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Field of blood

Auschwitz is a universally recognised symbol of the genocide. The Nazis carried out mass extermination of Jews at camps like these. Today they stand as mute witness to the horrors of World War II. P. SUBRAMANYAM continues his tour of Poland.


The main entrance to Auschwitz which says "Work makes you free".

AUSCHWITZ, 70 km away from Krakow, a former capital of Poland, has gone down in history as the infamous German concentration camp, during World War II. It symbolises the atrocities which the Nazis methodically carried out in keeping with their policy of ``The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.'' Most victims were Jewish, but others too were murdered: Poles, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, Yugoslavs, homosexuals and people of other ethnic and national groups and religions.

The Secret Service (SS) put thousands of people in the gas chambers and killed many more by lethal injection. Prisoners died of starvation and slave labour and some were subjected to gruesome medical experiments. Few victims survived the extreme brutality and the severest punishments inflicted.


"Gate of Death" at Birkenau.

This camp unmasked the darker aspects of civilisation and ``opened the eyes of humanity to the fact that genocide on such a large scale could take place on such a mass, industrialised and bureaucratic fashion in one location.''

Brought in by trains, cattle trucks and freight wagons, from all parts of occupied Europe, the majority was murdered immediately upon arrival. Most of those remaining died slowly, from starvation and the exhaustion of slave labour. Statistically, several hundreds and sometimes more than a thousand people died of starvation alone every day and when the advancing Soviet Army liberated the camp in 1945, only 7,000 people were found barely alive, totally emaciated and almost on the verge of death.

Oswiecim, established in 1940, is the real Polish name of the camp but the German changed it to Auschwitz. This extermination camp is to this day well preserved. The main entrance to the gate says, ``Work makes you free.''

The origins of this camp dates back to 1940 and its commandant, SS Hauptsturumfuhrer Rudolf Hoss visited Oswiecim on April 18-19, 1940 and upon his recommendations to SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, ordered the establishment of a concentration camp on May 4, 1940. Rudolf Hoss was appointed as its first commandant.

Polish, Czech and Soviet prisoners of war arrived immediately after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, while Yugoslavians and women partisans also added to the vast numbers of prisoners. However, within a few months of the Wannsee conference of January 1942, when the plan as to how to proceed with the murder of the Jews of Europe was presented, it was called, ``The Final Solution of the Jewish Question.'' With directive approved by Hitler and his trusted assistants, Heinrich Himmler, who was solely in charge of the Jewish Re-settlement and Adolf Eichmann, who masterminded the official genocide policy, Auschwitz officially became the killing ground for the Nazis.

Since the intake of prisoners was rapidly increasing, another concentration camp, Birkenau, which was in operation already, was expanded to meet the requirements of daily killings. According to the daily notes retained by the Secret Service troops, a maximum of 20,000 were short or gassed in a single day at Birkenau. It was a larger camp of 400 acres and is preserved well to this day.

People were brought to Auschwitz after being tortured by the Gestapo, often travelling for days without food. Upon arrival on the ramp at Birkenau, nicknamed Gate of Death, women and children were sent to the gas chambers immediately, while men had a selection by the SS medical doctors who decided who was fit to work. The old and sick were gassed to death. Some prisoners had their numbers tattooed on the left forearm. In all, more than 4,00,000 people were allocated numbers of whom about one-third died from starvation, disease, the rigors of hard labour, beatings, torture and summary executions by shooting, hanging or gassing.

Conditions in the camp were appalling to say the least. They were housed in brick-built wooden barracks/huts and were allowed to sleep on the floor or in two and three-tier bunk beds which were overcrowded. Lavatories were primitive and washing facilities were grossly insufficient.

The daily routine

At 4.30 a.m. the gong sounded the start of an exceptionally long workday. Breakfast consisted of half a litre of lukewarm coffee. The prisoners had to walk 10 to 15 k.m. ``Work'' meant slave labour in factories, mines, farming and construction work — all of which to be done by hand without equipment. No rest was allowed and punishments were severe. Exhausted prisoners had to carry back to the camp the bodies of those who died during that day for the evening roll call included their names too. Often the soldiers delayed calling the names, especially if the weather was very cold. Those who fell over or let their hands drop were shot or punished. After the roll call, the prisoners' meal was a small loaf of bread (300 grams), some lard or margarine and occasionally about 100 grams of salted pork. Night brought little comfort. The bunks were so overcrowded that prisoners were unable to move, and fleas and lice made rest impossible.

Punishments and experiments

The SS guards and the authorities had a highly developed system of imposing severe punishment for trivial deeds by the prisoners.

Starvation, public flogging, hanging a prisoner by his hands, which were tied behind his back, putting one prisoner or four at a time, in cramped cells with no ventilation, food or water for days, denying food during working hours but made to work during off hours... stacking bodies one on top of another and slowly crushing them to death. Each of these punishments, in addition to the physical pain, trauma and psychological humiliation they caused, could also hasten or directly contribute to a prisoner's early death.

Nazi doctors played an important role in extermination, openly violating basic medial ethics to conduct experiments on innocent Jews. Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious Auschwitz doctor, assisted by his medical staff conducted special medical examinations on twins and individuals with congenital anomalies. The experiments and examinations were prolonged, lasting many hours and at times were very painful and exhausting. Extremely emaciated prisoners, at the time of total starvation, were killed by a lethal phenol injection to the heart.


The Death Block... silent, yet it speaks volumes.

Dr. Mengele, the chief doctor at Auschwitz and known as the Angel of Death, was able to avoid capture for 34 years after the war. With a false name, he worked for four years soon after the war as a stableman in Bavaria. In 1949, he escaped to Argentina via Genoa. In 1959, as Jose Mengele, he became a citizen of Paraguay and also made secret trips to Europe. He then moved to Brazil, where he took the identity of Wolfgang Gerhard. In early 1960, Israel's Mossad came close to finding him but with the help of pro-Nazi network kept him free. However, in 1979, the authorities believed that he died in 1979 and exhumed the skeleton.

SS doctors, Helmuth Vetter and Friedrich Entress carried out experiments at Auschwitz to measure precisely the incubation period of typhoid and to determine blood infected with typhoid. To this end, they infected healthy prisoners with the virus through injections and contaminated blood.

The Science and the Swastika programme revealed that the Nazi doctors in their medical experiments between 1933-39 performed some 30,000 forced sterilisations on healthy Jewish males in order to reduce population growth. These operations were primitive and as many as 3,000 of them died of septicemia (blood poisoning) and other post-operative complications.

Finally, the prisoners subjected to various experiments were sentenced to death, either by gas chambers or phenol injection, to conceal the criminal and barbaric activities of the SS doctors.

(To be continued)

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