Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Key Nazi personalities in
the Camp System
The Labor &
The Labor Camps
Recollections from those who were there...
Wieslaw Kielar describes his arrival on the first transport into the camp from Tarnow June 1940:
We stop for a long time at some station. It turns out that this is the frontier between the Generalgouvernement and the Reich. We continue our journey. Next we stop at what, judging from the number of trucks on either side of the train must be a major station.
The name of the place, written in large letters on the station building is: Auschwitz. Someone explains that this is Oswiecim. Some dump or other. We don’t think about it anymore because now our train has started to move again. Presumably we are being shunted into a siding since the train curves sharply so that the wheels squeal remorselessly.
Now we are not allowed to move at all. We mustn’t so much as look in the direction of the windows. We sit still our train seems to have got the hiccups. Now it moves a few yards, now it stops. From the other side of the window come the sounds of voices shouting in German, of feet running and stamping.
Suddenly the doors of our carriage are flung open. Someone on the platform shouts at the top of his voice “Everybody out! Get a move on, you shits.” Our escorts assist us to climb out of the train in their own way. They bring the butts of their carbines down on our backs with resounding blows.
We all dash like mad towards the one and only exit. One by one we jump down from the high carriage and land directly at the feet of scores of SS men; they are lined up in rows leading towards a high fence which encircles a large building.
Beaten, pushed and terrified by the SS men yelling at us, we rush like a flock of panicking sheep through the open gate.
Stefan Solarczyk, a Pole who lived in Auschwitz and helped in the construction of the camp:
I was working on a locomotive on the narrow- gauge railway. They were moving large cobblestones and some SS surrounded the group. One of the SS picked up one of the stones and threw it into a prisoner’s back. I saw him hit the prisoner’s spine and his spine was twisted.
The prisoner was lying on the ground motionless and he went up to him with a large pick handle which he laid on his neck, put one foot on one side and the other on the other. His legs twitched for a moment or two.
There were also shootings. I was particularly struck by one SS man who had a boy from Krakow, he was his favourite: he let him go and bathe and go in the water during the summer. One day he just sort of began shooting live rounds at him.
The boy swam off and he shot into the water near him and then hit him with the effect that he sank.
Wieslaw Kielar describes how he became a number not a name:
After we had been divided into small groups we were led into the basement where all our personal belongings were taken away; this included the removal of hair from every part of our body, followed by a bath in ice-cold water.
We were handed a cardboard tab with a number which was to replace our names from now on. My number was 290, Romek Trojanowski’s 44 and Edek Galinski’s 537. Thus in a perfectly simple manner we became numbers.
Kazimierz Piechowski describes how prisoners who stole food were dealt with:
What was done to get rid of such people, they were liquidated, the prisoners killed them at night. They put a blanket over his face and kept it there until he stopped breathing.
No one would ask questions, in the morning the Block Elder would report “so many dead, fair enough.” And you didn’t feel anything, this was normal?
Absolutely, it was completely normal, except for a kind of flash, subconscious perhaps. Gone! And still things such as this are happening and still things such as.
But these things couldn’t be helped, in other words don’t think about it, its been and gone. Now think about where to go to work – to survive the following day. Just to survive the following day. Watch your bread so that no-one steals it, so that you get to eat some breakfast
Go to work and try to find a lighter job – this is what you were pre-occupied with and this was a constant vigilance – be vigilant – you have to survive.
Jerzy Bielecki witnessed how Soviet Prisoners of War were treated at Auschwitz:
Prisoner overseers beat them mercilessly, kicked them, clubbed them, they would fall to the ground. It was a macabre scene. I have never in my life seen anything like it. Neither did I later on even though I remained in the camp for a long time after.
I saw an SS man, a junior officer walking around the gravel pit with a pistol in his hand, it was sadism. “You dogs, you damn Communists, you pieces of shit” horrible words like these. And from time to time he would direct the pistol downwards and shoot.
Wieslar Kielar recounts the aftermath of the first mass gassing of Russian Prisoners of War in the bunkers of Block 11, the penal company in September 1941:
The heavy wooden door to the yard of the penal company opened. We pushed the trucks into the yard and turned them round, facing the gate. Waiting in the yard was the entire SS retinue, with Lagerfuhrer Fritsch and camp doctor Entress at the head.
We stood expectantly while the SS men conferred for a time, after which they summoned Gienek and Teofil. They were handed gas masks. Palitzsch and several Blockfuhrers also put on their gas masks.
Together they approached the entrance to the block cellars. They stayed down there for rather a long time. We waited in silence. Night fell. in the yard it was now quite dark. Only above the entrance to the bunker a naked bulb cast a feeble gleam of light over the group of SS men waiting by the steps.
Palitzsch was first to reappear, behind him the rest of the SS men. They had taken off their gas masks which meant the gas was already diffusing, after a while Obojski and Teofil returned as well.
Now we were divided into groups, each with its own special task. Some went down into the bunkers in order to fetch the corpses out of the cells, others carried them up the stairs where yet another group of nursing orderlies undressed them. The rest were ordered to haul the naked corpses a little farther into the yard, ready for loading onto the waiting trucks.
I managed to get into the first group because I wanted to be as far away as possible from the SS and, in particular, from Palitzsch, of whom I was very much afraid. Downstairs it was stifling and reeked of dead bodies. All the cells were open, and in them we saw the corpses of the gassed, crowded together and standing up. It was a little less crowded where the sick had been.
