Last month my latest book was published by ibidem-verlag which covered the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, its history, biographies and remembrance.
Having written and had published three books on the Aktion Reinhardt Camps, Belzec,Sobibor and Treblinka, this was a new path for me. Those three camps are not as well-known as Auschwitz. There are many books on Auschwitz, and Auschwitz has become the universal iconic symbol of the Holocaust.
Why should that be, the answer is there were compared to the Aktion Reinhardt camps more survivors, who told their accounts of life and death at Auschwitz, and these have found their way into books and films. As a direct comparison there were only 3 known survivors from Belzec, out of circa 450,000 people, although at both Treblinka and Sobibor, there were prisoner revolts, and some survived to tell the truth about the death camps. In addition the camps were liquidated, buildings torn down, the corpses exhumed and burnt, so today there is nothing or little to see. At Auschwitz this wasn’t the case, particularly in the Auschwitz main camp, the camp is virtually intact, and unlike the other three camps, Auschwitz was built to last.
A strong case could, and should, be made that Aktion Reinhardt is as much as a symbol of the Holocaust as Auschwitz, but that is another debate for another time, and I am sure we will return to this debate at CARR, in the future.
The history of Auschwitz is traced from the very beginning of its existence. It began life in early 1940, as a Security Police camp for Polish resistance workers. Harsh and brutal conditions were used to break the spirits’ of early inmates. There were no gas chambers and few prisoners of Jewish origin. The camp evolved over time, as indeed the Nazis treatment of Jews worsened as the World War II dragged on.
With the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, the camp housed thousands of Soviet Prisoners of War, who indeed were the first victims of gassing using Zyklon B. Zyklon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide, which consisted of hydrogen cyanide (or ‘prussic acid’). Test-gassings were carried out in the basement block of Block 11at the end of August 1941.
My book traces the development of the camp with the construction of the Birkenau sub-camp, first as a camp for Soviet Prisoners of War. Commencing in October 1941, they helped construct Birkenau in the most brutal of conditions. Following the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942, Auschwitz was to play an even more sinister role in the Nazi Final Solution of the ‘Jewish question’ in Europe.
Next in the book, we learn how, in the early months of 1942, the Nazis started to murder the Jews in adjacent communities in the limited gas chamber in the main camp, and shortly afterwards convert two former Polish farmhouses in Birkenau into gas chambers. The corpses were buried in mass graves in nearby fields.
As the mass murder programme intensified the Germans built 4 massive combined gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau, and by March 1943, were ready to receive transports from the Krakow ghetto. The mass murder continued unabated with transports arriving from all parts of Nazi-occupied Europe – with Jewish citizens transported from as far as France, Holland, Italy, Greece, Poland, the Soviet Union, Slovakia, and the Reich. The murders concluded with a sustained assault on the Jewish population in Hungary during the summer of 1944.
The book charts the winding down of the camp, the Sonderkommando revolt in October 1944, the brutal forced death marches by thousands of starving and weakened inmates as the Soviet forces drew near, until the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945. This day is now universally known as Holocaust Memorial Day.
My book uses as its foundation the excellent work by Danuta Czech, ‘The Auschwitz Chronicle’ that was published in 1989. In addition, I was fortunate to use extracts from the accounts of a survivor, Frank Brichta, who lost his father and mother at Auschwitz. Frank settled in the UK after the war and changed his name to Frank Bright. Dr Thomas Nowotny from Germany also provided me with details of the life of Max Block, who was deported from Westerbork to Theresienstadt and then onto Auschwitz, where he was murdered on October 14, 1944.
In Part II of the book, there is also an extensive chapter devoted to the perpetrators, with individual biographies and a comprehensive chapter on the records of transports from individual countries – enriched with selected accounts of individuals, some of whom survived and some sadly that did not. Added to this are detailed war time reports from the Allied forces and the German side, as well as post-war testimonies of former inmates of Auschwitz who were liberated during 1945, from other concentration camps, such as Bergen-Belsen.
The final chapter covers my own personal visits to Auschwitz, starting with my first visit in 2004, and my more recent visits with students and staff from Teesside University in 2016 and 2017. On our return to the United Kingdom I openly invited the students to pen their thoughts and observations about their visits to Auschwitz –Birkenau; some 70-odd years since it was established. Seven students responded and what is clear is that all of them were moved by what they saw, and that, by visiting the death camps, this had helped shaped their views on race-hatred and how the trip had changed their outlook; both in life and their studies. I was both humbled and moved. It increased my belief that we must never forgot what happened during the Nazis reign of terror and that educating the youth of today about the Holocaust and mass genocide is a rewarding and powerful thing.
It is both an honour and a privilege to do so – if we are to stop such mass atrocities happening again.
Over 450,000 innocent men, women and children were murdered at Belzec alone. Lest we forget.
Mr. Chris Webb is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and founder of the Holocaust Historical Society. See his profile here.
© Chris Webb. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).