Factories of Death
AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Factories of Death: Episode 3
During 1942, the Nazis for the first time began to comb the countries of Western Europe in pursuit of their 'Final Solution', the extermination of the Jews. Even taking Jews from as far afield as the British Channel Islands.
Wendy Davenport: "We never saw her again or heard anything about what had happened to her for 50 years, I mean it's incredible. When I knew that she died in Auschwitz, I mean we were, you know, just so upset and horrified."
But as the Nazis at Auschwitz and the other camps in occupied Poland were to discover, it was one thing to conceive of mass killing on an epic scale, quite another to be able to carry it out. But how they solved this murderous problem tells us much about their mentality. In 1942 through an horrific process of trial and error these Nazis created something entirely new in History - killing factories capable of murdering millions.
AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Factories of Death: Episode 3
The first Jews sent from Western Europe to Auschwitz were from France. For many German soldiers France was an easy posting—far easier than fighting in the East against the Red Army. Those Germans that were here counted themselves lucky. But in reality there were relatively few German soldiers in France. The country had been divided into two zones by the Germans—occupied and unoccupied—but the French administration to a large extent ran both.
So the only way the Nazis could get the Jews out of France was with the collaboration of the French authorities themselves.
On the 2nd of July 1942 an important meeting was held between the SS and senior figures from the French police to discuss the mass deportations. The minutes taken by an SS official reveal that initially the French proposed co-operating with the Nazis only to a limited extent.
Subtitles: In unoccupied France we could, for the time being, round up the foreign Jews. But in occupied France, a round- up of Jews by French police would be embarrassing. If the French government refuses to carry out the round ups, the Fuhrer would certainly have no sympathy for this.
The French authorities knew that if they didn't cooperate they faced the anger of the Germans. But they didn't want to hand over French Jews. So this was their solution:
Subtitles: May I make a proposition? We agree to arrest as many Jews as you wish in all France including the occupied part - but only the Jews with foreign citizenship. Okay. This would at least be a first step.
The French authorities, having decided to hand over foreign Jews, organized the first round up for the early morning of the 16th of July 1942. In the 20th Arrondissement of Paris, French police paid a visit to the Mullers—originally from Poland.
Annette Muller: "In the morning we were very violently woken by knocks on the door and I saw my mother on her knees on the ground, with her arms around the legs of two policemen. She was begging them to leave us. She was begging them, she was screaming and crying, and I saw the policemen, well the Inspectors, who were pushing her back with their feet saying - hurry up, hurry up, don't make us waste our time."
Taken away by the French police that morning were Annette Muller, her youngest brother Michel, and her mother.
Michel Muller: "I remember we were a bit frightened because it was so early in the morning, they told us to take 3 days worth of food, I seem to remember they said for three days. But that didn't worry me, it wasn't so much that I trusted my country's police but rather that I completely trusted my mother."
They were taken to a camp much like this one. Filled with foreigners, many of whom had previously fled to France in an attempt to escape Nazi persecution.
Michel Muller: "I wasn't really that worried. All I was thinking about was going back for the start of term. I was wondering what's going to happen. But I was sure we'd be back for the first day of school. That was my main concern."
In the early days of the deportations, the Nazis' immediate request was just for Jewish adults—who would then be worked to death. So Adolf Eichmann of the SS who was organising the deportations did not initially give permission for the children to be sent East with their parents. So in early August 1942, at the camp at Beaune- La- Rolande, the French police broke up the families.
Annette Muller: "The police beat the women back, while we children were holding onto their clothing. They sprayed us with water."
Michael Muller: "And there were some very small children there. I remember people crying. Then all of a sudden, when the vehicle with the mounted machine-gun arrived, there was a silence, a terrible silence."
Annette Muller: "My mother was in the first row of the women and she signalled to us with her eyes. Michel was crying. We were watching her and that's the last image I have of my mother, because then they took the women away and we children were left alone." Over the next few weeks, the children who had been taken from their parents were transferred here, to Drancy in the suburbs of Paris. This makeshift concentration camp was built around a semi-completed complex of low cost housing. The eldest of the newly arrived children was around 14 years old, the youngest aged about 2. A handful of the adults already imprisoned at Drancy tried to do what they could for them.
Odette Daltroff-Baticle—Jewish prisoner, Drancy Concentration Camp: "The children were surrounded by these little insects and their appearance was already lamentable. They were very, very dirty and all of them had dysentery. We tried first of all to make lists of their names but most of them didn't know their family names so they just said things like—'I'm Pierre's little brother.'"
