Factories of Death
Auschwitz and the Nazi Camp System
March 1942 to March 1943
Oskar Gröning’s job at Auschwitz was to count the money stolen from the arriving inmates and to arrange its transfer to Berlin. Though the Final Solution was ideologically motivated, the Nazis were well aware they could benefit financially from its implementation.
"In my job as administrator of these foreign currencies, I saw practically all the currencies of the world. Believe it or not, I saw them from the Italian lira to Spanish pesetas, to Hungarian and Mexican currencies, from dollars to the English pound."
In July 1942 Heinrich Himmler again visited Auschwitz. There were approximately 30,000 inmates there at the time, most of them Jews and Polish political prisoners. He inspected the main camp, the expansion at Birkenau, and the synthetic rubber factory being built in nearby Monowitz. Himmler also witnessed the gassing of Jews, and he promoted Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz’s commandant, to SS Lieutenant Colonel.
I’ll never forget what I saw. Those little children, those people. What did they ever do to anyone? It was a terrible thing.
Eugenia Samuel, Treblinka Villager
Sixty miles northeast of Warsaw, the SS built a death factory called Treblinka. Unlike Auschwitz, its only purpose was to kill people. Ultimately, about 800,000 Jews, many of them deportees from the Warsaw ghetto, were gassed or shot there. It was second only to Auschwitz as the most murderous place in the Nazi state. A clearing in a forest and memorial stones are all that is left of it today.
At Auschwitz, Commandant Höss was facing the difficult problem of disposing of thousands of bodies. At first, they were buried in a large field, but the graves could not be dug deep enough and the bodies putrefied in the summer heat. Jewish prisoners, such as Otto Pressburger, were ordered to exhume them:
We had to dig the bodies out and burn them. A big fire was made here with wood and petrol and we were throwing them right into it. There were always two of us throwing the bodies in, one holding the legs and one on the arms. The smell and the stench was terrible. The bodies were not only bloody but rotten as well. We were given some rags to put over our faces.
The SS men were constantly drinking vodka or cognac or something else from their bottles. They couldn’t cope with it either. It was terrible.
Otto Pressburger, Auschwitz survivor
To deal with Auschwitz’s body disposal problem, Rudolf Höss journeyed in September 1942 to a remote area of Poland near the small village of Chelmno. He wanted to talk with SS Colonel Paul Blobel, an expert in remains disposal, who had been experimenting with a new type of field cremation unit.
New field cremation units helped the Nazis get rid of large numbers of bodies (graphic reconstruction).
The units were large fire pits with grates at the bottom on which to stack alternate layers of bodies and wood. Gasoline was used to start the fires. On the whole, the new installations worked very well, allowing the Nazis to dispose of large quantities of bodies.
Meanwhile, architects at Auschwitz were changing the plans of basement mortuaries that were part of new crematoria to be built at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The changes included the removal of a chute designed to slide bodies into the basement. Instead steps were added so that living people could descend into the morgue. Next, the doors into the large basement mortuaries were reformed as single, gas-tight, reinforced doors with a peep-hole.
When these buildings opened in spring 1943, the basement mortuaries had become gas chambers.