The last of the Auschwitz survivors to revisit the extermination machine in Poland have left. Now very old men and women, they returned to mark the 75th anniversary of the infamous death camp’s liberation last Monday.
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Memory inflicts no greater pain than is theirs. The day they were freed in 1945 was both an end and a beginning: the end of terror and the beginning of remembering.
And one of the things to remember is not just the vast horror of the Holocaust but the fact that it was conducted as an industrial enterprise by managers and bureaucrats with a chillingly impersonal attention to detail. Adolf Hitler’s demonic program of genocide would have come to nothing without his enablers.
On Feb. 6, 1944, SS Obergruppenfuhrer Oswald Pohl, who headed the part of the Nazi terror machine given the bland name Office of Economic Administration, wrote a report with the title “Utilization of Textiles: Used Clothes from the Jewish Resettlement.”
He complained about the condition of “material so far obtained from the Jewish resettlement in the camps in the Lublin area, and Auschwitz.” Much of it, “particularly for men, is much diminished by the fact that many clothes are rags…”
The SS controlled the distribution of the clothes and possessions taken from the Jews as they arrived at the death camps. Every train delivering prisoners left on its return journey loaded with those possessions. Items of value, like jewelry, gold, including gold teeth, and foreign currency mostly ended up in the Reichsbank in Berlin, their worth carefully noted in ledgers. The clothes, if at all serviceable, went to the “foreign workers” who were part of a gigantic program of forced labor producing weapons and munitions.
That program was designed and overseen with clinical efficiency by Albert Speer, the Reichsminister for Armaments and Munitions,
Speer made only one visit to a concentration camp. In March 1943 he was given a carefully restricted tour of Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria. This camp was notorious for its stone quarry, where prisoners worked under brutal conditions and were machine-gunned if they became weak. Speer’s tour lasted only 45 minutes. He was spared the sight of actual prisoners, but he was shocked by the quality of the buildings. They were, he said, too lavish.
Five days later he wrote to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, complaining that he needed all the steel, wood and manpower he could get for building arms factories: “We must therefore carry out a new planning program for construction within the concentration camps… [that] will require a minimum of material and labor. The answer is an immediate switch to primitive construction methods.”
Pohl, not Himmler, replied with a furious reminder that Speer had himself signed off on all the plans for building the camps and said a switch to primitive materials was “unrealistic.” He continued: “…we have 160,000 prisoners and are constantly battling against epidemics and a disproportionately high death rate, both largely due to impossible sanitary conditions.”
Of all those involved in the Nazi terror machine, Albert Speer was, literally, the most elusive—elusive because he escaped a death sentence at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, and elusive because until the end of his life (he died in 1981) he was never able to display any guilt about his role as an accomplice to genocide.
Late in 1943, when Speer had brought about a dramatic revival of German arms production, the issue of Hitler’s succession was being discussed quietly by his generals and some lower level ministers.