Annette Muller: "They put us into little rooms where we slept on the cement floor and we had to take care not to slip on the steps in the stairwell because there was so much excrement on them. It was like walking through a nightmare."
After a short period in Drancy, with permission having been granted from Berlin, the children were collected together to begin the journey to the East.
Odette Daltroff-Baticle: "We always lied to them, we always told that them you're going to find your parents again, but despite what we said they didn't believe us. Strangely, they suspected what was going to happen. Many of them said to my friends and myself 'Madame, adopt me' because they wanted to stay at the camp. Even though it was very bad there, they didn't want to go any further. So the morning before their departure we dressed them the best we could, most of them couldn't even carry their little bags. I believe that it's the worse thing that can happen and of course I still think about it."
Michel and Annette Muller were spirited away to safety because their father had managed to bribe French officials. Their mother, after being forcibly taken from them, died at Auschwitz. But as Michel sees it, it's not just the Germans who were to blame.
Michel Muller: "They arrested people simply because they were born Jewish. That French people should do that is still beyond me, even 60 years later."
In August 1941, around 4,100 children were put onto trains and sent East packed into freight trucks, mixed in with adults from Drancy—total strangers. Their journey lasted two days and nights. Until they arrived here: the ramp at Auschwitz. There are few living witnesses left to testify to the scenes on arrival here at the ramp; still fewer who were members of the SS. But shortly after the French children arrived, SS private Oskar Gröning began work at Auschwitz.
Oskar Gröning—SS Garison, Auschwitz: "It was not long before I was assigned to supervise the luggage collection of an incoming transport. When this was over, it was just like a fairground, there was lots of rubbish left and amongst this rubbish were ill people, those unable to walk. And the way these people were treated really horrified me. For example, a child who was lying there naked was simply pulled by the legs and chucked into a lorry to be driven away, and when it screamed like a sick chicken, then they bashed it against the edge of the lorry, so it shut up."
The children from France were transported just under two miles from the ramp up to the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau and on to one of two cottages in the far corner of the complex. Here the Nazis had improvised gas chambers. The children were locked in a room and crystals of the poisonous insecticide, Zyklon B, thrown in through a hatch high in the wall.
More than four thousand children were sent without their parents from France to Auschwitz. Every single one of them died. And in the autumn of 1942 Oskar Gröning believed that this appalling crime was justifiable.
Oskar Gröning: "We were convinced by our world view that we had been betrayed by the entire world, and that there was a great conspiracy of the Jews against us. But surely, when it comes to children you must realize that they cannot possibly have done anything to you?"
Interviewer: "But surely, when it comes to children you must realise that they cannot possibly have done anything to you?"
Oskar Gröning: "The children, they're not the enemy at the moment. The enemy is the blood inside them. The enemy is the growing up to be a Jew that could become dangerous. And because of that the children were included as well."
While Oskar Gröning certainly subscribed at the time to the Nazi delusion of a world Jewish conspiracy, he did not take part directly in the killing. Nor did he want to remain at Auschwitz. Documents confirm he later applied for a transfer to the front - which was refused. So he carried on working at the main camp two miles southeast of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
His job here was to sort out and count the money stolen from the arriving transports of Jews and to organize its transfer to Berlin. While the main motivation for the "Final Solution" was ideological, the Nazis' were also well aware that they could benefit financially from the crime.
During 1942 around 200,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz from all over Europe - from France, Holland, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Poland, the Czech lands, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany. About 70% of them were murdered immediately upon arrival. Before they had been taken away, they had been told by the Nazis to leave behind their money and belongings for safekeeping.
Oskar Gröning: "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."
And perhaps Oskar Gröning dealt with English pounds because of what happened here in the Channel Islands. 900 miles from Auschwitz geographically, but, by any other measure, light years away. The Channel Islands were famous before the war as a gentle and friendly holiday destination.
The Potts family from Kent traveled to the Channel Islands in 1939. With them was their Nanny, Therese Steiner, who had sought safety in Britain from growing anti-Semitism in her homeland, Austria.
Wendy Davenport: "We em, got to love her really because we, we saw a lot of her, I mean she was with us all the time really and em, especially in the Channel Islands" "It was like having two mothers really."
In Spring 1940 when the Potts family decided to return to England, the British Channel Islands authorities followed Home Office guidelines and refused to let Therese go with them. As an Austrian they classed her as an 'enemy alien'.
