Auschwitz and the Holocaust

January 28th, 2011

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, created in 2005 by a UN General Assembly resolution, coincides with the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945. This is the second of a series of three articles being re-published to observe this solemn day of remembrance.

By Tom Carter

The Auschwitz complex consisted of three camps. One was mostly administrative, another was a slave labor camp supporting an I.G. Farben industrial enterprise, and Auschwitz-Birkenau was the death camp. Well over a million people were murdered at Auschwitz, about 90 percent of them Jews. Some Nazi victims at Auschwitz were from Poland, but many were deported to Auschwitz from other countries, including Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Yugoslavia.

The experience of the Jews of Hungary was particularly tragic. Earlier in the war, Hungarian authorities, while generally cooperating with the Nazis, resisted attempts to deport Hungary’s approximately 750,000 Jews. After the Nazis seized control of Hungary, about 430,000 Hungarian Jews, some of whom are pictured at left, were deported to Auschwitz during April-June 1944, where almost all of them died. In just these few months, the Hungarian Jews assembly-lined through the death machine at Auschwitz accounted for about one-third of all Jews killed there.

SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann, the administrative mastermind of the Final Solution, the Nazi plan to eliminate the Jews of Europe, arrived in Budapest in 1944. His mission — his passion — was to finally deal with the Hungarian Jews. In a bizarre turn of events, Eichmann contacted an influential leader of the Jewish community and offered to ransom one million Jews, more than there were in all of Hungary, for ten thousand trucks. This offer was carried to the Allies and, after extensive deliberations, was declined because of a reluctance to pay ransom, especially in a form that could help the German war effort.

Eichmann accomplished his mission, even to the point of exceeding his orders, with the full and willing support of the Hungarian regime in power.

The killing machine that was Auschwitz was darkly impressive in its efficiency. SS Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, former Commandant of Auschwitz, testifying at Nuremberg:

The way we selected our victims was as follows: We had two SS doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. The prisoners would be marched by one of the doctors who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit for work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under their clothes, but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated. We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz.

Those selected for death upon arrival were quickly murdered, most by gassing but some by other means when the gas chambers were overworked. Some, especially children, were selected for medical experiments that were cruel and inhumane beyond description. Dr. Josef Mengele, an SS physician, was in charge of most selections of those who would live, die, or be subjected to experiments. He was particularly curious about twins, conducting experiments on twin children that were truly vile. He injected dye into their unanesthetized eyeballs to see if he could change the color of their eyes; he murdered the survivors of twins who had been experimented on to conduct comparative autopsies; he even killed sets of twins to settle disagreements with his co-workers.

In this photo, Dr. Mengele is second from left. SS Obersturmbannführer Höss, who commanded Auschwitz for much of the time it operated, is in the center foreground. They appear to be normal human beings, passing a pleasant moment among friends. But don’t be deceived. They were as evil as any creatures that ever trod upon this earth.

Höss met a fitting end. He was convicted of murder in Poland and hanged at Auschwitz in April 1947, near a crematorium. Unfortunately, Mengele escaped the justice he so richly deserved, despite a decades-long manhunt. He ran to South America when the war ended and lived there for 34 years before his death.

Could anything have been done to stop or at least slow the killing at Auschwitz? Reports of what was going on dribbled out during the war. Toward the end of the war, the Allies had a pretty good idea of what was happening. But Auschwitz was deep inside Poland, inaccessible to Allied military power. Near the end of the war, when some of the late, frantic killing was happening at Auschwitz, the Allies could have bombed the camps or perhaps the rail lines servicing them. Some fault the Allies for not bombing Auschwitz. But in the context of their times, it’s difficult to judge them too harshly because of the limits of their knowledge and the pressure of prosecuting the larger war. Beyond that, the inaccuracy of high-level bombardment and the ease of repairing rail lines meant that bombing would have likely killed very many prisoners and accomplished little of substance.

Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 during the UN commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz:

…the tragedy of the Jewish people was unique. An entire civilization, which had contributed far beyond its numbers to the cultural and intellectual riches of Europe and the world, was uprooted, destroyed, laid waste.

Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, speaking before the UN General Assembly during the 2005 commemoration, said:

Had the Western nations intervened when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia and Austria; had America accepted more refugees from Europe; had Britain accepted more refugees from Europe; had Britain allowed more Jews to return to their ancestral land; had the Allies bombed the railways leading to Birkenau, our tragedy might have been avoided, its scope surely diminished. This shameful indifference we must remember.

Mr. Wiesel delivered the first major speech the United Nations had ever agreed to hear in commemoration of the deaths of six million Jews. However, the room was only half full. Among Muslim countries, Jordan and Afghanistan were prominently visible, but most were absent.

In a near future not hard to imagine, will we have to repeat Elie Wiesel’s lament against “shameful indifference?” The time to help the Jews of Europe avoid the horrors of the Holocaust was in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The time to support and defend Israel is now.

(Other articles in this series: Remembering the Holocaust, The Church and the Holocaust )

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7 Responses to “Auschwitz and the Holocaust”

  1. Clarissa |

    “with the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945”

    -The scariest thing is that right after that the Soviet Union adopted a fiercely anti-semitic campaign that turned the Soviet Jews into a marginalized, persecuted minority until the collapse of the Soviet Union. How is that possible that people who walked into the Nazi concentration camps and saw the mountains of dead bodies, who liberated the starving Jews on the brink of death would turn around and persecute Jews in their own country immediately after that?

    Thank you for publishing this important series of articles. People are prone to forget even such great tragedies too soon.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Clarissa, there are many unanswerable questions where the Holocaust is concerned. It reached levels of evil and depravity that defy explanation.

    In the example you referred to, the contrast between Soviet soldiers saving victims and the Soviet state persecuting them, I think it’s the difference between individuals acting as human beings and a large bureaucracy implementing anti-semitic policy.

    In all the reading I’ve done on the Holocaust, I’ve come across a few examples — precious few — of German soldiers and policemen showing mercy toward Jews, especially women and children. It may have been nothing more than turning their backs as a few managed to escape a round-up, but it was at least a flicker of humanity. It’s truly sad that there was so little of this.

  3. Brian |

    Clarissa, the pogroms predate the Holocaust by at least 10 years. And unless I am much mistaken, Stalin’s antisemitism was apparent long before that.

  4. Tom Carter |

    Brian, Stalin may have been personally anti-semitic all his life, but it wasn’t apparent before WWII. In earlier years he actually condemned anti-semitism, but like everything else he did, it was motivated more by political considerations than anything else.

    It’s also important to remember that many Bolshevik leaders were Jews — to name a few, Trotsky, Sverdlov, Zinoviev, Radek, Litvinov, Kamenev, Uritsky. Lenin himself had one Jewish grandparent, which was enough to qualify someone for death in Nazi Germany.

  5. Brian |

    Tom, antisemitism has been alive and well in Russia, the Slavic states, and your neck of the woods for at least a couple centuries. The earliest identified pogrom was in the 1820s. Though the pogroms weren’t official state policy of either the Tsars or the Communists, they weren’t discouraged or punished, either, and they were almost exclusively antisemitic.

    As to the Jewish Bolsheviks, how many of them ultimately survived Stalin? Trotsky was assassinated in 1940 after being exiled in 1937. Kamenev and Zinoviev were executed in 1934. Was antisemitism the driving force? I personally doubt it, as Stalin was intent on consolidating his power and executing anyone that might challenge him. But, the fact remains that antisemitism, while not nearly as extensive as the official state policy of the NAZIs, has been an issue in that part of the world for some time.

  6. Tom Carter |

    All true, Brian. And, sad to say, anti-semitism is also alive and well in your neck of the woods and virtually every neck of the woods. It’s impossible to explain or understand in logical terms, but it’s there.

    I agree with you that anti-semitism wasn’t the driving force in Stalin’s purges. A whole lot of prominent people died, sometimes simply because they were too prominent and in Stalin’s fevered mind could have been a threat to him. Bukharin is a good case in point; brilliant man who was loyal and could have been of great value to the state.

  7. Remembering the Holocaust | Geo436 |

    […] articles in this series: Auschwitz and the Holocaust, The Church and the Holocaust […]

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