“Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man… We had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this… Nothing belongs to us anymore: they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair… They will even take away our name…”
With the advent of the European-wide Final Solution, the Jews were generally ordered to gather within the close proximity of railroad stations. They were then deported to the extermination camps on extended trips under horrendous conditions that claimed many victims. The Jews of Europe were systematically murdered in the extermination camps as part of the Final Solution. In some of the camps, permanent gas chambers were erected. In Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Chelmno, practically all of the deportees – men, women and children – were sent straight to their deaths.
Deportation to the Death Camps
In many cases, the deportation orders were given to the Judenrat suddenly, often around the Jewish holidays when awareness was reduced. Local police were charged with carrying out the Aktion (round-up of Jews) and the Jewish police was also tasked with participating in the round up. The Jews ordered to gather in a specific location, usually close to a train station, and to bring with them only a few possessions. During the Aktion, anyone that did not follow the order to gather or could not keep pace with the others was shot. At the train station, the Jews were loaded into crowded cattle cars without proper ventilation. The cars were sealed from the outside and the Jews were kept in the cars for days without water or food until they reached their destination. Many perished as a result of the conditions on the train.
The powerful mechanism of murder employed throughout Europe relied upon various deceptions and lies. The Jews in Poland were told that “non-essential and unproductive elements” would be sent for labour in the east, while Jews in the west were informed of their transfer to settlements in the east. The murder machine would suddenly descend upon cities and towns and the Aktion would last for days or weeks. The Germans would begin the deportations with the weaker strata (the poor, refugees). The other sectors of society held on to the illusion that they would be left alone. After the initial deportation, the ensuing stages would follow – until the complete liquidation.
The Jews’ response to the brutal scheme was a consequence of several factors. During the years preceding the extermination operation, the Nazis had done everything possible to drain thee Jews of their physical strength, numb their will, deprive them of their human dignity, destroy their ability to organise, and cut them off from the outside world. Indeed, systematic starvation and looming death had diminished the endurance of the ghettoised masses and their ability to gather their strength. By now the Jews concerned themselves with immediate matters only – rescue of family members, obtaining some bread, and sustaining the body, which yearned for warmth and nutrition.
The Aktionen dealt the Jews a blow that thwarted any possibility of organising large-scale self-defence of any kind. The rumours about the death camps were usually greeted with disbelief, as ordinary logic and the human mind refused to grasp the very possibility of what was rumoured. Thus, Nazi Germany managed to mislead the masses until, literally, the last moment.
The Death Camps
Chelmno was the first extermination camp that the Germans established on Polish soil. Murder operations began there on December 8, 1941, and continued intermittently until January 1945. The Jews of the Lodz ghetto and the vicinity were primary victims deported to Chelmno, where they were murdered by means of gas vans. When the deportees reached the camp, they were ordered to undress, stripped of their belongings, and tricked into boarding a van whose exhaust pipe was actually connected to its interior. After the doors were closed, the van began to drive toward a designated burial place in a nearby forest. No-one survived. By using three gas vans, nearly 300,000 Jews and 5,000 Sinti and Roma were murdered in Chelmno. Only three Jews survived this death camp.
Starting in March 1942, after the guidelines for action were worked out at the Wannsee Conference, the Germans established three extermination camps at the eastern boundary of the Generalgouvernement, not far from main railroad lines: Belzec (established in March 1942, this camp functioned until December of that year; in the spring of 1943, the cremation of bodies began in order to cover up the traces of the murders committed); Sobibor (May-July 1942, and October 1942 – October 1943); and Treblinka (July 1942 – August 1943).
The Nazi’s purpose in building these camps was to carry out the systematic murder of European Jewry as part of the Final Solution. Permanent gas chambers were constructed in these camps. No selections were performed in these camps. As the deportation trains arrived, the victims – men, women and children – were sent directly to the gas chambers. Approximately 1,700,000 (1.7 million) Jews, mostly from Poland, were murdered in these three extermination camps alone.
