New analysis of the beginnings of murders in gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau
The beginnings of the extermination of Jews in KL Auschwitz in the light of the source materials - a new publication of the Museum, through the analysis of 74 archival documents, most of them previously unpublished, describes preparation to the mass extermination of Jews in gas chambers and the process of turning Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp into a centre of mass extermination. Authors of the analysis are historians of the Research Center of the Museum: Igor Bartosik, Łukasz Martyniak and Piotr Setkiewicz.
‘For many years, the beginning of the extermination of Jews in the gas chambers has been one of the least-researched issues in the extensive literature on the history of KL Auschwitz. This does not seem to result from underestimating the importance of the issue, but rather from the lack of source materials. Only with the declassification of the records of the SS Central Construction Board that had been held until then in Moscow, did it become possible to access German documentation making it possible to fill into a considerable degree the historical knowledge about the functioning of the first gas chambers,’ said Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz, head of the Research Center of the Museum.
The documents found as a result of extensive searches conducted in both the Zentralbauleiting collection and other archival resources, are divided in this book into six basic thematic sections: the history of the gas chamber at crematorium I in the Auschwitz I camp, the functioning of the provisional gas chambers in Birkenau, the wooden barracks used as undressing rooms for the people murdered in provisional gas chambers, the history of the unloading ramp where Jews deported to Auschwitz underwent selection, the establishment of the Sonderkommando and its first year of existence as well as the mass murders, known as “special operations,” carried out in the camp.
‘These documents make it possible significantly to clarify the chronology of events and to confirm facts known until now only through witness accounts. It should nevertheless be noted that the documents do not usually refer directly to killings in the gas chamber, and interpreting the entries sometimes requires a detailed familiarity not only with other documents, but also with the reality of the camp,’ says Setkiewicz. That is why every documents presented in the book is accompanied with a historical comment and the publication has also a detailed preface.
The documents published in the book are very differentiated. There is for example the list of work done by the German firm Schlesische Industriebau Lenz & Co., dated July 8, 1942 which says about “the installation of doors at the second gas chamber” – the work involved the adaptation as a gas chamber of one of the houses. There is also a protocol from a May 21, 1943 conference where, in the section presenting the founding and development of the Auschwitz camp, there is information that the operation to solve “the Jewish question” is currently underway there.
Among analyzed documents there is also a warehouse document noting the issuing on April 23, 1942 of 400 kg of packaged lime and 300 kg of cement required by the Sonderkommando–lime was used as a disinfectant when burying bodies in mass graves. This is one of the earliest documents which mentions the existence of the Sonderkommando. There is also a permit from September 14, 1942 for five trucks and one escort vehicles to travel to Auschwitz which mentions that these vehicles are to go into immediate use of carrying out special operations.
According to Piotr Setkiewicz the analysis of sources connected with the beginning of the extermination in Auschwitz has also a symbolic meaning. ‘Auschwitz is usually associated above all with the gigantic crematoria designed by the Topf company. The provisional gas chambers located on the edges of Birkenau, on the other hand, are known to only a few. Primitive as they may have been in terms of construction, the two bunkers proved unusually effective in practical use: in the period from March 1942 to April 1943, about 250,000 people perished inside them. This means that, even if officials from the camp had decided to rely only on the bunkers, the realization of their criminal intentions would not have been impeded,’ emphasized Piotr Setkiewicz.
The book The beginnings of the extermination of Jews in KL Auschwitz in the light of the source materials can be bought in the on-line bookstore of the Auschwitz Memorial.