The liberation of Auschwitz, 75 years on: what happened and how do we remember the Holocaust?

Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, historian Nikolaus Wachsmann talks to Matt Elton about the hidden stories of the Holocaust

Hungarian Jews arrive at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944

Matt Elton: Are there aspects of Auschwitz that you think deserve greater attention?

Nikolaus Wachsmann: Yes, there are many. Those who are familiar with Auschwitz might think that there is not much more for us to learn or to discover when, actually, there is plenty more for us to find out and to explore.

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Auschwitz was the most deadly site of the Holocaust. There was no other place in Nazi-controlled Europe in which more Jews were murdered – around one million during the Second World War. So Auschwitz must hold an absolutely central place in the commemoration of the Holocaust. At the same time, Auschwitz had other functions, too, from terror against political suspects and prisoners of war to gruesome human experiments and the murder of Sinti and Roma (‘Gypsies’).

The multiple functions are already clear when we look at the camp’s origins. It was not set up as a Holocaust death camp: it was set up in spring and summer 1940 as the first camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, to crush the Polish resistance. For the first phase of the camp, until autumn 1941, the vast majority of inmates and the vast majority of dead in Auschwitz were Polish political prisoners. And even when, in 1942, Auschwitz was transformed into a Holocaust death camp, with mass deportations of Jews from across Europe – the great majority of whom were sent straight to their deaths in the gas chambers of Birkenau – Auschwitz still had other functions, too.

One of the most important for the SS was the murderous slave labour of prisoners for the German war effort. That included prisoners held at Auschwitz main camp, not far from the Birkenau compound, with the cynical inscription ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ [‘Labour Liberates’] above its gate. But slave labour went far, far beyond this site. The Auschwitz SS set up more than three dozen satellite camps for Jews and non-Jews, often many, many miles away from Auschwitz-Birkenau, near construction sites, factories, farms and coal mines. Camps such as Blechhammer, Fürstengrube and Neu-Dachs, in which many thousands of prisoners suffered, are widely forgotten today and should be part of the commemoration of Auschwitz.

A map displaying the system of SS concentration camps in German-occupied Europe
The system of SS concentration camps in German-occupied Europe extended from Belgium to near the Soviet border; the death camps were all sited within the modern-day borders of Poland, invaded by Germany in September 1939. (Map designed for BBC History Magazine)

And what has been overlooked about the Holocaust more generally?

Sometimes Auschwitz is seen as synonymous with the Holocaust but, just as there’s more to Auschwitz than its role as a Holocaust death camp, there’s also more to the Holocaust than Auschwitz. Although Auschwitz was the most lethal site, the majority of the approximately six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust died elsewhere. Up to two million victims died in out-and-out death camps such as Treblinka, which is far less present in our memory of the Holocaust.

Similar to Auschwitz, Treblinka was located in Nazi-occupied Poland, but in contrast with Auschwitz it had only a single function: to kill as many Jews as possible, as quickly as possible. There were no big labour satellite camps or factories at Treblinka, and prisoners weren’t used in major construction projects. Camps such as Treblinka were only about mass death, mass killing, mass extermination. According to some estimates, almost as many Jews were murdered in Treblinka as were murdered in Auschwitz. In fact, in 1942 – the most lethal year of the Holocaust – far more Jews were murdered in Treblinka than in Auschwitz. And yet the memory of Treblinka remains very much in the shadow of Auschwitz.

Just as there’s more to Auschwitz than its role as a death camp, there is more to the Holocaust than Auschwitz

There are at least two reasons why that’s the case. First, in contrast to Auschwitz, the murderous infrastructure in Treblinka was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis as the war turned against them, so very little remained. Recent archaeological digs have unearthed some of the material remains of mass extermination there. But it’s a very different picture from Auschwitz, where large parts of the construction of death remained behind and can be seen by visitors today.

Another key difference is that there were hardly any survivors of out-and-out death camps – at Treblinka, no more than 100 Jews survived the war. So there are far fewer voices from those death camps than from former Auschwitz prisoners, tens of thousands of whom were deported towards the end of the war into what remained of the Third Reich. Although huge numbers of Auschwitz inmates died on these death marches, on death transports or in camps such as Buchenwald or Dachau, others survived and spoke out after the war. So we have far more testimony from survivors of Auschwitz than we have from survivors of Treblinka.

The Treblinka memorial in eastern Poland
A circle of 17,000 granite shards stands at the site of the Treblinka death camp in eastern Poland, a symbolic cemetery commemorating the 800,000 or more people murdered here. (Image by Bridgeman)

How integral were the camps to the Holocaust? What proportion of its victims were killed in other ways?

