Guest Blogger – Shlomo Goldberg: Sam’s Refusal to Testify Against Demjanjuk

My father survived Treblinka. That sentence borders on the unbelievable. The statistical probability of anyone surviving Treblinka is  1 and 14,600 (60 out of 875000). My father worked as a slave at that camp for more than a year. He is probably the person who survived the longest time in that camp. His story is so incredible, that when I was growing up, I did hardly believed it and I had strong doubts about the details. I was very afraid that he had to do something terrible to survive that long

After my mother died, my father and I would visit Israel annually.  About half of the remaining survivors of Treblinka live in Israel.  They all knew each other. It was easy for me to arrange a lunch meeting with all of them. After that, I had no choice but to believe my father’s story. For the first time, I could feel comfortable that he hadn’t done something terrible to survive that long. I could feel confident that his story was true.

At that meeting, many of the attendees criticized my father for failing to testify in the recent trial of John Demjanjuk, who have been accused and convicted of being Ivan the Terrible, the cruelest executioner in Treblinka. The other survivors talked about how they had identified him:  by his footsteps.  I thought that they would have been so busy looking at where their own feet were, making sure they are were  not in the wrong place,  making sure they were not one of those 15,000 people whom they might have been  (the ones who died in their stead)  that they could never Identify any of the executioners.

But my father refused to testify. He said he couldn’t recognize it. It is hard to recognize somebody who was aged 50 years, who has become an old man.  There had been a lot of pressure on my father and now there were  recriminations for his failure to be part of the crowd.

My father previously had given testimony against Kurt Franz. My father had been Kurt Franz’s pets Jew. That was an easy identification.

Now I think back on that meeting in Israel quite often. I tell the story to my children. I am proud of my father’s honesty. That was a quality that belonged to him, it was not imposed on him, like his survival. Whatever tendency to that honesty I received from him, I want to cultivate and I want my children to cultivate it –  and I think I see it in  my children.

The New York Times Book Review today discussed a book about John Demjanjuk,  It review the history of the situation. After his conviction, Demjanjuk was exonerated by the  Israeli  Court of Appeals,  a great tribute to justice under duress.  The Israeli   Court of Appeals shared my father’s sense of honesty.

Demjanjuk was ultimately convicted of participation in the mass murders at another death camp, Sobibor. His conviction was in a German Court Demjanjuk himself was Ukrainian

 A friend once told me that the vast majority of people in prison have committed crimes that merit their imprisonment. However, many of them are in prison for crimes they did not commit

 

Advertisements

SAM – Prisoner of War -1941

As promised in the February 1 Blog Post in which mass extermination of Soviet Prisoners of War was described, here is Sam’s POW story. It is amazing!

 

August 23, 1939 – the Germans and the Soviets signed a Non-Aggression Pact.  Poland was sliced in half – the Soviet Union took the northern part, Germany, the southern part.  Both agreed not to attack the other.

September 1, 1939 – Germany attacks Poland from north, west and south and occupy the areas agreed upon in the Pact.

September 17, 1939 – Soviets invade eastern Poland and occupy the areas agreed upon in the Pact.

Poof – no more Poland.

The Goldberg family’s farm was in Bagatelles, on the German-side of the line.  It did not take long before the Nazis arrived and told them to leave – NOW.  Sam, a young innocent man of 19, said – “let us take our cows.”  The Germans said “NO.”  Sam pleaded with them to be able to take at least one cow.  The German relented and allowed one cow to go along with them as they left in their horse-drawn wagon.  Like so many others, they moved to the Soviet-controlled zone – to Yashenitz where Sam’s aunt lived.  There they were safe.  Sam’s father, Zelig, managed to do some “business.” Sam bought and sold on the black market. They made do.

But now they were Soviet citizens and when the army officer came to draft the young men into the Soviet army, they had no choice.  Just before Passover, in April of 1940, Sam was drafted into the Soviet army.  He served in a battalion that was 75% Jewish.  He was a “sapion” – building and repairing bridges.  By the time the Germans ripped up the Non-Aggression Pact and attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Sam was an expert; he had been building bridges for over a year.

It was a very long year.  Sam, so close to his parents, had never lived away from them.  He missed them so badly.  Conditions in the Russian army camp were bad and the food was worse.  “A yellow kasha” Sam described.  “Fershtunkina (putrid) yellow kasha.  It was like lying around for 20 years, it stank from a distance and we had to eat it because they had no better.”

