There are many dates on the Holocaust commemoration calendar, but today, January 27th, is a momentous day to pause and remember. This is the fixed date designated by the U.N. as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. But why this obscure day at the end of January? And what about this year is more monumental than all other years; what makes this a “unique anniversary”? I’ve pointed out before that this “obscure day” is the anniversary for the liberation of the most lethal and notorious extermination camp of the Nazi regime, Auschwitz-Birkenau. But this year, this date means more than it has in the past because it presents us with a dilemma on how to proceed with Holocaust commemoration; this 70th anniversary of the liberation of the place where over 1 million Jews lost their lives is, as the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński points out, “the last big anniversary that we can commemorate with a numerous group of Survivors.” There is much debate on how to adequately remember once those who survived the unthinkable horrors are no longer alive to tell us their story, and so I want to take this day to explain a little why Auschwitz is so notorious. And I want to go about this explanation by way of discussing the evolution of Auschwitz. I take this route because it has already been described, more eloquently and poignantly by those much more intellectual than myself, how horrific and inhumane the conditions were, the ghastly nature of the medical experiments, and how monumental it is that Auschwitz still exists today as compared to its Operation Reinhard counterparts of Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor. Today I want to focus your attention on the frighteningly continuous transformation of this machinery of death, and how this evolution exhibits the maniacal craze of Nazism to eradicate the Jewish population of Europe. The Auschwitz that one immediately pictures today was a (relatively speaking) long time in the making, and this very important fact is often forgotten.
Let’s first lay out the basics of Auschwitz, which was more than just one large extermination camp. While Auschwitz had more than 40 “sub-camps” (which, in and of itself, is mind boggling), the three main camps at Auschwitz operating at the end of 1944/beginning of 1945 were the concentration camp at Auschwitz I, the extermination camp at Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and the forced labor camp at Auschwitz III (Monowitz). The focus of this post centers itself around Auschwitz-Birkenau, as this was the site of the extermination camp, but the concentration camp at Auschwitz I offers important commentary on the ever-changing topography of Auschwitz’s killing capability.
Auschwitz I began operating in May 1940, less than one year after the invasion of Poland. Its main purpose was that of a concentration camp, but it was here that many of the administrative buildings for the SS were located. The infamous Block 11 can also be found inside this compound, where even harsher punishments were meted out. In the fall of 1941, however, the basement of this iniquitous building was transformed into the first gas chamber at Auschwitz to use the lethal gas Zyklon B on Russian prisoners-of-war and sick inmates. This was an important shift in mass execution, as the mass shootings employed by the roving Einsatzgruppen were deemed to be a psychological burden on the shooters and gassings by carbon monoxide were proving to be timely, messy, and less effective than desired. Zyklon B, which was initially used as a pesticide, would therefore find itself as the largest tool in the assassin’s tool belt.
Before these early gassings, it was not unusual for prisoners to die at Auschwitz I; in fact, such a large number of inmates succumbed to the inhumane conditions there that a crematorium was erected. This building would continue the trend, however, of building restructurement by the Nazis to further create cogs in the mass murder machine; February 1942 saw the transformation of Auschwitz I’s crematorium morgue into an airtight gas chamber. This is the theme of this post: the constant evolution of the gas chambers at Auschwitz is a microcosmic look into the escalatory policies and practices of Nazi Germany. One idea was not put into practice as the “answer” to the “Jewish problem”, but the Nazi’s were constantly adapting and building upon the ways they exterminated human lives up until the very end of World War II. This, to me, is why Auschwitz was so lethal, why it is so notorious: it was the only extermination camp to find itself made over again and again until the gassing and cremation process were molded into a sickeningly effective conveyor belt. This is furthered exhibited when it became clear that the gassings in Auschwitz I could no longer be kept secret, and so the gassings were officially moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Two farmhouses located within the barbed wire fences of Birkenau were the next buildings to find themselves repurposed, as their windows and doors were sealed to be gas tight. Newly renamed to Bunkers 1 and 2, these newly transformed gas chambers were operational around March 1942, and then soon after found themselves under the inspection of Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler. At this point, the crematoria of Birkenau were still under construction, and so victims were buried in mass graves nearby. As time went on, however, these mass graves polluted the water table as the water level rose and the bodies began to decompose. This occurred in tandem with what is now known as Aktion 1005 (the code name given to the large-scale operation to erase all evidence of mass extermination, thus changing the policy from burying bodies to that of burning them), and so Jewish prisoners were forced into the terrifying job of digging up these graves, and burning the human remains on pyres. Again it was agreed that this process was too time-consuming and visible to other camp inmates, and so we see another shift in procedure and location with the completion of the Birkenau crematoria.
