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Auschwitz Birkenau - Arbeit macht frei

This railroad switch in extermination Camp Birkenau meant the switch from life to death for the victims.

       Some people still refuse to accept the fact that the Holocaust really happened. For them, the concept of Auschwitz/Birkenau is nothing more and nothing less than a wildly exaggerated, freely invented horror story used by the victorious Allies to saddle future German people with a burdened conscience for all eternity. Psychologically such reaction and attitude is quite understandable. There always will be people who assert the opposite of what others say even though it is a proven fact that extermination camps were a reality in Nazi Germany. The shocking truth about the extermination camps, or rather the death factories of Auschwitz/Birkenau, Sobibor, Belzec, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Chelmno exceeds the average person's imagination by far.

       Auschwitz was the largest Nazi concentration and death camp. In Auschwitz II, a.k.a. Birkenau and one of 45 sub-camps of Auschwitz I, five gas chambers and crematoria were in operation at one time or another using poisonous cyanide gas pellets called Zyklon-B which were manufactured by a pest-control company in Germany. Approximately five to six thousand people died daily. Those who were not gassed and cremated upon arrival, died from cruel labor and starvation.

       The Auschwitz complex was the site of scientifically planned and efficiently executed genocide during World War II. Accurate statistics were not kept, but the estimated death toll at the total camp complex ranges from one and one half to as many as four million people. The latter figure also includes a large number of Poles, Russian POWs, Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, the physically and mentally handicapped, and other minority groups considered to be a 'threat' to the Reich - Empire.

       Danuta Czech, author of the book "Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939-1945" writes: "Historical study of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp is virtually dependent on the sources available. A historian who wishes to reconstruct the history of the concentration camp encouters serious problems, since most of the sources necessary for such a reconstruction were deliberately destroyed by the Third Reich to get rid of incriminating evidence of their crimes." In writing her valuable document, Chech draws from the archives of the Auschwitz Memorial and the German Federal Archives. She has left us a well documented, day by day account of all activities that took place in Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II Birkenau) and all other camps belonging to the Auschwitz group.

Rudolf Höss 

 Arthur Liebehenschel

Richard Bär

       SS-Hauptsturmführer - SS-Captain Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, was the Nazis' greatest mass murderer, the architect and SS commandant of the largest killing center ever created, the death camp Auschwitz, whose name has come to symbolize huma- nity's ultimate descent into evil. He was the first commandant of Auschwitz/Birkenau. He was in charge of Auschwitz from May 1940 to November 1943. Höss was followed by SS-Obersturmbannführer - SS-Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Liebehenschel who was in charge from November 1943 to May 1944. Liebehenschel was sentenced to death by the Supreme People's court in Crakow, Poland, and executed. The third and last commandant was SS-Sturmbannführer - SS-Major Richard Bär who was in charge from May 1944 to the end in January of 1945. During his trial, Höss admitted to a minimum figure of two and a half million deaths at Auschwitz.
His trial took place a few years after the war. Just prior to his own execution by hanging in April 1947, he reflected back on his active part in the genocide. Perhaps with his written statement he had hoped to change the outcome of the trial. Referring to the experiments in Block 10 and to the initial use of the gas chamber and crematorium 1, Höss wrote:

       "At the time I did not think about the problem of killing Soviet prisoners of war. It was an order and I had to execute it. However, I will say frankly that killing that group of people by gas relieved my anxieties. It would soon be necessary to start the mass extermination of the Jews, and until that moment neither I nor Adolf Eichmann had known how to conduct a mass killing. A sort of gas was to be used, but it was not known what kind of gas was meant and how to use it. Now we had both the gas and the way of using it. I had always been concerned at the thought of mass shootings, particularly of women and children. I was already sick of all the executions. Now my mind was at ease."


Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, seen from outside the fence. There was no return from this forbidding place for the hapless victims! 

       The largest number of Holocaust victims were Jews from Europe who lived in Nazi occupied ter- ritory. Auschwitz II, a.k.a Birkenau, has become the primary symbol of what is now understood by the phrase, the Holocaust. At least one-third of the estimated six million Jews killed by the Nazis in extermination camps and by death-squads during World War II perished at this place.

       The Nazis established Auschwitz in April 1940 under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, chief of two Nazi organizations, - the Schutzstaffel or SS - SS Nazi guards, and the Gestapo - Secret State Police. The camp at Auschwitz originally housed political prisoners from occupied Poland and from concentration camps within Germany. Construction of nearby Brzezinka - Birkenau, a.k.a. Auschwitz II, began in October 1941 and after August 1942 the camp also included a women's section. Birkenau had five gas chambers, which were designed to resemble crude showers, and five crematoria used to incinerate the bodies of the, for the most part, unsuspecting victims.

       Approximately 40 more satellite camps were established around Auschwitz. These were forced labor camps and were known collectively as Auschwitz III. The first which was built at Monowitz held Polish political prisoners who had been forcibly evacuated from their hometowns by the Nazis. Jewish victims, deported by rail from all over Nazi-occupied Europe, arrived at Auschwitz/Birkenau in daily convoys. Arrivals at the Birkenau complex were separated into three groups. The first group went to the gas chambers within a few hours. More than twenty thousand people could be gassed and cremated each day. Prisoners of the second group were spared this initial indignity and forced to perform slave labor in one of the satellite camps belonging to Auschwitz in industrial factories for companies such as I. G. Farben and Krupp until they too were worked to death.

      Between 1940 and 1945 four hundred and five thousand prisoners were recorded as laborers. Of these about three hundred and forty thousand perished through executions, beatings, starvation, and sickness. Some prisoners survived through the help of German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved about 1000 Polish Jews by diverting them from Auschwitz to work for him, first in his factory near Krakow and later at a factory in what is today known as the Czech Republic. A third group, mostly twins and dwarfs underwent medical experiments at the hands of doctors of which Josef Mengele was chief. He was known among the inmates as the 'Angel of Death.' The camp was staffed in part by prisoners, some of whom were selected to be Kapos - Orderlies, others had the misfortune to be sought out as Sonderkommandos - Special Commandos at the crematoria.

       Most members of these groups were killed periodically to maintain secrecy. Kapos and Sonder- kommandos were supervised by members of the SS; altogether six thousand SS members were deployed at Auschwitz. By the year 1943 resistance organizations had developed in Auschwitz. These organizations managed to assist a few prisoners in their escape plans; these escapees took with them news of exterminations, such as the killing of hundreds of thousands of Jews transported from Hungary between May and July 1944. In October 1944 a group of Sonderkommandos destroyed one of the gas chambers at Birkenau. They and their accomplices, a group of women from the Monowitz labor camp, were all put to death. When the Soviet army marched into Auschwitz on 27 January 1945 liberating the camp, they found about seven thousand six hundred survivors, barely alive, abandoned there. More than fifty-eight thousand prisoners had already been forcefully evacuated by the Nazis and sent to the West on a final death march to German concentration camps. The government of Poland founded a museum at the site of the main Auschwitz concentration camp in 1946 in remembrance of its victims. By 1994, about twenty-two million visitors, or about half a million annually, had passed through the wrought iron gate at Auschwitz I that to this day bears the cynical motto: ARBEIT MACHT FREI - WORK LIBERATES.

       German war interests required the maximization of economic benefits from this cold-blooded murder. Before the bodies of the victims were burned their hair was cut off and fillings and false teeth made of precious metals were removed by prisoner dentists and dental technicians. The hair was used for making hair-cloth, and the metals were melted into bars and sent to Berlin and from there they were deposited in secret Swiss bank accounts. After the liberation tons of hair was found in camp warehouses; the Nazis had not had time to process it all. Proof that this hair came from victims of gassing was provided by The Krakow Institute of Judicial Expertise, whose analyses showed that traces of prussic acid, a poisonous component typical of Zyklon-B compounds, were present in the hair.

       Skeptics of the Holocaust and revisionists of history acknowledge that some Jews were incarcerated in places such as Auschwitz. But they maintain, as was done at the trial of a Holocaust denier in Canada, that these places were equipped with all the luxuries of a country club, including a swimming pool, a dance hall, synagogue, and recreational facilities. Some Jews may have died, they agreed, but this was the natural consequence of wartime deprivations. Some of these assumptions are based on detailed information that is available from camp Westerbork in the Netherlands and to a certain extent from ghetto Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic. Stories and pictures from these two camps show that inmates 'indulged' in shows and other entertainment and that the camps were equipped with the finest of medical care. Whereas, to a certain extent, this was true, the circumstances under which these so-called luxuries could be indulged in were criminally deceptive and far removed from reality. Ultimate death in places as Auschwitz, Belzec, Birkenau, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, and other methods of extermination such as provided by the Einsatzgruppen, that was reality.

       At this precise moment in time, as we have entered the twenty-first century, we continue to confront the consequences of individual choices in our world. Whether it is the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, or the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the 20th Century. The slaughter in Cambodia and Laos by the Khmer Rouge, or the ongoing oppression, slavery, and death of black Christians in the Sudan. The Chinese suppression of the Tibetans, or the conflict as we have witnessed between the Tutsis and Hutus in Berundi and Rwanda. I now can add the people of West Papua to this sad list as well. They are cruelly persecuted by Indonesia.

       I understand it is painfully present within the capability of each one of us to destroy lives and commit the most evil of deeds, then turn the table around and seek absolution. Often denying having committed crimes against humanity. May we always champion those who stand for, fight for, and give their lives for the liberty of mankind no matter where they live.

You can see a photo presentaton of our visit to Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau in March 2008 by following the link:

Auchwitz-Birkenau photo presentation

If you would like to use a large version of this presentation for educational purposes, mail us through our contactform and just let us know (Sion Soeters)