Nazi death camps have received a great deal of attention in film and popular culture. Accounts of Holocaust survivors and life in concentration camps have been the basis of compelling stories factual and fictional. Yet the relative scarcity of true Holocaust stories underlines the difficulty of survival in the face of evil. Placed in a system designed to deliberately exterminate them, a lucky few concentration camp survivors lived to tell their stories against all odds.
There was a distinct difference between camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka, which were extermination camps designed to systematically murder most prisoners upon arrival, and camps like Buchenwald, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen, which were meant to imprison political and social enemies of the Reich (many of whom were Jews who were worked to death). Despite the monumental death toll of the camps, accounts from Holocaust survivors have helped paint a harrowing, disturbing portrait of the reality of what life was really like in a Nazi concentration camp.
When the Nazis decided Auschwitz would serve as the focal point for the extermination of Jews and various other groups, they were faced with the logistics of transporting millions of people to southern Poland, some from as far away as the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Greece. Transportation was done by railroad, typically in cattle cars, but occasionally in passenger trains, in which wealthy Jews were encouraged to bring as much of their wealth with them as possible.
A typical journey is described in the book Perfidy, written by Ben Hecht and compiled from transcripts of the trial of Rudolf Kastner, a Hungarian Jew tried for collaboration with the Nazis in Hungary:
The Jews are deported to Auschwitz daily, on schedule. They leave from the ghetto embarkation depots, on schedule. Conductors signal, "All aboard." Brakemen wave lanterns. German and Hungarian guards shoot a few reluctant travelers, club and bayonet a last group of mothers into the compartments. The engineer opens his throttle. And the train is off for Auschwitz, on schedule.
Eighty Jews ride in every compartment. Eichmann [said] the Germans could do better where there were more children. Then they could jam 120 into each train room. But 80 is no reflection on German efficiency.
The 80 Jews must stand all the way to Auschwitz with their hands raised in the air, so as to make room for the maximum of passengers.
There are two buckets in each compartment. One contains water. The other is for use as a toilet, to be shoved by foot, if possible, from user to user.
I wonder here, why the water and toilet buckets? One water bucket, one toilet bucket for 80 despairing men, women and children plastered against each other as in a packing case, and riding to death. Why? One water bucket, one toilet bucket are not enough to relieve the misery of these barely living ones. Jammed together, how can they use any buckets? They must urinate and defecate in their clothes. They must continue to burn with thirst until they arrive at the gas ovens. But the buckets are there.
These transports typically took four days to reach Auschwitz. One infamous transport from the Greek island of Corfu took 18 days. Upon arrival, all of its inhabitants were dead.
Jacki Handali and Rita Weiss survived transport and imprisonment in Auschwitz. Their selection experiences were similar; each describes a quick, methodical process designed to create as much compliance as possible. Deportees were forcibly removed from freight cars, told to leave their luggage behind, and quickly separated by sex.
SS doctors had the groups form one line each and began separating the lines by motioning individuals to the left or right. Left meant death in the gas chamber, right meant assignment to a work detail in the camp. Until 1944, when massive transports were processed on a 24-hour basis, trains would typically be emptied in the middle of the night or early morning, the timing meant to disorient victims as much as possible.
Resistance or questioning of authority was met with assaults with whips, rifle butts, and dogs. Children and relatives were forcibly and quickly separated, frequently with families unaware of what had happened to their loved ones until much later. A woman who refused to give her baby to a camp guard was sent into the gas chamber with her child in her arms.
The Nazis exterminated thousands of people when a new train convoy arrived at an extermination camp, and dozens of workers handled the most distasteful aspects of this process. Almost always Jews, these workers were known as Sonderkommando - literally "task force" or "special force." The Final Solution was an unspoken secret even within the Nazi hierarchy, and camp authorities took great pains to ensure that no physical evidence, such as photographs of their deeds, existed.
