Orders & Initiatives
AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Orders and Initiatives: Episode 2
In the Autumn of 1941, the Nazis were about to embark on the most crucial few months in the planning of what they called 'The Final Solution' - the extermination of the Jews. Here at Auschwitz concentration camp in South West Poland the Commandant Rudolf Höss would wrestle with the task of organizing the mass murder of innocent civilians, including—for the first time - women and children. In buildings like this at Auschwitz, Höss and his colleagues used their own initiative to devise new ways of killing.
Józef Paczynski: "I could see everything that was going on as though it were laid out in the palm of my hand. An SS-man climbed onto the flat roof of the building, put on a gas mask, opened a hatch and dropped the powder in."
This is the story of how during the Autumn of 1941 and the Spring of 1942 the Nazis ventured into entirely new territory in the history of mass murder. Via a combination of orders from the top and initiatives from below, they set in motion a policy of destruction that would eventually touch almost every European nation.
AUSCHWITZ: Inside The Nazi State
Orders and Initiatives: Episode 2
At Auschwitz concentration camp in October 1941 a radical initiative was being implemented. The newly appointed Auschwitz construction chief, Karl Bischoff, and SS Architect Fritz Ertl were working on plans for a completely new camp to be situated a little more than a mile and a half north west of the existing one on the site of a village the Germans called Birkenau.
This new camp was to be the size of a small town capable of holding a 100,000 people. Research conducted in the 1990's, based on the original German construction plans, reveals that from the very first moment of its conception this camp was designed to house prisoners in appalling conditions. The Nazis had built suffering into the very plans. In a concentration camp in Germany this was the total space 3 inmates had to live in. Here at Auschwitz's new camp the original plan was to cram 9 prisoners into the same space. 550 in every barrack. There was no running water, no proper flooring, and jamming so many people together in each hut meant that this was the perfect breeding ground for disease.But when the final calculations were made it was clear that even cramming
the new prisoners together so tightly wasn't enough for the needs of the Nazis. So Bischoff decided to force even more prisoners into each barrack. The documents reveal that he made a handwritten change - the figure 550 for each barrack was crossed out and replaced with 744. The SS were designing barracks not so much to house people as to destroy them.
Surprisingly, the new camp they were designing at Auschwitz wasn't initially intended to take Jews at all, but people like these, Soviet prisoners of war. The Nazis considered them subhuman. During the war around 3 million of them died in German captivity of starvation, disease and physical abuse. In the autumn of 1941, 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived to begin the construction of the new camp—Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Kazimierz Smolen: "It was October, it was already snowing. I remember that it was snowing. They were unloaded at the railway ramp, at the goods station…. They were exhausted, it was difficult for them even to move. It is hard to imagine a human being in rags, dirty, starved, sick. It was simply a caricature of a human being."
Only a few hundred of the 10,000 Soviet Prisoners of War survived until the following spring. One of those was Pavel Stenkin.
Pavel Stenkin—Russian POW, Auschwitz: "We knew our place, a grave. I'm alive now and in a minute I'm finished. This was a constant feeling. They could kill you any minute and you would not know why."
Józef Mikusz—Polish Political Prisoner, Auschwitz: "The way the Germans, the SS and the Overseers amongst the prisoners tormented the POWs… they didn't even beat us as hard. I don't know why, but if a Prisoner Overseer didn't kill 7 or 10 a day, he probably couldn't sleep. That's how we interpreted it."
Pavel Stenkin: "People were dying from starvation, from diseases and from beatings. You'd go to bed and you were still alive - by morning you were dead. Death, death, death. Death at night, death in the morning, death in the afternoon. Death. We lived with death. How could a human feel?"
The man in charge of all this suffering, Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, held routine meetings at 9 o'clock every Tuesday and Friday morning to discuss the running of the camp with his senior officers. From the study of Nazi documents recently discovered in Moscow, it's clear that the slow progress in the construction of the prisoner of war camp at Birkenau was of huge concern to the SS leadership.
