Unterscharführer Heckenholt with the engine, with his whip, 12, 13 times in the face. After 2 hours 49 minutes – the stopwatch has recorded everything – the engine starts. Up to this moment, the people are living in these 4 chambers, four times 750 people in four times 45 cubic meters! – Another 25 minutes pass. Right, many are now dead. One sees that through the little window, as the electric light illuminates the chambers for a moment. After 28 minutes only a few still live. Finally, after 32 minutes everything is dead!-
From the other side men from the work details open the wooden doors. One had promised them – Jews – freedom and a certain percentage of all found valuables for their terrible service. Like basalt pillars, the dead stand upright, pressed against each other in the chamber. There had been no place to fall over or even to lean forward. Even in death one can recognise the families. They hold each other’s hands, stiffened in death, so that one has difficulty tearing them apart, in order to clear the chamber for the next load. One throws the bodies out – wet from sweat and urine, smeared with excrement, menstrual blood on the legs. Children’s bodies fly through the air. There is no time, the whips of the Ukrainians whistle down on the work detail. Two dozen dentists open the mouths with hooks and look for gold. Gold left, without gold right. Other dentists break the gold teeth and crowns out of the jaws with pliers and hammers…
We drove then in the car to Warsaw. There in the train, as I tried in vain to get a bed in the sleeping car, I met the Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Berlin, Baron von Otter. Still under the immediate impression of the horrible experiences, I told him everything, with the request to report this immediately to his government and to the Allies, since every day’s delay could cost further thousands and tens of thousands their lives… I met then Mr van Otter again two times in the Swedish Embassy. He had meanwhile reported to Stockholm and told me that this report had had considerable influence on Swedish-German relations. I tried similarly to make a report to the Papal Nuncio in Berlin. There I was asked if I were a soldier. Thereupon any further conversation with me was refused, and I was ordered to leave the Embassy of his Holiness…
All of my information is literally true. I am fully aware of the extraordinary importance of these notes before God and all of humanity, and swear on oath that nothing of what I have recorded was invented or made up, but that everything was exactly so…
FROM NOTES MADE BY KURT GERSTEIN, AN ENGINEER WORKING FOR THE SS, ON THE EXTERMINATION CAMP AT BELZEC
... In Lublin, SS Gruppenführer Globocnik was waiting for us. He said : This is one of the most highly secret matters there are, perhaps the most secret. Anybody who speaks about it is shot dead immediately. Two talkative people died yesterday. Then he explained to us that, at the present moment – August 17 1942 – there are the following installations :
1. Belzec, on the Lublin-Lvov road, in the sector of the Soviet Demarcation Line. Maximum per day : 15,000 persons (I saw it!)
2. Sobibor. I am not familiar with the exact situation, I did not visit it. 20,000 persons per day.
3. Treblinka, 120 km, NNE of Warsaw, 25,000 per day, saw it!
4. Majdanek, near Lublin, which I saw when it was being built.
You will have very large quantities of clothes to disinfect, 10 or 20 times as much as the “Textiles Collection,” which is only being carried out in order to camouflage the origin of the Jewish, Polish, Czech and other items of clothing. Your second job is to convert the gas-chambers, which have up to now been operated with exhaust gases from an old Diesel engine, to a more poisonous and quicker means, cyanide. But the Führer and Himmler, who were here on August 15, the day before yesterday, that is, gave the orders that I am myself to accompany all persons who visit the installation. Professor Pfannenstiel replied “But what does the Führer say?” Then Globocnik, who is now Higher SS and Police Leader in Trieste on the Adriatic Coast, said “The whole Aktion must be carried out much faster.” Ministerial director Dr. Herbert Lindnor [Linden] of the Ministry of the Interior suggested “Would it not be better to incinerate the bodies instead of burying them? Another generation might perhaps think differently about this?”
Then Globocnik, “But, Gentlemen, if we should ever be succeeded by so cowardly and weak a generation that it does not understand our work, which is so good and so necessary, then Gentlemen, the whole of National Socialism will have been in vain. On the contrary, one should bury bronze plaques [with the bodies], on which is inscribed it was we, we who had the courage to complete this gigantic task.” Hitler said to this, “Well my good Globocnik, you have said it, and that is my opinion, too.”
The next day we moved on to Belzec. There is a separate little station with two platforms, at the foot of the hill of yellow standstone, due north of the Lublin-Lvov road and rail line. To the south of the station, near the main road, there are several office buildings with the inscription “Belzec Office of the Waffen-SS” [Military Unit of the SS]. Globocnik introduced me to SS Haupsturmführer Obermeyer from Pirmasens, who showed me the installations very much against his will. There were no dead to be seen that day, but the stench in the whole area, even on the main road, was pestilent. Next to the small station there was a large barrack labelled “Dressing Room,” with a window that “Valuables,” and also a hall with 100 “Barbers Chairs.” Then there was a passage 150 m. long, in the open, enclosed with barbed wire on either side, and signs inscribed “To the Baths and Inhalation Installations.” In front of us there was a house, the bath house, and to the right and left large concrete flower pots with geraniums or other flowers. After climbing a few steps there were three rooms each, on the right and on the left. They looked like garages, 4 by 5 m. and 1.90 m. high. At the back, out of sight, there were doors of wood. On the roof there was a Star of David made of copper. The front of the building bore a notice “Heckenholt Institution.” That is all I saw that afternoon.
Next morning, a few minutes before 7 o’clock, I was told that the first train would arrive in 10 minutes. And in fact the first train from Lvov arrived a few minutes later. There were 45 carriages with 6,700 persons, of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Through small openings closed with barbed wire one could see yellow, frightened children, men and women. The train stopped. And 200 Ukrainians, who were forced to perform this service, tore open the doors and chased the people from the carriages with whips. Then instructions were given through a large loud-speaker : The people are to take off all their clothes out of doors – and a few of them in the barracks – including artificial limbs and glasses. Shoes must be tied in pairs with a little piece of string handed out by a small four year-old Jewish boy. All valuables and money are to be handed in at the window marked “Valuables,” without any document or receipt being given. The women and girls must then go to the barber, who cuts of their hair with one or two snips. The hair disappears into large potato sacks, “to make something special for the submarines, to seal them and so on,” the duty SS Unterscharführer explained to me.
Then the march starts : Barbed wire to the right and left and two dozen Ukrainians with rifles at the rear. They came on, led by an exceptionally pretty girl. I myself was standing with Police Captain Wirth in front of the death chambers. Men, women, children, infants, people with amputated legs, all naked, completely naked, moved past us. In one corner there is a whimsical SS man who tells these poor people in an unctuous voice, “Nothing at all will happen to you. You must just breathe deeply, that strengthens the lungs; this inhalation is necessary because of the infectious diseases, it is good disinfection!” When somebody asks what their fate will be, he explains that the men will of course have to work, building streets and houses.
But women will not have to work. If they want to, they can help in the house or the kitchen. A little glimmer of hope flickers once more in some of these poor people, enough to make them march unresisting into the death chambers. But most of them understand what is happening; the smell reveals their fate! Then they climb up a little staircase and see the truth. Nursing mothers with an infant at the breast, naked; many children of all ages, naked. They hesitate, but they enter the death chambers, most of them silent, forced on by those behind them, who are driven by the whip lashes of the SS men. A Jewish women of about 40, with flaming eyes, calls down [revenge] for the blood of her children on the head of the murderers. Police Captain Wirth in person strikes her in the face 5 times with his whip, and she disappears into the gas chamber…
A document made by Kurt Gerstein on the extermination camps at Belzec and Treblinka. Gerstein wrote down his evidence on May 26, 1945.