A few corpses lay in a heap directly behind the door. We began with them. It was difficult to pry apart the bodies that were clinging together. One by one we dragged them into the corridor, from where the others carried them up the stairs. The deeper we penetrated into the cells, the harder it became to fetch out the corpses. Pressed together in the small cells they stood, although they were dead, with the same countenance they had had, presumably two days earlier.
Their faces were blue, almost purplish. Wide open eyes threatened to pop out of their sockets; their tongues protruded between their open lips; their bared teeth gave an eerie appearance to their faces.
To begin with, two of us carried one corpse. As a result there was confusion on the narrow stairs, people getting in each other’s way. We made only slow progress; we began to work singly. Instead of carrying the corpses, we each dragged them behind us by a hand or foot.
Now our work progressed much faster and more smoothly. The whole bunker was disinfected with chlorine, which made our labours easier still. True, the strong smell of chlorine made one’s eyes smart, but at least it reduced the stench of the putrefying corpses. The greatest problem was getting the bodies up the stairs. Their heavy heads bumped against each step with a dull thud; their limp extremities caught on protruding steps and thresholds.
Josef Paczynski witnessed the gassing of prisoners in the crematorium in the Auschwitz main camp:
I went into the attic of that building, I stood on a crate or something, I lifted a roof tile and I could see everything that was going on right there in front of me. And they were very polite with those people – very polite – undress – pack your things here – this there – that there.
And then an SS man climbed onto the flat roof of the building, he put on a gas mask, opened the hatch and dropped the powder in. When he did this, in spite of the fact that these walls were very thick, you could hear a great scream from within – despite the thick walls.
This took place at lunchtime, in the daytime, in order to stifle the screaming they had two motorcycles standing on the pavement near the crematorium. Engines revved up as far as they could go, to stifle the screams.
To cover up the yelling they had these engines going but they failed – they gave it a try but it didn’t work. The screaming lasted for fifteen or twenty minutes it became weaker and weaker then went quiet.
Rudolf Vrba described the Juden Rampe where transports arrived:
There was a place called the ramp where the trains with the Jews were coming in. They were coming in day and night, and sometimes one per day and sometimes five per day, from all sorts of places in the world.
I worked there from August 18 1942, to June 7 1943. I saw those transports rolling one after another, and I have seen at least two hundred of them in this position. I have seen it so many times that it became a routine.
Constantly, people from the heart of Europe were disappearing and they were arriving to the same place with the same ignorance of the fate of the previous transport. And the people in this mass… I knew of course that within a couple of hours after they arrived there, ninety percent would be gassed or something like that. I knew that.
Somehow in my thinking it was difficult for me to comprehend that people can disappear in this way. Nothing is going to happen, and then there comes the next transport, and they don’t know anything about what happened to the previous transport, and this is going on for months, on and on.
So what happened was the following. Say a transport of Jews was announced to come at two o’clock. When the transport arrived at the station of Auschwitz, an announcement came to the SS. Now one SS man and woke us up and we moved to the ramp.
We immediately got an escort and were escorted to the ramp – say we were about two hundred men. And lights went on. There was a ramp, and around the ramp were lights, and under those lights were a cordon of SS. There was one every ten yards with gun in hand. So we were in the middle and were waiting for the train, waiting for the next order.
Now, when all this was done – everybody was there – the transport was rolled in. This means in a very slow fashion the locomotive, which was always in the front, was coming to the ramp, and that was the end of the railway line, that was the end of the line for everybody who was on the train.
And now the train stopped and the gangster elite marched on the ramp, and in front of every second or third wagon and sometimes in front of every wagon, one of those Unterscharfuhrers was standing with a key and opened the locks, because the wagons were locked.
Now inside there were people, of course, and you could see the people looking through the windows because they didn’t know what was happening. They had many stops on the journey – some of them were ten days on the journey, some were two days on the journey – and they didn’t know what this particular stop means.
The door was opened and the first order they were given was “Alle Heraus” Everybody Out. And in order to make it quite clear, they usually started with those walking sticks to hit the first or second or third. They were like sardines in those cars.
If they expected on that day four or five or six transports, the pressure of getting out from the wagons was high. Then they used sticks, clubs, cursing, etc.
Sometimes if it was good weather, the SS used to deal with it differently, I mean I was not surprised if they were in a different mood and exhibited a lot of humour, like saying, “Good morning Madame,” and “Will you walk out please.” Oh Yes, oh yes, and “How nice that you arrived. We are so sorry that it wasn’t too convenient, but now things will become different.”
Wieslar Kielar recalls what happened to Jewish prisoners who had buried the corpses in pits in a meadow close to former farmhouse that had been converted into gas chambers:
A small group of young and strong Jews, some twenty who had been allowed to stay alive, were forced to remove the corpses of their fellows from the gas chamber and bury them in pits in a meadow close to the house.
After all traces of the crime were erased, the young Jews were taken to the hospital and lined up outside the outpatients department. This invariably took place in the late evening, after the lights-out gong had sounded, when there was no one about in the camp.
In the outpatients’ department, the light was still on although all the staff had gone, for I was still there tidying the place up. Bock and Stessel seemed deep in conversation. The Jews were told that after their exhausting work they were to be given pep-up injections. They were inside the hospital; why should their suspicions have been aroused?
