AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Corruption: Episode 4
In 1943, Auschwitz was about to enter the most crucial phase of its existence. One that would eventually make it the site of the largest mass murder in the world. In March 1943 new gas chambers and crematoria opened, increasing dramatically the killing potential of the camp. Enormous wealth stolen from the arriving Jews flooded through Auschwitz. And contrary to the direct orders of the Nazi leadership, individual members of the SS took great personal advantage.
Libua Breder - Auschwitz Prisoner: "They were taking home lots of gold and other valuables, nobody counted it—it was a bonanza for them."
This is the surprising and shocking story of life and death at Auschwitz, during what for the Nazis at the camp was the start of the boom years. Of how corruption pervaded all aspects of the extermination process, and why for many of the SS, life was good.
Oskar Gröning - SS: "The special situation at Auschwitz led to friendships of which I'm still saying today I like to look back on with joy."
AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Corruption: Episode 4
Auschwitz main camp was on the banks of the Sola River in Southern Poland. And it was here that the Commandant, SS Lieutenant Colonel Rudolf Höss, worked hand in hand with businessmen to grow a giant industrial complex. Ultimately, about 60 million Reichmarks - 125 million Pounds in today's money - would be generated here for the Nazi state, for there was not one Auschwitz camp, but many.
Eventually there were 45 sub camps dotted round the region, most providing slave labor for armaments factories and other industrial concerns. And at the centre of this web of slave labor and industry was the giant camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The vast Auschwitz complex was now a self-contained universe: a place to live, a place to work, a place to die.
At the heart of Birkenau were the gas chambers, one of which stood on this site. Selections were made from arriving transports of Jews. Those thought fit enough were taken away to be worked to death. The remainder - the old, the weak, the children were murdered immediately in buildings like these.
Dario Gabbai - Jewish Prisoner, Auschwitz 1944-45: "There are, there were people That they were starting to understand that something was funny going on there, but nobody could do anything. The process had to go you know they had everything was done from the German point of view. They were all precise. There were the people screaming at the, the Germans screaming, 'Schnell. Schnell!'"
The Jews were ordered to undress, and then forced towards a room further down the building and told they would take a shower.
Dario Gabbai: "Could you imagine what, what was done with the children and their, their families, their thinking, they didn't know what to do scratching the walls, crying until the, the the gas take effect. And when everything stopped you know and they opened the doors and I see these people I saw a few minutes, half an hour before that they were going in, I see them all standing up, some black and blue from the gas, no place where to go, dead."
A few hundred yards from the gas chambers was the area of the camp known as 'Canada' - because Canada was thought to be a land of untold riches. This is where the belongings snatched from the arriving transports were sorted before being repacked and sent to Germany. For the inmates, working in Canada was one of the few sought after jobs in the camp.
Libua Breder - Jewish Prisoner, Auschwitz: "Working in Canada saved my life because we had food, we got water. And that was the best working unit for life for us because we were not beaten."
The majority of inmates who worked in Canada were women. They could grow their hair and were able to snatch extra food from the belongings as they sorted them. Against the explicit rules of the SS - friendly relationships could develop in Canada between the German guards and the women prisoners. Helena Citrónová, a Slovakian Jew who'd been sent to Auschwitz in 1942, became the object of attention of one of the SS who worked in Canada.
Helena Citrónová - Jewish prisoner, Auschwitz: "When he came into the barracks where I was working, he passed me by and threw me a note. I destroyed it right there and then, but I did see the word 'love', 'I fell in love with you'. I thought I'd rather be dead than be involved with an SS man. For a long time afterwards there was just hatred—I couldn't even look at him."
But over time Helena's feelings changed, especially with the arrival of one particular train at Auschwitz Birkenau. Helena's sister was on board, along with her daughter and baby son. After they arrived at Birkenau, Helena learnt that they were being taken to the gas chamber. Her SS admirer - Franz Wunsch, ran to see if he could help.
Helena Citrónová: "So he said to me, 'Tell me quickly what your sister's name is before I'm too late.' So I said, 'You won't be able to, she came with 2 little children.' He replied, 'Children, that's different. Children can't live here.' So he ran to the crematorium and found my sister."
