MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

FORMER GERMAN NAZI
CONCENTRATION AND EXTERMINATION CAMP

Witnesses accounts

Removal of signs of the crimes

Załmen Gradowski, prisoner of Sonderkommando, wrote in notes dug up after the war on the grounds of Crematorium III:

“Lately, they have started clearing away the traces, and wherever there were a lot of ashes, they have ordered them to be ground fine, taken to the Vistula, and released with the current. We have dug up a lot of graves, but there are still two open graves on the grounds of the second and third crematoria. Several graves are still full of ash... A vast amount of ash from hundreds of thousands of Jews, Russians, and Poles is scattered and plowed into the grounds of the crematoria...”

Henryk Mandelbaum, former prisoner of Sonderommando, testified in March 1947:

“...They set about dismantling the crematoria. First, they ordered [us] to remove the shingles and rafters, and ordered us to take the furnaces apart... we bored holes in the walls by December 1944. They placed dynamite charges in these holes. They sent all of us to the camp, and then they blew it all sky high...”

Abraham Steinhardt testified in a deposition in May 1945 on his work in the labor detail assigned to demolish buildings (Abbruchkommando):

“At the end of 1944, in connection with the approach to the camp of Russian units, the dismantling of the crematorium began. In connection with this, I had an occasion to see it from the inside... It was such a solid structure that it was impossible to tear it down with our bare hands alone. We only managed to take the chimneys and roof apart. We prepared the building for demolition by making holes in its walls...” 

Dov Paisikovic, former prisoner of Sonderkommando, stated in 1964:

“The SS ordered the dismantling of the crematoria in November 1944. We began disassembling the furnaces. We placed the fire-clay and bricks in neat piles. At first, we carried out demolition work in Crematorium I [II], and went back to Crematorium II [III] for the night. Crematorium II [III] was still operating at this time, burning corpses supplied from the camp. After the disassembly of the furnaces, the demolition of the chimneys of both crematoria began. For this work, they sent additional prisoners from the camp, from other Kommandos [labor details]. The metal furnace parts were taken after dismantling to the railroad platform and loaded onto cars. Supposedly, they were being shipped to Gross-Rosen [concentration camp]... We did this and similar jobs until January 18, 1945.

March of Death

Zofia Stępień-Bator’s account of the evacuation of Auschwitz in January 1945:

"...A white road, and the large black walls of the forest on both sides... We could hear the squeaking of the snow and the labored breathing of the tired prisoners... Gunshots kept ripping the nighttime silence apart and women were constantly thudding into the ditch for their eternal repose. Then someone ahead of me fell over. I helped her up. She was a tiny girl, totally exhausted and as completely alone as I was. Every few steps, she stumbled. She had a huge pack on her back. “Get rid of that, it’ll be lighter”, I urged her. “No. I’ve got bread in there. If I get rid of it, I’ll starve to death”. She was breathing heavily and whimpering like a baby. I threw her bundle to the ground. She wept out loud. “Don’t cry. I’ve got bread. I’ll walk with you and I’ll share it with you. You haven’t got the strength to carry anything”. I learned, walking along beside her and supporting her, that she didn’t have anyone at all in the world. She was a Jewish girl from the vicinity of Radom. Her parents had been killed, and she didn’t have anyone or anywhere to return to. She used up a good deal of energy in her lamentation. In the end, I forbade her to talk or moan. I declared that she would come back with me to my home, and that I wouldn’t leave her. I begged her to gather up her strength, to hold out until dawn, because the sun would come up in the morning and that would make things easier. She calmed down, and went on for a while with a regular gait, and then she fell again. I picked her up. Now I was dragging her along. Nobody helped me. Prisoners barely able to stay on their feet were passing us. And I... I had lost so much strength, I was all sweaty from the effort, but I was past the point where I could have left her. And so we found ourselves at the tail end of the column. When she fell for the final time, and I no longer had the strength to lift her up, I called for help, and somebody’s hand took hold of me and pulled me forward. I was very tired, and did not realize that I was not going to save that girl, and that I myself could die with her. One of the prisoners, a stranger, oriented herself in the situation, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me along with her. A moment later, there was a shot. It was my poor little ward, whom I had promised not to abandon. She had stopped suffering... the echo of that shot still rings in my memory... "