"Hearing of the massacres of insane people at Grafeneck, Hadamar, etc., shocked and greatly affected me, having such a case in my family. I had but one desire - to gain an insight into this whole machinery and then to shout it to the whole world! With the help of two references written by the two Gestapo employees who had dealt with my case, it was not difficult for me to enter the Waffen SS.
In January, 1942, I was named chief of the Waffen SS technical disinfection services, including a section for extremely toxic gasses.
One day SS-Sturmbannhfuhrer Gunther of the RSHA came into my office, dressed in civilian clothing. I did not know him. He ordered me to get him 100 kilos of prussic acid and to go with him to a place known only to the truck driver. When the truck was loaded, we left for Lublin (Poland). We took along Dr. Pfannenstiel, occupant of the chair of hygiene at the University of Marburg.
SS Gruppenfuhrer Globocnick was waiting for us at Lublin. He told us, 'This is one of the most secret matters there are, even the most secret. Anybody who talks about it will be shot immediately.'
He explained to us that there were three installations:
1) Belzec, on the Lublin-Lwow road. A maximum of 15,000 people per day.
2) Sobibor (I don't know exactly where it is), 20,000 people a day.
3) Treblinka, 120 kilometers NNE of Warsaw
4) Maidanek, near Lublin (under construction).
Globocnick said: 'You will have to disinfect large piles of clothing coming from Jews, Poles, Czechs, etc. Your other duty will be to improve the workings of our gas chambers, which operate on the exhaust from a Diesel engine. We need a more toxic and faster working gas, something like prussic acid. The Fuehrer and Himmler - they were here the day before yesterday, August 15 - ordered me to accompany anybody who has to see the installation.'
Professor Pfannenstiel asked him: 'But what does the Fuhrer say?' Globocnick answered: 'The Fuhrer has ordered more speed. Dr. Herbert Lindner, who was here yesterday, asked me, 'Wouldn't it be more prudent to burn the bodies instead of burying them? Another generation might take a different view of these things.' I answered: 'Gentlemen, if there is ever a generation after us so cowardly, so soft, that it would not understand our work as good and necessary, then, gentlemen, National Socialism will have been for nothing. On the contrary, we should bury bronze tablets saying that it was we, we who had the courage to carry out this gigantic task!' Then the Fuhrer said: 'Yes, my brave Globocnick, you are quite right.''
The next day we left for Belzec. Globocnick introduced me to SS [Wirth?] who took me around the plant. We saw no dead bodies that day, but a pestilential odor hung over the whole area.
Alongside the station there was a 'dressing' hut with a window for 'valuables.' Further on, a room with a hundred chairs, [designated as] 'the barber.' Then a corridor 150 meters long in the open air, barbed wire on both sides, with signs: 'To the baths and inhalants.' In front of us a building like a bath house; to the left and right, large concrete pots of geraniums or other flowers. On the roof, the Star of David. On the building a sign: 'Heckenholt Foundation.'
The following morning, a little before seven there was an announcement: 'The first train will arrive in ten minutes!' A few minutes later a train arrived from Lemberg: 45 cars with more than 6,000 people, Two hundred Ukrainians assigned to this work flung open the doors and drove the Jews out of the cars with leather whips.
A loud speaker gave instructions: 'Strip, even artificial limbs and glasses. Hand all money and valuables in at the 'valuables window.' Women and young girls are to have their hair cut in the 'barber's hut.'' (An SS Unterfuehrer told me: 'From that they make something special for submarine crews.')
Then the march began. Barbed wire on both sides, in the rear two dozen Ukrainians with rifles. They drew near. Wirth and I found ourselves in front of the death chambers. Stark naked men, women, children, and cripples passed by.
A tall SS man in the corner called to the unfortunates in a loun minister's voice: 'Nothing is going to hurt you! Just breathe deep and it will strengthen your lungs. It's a way to prevent contagious diseases. It's a good disinfectant!'
They asked him what was going to happen and he answered: 'The men will have to work, build houses and streets. The women won't have to do that, they will be busy with the housework and the kitchen.'
This was the last hope for some of these poor people, enough to make them march toward the death chambers without resistance. The majority knew everything; the smell betrayed it!
They climbed a little wooden stairs and entered the death chambers, most of them silently, pushed by those behind them. A Jewess of about forty with eyes like fire cursed the murderers; she disappeared into the gas chambers after being struck several times by Captain Wirth's whip.
Many prayed; others asked" 'Who will give us the water before we die?' [A Jewish rite] SS men pushed the men into the chambers. 'Fill it up,' Wirth ordered; 700-800 people in 93 square meters. The doors closed.
Then I understood the reason for the 'Heckenholt' sign. Heckenholt was the driver of the Diesel, whose exhaust was to kill these poor unfortunates. SS Unterscharfuehrer Heckenholt tried to start the motor.
It wouldn't start! Captain Wirth came up. You could see he was afraid because I was there to see the disaster. Yes, I saw everything and waited. My stopwatch clocked it all: 50 minutes, 70 minutes, and the Diesel still would not start!
The men were waiting in the gas chambers. You could hear them weeping 'as though in a synagogue,' said Professor Pfannenstiel, his eyes glued to the window in the wooden door.
Captain Wirth, furious, struck with his whip the Ukrainians who helped Heckenholt. The Diesel started up after 2 hours and 49 minutes, by my stopwatch. Twenty-five minutes passed. You could see through the window that many were already dead, for an electric light illuminated the interior of the room. All were dead after thirty-two minutes!
Jewish workers on the other side opened the wooden doors. They had been promised their lives in return for doing this horrible work, plus a small percentage of the money and valuables collected.
The men were still standing, like columns of stone, with no room to fall or lean. Even in death you could tell the families, all holding hands. It was difficult to separate them while emptying the rooms for the next batch.
The bodies were tossed out, blue, wet with seat and urine, the legs smeared with excrement and menstrual blood.
Two dozen workers were busy checking mouths which they opened with iron hooks. 'Gold to the left, no gold to the right.' Others checked anus and genitals, looking for money, diamonds, gold, etc. Dentists knocked out gold teeth, bridges, and crowns, with hammers.
Captain Wirth stood in the middle of them. He was in his element, and, showing me a big jam box filled with teeth, said, 'See the weight of the gold! Just from yesterday and the day before! You can't imagine what we find every day, dollars, diamonds, gold! You'll see!' He took me over to a jeweller who was responsible for all the valuables.
They also pointed out to me one of the heads of the big Berlin store Kaufhaus des Westens, and a little man whom they forced to play the violin, the chiefs of the Jewish workers' commandos. 'He is a captain of the Imperial Austrian Army, Chevalier of the German Iron Cross,' Wirth told me.
Then the bodies were thrown into big ditches near the gas chambers, about 100 by 20 by 12 meters. After a few days the bodies welled and the whole mass rose up 2-3 years because of the gas in the bodies. When the swelling went down several days later, the bodies matted down again.
They told me that later they poured Diesel oil over the bodies and burned them on railroad ties to make them disappear."
DEATHWATCH AT BEŁŻEC: KURT GERSTEIN’S DEPOSITION
…In January 1942, I was appointed head of the Department of Sanitation Techniques and at the same time to the parallel position for the same sector of the SS and Police Medical Officer. In this capacity I took over the entire technical service of disinfection, including disinfection with highly toxic gases. On June 8, 1942, SS Sturmbannführer Günther of the Reichssicherheitshauptant, dressed in civilian clothes, walked into my office. He was unknown to me. He ordered me to obtain for him, for top secret mission, 100 kilos of prussic acid and to take it to a place known only to the truck driver. A few weeks later, we set out for the potash plant near Kolin (Prague).