The man in charge of all this suffering, Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, held routine meetings at 9 o'clock every Tuesday and Friday morning to discuss the running of the camp with his senior officers. From the study of Nazi documents recently discovered in Moscow, it's clear that the slow progress in the construction of the prisoner of war camp at Birkenau was of huge concern to the SS leadership. The bombing in September 1941 left hundreds homeless, but Karl Kaufmann, the Gauleiter or Regional Leader of Hamburg, saw this as an opportunity to show his initiative. So he dictated a letter to Adolf Hitler.
Subtitles: I therefore request authorization to have the Jews of Gau Hamburg evacuated to the East. That would make it possible for at least some of the citizens affected by the bombing to be allocated new homes.
Requests like this one from Kaufmann coincided with Hitler's own prejudices and desires. He had wanted to remove the Jews for years. Like many on the Nationalist Right he believed in the delusion that the Jews had lost Germany the 1st World War and that there was an international conspiracy of Jews against them. From the moment the Nazis came to power Hitler had ensured that the Jews of Germany were persecuted. They quickly became the scapegoats for all of Germany's ills.
In the autumn of 1941 Hitler agreed to the requests of Kaufmann and other senior Nazis to deport the German Jews. At the end of October the Jews of Hamburg heard the news that they had been dreading.
Lucille Eichengreen—Hamburg Deportee: "We received a registered letter 24 hours prior to report to a building near the railway station to bring 1 suitcase and you would be resettled in the East. That's all it said."
In scenes that were eventually to be repeated right across Germany, the German Jews packed their belongings and prepared to leave in full view of their non Jewish neighbours.
Lucille Eichengreen: "It was even an ugly world and we looked away. It made us angry but more than that it made us terribly afraid, ah, we wished we could head back but we knew we couldn't. In the morning we were taken to trains, regular trains and ah, the trains were sealed from the outside and it was a train ride into nowhere. And we didn't know what to expect."
None of these German Jews was sent straight from Hamburg to Auschwitz. Instead, the first destination for Lucille was the Lodz Ghetto in Poland. The Nazis had created ghettos all over Poland to imprison the Polish Jews. They hated these Jews even more than the Jews from the West. To the Nazis they were from the Slavic East and so doubly dangerous. This was the shocking new environment into which the Hamburg Jews were now placed as they arrived in Lodz on the morning of the 26th of October 1941.
Lucille Eichengreen: "There were 1150 people, with the Jewish Ghetto police walking us into the Ghetto. It was a two hour walk. We saw people within the Ghetto, they looked ragged, they looked tired, they looked drawn and they paid us no attention. We saw an area that resembled a slum except none of us had ever seen a slum but we assumed this was it. We couldn't understand why they looked the way they did, not decently dressed, we didn't know what kind of a place this was. It just didn't make any sense at all."
Jacob Zylberstein—Polish Jew Lodz Ghetto: Normally, the German Jews they look at the Polish Jews from the top down. Because we were definitely a much lower category than them. And all of a sudden, it hit them that they had they had come to the time where they were the same or maybe lower because they cannot live in the conditions we did.
With the arrival of the German Jews the Lodz ghetto became more overcrowded and the local Nazi authorities sought ways of reducing the ghetto population. Which is why, in the autumn of 1941, Walter Burmeister of the SS drove his boss, Herbert Lange, across Poland. Burmeister later recalled what Lange had told him about the purpose of the trip.
Subtitles: Let's have one thing absolutely clear: there must be total secrecy. I have orders to form a special commando in Chelmno. Other staff from Poznan and the Gestapo in Lodz will join us. We've got a tough but important job to do.
Herbert Lange had, until recently, been employed in the Nazis' adult Euthanasia Programme, murdering the disabled. Lange drove to a small village called Chelmno. Here, over the next few weeks, he and his men would prepare a special installation. Its chief purpose: to create space in the Lodz ghetto by killing the Jews the Nazis thought unproductive.
