The camp

Since 1945, Auschwitz has stood both as a memorial of the Holocaust and as a simplification of it. Sixty years on, Laurence Rees set out to make a TV series which challenges our understanding of what really happened there
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Auschwitz dominates our memory of the Holocaust; from the picture most likely to be used to symbolise the extermination of the Jews - that of the iconic gatehouse at Auschwitz-Birkenau - to feature films (like Schindler's List) and books (like Primo Levi's If This Is a Man). Indeed the very reason that Holocaust memorial day is held on 27 January is because this is the date that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in 1945.

Auschwitz dominates our memory of the Holocaust; from the picture most likely to be used to symbolise the extermination of the Jews - that of the iconic gatehouse at Auschwitz-Birkenau - to feature films (like Schindler's List) and books (like Primo Levi's If This Is a Man). Indeed the very reason that Holocaust memorial day is held on 27 January is because this is the date that the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in 1945.

But we must be careful that Auschwitz does not become the only aspect of the Nazis' "Final Solution" that we remember. Not only because doing so means that we therefore forget some of the very places the Nazis most wanted to eradicate from our memory, but because focusing exclusively on Auschwitz's role as a site for the mass murder of the Jews prevents us forming a true understanding of the special nature of the camp. It was this concern which drove me to make the forthcoming BBC television series (and accompanying book) Auschwitz - The Nazis and the "Final Solution".

Auschwitz was unique in the Nazi state - the only place that was to evolve into both a concentration camp and a death camp. Most people outside the specialist academic community do not fully understand the difference between concentration camps such as Dachau near Munich (which was established in March 1933, less than two months after Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor) and death camps like Treblinka in Poland, which were not in existence until 1942. The dual role which Auschwitz performed only adds to the confusion.

The distinction between the two types of camps is crucial. Unlike the later death camps, the Nazis never made any attempt to hide the concentration camps from the general population. Indeed, a camp such as Dachau was built in the suburbs of an existing town; there were propaganda advantages for the Nazis in making obvious their desire to imprison and "re-educate" those whom they considered malcontents. And these pre-war concentration camps, though places of enormous brutality, were not extermination centres. A minority of people sent there were murdered - tortured, executed or killed while supposedly trying to "escape" - but the majority were released after a stay of about a year or 18 months. And, contrary to popular belief, the concentration camps were not built primarily to hold Jews, but chiefly the Nazis' political opponents.

I've filmed interviews with a number of solid German citizens - not all committed Nazis - who surprisingly believed at the time that the pre-war concentration camps were "necessary". Before the Nazis came to power they'd lived through the Depression and watched as the country appeared to be splitting to the extremes and the Communists gained votes. Now they looked to the Nazis to make Germany "secure" and "law abiding" once again and the concentration camps were a key part, as they saw it, of achieving that aim.

The Nazis original idea was that Auschwitz would follow the design and function of these pre-war concentration camps. The Commandant, Rudolf Höss, had been trained at Dachau under the original commander of the camp, Theodor Eicke, the man who first channelled the violence and hatred the Nazis felt towards their enemies into the regimes of systematic abuse that flourished in the German concentration camps. Höss even imported the motto of Dachau "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work makes you free) and emblazoned it on the new gates of Auschwitz.

The first prisoners at Auschwitz, who arrived in June 1940, were Polish political prisoners. And though the regime at the camp was cruel from the moment of the camp's inception and many of these Poles subsequently died from malnutrition and physical abuse, Auschwitz was not yet the death camp it was to become.