Wunsch could not save the children, but he rescued Helena's sister claiming that she was a member of his work detail in Canada.
Helena Citrónová: "Here he did something great. There were moments when I forgot that I was a Jew and that he was not a Jew and honestly, in the end I loved him, but it could not be realistic."
Both Helena and her sister survived Auschwitz. And although nothing came of her relationship with Wunsch, she did give evidence on his behalf at his war crimes trial many years later. There were other temptations for the SS in Canada.
Libua Breder: "Every piece had to be searched—underwear, everything, and we found lots of diamonds, gold, coins ah, money, dollars, foreign currency from all over Europe."
Workers in Canada were meant to put any valuables they found in a locked box in the centre of the barracks. But their SS guards often managed to interfere with this procedure.
Libua Breder: "They were taking home lots of gold and other valuables because they were stealing, nobody counted it. And it went on all the time while I was working in Canada."
Oskar Gröning - SS Garrison, Auschwitz: "If a lot of stuff is piled up together, then you can easily stash away something for your personal gain. Stealing things for yourself was absolutely common practice in Auschwitz."
In 1943 Oskar Gröning was a 22 year old corporal in the SS. He'd been employed in a bank before the war and so was put to work in Auschwitz managing the foreign money stolen from the incoming transports. Every few months, he'd pack up the currency and take it to Berlin. Supervision was so lax that he had the chance to steal some of it for himself, using it to buy goods on the thriving black market in Auschwitz. One day Gröning decided he'd like to buy his own hand gun.
Oskar Gröning: "So I said: 'My dear friend, I need a pistol with ammunition. And he said: "Well how much do you want to spend?'— 'I don't know what does it cost?' - 'Well, you as the Dollar King should pay in Dollars, so I'd say it'll cost you 30 Dollars.' And then he came back with the pistol and got his 30 Dollars."
The ready availability of foreign currencies and valuables to pilfer was just one of the reasons that Auschwitz was a surprisingly attractive posting for many members of the SS. Auschwitz was not just a profitable place to be for them, it was also a good deal more comfortable than fighting with their comrades against the Red Army on the Eastern Front.
Oskar Gröning: "The main camp of Auschwitz was like a small town, with its gossiping and chatting. There was a grocery, where you could buy bones to make broth. There was a canteen, there was a cinema, there was a theatre with regular performances. And there was a sports club of which I was a member. It was all fun and entertainment, just like a small town. Alcohol played a big role there. Every day we were allocated a ration of alcohol, which sometimes we'd all collect to have a really big drinking bout."
Far from being driven to psychological torment by the knowledge that they were participating in the mass murder of men, women and children, the majority of SS working at Auschwitz seem to have carried out their jobs with few qualms. With death and starvation around them, they gorged themselves on food and drink, much of it stolen from the arriving transports.
Tadeusz Rybacki - Polish Political Prisoner, Waiter SS Canteen: "They drank everything there. It was like some kind of gangsters' feast. They drank, they sang, they patted each other. There was an assortment of alcohol on the table - a whole variety of French cognacs. And we served them food. It all looked so disgusting, this feast, that when the prisoner overseer, Paschke, saw one of them vomiting, he said with contempt: 'These pigs sure know how to vomit.' It was only the prisoners who were to be starved to death. Being at the camp was a slow execution through starvation, beatings and hard labour. The SS, however, lacked for nothing. And when we look at this feast, they had everything."
Oskar Gröning: "Throughout Auschwitz military discipline was actually very loose. The lack of discipline meant that we went to bed completely pissed and we had our pistols in their holsters hanging off the bed frame, and when somebody was too lazy to turn off the light, we just shot it out. And nobody said anything about the bullet holes in the walls."
Getting wildly drunk was only one symptom of a widespread attitude among the SS—that the circumstances of Auschwitz allowed them to behave however they liked. Even, on occasion, commit sexual assault. The women most at risk worked in the sorting area in Canada.