By November 1941, Chelmno was not the only such centre under construction. At Belzec in the East of Poland another small camp was being built so the Nazis could kill selected Jews from the nearby Lublin area. But the killing was about to escalate still further after dramatic events more than 7000 miles away. On December the 7th 1941 the Japanese bombed American battleships at Pearl Harbour. As a result Germany—allies of the Japanese—declared war on the United States. And in a speech he gave days later, Hitler made it clear just who he blamed for the intensification of the war.
Subtitles: We know the power behind Roosevelt. It is the eternal Jew who believes that his hour has come to impose the same fate on us as we have seen and experienced in Soviet Russia.
In private Hitler was now calling for the Jews to be exterminated. And one of the leading Nazis who heard him speak of mass murder lived here in Krakow in Poland.
On December 16th 1941, just days after meeting with Hitler, he spoke to a carefully selected group of senior Army officers, SS and local Nazi party administrators.
His name was Hans Frank and he was the Nazi ruler of Eastern Poland. At the time, his words were not supposed to have been made public. But a copy of his speech survived the war.
Subtitles: With regards to the Jews I start from the assumption that they will disappear. They must go. But what should be done with the Jews? Do you believe they will really be accommodated in settlements in the East? In Berlin we were told, 'Liquidate them yourselves.' These Jews cannot all be shot but we have to take measures that will somehow succeed in extermination.
In January 1942 the first selections were made for Jews to be deported from the Lódz ghetto.
Lucille Eichengreen: "We did not want to leave or most people in the Ghetto did not want to leave because you figured the misery you knew would be better than the misery you didn't know."
The selected Jews from Lódz were taken here to Herbert Lange's new improvised extermination facility at Chelmno. Jews from the immediate area had been the first to die here a few weeks before. The Nazis blew up the large house which was the centre of the killing operations in order to hide evidence of their crime. This is one of the few photos that remain of the house itself. But evidence gathered after the war allows a picture to be constructed of what the Nazis did here.
The Jews from Lodz were told to undress they were then pushed down a corridor in the basement of the house, up a ramp and into a small windowless chamber. Doors were then slammed behind them. They'd been locked in the back of a van. These vans had been invented two years earlier to kill mentally ill people by cramming them in the sealed rear cargo area and then gassing them with carbon monoxide. Now Lange and other Nazis used their own initiative to adapt this killing method to murder Jews. They made gas vans central to the new killing operations here at Chelmno.
Zofia Szalek—Chelmno Resident: "There was a lot of screaming, how terribly they screamed, it was impossible to bear. We could hear the screams, but we couldn't see the people. They were loaded in and murdered there. It was hell. That's why we called these vans 'Hell Vans'. When I saw it going, I'd say, 'The hell's going.'"
The vans carrying the bodies of the Jews who had been gassed were driven 2 miles through remote country roads to a nearby forest and buried in a clearing. Many of the Germans who worked here at Chelmno believed what they were doing was perfectly legal, as the post war testimony of Kurt Möbius, one of the SS Guards, reveals.
Subtitles: We were told by Captain. Lange that the order for the extermination of the Jews came from Hitler and Himmler. And as police officers we were drilled to regard any order from the government as lawful and correct. At the time I believed the Jews were not innocent but guilty. The propaganda had drilled it into us again and again; that all Jews are criminals and sub-humans who were the cause of Germany's decline after the first world war.
Motivated by such anti Semitic delusions, the Germans created here at Chelmno the first systematic process for the mass gassing of the Jews. But up to now local Nazi killing operations like this didn't seem to be part of a fully developed strategy. That was to be resolved, on 20th January 1942 at an infamous meeting on the banks of the Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin. The meeting was called to co-ordinate the extermination of the Jews, the Nazis' so-called 'Final Solution'.
It was made plain to all of the various government and Nazi officials that attended that the SS was firmly in control of the process. Chaired by Reinhard Heydrich of the SS, with Adolf Eichmann taking the minutes, a crucial statement of principle was declared at Wannsee. All of the Jews under Nazi control were to die - many of them worked to death.