Broadly speaking, about half of the estimated six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust were killed in death camps with poison gas. This was in Auschwitz and Majdanek – concentration and death camps – and in the out-and-out death camps Treblinka, Bełżec, Chełmno and Sobibór.

But the Nazis used a whole range of other killing methods as well. They began using gas only because they believed that gassing their victims would be more humane – more humane for the perpetrators, that is, rather than for the victims.

We have to be clear that it would be a mistake to think, as is sometimes said, that murder in the death camps was somehow automatic, smooth or factory-like. It was anything but. For the Jews, it meant unimaginable suffering. They arrived, exhausted and starved, on deportation trains; they were confused – they didn’t know where they were – and they were deadly frightened. They were forced towards the gas chambers to undress, and then experienced unspeakable pain as they were crammed into the gas chambers. This was anything but an impersonal process.

Nonetheless, for the perpetrators, for the SS, killing with gas certainly proved less stressful than shooting women, children and old people, and having their blood splattered on uniforms – which occurred elsewhere in occupied eastern Europe. This is what happened during the ‘Holocaust by bullets’, as it’s sometimes called. Nazi killing squads would roam all across eastern Europe – occupied Poland, the Baltic states and the Soviet Union – committing bloodbaths in forests, in fields, in ditches. One reason that knowledge of the Holocaust spread reasonably quickly was that these bloodbaths were impossible to keep completely secret. Local populations saw what happened, and German soldiers took photos or told people what they’d seen during home leave. This is one way in which knowledge about the Holocaust, at least in broad outlines, spread.

How difficult is it to research such a sensitive, complex subject as the Holocaust?

If you try to write the history of the Holocaust, you are basically looking at a huge puzzle in which the different elements are splintered off. Many are missing; others are distributed across dozens and dozens of archives in many countries. There are lots of original documents from the time, but their trails lead in a huge number of different directions.

One other important source comes from the postwar trials, in Poland, in Germany (before Allied military courts and German criminal courts), and elsewhere in liberated Europe. These trials were very important for bringing out the perpetrators’ voices. Of course, perpetrators generally lied or hid behind half-truths but, nonetheless, they rarely spoke outside the courtroom or outside judicial investigations. Read against the grain, these testimonies can tell us a lot.

Then there are the invaluable memoirs of Jewish survivors. There are many testimonies dating back as far as the first weeks and months after liberation. So the idea that there was initially a collective silence is quite wrong. Nonetheless, it’s also clear that the volume of testimony has grown enormously in recent decades: the USC Shoah Foundation’s collection, for instance, now includes tens of thousands of video testimonies from Holocaust survivors and witnesses. So there’s a lot of material to go through, to try to put together some of these puzzle pieces and create a whole picture of the Holocaust.

Engineer Max Faust shows SS commander Heinrich Himmler plans for part of the Auschwitz complex in 1942
Engineer Max Faust shows SS commander Heinrich Himmler plans for part of the Auschwitz complex in 1942. (Image by AKG Images)

Which sources have proved particularly revelatory?

One source I’m particularly interested in for my current research comprises the files of the SS construction agency that was in charge of building Auschwitz. Many of these files, which must contain well over 100,000 pages of documents, were captured by the Red Army after the war, but have only really been explored by historians since the end of the Cold War.

It’s an absolutely fascinating source, not least because it counters the image that people often have of Auschwitz as having followed some clear masterplan. What you see instead from the construction files is just how much chaos and confusion there was, and how often plans drawn up by the SS bore little resemblance to what was actually built. Priorities kept changing because planners were thwarted by various obstacles: bad weather, supply shortages and, most critically, by the murder of the slave-labour force. All of that meant that there was continual improvisation, flux and motion. Auschwitz certainly didn’t follow a straight path into the abyss.

Are there victims of the Nazi concentration camps whose stories are yet to be fully told?

There are still many forgotten victims of the camps. Let me highlight just two of these groups.

The first comprised people whom the Nazis considered social outsiders. Before the war, the Nazi regime vowed to ‘cleanse’ the national community, as they called it, of all deviant behaviour and social outsiders – anyone who was seen as standing outside this community. That included small-time criminals, petty thieves, prostitutes, homeless people, beggars and others who somehow didn’t fit into the new Germany that the Nazis were building through terror and force.

It is a mistake to think that murder in the death camps was smooth or automatic

Those people were dragged in their thousands to concentration camps, and marked with black and green triangles indicating supposedly ‘asocial’ and ‘criminal’ prisoners. They actually made up the largest group of prisoners when war broke out in 1939, but these mostly German and Austrian social outsiders have been completely forgotten about since the war. They were rarely interviewed or interrogated in courtrooms, and hardly ever wrote down their own experiences or published them, so there are few testimonies. And, of course, they continued to be marginalised in society after the war, which means that, to this day, they haven’t really officially been fully recognised as victims of the regime. As we speak, there are moves afoot in the German parliament to recognise these ‘social outsiders’ as Nazi victims, and to stress that nobody was held in a concentration camp in a just or right way.

