Liberation & Revenge
AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Liberation & Revenge: Episode
At Auschwitz, by mid January 1945, the Nazis knew it would be only a matter of days before the Red Army arrived. What had been the biggest concentration and death camp in the whole of the Nazi empire would shortly be no more.
The SS tried to do what they could to conceal the details of what had happened here: files were removed or burnt, the gas chambers destroyed. Everyone who had worked at Auschwitz knew that the time was fast approaching when the Allies would call them to account.
Oscar Gröning: "I was a cog in the machine and directly after the war, everybody who had been at Auschwitz, no matter in what position - in the office or as a guard or as somebody who threw the Zyklon B into the hatches - everybody had the feeling that it would be best not to draw too much attention to it."
This is the story of how the SS at Auschwitz together with the few inmates who survived fared in the last days of the war and its aftermath. And it's a story that is as unexpected as it is shocking.
AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Liberation & Revenge: Episode
Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz on the 27th of January 1945. Only a few thousand inmates awaited them. The vast majority of the prisoners had been marched away by the Nazis just days before, westwards, into the Reich. Those that remained—most thought too sick to march - were supposed to have been shot by the SS, but in the confusion they'd been left alive.
Vasily Gromadsky, Officer, 60th Army: "I realized that they were prisoners and not workers so I called out "You are free, come out!" They began rushing towards us, in a big crowd. They were weeping, embracing us and kissing us."
Amongst the prisoners in Auschwitz main camp were several hundred children, many of them twins, who had been the subject of Nazi medical experiments. Including 10 year old Eva Mozes Kor.
Eva Mozes Kor, Child prisoner, Auschwitz: "We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies and chocolate. Being so alone a hug meant more than anybody could imagine because that replaced the human worth that we were starving for. We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness. And the Soviet Army did provide some of that."
Despite the final hurried efforts of the SS, evidence of the aftermath of mass extermination lay all around. It was clear that a terrible crime had been committed.
Vasily Gromadsky: "I felt a grievance on behalf of mankind that these fascists had made such a mockery of us. It roused me and all the soldiers to go and quickly destroy them and send them to hell."
Just 84 days after liberating Auschwitz, the Red Army was in Berlin. And on the 30th of April 1945 the man who had presided over the horror of Auschwitz, Adolf Hitler, committed suicide in the Fuehrer-bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery. On 5 May 1945, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, Lieutenant Colonel Rudolf Höss of the SS, traveled to a meeting that he believed would determine his own fate. It was held here at the Mürwik Naval Academy at Flensburg in North Germany—a part of the country still in Nazi hands.
Höss was about to hear the contingency plans his own boss, Heinrich Himmler, had made for his key staff. Höss later recorded in his memoirs what Himmler said.
Subtitles: I therefore give you my last order. Hide yourselves in the Armed Forces!
Words from 'Commandant of Auschwitz' by Rudolf Höss: "This was the farewell message from the man to whom I had looked up to so much, in whom I had had such firm faith and whose orders, whose every word had been gospel to me."
Höss was clearly disappointed. He'd been expecting to be told to take part in some dramatic last act of resistance. Now, following orders, he dressed up in the uniform of a Petty Officer, a "Bootsmaat", of the German Navy, and went to hide amongst the sailors on the holiday island of Sylt. As for his boss, Himmler he was captured by the Allies just days later.
Program Reporter: To that house Gestapo Chief Himmler was taken when captured. Arch criminal, he could expect no mercy and had in his mouth a capsule, which he chewed. They found on him another capsule filled with Potassium Cyanide.
Almost all members of Himmler's SS had their blood group tattooed under their arm. The Allies were able to identify former SS soldiers by means of this tattoo but they did not identify all of those within the SS who had worked at Auschwitz - like Oskar Gröning. By the end of the war he was attached to an SS fighting unit and was eventually arrested at the Danish-German border.
