Saturday, August 08, 2015

Testimonies of Prisoners of the Demolition Detail on the Crematoria 2 & 3 Extermination Sites

According to the previous posting Knowledge of Mass Extermination Among Hungarian Jews Returning from Auschwitz, mass extermination in the crematoria in Auschwitz-Birkenau was kind of a black box or a box filled with rumors and vivid imagination for most prisoners. One exception to this were prisoners, who were assigned to dismantle the crematoria 2 & 3 in late 1944. Not only did the members of the demolition detail had access to the extermination sites and could inspect themselves of what remained, but they also meet there the remaining prisoners of the Sonderkommando and were introduced into the mass murder machinery. As a result, their testimonies are among the best on the technique and operation of these killing facilities, along with prisoners involved in the construction, maintenance and supply of the crematoria - only next to the Sonderkommando prisoners actually operating these sites.

Six female Hungarian Jews, of whom some or all took part in the demolition of crematorium 2/3, testified on 27 July 1945 to the "National Committee for Attending Deportees" in Budapest. The account is exceptional detailed and reliable for an early non-Sonderkommando and non-SS testimony (so far only comparable in its level of knowledge and accuracy to an escape report of two Soviet POWs).

"In December [1944], the crematorium was urgently taken apart. We worked in another job at the time, but because we wanted to see the crematorium, we switched with those who had the job dismantle the crematorium. We talked several times to the remaining 200 "Sonderkommando" men and they explained everything to us. They took me down to two underground bunkers, pretty clean, it was a long whitewashed room, there were numbered hooks on the wall. Here the unfortunate Pariahs have to undress and are quickly herded to take the bath. Unfortunately, at this point the victims knew what it was about as the men, women and children had to undress together. Then they were driven into a similar bunker and the door was closed. There were four grilled columns in the room. These columns allow to introduce the gas from the outside from above and the columns spread the gas through the grid. People began to choke then. It depended on the gas intensity how long the poor people suffered. The gassing lasted 5 to 8 minutes, but there was one when the gas was to weak for a Hungarian transport gas, the gassing lasted for 40 minutes. Once a four year old girl was not dead after the gassing of 3.000 people. The "Sonderkommandos" found it alive, gave her water, but she was shot by the Oberschaarführer. After the gassing the door was opened, the gas was removed by the ventilation and the corpses were pulled out with a hooked stick. There was a doctor from Munkács who had to burn his own son, pulled out the gold teeth. 5 to 6 people were brought to the ground floor with the elevator; above were five furnaces with 15 places to burn the corpses. A cremation lasted for 15, 30 minutes. 70% of the incoming transports were gassed, 30% taken to work. There was an attic, where they were tin containers with names and dates, this was the ashes of the burned corpses."
(T.H., T.M., S.S., S.P., S.E., S.H. on 27 July 1945 in Budapest, DEGOB protocol 2829, my translation)

Note that the provided Sonderkommando strength is anachronistic since about 100 of the remaining 200 Sonderkommando prisoners were taken away already at the end of November 1944 (see Friedler et al., Zeugen aus der Todeszone, p. 292). 

Another Hungarian Jew taking part in the demolition of the crematoria was Sandor Ecker. He testified on 26 August 1945 in Budapest. His description of the extermination site is slightly less detailed on the extermination technique than the previous but likewise reliable.

