What Many People Don't Realize About the Holocaust Death Camps

Roundup: Talking About History

John Lichfield, in the London Independent (1-27-05):

... In truth, the story of the Holocaust is imperfectly understood, even by many of us who think we know what happened. (I was astonished by my own ignorance when I visited Auschwitz, even though my father was Jewish, even though some of my distant, Slovakian-Jewish relatives almost certainly died there.)

The details are imperfectly known, even to honest, specialist historians, because so much of the evidence was destroyed by the Nazis themselves in 1943-44. The story was further muddied by the Soviet domination of Poland up to 1990 - years when Auschwitz was turned into an "anti-fascist" shrine and the suffering of the Jews was pushed into the background.

Did 5,000,000 Jews die in the Holocaust or 6,000,000? Even now, honest historians disagree. The generally accepted figure of 1,100,000 dead in Auschwitz alone (including 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles and 21,000 gypsies) is a "conservative estimate", according to the head archivist of the Polish state museum on the site, Piotr Setkiewicz. "It was almost certainly more than that. These are just the people that we can say with absolute certainty died here."

One of the perverted oddities of the Final Solution is the mixture of brazen pride and shame with which it was implemented. Intelligent, educated men believed that they had a right to destroy millions of fellow human beings. At the same time, they felt it was necessary to lie about, and cover up, what they were doing. The same twin impulses - denial on the one hand, and pride in the Holocaust on the other - persist among Nazi apologists to this day.

The 60th anniversary has brought an abundance of new studies, including the excellent BBC television series on Auschwitz, and the accompanying book by Laurence Rees. All the same, confusions remain in many educated and unprejudiced minds: confusions which are often exploited by Holocaust- deniers and relativisers. There is, especially, an abiding confusion about the different kinds of camps which existed in the Nazi archipelago of evil.

Broadly speaking, there were labour camps, concentration camps and death camps. Life in the labour and concentration camps, such as Belsen, south of Hamburg, and Dachau, north of Munich, was barbaric. Life expectancy was short. These camps had tens of thousands of political prisoners, and resistance activists, from Germany and from occupied countries - and some high-profile Jews.

Much of the confusion, in the West, arises because these camps, in the western part of Germany, were liberated by the British and the Americans. They provided the images which were first seared onto the world's memory and conscience: images of walking skeletons in striped uniforms and heaps of emaciated bodies being cleared by bulldozers.

But these were not the death camps. There were no planned mass killings - no gas chambers or crematoria - in Belsen or Dachau or Ravensbruck or Mauthausen or anywhere within Germany's pre-war borders.

The Holocaust happened further east, in Poland, notably at Auschwitz but also in five other camps, some of which were no larger than three or four football pitches: Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno and Majdanek.

The unfamiliarity of these names - apart from Treblinka - is significant, and deliberate. They were dismantled, and the ground ploughed over and planted with trees, by the SS at the end of 1943. By that time, it is estimated that 1,700,000 people had been murdered there, mostly Polish Jews, mostly killed by carbon-monoxide poisoning (Zyklon- B gas was an Auschwitz speciality.)

Mr Setkiewicz says: "We have very, very little direct information on what happened in these places. There are few records, few eyewitness accounts, no survivors. We know only that transports took Jews out of the ghettos established by the Nazis in Warsaw and other cities and they took them to these camps, which were set up as extermination centres. There was no room for people to live or work in these places. No one came back."

Auschwitz was unique. It was the only site which contained both an extermination camp and a labour camp (in fact 40 different camps, spread over an area covering 40 square kilometres, the Auschwitz "zone of interest").

Because both kinds of camp existed side by side, there are survivors, Jewish survivors and Polish survivors, to tell us what happened in Auschwitz. But the existence of both kinds of camp on one site, or at one complex of sites, is also fertile ground for the negationists....

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More Comments:

Lisa Kazmier - 1/29/2005

Primo Levi's account of his life in Auschwitz from 1944-45 suggests there was some labor ongoing, and in his case, a kind of specialized lab work that helped him survive (there are many factors, including pure luck). I don't disagree with the broad categories, but their value must not be pushed too far in only discussing the differences between camps like Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.

Christopher Osborne - 1/29/2005

I believe the Maidanek camp also had both slave labor and extermination functions, not just Auschwitz. Admittedly, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, and Chelmno were not slave labor centers, although each had a minimal forced labor "staff."