Klehr, wearing a doctor’s white coat, saw them one after the other in his “consulting room,” carefully closing the door once the patient had stepped inside. After each treatment, which took a surprisingly short time, he looked out into the corridor and called in the next.
At the same time Obojski and Teofil walked into the room, placed the “sleeping” patient on a stretcher, covered him with a blanket, and carried him inside the block. Unsuspecting patients entered the consulting room, until the last one had gone in. When it was all over, I scrubbed the floor.
Leon Staischak gave evidence at the Nuremberg Trial:
Selections, apart from those in the hospital building of Monowitz took place every 3 -6 weeks in the roll-call yard and at the gates of Monowitz when the prisoners were marching out.
The prisoners selected were thrown into open lorries – without shoes or underclothes and driven away. These prisoners frequently struggled against this and shrieked. Such lorries had to drive through part of the grounds of the IG-Werke.
Otto Pressburger a Slovakian Jew worked in the Sonderkommando that buried the corpses, murdered in the gas chambers at Bunker 1 also known as the “Red House” at Birkenau during 1942:
We were digging holes and in the beginning we really didn’t know what the holes were for, it was only when the holes were deep enough that we started to throw the bodies into them, it was appalling. New bodies were lying here every morning and we had to bury them. When summer came everything started to rot. It was terrible.
The majority of the people working here were from my home city of Trnava, I knew all of them and every day there were less and less of them. They must still be buried around here somewhere. My brother and my father are buried here as well you know.
Moshe Maurice Garbarz described the Bunker 1 (Red House) at Birkenau:
We saw a sort of barn closed on three sides, identical to those where our farmers keep the hay, and not far from it three or four pretty little buildings like country houses, only the first of which was close enough to be clearly visible.
The convoys arrived, adult men and little boys together, women, girls and babies together. They went completely naked in groups of twenty towards the little house. Despite the distance we could see that they were not afraid. A strange Kommando dressed in white, led them, four men only, plus two SS.
When the people had entered the house, they were shut in by a fairly strong door. When the door was well and truly bolted an SS man passed with a can and disappeared from our eyes, hidden by the house. Then we heard a bang, that of some opening a trap door, rather than a window. Twice after this bang, we heard the prayer Shema Israel, then we heard cries, but very faintly.
From time to time, at the last minute, just before disappearing behind the door, the people understood. I saw one group of men revolt. The case had been foreseen: a Kommando of four or five people was waiting beside the entrance and pushed them inside while an SS man used his revolver to shoot some in the head.
The external aspect of the little house was so ordinary that such incidents were very rare. In seven days I saw only one revolt with my own eyes. But others took place, for several times, from afar we heard the same characteristic sound of a shot at point blank range.
The rectangle where we had the previous day installed the posts had been dug out and transformed into a kind of empty swimming pool with cleanly cut edges, about one metre fifty deep. The ground had been left around our posts to stop them falling.
Some rails were installed, starting one metre from the little house. As soon as the Jews were gassed, a new team came along and added rails as far as the edge of the swimming pool. This group also belonged to the Sonderkommando.
The men of this Kommando ate well; they were properly dressed. They lived entirely separately and no longer returned to our camp to sleep. The SS said that in a week we would be enrolled with them. So I now had less than a week in which I had to try something, however desperate. We saw the special commando put platform trolleys on the rails. Then they brought out the men, women and children who had been gassed to load them on these flat wagons.
In order not to lose any on the way, they stacked them like sacks of flour, five widthways, five lengthways. Their work was tough and their Kapo, a German, would not allow a moment’s rest. He was constantly crying; “Schneller! Schneller!” (Faster, Faster) otherwise I’ll wipe you out, I’ll gas you on the spot.” and he kicked them. All the men, women and children were quickly thrown in the hole and covered with earth.
Szlama Dragon described the Bunker 2 Gas Chamber (White House) in December 1942:
The next day on the morning of 10th December 1942, once all the Kommando’s had gone to work Moll arrived at Block 14 and gave the order: “Sonderkommando raus!”
It was thus that we learnt that we were detailed, not to go to the rubber factory (Buna) but to a Sonderkommando and we did not realise what this was for, nobody had ever given us the slightest explanation of it. On Moll’s order, we went out of the block and were divided into two groups of 100 men each to be marched out of the camp by the SS.
We were taken into a forest where there was a cottage covered with thatch, its windows bricked in. On the door leading to the interior of the cottage was a metal plate with the inscription “Hochspannung / Lebensgefahr” (High Tension/ Danger).
Thirty or forty metres from this cottage there were two wooden huts. On the other side of the cottage there were four pits 30 metres long, 7 metres wide and 3 metres deep, their edges black with smoke.
We were lined up in front of the house, Moll arrived and told us we would work here at burning old lousy people, that we would be given something to eat and in the evening we would be taken back to the camp.
He added that those who did not accept the work would be beaten and have the dogs set on them. The SS who escorted us were accompanied by dogs. Then he split us into a number of groups. I myself and eleven others were detailed, as we learnt later, to remove the bodies from this cottage.
We were all given masks and led to the door of the cottage, when Moll opened the door, we saw that the door, we saw that the cottage was full of naked corpses of both sexes and of all ages.