Linda Breder: "'Fat swines', that's what the SS officers called us. We looked good. We looked as though we were from the normal world. Not like the others. Once there was a very good looking woman, she wasn't thin, she had a full body. An SS man came in. He raped her. There was no God in Auschwitz. There were such horrible conditions that God decided not to go there."
It wasn't just men who exploited the situation they found themselves in—women did as well. Irma Grese was one of 170 female SS staff at Auschwitz. She was just 20 years old in 1943, and her combination of beauty and cruelty was to make her notorious. But there was nothing in her background before she came to the camp to give any hint of the monster that she was to become.
Vera Alexander - Jewish Prisoner, Auschwitz: "She didn't go to school. She was a farmer's daughter. I thought she was a small silly country bumpkin. She became someone just because she was wearing a uniform and had a whip in her hand."
Irma Grese was one of the SS who supervised the women's camp at Auschwitz Birkenau. By the end of 1943, in the southern part of the camp complex, there were 30,000 women, housed in 62 barracks in some of the worst conditions in the whole of Auschwitz. There was little running water, and disease was rampant. For Irma Grese the women's camp became a sadistic playground.
Vera Alexander: "She shot one woman dead who was standing in front of me. Her brains landed on my shoulder. The next day, after the selections, Irma came to see me. I refused to talk to her. She asked, 'Are you angry with me?' I replied, 'You nearly killed me yesterday'. She answered: 'One down, it doesn't matter '"
After the war Irma Grese was tried for war crimes and sentenced to death. She was executed two months after her 22nd birthday. But it was a member of the SS who worked on this site, where crematorium 2 in Birkenau once stood, who became most infamous for exploiting the opportunities Auschwitz had to offer.
Dr Josef Mengele arrived at Auschwitz in May 1943. There had been medical experiments conducted at the camp before his arrival. At least two German doctors had been examining new methods of sterilizing men and women at Auschwitz since 1942. And in the process hundreds had already suffered.
But Mengele began a variety of new experiments, each related to his own obsessions. He saw Auschwitz as a human laboratory, one which allowed him to pursue any idea he had, no matter how bestial or inhumane. He experimented on children - particularly on twins. This footage shows some of the children he selected, filmed by the Soviets immediately after the liberation of the camp. It is thought that Mengele used these children to research the power of genetic inheritance, an area of interest to many Nazi scientists. Children were installed in special barracks, for Mengele's exclusive use.
Vera Alexander: "Every day Mengele came and every day he brought some toys, sweets, chocolates, and new clothes."
The children called Mengele the "good uncle". But his treatment of them was entirely cynical. Because he wanted them to co-operate when he came to pick them for his experiments.
Eva Mozes Kor - Today: "Mengele came in every morning after roll call to count us. He wanted to know every morning how many guinea pigs he had. Three times a week both of my arms would be tied to restrict the blood flow, and they took a lot of blood from my left arm. On occasion enough blood until we fainted. At the same time that they were taking blood, they would give me a minimum of 5 injections into my right arm. After one of those injections I became extremely ill and Dr. Mengele came in next morning with four other doctors. He looked at my fever chart and he said, laughing sarcastically, he said: 'Too bad, she is so young. She has only 2 weeks to live.'
I would fade in and out of consciousness, and in a semi-conscious state of mind I would keep telling myself: I must survive, I must survive. They were waiting for me to die. Would I have died, my twin sister Miriam would have been rushed immediately to Mengele's lab, killed with an injection to the heart and then Mengele would have done the comparative autopsies. That is the way most of the twins died."
Miklos Nyiszli: "For the comparative examination from the viewpoint of anatomy and pathology, the twins had to die at the same time. So it was that they met their death at the hand of Dr. Mengele. This phenomenon was unique in world medical history. Twin brothers died together, and it was possible to perform autopsies on both. Where, under normal circumstances, can one find twin brothers who die at the same place and at the same time?"
Vera Alexander: "You cannot ask WHY! There was no WHY in Auschwitz. Only WAS."
Eva Mozes Kor: "I was asked by somebody, 'You're very strong. How did you become very strong?' And I said, 'I had no choice: I overcame or I would have perished.'