When the Germans attacked that day in June, it was swift and brutal.  While the German planes flew low, shooting at the Soviet soldiers, the infantry arrived to multiply the force effect.  The Soviet soldiers had no hope of counter attacking.

Sam’s battalion was in Chechenovses, not too far from his family farm.  When the attack came, he was helping to build a yet unfinished bridge with two or three hundred other soldiers.  Sam hid under the bridge praying that it would not be bombed.   His gamble paid off.  He hid there until the guns died down.  When he emerged he saw so many dead soldiers that “the dead literally covered the survivors.”  The survivors became prisoners of war.

The Germans built a makeshift POW camp in the woods near Zembrov, holding more than 3000 POWs.  They were Poles, Russians, but mostly Jews.  The first order was to dig graves for the thousands of dead soldiers.  Then, without food for two days, the exhausted, filthy Soviet soldiers, stood in row after row in a state of shock.  Remember these Soviets soldiers believed that Germany was their buddy – they had a deal!

But here they stood, facing a new reality.  The German officer yelled: “All Komosavoltziz step out!”  The Soviet Officers stepped forward and were shot on the spot – “ta ta ta ta ta.”  Then the officer yelled: “All Politrupin step out!”  The political officers stepped out of line and were shot – “ta ta ta ta ta.”  Then the officer yelled: “All Jews step out!”

Sam stood in line, exhausted, starving, and as he described, his “life was ugly,” he “did not want to live anymore.”   He was ready to step out knowing full well that the shot would come.  He hoped it would be quick.

But then a large Russian from Kavkas, forcibly held his arm and said: “No, don’t go. Whatever happens to me will happen to you.”  Sam looked at his friend with his tired clear blue eyes and said, I am too hungry, I want to die.  The Russian had a sugar cube in his pocket and gave it to Sam who put on his tongue and let the sweetness run down his throat and revive his soul.  Sam did not step out.

Those left alive after this “liquidation,” were not a happy group.  The Germans held them for days without food or water. Then when something to ingest finally arrived, it was “jelov,” Sam explained, it was “some kind of broth that was so disgusting, ordinarily we would not have touched the outside of a vessel containing such a thing.  But now we drank it with a hearty appetite – and we were refreshed by it.”  While the prisoners laid around in a weakened and starving state, the German soldiers mockingly ate meat and drank wine.

One night in the darkness at 2 AM, the Russian from Kavkas grabbed Sam again and quietly they walked through the throngs of sleeping men to the barbed wire fence at the edge of the camp.   The Russian had wire cutters!   He cut a hole in the fence and together, with two other Jewish prisoners, they ran out into the woods.  Sam knew these woods; this was his territory.  He led the way.

They ran until they reached an orchard.   Shaking a tree, some of the precious fruit fell to the ground. They devoured it.  Then the owner of the orchard saw them, and came over.  His eyes flickered with warmth and recognition when he saw Sam.  He asked “are you the son of Zelig of Bagatelles?”   Sam said “yes.”  This man was a Jew and recognized Zelig in Sam’s youthful face.  Zelig had a very good name and had helped many people, one of whom apparently was this orchard owner.  He “right away” brought them milk and bread, admonishing them not to eat too quickly or too much, since they had not eaten in days.

The relief of having food in his stomach could not be measured.  Sam looked around and saw a scarecrow in the garden.  In the spur of the moment, he switched clothes with the scarecrow, thus creating perhaps the first scarecrow dressed as a Soviet-soldier.

It did not take long for the Germans to realize that prisoners had escaped through the hole in the fence.  As the light of the new day emerged, Sam and his companions saw three machine gun carrying Germans running towards the orchard.   Terrified, they did not know which way to run or what to do.  The Russian and the other two Jews ran out into the garden to get away.  Sam realized he was about to be killed and asked the orchard owner to tell his father what happened and ask him to take his body out of there.  He did not follow the three others.  Instead he hid by a tree, pressing his body so close to the trunk that his flesh memorized every knot and bump.

The German soldiers threw grenades and shot at the three other escapees.  They were killed instantly.   At the sight of these killings, the orchard owner’s daughter standing near Sam, began to wail.   She screamed so loud and so desperately, that the German soldiers came running over to help her. They got a bucket of water and poured it on her face to snap her out of it.   Sam hid behind the tree in his scarecrow outfit.  The Germans paid him no heed.  Their only concern was rescuing the damsel in distress. After doing their good deed for the day and successfully finding and shooting the escaped soldiers (or at least most of them), they headed back to the POW camp to report their success.

