Auschwitz (Oświęcim), German-Occupied Poland November 1, 1940

On this date in 1940 SS Hauptsturmfuehrer (Captain) Rudolf Hoess (also Höß or Hoeß) (1901–1947) reported for duty as comman­dant of Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp in the newly annexed province of Upper Silesia in former Poland. During Hoess’s tenure at Auschwitz, the 20,000‑acre com­plex of three separ­ate camps and 40 sub­camps became the most potent symbol of dehu­man­iza­tion, geno­cide, and espe­cially of the Jewish Holo­caust (Hebrew, Shoah)—otherwise known to German Nazis as the “Final Solu­tion” to the Jewish ques­tion (End­loesung der Juden­frage). The Final Solu­tion was the cover name for the anni­hi­la­tion (Sonder­behand­lung, special han­dling) of all Jews and mixed-race Jews within the Nazis’ reach and the reach of Nazi Germany’s collab­o­ra­tionist coun­tries and depen­dent ter­ri­tories. During the Holo­caust 90 per­cent of the Jews in occu­pied Poland and two-thirds of the Jews in Europe were system­at­ically mur­dered. Auschwitz, the largest Nazi exter­mi­na­tion camp (Ver­nichtungs­lager) in Europe, accounted for more than a million of the 6 mil­lion Jews who perished during World War II.

The supreme overseer of this unprec­e­dented indus­tri­al­ized pro­gram of mass murder was Reichs­fuehrer-SS Hein­rich Himm­ler (1900–1945), after Adolf Hitler the most power­ful man in Nazi Germany. Hoess became an impor­tant spear-chucker for Himm­ler and his crim­i­nal hench­men. Auschwitz was not yet an exter­mi­na­tion camp when Hoess assumed com­mand of the camp. In its earliest phase Auschwitz was a poorly resourced deten­tion and quaran­tine camp for Polish pri­soners and, after June 22, 1941, Soviet POWs. Hoess, whose former staff posi­tion with Himmler’s SS (the para­mili­tary arm of Hitler’s Nazi Party) was in the Inspec­tor­ate of Con­cen­tra­tion Camps, was deter­mined to turn Auschwitz into a more effi­cient and deadly camp than the likes of Dachau and Sach­sen­hausen, where he had previous served.

Hoess’s decision proceeded the January 1942 roll­out of the Final Solu­tion, and Himm­ler’s acolyte Hoess was ready and eager to slaughter Jews in addi­tion to other Auschwitz “unde­sir­ables” such as Soviet POWs, Poles, Gypsies (Roma), homo­sexuals, Jeho­vah’s Wit­nesses, “asocials,” and polit­ical pri­soners. Con­struc­tion began in Octo­ber 1941 on Auschwitz II, better known as Bir­ke­nau (Polish, Brze­zinka), next to Auschwitz I (Polish, Oświęcim), the main camp (Stamm­lager). The goal of the new camp was to accom­mo­date 200,000 pri­soners in wooden huts intended to house 500 in­mates but which instead housed 800 to 1000 people who were forced to sleep 10 to 12 on wooden planks in three-story bunk beds. The accom­mo­da­tions were insuffer­able, unsanitary, and deadly for many.

Shortly after construction had begun at Bir­ke­nau, the decision was made to turn the new camp into a death fac­tory. In the fall of 1941 Hoess and camp autho­ri­ties con­ducted experi­ments killing in­mates by gassing them using a pellet-type pesti­cide called Zyklon‑B, which turned to lethal cya­nide gas when exposed to air. The exper­i­ments were carried out in make­shift “bunkers” in a remote corner of Bir­ke­nau. Delighted with their suc­cess, the SS built four per­ma­nent killing and crema­tion instal­la­tions for the speci­fic pur­pose of gassing people and burning their remains in ovens. The Bir­ke­nau instal­la­tions started opera­ting at the end of March 1943. The pace of exter­mi­na­tion reached a peak in the spring and sum­mer of 1944 with the depor­ta­tion of some 430,000 Hun­ga­rian Jews to Auschwitz and the sub­se­quent murder of the major­ity of the deportees (see photo essays below).

Hoess was a tire­less and piti­less genius in scaling up mass murder in German exter­mi­na­tion camps. In the seren­dip­it­ous dis­covery of the lethal effects of the pesti­cide Zyklon‑B on humans, Hoess emerged as the biggest cheer­leader of using the poi­son com­pound to murder approx­i­mately 1.1 mil­lion inmates in Nazi death camps. As such Hoess embodied the unspeak­able and unpar­al­leled wicked­ness at which Nazis excelled.