Moll ordered us to move these corpses from the cottage to the yard in front of the door. We started work with four men carrying one body. This annoyed Moll, he rolled up his sleeves and threw a body into the yard. When, despite this example, we said we were incapable of doing that, he allowed us to carry them, two men to a body.
Once the corpses were laid out in the yard, the dentist assisted by an SS man, pulled out the teeth and the barber, also watched by an SS man, cut off the hair.
Another group loaded the bodies onto wagons running on rails that led to the edge of the pits. These rails ran between two pits. Still another group prepared the pit for burning the corpses. First of all, big logs were put in the bottom. The logs are on the right along the wall of the undressing hut, then smaller and smaller wood in crisscross fashion and finally dry twigs.
The following group threw the bodies into the pit. Once all the bodies had been brought from the cottage to the pit, Moll poured kerosene over them in the four corners of the pit and set fire to it by throwing in a burning rubber comb (roughly fringed piece of rubber). That is how the corpses were burnt. While Moll was starting the fire, we were in the front of the cottage, on the North West side and could see what he was doing.
After having removed all the bodies from the cottage, we were obliged to clean it thoroughly, washing the floor with water and spreading sawdust and whitewashing the walls.
The interior of the cottage was divided into four parts by partition walls running across it, one of which could contain 1,200 naked people, the second 700 the third 400 and the fourth 200 to 250**
** These figures should be viewed with some caution, it is unlikely the precise figure will ever be known.
Dr Gustav Herzog former prisoner of Auschwitz testified at the Nuremberg Trial:
Buna – Monowitz itself had about 10,000 prisoners. In the orderly room at Monowitz there was a card –index of all the prisoners who had passed through Monowitz or its subsidiary camps in the period from October 1942 until the liberation of the camp.
The card-index of those who had died was a great deal larger than that of the living. I estimate – I repeat that I was in charge of the orderly – room for a long time – that at the end the position in Buna-Monowitz was approximately 10,000 live prisoners as against approximately 120,000 dead, and in the subsidiary camps taken together approximately 35,000 live prisoners as against 250,000 dead.
Willi Hilse, German railwayman who worked at Auschwitz:
Just before the exit of the camp after Auschwitz station a shunting train was standing and it happened that the engine was standing on the level crossing and the personal car of a high SS officer was standing at the level crossing. This man was drunk out of his mind and he kept shouting at the sentry who was standing at the gate, “Shoot, shoot, shoot at him!” He didn’t do it, he didn’t take any notice at all.
Meanwhile I had come up on my bicycle and stood in front of the SS officer’s car and I said, “The engine driver – it was Polish personnel – will not move until he has his orders to move because a shunting train can only move forwards or backwards when he gets his orders from the shunting engineer.”
You can imagine that this SS officer in his car was going wild and kept on shouting, “Shoot, shoot, shoot.” I went over to the engine driver and said to him, “You have nothing to fear. I will take full responsibility whatever happens, should the SS officer attempt to get up on your train, push him down.”
It didn’t get that far but the SS officer jumped down from his car and went over to the SS sentry and tried to tear the rifle out of his hands, but the SS sentry grabbed his rifle and ran off.
After a while the coupling of the train was complete and the signal came from the shunting chief. Then I said to the SS man, when the train had gone past and the level crossing was free, “Please now, you can drive on.”
Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who was deported to Auschwitz:
We had read the name of Auschwitz on the labels on the trucks – trucks or wagons – trucks. But nobody of us knew what Auschwitz meant.
Filip Muller, a member of the Sonderkommando described the act of heroism in Crematorium II by a Jewish woman who arrived in Birkenau on the 23 October 1943:
She had taken off her blouse and was standing in front of her lecherous audience in her brassiere. Then she steadied herself against a concrete pillar with her left arm and bent down slightly lifting her foot, in order to take off her shoe.
What happened next took place with lightning speed: quick as a flash she grabbed her shoe and slammed its high heel violently against Quackernack’s forehead. He winced with pain and covered his face with both hands. At this moment the young woman flung herself at him and made a quick grab for his pistol.
Then there was a shot. Schillinger cried out and fell to the ground. Seconds later there was a second shot aimed at Quackernack which narrowly missed him.
A panic broke out in the changing room. The young woman had disappeared in the crowd. Any moment she might appear somewhere else and aim her pistol at another of her executioners. The SS men realised this danger. One by one they crept aside; the wounded Schillinger was still lying unattended on the floor.
After a while a few SS men came in and dragged him hastily to the door. Then a third shot was fired, one of the SS men* pulling Schillinger let go of him and started to limp to the door as fast as he could. Then the light went out. Simultaneously the door was bolted from the outside. We too, were now caught inside the pitch –dark room.
Suddenly the door was flung open. I was blinded by the glare of several searchlights. Then I heard Voss shouting: “All members of the Sonderkommando come out!”
Greatly relieved we dashed outside and ran up the stairs and into the yard. Outside the door to the changing room’s two machine guns had been set up, and behind them several searchlights. Steel – helmeted SS men were lying ready to operate the machine -guns. A horde of armed SS men were milling about in the yard.
I was on my way to the cremation room when a car drew up and Lagerkommandant Hoss climbed out. Then there was the rattle of machine – guns. A terrible blood-bath was wrought about the people caught in the changing room.
A very few who had managed to hide behind the pillars or in corners were later seized and shot. In the meantime the “disinfecting officers” had thrown their deadly Zyklon B gas down into the gas chamber where the credulous, placing their trust in Hossler’s deceitful words, had gone less than an hour earlier.