I understood little of the nature of my mission. But I accepted. To this day, I believe that it was luck, strangely resembling Providence, that gave me the opportunity to see what I was trying to find out. Out of hundreds of other possible assignments, I was put in charge of that post which was closest to the area that interested me…
On the way to Kolin, we were accompanied by SS Obersturmbannführer and M.D. Pfannenstiel, Professor of Hygiene in the University of Marburg/Lahn.
From my deliberately bizarre technical questions, the people at the Kolin prussic acid plant could understand that the acid was going to be used to kill human beings. I did this in order to spread rumours among the population.
We then set off with the truck for Lublin (Poland). SS Gruppenführer Globocnik was waiting for us. He told us: “This is one of our most secret matters, indeed the most secret. Anyone who talks about it will be shot. Only yesterday two babblers were shot.” He then explained to us:
“At present” – this was August 17, 1942 – “there are three installations”:
1) Bełżec, on the Lublin-Lwów road. Maximum per day: 15,000 persons (seen)!
2) Sobibór. I don’t know exactly where: not seen: 20,000 persons per day.
3) Treblinka, 120 km, northeast of Warsaw: 25,000 persons per day: seen.
4) Majdanek, near Lublin; seen in preparation.
Except for the last one, I made a thorough inspection of all these camps, accompanied by Police Chief Wirth, the head of all these death factories. Wirth had earlier been put in charge by Hitler and Himmler of the murder of the insane at Hadamar, Grafeneck, and various other places.
Globocnik said: “You will have to disinfect large quantities of clothing ten or twenty time, the whole textile accommodation. It is only being done to conceal that the source of clothing is Jews, Poles, Czechs, etc. Your other duty will be to improve the service in our gas chambers, which function on diesel engine exhaust. We need gas which is more toxic and works faster, such as prussic acid. The Führer and Himmler – they were here on August 15, the day before yesterday – instructed me to accompany personally all those who have to see these installations.” The Professor Pfannenstiel: “But what did the Führer say?”
“The Führer ordered all action speeded up! Dr. Herbert Lindner, who was with us yesterday, asked me: “But wouldn’t it be wiser to cremate the corpses instead of burying them? Another generation may perhaps judge these things differently!” I replied: “Gentleman, if there were ever after us a generation so cowardly and so soft that they could not understand our work which is so good, so necessary, then, gentlemen, all of National Socialism will have been in vain. We ought on the contrary, to bury bronze tablets stating that it was we who had the courage to carry out this gigantic task!” The Führer then said: “Yes, my good Globocnik, you are right!”
Nevertheless, Dr. Lindner’s opinion subsequently prevailed; even the corpses already buried were burned in gasoline oil, on grates improvised on rails. The office, for these factories is at the Julius Schreck barracks in Lublin. The following day I was introduced to the men who worked there
We left for Belzec, two days later. A small special station with two platforms was set up on a yellow sand hill, immediately to the north of the Lublin-Lwow railway. To the south, near the road, were some service buildings and a notice: “Sonderkommando of the Waffen-SS in Bełżec.” Globocnik presented me to SS Haupsturmführer Obermeyer of Pirmasens, who showed great reserve when taking me over the installation. We saw no dead that day, but a pestilential odor blanketed the whole region and millions of flies were everywhere. Alongside the station was a large barrack marked “Cloak Room,” with a ticket window inside marked “Valuables.” Further on, a room with about a hundred chairs, “Barber.” Then a passageway about 150 meters long, in the open, barbed wire on both sides, and notices: “To Baths and Inhalators.” In front of us was a building of the bathhouse type, with large pots of geraniums and other flowers. Then stairs and then left and right 2 enclosures 5 meters square, 1.90 meters high, with wooden doors like garages.
At the rear wall, not properly visible in the darkness, large wooden platform doors. On the roof, a copper Star of David. On the building, the inscription: “Heckenholt Foundation.” That afternoon I saw nothing else. Next morning, a few minutes before seven, I was told: “In ten minutes the first train will arrive!” Indeed, a few minutes later a train arrived from Lemberg, with 45 cars holding 6,500 people, of whom 1,450 were already dead on arrival. Behind the small barbed wire window, children, young ones, frightened to death, women, men. The train pulled in: 200 Ukrainians, detailed for the task tore open the doors and with their leather whips drove the Jews out of the cars. A loudspeaker issued instructions: to remove all clothing, even artificial limbs and eyeglasses, to tie their shoes together with small pieces of string handed out by a little Jewish boy; to turn in all valuables, all money at the ticket window “Valuables,” without voucher, without receipt. Women and girls were to have their hair cut off in the “Barber’s” barrack. (An SS sergeant on duty told me: “That’s to make something special for submarine crews.”)
Then the march began. To the left and right, barbed wire; behind, two dozen Ukrainians, guns in hand. They approached, Wirth and I, we were standing on the ramp in front of the death chambers. Completely nude, men, women, young girls, children, babies, cripples, filed by. At the corner stood a heavy SS man, who told the poor people, in a pastoral voice: “No harm will come to you! You just have to breathe very deeply, that strengthens the lungs, inhaling is a means of preventing contagious diseases. It’s a good disinfectant!” They asked what was going to happen to them. He told them: “The men will have to work, building roads and houses. But the women won’t be obliged to do so; they’ll do housework, cooking.”
For some of these poor creatures, this was a last small hope, enough to carry them, unresisting, as far as the death chambers. Most of them knew all, the odor confirmed it! They walked up the small wooden flight of stairs and entered the death chambers, most without a word, pushed forward by those behind them. One Jewish woman of about forty, her eyes flaming torches, cursed the murderers; after several whiplashes by Captain Wirth in person, she disappeared into the gas chamber. Many people pray, while others ask: “Who will give us water for washing the dead?”…
Inside the chambers, SS men crowd the people. “Fill them up well,” With had ordered, “700-800 of them to every 25 square meters.” The doors are shut. Meanwhile, the rest of the people from the train, naked, wait. I am told: “Naked even in winter!” “But they may catch their death!” “But that’s what they’re here fore!” was the reply. At that moment, I understand the reason for the inscription “Heckenholt.” Heckenholt was the driver of the diesel truck whose exhaust gases were to be used to kill these unfortunates. SS Unterscharführer Heckenholt was making great efforts to get the engine running. But it doesn’t go. Captain Wirth comes up. I can see he is afraid because I am present at a disaster.
Yes I see it all and I wait. My stop watch showed it all, 50 minutes, 70 minutes, and the diesel did not start! The people wait inside the gas chambers. In vain. They can be heard weeping, “like in the synagogue,” says Professor Pfannenstiel, his eyes glued to a window in the wooden door. Furious, Captain Wirth lashes the Ukrainian assisting Heckenholt 12, 13 times, in the face. After two hours and 49 minutes – the stop watch recorded it all – the diesel started. Up to that moment, the people shut up in those four crowded chambers were still alive, four times 750 persons in four times 45 cubic meters! Another 25 minutes elapsed. Many were already dead, that could be seen through the small window because an electric lamp inside lit up the chambers for a few moments. After 28 minutes, only a few were still alive. Finally, after 32 minutes, all were dead.
On the far side members of the work commando opened the wooden doors. They – themselves Jews – were promised their lives and a small percentage of the valuables and money collected for this terrible service. Like pillars of basalt, the dead were still erect, not having any space to fall, or to lean. Even in death, families could be seen still holding hands. It is hard to separate them as the chambers are emptied to make way for the next load: corpses were tossed out, blue, wet with sweat and urine, the legs covered with faeces and menstrual blood. Two dozen workers were busy checking the mouths of the dead, which they opened with iron hooks, “Gold to the left, without gold to the right!” Others inspected anuses and genital organs, searching for money, diamonds, gold, etc. Dentists hammered out gold teeth, bridges and crowns. In the midst of them stood Captain Wirth. He was in his element, and showing me a large can full of teeth, he said: “See for yourself the weight of that gold! It’s only from yesterday and the day before. You can’t imagine what we find every day – dollars, diamonds, gold! You’ll see yourself!...