Oskar Gröning, German POW: "I knew of course that my connection with the concentration camp of Auschwitz would provoke a negative response. So I tried not to point my interrogators to the fact that I'd been at Auschwitz. We obviously knew that the things that had happened there did not necessarily comply with human rights."
Actions which Oskar Gröning refers to as 'not necessarily complying with human rights' were, as the British discovered when they liberated the Camp of Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, some of the worst crimes in history. For it was to Belsen that more than 10,000 inmates of Auschwitz had been sent, ahead of the Soviet advance. Here they had been denied water and food and left to die.
British soldier from the Archive Footage: "The conditions in this camp are beyond describing. When you actually see them for yourself you know what you're fighting for here. Pictures in the paper cannot describe it at all. The things they have committed, well, nobody would think they were human at all."
Many of the people directly responsible for the horrors of the Nazi camps had escaped immediate capture and were still hiding somewhere in Germany. The former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, was one of them. He'd been initially detained but then released by the British. His disguise had worked; they thought he was a sailor. Now he was employed as a farm laborer at Gottrupel near Flensburg, answering to the name of Franz Lang.
But after a bad start the British were back on his trail. By the time they torched the camp of Bergen-Belsen, survivors had begun to tell of their experiences at another camp further to the East, Auschwitz. And of the man who ran it—Rudolf Höss.
Living north of Belsen the British Intelligence Corps discovered Höss' family. They arrested and imprisoned Höss' wife Hedwig. For 5 days she was repeatedly asked where her husband was, but always replied that he was dead. Then, on the morning of the 6th day, the soldiers of the Intelligence Corps attempted to trick her into telling more. Captain William Cross, the Commanding Officer of 92 Field Security Section, later revealed how the interrogation went.
Subtitles: Frau Höss, we ask you one more time. Where is your husband? Where is he? He is dead. You've heard the train outside? This train is going to Russia—Siberia and your son in the cell next door is going with it. You'll have two minutes to say good-bye. Alternatively, you can write down your husband's address and aliases—and you can go home together with your sons. Ten minutes.
Thinking she was saving her son, Frau Höss now revealed the truth. Soldiers of British 92 Field Security Section moved up to the farm she'd identified at 11 o'clock that night.
Subtitles: What's your name? Your real name!
They knew the crimes Höss had committed, and were not inclined to restrain themselves. According to one of the British soldiers who witnessed Höss' capture, "the blows and screams were endless". The Medical Officer accompanying them then shouted to Captain Cross to "call his men off unless he wanted to take back a corpse." After his arrest Höss was interrogated first locally, and eventually at Nuremberg as part of the war crime trials.
Whitney Harris, Member of the Prosecuting team, Nuremberg Trial: "He struck me as a normal person that was the horrible thing about. If he had been a monster you know if he had come in there and said I did this and this to all these people and I was happy at it, he was a cool objective matter of fact, this is my war duty I did my war duty, it was like I had to go out and cut down so many trees. So I went out and took my saw and cut the trees down.
He was just acting like a normal unimportant individual, he ah, simply answered the questions and as far as I could tell, told what happened ah, without emotion. Without emotion. And without sense of guilt, without sense of guilt. Not in the slightest apologetic, not in the remotest degree was he apologetic. In a sense he was I think showed a certain pride in accomplishment."
Much of the former Nazi Empire was now under the control of Stalin's Soviet Union. And, as the search for the Nazi perpetrators continued, thousands of refugees were trying to return home. Amongst them many of the former inmates of Auschwitz, including Helena Citrónová. For her, the Soviet soldiers had become a new source of terror.
Helena Citrónová, Former Jewish prisoner, Auschwitz: "No matter where we hid, they found us and raped some of my friends. They did horrible things to them. It was so terrible, the word terrible is not even enough to describe it. They raped all the time."
Helena escaped being raped herself only because her elder sister Rózinka pretended she was her mother and protected her. The rapes continued just feet away from them.