* SS Unterscharfuhrer Wilhelm Emmerich was the injured SS man
Jozef Garlinski recalls the execution of a family at the Black Wall in the Auschwitz Main Camp:
The orderly stiffened to attention and I did the same because an SS man appeared in the doorway, behind him a man, a woman and a teenage girl. As was the custom, the orderly wanted to direct the man to the washroom, where I was standing, and the woman to another one, but the SS man stopped him with a gesture. “Take them all together.”
They moved towards me and only then did we both notice the young boy in the woman’s arms. The orderly hesitated, but the young soldier said shortly, “Do your job.” He went quickly up to the man and shook his arm. “You must undress here.” “Here, all of us?”
“Yes and don’t dawdle, because the SS will be in a minute.” His voice was hard and he tried to make it sound as indifferent as possible.
The man took off his jacket, took off his tie and began to unbutton his shirt, but then he stopped and looked helplessly at his wife and daughter. “Get undressed man,” shouted the orderly, but he realised what was the matter and turned away to the wall. We both heard behind us the rustle of falling skirts and at the same time we listened for noises outside.
Suddenly, we heard behind us a whisper and the child crying quietly. The orderly quickly turned around and not looking at the almost naked woman grabbed the boy. The little one cried out in fright and began to struggle, but at that very moment a hoarse order rang out. “Bring out the first one, bring the man.”
The orderly quickly placed the little boy on the floor, grasped the man’s hands, twisted them behind his back, tied them with wire and let him into the yard. I shouldn’t have done it, but like a lunatic I followed him.
There was a wide area between the “bunker” and another similar brick barrack, enclosed on the short sides. Under one of them was a high, black plank wall. By it with a small-calibre gun, slung carelessly over his shoulder, stood the camp Rapportfuhrer, SS NCO Gerhard Palitzsch. There was a silencer on the gun.
Next to him another SS NCO was looking at a piece of paper in his hand, while a little further off was another SS man, responsible for the “bunker.” Alone, to one side stood a young SS doctor with the rank of captain, it was clear that he felt unsure of himself, for he kept taking off his glasses, wiping them and putting them back on again.
Palitzsch looked at the naked man and with a gesture indicated what he wanted him to do. When there was no reaction, he came up behind him and began to push him in the direction of the black wall with the barrel of his weapon.
He stood him with his face to the board and threw an ironic glance at the doctor who was still wiping his glasses. He slowly raised the gun and let the muzzle rest against the back of the naked man’s skull. It was clear that he was enjoying every moment and was intentionally dawdling.
The orderly shook my arm and pointed to the body, we removed it to the side quick as lightning, returned to the washroom and looked at the woman. She was quite naked and held the little one in her arms. She was not crying, although it was clear that she was using her last reserves of strength to retain self-control.
The orderly took away the child with shaking hands, put it on the floor and silently showed the woman what she was to do with her hands. With his eyes closed he began to push her towards the door.
He returned trembling. The girl was standing up by the wall, clutching her little brother to her and trying to use him to shield her own nakedness. The orderly went up to her and put his arm round her shoulder.
“Don’t be frightened, don’t be frightened,” he kept repeating quite absurdly, at the same time he took the child away from her and slowly pushed her towards the door. Again like a lunatic, I followed them.
All four SS men turned to look at her, but the doctor lowered his eyes. Palitzsch and with his usual little gesture with his gun motioned towards the black wall and with the barrel parted her long hair. The shot was almost inaudible but the girl’s body fell face down. The SS man kicked her onto her back and looked inquiringly at the doctor.
No one moved, no one said a word, but after a second the SS man responsible for the “bunker” appeared to wake up and turned an enquiring glance at Palitzsch.
“There’s still a child, but after all…….” “What? Bring the little bastard here.”
The SS man entered the bunker, grabbed the child himself and carried it outside. The young doctor looked up and on his face were reflected confusion and fear. His lips trembled, he tried to say something, took a step forward, but Palitzsch did not wait , he grasped the little boy by his legs and with all his might smashed his head against the wall.
The scene was so unexpected, so terrible that even the two SS men caught their breath, while the doctor took off his glasses and tried to wipe them again, but his hands were trembling so much that the glasses fell onto the sand. He bent down and with the awkward movements of a short-sighted person began to look for them.
And at that moment Palitzsch spoke, his calm, hard voice filled with irony. “Herr Doctor, your duty is to check whether the execution has been correctly carried out and whether those condemned to die are in fact dead.”
Filip Muller, Czech Jew who worked in the Auschwitz Sonderkommando, described the Auschwitz 1 crematorium, which he entered in May 1942:
It was Sunday in May. We were locked in an underground cell in Block 11. We were held in secret. Then some SS men appeared and marched us along a street in the camp. We went through a gate, and around three hundred feet away, three hundred feet from the gate, I suddenly saw a building.
It had a flat roof and a smokestack. I saw a door in the rear, I thought they were taking us to be shot. Suddenly, before a door, under a lamp in the middle of this building, a young SS man told us: “Inside, filthy swine.”
We entered a corridor, they drove us along it. Right away, the stench, the smoke choked me. They kept on chasing us and then I made out the shapes of the first two ovens. Between the ovens some Jewish prisoners were working. We were in the incineration chamber of the crematorium in Camp 1 at Auschwitz.
