The large brick building at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, which was called “die zentrale Sauna,” is shown in the photo above. I previously blogged about the Sauna at https://furtherglory.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/why-was-there-a-sauna-at-auschwitz/
For 60 years, the Central Sauna building was not open to tourists. During that time, visitors to Auschwitz could only speculate about what the Auschwitz Sauna looked like. I imagined that the Auschwitz prisoners had the luxury of taking steam baths. After all, the prisoners were playing soccer and attending concerts. Would it have been so unusual for the Nazis to provide steam baths for the soccer players after a game?
The online Free Dictionary gives this definition for the word “sauna”:
A Finnish steam bath in which the steam is produced by pouring water over heated rocks.
A bathhouse or room for taking such a steam bath.
I imagined that the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sauna building had individual steam baths for the prisoners. In the old days, a health resort typically had a canvas box, in which a person would sit inside, with their head sticking out of a hole in the top. In the 1940s, in America, a “sauna” looked something like the modern sauna box in the photo below. I have actually taken a steam bath inside a canvas box, with my head sticking out. I have also had a “mud bath” but I don’t think the Nazis provided mud baths for the prisoners.
Yesterday, I read an article, in the online Guardian newspaper, about the Ovitz family of dwarves, who were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
According to this article, the dwarves had a close call when they mistakenly thought that they had been sent to the gas chamber:
What actually happened was that the Ovitzs and their neighbours were taken to the camp sauna for disinfection, where the water poured over heated stones produced much steam and fumes, as well as temperatures intense enough to cause someone to faint. The sauna had a particularly traumatic effect on both small children and fragile dwarves that might easily have created the impression of being gassed.
So it turns out that the Ovitz family of dwarves, and their neighbors who were falsely claiming to be related to them, were actually sent into a steam room, which they mistakenly thought was a gas chamber.
In October 2005, I had a chance to see the inside of the Sauna building at Auschwitz-Birkenau. There were no steam rooms inside the Sauna building. The building was called a Sauna because it had iron boxes in which the prisoners’ clothes were steamed to kill the lice that spreads typhus. These boxes looked something like the individual saunas used at health resorts at a time when rich people would routinely go to a spa town to “take the waters.”
The photo below shows a box for steaming clothes, inside the Central Sauna at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
This quote from the Guardian explains the gassing operation at Auschwitz-Birkenau:
Though we had five first-hand eyewitness accounts [of the gas chamber, given by 5 dwarves], we wanted to verify the story. The only way to do so was to study the procedures and manuals of operating a gas chamber. These were designed to kill between 500 and 2,000 people at once, depending on the size of the hall. Cyclone B was effective only at a room temperature of 27C, which was achieved by cramping a mass of people together. Gas chambers were simply not operated for merely 22 people; small groups were shot.
Furthermore, according to the camp’s rigid safety orders, SS personnel had to wear gas masks when operating Cyclone B. Although the victims died within 15 minutes, the SS men routinely waited half an hour before turning on the powerful fans that dispersed the gas from the chamber. Only then were the doors opened. The operators themselves did not enter; instead, Jewish inmates from the Sonderkommando were sent in to drag out the bodies for cremation. Once the extermination process had begun, it could not be halted, because by then it would have been impossible to open the doors.
What actually happened was that the Ovitzs and their neighbours were taken to the camp sauna for disinfection ……
Every Holocaust survivor has to have a story about how they were saved from the gas chamber. Even the 22 members of the Ovitz family, which included their fake relatives, had to make up a story about why they were not gassed.
Dr. Josef Mengele was over-joyed to have this family available for his research into hereditary conditions; he would never have allowed them to be gassed, but still the dwarves had to make up a lie.
This quote from the Guardian article, and the links provided by the Guardian, explains the Nazi policy:
When the Nazis came to power, the Ovitzs were doubly doomed: under the Aktion T-4 euthanasia programme, the Germans set out to kill people who were physically or mentally disabled, whose lives were considered “unworthy of living”, “a burden on society”; and, as Jews, the Ovitzs were the target of the Final Solution.
On 19 May 1944, they were brought to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp because they were Jews. But, by a twist of fate, their disability played for them. It was rare that one person from an entire family survived the camp, let alone two, but all 12 members of the Ovitz family – the youngest a baby boy just 18 months old, the oldest his 58-year-old dwarf aunt – emerged alive.
I have to give the Guardian credit for exposing the lies told by Holocaust survivors. This quote is from the Guardian:
In her autobiography, Auschwitz: True Tales From A Grotesque Land, Sarah Nomberg-Przytyk describes in appalling detail the horrible death of two members of the Ovitz group, one of them an 18-month-old baby boy who died as a result of one of Mengele’s experiments: “Around him, like pillars of stone, stood a large woman, along with the child’s mother, slim and frail; the three midgets sat in miniature chairs.” In the evening, the dead toddler was placed outside the block with the other corpses to be taken to the crematorium. Nomberg-Przytyk also recounts the death of Avram Ovitz, the leader of the group: “The old midget wanted his wife” and tried to slip through the barbed wire; a guard spotted him and, when Avram got close enough, shot him. “He never made it to his wife.”
But the little boy and his uncle Avram were not killed, and lived to see liberation day. What, then, caused Nomberg-Przytyk to make such grave mistakes? Most likely she was compressing a number of events, and attributed to the dwarves two common occurrences in the daily life of the camp: the death of a child in his mother’s arms and the shooting of an inmate who approached the electrified fence.
And there were others, such as Renee Firestone, who described the death of the Ovitz dwarves: “The Germans found a community of midgets, transported them to Auschwitz, shot them en masse and then were forced to let them sit in a pile for three days until the crematoria could take them.”
One plausible explanation for the discrepancy between fact and remembrance is that the survivors, who regarded their own deliverance as miraculous, found the chances slim that someone as helpless as a dwarf could escape death. The fact that the Ovitzs were transferred several times from one side of the camp to the other caused their fellow inmates to lose touch with them, and in Auschwitz, when you stopped seeing someone, it could mean only one thing.
The seven dwarves, as well as their entourage, all survived the war, and emigrated to Israel in May 1949.
The first story about the Treblinka camp, told by the Soviets who came across the remains of the camp, was that the prisoners were steamed to death in steam chambers. You read about it at http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v12/v12p133_Allen.html