Then the bodies were flung into large trenches, each 100 x 20 x 12 meters, located near the gas chambers. After a few days the corpses swelled, because of the gases which formed inside them, and everything rose from two to three meters. A few days later, when the swelling subsided, the bodies settled. Subsequently, I was told the bodies were piled on train rails and burned in diesel oil so that they would disappear…
The next day we drove in Captain Wirth’s car to Treblinka about 120 km. northeast of Warsaw. The equipment in that place of death was almost the same as at Belzec, but even larger. Eight gas chambers and veritable mountains of clothing and underwear, about 35-40 meters height. Then, in our honor, a banquet was held for all those employed at the establishment. Obersturmbannführer Professor Doctor Pfannenstiel, Professor of Hygiene at the University of Marburg/Lahn made a speech: “Your work is great work and a very useful and very necessary duty.” To me, he spoke of the establishment as “a kindness and a humanitarian thing.” To all present, he said: “When one sees the bodies of the Jews, one understands the greatness of your work!”
THE CHAIRMAN’S SPEECH ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE NEW CALENDAR YEAR (JANUARY 3, 1942) [Special Report]
Work for Everyone is the Program for 1942
As noted in Daily Chronicle Bulletin No. 2 for January 3 [in fact, January 1-5] the Chairman delivered a long speech concerning his programs in the auditoriums of the House of Culture to especially invited representatives of the Community’s administration, the workshop, and the transports of the newly arrived segment of the population. [Leon] Rozenblat, chief of the Order Service.
The Eldest of the Jews began his speech by stressing that the New Year, in spite of its not corresponding to the traditional Jewish year, did, however, mark the beginning of a new calendar year in the ghetto. And that factor provided a reason for devoting some time to a review of the events of the past year, 1941.
“I don’t know what interests my esteemed audience more, the past, the future, or just plain gossip. We all know that in the course of what has been almost two years in the ghetto we have lived through a great many bad periods. When I cast my mind back I am first filled with pride by the record speed at which the ghetto was turned into a place of work. Indeed, from nothing we have created enormous establishments for productive labor, we have put the most varied enterprises and factories into operation.
Today we employ an army of close to 50,000 people. Such a number of workers has to be treated seriously by everyone, including, first and foremost, those who make policy. Everyone here should realize that the policy makers I have just mentioned categorically demand that the ghetto be dedicated to work. Our life in the ghetto would be much more peaceful if the Jews were not, as is their custom, too clever by half. From the beginning I have been striving to achieve one basic goal. That goal is to be able to demonstrate to the [German] authorities that the ghetto is composed exclusively of working people, that every able-bodied ghetto dweller has his own line of work. Unfortunately, a large portion of ghetto society has not wished to understand this, my basic intention. At times, people have even ridiculed my intentions, taking neither my age nor my position into account. In that respect my efforts have been a complete fiasco. The difficult task of correcting the evils caused by that lack of understanding on the part of the public now awaits me.
“The question of food supply is undoubtedly one of the most difficult problems, the most urgent of problems, not only in the ghetto but everywhere in the country. I would like to say a few words about the fuel supply situation. Last year we struggled with very great difficulties in that area. You will recall that when we were facing the winter I was far from optimistic in regard to the question of fuel. I made no assurances then, though I was optimistic in regard to food. Fortunately, I succeeded in supplying the ghetto with fuel. And as to the question of food supply, things could be worse. Nevertheless, prices have risen wildly. Closing stores and increasing penalties have not helped in the struggle against this orgy of inflation.
Profiteering is mushrooming, I do not mind in the least if someone takes the food out of his own mouth to sell it. But I cannot and will not tolerate the hyenas who serve as middlemen, just as I will continue to show no tolerance for the unparalleled exploitation practiced by these hyenas on members of the new population who are selling off their possessions. As I have stressed many times before, the newcomers are leading a life that is simply unforgivably frivolous. They still suffer from the mistaken belief that the current situation is already coming to an end and under the influence of that delusion, are living from hand to mouth, selling off everything that they had brought here with them. Unfortunately, the present situation will go on and on… Given that, reason would suggest the necessity of spending one’s money as cautiously as possible.
“It will be a bad day when the newcomers need to start receiving relief. It is out of the question for me to institute special relief programs for them. Indeed, they are now receiving relief of every sort in their collectives, while those who have individual dwellings are availing themselves of the same food rations as the rest of the ghetto. I had succeeded in eradicating parasitic trade in food. I would also remind the newcomers that I will ruthlessly apply strict repressive measures against those who attempt to avoid selling their furs, and so on, to the bank.
“Last year my monthly balance exceeded three million marks and, or that sum, more than one third was absorbed by social welfare. Financially, I am in much better shape than many of Łódź’s important pre-war manufacturers. It is certain that I will always have sufficient resources to cover my obligations and to improve my financial situation. The balanced budget is supported by two pillars – work and requisitions. In any case, if I have any need for credit, I will receive it without difficulty because I have the best currency in the world at my disposal. That currency is work. My current concern is to be able to provide work for everyone. At the same time, I will not be discouraged in my efforts to stabilize life in the ghetto.
There will be a new registration, which will again employ thousands willing to work. Everyone in the ghetto must have work as his passport. If new work battalions are to be prepared, I will report to the authorities that my reserves are mobilized and waiting to be employed. In the very near future there will be far-reaching changes in my administration, both at the top and below. And now I will turn to the plague known as gossip. Once again a gang of scoundrels are launching stories with the intention of disturbing society’s peace. Perhaps the authors of those panic-producing stories are even lurking about here in this audience. I would like to murder them.” (said the speaker emphatically, losing his temper).
“I don’t like to waste words. The stories circulating today are one hundred percent false.” (On the day of the speech there was a persistent rumour concerning the alleged deportation of the entire population.) “I have recently agreed to accept twenty thousand Jews from the smaller centers, setting as a condition that the territory of the ghetto must be enlarged. At the present time, only those who are, in my opinion, deserving of such a fate will be resettled elsewhere. The authorities are full of admiration for the work which has been performed in the ghetto and it is due to that work that they have confidence in me. Their approval of my motion to reduce the number of deportees from 20,000 to 10,000 is a sign of that confidence. I have complete confidence in the Resettlement Commission. Obviously it too is capable of making mistakes from time to time.
“It is regrettable that the officials holding the most important posts engage in the unforgivable act of spreading gossip. I will give special attention to this and, with the aid of special confidential agents, I will be taking an interest in whether people are working or gossiping in the offices. I will be merciless to the guilty. Indeed, in the course of our two years in the ghetto you have seen for yourself what value such gossip has had. In the very near future a newspaper will be appearing again and among other things, it will contain changes in the regulations concerning financial and economic matters, which were instituted on the first of January: changes in rents (see the relevant bulletin [of January 6, 1942]), the centralization of the ghetto’s entire bookkeeping system with only auxiliary bookkeeping departments remaining in the individual workshops, and so forth.
“Bear in mind that at the center of all my projects is the aspiration that honest people may sleep in peace. “Nothing bad will happen to people of good will.”
“It is a characteristic sign that one workshop inflicts damage on another as if viewing it as a competitor. Odd things occur – if one workshop has a machine that another needs, the former is not willing to consign it to the latter. The creation of mutual impediments is even worse than theft because it strikes directly at the work process. The troubles connected with the attempt to put a dry cleaner’s into operation, an establishment providing employment for a few thousand people, were truly grotesque. It could not be put into operation… for lack of a motor.
“I appeal to the directors to eradicate these injurious practices and to remember that they are not working for the benefit of one establishment or another but for the overall good of the ghetto. The narrow, petty point of view must be entirely overcome; we are a single, united community here in the ghetto. Here it is one for all and all for one.
