A terrible darkness had descended across Europe. An entire way of life had been turned upside down by one man, Adolf Hitler, and his followers. Instead of sitting in a classroom, pondering a career, or perhaps working in a local shop, young Jewish men and women found themselves without a future – isolated and cast out. Instead of kicking a ball around in the park, making new friends, or going on a class picnic, Jewish children found themselves deprived of these simple joys – shunned and excluded.
Meanwhile, their parents agonized. They had always thought of themselves as upstanding citizens, who happened to be Jewish. They had served in the government, fought bravely in prior wars, paid taxes, obeyed the law and otherwise aspired to lead decent lives while seeking happiness for their children, just like anyone else. But now they had been labeled as enemies.
Wherever the Nazis went, they poisoned minds, corrupting the attitudes of local people who had cared little, till now, whether their next door neighbors went to the temple on Saturday instead of church on Sunday. Under relentless pressure from the Nazis, many locals became eager to cooperate, including police and government officials who issued specially marked identity cards and then compiled comprehensive lists so that by the time of the Final Solution, no village, town, city, county, state or nation had been left uncatalogued as to the precise number of Jews and their exact whereabouts.
Following this, master timetables were created by the SS to enact orderly deportations. In each place, Nazis and local police rounded up the people, street by street, marching them off to the local train depot where they were crowded into railroad boxcars normally used to transport freight or livestock, and sent off without food or proper sanitation, on a perilous week-long journey to the East.
Waiting for them along the railroad siding at Auschwitz-Birkenau were men of the SS-Totenkopf – the Death's Head battalion. Around the clock, seven days a week, the trains arrived from all over Europe. In June 1944, a train from Slovakia, carrying 18-year-old Alexander Ehrmann and his family pulled in:
"We arrived around one o'clock in the morning in an area with lights, floodlights, and stench. We saw flames, tall chimneys. We still did not want to accept that it was Auschwitz. We preferred to think we didn't know than to acknowledge, yes, we are there. The train stopped. Outside we heard all kinds of noises, stench, language, commands we didn't understand. It was in German but we didn't know what it meant. Dogs barked. The doors flung open, and we saw strange uniformed men in striped clothes. They started to yell at us in the Yiddish of Polish Jews: "Schnell! Raus! " We started to ask them, "Where are we?" They answered, "Raus, raus, raus!" Sentries and their dogs were there, and they yelled at us also. "Macht Schnell!" We got out and they told us to get in formations of five, and to leave all the luggage there. We asked one of the guys, "Tell me, tell me, where are we going?" "Dort, geht," and he pointed towards the flames. We had to move on. So we formed up, true to family tradition, two parents, the oldest sister, and the next sister and the child on my sister's hand. My mother asked her, "Let me carry him," two and a half years old. She said, "No, I'll take care of my own son." So the three sisters and my two parents were walking and the two boys in the next row with three other people. We came up to Mengele, we were standing there. He was pointing left, right. My sister was the first one, with a child, and he pointed to the right. Then my mother, who had a rupture, she had a big belly, she looked like she was pregnant, she wasn't. So I guess that made her go to that side. My father and the two sisters were pointed to his left. He asked my father, "Old man, what do you do?" He said, "Farm work." And then came the next row and the two of us were told also to go after our father and two sisters; and he stopped and he called my father back. "Put out your hand!" So my father showed him his hand and Mengele smacked him across the face and pushed him to the other side. And he continued, "Schnell!" And the sentries were there, and the dogs and we have to move, and that's the last we saw of our parents and sister and nephew."
Alexander had been allowed to live, selected by SS Doctor Josef Mengele for slave labor. His parents, sister and nephew, rejected by Mengele, were now moving with many others toward a sign saying "Baths." Taken down a flight of stairs to the underground facility, they wound up in what appeared to be a large undressing room, similar to the tiled room one might find at a public bath or swimming pool. With no time to think, they were told to undress completely and hang their clothing on the numbered hooks located along the wall, and also instructed to memorize the hook number for later, so they could retrieve their clothing after their shower. Pieces of soap were handed out to some and they were all quickly ushered into what seemed, at first glance, to be very large shower room. But as soon as everyone was crammed inside, the main door was slammed and sealed tight.
As they stood there in anxious anticipation, SS men above the chamber opened cans of the commercial pesticide Zyklon-B and poured the contents, small blue crystalline pellets, into hollow shafts made of perforated sheet metal which extended to the floor of the gas chamber. The pellets fell to the bottom of the shaft and vaporized upon contact with air, emitting blue-tinged cyanide fumes that oozed out at floor level, rising slowly. The fumes had a noticeable burnt almond-like odor. When inhaled, the bitter smelling vapors combined with red blood cells, robbing the body of life-giving oxygen, causing the people to gasp for air, followed by unconsciousness, then death through oxygen deprivation. Children were the first to die first since they were closer to the floor. As the fumes expanded upward, pandemonium erupted with everyone else climbing on top of each other, forming a tangled heap of bodies all the way to the ceiling.
Fifteen minutes later the chamber was silent. Electric vents were activated by SS men to draw out the remaining fumes. The door was then opened and special squads of Jewish slave laborers called Sonderkommandos entered to untangle the corpses, now dripping with a combination of blood, urine and feces. The bodies were washed down with hoses, pried apart with hooks and then removed one-by-one. The corpses were then placed on carts and rolled onto special lifts taking them one floor up to the crematory ovens. There, other Sonderkommandos went about the task of removing the bodies from the carts. Any teeth with gold fillings were extracted, rings pulled off fingers, women's hair shorn and collected, and all body orifices were searched for hidden valuables. The bodies were then placed in the ovens.
Cremation was the slowest part of the extermination process, taking about fifteen minutes per body. Sometimes the ovens couldn't handle the volume of corpses when too many trainloads arrived. Therefore open fire pits were used to cremate bodies. By the summer of 1944, six huge fire pits were in use to accommodate the accelerated deportation of Hungary's Jews to the gas chambers. During that time, Auschwitz-Birkenau recorded
its highest-ever daily number of persons gassed and burned at just over
When Alexander was on his way to his slave labor quarters, he passed by one of the cremation pits. "We were walking, and beyond the barbed wire fences there were piles of rubble and branches, pine tree branches and rubble burning, slowly burning. We're walking by, and the sentries kept on screaming, "Lauf, Lauf " and I heard a baby crying. The baby was crying somewhere in the distance and I couldn't stop and look. We moved, and it smelled, a horrible stench. I knew that things in the fire were moving, there were babies in the fire."
Occasionally SS men grabbed noisy babies from their mothers and threw them alive into the fire pit. Such behavior was not extraordinary at Auschwitz where SS personnel relished the opportunity to wield the power of life and death over beings they considered less than human.
Filip Müller, who spent time as a Sonderkommando working in the gas chambers, commented on mentality of the SS Sergeant who ruled over him. "We prisoners and [SS-Unterscharführer] Stark were worlds apart. For us he seemed to have no human feelings whatever. We only knew him as one who gave his commands brusquely, insulted, abused and threatened us continually, goaded us to work, and beat us mercilessly. To his superiors he was diligent and subservient. I often wondered how it was possible for this young man, scarcely older than myself, to be so cruel, so brutal, harboring so unfathomable a hatred of the Jews. I doubted whether he had actually ever come into close contact with Jews before he came to Auschwitz. He was no doubt a victim of that Nazi propaganda which put the blame for any misfortune, including the war, on the Jews. How was it possible, I often asked myself, for a young man of average intelligence and normal personality to carry out the unspeakable atrocities demanded of him in the belief that thereby he was doing his patriotic duty, without ever realizing that he was being used as a tool by perverted political dictators?"
Slave laborers such as Filip and Alexander existed from moment to moment, clinging to life, knowing they could be killed by an SS man for any reason at any time, and would never know why. Dressed in blue-striped uniforms, with an ID number tattooed on their left forearm, they resided with fellow laborers in crammed wooden barracks on starvation rations, while working twelve hours per day. The average life span under such conditions was about three months.
The sprawling Auschwitz complex included 30 labor camps with 100,000 inmates supporting entire industries. German companies, in cooperation with the SS, were eager to take advantage of the ready labor supply in an arrangement that became mutually profitable. This included world renowned companies such as I.G. Farben chemical works, and Krupp armaments.
SS doctors such as Mengele also exploited inmates as a ready supply of subjects for human medical experiments. Of particular interest to Dr. Mengele were twin children, and he set aside some 1500 pairs for rogue genetic research that killed nearly all of them.
One extraordinary aspect of the journey to Auschwitz was that the Nazis often charged Jews deported from Western Europe train fare as third class passengers under the guise that they were being "resettled in the East." The SS sometimes made new arrivals sign picture postcards showing the fictional location "Waldensee," mailed to relatives back home with the printed greeting: "We are doing very well here. We have work and we are well treated. We await your arrival."
A terrible darkness had descended across Europe, and in its shadow the light of joy, hope, and human potential was diminished. But by mid-1944, a million-and-a-half Allied soldiers were assembled in southern England, ready to invade Europe and open up a new front against Hitler's empire of death. All that remained was for General Eisenhower to choose the invasion date.
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