Subtitles: As a first step in the "Final Solution" of the Jewish question, it is first of all planned to put the Jews to work in the East. This will already eliminate a large number through natural wastage. The remnant that will have to be dealt with appropriately.
In ghettos like Lódz, the Nazis were pursuing the policy, as Heydrich put it, of eliminating a proportion of Jews through work and then dealing with the rest appropriately.
Lucille Eichengreen: "The food was not enough to sustain life, there was no milk, there was no meat, there was no food, there was nothing. A lot of Jews wanted to trade against a pair of shoes or ah, anything else that we had. My mother traded a silk blouse for some butter and bread. In the ghetto everything was paid for. You had to have somebody's shoulders to stand on, all protection which meant connections, that's how life - our business was conducted. You do me a favor I do you a favor.
You really couldn't trust anybody because if I would tell a co-worker something, she would use it for her advantage, you had to be very careful. There was a lot of back-stabbing and you can understand why, it was a matter of life and death. But that was ghetto life, this is what, what life had done to human beings, whether they were the same before the war I doubt it very much."
One of the most disturbing aspects of how the Nazis ran the ghettos is the way they forced the Jewish leadership to make many life and death decisions. Like how the inadequate supply of food and jobs should be distributed. Unlike the vast majority of Jewish ghetto leaders, the Chairman of the Council of Elders in Lódz, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, exploited his position of power.
Lucille Eichengreen: "I had heard rumors and I knew that he had a vile temper. If he got angry he would take his cane and hit you."
On occasion Rumkowski used the deportations to remove those who opposed him and he abused his authority in other ways.
Lucille Eichengreen: "I was alone in the office and he would pull up a chair and we had a couple of conversations, he talked, I would listen and he molested me. I kept moving away and he kept moving closer and it was a frightening relationship."
Jacob Zylberstein—Polish Jew, Lódz ghetto: "Rumkowski took a lot of advantage of, of the young of the young women. They were 15, 16, 18, 20 and quite good looking girls. We were all in the in the dining room outside there, he just come, put a hand around her and just walk out with her. And that, I saw that, not anybody told me that but I saw that."
Rumkowski sexually abused Lucille Eichengreen for several months. Only after the office where she worked was closed did she escape his attentions.
Lucille Eichengreen: "I felt disgusted and I felt angry, I ah, but if I would have run away he would have had me deported, I mean that was very clear. The ghetto left a permanent mark. It showed humanity at its best and at its worst, it made me what I am today. We all sustained damage em, during those years."
Eventually when the ghetto was liquidated, Rumkowski and his family suffered the same fate as 200,000 other Lódz ghetto Jews—they were murdered by the Nazis.
In early 1942, Auschwitz, unlike Chelmno and the Lodz ghetto, was only playing a minor part in the Nazis' Final Solution. Since September 1941 Höss and his colleagues had been experimenting with the use of Zyklon B—prussic acid to kill Soviet Prisoners of War and the sick in the crematorium of the camp just yards from his office.
Next to the ovens of the crematorium was the mortuary. The SS used it as an improvised gas chamber. A small number of Jews from the local area selected as unfit to work had also been killed here, beginning in the autumn of 1941, but it was soon clear to Höss and his SS colleagues that this was not an ideal location to commit mass murder, as Polish political prisoner Józef Paczynski, witnessed.
Józef Paczynski—Polish Political Prisoner, Auschwitz: "I went into the attic of that building, I stood on a crate or something, I lifted a roof tile and I could see everything that was going on right there in front of me. 'And they were very polite with those people, very polite. "Undress, pack your things here, this here, that there..." And then an SS- man climbed onto the flat roof of the building. He put on a gas mask, opened a hatch and dropped the powder in. When he did this, in spite of the fact that these walls were very thick, you could hear a great scream from within, despite the thick walls.