“Comrades, friends, I predicted that hard times, perhaps very hard periods, would be coming, but I am certain that we will struggle through them of we eradicate the evil in ourselves; you would be very grieved if you knew what I had been through lately. And the gossips knew nothing about that. I assure you. Remember the recent mandatory repressive ruling against Jews and Poles. Had the strike attempts that took place here recently come to the attention of the [German] authorities, the snow would have been red with blood. Using tough methods of my own, I put a stop to those attempts in a factory where, comparatively speaking, the workers earn the best wages. Remember, comrades and friends, that day and night my mind is concerned with improving the situation in the ghetto, and I am near the breaking point from constant exertion. I am certain that if the ghetto does its work well and in earnest the authorities will not apply any repressive measures. I want to be even more firmly grounded in that certainty, and an increase in, and improvement of, production is the road that leads there.
The achievement of results in this area depends on you, with the Trade Commission in the lead. Let us, without making too much ado about it, take pains in the service of the public good and not for me, its servant. Stop dealing in food, stop all the conniving. Remember that when a new contingent of deportees is demanded, I will include all the parasites on the list. Exert yourselves in your work and help each other at work. I will be instituting working papers for everyone. And it is no mere fantasy that another ten thousand people will find employment in the very near future. I give you my word of honor that there is no evil waiting concealed in the wings of the new registration. It is an ordinary precaution against any eventuality, and in case the wind changes direction…
“I swear to you that at the present moment I am not on the threshold of any new danger. A great deal has already been saved through foresight… The shooting incident which took place recently was just a regrettable misunderstanding. The guarantee obtained from the authorities prohibiting the shooting of innocent people is still in force. In that particular case a passerby, a newcomer from Germany, had not yet learned the set-up of the streets, and his actions gave the impression that he was a smuggler. They respect us because we constitute a center of productivity. I remember my reply when repressive measures were applied to the Community workers who had buried objects that were subject to compulsory sale in the bank. Persons of that sort will be ousted from work on the spot. I will bring the same methods to bear on a shoemaker or a physician; they will lose the right to work here.
“The loss the ghetto suffers through those people who, motivated by extreme selfishness, evade selling the articles subject to requisition by my bank, is attested to by the fact that units of the Kripo [German criminal police] have confiscated approximately 1,500 fur coats whose monetary equivalent could have been used for the public coffers, and whose owners would have received appropriate compensation from me. But now those assets have been irretrievably lost. And another characteristic abuse has been uncovered; a certain ghetto resident who possesses a significant hidden fortune has availed himself of welfare and special supplements for some time. Necessity compels us to come up with the goods that have been hidden, and it makes no difference, after all, whether these buried objects are discovered today, tomorrow, or in a week. It is far more sensible, therefore, to present them for sale voluntarily and on time.
The common interest of the ghetto demands this. At the present time our workshops have sufficient orders. Isolated shortcomings could not be under more serious scrutiny. I am planning to put new factories into operation. I will again be able to employ a large numbers of those thus far without work, which will, at the same time, relieve the budget of some social welfare expenses. I repeat, once again, that the ghetto’s honest citizens can sleep in complete peace and need not fear anything.
“The obligatory school vacations extended past the quarter fill me with the greatest concern for the fate of the children. However, I hope that after the conclusion of the resettlement campaign I will succeed in putting the schools and kindergartens back into operation. Fathers and mothers, believe me, my heart bleeds when I see your children roaming the streets, and thus far, I have not been able to open the school’s doors for them. All the same, it did once make me so happy to see the ghetto’s youngest citizens hurrying to school with their little briefcases…
“An old people’s home for 1,500 people is not a fantasy. It is a reality close to realization. “Representatives of the new population, I appeal to you again to finally adapt to the conditions of life in the ghetto. Aren’t you ashamed that I have had to use policemen to force you to work? That I had to resort to confining you to your work crews? I wanted to give you the best apartments in the ghetto. The officials of the Housing Department can best testify to that.
“Representatives of the factory workers, work conscientiously and guard yourselves against harmful agitation. Remember that I cannot always intervene directly and that the fatal effects of provocation will not be long in coming.
“A plan on the threshold of the new year! The plan is work, work, and more work! I will strive with an iron will so that work will be found for everyone in the ghetto – it doesn’t matter if it is work in a cooperative or a factory, whether the job be that of a janitor or tramcar driver. In carrying out the general programs, I will be able to demonstrate, on the basis of irrefutable statistics, that the Jews in the ghetto constitute a productive element, and that they are, perforce, needed. Help me search out the harmful individuals. This will facilitate my carrying out my task, and will make it possible for you to lead a more tranquil life. I will dedicate a great deal of attention to finding employment for our young people. I assure the workers that I have done everything to wrest at least the minimum needed for their survival. I am doing everything possible. I should not be required to do what lies beyond the bounds of the possible.
Brothers and sisters, I maintain the position that without your help I cannot achieve anything. But with your help I am certain that I will succeed in carrying out my mission: to create conditions that allow us to live through the current period in good health, and to preserve the lives and the health of the people of the ghetto society and its young generation.
With those words the leader of the ghetto concluded his New Year’s address. The speech, summarized above, produced a great impression on the audience and, for a long time after the meeting, was commented upon with the greatest interest by the populace of the ghetto.
I am apprehensive about tomorrow’s visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Despite the fact, or perhaps because of the amount of information I have absorbed, I feel as if I know so much about the place already. For this reason I’m concerned that the actual camp will not be at all what I imagine, that it may find myself in agreement with those authors who question what a sanitised or ‘plastic’ Auschwitz can really tell anyone about the horrors which occurred within.
So far Poland has been quite disorientating. The people come across as unfriendly and the tone of voice is quite aggressive. There is also a definite lack of non-white faces, this may be peculiar to Krakow or may indeed be a feature of Polish life. It is also disconcerting to note the lack of younger people within the city. It is hard not to feel that those of the older generation played a significant part in the Holocaust.
However, I spent part of today in Kazimierz, the old Jewish District, which has a different atmosphere to the rest of Krakow. Many of the buildings remain from prior to the time of the ghetto and it feels in some ways more natural than other parts of the city. A number of Synagogues have been restored to their former glory, in an attempt to restore the original balance of the area and as an antidote to anti-Semitism. It should be pointed out that only one of these serves as an active place of worship, the others are designed to explain and depict Jewish life prior to the Holocaust. Despite these attempts to reinstate the Jewish feel to the place, it should be noted that before WWII this part of Poland had a population of approximately 45,000 Jews, but it now contains barely 200. The majority of those lost perished at the hands of the Nazis, but it is also distressing to note that when some of the survivors tried to return home they were attacked and murdered by the Poles. There is a decidedly unnatural and empty feel to Kazimierz.
13th July, 2006
At first glance Auschwitz-Birkenau is very disconcerting. I’ve always pictured the camp in perpetual winter, cold and soulless, and although I recognised that this was impossible, the reality is difficult to accept. The sun is beating down on the red buildings and large green expanses full of trees. The car park is full of coaches, lots of people coming and going, dressed in holiday attire; the babble of different languages, – very much like any other tourist attraction. However, in this area are displayed large hoardings which leave you in no doubt about the nature of the place you are about to visit. Inside the first building, is the tourist information part of the camp, here the walls are covered with images and texts alongside large sculptures.
From this area you arrive at an assembly point close by the gates with their infamous and treacherous lie ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’. These gates which have become synonymous with visions of hell appear so small and insignificant in reality. What was perhaps most disconcerting was the amount of people who chose to have their photographs taken beneath them. This appears rather ironic, when you consider this is a place where so many people were separated from their loved ones that people should today choose to gather there. Perhaps in this way it is an antidote to what the Nazis tried to do – a kind of bravado or confidence which is quite refreshing in its own way.