Sam stood in silence hardly breathing as he watched the Nazi soldiers walk away.  He could not believe the miracle that just happened.

Sam thanked the orchard owner and decided to go to Yashenitz where his parents were living.  Yashenitz was on the Soviet side of the thin black line on the map that separated the two zones of control in Poland.   But now that protective line was erased.  The Soviet area was no more.  The Nazis had arrived.  He needed to get back to his parents.

As he began his journey, he saw the Poles running towards a mill that had been set afire by the Germans.  This was a wonderful diversion – he joined the running mass of people, drawing no attention to himself.  He detoured just before reaching the mill and safely headed toward Yashenitz and his parents. He only hoped he would find them still alive.

THE RIGHTEOUS ONE AND HER SON THE “JEW CATHCER”

“Jew Catcher” was a profession in Poland during World War II.  Non-Jews would scour the forest, countryside and towns looking for Jews hiding in the woods, barns, attics, sewers, anywhere.   For each Jew caught and delivered to the Nazis, the Jew Catcher received a kilo of sugar, cigarettes, alcohol or some other valuable wartime commodity.  Although a minority of Non-Jews were “Jew Catchers,” very few others actually helped Jews avoid the Nazi death traps, most were silent bystanders.  Who can blame them?  To be found assisting Jews in German-occupied territory was a death sentence for you and your family.

Nonetheless, a special few, provided food, hid, smuggled, provided false IDs or papers or adopted Jews into their homes.   Yad Vashem calls them “Righteous Gentiles.”  To be eligible for this status, a Non-Jew must have assisted a Jew during the war years and received no monetary compensation in return.

Each of their stories is unique, but there are similar themes, such as nannies who helped to save their wards and families, or non-Jews who saved their Jewish spouse. Timothy Snyder, in his book, Black Earth, tells of men who had sexual desire or love for a Jewish woman and save her, childless couples who took in children and loved them like their own, and farmers who took in older Jewish children to serve as farm hands.

The “Righteous” were from all walks of life: “university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.”[1] These people include Anton Schmid who was executed for saving Jews.  In a letter written to his family before his execution, Mr. Schmid said “he had simply ‘acted as a human being’ and regretted the grief he would cause by not returning home to his loved ones.”[2]  It also includes Feliks Cywinski, who “helped twenty-six Jews, who spoke of a sense of ‘obligation’”[3]  and Kazimiera Zulawska who “acted out of a ‘purely human sense of outrage.’”[4]

Then there was Halena Alleshkava.  She was Esther’s righteous one.   She lived on a farm with acres of crops, a home and a barn in the Polish countryside, not far from Treblinka.  From time to time, Helena left food for Esther and allowed her to sleep in her barn on bitter winter nights.  Without her help Esther surely would have starved or frozen to death.

After Sam’s escaped from Treblinka on August 3, 1943, he met Esther in the woods.  Helena saved both of them by allowing them to hide in her barn for a few days and giving them food while the Nazi’s scoured the area for the Treblinka escapees.

But what is absolutely astounding is that Helena’s son, who lived in her home, was a “Jew Catcher.”  He spent his days searching for hidden Jews, capturing them and delivering them to the Nazis for his reward.  It is not clear whether Helena’s son knew that his mother was assisting Esther and Sam.  If he did not know, I can only imagine the fear and anxiety that Helena felt each and every day.  If he did know, but did not turn them in to the Nazis, we should not be too surprised.  Perhaps he viewed them as the family’s “Pet Jew” – a concept discussed in the blog post dated December 15, 2015.    When it was “my Jew”, protection was the order of the day, even when that kilo of sugar was awaiting.

Timothy Snyder asks what was different or unique about the “righteous” ones.  Rescuers who speak of their deeds, down play their acts.  In what must be a play on Hannah Arendt’s description of Eichmann as embodying the “banality of evil,” Snyder describes these righteous saviors as embodying the “banality of good.”[5]

This seems odd.  I have a hard time thinking of these righteous gentiles as embodying “the banality of good.”  Though the saviors may downplay their deeds, this does not equate with banality.  These few, with their innate sense of right and wrong, helped Jews in a time of desperation in a way that cannot and should not be described as banal.

I believe that the actions of Helena Alleshkava, Anton Schmid, Feliks Cywinski, Kazimiera Zulawska and many others, redeemed the world.  When hatred, murder and greed were the norm, these Righteous Gentiles helped those they could, thus saving the world from the black pit to which it was descending.