Auschwitz, 1940–1945: The Primary Killing Site of Jews in Europe

Carpathian Ruthenia Jews herded toward death, Birkenau, May or June 1944Incinerators in Auschwitz-Birkenau crematorium

Left: Jews from Carpathian Ruthenia on the ramp at Bir­ke­nau in close prox­im­ity to the scene of their murder, May or June 1944. (Former Carpa­thian Ruthe­nia straddled south­eastern Czecho­slo­va­kia and parts of Ukraine and Poland.) Diffi­cult as they are to see, the two chim­neys on the hori­zon belong to Bir­ke­nau cre­ma­toria II and III to the left and right of the three-track spur line, respec­tively. The cre­ma­toria struc­tures housed mul­tiple sub­ter­ra­nean undressing rooms and enor­mous custom-built poison-gas cham­bers designed to look like shower rooms, which could hold hun­dreds of people and be used several times a day. Elec­tric lifts carried the bodies to the up­stairs crema­toria. The vital statis­tics of Jewish vic­tims arriving directly at Bir­ke­nau, as pic­tured here, were hardly ever regis­tered in camp record books. Most Bir­ke­nau arrivals were asphyx­i­ated using the viru­lent pesti­cide Zyklon‑B, their corpses incin­er­ated, just hours after exiting the sealed trans­port trains. Other victims were killed by a lethal injec­tion of phenol to the heart at all three camp hos­pi­tals. A sizeable number were shot or hanged at the camps.

Right: Small memorial wreathes decorate incinerators in Auschwitz-Bir­ke­nau, the epi­center of the Final Solu­tion. Depending on the cre­ma­toria, fur­naces burned from March 31, 1943, to Janu­ary 26, 1945, the latter date one day before Red Army sol­diers liber­ated the camp complex. Bir­ke­nau cre­ma­toria II and III could incin­er­ate between 4,000 (per Hoess) and 5,000 corpses, respec­tively, in a single work­day that, by Hoess’s account, was often 24 hours long. Crema­toria IV and V, also in Bir­ke­nau but of a dif­fer­ent con­struc­tion, could incin­er­ate up­ward of 2,500 and 1,500 victims, respec­tively, per day. A small cre­ma­torium at Auschwitz I’s large mor­tu­ary saw ser­vice from August 1940 to July 1943. As seen in this photo, the gray metal “drawers” on rollers, known as retorts, typi­cally held two corpses each, though that num­ber was often exceeded by cre­ma­to­ria stokers, Sonder­kom­mando (special squad) pri­soners who loaded the retorts. The design capa­city of the retorts was the same at all five cre­ma­toria. A retort load of three corpses took 15 to 30 minutes from incin­er­ation start to finish. The victims’ thicker bones were then removed from the retorts, and Sonder­kom­mandos later used pestles to reduce them to powder. A signif­i­cant num­ber of cre­ma­tions at Birke­nau took place on open-air wooden pyres and in gigan­tic fire pits attached to crema­toria V, espe­cially at crunch times; e.g., in 1944 when Jews deported from Hun­gary and Łódź in Poland were being exter­mi­nated around the clock. Wooden pyres and fire pits were used suc­cess­fully in other killing cen­ters in German-occupied Poland at Treb­linka, Bełżec, Sobi­bór, and Chełm­no (Kulm­hof), where the corpses of some 2 mil­lion people were burned without the use of crematoria.

L-R, Richard Baer, Josef Mengele, Rudolf Hoess at Solahuette SS retreat outside Auschwitz, 1944Ex-Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess mounting gallows, Auschwitz, April 16, 1947

Left: Ex-Auschwitz I commandant Rudolf Hoess (right); camp physi­cian Dr. Josef Mengele, nick­named “Angel of Death” for his grizzly experi­ments on pri­soners at Auschwitz II-Bir­ke­nau (middle); and Richard Baer (left), fourth and last com­man­dant of Auschwitz I, whose tenure was from May 1944 to the liber­a­tion of Auschwitz in Janu­ary 1945. The photo may have been taken between May 8 and July 29, 1944, when Hoess was appointed the local Schutz­staffel (SS) garri­son comman­der (Standort­aeltester) to over­see the arrival of Hun­gary’s Jews (Aktion Hoess). The three SS officers were at Sola­huette, the SS retreat for SS Toten­kopf (death’s head) camp guards, admin­is­tra­tors, and auxil­iary person­nel at Auschwitz I, the main camp; at Auschwitz II, the exter­mi­na­tion camp at Bir­ke­nau; and at Auschwitz III-Mono­witz (Polish, Mono­wice), the slave labor camp ser­vicing German war-related indus­tries that flocked to Mono­witz for its cheap labor. Sola­huette lay 18 miles (29 kilo­meters) from Auschwitz.

Right: At 10 a.m. on April 16, 1947, the 47-year-old former comman­dant of Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp and recip­ient of Nazi Germany’s War Merit Cross (First and Second Class) Rudolf Hoess walked under armed escort to a small wooden gallows. The gallows had been spe­cif­ically erected for Hoess inside the Auschwitz I com­pound next to a cre­ma­torium where the bodies of tens of thou­sands of mur­dered Jews had been reduced to ashes and bone dust. In real­ity, Hoess had expected to be hanged the year before when he was cap­tured on March 2, 1946, and nearly beaten to death by Jewish sol­diers in the arresting party. A year later he stood before the Supreme National Tribunal, a war-crime tribunal in Poland’s capital Warsaw. In a trial that lasted from March 11 to March 29, 1947, the judges and jury convicted Hoess of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death by hanging.

Architecture of Murder: The Auschwitz-Birkenau Blueprints

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