From the approach to the gates you are sharply reminded that this is not your average tourist attraction. Although there are crowds of people of all different nationalities the atmosphere is very sombre and intense. From the outset the Polish guide pulled no punches – constantly referring to the Holocaust as a crime. Genocide was only mentioned twice, the rest of the time the words used were those such as deception, fraud, theft and murder. These are words which are commonly used within criminology, as opposed to those found within history. In Auschwitz-Birkenau it would seem that they view the Holocaust as much more than a historical event to be remembered, but instead it is still seen to be a real and constant threat to humanity today.
The guide described Auschwitz-Birkenau as a deliberate murder factory – death could be quick via the gas chambers or by execution, or the slow death of overwork, starvation and disease. I am reminded that either way the outcome was always intended to be the same. This point was continually stressed throughout, both by the guide and by the exhibits and displays.
In the surroundings of Auschwitz everything appears frighteningly normal – the red brick buildings are laid out in an orderly manner, with paths and streets and trees separating each one. In some ways it appears like a model village, built by a child out of Lego. With the sun beating down and the lushness of the greenery, it is hard to associate this attractive scene with what is known to have happened in these surroundings.
Each of the blocks has been dedicated to part of the museum’s collection. Some of them relate to particular nationalities e.g. Poles, Jews etc. Others are designed to show their purpose during the Holocaust. Of all of those I visited the hardest is probably Block 11, the former punishment block. The claustrophobic nature of this block, taken with the guide’s narrative and all I had read, was very difficult to disseminate. My mind has difficulty in trying to comprehend what I feel other than great revulsion. Particularly distressing were the different types of cell used. Some were designed so that very little oxygen would be available; others were designed for the purpose of starving the inmates to death. Another set of cells were designed so that once the prisoner had crawled in through a tiny door he would be forced to stand alongside four or more other inmates. This punishment could be used for days and even weeks with those involved only being released temporarily in order to continue their daily slave labour.
In this block summary justice was also handed out based on a trial, usually lasting no more than a minute. The execution could then follow in the attached courtyard at the ‘wall of death’. This was part of the Nazi’s criminal justice system. I think that is just one of the many problematic issues when looking at the Holocaust. The Nazis used the same processes as many other countries, including Britain, but turned them into something warped. In this particular instance it is difficult to isolate the Judge from the Executioner. It is also difficult to comprehend how professional individuals could be involved in something, which must have been alien to their training and experience. There is nothing clear cut about Auschwitz-Birkenau or the Holocaust.
Arguably the most emotive parts of Auschwitz are the displays containing the victims’ belongings. The piles of suitcases with the owner’s names, addresses and dates of birth on them bring humanity to the foreground. Walking alongside my beautiful, strong, healthy daughter made it so much more heart rending to see the tons of hair cut from the women prior to gassing. I was also struck by a single shoe. It would have been bright red when new and it was not difficult to imagine a young woman, just like my daughter, skipping along, taking sneaky admiring glances at her new shoes.
Cases displaying the minutiae of everyday life such as kitchen utensils, shaving kits, tins of boot polish, baby and children’s clothing seem so pathetic and make me feel so angry. Perhaps even more evocative are the prosthetics and spectacles – it is hard to imagine what went through people’s minds when these highly personal objects were taken from them. It surely must have dawned on them that things were going very wrong; it must have been difficult to believe that they were going to be resettled, as the Nazis had suggested. What right had these people to destroy other’s lives, how is it that they were able to achieve these aims and what was the purpose? These displays don’t offer any answers, but they do seem to sum up the horror of a time when normality was turned on its head. It just seems impossible that this happened.
Within the bounds of Auschwitz I is the gas chamber, restored after liberation by the Red Army. This had been decommissioned by the Nazis once the gas chambers and crematoria within Auschwitz II-Birkenau were built. This building is quite horrific in its emptiness and silence apart from echoing footsteps. Surprisingly though within the undressing chamber was a small nest of swallows. This seems to be the unlikeliest of places to see new life, but strangely it seems to fit in. It also symbolises the constant struggle Auschwitz-Birkenau has with simply existing and remaining the same.
Every time I think about this subject it strikes me as if I’m hearing about it for the very first time. Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau focuses attention on the individual in a really surprising manner. It is easy to get lost in the sheer volume of victims killed, both at Auschwitz-Birkenau and in many other locations, but it is so important to remain focused on the individual natures of the crime. We are shocked and horrified (rightly so) when we hear about the murder of Stephen Lawrence at the hands of racists, but it seems that as human beings we can accept the murder of millions without too much difficulty. Arguably, although on a dramatically different scale there aren’t too many differences between the two.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau is much more reflective than Auschwitz I. The first thing that strikes you is the enormity of the camp. It is vast – as far as the eye can see you are surrounded by barracks, some of which have been razed to the ground, leaving only their chimney and footprint behind. Running through the centre of these barracks is the infamous train track which passes under the watchtower and ended at the gas chambers and crematoria. This is another example of how normality is turned on its head when looked at with knowledge of the Holocaust.
The remaining barrack buildings have been maintained pretty much as they were left. They are shocking and it is virtually impossible to imagine human beings existing in these conditions. Latrines point to the fact that prisoners had no privacy to tend to the most private of needs. It is impossible to imagine that this could be justified on any count.
Throughout both camps there are watchtowers everywhere. The feeling of being watched is constantly with you. Nowhere seems safe from their gaze. The large watchtower at Auschwitz II – Birkenau has windows all around which must have given an almost perfect 360° view.
Because of the sheer expanse of Birkenau there are plenty of spots for quiet reflection and the silence is almost deafening. It is perhaps in this part of the camp that you are really able to begin to consider the issues involved. The remains of the destroyed gas chambers and the monument more recently erected there, provide an eerily industrial background, in which you come face to face with the horrific purpose of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
When the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 27th January, 1945, it decided to maintain the camp for perpetuity as a monument to the victims of fascism. Since that time the world has changed, with the end of the Cold War amongst other things. Auschwitz has attempted to move forward with a much stronger emphasis on the loss suffered by the Jewish population. However, it is imperative to note that both the Holocaust and Auschwitz can be examined and interpreted in many different ways. For example, in the block devoted to the Polish people it states that only a few depraved or misguided Polish individuals participated in the genocide. I have to say that this does not appear to be supported by a mass of historical research. It may be that for political reasons, bearing in mind that many of those involved are still alive, that this is seen as a more acceptable ‘truth’. After all it can not be pleasant to have a former Nazi Death Camp on your soil and even more difficult to acknowledge that members of your nationality may have participated. For this reason I have elected not to visit many of the blocks dedicated to the various nationalities and instead to focus on the atmosphere of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
My visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is very difficult to put into words. It is so very hard to be objective about the Holocaust. It was a very emotional day with my feelings constantly changing from anger, to pity, to sadness. Perhaps the most difficult part of the whole experience is trying to relate what you see – the normality of everyday life (train lines, barracks, buildings with windows and doors) with the horror of the Holocaust. In Auschwitz-Birkenau there is a sense of order and a frightening logic. However, it isn’t one that should have ever been related to humanity. The Nazis managed in a short space of time to turn murder into an industry.
November, 2006 – ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’
It’s suddenly dawning on me how difficult this whole process is. My little understanding of methodology meant that I saw the process as quite simple and formulaic. A simple case of noting down my thought processes along the way. In the case of the Holocaust I thought it meant justifying my decision to create a library based dissertation i.e. because sixty years had passed and there would be ethical implications to contacting survivors, therefore, it was the only option available to me. Why I imagined it would be necessary for Jerry Johnson to spend so many hours lecturing about research, I have no idea! But as the weeks have passed I’ve begun to get an idea of what he meant and the process is so much harder, both emotionally and academically, than I could ever have anticipated. Along the way, I have discovered that the Holocaust presents unique methodological concerns which I believe can be resolved, but with difficulty.
