The second provisional gas chamber in Auschwitz II – Birkenau is built; another farmhouse known as the “White House” or Bunker II serves this purpose. In its four chambers, it is possible to kill up to 1,200 people at once. The cadavers are buried in the adjacent meadow. The pits are 20 metres long, 5 metres wide, and 2.5 metres deep. Up to 1,000 bodies can fit into one pit. Prisoners are forced to straighten them into layers.
The deported who pass selection and are admitted into the camp are welcomed by the following speech: “You have not arrived to a sanatorium, but to a German concentration camp, and the only way out is through the smoke stacks of the crematorium. If any of you disagree with this, you are free to run into the barbed wire. If there are any Jews in the transport, you have the right to live two weeks, any priests a month, all others three months.”
Cans with Zyklon B are supplied to the gas chambers in an ambulance with the emblem of the Red Cross.
Later, wooden houses are built near the gas chambers for the victims to undress in. Up until then, they must place their clothing on the ground in front of the chambers. Also, a narrow-gauge railway is built from Bunker II to the pits, and the cadavers are transported on it on wagons that are 2 metres wide and 3 metres long.
The tactics also change, as members of the Sonderkommando are sent to mingle among the arriving victims in order to calm them down before their departure for death. They are severely warned that if they tell the victims the truth, they will be immediately shot. If any of the sentenced starts to panic, the members of Sonderkommando must take them aside, hold them, and the prepared SS officer shoots them with a small-calibre firearm.
Sometimes, a member of the Sonderkommando finds one of their relatives among the dead. They either mentally withstand it, or do not, in which case they are immediately shot. Shortly after, they are replaced with another, usually young and strong inmate
July to September
Thanks to the swampy environment and to the high temperatures, typhus becomes rampant in both the Auschwitz I and the Auschwitz II – Birkenau camps. Perhaps the epidemic is also fuelled by the mass graves in Birkenau; the bodies in the pits are decomposing, the ground
bursts and an incredibly foetid red-black mass oozes from it. There are swarms of flies everywhere. The decomposing bodies are also contaminating the groundwater, which brings in the complaints of people living in the environs of the camp.
Five heavy-duty dump trucks are purchased for the transport of selected people from transports or amongst the prisoners. Thus, the weaker and the ill no longer need to walk to the gas chambers on foot, but are driven there.
According to the journals of Dr. Kremer, those women who were deemed to be too infirm are gassed. They well know what awaits them; they cry and beg for mercy. They are, however, brutally driven into the gas chamber. The dogs of the SS officers tear pieces of meat from the naked women. The doctor writes into his journal that this is the worst of all horrors, and that they are in what he dubs anus mundi. One can also read in this journal that Dante’s Inferno is a mere comedy in comparison.
The commandant of the camp, Höss, travels with Hössler to visit the camp in Chełm to see how they cremate the dead, as the problem with the interred dead is unbearable. The unbearable smell wafts everywhere; a blackish liquid bursts from the ground, and a new epidemic is imminent not only in the camp, but also in its environs.
Under the command of Hössler, the excavation and burning of the bodies buried in the mass graves begins. A special commando that must gradually excavate more than 107 thousand variously decomposed male, female, and child remains is established. Often, pieces of bodies or limbs fall off. Those prisoners who cannot stomach this horrible work are shot on site. They are often stuck up to their waist in foetid muck. Work continues in two shifts 24 hours a day; at night, the site is illuminated by lamp columns.
Work continues up into November, when the last cadavers are cremated. Out of the 1,400 prisoners forced to do this sorrowful task, 1,100 of them are murdered during it and the remaining 300 after the task is finished. Only a handful survive, those who escaped to other commandos at the beginning of the action with the help of friends. Some survive the war and live to tell about this task.
First, the cadavers are cremated in huge pyramids created by interlacing frets and bodies. One pyramid consists of around two thousand bodies. The Nazis mock the situation, calling it a “nature theatre”. Eventually, large open-air pits are dug out and the bodies are cremated in them. The fires burn day and night; the smell is horrible, and no one can escape it. Not even the people living in the surroundings. The four open-air pits are 30 metres long, seven metres wide, and three metres deep.
Those who were just killed are liquidated in the same manner. Their bodies are transported from the gas chambers to the pits, where they are cremated.
Fragments of bone that have not burnt must be crushed by the prisoners. Then, the ash is taken away by lorries to the Sola River, where it is dumped
A transport with 2,500 Polish Jews arrives, of which 2,094 people do not pass through selection. Some of them go directly to the gas chambers in Bunker II, others, however, must wait for death in the dressing rooms until the next day. They hear the cries of the executed throughout the night, and experience pure terror until 11:00 a.m. Then, they, too, die the same agonising death.
The Sonderkommandos of Bunker I and Bunker II are gassed in Crematorium I of the Auschwitz I camp. This is about 300 men. Afterwards, their bodies are cremated in the crematorium.