This took place at lunchtime, in the daytime. In order to stifle the screaming, they had two motorcycles standing on the pavement near the crematorium, engines revved up as far as they could go, to stifle the screams. To cover up the yelling they had these engines going but they failed. They gave it a try but it didn't work. The screaming lasted for 15 or 20 minutes; it became weaker and weaker, then it went quiet.
These horrors were only the beginning. During the Spring of 1942 Jews from outside Poland were deported to Auschwitz for the very first time. They came from one of the Nazis' closest allies. And the story of how these Jews came to be on trains to Auschwitz is one of the most shocking and surprising in the history of the Nazis' "Final Solution."
The people on these trains were from Slovakia - many from the capital, Bratislava. Slovakia was a new country. Created only in 1939 and the majority of the Slovaks were now fiercely nationalistic.
Subtitles: (Polish Song) We love our country. We will kill our enemies / Awake, brothers, throughout the land / We will defend our language and our livelihood / We'll never yield to anyone / Slovakia for the Slovaks is our cry
The President, Jozef Tiso, was a Catholic priest. And the Prime Minister, Vojtech Tuka, was also deeply religious. They had implemented a series of anti-Semitic measures chiefly born of religious and cultural intolerance. And at the forefront of tormenting the Jewish population were the nationalist Hlinka guard.
Michal Kabác—Slovak Hlinka Guard: "A Jew would never go to work. None of them work; they only wanted to have an easy life. Our people were happy to receive their stores. We called it aryanising them. And that's how they become rich."
Before the war Slovakia had a thriving Jewish community of around 90,000—now they were under direct threat. When the Nazis asked for forced labourers, the Slovakian authorities offered up 20,000 Jews—and their families. But early in 1942, conflict arose between the Germans and the Slovaks. The Nazis, lacking the necessary extermination capacity, at first didn't want to accept anyone who couldn't work.
In early 1942 a meeting was arranged at the Foreign Ministry in Bratislava to try and resolve the dispute. SS Captain Dieter Wisliceny arrived to meet with Prime Minister Tuka and a Slovakian Official Dr Koso. After the war, both Wisliceny and Koso gave evidence of what was discussed here.
Subtitles: Herr Dr Koso has discussed our proposal with you? The offer of 20,000 Jewish laborers? The Slovak government would like to resettle the Jewish labourers together with their families. We see a separation of the families as unchristian. Could it be, Prime Minister, that you're moved not just by Christian compassion but also by financial considerations? We get the work force, while you have to feed the families? But as far as I can tell, we don't have accommodation for Jews unfit for work. Our expenses would not be compensated by any labor we could expect from these Jews. As for the costs, we might reach an agreement. So you'd cover the expense? We'll have to see. First you speak to Lieutenant Colonel Eichmann.
Back in Berlin, a deal was brokered. As this document proves, the Slovakian Foreign Ministry agreed to pay the Nazis 500 Reichsmark for each Jew deported. The Slovaks thus offered to pay the Nazis to take their Jews away. For most of the Slovakian Jews, their journey began with imprisonment at a holding camp like this one outside Bratislava. Once in these camps, the Slovakian Jews were under the total control of the Hlinka Guards.
Silvia Veselá—Slovakian Jewish deportee to Auschwitz, 1942: "Some of those soldiers were really stupid. For example, they deliberately crapped there so we had to clean up that with our hands. They called us Jewish whores, they kicked us, they behaved really badly. They also told us 'We will teach you Jews how to work.' But poor women were used to work."
Michal Kabác—Slovak Hlinka Guard: "Later when the Jews were coming to the camps, we used to take their belongings and clothes. The deputy commander came and said to us to go and choose from the clothes. I took some clothes, others did as well. Then I took 3 pairs of shoes. Everyone took what he could. I wrapped it all with a rope and brought it back home. We, the guards, were doing quite well."
Within months of the start of the deportations, Michal Kabác became aware of the likely fate of the Slovakian Jews.
Interviewer: "How could you personally participate in the deportation knowing those people were certainly going to die?"
Michal Kabác: "What could I have done? I was thinking both ways. I thought it will be peace and quiet here, you deserved it. But on the other hand, there were innocent people among them as well. I was thinking both ways."