Wendy Davenport: "Although my mother pleaded with them, they came the next day and took her away. And in fact we never saw her again. I think there were anti-Semitic people there, there was, should I tell you something about this man who's, who actually said to my mother, 'If you must trail Jewesses about after you what do you expect?' So she told me, which is pretty disgusting."
This meant that Therese was trapped in the Channel Islands when the Germans invaded in the Summer of 1940. German propaganda made much of the co-operative attitude of many of the Channel Islanders—including the famed British Bobbies. And it was the police on Guernsey that organized the registration of Jews on the island at the Germans' behest. A total of four Jews registered on Guernsey, twelve on the neighboring island of Jersey.
One of the Jews who registered on Guernsey in the autumn of 1940 was Therese Steiner—like the others her card was marked with a red J. Eighteen months afterwards, in April 1942, three foreign Jews on Guernsey - Auguste Spitz, Marianne Grünfeld and Therese herself—were summoned to the central police station on the island. Therese's appointment was with Sergeant Ernest Plevin.
Ernest Plevin: "You will have to appear on the 21st of April 1942 at 19.00 at the Weighbridge in St Peter Port. You have to take with you this order together with papers proving your identity. You should fit yourself with warm clothes and provisions, but your luggage must not be heavier than you can carry."
Barbara Newman—Guernsey resident: "I've still got a picture in my mind. I was taking her down to a white truck, 2 of us went down with her and I think we must have taken her suitcase on a bike, wheeled it you know as one does and em, we stood there saying goodbye and seeing her go through the, this gateway in the valley and she was waving, she went and that was it. It was all a mystery where had she gone, you know you sort of hoped that she would come back but eventually she didn't. It was all outside our experience really wasn't it. Things like that didn't happen in England."
Neither the authorities in Guernsey nor in France knew that the Jews they handed over were to be murdered. But they did know all too well how much the Nazis hated the Jews. After a few weeks in France the three women deported from Guernsey were arrested during the round-ups of July 1942 and transported to Auschwitz. All three of them died there.
The same month that the three deportees from Guernsey arrived at Auschwitz, Heinrich Himmler, one of the leading figures behind the Nazis' program of mass murder visited the camp. By now there were about 30,000 prisoners in Auschwitz—most of them either Jews or Polish political prisoners. Himmler inspected the huge expansion of the camp complex—the main camp, the extension at Birkenau and the building of the giant synthetic rubber factory at nearby Monowitz.
He even witnessed the murder of Jews in one of the gas chambers in Auschwitz, a portion of his itinerary omitted from the photographic record of his visit. Himmler was pleased with what he'd seen. So much so that he immediately promoted the commandant of the camp, Rudolf Höss, the man who oversaw all this horror, was made SS Lieutenant Colonel.
Höss had created a comfortable life for himself and his family at Auschwitz. They all lived together in a house on the edge of the main camp. But life for prisoners here on the other side of the wire—inside the main camp—was a struggle against starvation, disease and appalling physical abuse. A battle Kazimierz Piechowski fought every day.
Kazimierz Piechowski—Polish Political Prisoner, Auschwitz: "I was very healthy, very strong and this helped me in the camp because even if someone was young, if he was a mummy's boy, he had no chance. You had to be hard, you had to have a strong will, to say to yourself: I must survive."
And in order to ensure his survival, in the summer of 1942, Kazimierz Piechowski attempted one of the most daring escapes in the history of Auschwitz. On Saturday, the 20th of June, Piechowski and three other Polish political prisoners walked out of the gate of the main camp towards their normal place of work a few hundred meters away.
Unnoticed they managed to break into a storeroom where the SS kept their uniform supplies, guns and ammunition. They quickly dressed themselves as SS. They planned not to use the guns they took to shoot any Germans, knowing that the retribution which would then be taken on the rest of the inmates in the camp would be horrific. Instead, if they were stopped at the final check point on the outside perimeter, they planned to kill themselves. Because one of the prisoners also worked in the SS garage—which was closed because it was a weekend - they also managed to steal a car. They were taking a massive risk, one on which their very lives depended.
Kazimierz Piechowski: "The problem was whether they would let us through without a pass, without documents, without anything. But we believed: yes, they would."