"From the very beginning of my Auschwitz stay I worked as a fitter and plumber. At the beginning of October one of the crematoria was to be blown up with hand grenades. The partisans were already close by then, and they were in close touch with the prisoners who acquired explosives from them. Unfortunately we Hungarians could not take part in the uprising. We were considered to be unreliable, as we had fought the Russians, even though the labour servicemen were craving a Russian victory. The members of the Sonderkommando knew that they were to be executed, so that they would not be able to tell anything about what they had seen in the gas chamber and crematoria. Therefore they attempted to blow up the crematorium, to break through the barbed wire and to join the partisans waiting in the neighbouring woods. The crematorium was destroyed by the explosion, but unfortunately 99 percent of the Sonderkommando was killed. Next week eight of us tradesmen were assigned to the crematoria and first we dismantled the destroyed crematorium. When we finished, we were ordered to dismantle the other three crematoria as well. We dismantled iron doors, water pipes and ventilating devices. I saw the gas chamber with my own eyes. It was in a cellar. It was a huge hall with numbered hangers all around along the walls. Large placards in several languages called the attention of those entering to the fact that this was a bath and disinfection hall where everybody was obliged to hang his or her clothes on one of the numbered hangers, and to keep the number in mind so as to easily find it after bath. After getting undressed the victims went nude into the gas chamber, which looked like a shower bathroom. The shower heads were fixed up on the ceiling by nails, but there were no water pipes. There was a shaft driven through the roof to the room through which the cellophane pellets containing the poison gas were thrown in. Once I talked to a man of the Sonderkommando who worked in the gas chamber. He told me that death came within six to eight minutes. During this time the victims had to suffer pains so great that they tore open their throats and bit their fingers. Corpses were found lacking fingers, since the victims had unconsciously bitten them off before dieing. The commander of the crematorium observed this through a peep-hole, waiting for the moment of death. The ventilation was turned on to pump the gas out. The corpses were handed over to prisoners who pulled out golden teeth and carried the dead bodies to an elevator that went up to the crematorium. In the furnace room there were five ovens. The corpses were slid into the ovens on rolls. Aryans were not gassed, but shot in the nape of the neck. This type of execution took place also in the rooms of the crematorium."
(Sandor Ecker on 26 August 1945 in Budapest, DEGOB protocol 2114)

Finally, Regina Plucer was another prisoner assigned to the demolition detail taking down the crematoria. She was interrogated on 30 May 1945 by British investigators for the Belsen trial. Her detailed and still comparably reliable testimony includes a few but not too severe misconceptions. She was confused about the number of gas introduction columns of the gas chamber (she stated ten, while there were only four) and obviously mistook and counted the concrete pillars to support the roof for the gas introduction. The British investigators also drew a map based on her deposition, which displays some disorientation, namely the gas chamber is not shown perpendicular to the undressing room and the elevator ends up on the wrong side in the furnace room.

"2. In October 1944 I was employed at Auschwitz with a party detailed to dismantle the No. 1 gas chamber and crematorium. This dismantling was apparently ordered because of the nearness of the advancing Russian army.

The work was done very carefully, various stones had to be stacked separately, and doors, window-frames, fittings etc. were given numbers so that I gathered that the building was to be re-assembled elsewhere. During these operations I had access to all the departments of the building and I am able to describe the interior in a general way. The actual method of operating the gas chamber and crematorium was told to me by members of the Sonderkommando (special party employed in the building when it was in use).

3. The building was surrounded by a wire fence over which blankets were draped apparently to screen the events which took place therein from outside view. A garden also surrounded it which was of considerable depth and again assisted in the screening process. The building itself consisted of basement, ground floor and attic. In the basement was the undressing room access to which from the outside was gained either by a flight of steps or a chute. The chute was used for sick and weak people but often when lorry-loads of victims came they were tipped directly from the lorry down the chute. The capacity of the undressing-room was that I estimate it would hold about three thousand persons. The second room in the basement was the gas chamber itself holding about a thousand persons.

4. The ground floor was divided into two compartments. The first was the doctors' experimenting and vivisection room. In this room I saw a large glass container filled with some liquid in which were apparently human organs. I took these to be brains and spleen. The second compartment which was immediately above the undressing room, contained 15 separate ovens which were in line. They were about six feet long, six feet high and three feet wide. The corpses were conveyed from the gas chamber by means of an elevator to this room, where they were loaded into trolleys which ran in rails parallel with the ovens. The trolleys would be unloaded and the bodies placed in various ovens. The fuel used in the ovens was wood.

5. Immediately above the gas chamber was part of the garden and from here ten small chimneys led down into the gas chamber. Each one showed above the earth about a foot and was about a foot square. Each was fitted with a lid. Into these chimneys were put green coloured powders and some chemical action would take place and the gas developed would descend into the gas chamber. The attic was used as living quaters by members of the Sonderkommando. Up to the time that the building was dismantled Obersturmfuhrer MOLL was in charge."

(Deposition of Regina Plucer of 30 May 1945; thanks to the Lesser Bunny for making this source available)

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