Excerpt from Elizer Eisenschmidt’s account of his escape and the way the Tender family of Radostowice near Pszczyna helped him:

"I walked towards the artillery fire, but that was not a good decision. I walked around in circles all night, unable to get out of the woods. I fell asleep the next night, because I was completely exhausted. Life stopped mattering to me. All my strength was gone. If I had to die, however, I wanted to do it as a free man. I found a good hiding place in some dried rushes near a pond. I made a mat out of the rushes and lay down on it to sleep... I woke up freezing cold. I walked and walked until I came to a village – I did not even notice that I was going back towards Pszczyna. I went up to a house where a woman was standing in the doorway. I said: “Give me something to drink!” The woman asked, “What do you want to drink? Coffee?” She invited me inside. I sat down, and she brought me some coffee and even a hunk of bread. Then her husband appeared and wanted to know who I was. I replied dryly, “What does it matter to you who I am? I’ll drink this and be on my way”. However, the peasant was obstinate: “I want to know who you are”. Out of fear of being rearrested, I feigned indifference and said, “Do you really want to know? I escaped from a transport from Auschwitz”. Not far from the home, as it turned out later, was a street where the prisoners had passed by in the “death march” – there were still corpses lying everywhere. The husband asked, “Where do you want to go?” I replied that I didn’t know. “Do you know anyone in these parts?” “No”, I answered. “Well then, stay with us”. And so I stayed for around five weeks with that Polish Christian, until the time when the Red Army liberated the area. Then they took me to the hospital for treatment... "

Liberation

Account by former prisoner Dr. Irena Konieczna, a doctor in the camp hospital, on the last days of Auschwitz and liberation:

The final evacuation on foot of women from Birkenau began on January 18, 1945. They ordered the prisoners to prepare immediately. The SS men were going around trying to talk women into joining the transport. They said that the whole camp was mined and that they were going to blow it up after they left. Many women asked me: should they go with the transport or stay there? I told them that I was staying, because, if I was going to die, I wanted to die on Polish soil, but that they had to make up their own minds. I remember how the SS men from the infirmary were urging me at the last moment to go with them in the transport. In the final minutes before the column started out, they were looking for me in the blocks. I avoided evacuation by lying down alongside a sick prisoner on the top tier of one of the camp bunks. After the departure of the last evacuation transport, there were about 2,000 patients left in the women’s camp hospital, and a mere handful of moreor- less healthy prisoners to care for them. There were no more SS guard posts to be seen, only individual SS men who came into the grounds of the camp. I also heard that groups of SS men entered the camp sporadically and shot many Jewish women. I would refer to the period before the arrival of the first lines of the Soviet troops as an “interregnum”. Total anarchy reigned in the camp. No one obeyed anyone, or showed any respect to the previous prisoner functionaries. No one carried corpses out of the block and no one cleaned up the filth. The prisoners required treatment and food, but there was a lack of willing hands to look after them. Some prisoners managed to bring some food products back from the SS warehouses, and tried to prepare hot meals. Together with several fellow prisoners, including Dr. Sara Marinette, I “bent over backwards” to help the greatest possible number of bedridden patients, in terms of both medical care and food. We tried to keep up the spirits of all our fellow prisoners, so that they would not give up but rather hold out until the moment when they returned to their families. Someone told me that men prisoners had carried a certain amount of food, or rather delivered it on carts, to Birkenau from the storehouses in the Main Camp. I remember that there were personal confrontations between some of the women during the days of the “interregnum”. As far as I know, some prisoners exchanged sharp words or even blows. I even talked one of my fellow prisoners, who was in danger, into leaving the camp immediately. I know that a fair number of prisoners left the camp during the “interregnum” period and set off for home on foot. Several Soviet soldiers-scouts with their rifles ready to fire-entered the grounds of the women’s camp hospital on January 27, 1945. The prisoners rushed joyously towards them. Some time later, a horse-drawn military column drove up in front of the blocks. When the Soviet soldiers realized what our situation was like, they supplied us with food of the highest quality (excellent army bread baked in pans, melba toast, and natural fats). A day or two later, several beautifully built Soviet officers, dressed in long, clean white sheepskin coats, appeared and carried out a precise reconnaissance of our needs...