That evening, twenty-seven-year-old SS-Hauptscharführer Otto Moll chooses 300 Jewish men of the transport from the Mlawa ghetto that just arrived, and names them as the new Sonderkommando. He also replaces SS-Obersturmführer Franz Hössler in the position of commandant of Bunker II.
One of the prisoners new to the Sonderkommando is twenty-year-old Shlomo Dragon, as well as his twenty-three-year-old brother Abraham Dragon and twenty-one-year-old Eliezer Eisenschmidt. After the first day, Shlomo attempts suicide, Eliezer sometime later by taking
20 tablets of Luminal, which are sleeping pills. All three survive the camps and the war, and later provide valuable witness testimonies.
Another chosen inmate is thirty-two-year-old Lejb Langfuss, who becomes the chronicler and main persona of the Sonderkommando. He clings to his faith, and also helps the other members of the commando to deal with their traumas. On 26 November 1944, he is chosen to transfer to another camp, which means that he is probably murdered shortly afterwards along with another hundred members of the Sonderkommando.
Thirty-three-year-old Salmen Gradowski also joins the commando probably on this day, and he also becomes a significant member of the group and chronicler. He is killed during an uprising on 7 October 1944.
The Sonderkommando is housed in the isolated Block 2 in the BIb sector.
March to June
It is decided that the now useless Bunker I shall be demolished. The dressing rooms near Bunker II shall also be torn down, but the building itself shall remain idly standing. It shall, once again, make its mark in the history of wiping out the Jews, and that one year later.
About 300 members of the Sonderkommando from the Bunkers are already trained and are therefore vital for the process of mass murder; thus, they shall not be annihilated. On the contrary, they are gradually transferred to the newly opened crematoriums. They are treated much better than common inmates are, and enjoy certain privileges. But all of them know that as unwanted witnesses, they, too, shall be eventually murdered.
A new railway ramp is built, to be located inside of the Auschwitz II – Birkenau camp and which transports the victims de facto almost all of the way to the courtyard of Crematoriums II and III. The preparations of murdering a large number of Hungarian Jews are culminating.
All of them are to be liquidated, and because there are more than 750 thousand, all available camp facilities meant for mass murders are to be used.
Crematoriums II and III operate with only occasional cutbacks from the end of 1943, whereas Crematoriums IV and V are not in operation at all. As a matter of fact, Crematorium IV has been defunct basically since its launching. They are now revised and repaired, including the doors leading to the chambers by the ovens.
On this occasion, the problem of how to kill smaller groups of victims by gassing is solved, as another partition is built in Crematorium V, dividing the smallest gas chamber into two parts. Thus, a small gas chamber with an area of 12 metres squared is established, where a smaller group of people can be killed without wasting gas.
Testimonies about the operations of Crematorium IV diverge, either it launches operations for only a very short time, or it is in such bad shape that it can no longer be repaired and remains to be shut down. In any case, it serves as the quarters for some of the Sonderkommando, and thus logically does not fulfil its original purpose.
Since the ovens of Crematoriums IV and V cannot endure the high performancz in the long run, and their throughput is low, open-air pits for the cremation of cadavers are dug out near Bunker II and behind Crematorium V.
Bunker II is repaired and wooden shacks for undressing victims near it are again constructed. At this point of the camp’s existence, it is sometimes referred to as Bunker V. It is not clear how many wooden buildings for the undressing of victims stand by Bunker II at any given time. Testimonies diverge in the number of two or three. It is possible that in the first and second phases of the operations of Bunker II, the number of buildings differs.
Höss names Otto Moll as the overseer of all crematoriums, and Voss remains the head of Crematoriums IV and V. Höss finds the fanatic and brutal Moll to be more appropriate for the planned, monstrous act than the more moderate Voss.
Moll immediately checks the states of all of the crematoriums and orders them to be repaired. Besides this, he also has the defunct Bunker II be again prepared for use, and the undressing shacks are again built nearby it. He orders four open-air pits for cremating be dug out behind Bunker II.
Since it is soon evident that the crematoriums cannot maintain the pace of cremating the cadavers, and because Crematorium IV is non-functioning and Crematorium V has damaged ovens and thus has a lower performance, Moll has two large open-air pits of about 50 metres in length, eight metres wide, and two metres deep dug out. He has small channels and a sump for the collection of the human fat that will be poured over the cadavers. This improvement should increase the speed of body cremation.
The bottom of the pit consists of old frets, wood, wood shavings, sawdust, and dry fir branches, and prisoners place up to 400 bodies of men, women, and children on top of this layer. The bodies are covered with another layer of flammable material. Thus, up to 1,200 cadavers can be placed into the pit. Old rags, soaking wet with flammable fluids, are stuck between the bodies. Everything is then set on fire with a torch. After the fire flares up, human fat drips into the sump, and it is used to pour over the entire pyramid. A bit later, another several hundred bodies are thrown into the fire.
In order to prevent the burning pits to be seen, a camouflage fence of weaved branches was built around it. Moll had benches and tables set up in front of Crematorium V for undressing. The dressing room inside of the building is insufficient and using it would slow down the murdering process.