To eliminate witnesses, the Sonderkommando were exterminated every three months or so until late 1944, when Heinrich Himmler, aware Germany would lose the war, suspended transports to, and mass killings within, Auschwitz. Because of this, some Sonderkommando survived, and in the confusion of the last days of the camp, they were able to blend in with regular workers before the forced march west, away from the Soviet occupation of Auschwitz.
One of these individuals, Shlomo Venezia, survived not only the Sonderkommando, but also a forced march to Mauthausen concentration camp. In 1992, to combat what he felt to be a resurgence of anti-Semitism, Venezia began discussing his Auschwitz experience. In 2007, he published a book. His account was very specific regarding the process that awaited those who had been condemned to die:
Every time a new convoy arrived, people went in through the big door of the Crematorium and were directed towards the underground staircase that led to the undressing room. There were so many of them that we saw the queue stretching out like a long snake.
As the first of them were entering, the last were still a hundred yards or so behind. After the selection on the ramp, the women, children and old men were sent in first, then, the other men arrived.
In the undressing room, there were coat hooks with numbers all along the wall, as well as little wooden planks on which people could sit to get undressed. To deceive them more effectively the Germans told people to pay particular attention to the numbers, so that they’d be able to find their things more easily when they came out of the "shower."
After a time, they also added an instruction to use the laces to tie shoes in pairs. In fact, this was to facilitate the process of sorting out when the things arrived at the Kanadakommando. These instructions were generally given by the SS standing guard, but it sometimes happened that a man in the Sonderkommando could speak the language of the deportees and transmit these instructions to them directly.
To calm people down and ensure they’d go through more quickly, without making any fuss, the Germans also promised them they’d have a meal just after "disinfection." Many of the women hurried up so as to be first in line and get it all over with as quickly as possible - especially as the children were terrified and clung to their mothers. For them, even more than for the others, everything must have been strange, eerie, dark and cold.
The Sonderkommando were present at all times during the gassing process, frequently conversing with the victims in their native languages. Shlomo Venezia described what unfolded once the victims undressed and were bolted into the chamber behind a hermetically sealed door:
Once they had taken off their clothes, the women went into the gas chamber and waited, thinking that they were in a shower, with the shower heads hanging over them. They couldn’t know where they really were. A woman would sometimes be seized by doubt when no water came out and went to see one of the two Germans outside the door. She was immediately beaten and forced to go back in; that took away any desire she might have to ask questions.
Then the men, too, were finally pushed into the gas chamber, the Germans thought that if they made thirty or so strong men go in last, they would be able, with their force, to push the others right in. And indeed, herded by the rain of blows as if they were so many animals, their only option was to push hard to get into the room to avoid the beating.
That’s why I think that many of them were dead or dying even before the gas was released. The German whose job it was to control the whole process often enjoyed making these people, who were about to die, suffer a bit more. While waiting for the arrival of the SS man who was going to release the gas, he amused himself by switching the light on and off to frighten them a little bit more.
When he switched off the light, you could hear a different sound emerging from the gas chamber; the people seemed to be suffocating with anguish, they’d realized they were going to die. Then he’d switch the light back on and you heard a sort of sigh of relief, as if the people thought the operation had been canceled.
Then, finally, the German bringing the gas would arrive, it took two prisoners from the Sonderkommando to help him lift up the external trapdoor, above the gas chamber, then he introduced Zyklon B through the opening. The lid was made of very heavy cement. The German would never have bothered to lift it up himself, as it needed two of us.
Sometimes, it was me, sometimes others. I’ve never said this before, since it’s painful to admit that we had to lift the lid and put it back, once the gas had been introduced. But that’s how it was.
Once the gas had been thrown in, it lasted about ten to twelve minutes, then finally you couldn’t hear anything, not a living soul. A German came to check that everyone was really dead by looking through a peephole placed in the thick door - it had iron bars on the inside to prevent the victims from trying to smash the glass.