After about an hour, I thanked him and stood up to leave. He handed me a white envelope. Inside was a slim memoir he published nearly 30 years ago. “My memory isn’t so good any more, you understand,” he said, shaking my hand and smiling. “But it’s all in there.” Later, I flipped to a page near the end. In October 1944, Stos was sent from Auschwitz to a series of camps deep in Germany. On May 8, 1945—the day the war in Europe ended—he was liberated by Russian soldiers. On the book’s second to last page is an undated black-and-white photo. It shows Stos with his children and grandchildren standing under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign.
Auschwitz didn’t long remain a camp exclusively for Poles. In June 1941, Germany launched a surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, taking three million prisoners over the next seven months. Many were starved to death. Others were sent to occupied Poland or Germany as slave laborers. In the fall of 1941, ten thousand prisoners of war arrived at Auschwitz and began building the Birkenau camp.
Most of the POWs died within weeks. “When it was time to get up in the morning, those who were alive moved, and around them would be two or three dead people,” one Russian survivor says in the 2005 book Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees. “Death at night, death in the morning, death in the afternoon. There was death all the time.” The prisoners built the barracks at Birkenau in a rush, laying a single course of bricks on poorly made foundations. The flood of Soviet POWs overwhelmed the already crowded camp. Pressure to “eliminate” people—the Nazi euphemism—grew.
Since the beginning of the war, special SS units called Einsatzgruppen had carried out mass executions of Jews and others in conquered territories; these commandos rounded up entire villages, forced them to dig their own graves and shot them. The massacres took a toll even on the German firing squads, says Debórah Dwork, a Holocaust historian at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and co-author (with van Pelt) of Holocaust: A History. “It’s totally clear from Nazi documents,” she says, “that Germans were looking for a way to murder masses of people without having such a traumatic impact on the murderers.”
In 1940, the Nazis used carbon monoxide gas in secret euthanasia programs at mental hospitals in Germany to eliminate mentally ill or disabled people. From there, it was but a small step to Zyklon B, a cyanide compound designed for delousing. In September 1941, Auschwitz guards herded hundreds of Soviet POWs and sick inmates into the crudely sealed basement of Block 11, the dreaded punishment barrack; a guard threw in pellets of Zyklon B and shut the doors. They were the first people gassed at Auschwitz.
For the man in charge of Auschwitz, the gas chamber was a welcome innovation. “I had always shuddered at the prospect of carrying out executions by shooting,” commandant Rudolf Höss wrote in a lengthy confession while awaiting execution after the war. “Many members of the Einsatzkommandos, unable to endure wading through blood any longer, had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad.”
Guards and other camp personnel refined the procedures in ways that minimized their guilt and maximized efficiency. They soon moved the gassings from Block 11 to the crematorium at the camp’s outer edge. The crematorium would survive the war mostly intact, and today is a central part of any visit to the camp.
“Responsibility is extremely direct in face-to-face shootings,” Dwork says. “In gassing and cremation, each person is given only a small part.” Eventually, Germans took part only by tossing the cyanide pellets into the gas chambers. Everything else—herding prisoners into the chambers, ripping out gold fillings and loading corpses into the crematoria—was handled by groups of prisoners, known as Sonderkommandos.
Adolf Hitler envisioned the eventual extermination of what he called “the Jewish plague,” but the Führer didn’t draw up the plans for the gas chambers or the timetables for the transports. And while it was senior SS officials who gave general instructions about how the camps should function, it was ordinary Germans, soldiers and civilians alike, who worked out the deadly details. “There wasn’t a grand strategy in 1940 that the camp would accrue a number of functions and ultimately become a death camp,” Dwork says. “I do not see it as planned at all. Way led to way, and step led to step.”
By 1942, Auschwitz had mushroomed into a massive money-making complex that included the original camp, Birkenau (officially labeled Auschwitz II) and 40 sub-camps (mostly located in and around the nearby town of Oswiecim but some as far away as Czechoslovakia) set up to provide slave labor for chemical plants, coal mines, shoe factories and other ventures. In their eagerness to carry out orders, advance their careers and line their own pockets, mid-level bureaucrats like Höss implemented what came to be known as the Holocaust.