A standard method of extermination was used in these three camps: carbon monoxide from large tank engines was released into sealed chambers. The victims were stripped of their clothing and crowded into the gas chambers where they died of suffocation within a short time. The corpses were removed by Jewish slave laborers and thrown into large pits. The corpses were later burned in an attempt to destroy any evidence left behind. The entire process of murder took only a few hours and the camps would process and murder numerous transports in the same day.
Majdanek was established in late 1941, for Soviet prisoners of war and as a concentration camp for Poles. The gas chambers and crematoria were built in 1942. In the spring of that year, thousands of Jews, Slovaks, Czechs, Germans, and Poles were murdered in Majdanek. The camp operated until the Soviet army liberated the Lublin area in July 1944. Approximately 78,000 people were murdered in Majdanek.
Only a small percentage of those who arrived in transports in 1944 to the remaining death camps – Auschwitz, Majdanek and Chelmno – were selected for dispatch to labour. They were chosen for various tasks in the extermination process such as sorting through and packing the clothing and possessions of the victims, and burying and disposing of the bodies by burning them. This latter group of Jews was part of the Sonderkommando units, special units that worked under cruel and terror-ridden conditions. These workers were often sent to be murdered in the gas chambers after a few months and replaced with “new” prisoners.
The others – women, men, children, the elderly, and those whose strength had failed during their brief internment in the camp – were taken straight to the gas chambers. Transports and extermination continued until late 1944. Although Himmler ordered an end to the murders in gas chambers, prisoners continued to die of exhaustion, starvation, and disease.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camp
The commander of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Höss, stated in his autobiography that in 1941 (no exact date is given) he was summoned to Berlin, where Himmler informed him that Hitler had issued an order to solve the “Jewish Question” for good, and that the order was to be implemented by the SS. “The existing extermination places in the east are unsuited to a large scale, long-term action. I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose,” Himmler said.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the concentration and extermination camps established on Polish soil, served concurrently as a labour camp and as a centre for the rapid extermination of Jews. Chosen as the central location for the annihilation of the Jewish people, it was equipped with several extermination facilities and crematoria. Extermination was carried out by means of Zyklon B gas, a substance that had previously been tested on Russian prisoners of war.
Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was established in October 1941, three kilometres from Auschwitz. Exterminations in Birkenau began in March 1942. There were four gas chambers in the camp that used Zyklon B gas. Until November 1944 the camp functioned as a factory for mass murder, receiving transports from all over Europe. Most of those brought to the camp were Jews and nearly all were immediately sent to the gas chambers. Only a small percentage was selected for labour in the camp itself, labour in munitions plants at satellite camps, or the “medical” experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele and his staff. In the spring and summer of 1944, the rate of extermination was increased as the Jews of Hungary and the Lodz ghetto were brought to the camp.
The process of selection and murder was carefully planned and organized. When a train stopped at the platform, veteran prisoners received the victims and gathered their belongings in several barracks in an area known as “Kanada.” The arrivals were lined up in two columns – men and boys in one, women and girls in the other – and SS physicians performed a selection. The criterion was the appearance of the prisoners, whose fate, for labour or for death, was determined at will. Before they entered the chamber, they were told that they were about to be disinfected and ordered to undress. The doors of the chamber were locked and the gas was introduced. After the victims were murdered, their gold teeth were extracted and women’s hair was shorn by the Sonderkommando – groups of Jews forced to work in the crematoria. The bodies were hauled to the crematorium furnaces for incineration, the bones were pulverized and the ashes were scattered in the fields.
Repeat selections took place several times during the day in roll calls. Inmates who had become weak or ill were separated from the ranks and sent to the gas chambers. A brutal regimen based on a set of punishments and torture was invoked in the camp. Few managed to survive. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 1,100,000 Jews, 70,000 Poles, 25,000 Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) and some 15,000 prisoners of war from the USSR and other countries were murdered.