Showers of Death
By Catherine Nimmo
Auschwitz killed more individuals than any other death camp during the Holocaust. Personally, I have always been intrigued about how the Nazi SS managed to murder so many people all at once without them understanding the fate that lie ahead of them. As a sophomore psychology major at the University of California Santa Barbara, I have never taken any in depth class on the Holocaust making this my first time to thoroughly study this aspect of history. The main source that guided me was Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas.
Six-hundred Soviet POWs and two-hundred fifty camp prisoners were viciously murdered during the first gassing at Auschwitz on September 3, 1941. This was only a prelude of what was to come. Auschwitz began as a POW camp and soon became the premier death camp of the Holocaust. With an over-flow of inmates arriving in Auschwitz, there was an increased need for more death space. One crematorium would not be enough and therefore four more crematoria were to be built in the spring of 1943 allowing up to nine-hundred prisoners to be eradicated at once. The death toll increased dramatically killing an estimated 1.2 million prisoners in total.
As the train arrived in Auschwitz, the ovens were already being warmed up, ready for a new batch of victims to be exterminated. The prisoners were forced off of the trains and torn from their loved ones. The “selection” for strong, healthy individuals began. It was the SS doctors who had the final say as to who could manage the strenuous work load. The lucky few that were granted life would soon learn the truth about the situation: it would be their job to help clear the dead corpses and later be killed themselves.
With the temporary survivors left behind, the inmates walked slowly to their unknown deaths. They were told they had to take showers in order to delouse every individual. The prisoners were escorted into large rooms and forced to take off their clothes. At this point, many of the victims had no idea what was on the other side of the large door but the few that questioned the authorities were taken away from the others and shot as to avoid panic. Once bare, the victims were told to go into the showers. By this time, many were becoming very worried and attempted to plead with the officers. Force was needed the majority of the time. The doors were then closed and sealed tight and an official wearing an oxygen mask would then release poison into the chamber. There were many different types of poisons tested, including carbon monoxide, but in the end Zyklon B was found to be the fastest and most reliable form of death.
As the prisoners screamed for their lives, a doctor stood by in case a problem was to arise. Oxygen tanks were also kept close for fear that an official might have to suffer this same torment. After approximately thirty minutes, the doors were opened to reveal heaps of dead corpses mangled together. “In the cells packed full of people, death was instantaneous” Hoss stated perfectly (Kogon, Langbein, Ruckerl, p. 146). The prisoners that were granted life in front of the trains were now given the job of carrying the corpses to ditches to be burned. Bodies were pilled high on railed tip wagons and then thrown without a care into deep ditches that were soon to be lit on fire. If bones were found amidst the ash, it was then the prisoners’ job to crush them and turn them into ash.
There became many problems with burning the bodies outside. For one, weather was a problem that not even the Nazis could control. The second was the disgusting odor that emanated from the burning flesh. “When a west wind was blowing, the stench of the burning corpses could be smelled inside the camp itself” Hoss explained (Kogon, Langbein, Ruckerl, p. 168). People all around the camp knew what was going on and yet decided to turn their heads and ignore the situation like many others. Some decided to help the Nazi party by supplying them with equipment and supplies that were crucial in killing off so many innocent victims. One such company was Topf and Sons, of Erfurt, that specialized in crematory ovens. Dessau Sugar and Chemical Factories provided Auschwitz with Zyklon B, the poison used in the killings. Without these two critical factors, the murders would not have been fathomable.
Inside the camp, many of the prisoners were forced to complete horrific acts in order to save their own live. A Polish officer witnessed one such account: “Under such conditions men’s hearts turn to stone. Imagine a prisoner killing his own brother in one of the wards so as to avoid his having to undergo the dreadful trip by truck” (Kogon, Langbein, Ruckerl, p. 155). On October 7, 1944 the prisoners of Auschwitz staged a revolt. Although not one survived, they did manage to kill three SS in the process.
On November 26, 1944, as the Russians advanced and it was clear that Germany was loosing the war, Himmler ordered for the destruction of the crematoria. On January 18, 1945, the evacuation of Auschwitz began. In the mad rush to escape, the officers left behind many incriminating documents. Those, combined with the testimonies of seven Auschwitz SS and many surviving prisoner, left no doubt of the actions that took place within this camp. The survivors were left emotionally and physically scarred and the 1.2 million lives that were taken within the Auschwitz crematoria can never be replaced.