Helena Citrónová: "I heard shouting and screaming and then they became quiet. They had no more strength left. There were cases where they were raped to death. They strangled them, they were like wild animals. We thought that though Germans hadn't killed us, the Russians now would."
Other former inmates of Auschwitz were also to suffer at the hands of the Russians—ironically Russians themselves. 10,000 Red Army prisoners of war had been sent to Auschwitz in October 1941 to build the camp here at Birkenau. The handful who survived this horror, were, after their liberation, about to be persecuted again.
Pavel Stenkin, Former Soviet POW, Auschwitz: "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 was sent into internal exile in the closed city of Perm in the Urals. A victim of Stalin's policy that all Red Army soldiers who'd been captured should be treated as suspected traitors.
Pavel Stenkin: "When I arrived in Perm to work I was called in every 2nd night - "admit this, agree to that, we know everything, we only don't know the purpose you were sent here for. But we will find out with or without your help. Come on, admit that you are a spy." And I would say - "I am not a spy, I'm an honest Soviet man." And the interrogator smiled ironically—"Soviet man". And he smiled again. "Just confess and it'll all be over."
They were tormenting and tormenting me. And then they decided to get rid of me. They sent me to prison. And the details of my sentence - do you think I heard anything or I read anything about it? I heard nothing and read nothing. Judges were in rush they had theatre tickets so they were in hurry to leave the court."
Pavel Stenkin was sent to a labor camp within the Soviet Gulag system. Captured by the Germans in 1941, he was finally released only after Stalin's death in 1953.
Pavel Stenkin: "I was always feeling hungry. It was not until I was released from prison, in 1953 that I started to eat my fill."
While the former inmates of Auschwitz struggled to rebuild their lives, some of the Germans who had worked at the camp arrived in Britain, along with other members of the German armed forces.
Oskar Gröning, German POW: "If you're talking about England, we were very soon no longer prisoners of war but German workers. The fence around our camp was removed and theatre groups were formed in the camps and well, we were working, we had sufficient food, in fact good food. We were able to earn extra money by helping the farmers, we got cigarettes, and had a relatively good, comfortable life in the camps."
Oskar Gröning, whose connection with Auschwitz had still not been discovered, joined a choir made up of other German Prisoners of War, and went on tour.
Oskar Gröning: "For one and a half months I traveled through the Midlands and Scotland with this choir. And the hospitality, especially in the Christian Parishes, was enormous. Although we were supposed to sleep in the POW camps, we often didn't because people put us up in their houses. Everybody wanted to have a singer stay with them, so we had a good night's sleep and got a good breakfast and the next morning we were taken back to our gathering point and off we went to the next place. It was great."
While Oskar Gröning experienced life in Britain, his former boss endured a less comfortable captivity in Cracow. Rudolf Höss passed the time before his trial recording his experiences as commandant of Auschwitz and his service in the SS. It's a remarkable document, of great historical importance, offering us an insight into his mentality. He reveals how he watched women and children being taken to the early improvised gas chambers in cottages at Birkenau.
Words from 'Commandant of Auschwitz' by 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?"
Höss recorded that he would ride his horse to clear his mind after such incidents, but he had no regrets.
Words from 'Commandant of Auschwitz' by Rudolf Höss: "The reasons behind the extermination program seemed to me to be right."
All the time Höss was killing women and children at Auschwitz, he was also living with his own family just yards from the main camp.
Words from 'Commandant of Auschwitz' by Rudolf Höss: "When I saw my children happily playing the thought would often come to me how long will our happiness last? In the summer they splashed in the Sola, their greatest joy was when Daddy bathed with them."
Höss Memoirs: "He had however so little time for all these childish pleasures. I always felt that I had to be on duty the whole time. Again and again my wife reproached me and said you must think not only of the service always, but of your family too."
Rudolf Höss, the man who'd been in charge of the site of the greatest mass murder in the history of the world, never in his memoirs expressed any real remorse for his crimes. Instead, looking back there was just one thing above all he wished he'd done differently.
Words from 'Commandant of Auschwitz' by Rudolf Höss: "Today I deeply regret that I did not devote more time to my family."
After a trial lasting three weeks, Höss was sentenced to death, to be hanged on a specially constructed gallows on the site of his crimes at Auschwitz.
Stanislaw Hantz, Guard at Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1947: "During the execution, when they were leading him to the gallows, Höss looked calm. When you go to your death, you're normally not calm. I know that because more than once we had experienced such moments ourselves. When death had been close by. When he had been master of life and death. 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?"
Höss was executed on 16 April 1947. But for many of the former prisoners of Auschwitz this was only part of the justice they sought. As they came home, many here to Slovakia, they expected to be able to return to the lives they had led before the war. But they faced a problem - in this part of Europe there was now little respect for pre-war property rights.
Something Libua Breder, a former prisoner at Auschwitz, discovered when she returned to her home town, Stropkov.
Libua Breder, Former Jewish prisoner, Auschwitz: "I finally found myself in front of my house. I knocked on the big gate and a man opened it, he said—"what do you want?" I said that I came back home. When he heard this he said to me "why don't you go back where you've come from", and he slammed the door. I was so shocked. I just walked down the main street and realized that all houses which had previously belonged to my relatives, were now occupied by others."
Libua Breder had spent nearly 3 years at Auschwitz forced to work in the area of the camp where the belongings stolen from new arrivals were sorted. An SS photographer took this picture of her ordering that she smile for the camera. In her time at Auschwitz Libua Breder endured much suffering but she was sustained by a dream - that she might be able one day to return home; a dream that now lay in pieces.
Libua Breder: "I regretted that I had come back. Everybody was keeping their distance it was as if I was poisonous. They probably were afraid that they would have to return confiscated property. I left the next day and never went back. To return home was my worst experience."
Other than the gravestones in the cemeteries, there was now little evidence that there had ever been thriving Jewish communities here. After the war few survivors of the Nazi camps recovered either all their money or all their property. It was a huge injustice one compounded by the fact that leading members of the SS were given assistance to leave Europe and escape.
Dr. Joseph Mengele had conducted a series of medical experiments at Auschwitz, many of them on children. With the help of a corrupt Italian immigration official, he managed to obtain passage to Argentina. He was not alone. Adolf Eichmann who had helped organize the extermination of the Jews also managed to escape to South America.
But in the face of the atrocities committed by these and other Nazis there were those who sought to take justice into their own hands. Some of them were members of the Jewish Brigade, a unit of the British Army created in 1944. They fought against the Germans in Italy, and as they did they learnt more and more about the nature of the crimes the Nazis had committed. And soldiers like Moshe Tavor resolved to do something about it.
Moshe Tavor, Jewish Brigade: "We got angrier and angrier. Many of us felt that it wasn't enough that we just participated in the war. A few of us gathered together and we decided we had to try to take revenge on the people who had done this. We had no illusions that we could get all of them, but maybe we could get a few of them, at least."
Using whatever sources they could, they tried to trace any Nazi who they believed had been active in the destruction of the Jews. Then they paid him a visit and took him away, saying they wanted to conduct an interrogation.
Drama Reconstruction: We drove to a place we had selected before. Like a forest or some place that was inhabited. And there we put him on trial, and we read him all the charges. They were based on everything we knew from the underground. Sometimes he had a chance to say a few words to defend himself. And then we would finish him off. Usually one of us would strangle him.
Interviewer: "Did you ever strangle someone like that?"
Moshe Tavor: "Yes not that I was happy to do it, but I did it. I was completely aware of what I did. I didn't have to drink beforehand to lift my moral, I was always enthusiastic enough. I knew that my uncles and my grandparents and other relatives - tens of them were annihilated."
Interviewer: "You killed a person. It wasn't even a proper trial. How do you feel about that? How can you possibly explain that?"
Moshe Tavor: "Look, in my life until then I'd already done quite a few things which were not exactly straight. But to say that I feel guilty for what I did to them, on the contrary, completely the opposite. I feel guilty for what we didn't do to them."