Jew Catchers may have sweetened their coffee with all that sugar, but their souls were bitter.

 

“Humans were created singly to teach us that . . .  whoever saves a single soul of Israel, is considered as if he preserved an entire world.”  Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.

Sources:

Yad Vashem web site:  http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/about.asp

Snyder, Timothy, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. New York. Tim Duggan Books. 2015.

[1] http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/about.asp

[2] Snyder, Timothy, Black Earth at 315.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

A Kapo at Grossingers

After the war, Sam and Esther settled in Brooklyn, NY.  Vacations were rare, but once they went to Grossingers, a kosher resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains (picture – Catskill Mountains).  It was one of the largest “Borscht Belt” resorts, frequented by Jewish patrons.  The manager at Grossingers was someone Sam recognized from Treblinka. He was a Kapo.

At Treblinka a Kapo was a Jew, appointed by the SS to supervise other Jewish prisoners.  Many were ruthless.  We met a different Kapo in an earlier blog post – the one who was ready to send Sam to the gas chamber and place some of his Warsaw relatives into the Laundry in his place.  Sam hit that Kapo over the head with a wooden plank.  (See Blog Post – Hitting of Biblical Proportions, posted Jan. 1, 2016)

Well, when Sam saw the Kapo at Grossingers, he was shocked.  It had been some 20 years, but still, he recognized him immediately, as the “terrible” Kapo who “lived with maybe 10 girls.”   He said to him: “You, you’re here?”   The Kapo said to Sam: “Be quiet, don’t say anything.”  Needless to say, if it had gotten out that the manager of Grossingers was a Kapo at Treblinka, he would not have kept his job very long.  Sam decided not to “touch him.”  However, the Kapo, feeling the need to add some insurance to Sam’s silence, gave Sam and Esther the nicest room in the hotel and sent them a beautiful bottle of champagne and all kinds of delicious food.

Kapos were not a Nazi invention.  They arose out of a much older German prison tradition.  Certain prisoners would be appointed as “trustees” to represent the prisoners.  The trustee was given certain responsibilities over the prisoners and in turn received privileges.  The word “Kapo” is “widely thought to derive from the Italian capo (head or leader).”[1]

Kapos were part of the fabric of the concentration camps from day one.  You may recall, hundreds of concentration camps were set up as soon as Hitler took power in 1933.  So by 1938, the Kapo system was well established.  For example, in 1938, Buchenwald had approximately 11,000 prisoners and over five hundred Kapos. These Kapos were responsible for supervising the prisoners and making sure they did their jobs and kept the bunks clean.  During the first phases of the evolution of the concentration camp, Kapos were not necessarily Jews.  During the final phase, however, most Kapos were Jews, because most prisoners were Jews.

As the war progressed, Kapos’ influence and power grew.  In the late 1930’s the ratio between SS and prisoners was 1:2. By mid-1943 the ratio was 1:15.   Concentration camps and later death camps, were able to keep the SS officers to a minimum by utilizing Kapos as their stooges.   Kapos took charge of many camp functions, from discipline and supervision of the labor, to serving as administrative clerks in the office.

Kapos took advantage of their position and “were not shy about parading their power and privilege.”[2] They were often easily spotted, as some had longer hair, instead of shaven heads. They wore clean clothes and had real shoes or boots.  Male Kapos were allowed to have sexual relations with women. It seems our Grossingers Kapo took advantage of this privilege.

Some Kapos used their positions of power to help prisoners when they could.  Most, it seems, took to their duties of coercion and terror quite seriously.  During the second half of the war, the SS relied on Kapos to whip the prisoners when punishment was “needed.”  As a reward for such behavior the Kapos received money or cigarettes.  You may recall, in Sam’s hitting story, the Kapo beat him with a beitch and a conchic – types of whip enhanced with wire and leather.

Even worse than the whipping, which is bad enough, some Kapos assisted the SS in their project of mass murder.  Some Kapos selected “weak and sick inmates, escorting condemned prisoners to execution sites, or killing them.  . . . and Kapos murdered on their own initiative, too, acting far more brutally than before the war.”[3]

I believe that Sam did not “touch” the Kapo at Grossingers because he did not want to be his judge and jury.  Though he despised him, he would not be his executioner.  It is a testament to his upright and strong character.

Sources:

  • Interview with Sam Goldberg – 1993.
  • Wachsmann, Nikolaus.  kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2015.