Statement by Alexander Vorontsov of Moscow, camera operator in the Soviet military film crew that recorded the liberation of Auschwitz:

"A ghastly sight arose before our eyes: a vast number of barracks (in Birkenau)... People lay in bunks inside many of them. They were skeletons clad in skin, with vacant gazes. Of course we spoke with them. However, these were brief conversations, because these people who remained alive were totally devoid of strength, and it was hard for them to say much about their time in the camp. They were suffering from starvation, and they were exhausted and sick. That is why our interviews, such as they were, had to be very brief. We wrote down the things they told us. When we talked with these people and explained to them who we were and why we had come here, they trusted us a bit more. The women wept, and – this cannot be concealed – the men wept as well. You could say that there were pyramids on the grounds of the camp. Some were made up of accumulated clothing, others of pots, and others still of human jaws. I believe that not even the commanders of our army had any idea of the dimensions of the crime committed in this largest of camps. The memory has stayed with me my whole life long. All of this was the most moving and most terrible thing that I saw and filmed during the war. Time has no sway over these recollections. It has not squeezed all the horrible things I saw and filmed out of my mind..."

Source: Scenario of the documentary film Die Befreiung von Auschwitz, by Irmgard von zur Mühlen (Chronos-Film GmbH, West Germany), commissioned in 1986 by the HolocaustMemorial Council of the USA. APMAB, Scenario Fond, vol. 53, pp. 23–26, 29, 40.

Helping the survivors

From an account by Polish Red Cross volunteer Maria Rogoż, registered nurse, who lived in Krakow after the war:

"I had been staying in Krakow since 1939 as a refugee from Volhynia, living at the Home for Expelled Persons and Refugees run by a social welfare organization, probably the M[ain] W[elfare] C[ouncil]17. I was active in the Home Army at the time and worked with other people to prepare parcels for Polish soldiers held captive in the depths of Germany. After liberation in 1945, my comrades in the organization suggested that I go to work on the grounds of Auschwitz Concentration Camp, in the hospital for former prisoners. Although they stressed that this meant caring for extremely exhausted persons in camp conditions, I agreed without hesitation. I reported on February 24 to the appointed place, where a dozen or so people were waiting to travel to Ooewięcim. Among them were some who already worked in the hospital there, and were returning from short visits to their families. We traveled to Ooewięcim in a truck, probably a Soviet army truck. It was a long ride in difficult conditions. The temperature was below freezing. The truck stopped frequently, since there were bottlenecks of Soviet military transports on the road, and, coming in the opposite direction, crowds of people returning from the camps in the West. The bridges were out, and this made it necessary to take a roundabout route. On top of that, military patrols stopped the truck in many places. We reached the place late in the evening. They sent us to lodgings in one of the buildings on the grounds of the former Main Camp. I slept in the second tier of a camp bunk. In the morning, along with other people brought to work in Ooewięcim on February 24, I was introduced to the head physician of the PRC hospital in Ooewięcim, Dr. Józef Bellert. That was the first time I had seen him. We went to work in the hospital without delay. I did not personally possess adequate preparation for that work, since all I had done before the war was to serve as a hygienist at a Scouts’ unit run by Olga Małkowska in Sromowce Wyżne (Dworek Cisowy). Nevertheless, they signed me up immediately as a nurse. I also received instructions as to my most important duties. I took these instructions very much to heart. For a month, my place of work was Block No. 12 and Block No. 13. I was added to the Soviet nursing personnel there... The sight of the rooms full of patients made a shocking impression on me... when I went in there for the first time. There were about two hundred ex-prisoners in the building... There were women on the ground floor and men upstairs... They lay in multi-tiered camp bunks, covered in blankets of a very good sort that came from the so-called “Kanada”, the camp storehouses. These blankets, like the straw mattresses, were very dirty with excrement. A thick, unpleasant odor prevailed in the rooms. Iron stoves helped heat the rooms. I immediately went on duty in a room with eighty women in it. Eleven women died during the first night shift in that room. I had to remove the corpses from the bunks myself and carry them to the corridor. Early in the morning, orderlies carried these corpses out of the block. All night, from various corners of the room, I heard calls: “Schwester! Schieber! Sister! Bedpan!” The patients were suffering from Durchfall, or starvation diarrhea. So I spent all my time giving them the bedpan. There was no one to help me. There were many difficulties associated with caring for the ex-prisoners. Above all, the patients had to become accustomed to food. In the difficult nutritional conditions, the only food available for the patients was grated potato soup, which was administered to them almost like medicine, one tablespoon per person, three times a day. The portion of soup was increased each day... The severe physical exhaustion of the former prisoners limited the possibilities for giving them injections. On one occasion, I received orders to give a sick former prisoner an intramuscular injection of camphochina. I could not carry it out, since she, like other patients, was suffering from complete muscular atrophy. In this situation, I went to the head physician, Dr. Józef Bellert, and informed him that I was unable to carry out the order for obvious reasons. Dr. Bellert lost his temper and chastised me, telling me that I did not know how to work. Among other things, he told me: “Who do they send here to work? They don’t even know how to give injections…! I’ll show you how to do it, nurse!” He hurried over to the patient and pulled back her blanket. When he saw what bad shape she was in, he apologized to me. I could see that he was moved. He left the room... The PRC Camp Hospital in Ooewięcim was independent, but cooperated closely with the Soviet army field hospital for former prisoners that was operating at the same time. The Soviet field hospitals were changed. Among the Soviet personnel, I remember Major Doctor Polakov and Dr. Zhilinska... Major Dr. Polakov came to the buildings from time to time. He examined the patients, looked over their charts, and added his own remarks. In the block where I worked and in the other blocks, the nursing personnel included both PRC nurses and Soviet nurses and practical nurses. In each block, there were one or two (seldom three) PRC nurses, and several Soviet nurses. Ex-prisoners were a great help to us in maintaining cleanliness. As orderlies, they washed the floors, brought water, lighted the stoves, and carried out the corpses. In the block where I worked, the active ex-prisoners included Aldo Ragazzi from Italy and two Yugoslavians whose names I did not know. Despite open tubercular lesions, one of the Yugoslavians performed all sorts of duties with exceptional zeal. Ex-prisoner physicians also worked with us. During my time in Ooewięcim, I worked in Blocks 12, 13, 22, and 24 in turn. In Block No. 24, the prisoners had better conditions. They were in two-person rooms on the second floor... During the last two–three months before I left Ooewięcim, the conditions for the ex-prisoner patients improved radically. The multi-tiered bunks were removed and the prisoners placed in regular single beds with clean sheets. There were no longer any shortages of medicine. The rooms were illuminated with electric lighting. Some of the sinks in the buildings were already serviceable. The toilets, however, continued to be closed, probably because they were damaged. For this reason, everyone continued to make use of the primitive latrines located between the blocks. These were open holes. In the final phase of my stay in Ooewięcim, that is, in May–July 1945, the office of the PRC hospital was located in the building of the former Auschwitz Concentration Camp administration building outside the camp fence, near the river Soła. The PRC doctors and nurses lived on the second floor of this building. This block was made of bare bricks, without stucco... The results of the work by the PRC doctors and nurses are indicated by the proofs of gratitude shown to them by those... who left the hospital. With extraordinary gratitude, they thanked us for our care, and often invited us to their countries and families, leaving their addresses and photographs. The Italian whom I mentioned above, Aldo Ragazzi, gave me a personal invitation, as did his two Yugoslavian colleagues. I never made use of these invitations, and did not remain in touch with them... At first, the mortality among the prisoners... was horrific. In a later period, this mortality diminished considerably, until in the end there were hardly any deaths at all. More and more ex-prisoners left the hospital each day. In general, special transports were organized for the discharged. They traveled by truck. On several occasions, special missions from abroad took ex-prisoners with them."