How Machinery Of Death Broke Down

January 29, 1995|By DAN FESPERMAN

Oswiecim, Poland -- In the executive suites of Nazi genocide, it must have seemed in 1942 that every angle was covered. Requisitioners and clerks were scribbling busily, architects and chemists were smoothing operational kinks, logistical wizards were plotting train schedules and peak-load capacities, and careful lawyers were drawing up contracts for the world's largest industrial incinerator.

The payoff for this planning hit its stride in the spring of '44 at

Auschwitz-Birkenau, when the smoke of 12,000 bodies per day floated darkly from the chimneys.

Yet in the end a bureaucratic oversight would prove costly: No one ever planned what to do if the death camps ran out of time. It was always figured they'd run out of bodies first.

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. It was the first in a series of anniversaries leading up to a commemoration of the end of World War II.

As Allied forces overran the camps, the machinery of death broke down. Caught at last without a coherent plan, Nazi executioners fell back on more rudimentary techniques through a series of forced evacuation marches -- death by exhaustion, by exposure, by starvation, by drowning, by shooting -- inexact means that left behind enough survivors, documents and equipment to tell the world exactly what had happened in the camps.

This blind spot was evident from the beginning. At the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, top Nazi and SS bureaucrats gathered at a lakeside villa in southwest Berlin to decide how to best carry out Hitler's Final Solution to the "Jewish problem." Not once do the minutes of the conference mention contingency plans for dismantling or rapidly evacuating the camps, much less any advice on how best to destroy the evidence.

"There was no need," said one Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "Then they were absolutely positive they were going to win the war."

And who could blame them, he said. At the time the rest of the world thought the same thing. The idea of possible failure wouldn't come until much later, and by then a sort of panic had begun to set in among those who ran the camps.

"For about two months before the liberation of the camp we heard gunfire. We knew the Russians were on their way," said Menashe Lorenzi, 60, a Hungarian Jew who was among the few thousand survivors who remained at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp until its final day. "The atmosphere at the camp changed. They stopped bringing transports. The Germans also blew up the other crematoria." There is little documentary evidence reflecting the state of mind of the Nazi command on these matters, historians say. But earlier orders had already set the tone.

In late 1943, Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS, reacted to a New York rabbi's public accusation of mass murder by sending a letter to the Gestapo chief, Heinrich Mueller, in which he emphasized the importance of burning and destroying all human remains.

For the same reason, the members of the so-called Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners who led victims into the gas chamber and then collected their belongings, were regularly executed themselves to keep the surviving witnesses to a minimum. Death camp commandants were ordered not to keep exact records of executions, although records of train arrivals and camp registrations later provided rough estimates of the numbers killed straight off the trains.

But at the first concentration camp to fall to the Allies -- Majdanek, in the fall of 1944 -- it was already clear that the last-minute efforts were not going to succeed.

The Soviet armies reported that they'd found evidence that perhaps 1.5 million people had been executed there.

"The Soviets invited foreign correspondents in," Professor Bauer said. "The stories were not believed in the West, but they were published."

This seems to have prompted a reaction from Hitler, who in the fall of 1944 emphasized to subordinates that "enemies of the Reich" should not be allowed to fall into the hands of the advancing Allies.

The word was passed down to the camps. Professor Bauer said that a written order from early 1945 by the commandant of a concentration camp on the Baltic Sea stated: "Under no circumstances should any prisoners fall into the hands of the Russians." At this camp, Mr. Bauer said, guards later "killed large numbers by driving them into the sea."

Meanwhile, operations at Auschwitz-Birkenau were still winding down. Historians figure that the last gassing came on or about Oct. 28.

"I felt the changes," said Jehoshua Robert Buchler, 64, a Czech Jew who now now lives in Israel. "Every day there were less prisoners in the camp. Every day they were taking something out of the camp -- materials and machinery."

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