Once again, contrary to popular belief, it was not to Auschwitz that Heinrich Himmler of the SS turned in 1942 when, in pursuit of the Nazis' "Final Solution", he ordered his men to murder several million Polish Jews (half of the six million Jews the Nazis killed in the Holocaust were Poles). Instead, he relied on other places that, unlike Auschwitz, have scarcely seeped into the popular consciousness - Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. That these camps are not mentioned today in the same breath as Auschwitz is something of a black irony, because the Nazis themselves wanted their names erased from history and sought to ensure that every physical trace of them was removed once they had completed their murderous task. Long before the end of the war the Nazis had destroyed the camps, and the land was left to return to forest or ploughed back into farmland. In contrast, no attempt was ever made by the Nazis, even in the last days of the camp's existence, to eliminate Auschwitz as a physical place, since it was born of an established pre-war model within the Nazi system - the concentration camp. Only once people started to be murdered en masse at Auschwitz did the schizophrenic nature of its function begin to emerge - a state of mind that led the Nazis to blow up the gas chambers when they left, but to leave the rest of the massive complex largely intact.

Something entirely different was born in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka during 1942. There was no precedent for the existence of these camps in the Nazi state - arguably no precedent for them in the whole of history. No previous model determined their construction, and in many ways their history and operation more exactly encapsulates the uniqueness of the Nazis' "Final Solution" than does Auschwitz.

Belzec, the first to be built, was the only one whose history pre-dates 1942. It was in November 1941 that construction began on a small camp near Belzec in the far south-east of Nazi-occupied Poland. In the minds of the SS this was to be a local solution to a local problem - the need to kill "unproductive" Jews from the surrounding area.

In December 1941, SS Haupsturmführer (Captain) Christian Wirth arrived at Belzec to take up the post of commandant. In 1939 he had become involved in the euthanasia actions against the mentally ill and helped organise their murder by use of bottled carbon monoxide. By 1941 he was working in the Lublin area, conducting more euthanasia killings. Known by the nickname "savage Christian", Wirth was a sadist. He was once observed whipping a Jewish woman and chasing her into the gas chamber, and he personally murdered Jews with his own hands. Red-faced and sweating, he screamed obscenities while encouraging his men to commit bestial acts.

At Belzec this loathsome man was to cram all his previous killing experience into one physical space. He decided to use carbon monoxide gas as the means of murder, not supplied from canisters as in the gas chambers of the euthanasia programme, but from a normal combustion engine. The three small gas chambers themselves were incorporated into a brick building that was disguised to resemble a shower room, with the carbon monoxide gas delivered through fake shower heads.

In supervising the layout of the camp, he entered entirely new territory and broke completely with established concentration camp design. First, the site chosen for Belzec, like each of the death camps, was in a remote area, away from any major population centre. Then, since he realised that the vast majority of arrivals would be alive only for a matter of hours, the large complex of buildings that characterised Auschwitz or Dachau could be dispensed with. The death camp - unlike the concentration camp - needed relatively few facilities of any kind, and could be contained in a small space. Thus Belzec measured less than 300 metres square.

Visitors to the sites of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (of whom there are far fewer than travel to Auschwitz) are shocked by how tiny these killing camps were. A total of around 1.7m people were murdered in these three camps - 600,000 more than the murder toll of Auschwitz. In an extermination process that is an affront to human dignity at almost every level, one of the greatest of these - and this may seem illogical unless you have actually been there - is that so many people were killed in such a small area. Somehow the mind associates an epic tragedy with an epic space - another reason, perhaps, that Auschwitz is so much better known today than these three death camps. The massive scale of Auschwitz gives the mind space to try and conceive of the enormity of the crime - something that is utterly denied to visitors at a place like Belzec. How can the brain conceive of 600,000 people - the estimated death toll here - being murdered in an area less than 300 metres square? But small as it was, Belzec was not simply one camp. Wirth knew that the key to the smooth functioning of his death factory was concealing the true purpose of the place from the new arrivals for as long as possible. So within the camp he enclosed the gas chambers in a special area known as Camp Two, which was hidden behind trees and wire fences woven through with branches. This area was connected to the rest of the camp only by "the tube", a passageway through the wire. Camp One - the rest of Belzec - consisted of the arrival area next to the railway, various barracks (in which the new arrivals undressed and where their belongings could be stored before being transported out) and a roll-call square.

Three categories of people worked at Belzec, and subsequently at the other two death camps. The first consisted of Jews. Wirth realised at once that employing the Jews in the killing process would not just spare his own men psychological suffering but would mean that fewer Germans would be needed to run the camp. No doubt the emotional torment this caused the Jews also appealed to his warped sensibilities. So several hundred fit, able-bodied Jews were selected from the arriving transports and put to work burying the bodies, cleaning the gas chambers and sorting the enormous quantity of clothes and other belongings that rapidly piled high in the camp. These Jews were themselves mostly killed after a few month's work and others selected to take their place.

I've met a number of Jews who were forced to work in Sobibor and Treblinka and who only survived because they were among the tiny handful who subsequently managed to escape. They still suffer today with the memories of what they were compelled to do. Toivi Blatt, who was at Sobibor told me: "People ask me 'What did you learn [from working at Sobibor]?' and I think I'm sure of only one thing - nobody knows themselves. Sometimes when someone is really nice to me I find myself thinking - 'How will he be in Sobibor?'" Ukrainian guards comprised the second category of workers. Around 100 of them, in two platoons, were assigned to carry out basic supervisory duties at the camp. Famed for their brutality, many of these Ukrainians had previously fought for the Red Army, been retrained by the Germans, and were allowed this opportunity to escape the horrendous conditions of the POW camps. And then, of course, there were the Germans, the third category. But so smoothly had Wirth delegated the mechanics of running his killing machine to other nationalities that only 20 or so German SS needed to be involved at Belzec in the process of murder. By March 1942, with the arrival of the first transport at Belzec, Wirth had realised Himmler's dream. He had built a killing factory capable of exterminating hundreds of thousands which could be run by a handful of Germans, all of whom were now relatively protected from the psychological damage that had afflicted the firing squads in the East.

In May 1942 building work began on the biggest of the death camps, Treblinka. More people died here than at any of the other dedicated death camps. Indeed the death toll at Treblinka - an estimated 800,000 to 900,000 - very nearly rivals that of Auschwitz. Treblinka was situated a short railway journey away from Warsaw. The Warsaw ghetto represented one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the Nazi state, and Treblinka's primary purpose was to kill them.

Of all the sites associated with the Nazis that I've visited over the last 10 years (in the course of making this current series and the two which preceded it, Nazis: A Warning from History and War of the Century), the place that has affected me most is Treblinka. All that's left of this Nazi killing factory is a clearing in a forest. It's a desolate, remote place - when you arrive there you feel as if you have reached the end of the world. There is a bleakness that radiates from this location that - to me at least - makes a trip to Treblinka an even more moving experience than standing at the heart of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

To start with, the killing did not go smoothly at any of the camps. The Nazis were embarking on something that human beings had never attempted before - the mechanised extermination of millions of men, women and children in a matter of months. Gruesome as the analogy is, the Germans had created three killing factories and, as in any industrial operation, all the various components had to be completely synchronised for the Nazis' desired end result to be achieved. If the trains failed to send people on schedule; if the gas chambers could not cope with the volume of new arrivals; if there was a bottleneck anywhere in the system, then bloody chaos could result. And in those early days that is exactly what occurred.

At Belzec it soon transpired that the capacity of the gas chambers was not sufficient to deal with the numbers of people scheduled to be sent, and so in June the camp shut down for a month or so and new gas chambers were built. But it was at Treblinka that the greatest problems for the Nazis arose, and truly hellish scenes resulted.

To begin with, Treblinka operated more or less as the Nazis had planned, with around 6,000 people arriving to be killed each day. But by August 1942 the numbers had doubled and the operation of the camp began to fall apart. Yet still the camp commandant, Dr Irmfried Eberl, kept it open. Many people were simply shot in the lower camp, but that, of course, destroyed the subterfuge that was the basis of the camp's operation - no one believed they were at a disinfecting station when they saw corpses on the ground. Trains backed up at the small Treblinka station some two miles away, waiting until the camp could be cleared. Conditions on board became so appalling that many died in the freight cars. In such circumstances it was impossible to keep the reality of the camp's operations from the Poles who lived in the hamlets and villages nearby. "The smell of the disintegrating corpses was just terrible," Eugenia Samuel, then a local schoolgirl, told us. "You couldn't open a window or go out because of the smell. You cannot imagine such a stench." Nonetheless, in the midst of this horror an enormous number of people were killed. In a little over a month, between the end of July and the end of August 1942, an estimated 312,500 Jews were murdered at Treblinka. But the cost of this incredible rate of destruction was too high for Dr Eberl's superiors to bear. Reports reached them of how Treblinka was degenerating in a spiral of disorganisation. Worse still, from the Nazi point of view, the Third Reich appeared to be losing out financially. The belongings of the murdered Jews were left sprawled about the camp, and there were suggestions that some of the valuables were even being pilfered by the Germans and Ukrainians.

Christian Wirth, the creator of Belzec, was appointed in August 1942 to a new job - inspector of the three death camps. And one of his first tasks was to travel with his boss, SS General Odilo Globocnik, to investigate the state of Treblinka. Josef Oberhauser, who worked for Wirth, later gave evidence about what happened once they arrived: "In Treblinka everything was in chaos. Globocnik said ... that if Dr Eberl were not his fellow countryman, he would arrest him and bring him before an SS and police court." Eberl was sacked and transports to Treblinka temporarily ceased. A new commandant, Franz Stangl, who had previously worked with Wirth, was appointed to sort the mess out.

Eberl had misunderstood what his bosses wanted. He had delivered them an exceptional killing rate, but he had not organised the murders "properly". In the perverted morality of the higher reaches of the SS, Eberl deserved prosecution for not organising the mass murder of men, women and children in a more effective way.

While murder on this hitherto unprecedented scale was taking place at Treblinka during 1942, Auschwitz was left far behind in the league of Nazi killing factories. Under the commandant, Rudolf Höss, some limited gassing experiments with the poisonous insecticide Zyklon B had begun in the autumn of 1941 - in Auschwitz main camp on sick prisoners and Soviet POWs. Two peasants' cottages were later converted into makeshift gas chambers in the spring of 1942 at the new camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, two miles away from the original camp. But the killing capacity of Auschwitz was limited until the opening of the giant crematoria/gas chamber complexes at Birkenau a year later, in 1943. It was only then that Auschwitz began to play the most important role in the Nazis' "Final Solution", after the killing factories of Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor had passed their peak. All three of them were closed in 1943 as Himmler decided, finally, to focus his attention on Auschwitz. Unlike the specialised death camps, Auschwitz was at the centre of a web of coal mines and factories. This meant that it was possible for the Nazis to develop a system of "selection" at Auschwitz which allowed them to force able-bodied prisoners to work as slave labour before they died. Auschwitz's origins as a concentration camp meant that it had become, as far as the Nazis were concerned, the most flexible extermination centre of all - one where the Nazis could obtain economic benefit from the Jews before they killed them. It was no accident that there were thousands of survivors from Auschwitz alive at the end of the war - those who had been selected to work and had not yet succumbed to starvation or physical exhaustion - while at a death camp like Belzec less then 10 former prisoners are thought to have outlived the Nazi regime.

It is important, of course, that Auschwitz be remembered for all time. Not just because, with the arrival of the Hungarian Jews in 1944, Auschwitz finally surpassed Treblinka and achieved the infamous distinction of being the site of the largest mass murder yet committed; but because, with the systematic "selection" of human beings on arrival, Auschwitz eventually evolved into the physical embodiment of the fundamental values of the Nazi State.

But let us not forget the true origins of Auschwitz, nor of the sinister death camps that flourished in Poland alongside it. For the fact that Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec are so little remembered today illustrates a terrible reality the Nazis knew all too well. If, in secret, you can eliminate an entire part of the population, then you also stand a good chance of erasing your crime from history.

Laurence Rees is the writer and producer of 'Auschwitz - the Nazis and the "Final Solution"'. The series beings this Tuesday at 9pm on BBC2