From there they herded us to another big room and told us to undress the corpses. I looked around me. There were hundreds of bodies, all dressed. Piled with the corpses were suitcases, bundles and scattered everywhere, strange, bluish purple crystals.
I couldn’t understand any of it. It was like a blow on the head, as if I’d been stunned. I didn’t even know where I was. Above all, I couldn’t understand how they managed to kill so many people at once.
When we undressed some of them, the order was given to feed the ovens. Suddenly an SS man rushed up and told me: “Get out of here! Go stir the bodies.” What did he mean, “Stir the bodies?”
I entered the cremation chamber there was a Jewish prisoner, Fischel, who later became a squad leader. He looked at me and I watched him poke the fire with a long rod. He told me: “Do as I’m doing or the SS will kill you.”
I picked up a steel poker and did as he was doing. I obeyed Fischel’s order. At that point I was in shock, as if I’d been hypnotised, ready to do whatever I was told. I was so mindless, so horrified, that I did everything Fischel told me.
So the ovens were fed, but we were so inexperienced that we left the fans on too long. There were fans to make the fire hotter. They worked too long, the firebrick suddenly exploded, blocking the pipes linking the Auschwitz crematorium with the smokestack. Cremation was interrupted – the ovens were out of action.
That evening some trucks came, and we had to load the rest, some three hundred bodies, into the trucks. Then we were taken… I still don’t know where, but probably to a field at Birkenau. We were ordered to unload the bodies and put them in a pit. There was a ditch, an artificial pit.
Suddenly, water gushed up from underground and swept the bodies down. When night came, we had to stop that horrible work. We were loaded into the trucks and returned to Auschwitz.
The next day we were taken to the same place, but the water had risen. Some SS men came with a fire truck and pumped out the water. We had to go down into that muddy pit to stack up the bodies. But they were slimy.
For example I grasped a woman, but her hands … her hand was slippery, slimy. I tried to pull her, but I fell over backward, into the water, the mud. It was the same for all of us.
Up top, at the edge of the pit, Aumeier and Grabner yelled: “Get cracking you filth, you bastards! We’ll show you, you bunch of shits!” And in those call them circumstances, two of my companions couldn’t take any more.
One was a French student. All Jews! They were exhausted they just lay there in the mud. Aumeier called one of his SS men: “Go on finish off those swine!” They were exhausted and they were shot in the pit.
Morris Venezia describes the moment of selection on the ramp at Birkenau:
German was separating us – he was looking at the old people put them to the right – young people to the left. This way they separated us – the right lane they took them right away to the gas chambers.
J. Wiernicki described the arrival of a transport from Budapest at the ramp at Birkenau:
Suddenly I noticed excitement among the people gathered on the platform. The incoming black locomotive pulling a long line of cattle cars whistled from the distance and then slowly puffed its way along the railroad ramp.
When trains were unloaded from the track adjoining the Men’s Camp and the hospital area, the view was completely obstructed by the long line of boxcars. We couldn’t see what was going on, but when the incoming Jewish transports were unloaded from the middle track, closer to the Women’s Camp, the dramatic ramp selections were clearly visible from the hospital grounds.
Only then did I have a chance to use my binoculars and watch the drama unfolding before my eyes. This time the train arrived at the middle track. The SS man walked slowly along the train, banging at each door with a wooden stick: “All quiet and all out. Leave your luggage behind….. Keep moving!” He screamed in a loud voice.
“Canada” men opened the door of each cattle car. The people inside each car, tired, thirsty, and squeezed very tight for many days and nights, pushed towards an opening.
Men pushed harder and they were the first on the ground. Women and children made the second wave. The sick and old were left behind lying helplessly on the dirty floors of the cattle cars among piles of luggage, blankets, and human excrement.
The “Canada” men jumped into the cattle cars and tried to assist the invalids and the sick. With a mixture of compassion and indifference they gently guided disabled persons to descend from the high steps of the cattle cars to the railroad ramp.
Once unloaded, SS guards with huge dogs inspected the empty cattle cars. They went from car to car. Whenever, the guard found a person left behind, he let the dog attack the victim who, frightened by the ferocious animal, gathered all his or her strength and desperately jumped screaming from the cattle car.
Diligently, they formed two long columns along the full length of the railroad platform. I noticed also a small group of men with Red Cross armbands standing on one side. They were Jewish doctors who arrived with the transport and who waited their time for selection.
All groups were facing Dr Thilo, as soon as men were formed in an orderly column five abreast, each person was told to move forward, one at a time and face the SS doctor. After a brief assessment of each individual, the SS doctor started to move his finger.
Young, robust and healthy men moved to the right while the older men were forming a new column behind the army truck on the left. “Canada” men helped helped sick and disabled men to climb on the truck. Within half an hour the job was finished.
The SS man heading the column made a sign to the driver of the truck, the long line of old men moved and walked silently behind the truck carrying the sick and disabled people. They crossed the rail lines as they walked toward the entrance to the Women’s Camp.
In front of the SS guard post, they turned right and walked along the railroad tracks toward the entrances to Crematoria II and III. The short column of young men followed the first group and walked in the same direction.
After a few hundred yards the truck and the column of old men turned right and entered the courtyard of Crematorium III. The column of healthy young men bypassed the entrances to the crematoria and marched farther down the winding road to the bath-house.
