There were two survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp who wrote eye-witness descriptions of how the gassing of the Jews was accomplished. One of these books was written by Filip Müller, who was a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. He wrote a book, published in 1979, entitled Eyewitness Auschwitz, Three Years in the Gas Chambers.
Ruins of Krema III gas chamber with SS entrance into the gas chamber in the center
The second survivor who wrote a book describing the gas chambers was Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a doctor who was working, as a pathologist, with the Sonderkommando squad at Birkenau. I blogged about his book yesterday, but I am writing about it again because his eye-witness description of the gas chamber deserves more publicity. He described the gas chamber building that was near the soccer field, which would be Krema III, shown in the photo above.
The description of the operation of the Birkenau gas chambers begins on p. 47 in Chapter VII of Dr. Nyiszli’s book. He begins with a description of the arrival of a transport train, which he sees from the window of the crematorium building (probably Krema III) where he lives with other members of the Sonderkommando group. As soon as the train arrives, the men in the furnace room of the crematorium prepare “to welcome the new convoy.” Enormous ventilators are turned on to fan the flames in the 15 ovens. Dr. Nyiszli describes the “incineration room as 500 feet long, with a concrete floor and barred windows.”
The incinerators (cremation ovens) at Auschwitz-Birkenau
It only takes 5 or 6 minutes for the victims to arrive at the crematorium after they have been selected to go to the left; they march into the courtyard of Krema III, in groups of five. The entrance to the gas chamber is only 300 yards from the ramp where the selection has been made.
Women directed to the left are destined to be gassed
Victims walking past Krema III in the background
Regarding the march to the gas chamber, Dr. Nyiszli wrote: “For the most part the babies were carried in their fathers’ arms or else wheeled in their carriages.”
Wait a minute! The fathers carried the babies to the gas chamber? A man young enough to have a babe in arms was young enough to work. And baby carriages on the trains to Auschwitz? In all the Holocaust survivor books that I have ever read, I’ve never heard of that. Nor is it shown in any of the photos that the Nazis took.
Then Dr. Nyiszli mentions “the water faucets, used for sprinkling the grass” in the courtyard of the gas chamber building. Automatic sprinklers at Birkenau? I was 11 years old in 1944, and I had no idea that sprinklers had been invented at that time. In California, everyone has sprinklers on their lawn because it never rains in the Summer, but it rains in Poland, so why were sprinklers needed?
Then Dr. Nyiszli writes: “They (the victims) began to take pots and pans from their luggage, and broke ranks, pushing and shoving in an effort to get near the faucets and fill their containers.” NO! NO! NO! The luggage was left behind. The victims did not carry their luggage into the gas chamber. Look at the luggage in the Auschwitz Museum. You can easily see that the luggage was not subjected to Zyklon-B gas; it is completely undamaged.
Luggage brought by Jews to Auschwitz has not deteriorated
But then, Dr. Nyiszli describes how the SS men “waited patiently till each had quenched his thirst and filled his container” with water from the sprinklers. The photo below shows a child carrying a pail on the way to the gas chamber. This appears to me to be a lunch pail for carrying food, not a pail for water.
Children carrying pails to the gas chamber at Birkenau
Finally, the victims “advanced for about 100 yards along a cinder path edged with green grass to an iron ramp, from which 10 to 12 concrete steps led underground to an enormous room dominated by a large sign in German, French, Greek and Hungarian: ‘Baths and Disinfection Room.’”
Sign for showers at Birkenau
Disinfection sign at Birkenau
The two photos above show that there really were Bath and Disinfection signs at Birkenau, but they were in the Sauna, where the prisoners had to take a shower and be disinfected before they were admitted into the camp.
Here is Dr. Nyiszli’s description of the undressing room, probably in Krema III at Birkenau:
The room into which the convoy proceeded was about 200 yards long: its walls were whitewashed and it was brightly lit. In the middle of the room rows of columns. Around the columns, as well as along the walls, benches. Above the benches, numbered coat hangers. [...] There were 3,000 people in the room: men, women and children.