Mengele experimented not just on twins, but also on dwarves and prisoners with the form of gangrene of the face known as Noma, which was common in Birkenau because of the privations in which inmates were held. He worked closely with an anthropological institute in Berlin, sending them human body parts, especially eyeballs. The parcels were stamped "Urgent - war materials". Doctor Mengele was a member of Heinrich Himmler's SS. And, like Mengele, every member of the SS was told to pride themselves on their hardness and lack of pity.
But during 1943, Himmler realised that he must try harder to prevent the SS from being - as he saw it - corrupted by the extermination of the Jews. In a speech he gave at Poznan on the 4th October 1943, Himmler spelt out just how he wanted the SS to feel about the murders.
Subtitles: I want to put to you a very grave matter in all frankness. We can talk about it amongst ourselves yet we will never ever speak about it in public. I am referring to the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. And to have seen this through and apart from a few exceptions of human weakness to have remained decent - that has made us tough and is a page of glory in our history never to be written. We have taken away the riches that they had and I have given a strict order which General Pohl has carried out. We have delivered all these riches to the Reich, to the State. We have taken nothing for ourselves.
But it was all lies, because in a place like Auschwitz, Commandant Rudolf Höss was presiding over an institution that was riddled with corruption. So much so that in the Autumn of 1943 another SS officer, Lieutenant Konrad Morgen, arrived to look into the running of the camp. There was to be no investigation, of course, into the fact that every week thousands of innocent people were being murdered in the gas chambers. In Himmler's eyes that was a sacred duty. Instead Morgen's investigation was to be centered on theft - on ensuring that the money and goods stolen from the incoming transports ended up in the coffers of the State, not the lockers of individual members of the SS. Morgen was shocked by what he found.
Testimony of Konrad Morgen, Auschwitz Trial, 1964: "Examination of the lockers yielded a fortune in gold, rings, pearls and money, in all kinds of currencies. The conduct of the SS staff was beyond any of the standards that you'd expect from soldiers. They gave the impression of being degenerate and brutal parasites."
Oskar Gröning: "I was on a business trip to Berlin to deliver English pounds and American dollars and just at that time they raided the quarters of the NCO's and other ranks. And when I returned my locker was sealed."
Gröning knew that two of his comrades had already been arrested because contraband had been found in their possession. One of them later hanged himself in his cell. Knowing his own locker contained stolen goods, Gröning came up with an ingenious way out of his predicament. The Gestapo had sealed the front of his locker, so Gröning simply took off the back.
Oskar Gröning: "I went to the Gestapo and said, 'Look, what nonsense are you up to, I can't get into my locker.' - 'Oh, we are sorry.'—'Listen, I've just returned from a trip and I need it' - 'Well, we've got to check it first' So they came, took the 3 seals off, opened the locker, found nothing, patted me on the shoulder and said, 'It's ok. Carry on.'"
Interviewer: "But looking back, aren't you sorry that you made your own life more comfortable while millions actually died?"
Oskar Gröning: "Absolutely not. Everybody is looking out for themselves. So many people died in the war, not only Jews. So many things happened, so many were shot, so many snuffed it. People burnt to death, so many were burnt, if I thought about all of that I wouldn't be able to live one minute longer."
This attitude that it was acceptable to profit personally from the Jews wasn't just common at Auschwitz, it became entrenched throughout the area of the killings. This footage, of Jews being robbed in Eastern Europe, shows how easy it was for the Nazis and their collaborators to pocket money and jewelry for themselves. And it was the corruption of individual Nazis which enabled Jews to fight back in the autumn of 1943. A major act of resistance occurred in the East of Poland, at a Nazi death camp called Sobibor, where the SS were just as corrupt as they were at Auschwitz.
Thomas Blatt - Jewish Prisoner, Sobibor: "They did steal despite everything, they had a good time, they weren't, they didn't go to the Russia where their comrades were killed in the in the Russia, ah, in the Russian Front under Stalingrad, they killed innocent babies, that's a good life for them. They could live like kings."
