Auschwitz and the Holocaust

January 28th, 2012

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.

Hungarian Jews at AuschwitzThe 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.

Jews Arriving at AuschwitzEichmann 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.

Baer, Mengele, and HoessIn 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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