Ruins of Krema III undressing room
The photo above shows the ruins of the undressing room of Krema III, which according to Dr. Nyiszli held 3,000 people. Note the broken columns in the ruins.
Ruins of the gas chamber in Krema III at Birkenau
Note the columns in the photo of Krema III above; the columns held up the roof of the gas chamber; the roof was three feet above ground.
Dr. Nyiszli wrote that, after 3,000 people had been crowded into the undressing room, “Some of the soldiers arrived and announced that everyone must be completely undressed in ten minutes.” He wrote that the people in the gas chamber “were struck dumb with surprise. Modest women and girls looked at each other questioningly.” [...] “The aged, the paralyzed, the mad were helped to undress by a Sonderkommando squad sent for that purpose.” The Sonderkommando squad was made up of Jewish men, so it was O.K for them to help with the undressing of the victims.
Dr. Nyiszli’s description of the gassing procedure continues with this quote:
Making his way through the crowd (of 3,000 people), an SS opened the swing-doors of the large oaken gate at the end of the (undressing) room. The crowd flowed through it into another equally well-lighted room. The second room was the same size as the first, but neither benches or pegs were to be seen. In the center of the room, at thirty-yard intervals, columns rose from the concrete floor to the ceiling. They were not supporting columns, but square sheet-iron pipes, the sides of which contained numerous perforations, like a wire lattice.
Notice in the photos above, that the sheet-iron pipes were removed before the Krema III gas chamber was blown up by the Nazis. The purpose of these pipes was to hold the Zyklon-B gas pellets, so that they would not have to be removed from the floor after the victims were dead. The Nazis were no fools — they were careful to leave no evidence behind.
Dr. Nyiszli’s description of the gassing continues with this quote:
Everyone was inside. A hoarse command rang out: “SS and Sonderkommando leave the room.” They obeyed and counted off. The doors swung shut and from without, the lights were switched off.
At that very instant the sound of a car was heard: a deluxe model, furnished by the International Red Cross. An SS officer and a SDG (Sanitatsdienstgefreiter: Deputy Health Service Officer) stepped out of the car. The Deputy Health Officer held four green sheet-iron cannisters. He advanced across the grass, where, every thirty yards, short concrete pipes jutted up from the ground. Having donned his gas mask, he lifted the lid of the pipe, which was also made of concrete. He opened one of the cans and poured the contents — a mauve granulated material into the opening.
HOLD IT! The color of the gas pellets was mauve? Mauve is sort of a dusty rose color. I have seen Zyklon-B gas pellets at two different camp memorial sites. The pellets were a very light bluish-green color. Definitely not mauve!
The gassing procure continues with this quote from Dr. Nyiszli’s book:
Twenty minutes later the electric ventilators were set going in order to evacuate the gas. The doors opened, the trucks arrived, and a Sonderkommando squad loaded the clothing and the shoes separately. They were going to disinfect them. This time it was a real case of disinfection. Later they would transport them by rail to various parts of the country.
The ventilators, patented “Exhator” system, quickly evacuated the gas from the room, but in the crannies between the dead and the cracks of the doors, small pockets of it still remained. Even two hours later it caused a suffocating cough. For that reason the Sonderkommando group which first moved into the room was equipped with gas masks. Once again the room was powerfully lighted, revealing a horrible spectacle. [...]
The Sonderkommando squad, outfitted with large rubber boots, lined up around the hill of bodies and flooded it with powerful jets of water.
Dr. Nyiszli wrote that the Sonderkommando squad was killed every four months. (Other sources say that the Sondekommando squad was killed every THREE months.) The first assignment of the new group was to carry the bodies of the previous group to the ovens, so the Sonderkommando men knew that they would only live for four months. Yet, they carried on, removing the dead Jews from the gas chambers. There were 12 squads killed before the 13th squad decided to blow up the Krema IV gas chambers in a revolt.
Dr. Nyiszli worked with the 14th and last Sonderkommado squad. Members of the last squad were allowed to live; they were marched out of the camp on January 18, 1945 when the camp was abandoned. Several of them gave testimony about the gas chambers.