Only a handful of those allegedly involved in the Nazi extermination policy were ever killed by the Jewish Brigade, plenty more made good lives for themselves in post war Germany. These were the years of the so-called German 'economic miracle'. But some of the people walking these streets had pasts they wanted to hide.
Oskar Gröning had worked at Auschwitz for nearly 2 years. Now he was a committed family man and working in a glass factory in the personnel department. And it wasn't advisable to bring up the subject of Auschwitz in his presence.
Oskar Gröning: "I remember when I was staying with my father and my step-mother's parents. At dinner the grandmother made a stupid remark about Auschwitz and implied, "You're a potential or even a real murderer, and yet you are allowed to sit with us at the table. You are here only on sufferance." I exploded and banged my fist on the table and said: "Now listen well - this word and this connection are never ever mentioned again in my presence. Or I'll move out!"
But the hunt was intensifying for some of the most notorious members of the SS implicated in the murder of the Jews. Like SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who had visited Auschwitz several times to check on the progress of the murders. After the war it seemed as if he had disappeared. Then these photos were secretly taken in Argentina in 1960 of a man calling himself Ricardo Klement. Ricardo Klement was none other than Adolf Eichmann. He soon became the target of an Israeli snatch squad. One of them: Moshe Tavor.
Moshe Tavor: "I closed the bonnet and Tzvika jumped on him. At the side of the road was a ditch and they both rolled into it. I took hold of Eichmann's feet and Tzvika got hold of him and then Rafi came. We dragged him to the car and we stuffed up his mouth. Then we prepared glasses for him so that he couldn't see anything."
News Reporter: "Now after 15 years in hiding and 1 year after his sensational abduction from Argentina, Adolf Eichmann is indicted on 15 counts of crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. The 3 judges who will decide his fate enter."
Moshe Tavor: "If it was up to me I wouldn't have gone to all that trouble I would have strangled him in the ditch and be done with it."
After a trial lasting 4 months Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death.
Moshe Tavor: "I wrote an official letter volunteering to be the executioner."
Moshe Tavor's boss politely declined his offer saying that he'd done enough already. The trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann was certainly highly publicized but it obscured a lesser known truth. That a total of around 8,000 members of the SS had worked at Auschwitz at one time or another; an estimated 7,000 of them had survived the war. The question was how many of them would be held to account?
At a trial in Frankfurt starting in December 1963, 22 people were accused of crimes at Auschwitz. 17 were convicted with 6 receiving the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Prosecutors were tracing as many members of the SS who had connections with the camp as they could. Eventually they even traced Oskar Gröning but decided not prosecute him.
Interviewer: "You were a part of the largest killing factory in history, you were working there, you personally contributed to the killing of around one million people - don't you think you should've stood trial?"
Oskar Gröning: "No, I don't think so. You imply with your question that just being a member of a large group of people who lived in a garrison where the destruction of the Jews took place is enough to make you a criminal."
Oskar Gröning did much more than simply "live in a garrison where the destruction of the Jews took place". Like every one of the SS at Auschwitz he actively participated in the running of the camp. Oskar Gröning counted the foreign currency stolen from the Jews and transported it to Berlin, and he guarded the belongings of the Jews in the immediate aftermath of their arrival.
But others did have a much more intimate connection with the killing process. And many of them were not even Nazis. Because a crematorium like this was normally operated by no more than 4 members of the SS - and a hundred prisoners of the Sonderkommando.
Whitney Harris, Member of the Prosecuting team, Nuremberg Trial: "They were forced to do this, if they didn't do this then they would be immediately taken to the gas chambers. So in order to have a chance of a little bit more life they did the function. The Sonderkommandos was not made of volunteers they were they were themselves victims and they were in turn ah, put into the gas chamber when their time was up."