Dr Thilo was already selecting women left behind on the platform, young and healthy girls stayed on the right, older women, grandmothers and granddaughters below the age of fourteen were left together on the left.
“Canada” men helped old women and invalids and small children to climb on the second truck. The doctor reached the end of the women’s column and sent mostly young and healthy girls to the right. Immediately upon completion of selection, the column of young women from the right side was led by SS Unterscharfuhrer across the railroad tracks directly to the Women’s Camp.
The long line of mothers, grandmothers, and children followed the second truck heading toward Crematorium III. A Red Cross ambulance the marchers, inside canisters with Zyklon B were delivered by SS men to the crematoria. “Canada” men were left behind on the platform to collect and sort out all luggage. Thrown in large piles in front of each cattle car, the mountains of suitcases offered tempting opportunities for theft.
Damaged and half-opened suitcases full of clothes, food, jars of fat, bread, sausages, and bottles of wine lay on the platform, in the middle of cleaning activities tempting both prisoners and SS guards.
The train stood empty on the platform, Dr Thilo left with his driver, the people had gone, and only small groups of “Canada” men worked diligently to make room for the next transport.
There was a whistle on the platform signalling the beginning of train – cleaning activities. A special squad of “Canada” men went to each car to clean the floor and wash the walls. The cleaning crew threw out of the cars trash, human excrement; soiled underwear and corpses left abandoned and covered by pillows and blankets. Stiff bodies of infants hidden by terrified mothers before their departure, were collected in a separate pile for transport to the crematoria.
The “special handling” of the Budapest transport was coming to an end. Then I heard the whistle, the train moved backward. Wheels turned slowly as the steaming locomotive pushed the long line of cattle cars toward the main watchtower.
SS guards holding automatic weapons still guarded the remaining suitcases, coats, briefcases, parcels and the damaged half-open trunks. Occasionally a Kapo with a yellow armband crossed the platform, screaming at the few remaining “Canada” men to work faster.
Dov Pasikowic who worked in the Sonderkommando:
They took us to Crematorium III and IV. There we saw hell on this earth. Large piles of dead people and people dragging these bodies to a long pit about 30 meters in length, 10 meters in width, there was a huge fire there made of trees. On the other side fat was being taken out of this pit with a bucket.
We immediately had to begin working – four people would take one dead person, but the SS came and said “No, each one of you will take one.”
He showed us how with a simple walking stick, one was to take the body under the chin, put the stick on the neck and drag the body to the pit, like people drag a rag or a piece of wood.
At the edge of the pit there were still more people who pushed the dead into the pit. Some of our group threw themselves – jumped into the pit alive, they apparently thought it better to be burned alive rather than work at such a job.
There were only four or five SS men altogether – they were so well organised that there were just the four or five of them with us, but there were electric fences and beyond this fence there were SS guards. Escape was impossible.
After a week they suddenly took me one night to Crematoria I. There the whole job was more mechanical - all around there were water installations, as if for showers. Everyone crowded around these showers they still did not know – some who did – did not dare to believe they were to be poisoned there.
They would put about two thousand – two and a half thousand people in there, if there wasn’t enough room, the small children would be thrown on top of the people’s heads.
There were invalids: they would take out their service cards showing they had fought in the First World War with all kinds of distinctions and medals, which they had from that time.
They shouted, “We fought for Germany and now they are going to burn us, kill us, this is impossible: We protest against such a thing!” but everyone just laughed at them, they didn’t take it seriously these SS men, they laughed at the whole thing.
There were invalids whom I helped to undress as they couldn’t do it by themselves. There were many of us who helped, I would talk to these people.
There were cases where I saw acquaintances – my heart wouldn’t let me walk over to them, to let them recognise me. No- one who hasn’t gone through such a thing can imagine what the will to live is? What a moment of life is? Every person without exception is capable of doing the worst things just to live another minute.
Many women miscarried during the poisoning; people hit each other, people scratched with their nails. There were finger nail marks on people. Everyone wanted to survive but it was impossible there.
We went in to take out all the corpses – we took them up by lifts to the ovens. Near the ovens, upstairs, there was a man who removed gold teeth and false teeth. They would shave the women’s hair and look for all sorts of valuables in the most intimate of places, especially the women.
In the oven it took fifteen minutes to burn them only a few ashes were left from all those corpses. There were two shifts at work from six in the morning to six at night.
I was present when they brought the gypsies one night for burning, for poisoning – it was a terrible sight. There were cries to the sky, there were cries in the bunker, in the crematorium, in the gas chamber, it was horrible, horrible.
I still wonder today how God didn’t hear those cries.
J. Wiernicki described the living conditions in Birkenau:
Mice, rats and lice were everywhere. Big well-fed and brazen mice ran openly during the day among the women’s blocks. Pushy curious and not intimidated or scared by the women inmates screams, they searched relentlessly for hidden bread portions in the blocks and crawled among the women’s bunks.
Witek told me that in the darkness of night, huge rats would leave their burrows, crawling among the sleeping prisoners, in search of food, often scavenging corpses piled outside of each block.
Filip Muller provides a detailed description of the gas chambers and crematoria:
Before each gassing operation the SS took stern precautions. The crematorium was ringed with SS men. Many SS men patrolled the court with dogs and machine guns.