Another forgotten group of victims one could mention are eastern European political prisoners: Polish political resisters, Ukrainian slave labourers, Russian prisoners of war and others. They made up a large proportion of the prisoner population of the concentration camps during the war but have faded from view since. The reasons why that happened are often linked to the Cold War: if they survived the Second World War in the west, these prisoners were mostly repatriated, often against their will, behind the Iron Curtain. So their voices were not heard in the west, and their voices often weren’t heard in their own countries, either.

In the Soviet Union, for instance, former prisoners of the Nazi regime often met with suspicion – they were often seen as potential traitors. And in Poland, members of the nationalist resistance against the Nazis often didn’t fit the postwar narrative that was constructed by the new Communist regime there. Think, for example, of a prisoner such as Witold Pilecki, a captain in the Polish army who let himself be arrested by the Nazis during the war and then became a significant figure in the underground prisoner resistance in Auschwitz. He escaped from Auschwitz in 1943, and wrote an important early account of Nazi terror in that camp – only then, after the war, to be executed by the new Polish regime for anti-communist resistance. Such voices are only now being amplified.

Polish army officer and resistance fighter Witold Pilecki
Polish army officer and resistance fighter Witold Pilecki. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Which stories of individual people stood out for you?

The first thing to say is that there was no typical prisoner experience. Each story is different – each story is unique in its own way, and that’s one of the great difficulties for historians: which of these stories should we tell, and which do we leave out of our narrative? But I will mention two prisoners whose stories illuminate wider aspects of a camp such as Auschwitz, and which are not necessarily known to a wider public.

The first is the story of a Polish Jew named Zalman Gradowski, who was deported from a ghetto in late 1942 as SS and police forces combed occupied Poland in their efforts to murder the remaining Jews. His wife, his mother and his sisters were all murdered as ‘unfit for work’ on arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, together with hundreds of other Polish Jews on their train. But Gradowski was picked out – ‘selected’, as the SS called it – for slave labour, and sent to the dreaded Sonderkommando (‘special unit’).

As part of the Sonderkommando, he was among the prisoners who had to assist in the murder of others at the gas chambers. In the months that followed, Gradowski wrote secret notes about what he saw, and about his own fate. Those notes were later buried in a bottle near one of the crematoria, and were discovered soon after liberation in 1945.

They afford an extraordinary glimpse into what he called “the heart of hell”. He chronicled the procession of the doomed Jews, their murder in the gas chambers, their corpses being burned, and their ashes being carted away. The notes also show the efforts by prisoners to resist. Such writing is certainly a form of resistance, and Gradowski was clearly driven by the desire to prevent the victims from being erased from history. He also recorded acts of defiance by Jews just before their deaths at the gas chambers until, after the uprising of the Sonderkommandos in October 1944, his own voice falls silent. He was most likely killed during that uprising. I think his writings, later published in book form as From the Heart of Hell, really deserve a wider audience.

The other fate to highlight is that of a prisoner who is almost completely unknown: Otto Küsel. Of the estimated 1.3 million men, women and children forced into Auschwitz-Birkenau, Küsel was prisoner number 2 – the second to be registered in Auschwitz, in May 1940, among the first small group of prisoners to arrive. These were German-speaking prisoners, social outsiders who had already been in other concentration camps. Küsel was a peddler from Berlin who had racked up some petty criminal offences, but was certainly no serious criminal. He was selected to be a Kapo (overseer) – a prisoner appointed by the SS to supervise others at work or in barracks, or placed in an administrative position so that the SS could rule big camps with a relatively small number of staff.

After the war, these Kapos were often described as murderous, violent predators, as bad as or worse than the SS. I think that’s true for some, absolutely, but it’s not true of men such as Otto Küsel. From day one, he consistently helped other inmates. There are testimonies from other prisoners who, from the moment they arrived, were helped by Küsel. He gained an important administrative position in the so-called ‘labour service’ within the camp, and did his best to support others. He managed to maintain his dignity and his compassion.

In late December 1942, Küsel escaped with three Polish prisoners and joined the underground resistance against the Nazi occupation. He was recaptured and taken back to Auschwitz, where he was tortured for months but survived. He later testified in numerous trials, and the gratitude of many Polish prisoners led to him being decorated by the Polish state after the war for his bravery. But he died in complete obscurity and, outside a small circle of historians and those who have read a lot about the camp, few have ever heard of Otto Küsel, prisoner number 2 of Auschwitz. He is an example of a prisoner who wasn’t corrupted by the SS – a Kapo who held onto his humanity right the way through.