Sobibor was a tiny camp, hidden in a forest. This is an impression of what it looked like. Several hundred Jews were given a temporary stay of execution and forced to work here, most sorting the belongings of those who had been murdered in the gas chambers of the camp. A group of them realized they might be able to take advantage of the Germans' greed and lure them to nearby workshops.
Thomas Blatt: " There's a beautiful leather coat in the sorting area, would you like to ah, to take a look at it? Of course they were very greedy; they picked up gold, they picked up clothing they sent it later home. When the tailor made appointment with this officer to come 3 o'clock to try on his uniform, you could be sure he was 3 o'clock exactly there. So we were able to plan approximately a new divided time of the killing, you could see that every few minutes, every 50 minutes, a German was killed."
Arkadiy Vajspapir - Jewish Prisoner & Former Red Army Soldier, Sobibor: "Me and Lerner went to the cobblers' shop and we hid behind some clothes. I had an axe and he had an axe too. A German came in to try on some boots that the prisoners had made for him. They sat him down opposite my hiding place. At that moment I stepped out and hit him. I didn't know that you should do it with the flat side of the axe. I hit him with the blade.
We pulled him away and put some clothes over him. Almost immediately another German came in. He walked up to the corpse, kicked him and said - 'what is this, what is this mess over here, what's going on?' At that moment I hit him with the axe and Lerner hit him as well. Then we took his weapons—I took one pistol, Lerner took the other one and we ran away."
The inmates rushed to the wire fences that surrounded the camp, all the time under fire from Ukrainian guards in the watch towers. They pushed the fences down and ran straight towards the forest, crossing a minefield.
Thomas Blatt: "I was, was probably the last one to run—I fall down about two or three times down, each time I thought I'm hit, but I did get up, nothing happened to me and I did run to the forest - 100 meter, 50 meter finally the forest."
300 of the 600 Jews in Sobibor managed to escape that day. In the end about 50 of them evaded capture and survived the war, many of them former Red Army Soldiers who had been imprisoned in the camp.
Arkadiy Vajspapir: "Only those who flocked together could survive. The only thing that saved me and my friends was that we were like brothers to each other."
In the wake of the Sobibor revolt Himmler ordered the closure of a number of camps in Poland, and the murder by shooting of over 40,000 people. But the Nazis' "Final Solution" was not progressing as Hitler and Himmler would have wished.
The Italians, although allies of the Nazis, had consistently refused to deport their Jews. It wasn't until the Germans occupied their country that deportations began. In Bulgaria, although the government had already given up 11,000 Jews from occupied territories, there were protests during 1943 about proposals to deport Bulgarian Jews. And in Romania, Prime Minister Antonescu, having permitted the destruction of many Jewish communities, refused to co-operate further. For everyone knew that the Germans were losing the war. In the East, in the fight against the Red Army, whole German units had been captured.
But one occupied country in Europe did more than any other to protect Jews - Denmark. The Germans had first occupied Denmark in 1940 but it was only now, in August 1943, after Danish resistance had increased, that they imposed full military rule. Now German brutality was practiced in the open and the Danish Jews were hugely at risk.
In September 1943 Hitler's representative in Denmark, Dr Werner Best of the SS, a man whose hands were already bloodied by the persecution of Jews in France and Poland, met with the German diplomat, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a known sympathizer of the Danes. According to their later testimony, Best first informed him that 8000 Danish Jews would shortly be rounded up.
Subtitles: We now have a definite date. The operation will take place on the night of 1st October. And there is nothing you can do about it? No. The security police have already received their orders.
It was at this point that Best acted seemingly out of character.
Subtitles: I wish I could build a bridge over the Baltic Sea so the Jews could find a way to Sweden. Rest assured, Dr. Best, the bridge will be built.
Best's heavy hint about a bridge for the Danish Jews to neutral Sweden was clearly understood by Duckwitz. He immediately warned Danish politicians who in turn warned the Jews. As a result on Wednesday the 29th of September 1943 in the central synagogue in Copenhagen Rabbi Melchior made a surprise announcement.
Rabbi Bent Melchior: "During the service of that morning my father stopped the service and ah, repeated the message that he had received. Don't be at home on Friday night."
