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The final moments

The Nazis used Zyklon B, a dreaded chemical, to gas prisoners at Auschwitz. P. SUBRAMANYAM continues the series on the genocide.


The gas chamber could hold 800 people at a time.

KILLING by a firing squad, gassing in vans connected to exhaust fumes, starvation, floggings and hangings were methods that only delayed the process of extermination. Heinrich Himmler, Head of the Jewish problem, realised that the effective way of poisoning people on a mass scale would "industrialise extermination" and would be less expensive on Secret Service (SS) men.

Lead was used for the manufacture of bullets. Himmler decided not to waste metal while killing the Jews. He informed Adolf Eichmann of the Main Security office in Berlin about Zyklon B and its efficacy in solving the ``final solution of the Jewish Question'' once and for all. Zyklon B was in the form of blue tablets and when released in the air would emit prussic acid (cyanide gas). According to Commandant Rudolff Hoss, five to seven kg of Zyklon B would kill 1,500 people. A firm named Tesch & Stabenow supplied Zyklon.

The following detailed description of gassing innocent prisoners could be offensive to read but to retain these tragedies in history, the writer has taken the following extracts from Auschwitz's first commandant Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Hoss's autobiography Kl Auschwitz — As Seen by the SS. After the defeat of the Third Reich, Hoss went into hiding using a false name of sailor Franz Lang, and worked as a farmer in British occupational zone, where he was recognised and arrested on February 11, 1946. He was taken from the Nuremberg prison where he was a witness of the War criminals and later extradited to Poland. It was there that he wrote his memoirs. He was sentenced to death on April 2, 1947 by the Supreme National Tribunal and was hanged at Oswiecim — where he supervised the killings of countless innocent people — on April 16 the same year.

"Jews selected for gassing were taken to the crematoria, the men separated from the women and children and told in their own language that they should undress as they would all be bathed and deloused. Indeed, as a make believe, they were told to leave their clothes neatly put together so that they would be able to find them quickly after delousing. After undressing, the Jews went into the gas chambers, furnished with showers and water pipes and gave a realistic impression of bathhouse. The women went in with their children followed by the men, who were always fewer in number. The view of the chambers was a village house that stood nearby, surrounded by, in spring, trees and flowers blooming in the orchard, which must have had a calming effect on the prisoners. The SS-men, Grabner and Hossler spoke to the Jews standing on the roof of the gas chamber: `You will now bathe and be disinfected, we don't want any epidemics in the camp. Then you will be brought to your barracks, where you'll get some hot soup. You will be employed in accordance with your professional qualifications. Now undress and put your clothes in front of you on the ground.' Pathetically, they all willingly followed these instructions, given to them like friendly advice. Some looked forward to the soup. All felt relieved after their days of anxiety. Again, Grabner and Hossler continued giving friendly advice from the roof — `Put your shoes close to your clothes bundle, so that you can find them after the bath.... is the water warm? Of course, warm showers. What is your trade? A shoemaker? Well, we need them urgently. Report to me immediately after.' Such words dispelled any doubts, despair or lingering suspicions.

So far, things went smoothly and the SS men drove them inside the chambers. But some who sensed a ruse, whose behaviour unleashed a panic, were discretely taken behind the building and with a gunshot to the base of the head were killed. Around 800 people could fit at a time into the gas chamber and as an additional precaution, the special detachment of prisoners (Jews themselves) who did the dirty work, and the SS guards always remained in the chamber until the last moment. Actually, several SS-men, hiding their pistols, had entered with them into the chambers, full of jokes and small talk, while unobtrusively keeping their eyes on the entrance. As soon as the last one entered they disappeared quickly. Once the chamber was filled, SS men would immediately shoot the remaining who could not get into the chamber. After they bolted the doors shut and tightened the screws, specially trained SS `disinfectors' would drop Zyklon B into the interior in the form of lumps of diatomite soaked in hydro cyanic acid. From the ceiling, the gas went down a shaft quickly for rapid distribution inside the death chamber. A deadly, paralysing terror would spread among the victims. They would start beating the doors, in helpless rage and despair; some scratching with finger nails the others standing close to them to get out, they would hammer on with their fists. Amid this intense suffering, derisive laughter was the only reply from the SS and some soldiers would shout from the door, `Don't get burnt while you have your bath.' It could be seen through the peep-hole in the door that those who were standing nearest to the induction vents were killed at once, mostly one third died right away. The people died from internal suffocation caused by a breakdown in the process of oxygen exchange between their blood and tissues, an impact of the cyanide. The remaining would stagger about and begin to scream and struggle for air. the screaming, however, soon changed to the death rattle and in a few minutes all would still. The entire process took 20 minutes and to make certain, the chamber was opened after half an hour with ventilation of fresh air switched on."

When the mass extermination of Jews started in earnest, Adolf Eichmann arrived at the camp with an order from Himmler which directed the camp authorities to cut and save the hair from women's corpses and to extract gold teeth from the victims. The hair was sold to German textile firms for the production of haircloth and the recipient was a firm called Alex Zink in Roth, near Nuremburg. The gold teeth were melted at the SS hospital building and sent to Berlin in the form of gold bars. Rings and other jewelry were removed from the corpses. The SS called this operation of taking all the valuables from the prisoners as ``Canada.'' Nothing was wasted as the bodies were burnt in the specially made ovens; the ash was removed and sent to Germany to be used as fertiliser in the farms. Half-broken skulls were used as ashtrays in SS offices.

Statistically, it is almost impossible to arrive at an exact figure of the number killed. To begin with, the Nazis estimated that there were eleven million Jews in Europe with three million in Poland and five million in Soviet Russia. According to them, six million were wiped out by the SS men in various concentration camps in occupied territories of Europe and Russia. Himmler confessed that four million were gassed while two million were shot.


Outside the gas chamber

Initially, after liberation, it was thought that two million were murdered in Auschwitz. Now, researchers feel it could be around three million.

When this monstrous camp was established in Poland, 300,000 Russian Jews, 400,000 Polish Jews and nearly a million, if not more, Jews from different parts of Europe, including Germany, Czech, Yugoslavia, France, Denmark, Holland, Rumania, Italy and Greece and, towards the end of the war, 440,000 Hungarian Jews and 4,00,000 Jews from Romania were taken to Auschwitz and systematically exterminated here. By 1944, when Germany was almost certain to be defeated in the war, they speeded up the killings and worked round the clock. By January 1945, Russians advanced faster and the Germans destroyed camps, documents and equipment so that no evidence will be left of the genocide. The remainder of the European Jews, who were lucky to survive, lived on to bear witness to the worst genocide in human history.

After the liberation of Auschwitz, many could not bring themselves to believe such happenings. The SS used the instrument of terror in Germany most effectively — using their propaganda material such as films, leaflets, plays and schoolbooks — as they considered themselves the strongest and the most superior Aryan race, while the others, namely the weaklings, must perish.

In demonstrating Aryan racial supremacy and to preserve Germany as a nation of the blue-eyed and the blondes, Heinrich Himmler added, ``In Germany, our main concern, our duty, is our people and our blood... so we have to care and think to work and fight for this and for nothing else.''

The first part of this article appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine dated November 18.

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