How do we explain why people who knew about the killings of the Holocaust didn’t do anything to stop them?

Immediately after the war, the general alibi of many Germans was that they didn’t know, and hadn’t known, about the crimes of the Nazi regime. But scholars now take a very different view.

The actual circle of Holocaust perpetrators was much wider than was assumed in the first decades after the war. Recent estimates by German scholars put the number of Germans and Austrians who were involved in one way or another – not just SS men, but army officers, legal officials, businessmen, bureaucrats, diplomats, people working for the railway or the police, and so on – at between 200,000 and 250,000.

Ordinary Germans focused on their own lives. They were often largely indifferent to the fate of Jews

That’s a huge figure. One reason why mass murder became something of an open secret is that news spread to ordinary Germans via those who witnessed or heard about massacres or participated in them in one way or another. Ordinary Germans also watched deportations of local Jews, and bought property belonging to their former Jewish neighbours. So the postwar claim by many ordinary Germans that there had been complete ignorance is an absolute myth. That’s not to say that the Holocaust death camps become common knowledge, but there certainly was widespread knowledge among ordinary Germans about the mass shootings.

Auschwitz survivors and other visitors walk beneath the infamous sign above the camp gates
Auschwitz survivors and other visitors walk beneath the infamous sign above the camp gates. (Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The reactions varied at the time. The most common was probably indifference. People frankly didn’t care a whole lot. One former German soldier, who saw SS men and prisoners at Auschwitz as he was passing through, was interviewed after the war and asked how he felt about it. And he said, if I remember correctly: “I didn’t think much at all.” That was true for many ordinary Germans, who focused instead on their own lives, on the fate of their fathers or brothers at the front, on their fears of Allied bombings, and on the course of the war. They were often indifferent to the fate of Jews.

How can we explain the continued existence of Holocaust denial today?

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, with growing numbers of assaults on and harassment of Jews, and of attacks on Jewish cemeteries. And anti-Semitism has long been fuelled by conspiracy theories, such as Holocaust denial. Denial is not new: deniers long had their pseudo-journals, for example. But in the past, the reach was more limited. It wasn’t so easy for these pernicious lies to circulate. Now, because of the internet, all it takes is a mouse click. There are countless websites spreading lies and spreading hate.

It reaches further than you might think, too. A few weeks ago, I was on Amazon looking for a book, and the ‘customers who bought this item also bought’ box appeared. I was shocked to see that one of the books being recommended was by a known Holocaust denier, and that when I looked further there were a number of similar such books for sale. So the web has certainly fuelled the spread of Holocaust denial.

Was the Holocaust and the camp system historically unique, do you think?

Though the Holocaust shares features with other genocides, its all-encompassing nature also makes it stand apart. Ultimately, the Nazi regime wanted to reach every Jew, everywhere, and murder them. At the 1942 Wannsee conference, where it coordinated the Holocaust in Europe, the regime included among its targets 330,000 Jews in England, which was far beyond its reach at that point. As historian Richard Evans put it, the Holocaust was unique because it was not restricted by time or space.

Looking more closely at the Nazi camps, Auschwitz was singular and unprecedented. No Jewish woman, man or child deported to the camp was meant to survive. Young, old, weak and sick Jews were murdered on arrival in specially constructed gas chambers, while the others were selected by the SS for ‘destruction through labour’. As a vast hybrid slave-labour and death camp, Auschwitz has no equal. That is one reason why Auschwitz holds such a central place in our collective memory, with the UN designating 27 January – the day the camp was liberated in 1945 – as the Intentional Day of Commemoration of the Holocaust, a universal warning of the dangers of hatred and racism.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, how should we remember the Holocaust, and what problems are inherent in trying to memorialise this kind of event?

As I said before, people often assume that we already know everything about Auschwitz – but there is actually far more ignorance than one might think. A recent study in the US, for example, found that two-thirds of millennials weren’t even able to say what Auschwitz was. And even among those people who have heard of it, there are a great number of myths and very basic misconceptions about the camp.

Auschwitz has been used to make all sorts of partisan political points, and it’s become somewhat divorced from its historical reality: kind of far away, in a sense – a symbolic site with almost infinite meanings. We must try to avoid seeing the camp only as a remote monument, and also remember the lived experiences of prisoners, of perpetrators and of onlookers, looking at the historical actuality of living and dying in Auschwitz. That will make it more recognisable and, hopefully, will help us to more clearly understand and commemorate the crimes that were committed there.

Nikolaus Wachsmann is professor of modern European history at Birkbeck University of London. His books include KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (Little, Brown, 2015)

Programmes in the BBC Holocaust Season, airing from January, include My Family, the Holocaust and Me (BBC One) and Belsen Remembered (BBC Two)

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This article was first published in issue 20 of BBC World Histories Magazine