Liberation & Revenge
Why it's crucial to understand and remember Auschwitz
January 1945 to 1963
"They invented that at Auschwitz,
this camp of death, they were training spies. So somebody got this idea in
his head, ‘What if they had turned me into a spy?’" (Pavel Stenkin, Former Soviet POW, Auschwitz)
While Höss waited in prison for trial, much of the Nazi empire was now in the hands of the Russian Army. The Soviets treated not only their German prisoners more harshly than did the British, they were also brutal with many Soviet prisoners who returned from Nazi camps. Often Soviet POWs were accused of having been turned into German spies and, after their release from German captivity, the Soviets severely punished them. Refugees who tried to return home to Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe often faced brutal treatment from Soviet soldiers, who sometimes raped and killed them.
In 1947 Rudolf Höss was returned to Poland, tried for his crimes, and sentenced to death. During his time in prison he wrote his memoirs, which revealed much about the running of the camp and the mind of its commandant.
Execution of Rudolf Höss
One woman approached me as she walked past and pointed to her four children who were manfully helping the smallest ones over the rough ground and whispered, ‘How can you bring yourself to kill such beautiful darling children? Have you no heart at all?
Memoirs of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz
Höss wrote that the reasons behind the Nazi extermination program seemed right to him, and he described watching women and children being taken to the gas chambers.
The only regret he expressed was that he did not spend more time with his family. On April 16, 1947, he was hanged on a specially constructed gallows in Auschwitz, the site of his crimes.
Stanislaw Hantz, a guard at Auschwitz-Birkenau, recalls Höss’s execution.
When they were leading him to the gallows, Höss looked calm. I thought as he climbed to the gallows, up the steps—knowing him to be a Nazi, a hardened party member—that he would say something. Like make a statement to the glory of the Nazi ideology that he was dying for. But no. He didn’t say a word. And during the execution you thought: One life for so many millions of people, is that not too little?
After the war, many Nazis successfully returned to a normal life, although they often tried to hide their past from their neighbors as well as their families. Years after his escape Adolf Eichmann was discovered in Argentina, captured, sent to Israel for trial, convicted, and executed. Of the roughly seven thousand SS troops who served at Auschwitz and who survived the war, most were not arrested or tried for their crimes. Many lived productive lives. The inmate survivors of the camps were less able to resume their prewar lives. They had lost their families as well as their property. There was no compensation for their losses.
In four years, some 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz, and at least 1.1 million died there, all so-called enemies of the Nazi state and the vast majority of them Jews. The grounds of the death camp continue to serve as a reminder of the past and a warning to the future.