Re-enactment: "We still have 80 meters to go, but Genek has already reduced the engine to 2nd gear because the barrier is down. We have 50 meters to go. The barrier is still down. And then we have literally 15 meters to the barrier. I switched off and I'm thinking, 'It's time to kill ourselves, just as we'd agreed.' And at that moment I got a thump on my back and Józek is hissing in my ear: 'Kazik, do something!' I came to my senses: that's right, they're counting on me."
Subtitles: "Damn buggers—open up! How long shall we have to wait here?"
Kazimierz Piechowski: "You could say it was euphoria. We were all pleased. We were young, free, armed. We realized that it wouldn't be easy to get us back into that hell—into Auschwitz."
Weeks after Piechowski's successful escape, Höss—like other commandants—received notice of the extreme displeasure of the SS Inspector of Concentration Camps. Security had to be improved—especially given what was to come.
For in the summer of 1942, Himmler issued a secret order of great significance for Polish Jews many of whom were imprisoned here in the Warsaw ghetto. On the 19th of July Himmler decreed that all Polish Jews in the huge surrounding area the Nazis called the General Government should be 'resettled' - by which he meant 'murdered' - by the end of 1942. This amounted to some 2 million people—hundreds of thousands in the Warsaw ghetto alone. Himmler did not use Auschwitz to murder so many people so quickly but turned to more recent creations, places which unlike Auschwitz were pure factories of death.
What would become the most deadly of them all was situated here, 60 miles north east of Warsaw. About 900,000 people were killed at Treblinka. It was second only to Auschwitz as the most murderous place in the Nazi state. All that's left today is a clearing in a forest. This secret place was destroyed by the Nazis before the war was over. But thanks to evidence from eye-witnesses it's possible to reconstruct the plan of the camp. It was a place very different from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Treblinka was, by comparison, tiny: 400 meters by 600. Treblinka was small because it only had one purpose—murder. 99% of the Jews were dead within two hours of arriving at the camp, poisoned by exhaust fumes in Treblinka's gas chambers.
Eugenia Samuel—Treblinka Villager: "I'll never forget what I saw—not 'til my dying day. Those little children, those people—what did they ever do to anyone? What did they ever do? It was a terrible thing."
During the early weeks of the camp's operation there was utter chaos. The gas chambers broke down, arriving trains were kept waiting for days and hundreds of bodies lay around unburied.
Eugenia Samuel: "The decomposing human corpses caused such a stench, and it was just terrible. You couldn't go out into the yard, no way could you open a window or go outside."
The situation at Treblinka was spiraling out of control. Which is why at the end of August 1942 senior SS officers traveled towards the camp. We know who they were and what was said because of the later testimony of SS Sergeant Josef Oberhauser who witnessed it all. The officers were Christian Wirth—who had been appointed inspector of the death camps—and his superior, SS Major General Odilo Globocnik. For the Commandant of Treblinka, Dr Irmfried Eberl, their visit brought disturbing news.
The Nazi leadership had embarked upon their programof mass killing with minimal preparation—as they saw it they could solve any problems that were created as they went along. Dr Eberl had become a problem.
Subtitles: Lieutenant you're relieved of your command with immediate effect. Until your successor arrives, I will personally take care to sort out your mess. If you were not an Austrian fellow countryman I'd have you arrested and brought before an SS and Police Court.
As SS Major General Globocnik saw it, Eberl's crime was not that he had committed mass murder—but that he had not pursued the killings with efficiency and in secret.
At Auschwitz, Höss faced the same difficulty that had confronted Dr Eberl at Treblinka. Disposing of thousands upon thousands of bodies. At first he had them buried in this large field. But in the heat of the summer they putrefied. So special units of Jewish prisoners were ordered to exhume them.
Otto Pressburger: "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 2 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."
"I'm here now to make sure that history will not forget what happened here…that people were killed here, that they were burned and killed here. They were killed worse than animals. Worse." It was terrible, one can never forget it, it should not have happened."
In order to make Auschwitz a more efficient killing factory Höss had sought advice from the SS expert in body disposal. In September 1942, Höss made a special journey to a remote area of Poland near the small village of Chelmno. We know the purpose of his visit and what was said from Höss' own memoirs, and from other testimony. Höss wanted to meet SS Colonel Paul Blobel and examine first hand his new field cremation units.
Subtitles: We first tried to dispose of the bodies with incendiary bombs. But this had very limited success and also caused fires in the surrounding woods. But this installation works very well indeed if you stack alternate layers of bodies and wood on the grate. And you use spare petrol to get the fire going.