Knut Dyby - Danish Policeman: "I would go out and find one of the fishermen that I knew and tell him how many I had and we would have to beg and borrow enough money to pay the fishermen as much as we could to get everybody on board."
Once in neutral Sweden, the Danish Jews were given food and shelter. Altogether 95% of Danish Jews were saved in a rescue action that is without parallel in the history of the Nazis' "Final Solution"
Rudy Bier - Jewish Escapee from Denmark: "The Danes considered the Jewish population as a part of the Danish population and they could not understand why these people should have separate treatment. And I think it was very much a question of fairness and justice, I would even say more that than love."
But while the motive of the Danes who helped the Jews was clear, it's less easy to understand why Werner Best acted as he did. One possible explanation is that he wanted the Jews to escape to save him the trouble of deporting them himself. Best sent a report to Berlin on October the 5th. He said:
"As the objective goal of the Jewish action in Denmark was the de-Judification of the country and not a successful headhunt it must be concluded that the Jewish action has reached its goal."
Even committed Nazis like Best were lacing their ideological hatred with pragmatism. And in 1943 here within Auschwitz main camp, there was the most extraordinary example of that same thinking.
Józef Paczynski, Polish Political Prisoner, Auschwitz: "And so, in 1943 I and many others were living in Block 24A. The block elder came in and said: 'We're moving out because there's going to be a brothel here.' We all started laughing."
But it wasn't a joke. It was bizarre - but true. Block 24 just beside the main gate of Auschwitz was to become a brothel. And the decision to make it happen had come from the very top of the SS. Heinrich Himmler had been considering for some time how to provide incentives to prisoners within the concentration camp system. He'd written to Otto Pohl of the SS Economic Division:
"I consider it necessary to provide in the most liberal way hard working prisoners with women in brothels."
These instructions were passed onto commandants like Höss in a directive from Pohl in 1943. The idea wasn't for every prisoner to use the brothel - certainly not the Jews, but for vouchers for the brothel to be issued only to those prisoners whom the Nazis considered of special value. Prisoners like Ryszard Dacko, a member of the Auschwitz fire brigade.
Ryszard Dacko—Polish Political Prisoner, Auschwitz: "If I wanted to get a voucher, I had to sort things out with an SS-man. And they only gave vouchers to healthy prisoners, they wouldn't give them to prisoners who were on their last legs. Prisoners who worked as cooks for the SS, as hairdressers for the SS—the special prisoners got those vouchers. I got 2 vouchers."
Little is known about the women who were forced to work in the brothel - this whole subject is one many prefer not to talk about. But it's believed they were selected from non-Jewish prisoners already in the camp. They were given these rooms on the first floor of Block 24 where prisoners who had the necessary vouchers visited them.
Ryszard Dacko: "I wanted to cuddle up to her as much as I could, because it was three and a half years since I'd been arrested, three and a half years without a woman."
In the brutalized atmosphere of Auschwitz, prisoners like Ryszard Dacko found it hard to have sympathy for the women who worked in the brothel.
Ryszard Dacko: "The girls were treated very well, they had good food, they went for walks. They just had to carry out the work that was required of them."
The brothel lasted until January 1945 - and the suffering endured by the women who worked in these rooms is one of the least acknowledged aspects of the history of Auschwitz. Shortly after supervising the opening of the brothel, Höss learnt that he was to be removed as Commandant of Auschwitz. He didn't want to leave. He and his family had manufactured a comfortable life for themselves.
The SS investigation had uncovered clear evidence of corruption at the camp. But Höss wasn't disgraced; he was promoted—to a desk job in Concentration Camp Administration back in Berlin. He left on his own. Rather than move to Berlin, his family preferred to stay on after he'd gone in the Commandant's house on the edge of Auschwitz main camp.
But Höss was not finished with Auschwitz yet. Just 2 months after he left the warehouse in Auschwitz, where much of the evidence about corruption at the camp was being stored, mysteriously caught fire. Höss would return to the camp in 1944, where he would oversee the dramatic months that made Auschwitz into the biggest killing centre the world has ever seen.