For the past couple of years I feel as though I’ve been on a journey of discovery, which probably dates back to my childhood and half-remembered stories. It’s hard to remember a time when the Holocaust was not in my thoughts every day. In many ways I feel as if I haven’t chosen the subject but it has implanted itself into me. In so many ways I feel almost connected to the Holocaust and that I am driven to attempt to understand it. During this time I have read so much about the subject plus visited both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Berlin in order to try and gain some understanding of the subject. Despite these efforts it is impossible to know the Holocaust, yet unavoidable to feel passionate about it.
It is such an emotive and horrific subject to think about, and this becomes apparent when attempts have been made to depict this. Both the memorial within Birkenau and the one in the centre of Berlin struggle to tell their story. Both are bleak, monolithic structures which do their best to convey a sense of the Holocaust. Whether they succeed is a moot point and left to the viewer. Personally I feel ‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ in the centre of Berlin is a blot on the landscape of a historic city, and in this way it succeeds by getting the individual nature of the Holocaust across in a very telling yet subtle way. The Holocaust is arguably a blot on the landscape of European history and this is shown explicitly. I feel it is only right and just that Germany and its people are reminded daily of this nightmare.
Dr Matthew Feldman taught me that it is imperative not to lose sight of the horrific nature of the Holocaust and for this reason I have constantly refocused my attention by watching documentaries, films and listening to and reading testimony. It is very easy to become engrossed in abstract theory and concepts and to lose sight of humanity. Personally I believe that it is of paramount importance that the reality or realities are not separated from the academic theory but instead they are entwined, it is therefore essential that any research does not simply become mechanistic. The Holocaust is a hugely complex series of human individual tragedies which should not be reduced to basic nuts and bolts; otherwise their true meaning will be lost.
Despite the fact I know that this catastrophe occurred I simply cannot get my head around it. Every time I read or view something relating to this, it is as if it is for the first time. I find it hard to believe that the world did not come to an end at this point, and yet, it didn’t, and life has gone on, albeit with a massive void. It angers me that this cataclysmic event is viewed purely as historical or as a representation of the battle between good and evil. Recognition does not seem to be given to the fact that this is still a very real and present danger. Neo-Nazism is seen to be on the rise both in Germany and across Europe and America. So much for the cry of ‘never again’ after WWII. This kind of emotional rhetoric serves no real purpose; it just pays lip service to those who suffered without offering future protection. This threat is surely proven by events in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and most recently Darfur.
Unfortunately it seems as if only by writing in beautiful sentences, that you can do justice to the subject. This is perhaps why writers such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, whose personal experiences are told in such measured and wonderful language, are more palatable. However, not everyone’s testament is written in this way. The majority of material is harsh, cold and frighteningly brutal.
It also frustrates me that Criminology sees fit to ignore this issue. This is despite its recognition of hate crime and other issues of ethnicity. Arguably Nazi Germany’s attempt to play God, to decide who could and couldn’t reproduce, and who was fit to live and who should die, is surely one of the most extreme cases of hate crime ever recorded.
I feel that it is so very easy to see the Holocaust in a simplistic way i.e. the Nazis and their followers were evil and the victims were good. In many ways the Holocaust is seen as ‘sacred’ and untouchable, almost in reverential terms, and unfortunately this achieves little apart from acts of remembrance. We know ourselves that people are not purely good or purely bad but are much more complex than this. However, because Nazism has been identified as bad or evil, this understanding or sentiment must be kept in mind.
When it comes to writing about the Holocaust it is very easy to write in clichés, in order to try and find the words which do it justice. It is extremely difficult to write about the Holocaust without the use of academic apparatus. In many ways academic language allows the writer to remain invisible, sterile and aloof, after all it is somebody else’s experiences which are being analysed. It is also worth noting that most of these experiences are retold via media, thus removing the intimate proximity from the researcher. Whilst this protects the interviewee from unnecessary intrusion it does mean the researcher is further removed from the emotion and can lead to the survivor being almost dehumanised and in some ways become an abstract figure. This is symbolic of the way in which they were treated by the Nazis and must be guarded against.
The problem with an academic approach is that you can produce a cold, logical and dispassionate piece which has virtually diffused all the raw emotion. Although this may be deemed more objective; unfortunately it also mimics the Nazi style of conveying information, particularly in respect of the ‘Final Solution’. It is also debatable as to whether it is desirable to attempt to ignore so many individual’s feelings or to try and categorise people’s personal experiences. At the end of the day, the Holocaust is fundamentally about the abuse and suffering of humanity and this must shine through. Despite the millions of people involved, the individual voice must be heard loud and clear. If not, we run the risk of doing as the Nazis did, making decisions about who is important and who is not. I feel that there is almost a hierarchy of suffering when talking about the Holocaust, that the Jews were deliberately targeted and as a group suffered the greatest loss of life, other groups such as the Roma & Sinti, Poles, Slavs, a-socials, criminals, the disabled, homosexuals etc were also seen as a threat by the Nazis and were treated in the same sickening way. It is wrong that their experiences are treated as an almost separate lesser issue.
It is also essential that we recognise that millions of voices and experiences have been lost forever. Even if every survivor was able to retell their story, whether written, oral or through the medium of art, we know that many voices are missing, because of this there will always be a massive void. It is virtually impossible to see the whole picture when the jigsaw is so incomplete. We must always acknowledge that so many different experiences were lost in the shooting pits, against the ‘death wall’, gas chambers or simply by being worked or starved to death. It is also important to remember that each experience is unique and cannot be seen as representative of the whole. We can compare, contrast and combine these experiences but their individual nature should be recognised.
Because of this, it is recognised that any criminological research will find it difficult to remain objective. However, if this is accepted as a given it should still be possible to undertake a criminological study, perhaps not in the traditional, expected or accepted way.
I feel that Criminology has some advantages over other disciplines:
1. The Holocaust has variously been described as Genocide, a Crime against Humanity and a War Crime. It therefore, surely follows that Criminology should have something to say about the Holocaust.
2. Criminology recognises that the law is a social construct written and put into place by men. Therefore it does not have to be constrained by definitions of legality. The Nuremberg Trials retrospectively made organisations and their members illegal; however, Criminology does not have to simply depend on their definitions.
3. Criminology does not accept that there is any value in the use of the terms good and evil or heaven and hell. These are simply descriptive labels applied by society or individuals. However, there is danger in ignoring these terms.
4. It is not essential for Criminology to provide a narrative in the same way as that provided by historiographical research. However, this has drawbacks. In history there are many debates over when the Holocaust began, who made vital decisions and when they were made. These debates are able to focus on events rather than victims, which means that any interaction can be reasonably unrestrained.
5. Goldhagen’s (best selling) argument at its simplest level can be seen as a way of blaming all Germans of the period labelling his concept as ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’. This idea takes responsibility away from everyone else. Unfortunately this idea cannot sit well within Criminology. It is surely not possible to accept that an entire nation became criminal and then a few years later changed its attitudes and actions completely.
6. Criminology has the advantage of being used to dealing with the difficult and emotive subject of crime, albeit not on this scale. The Holocaust is made up of a variety of crimes, the worst of which is obviously mass murder, but also includes theft, arson, deception, handling stolen goods, fraud etc.
7. Criminology has come to focus on the idea that crime is not an abstract idea but instead is a real issue which causes harm to individuals.
8. Criminology is aware that it is important to pay heed to the historical, social, economic and political climate, when looking at any phenomena. Although the Holocaust took place some 60 years ago this should not prove too problematic. After all the history of prison and punishment dates much further back.