[1] Wachsmann, kl, A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps at 122.

[2] Id. at 123.

[3] Id. at 514.

GENOCIDE OF “THE CHOSEN PEOPLE”

“Hearty thanks, in the name of the Reichsfuhere SS, for your letter of July 28, 1942.  With great joy I learned from your announcement that, for the past fourteen days, a train has gone daily to Treblinka with 5000 ‘members of the chosen people.’”[1]

This note was sent on August 13, 1942, by SS Obergruppenfuhere Karl Wolff, Himmler’s chief of staff.  It was sent in response to a letter one month earlier from the Transportation Secretary, Dr. Theeodor Ganzenmuller, about the corrections to the glitches in the transport of Jews to the death camps in Poland.

***

So much happened so quickly in 1942.  Between the January 20, 1942 conference at Wannasee where Nazi leaders mapped out the “Final Solution,” and August 13, 1942, the date of the above note, the German killing machine turned to the genocide of “The Chosen People.” Here are just some of the pieces of the Final Solution in 1942:

  • Death camp – Sobibor – built and began operation in April.
  • Death camp – Belzec – built and began operation in May.
  • Death camp – Treblinka – built and began operation in July.
  • Majdanek transformed to an “annihilation camp.”
  • Mathausen began using gas vans to kill prisoners (spring).
  • Himmler orders “resettlement” of entire Jewish population of Poland by December 31, 1942 (order given – July 19).
  • 265,040 Warsaw Jews sent to Treblinka between July and September.
  • Jews from Lwow ghetto transported to Belzec in August.
  • Second facility built at Auschwitz; it became a death factory as well as a concentration/labor camp and execution site.

1942-1945 is the third and final phase of the concentration camp.  The first phase was from 1933 to 1941 with the hundreds of early concentration camps in Germany which held political prisoners, criminals and those that “threaten the security of the state.”  Then phase II, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941.  Phase II saw the incarceration and murder of massive numbers of Soviet POW.  Now Phase III, the Germans use their killing experience and infrastructure to murder the Jews of Europe.

In 1942, the concentration camps in Germany proper were Judenrein – free of Jews.  Beginning in the fall of 1943, when the war was going badly and manpower was in short supply, Jews and Slavs were sent back to the German concentration camps to satisfy the German’s greedy appetite for human labor.

Meanwhile, the killing escalated in 1943:

  • New gas chamber at Birkenau, next to Auschwitz, completed in February.   220,000 Jews from Greece and Italy were gassed.
  • Jews of Warsaw continue to be murdered at Treblinka.
  • Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April.
  • Himmler orders concentration camp built on ruins of Warsaw ghetto in June 1943.  Conditions were reported to be horrific.
  • Belzec closed, remaining Jews transferred to Sobibor in July.
  • Uprising at Treblinka on Aug. 2.
  • Last Jews of Minsk were deported to Sobibor in September.
  • 310,000 Jews from Radim district gassed at Treblinka (Aug. 4 – Nov. 7 – note – this was after the uprising!).
  • Uprising at Sobibor on October 14.
  • Last new concentration camp built – Dora, later called Mittelbau; built in Germany in Autumn to hold the Jews and Slavs sent to German for labor.
  • Treblinka closed on November 7.
  • Operation Harvest Festival – mass shooting of Jewish laborers left at concentration camps in Poland and Belarus – 42,000 killed (end of year).

After the death camps of Poland were closed down, the killing shifted to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Total Jews murdered at Auschwitz is likely one million.  Some of the prisoners at Auschwitz did fight back.  There was an uprising in Auschwitz-Birkenau on October 7, 1944 (this was news to me!). The uprising was, however, a complete disaster.  All those who took part in the uprising were dead within hours.  They did, however, manage to kill three SS officers, who the Germans mourned as heroes.

As the allies liberated the concentration camps, the truth could no longer be pushed to the back pages of the newspapers.  The Allies liberated 160,000 prisoners in main camps, most in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Mauthausen.   Another 90,000 were liberated from over 100 satellite camps.  These numbers do not include the survivors from Auschwitz-Birkenau – 100,000, though most of them had been forced to leave the camp on death marches before the Red Army liberated the camp on January 27, 1945.

In my research I have found different figures for how many people were killed in the camps.  This leads me to believe that no one really knows.  Here are some numbers that I found among the sources listed below for the camps that murdered most of the Jews.  It does not include the thousands upon thousands that were killed in other camps.