It was always the Nazis themselves who committed the actual act of murder—throwing the pellets of Zyklon B in through the hatches of the gas chambers. But the prisoners of the Sonderkommando were forced to do many of the other tasks needed to make this killing factory work—including removing and burning the bodies. This meant that after the war, the majority of the SS at Auschwitz could maintain they, themselves, had never worked in the crematoria and gas chambers.
Whitney Harris: "For others who operated ah, who had tasks in the concentration camp system they kept the system going that's true but, probably their offences were not sufficiently severe that any nation would want to prosecute."
Of the 7,000 members of the SS who worked at Auschwitz and who survived the war, fewer than 800 were ever put on trial. Nearly 90% of those involved were never prosecuted.
Oskar Gröning: "The Ministry of Trade and Industry in Hanover appointed me an honorary judge. And for 12 years, alongside my regular job, I acted as an honorary judge in industrial tribunals."
Interviewer: "Isn't it unfair that those who suffered continue to have a hard time whereas somebody like you who was involved in the annihilation machinery now has a good life?"
Oskar Gröning: "It's always like that in this world. Should I wear a hair shirt for the rest of my life and live off roots and charity, like in the opera Tannhäuser, because I belonged to that organization? Unless you think that's an option, then all that's left is for each person to have the freedom to make the best of the situation he's in."
For many former prisoners of Nazi death camps, life since the war has been rather more troubled. In places like Izbica in Poland, property that was once lived in by Jews, is now occupied by others. In the late 1980s one survivor of a Nazi death camp, Thomas Blatt returned to visit the house he and his parents had lived in and had a surprising encounter with the man now living there.
Thomas Blatt , Former Jewish prisoner, Sobibor: "He let me in. I've seen the chair. My old chair from a long time ago. And I say—oh, I recognise this chair! My father used to sit on it. 'No, no, no, I bought it!' So I took the chair, turn it over, and there was our name on the other side. He looked around. He said Mr. Blatt—why the whole comedy with the chair, I know why you are here. You have hidden money here, your parents had some money and he was so angry ah, look around, ok, nothing to snatch. Goodbye. He said, Mr Blatt, wait a minute you could take it out and we divide even the money. Give him 50% and 50% me. I just left."
A few years later, Thomas Blatt returned to Izbica and this was the sight that greeted him. The house his family had lived in was now uninhabitable.
Thomas Blatt: "So I went to neighbors and asked the neighbor what's happened here so she said, 'Oh, Mr. Blatt, when you left we were unable to sleep because day and night he was looking for the treasure that you were supposed to leave. He took the floor apart, the walls apart everything. And later he find himself in the position where he couldn't fix it, too much money so he left it, take a look it's a ruin.' "
This ruined house symbolizes how long is the shadow cast by the Nazis' persecution and murder of the Jews. And how real still today is the prejudice of anti-Semitism. There are even those who deny the reality of what took place here. And it was to confront them that Oskar Gröning finally broke his silence about this own personal history.
Oskar Gröning: "I see it as my task, now at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened. And that's why I am here today. Because I want to tell those deniers: I have seen the gas chambers, I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits - and I want you to believe me that these atrocities happened. I was there."
1 million 300,000 people were sent to Auschwitz during the 4 and a ½ years of its existence. 1 million 100,000 of them died here. Hundreds of Jehovah's witnesses, homosexuals, and other minorities were murdered. 15,000 Soviet Prisoners of war, 21,000 Gypsies, 70,000 Polish political prisoners, and 1 million Jews, at least 200,000 of them children.
Alice Lok Cahana, Former Jewish prisoner, Auschwitz: "In this photograph I recognize my aunt her name is Yolanda Wolstein and her 4 little children Ervin 8 years old, Dory 10 years old, Judith 6 years old and Naomi the little baby 2 years old. It's such an incredible shattering feeling to recognize somebody you love and see how they looked minutes before they entered the crematorium."
Evidence of what the Nazis did lies all around here - waiting to be rediscovered by future generations. A reminder of just what human beings are capable of creating.