It was this willingness to overcome the practical difficulties of mass murder that helped the Nazis pursue Himmler's dream to murder millions of Polish Jews by the end of 1942.
In the wake of Himmler's order of the 19th July, round-ups were held in hundreds of towns and villages. But the deportations in Poland did not always go the way the Nazis wanted. The Jews of Przemysl, in the summer of 1942, heard a rumor that it was shortly to be their turn to be deported. The ghetto had been sealed on 15 July 1942. Now, less than 2 weeks later, the SS wanted to transport the Jews to their deaths.
At the German Army headquarters in Przemysl, Lieutenant Albert Battel heard the news of the impending deportations. Before the war, Battel, who was trained as a lawyer, had been in trouble with Nazis party officials because he had been decent and polite towards Jews. Now, he was furious about the planned SS operation against the Jews of Przemysl. On the 26th July Battel gathered trucks together and drove up to the ghetto to take away the Jews who worked for the army. He had the support of his superiors in the German army to resist the deportations. They were anxious not to lose their source of Jewish forced labor.
Once Battel arrived he harangued the guards on duty. He threatened to force entry by requesting that a platoon of soldiers be sent. It was obvious to the guards on duty outside the ghetto - Battel wasn't going to give up lightly.
Martin Igel—Polish Jew, Przemysl: "Well, he had to have guts to do that, to get trucks into the ghetto and get out the Jews, it wasn't, it wasn't the thing you know the average German would do. Everybody thought that this is a heroic thing to do." "He was a very nice human being, he was a lawyer, you know, but with lawyers there's good lawyers and bad lawyers."
Battel even sheltered many of the Jews in the basement of the Army headquarters. Shortly after hiding the Jews he was transferred from his post. A secret investigation into the incident by the SS reached Himmler who noted that Battel should be arrested after the war and expelled from the Nazi party. In 1981, nearly thirty years after his death, Battel was awarded the title 'Righteous Among The Nations' at Yad Vashem here in Israel.
A tree planted in his honor grows in Yad Vashem's 'Garden of the Righteous' - a reminder that not every German, when called upon, participated in the Nazis' 'Final Solution'. But for every Lieutenant Albert Battel there were countless more willing perpetrators. And one of the most enthusiastic worked here at Treblinka. By the end of 1942 the new Commandant, Franz Stangl, had overseen the transformation of the camp. The Nazis' journey at Treblinka to perfect a large scale method of killing had finally been completed. Gone was the chaos of Dr Eberl's rule. Now Stangl ran a death camp whose true purpose was even hidden from unsuspecting new arrivals.
Kalman Teigman—Jewish Prisoner, Treblinka: "There were flowers planted on the ground and of course people couldn't imagine where they were. He painted the huts and put up all sorts of signs as if it was a real railway station. I remember that once one of them said these words, I'll never forget these words, he said it in German: 'Come quickly because the water is getting cold.' That's how far they went. The manner in which it worked is macabre it was a horrible thing to see."
At the core of the camp Stangl helped create was a huge new gas chamber complex disguised as shower rooms with the capacity to kill over 2,000 people at one time. Until recently no one knew exactly how many people were murdered during 1942 in death camps like Treblinka.
But a few years ago the text of an intercepted German cable was discovered which reveals that between them, the camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Majdanek had murdered 1,274,166 people during 1942. The intercept contains a number of typing errors, but in order to reach this total the number killed at Treblinka has to be 713,555. Treblinka was thus the largest killing centre in the Nazi State.
But not for long. Because planners at Auschwitz had been working hard to change the function of new crematoria which were to be built at Auschwitz Birkenau. Over several months the plans were altered. What had been conceived as basement mortuaries were converted. First a chute designed to allow bodies to be slid down into the basement was suddenly removed from the plans. Next, extra steps were added at the side of the building—a strange addition, since the original function of the basement was to hold the dead, not the living.
Then the doors into one of the large underground mortuaries were altered. First to open outwards, and then re-formed as one single door, reinforced and made gas tight and with a peep-hole added. This basement mortuary was now to become a gas chamber.
Auschwitz was one of the last camps with large capacity killing factories. But when they opened in the spring of 1943, they would mark the beginning of that phase of the camp's operation that would make the place infamous in history. A moment of transition symbolized by the arrival of a new member of the Auschwitz medical staff. A man who had just been injured fighting on the Eastern front and who had won the Iron Cross for bravery.
His name was to become notorious …