To the right were the steps that led underground to the “undressing room.” In Birkenau there were four crematoriums, Crematoriums 2, 3 4 and 5. Crematorium 2 was similar to 3. In 2 and 3 the “undressing room” and the gas chamber were underground.
A large “undressing room” of about three thousand square feet, and a large gas chamber where one could gas up to three thousand people at a time. Crematoriums 4 and 5 were of a different type in that they weren’t located underground. Everything was at ground level. In 4 and 5 there were three gas chambers, with a total capacity of at most eighteen hundred to two thousand people at a time.
Dario Grabbi, a Jewish member of the Sonderkommando in 1944, described a gassing:
And there were people that they…. were starting to understand that something funny was going on there. But nobody could do anything the process had to go you know. Everything was done from the Germans point of view, they were all precise, there were people screaming, the Germans were screaming “schnell, schnell.”
Could you imagine what was done with the children and the families, they think…. they didn’t know what to do – scratching the walls crying until the gas takes effect. And when everything stopped you know and they opened the doors and I saw these people I saw a few minutes … half an hour before when they were going in. I see them all standing up some black and blue from the gas, no place where to go - dead.
Libusa Breder a Jewish worker from “Canada” – the warehouse complex where the clothes, possessions and valuables from the murdered Jews became property of the Reich:
Working in “Canada” saved my life because we had food, we got water and that was the best working unit for life as we were not beaten. Every piece had to be searched. Underwear, everything and we found lots of diamonds, gold, coins, money dollars, foreign currency from all over Europe. They were taking home lots of gold, and other valuables, because they were stealing and nobody counted it.
And it went on all the time I was working in “Canada.” There was no God in Auschwitz there were such horrible conditions that God decided not to go there. We wanted them to put bombs on the camp. Hundreds of planes coming and we are looking up and no bombs.
Eva Mozes Kor who was one of young Jewish twins subjected to experiments by Dr Josef Mengele, in his perverted research into medical genetics:
Mengele came in every morning after a roll call to count us – he wanted to know every morning how many guinea pigs he had. Three times a week both of my arms would be tied to restrict the flow of blood and they took a lot of blood from my left arm – on occasion enough blood until we fainted.
At the same time they… they were taking blood they would give me a minimum of five injections into my right arm. After one of those injections I became extremely ill and Dr Mengele came in next morning with four other doctors. He looked at my fever chart and he said laughing sarcastically he said, “Too bad – she is so young – she has only two weeks to live.”
I would fade in and out of consciousness and in a semi-conscious state of mind I would keep telling myself I must survive – I must survive. They were waiting for me to die, would I have died my twin sister Miriam would have been rushed immediately to Mengele’s lab, killed with an injection to the heart and then Mengele would have done the comparative autopsies. That is the way most of the twins died.
I was asked by somebody, “you are very strong – how did you become very strong?” I said I had no choice I overcame or I would have perished.
Morris Venezia remembers the voices in the gas chambers:
When people were in that gas chamber you could hear some kind of a voice calling God. It looked like those voices coming from a kind of catacomb. I still got those kind of voices in my ears.
Dario Grabbi, a Jewish member of the Sonderkommando in 1944, described the shootings at the pits:
We had to take them, they bring them one by one, we take them by the ear. Behind him was an SS – they shoot him in the back, the guy would come down with a lot of blood, some of us there with water putting out.
After a while you don’t know – nothing bothers you, that is why your conscience gets inside of you and stays there until today. Somebody else is inside of me that tell me from time to time you get awake – what happened – why did you do such a thing?
Henryk Mandelbaum who was a member of the Jewish Sonderkommando described the aftermath of the Sonderkommando revolt in October 1944:
They didn’t know what to do with us so they had a kind of discussion. Then they told us to lie face down on the ground holding our hands behind our backs and every third person was shot. Some of my friends in the Sonderkommando lost their lives and the rest of us had to go back to work. There was never much hope for us. I am telling it like it is.
Dario Grabbi, a Jewish member of the Sonderkommando also describes the SS reaction to the revolt:
They didn’t kill us because there were four thousand cadavers that had to go into the ovens. We are the only ones who could do it and that’s why they saved us. But after that they took most of us – they left only ninety-two of us – all the others they took and they killed them all around.
Eva Mozes Kor describes the evacuation from Birkenau in January 1945:
We woke up in the middle of the night as the sounds of explosions; they were blowing up the gas chambers, the crematoriums. Outside the SS were waiting for us and ordered us to march. Anybody who could not march fast enough was shot on the spot. We arrived in Auschwitz 1 which is about an hours walk at 1am.
The Nazis again disappeared as if the earth had swallowed them up.
Anus Mundi – Five Years in Auschwitz by Wieslaw Kielar published by Penguin Books 1982
The World at War by Richard Holmes, published by Ebury Press 2007
Shoah by Claude Lanzmann published by Pantheon Books New York 1985
The World at War – TV Documentary Series
Auschwitz – The Nazis and “The Final Solution” BBC
Auschwitz Chronicle Danuta Czech published by Henry Holt & Company New York
War in the Shadow of Auschwitz by J. Wiernicki published by Syracruse University Press 2001
Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the Gas Chambers by Jean –Claude Pressac, published by the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation 1989.
The Survival of Love by Jozef Garlinski published by Basil Blackwell 1991
The Yellow Star by Gerhard Schoenberner published by Corgi 1978
Holocaust Historical Society
Copyright: Chris Webb & Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2010