9. In recent years Criminology has made serious attempts to understand that different groups, experience events in different ways. Criminologists have looked at the different ways in which crime and criminal justice impact on women as well as those with different ethnic backgrounds.
10. Criminology has identified the concepts of exclusion and inclusion. It has also recognised some of the problems caused when individuals or groups are excluded from society. The world is slowly recovering from the Nazis worst excesses but with this comes danger. The Jews are slowly returning to Berlin but they are still facing threats from Neo-Nazis. Surely this has modern parallels with attempts to portray Muslims as somehow different – ‘The Outsider’. Criminology recognises the concepts of exclusion and inclusion. Why not apply this to the Holocaust in order to try and understand and end this horror.
11. Labelling theory may also be useful in reviewing the manner in which the Nazis were able to identify and isolate their victims from the rest of society.
12. Stan Cohen’s work on moral panics may offer some insight into the use of the media by the Nazis. Ghettoization of the Jews – scaremongering by the media of the way in which Jewish people live and work was reinforced by images of the appalling conditions within the ghettos. Confirmed the original stereotype portrayed by the Nazis.
13. Cesare Lombroso and his work on criminality was identified and utilised by the Nazis, albeit after his death.
14. Criminology has experience of interpreting the way in which the media works. During WWII the countries involved made use of the media available to them. Nazi Germany used the media extensively in their exclusion of the Jews.
15. Criminology is very used to looking beyond statistics. Although the sheer numbers involved are daunting, this ability to reflect on the individual should be helpful.
16. Themes of both law & order and social control have relevance to Nazi Germany – there was a strong sense of the community (volksgemeinschaft) overriding the needs of any individual. There was also great importance attached to militaristic behaviour.
17. Criminology suggests that every one of us has the propensity to commit some form of crime, but in Nazi Germany not all participated. Surely this must be helpful in trying to understand why it is some people are able to restrain themselves especially in this case where it was surely easier to just go along with the majority.
It is much less problematic to criticise and analyse large organisations such as the police, judiciary, media etc and this probably makes up a large bulk of Criminology’s work load. This is not to say that these areas are not important, especially on a day to day basis. However, it is much harder to deal with the experiences of so many individuals and such raw emotion.
I have a major concern that I could be seen as an apologist for the Nazis, or be guilty of supplying the far right with ammunition to further their cause. The problem with an academic study is that what is important is to unravel, or unpack the subject, following themes as they are discovered with little thought for the impact of the end result. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Holocaust an academically acceptable result may not be seen in the same light by those who lived through these times. It is important to note that the Nazis had quasi scientific and academic rationale for their actions. After all the Endlösung (‘Final Solution’) was the logical answer to the complex questions of lebensraum (living space) and volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). This way of thinking can be seen throughout the regime, (but particularly in Auschwitz-Birkenau), as to what happens when logic takes the place of humanity and morality.
Oskar Schindler’s story, as told by Thomas Keneally and Steven Spielberg presents the audience with the tale of a charismatic man faced with difficult decisions. Although Schindler was a minor member of the Nazi party he was not responsible for making decisions within the regime or for actually carrying out murder. Instead his story is presented as one in which only he, by dint of working within the system is able to save so many lives. Whilst not disparaging Schindler’s achievements, I think it is important to note that we find his role easy to accept. Even though the lines of demarcation are blurred, we are still able to accept his deeds as heroic. Very few aspects of the Holocaust are that simple to comprehend.
It seems that people are put into five broad categories: perpetrator, bystander, collaborator, rescuer or victim. Unfortunately very few people fit completely into these categories. Schindler, it could be argued was both collaborator and rescuer. Perhaps more problematic and controversial is the role of the Judenraete or the Jewish Councils. Arguably with or without these councils, the Nazis would have been able to carry out their murderous regime but these individuals assisted them in their task. It also has to be said that within these councils, lives were saved, but the many were sacrificed to save the few. Perhaps the most upsetting example is that of the Jews in the death camps who were forced into working as part of the Sonderkommando [Special Commando]. They were intrinsically victims, but against their will they also assisted the perpetrators.
I feel that these five definitions restrict our ability to see the whole picture. However, I also recognise that the way in which the Holocaust defies definition has inherent problems of its own. The blurring of lines offers the illusion of safety, in as much as the opportunity arises to avoid the apportioning of direct blame to individuals, other than those in positions of power. It is always going to be easier to look at Hitler and his entourage, with their almost mythical image than it is to try and look at the ordinary men and women.
It should also be noted that the nature and meaning of certain words have changed somewhat since the Holocaust. The Nazis use of everyday apparatus such as the transport infrastructure, the criminal justice system and the media has given these facets of everyday life, a different, more sinister interpretation.
Using Nazi documents presents you with problems, firstly with their use of euphemisms. Secondly, by relying on the perpetrator’s official documentation you could end up with a purely administrative outcome – this would avoid the problem of sentiment, but wouldn’t aid understanding or feeling.
There is a huge danger when looking at these documents, almost a sense that you begin to accept the logic of their plans. You can become caught up in the ideas, oblivious of the fact that these plans and designs were designed for human beings. Many of these documents do not refer to human beings directly, but instead read like a company’s profit and loss record. It is because of this fear, I continually refocus on the victims.
Reliance on perpetrator testimony offers another set of problems. Much of this was written after WWII and often whilst the individual was in the Allies’ custody. This obviously has massive validity problems. Those facing the death penalty may have used the opportunity to purge their soul, or in order to try and gain some advantage when it came to their day in court. Others who have given testimony away from a court setting may have embellished or hidden the truth. After all, very few perpetrators were ever brought to justice so there are benefits in downplaying the past. Problematic with perpetrator testimony is the empathy of the reader. Criminology tries hard to understand the motivation of perpetrators to some extent but this offers a moral dilemma.
Arguably the most valuable testimony of all is that of the victims. However, many years have passed and although the events recounted are horrifically traumatic, there is recognition that the memory can play tricks. It also has to be taken into account that these individuals were and possibly still are very vulnerable people. Their testimony reflects this and it is essential that this element is captured. It is also vital that wherever possible their own words are used, although any researcher may feel they are representing the themes spoken of, it is the survivors own words which tell the full story. What right have I or anybody else to tamper with or critique another person’s experiences. It is for this reason that I believe passionately that the victims should speak for themselves, with the minimum of intervention.
None of this should negate Criminology’s responsibility to attempt to explain or understand the Holocaust. Instead it should strengthen the desire to create a framework within which it is possible to retain the passion for humanity.
This has been extremely hard to write – I feel as if I’ve had to drag the thoughts out of me. I’ve never been an emotional person; on the contrary I have spent most of my life presenting a logical and prosaic image, virtually unshakeable. It is extremely difficult for me to retain this when faced with the Holocaust. I find the whole subject difficult but I can’t let go. It dominates me as a person. It’s got to the point now that I have friends and family letting me know if there’s a television programme, or a newspaper article etc. I feel as if my mind has become linked forever to this dark period of time. In so many ways I find it hard to explain why this should be so. I am not Jewish, nor do I have relatives or friends who have been involved. But I do feel as though I am inextricably attached. All of this sounds rather fanciful and not my style at all but it does feel right and proper.
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Oświęcim, Poland. Last visited 13th July, 2006.
Crimes Against Humanity Exhibition: An Exploration of Genocide and Ethnic Violence. Imperial War Museum, London, England. Last visited 13th April, 2005.
Holocaust Exhibition. Imperial War Museum, London, England. Last visited 13th April, 2005.
The Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre. Nottinghamshire, England. Last visited 24th November, 2004.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Berlin, Germany. Last visited 1st September, 2006.
Copyright: 2007 Paula Bowles & H.E.A.R.T