Treblinka:                 780,863 (60 survived)

Belzec:                       434,508 (0-100 survived)

Sobibor:                    150,000 (2-3 survived)

Majdaneck:              50,000 (I did not see a figure for survivors)

Chelmo:                    145,301 (I did not see a figure for survivors)

Auschwitz:                1,000,000 (100,000 survived)

I can add no further thoughts to the facts presented to you in these blog posts detailing the evolution of the concentration camp.

Sources:

  • Wachsmann, Nikolaus.  kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2015.
  • Arad, Yitzhak. Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps.  Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press.  1987.
  • Snyder, Timothy.  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.
  • Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945.  New York, NY. Bantam Books.  1975.

 

 

 

 

[1] Arad, Yithak, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps at 51, citing Wolff at Ganzenmuller’s trial).

Concentration Camp – Mass Extermination

Lebensraum and Judenrein.  These were Hitler’s dreams.   Years of preparation brought him to that day – June 22, 1941 when his now powerful army attacked the Soviet Union.   The plan was to create Lebensraum – living space – by deporting, enslaving and killing the residents – Gentiles and Jews.  Fertile farm land would ensure plenty of food and cities for the multiplying Aryans.  Jews would simply be moved elsewhere – far away, thus making the lands Judenrein – free of Jews.

Moving all these Jews and Gentiles was a pipe dream.  There were just too many people and nowhere to put them.  Even Madagascar was considered as a dumping ground for the Jews of Europe.

The June 22, 1941 attack was so successful that the Soviet army was quickly overrun.  The Germans took hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war.   Sam Goldberg was one of those Soviet soldiers captured in June of 1941, but he miraculously escaped the POW camp.   But that story is for another blog post.

Many Soviet POWs were killed in the field or in makeshift POW camps.  But swarms were transported to concentration camps.   Because of the overcrowding, orders were quickly issued to build more camps and to kill the Soviet POWs.  The first order to kill POWs was issued in August of 1941 at Sachsenhausen by Theodore Eicke, Commander of SS Deaths Head Division.  Eicke’s core values were “brutality, racism, and ruthlessness.”  At a meeting at Sachsenhausen, Eicke announced the new program to murder Soviet POWs.   All in attendance agreed that a new method of mass execution was needed.

The euthanasia program taught the SS that deception makes the killing easier – just a spoon full of sugar!   So, after telling the POWs at Sachsenhausen that they were going to a “better place” they were taken to a special execution barrack that resembled a doctor’s office.  Ordered to undress, they were given fake medical exams by white coated SS officers.   After passing the exam, the POWs were escorted to a “bathroom” where they were ordered to stand against a measuring stick.  The measuring stick had a hole in it just the right size for a bullet.   An SS officer stood on the other side of the wall and shot a bullet through the hole to the nape of the victim’s neck – instant death.

Then, there was the first experiment with asphyxiation by gas at Auschwitz.  Block 11 was sealed.   Two hundred and fifty infirm patients and 600 Soviet POWs were gassed with Zyklon B.   The experiment was declared a success.  “Now, I was relieved indeed,” said Rudolph Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz “that all of us would be spared these bloodbaths.”

Other killing experiments were conducted on Soviet POWs at Sachsenhausen.   A van pumped its own gas from the exhaust pipe into the passenger cab – asphyxiating them with carbon monoxide.

Now, the numbers begin to get staggering.  Between October and December 1941 an estimated 300,000-500,000 POWs died each month.

As the concentration camps became places of enslavement and mass execution for Soviet POWs, Hitler made loud pronouncements about the destruction of the Jewish people.  Hitler’s order for the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was issued in the summer of 1941.  Official German policy – deportation of the Jews – became unrealistic.  There was nowhere to send them.  So Hitler ordered the construction of “vernichtungslager”– annihilation camps.  On October 17, 1941, Hitler said, “we are getting rid of the destructive Jews entirely.”  Two months later, the Americans entered the war and Hitler stated, “the world war is here . . . the annihilation of word Jewry must be the necessary consequence.”

The machinery was in place – or nearly – to carry out the task.  All that was left was to build the death camps and move the Jews en mass from the towns to the city ghettos and from the ghettos to the concentration camps and death camps.  The machinery of deception, transportation, brutality, and mass murder were well oiled and ready for the genocide to come.

Sources:

  • Wachsmann, Nikolaus.  kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2015.
  • Snyder, Timothy.  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.
  • Fritzsche, Peter. Life and Death in the Third Reich. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 2008.
Picture – Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp