“The road to heaven”: my visit to the Nazi death camps

This is a guest post by my mother, Dr Katharine Mori, who during her recent holiday in Poland visited a number of the old Nazi death camps in that country.

In late February-March 2008, a friend and I visited Poland to see for ourselves some of the Nazi death camps. My friend has a distant Jewish background, and I myself come from a German family on my mother’s side. We stayed in Krakow, in an appartment next to the Jewish quarter. The first camps we visited were those of Auschwitz (the largest camp in Poland, in operation from 1940–45) and its satellite camp of Birkenau – three kilometres away – which was opened in 1942. Auschwitz is the German transliteration of the town name of Oswiecim.

The history of the concentrations camps, of which Auschwitz became the most famous, is well documented. And the Allies who finally came to liberate the camps went to great lengths to ensure that as much of the evidence as possible should be preserved. (See: “Die Endphase des Kl Auschwitz: Evakuierung, Liquidierung und Befreiung des Lagers” by Andrzej Strzelecki; pub.: Verlag Staatliches Museum in Oswiecim-Brzezinka, 1995 (ISBN 83-85047-48-4). So anyone who tries to deny the holocaust must be either mad, or blind, or illiterate, or perhaps all three.

Of the thousands who entered the camps, few survived. Many died from ill-treatment, overwork, starvation, or random shooting for minor misdemeanors such as possessing an extra bar of soap; but most died by being gassed, either on arrival, or a few weeks or months later. Most cynical of all, much of the ill-treatment in the camps was meeted out by the indigenous “Kapos”.

On arrival, prisoners were “selected” by the camp doctor. Those who were deemed fit for work were sent to the various rows of barracks, seemingly endless in number, to begin their slave labour. (Note the cynical sign at the entrance gate to Auschwitz: “Arbeit macht frei” – “Work makes you free”.) New arrivals who were deemed too old, or ill, to work were sent immediately to the gas chambers, where they were ordered to undress before entering, having being fooled (the official term was “calmed”) into thinking they were about to be showered and de-loused.

You can still see the dummy shower heads in the gassing bunkers, and the holes in the roof through which the pellets of Cyclon B were poured by the “Sanitäter”. Gassing took from 5–10 minutes, but occasionally lasted as long as 20 minutes. Death occurred by suffocation. The bodies were then cremated in the brick ovens in the crematoria, and the ashes removed to the perimeter of the camps.

For me and my friend, as perhaps for many a visitor over the last 60 years, the most pressing memories include the “end-of-the-line” railway tracks where the “selections” were made; the dirty brown and blue discolouration of the walls in the gas chambers; the row upon row of prisoner latrines (holes cut into long stone benches); the exhibitions of hair cut from the heads of female victims (you could smell decay even through the glass; the hair looked like matted horse-hair, having been damaged by Cyclon B; there was also the occasional long pigtail to be seen); a roomful of limb prostheses; and exhibitions of prisoners’ shoes under glass (flat shoes, high-heels, shoes greyed through the action of gas and years of decay, childrens’ shoes, and even a few brightly-coloured shoes of blue, red and gold – indicating that some of the owners must have left their homes in an untoward hurry).

Our visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau had been as part of an organised tour, and as such was inevitably sanitised. Thousands of visitors came each day, and we had our work cut out trying not to get separated from our particular tour group. The speed, and the milling of the crowds, meant there was precious little time for reflection, and certainly no time for tears. In fact, we confessed to being struck by our lack of emotion at the end of the day. Or was it simply a burying of emotion? Or, more sinisterly, was it a confirmation of how easy it is to get used to atrocities and to let them pass you by? Was that how the SS managed to plan the Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference of 1942?

Such was not the case when we made our long journey to the “forgotten camps” of Majdanek and Sobibor later in the week. Here we had plenty of time for observation and reflection. Whereas the crematoria at Auschwitz and Birkenau had been mostly destroyed, those at Majdanek had been preserved more or less intact. There was even a large horse-drawn gurney on which the gassed bodies were drawn into the crematoria prior to cremation. And the collections of shoes here were not housed under glass, but piled high almost to the ceiling in large-bore wire cages, so that you could actually touch them if you felt so inclined. After some initial reticence, my friend and I did touch them, and offered up a prayer.

The last camp we visited was Sobibor. This necessitated a five hour train journey to the Ukrainian border to Lublin, followed by a two hour taxi ride to Sobibor. That day it rained heavily and incessantly. We got drenched as we walked through the forest of replanted trees where the barracks had once stood, retracing the location of the barracks from an old map. In stark contrast to Majdanek, there was almost nothing left to see apart from the railway line (still in use until recently), the camp commandant’s house, and the gigantic memorial.

It was the memorial that told the tale. Similar to the one at Majdanek, this was constructed of a stone wall, approximately one metre high but very many metres in diameter, overshadowed by a big floating dome. Sandwiched in between the wall and the dome appeared to be a towering mound of earth. On closer inspection, this earth contained the ashes of the victims who had been cremated – ashes which had been hastily shovelled up by the Soviets at the liberation, together with surrounding earth, and placed in one big heap. A few bits of uncrushed bones could be seen among them. The heap was lightly covered with small stones to help hold everything down.

Did the factories who made Cyclon B know what it was to be used for? Tomasz Kranz’ book, “Die Vernichtung der Juden im Konzentrationslager Majdanek” [The annihilation of the Jews at Majdanek Concentration Camp]; pub.: Panstowe Muzeum na Majdanku, 2007 (ISBN 978-83-925187-1-6) contains a typed letter from the firm of Tesch u. Stabenau, a pesticide company in Hamburg, dated 3.6.1943 and addressed to the camp authorities at Majdanek. The letter concerns the delivery of 1474 x 1500g canisters of Cyclon to the camp, and is signed “Heil Hitler! TESCH & STABENAU, International Pesticides Company m.b.H. Signed pp K. Weinbacher.” Clearly a large consignment, and presumably not the only such consigment to be negotiated. However, it is well known that the camps purported to use the gas for disinfection and de-lousing of the inmates, so it would be difficult to attribute knowledge of its real use to the manufacturers of the pesticide. [See addendum]

But the most fascinating book I brought back with me is “Auschwitz in den Augen der SS” [Auschwitz seen through the eyes of the SS]; pub.: Staatliches Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oswiecim, 2005 (ISBN 83-88526-54-5). It contains reports by three SS officers: Rudolf Höss (an SS officer of Dachau and Sachsenhausen camps, and later camp commandant at Auschwitz), Peri Broad (a lay member of the political wing of the SS and an official camp inspector), and Johann Paul Kremer, a former professor at the University of Münster who became one of the camp doctors at Auschwitz.

Kremer describes his horror on first observing the goings-on in Barrack 11 at Auschwitz where Obersturmführer Max Grabner, a cowherd in civil life and a sadistic thug, liked to spend his weekends “cleaning out the bunker”. By this he meant joining with Lagerführer Aumeier and taking condemned prisoners awaiting execution in Block 11 to the adjacent courtyard to be shot, using small-calibre pistols which they assumed couldn’t be heard by passers-by outside the camp.

I said earlier that I had not been overcome by emotion. Yet every time I heard the trams trundling along the city centre of Krakow, I was reminded of the railway tracks at what I have described as the “end of the line”. Each camp had its own end-of-the-line, described cynically by the Nazis as “The Road to Heaven”.

© 2008 Katharine Mori

Addendum

Anthony Cox has kindly pointed out that Tesch and Weinbacher were tried and executed for war crimes by the British occupation forces. They knew exactly what Cyclon B was being used for by the Nazis. I have only recently started to read about this subject in detail. KM