The deportation of Jewish families from Slovakia began in April 1942 and lasted for the next 7 months—altogether around 60,000 Jews were handed over to the Germans. 150 miles away at his house just outside Auschwitz concentration camp, where he lived with his wife and 4 children, Rudolf Höss awaited the arrival of the Slovaks. The plans for the new camp at Birkenau had changed; Soviet Prisoners of War were to be sent as forced labourers elsewhere.
Höss now knew that Jews were central to the future of Auschwitz. And it was here in a remote corner of the site at Birkenau, 2 miles away from the main camp, that Höss and other members of the SS had found a location for new make-shift gas chambers. In this field stood a Polish cottage which would come to be known as the Little Red House or Bunker 1.
Höss and his SS comrades saw this as a step forward in the killing process at Auschwitz. Two separate gas chambers were quickly improvised by bricking up the windows and door and creating two new entrances. Unlike in the crematorium in the main camp, people could be murdered here in relative secrecy. In this shabby cottage tens of thousands of people would be murdered. The manner of killing remained the same. Jews would be told they were to take a shower, they would be locked in the room, and Zyklon B thrown in through a hatch in the wall.
Within weeks, the Nazis had converted another nearby cottage—the Little White House - in just the same way. Slovakian Jews arrived at the railway stop 2 miles from the gas chambers on the 29th April 1942—and faced 'selection' by the SS. This was the first of hundreds of SS selections to be held over the next 30 months.
Eva Votavová - Slovak Jewish deportee to Auschwitz July 1942: "When they opened the train carriages and forced us out, they shouted at us immediately. They were screaming in German. They were SS men who were dealing with us. We had to stand in line, men had to step out first, then women with children, and then old people. I looked at my father, here, and I saw a sad look on his face. This is my last memory of him."
The Slovakian Jews selected to die were taken up past the newly built buildings of Birkenau and towards the isolated gas chambers of the Little Red House and Little White House.
Otto Pressburger—Jewish prisoner, Auschwitz: "When we were returning from work we saw people being brought over. They waited there the whole day. They sat there, they still had food from home and SS men were around them with dogs. They didn't know what was going to happen to them."
After the war while he awaited trial, Rudolf Höss wrote about the process of murder in the converted cottages in the Spring of 1942.
Rudolf Höss: "It was most important that the whole business of arriving and undressing should take place in an atmosphere of the greatest possible calm. Small children usually cried because of the strangeness of being undressed in this way but when their mothers or members of the Jewish Sonderkommando comforted them, they became calm and entered the gas chambers playing or joking with one another and carrying their toys.
Hundreds of men and women in the full bloom of life walked all unsuspecting to their death in the gas chambers under the blossom-laden fruit trees of the orchard. This picture of death in the midst of life remains with me to this day. I looked upon them as enemies of our people. The reasons behind the Extermination Program seemed to me right."
After the gassing, Höss and the SS made other Jewish prisoners load the bodies onto trucks and wheel them down a makeshift railway line towards giant pits. Otto Pressburger was one of the prisoners forced to dispose of the bodies.
Otto Pressburger: "We were digging holes and in the beginning we really didn't know what they were for, it was only when the holes were deep enough that we started to throw the bodies into them. It was appalling. New bodies were lying here every morning and we had to bury them. When summer came everything started to rot. It was terrible, the majority of the people working here were from my home city of Trnava, I knew all of them and every day there were less and less of them. They must still be buried around here somewhere. My brother and my father are buried here as well, you know."
By the Summer of 1942 Höss and his colleagues at Auschwitz had discovered how to murder thousands But their improvised methods of killing could not keep pace with the demands of their masters who, in pursuit of the Nazis' "Final Solution", dreamt of eliminating many millions.
During the next few months Höss and his colleagues would overcome all obstacles and create buildings like this, where murder could be committed on a massive scale. And as they did so, the Nazis also began to scour the whole of Europe for ever more people to bring here and kill.