Crematoria 2, 3, 4, and 5 were placed in two locations at the Birkenau camp: 2 and 3 were placed towards the back at the end of the railway, while 4 and 5 were built closer to the barracks. They were finished incrementally (with number 2 seeing completion in March 1943, followed by numbers 4 and 5, and number 3 was finished in June 1943), and saw themselves transformed several times as the SS streamlined the death process further still.
The first example of this is Crematorium 2. It’s first phase was that of solely cremation. This is evident by the architectural blueprints which show a “chute”, or ramp, that led down into the basement morgue of the crematorium. This shows that the victims had already been killed before they entered this building. This morgue had a ventilation system which would prove vital in the next rounds of alterations. In December 1942, the architecture changes as the “chute” is replaced by a set of stairs. This change in architecture is distressing, as this shows that the well-ventilated basement morgue has been transformed into a gas chamber-the “chute” was used for the murdered, but the stairs were used by those whose fate was rapidly approaching. Now we see that “[p]oison gas and crematoria technology had been deliberately combined to create an appalling mechanism for mass murder.”*
Zyklon B only starts to evaporate at 27 degrees Celsius, which is 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This means stifling conditions inside the gas chamber, while the Nazi overlords could watch the death process from behind gastight doors fitted with peepholes. The innovative ventilation systems installed in these new buildings of death, once meant to remove the smell of the recently deceased, could now extract the deadly fumes quite rapidly, and once there was no movement detected from the peepholes and the gas detectors gave the all-clear, Jewish inmates were made to transport the corpses to the crematoria, sometimes forced to place the bodies of their own loved ones into the flames. Once all four of these crematoria were operational by June 1943, Auschwitz-Birkenau saw a “daily incineration capacity” of almost 5,000 people (this number is astounding-this is the same size of “incineration” as the population of my hometown in less than two days!) And it continued with this pace until November 1944, when Himmler gave the order to cease the gassings and demolish the “bathing facilities for special actions” in the face of the coming Soviet Army and the shortage of forced laborers.
The subterfuge at Auschwitz was high at all times, from the use of euphemisms like “bathing facilities for special actions” instead of using the term “gas chambers” in written correspondence, the change in protocol in the summer of 1942 causing the digging up of mass graves in an attempt to destroy evidence of murderous rampages, to the hurried dismantling of the crematoria to try and hide evidence of this most-progressed killing process. This cowardice continued when the Soviet Army grew closer at the end of 1944/beginning of 1945, as the Nazis fled the Auschwitz compound, compelling around 60,000 on death marches west, and shot all those who fell behind in the horrific winter conditions. This meant that the liberation of Auschwitz gave release to an estimated few 7,000 prisoners; for a camp that claimed over 1 million lives, this number is shockingly low.
The harrowed tale of Auschwitz clearly goes beyond this short insight into the transformation of the killing facilities at Birkenau. This account laid forth today is unpersonable, but I think when it is taken into account with the numerous descriptions that one has already heard in relation to Auschwitz, the Survivor accounts become much more precious. Today’s post is simply a scratch in the telling of how strategic and radical the assault against European Jewry was during the Holocaust. The extermination camp at Auschwitz wasn’t simply just built and its architects thought, “good enough”-active steps were taken time and time again until thousands of people were daily walking into single buildings, and not a trace of them would ever been seen again save for their ashes. What began at Auschwitz as an experiment in a basement ended in the death of over 1 million Jews, between 70-74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma (Gypsies), and about 15,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war.
One of the best documentaries I have watched on the transformation of Auschwitz is called “The Blueprint of Genocide”; it is available on YouTube, and I have included the link below. In addition to discussing the points made here in this post, it goes on to discuss more in depth those involved in most aspects of the building of the crematoria, includes Survivor commentary on the building of these crematoria, and briefly touches on the selections of the camp. It points out that the majority of archival documents on Auschwitz were destroyed by the Nazis, except for the documents of the Central Construction Office, which include the architectural blueprints discussed in this post. It is from these documents that the work of Robert Jan van Pelt, Gerald Fleming and others show us the progression and evolution of Auschwitz’s killing capabilities.
On this day of remembrance, in a time of seemingly endless violence based on one’s religion, let us remember the words of Michael Jacobs, a Survivor of Auschwitz who was incredibly instrumental in the building of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance: “Hate breeds hate.” Let the horrors of Auschwitz never happen again, and let us strive to move away from hate, and more towards tolerance.
If you’d like to read further, or feel like doin’ some fact checking, this post was written with research done from the websites below: