Dachau stolen sign
The mass murder procedures that Rudolf Vrba closely monitored at Auschwitz had evolved from the Nazis’ euthanasia methods used to kill individuals deemed mentally or physically defective, starting with asphyxiation or suffocation.

Heinrich Himmler arrives at Dachau

Heinrich Himmler is saluted upon arrival at Dachau with Rudolf Hoess, Karl Wolff and Oswald Pohl. (Click)

Dachau, the prototype for concentration camps to come, was opened near Munich by Heinrich Himmler on March 22, 1933. Even though Dachau was intended to primarily incarcerate political opponents and dissidents, it was the first “camp” to use the slogan Arbeit macht frei (“Work will set you free”) more commonly associated with Auschwitz.

The original iron gate and signage at Dachau, with its cruel slogan, can be viewed metaphorically as the starting point for the state-sponsored Holocaust, but the slogan was not new. This same slogan was used prior to the war in Germany in relation to government programs to reduce unemployment. That propagandist slogan, in  turn, owed its origins to the title of a German novel by Lorenz Diefenbach entitled Die Wahrheit macht frei (The Truth will set you free).

When that 200-pound gate sign [shown above] at Dachau was reported missing on Nov. 2, 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the theft as “appalling.” It was recovered in Bergen, Norway, two years later and returned to the site in 2017. See a news report from AFP about the return of the gate here. Previously, the more famous 16-foot metal sign at Auschwitz reading Arbeit Macht Frei had also been stolen for a neo-Nazi buyer in 2009, but it was retrieved 72 hours later, cut into three pieces but later re-installed. Although the sign and slogan Arbeit macht frei (“Work sets you free”) has been most commonly associated with Auschwitz, it was used in Terezin, Sachsenhuasen and Gross-Rosen, as well as Dachau. Dachau was the third concentration camp to be liberated by British or American Allied forces, in April of 1945, but it was nonetheless the longest-functioning concentration camp, operational for twelve years.

The second major killing centre for Jews was at Belzec, built 70 miles southeast of Lublin, in Poland, due to its efficient connections on Lublin-Lvov railway line. After a labour camp was built there in 1940, it was remodelled in 1941 as a killing centre. In the same year, Kurt Gerstein, as an expert in engineering and sanitation, was assigned to work for the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS in Berlin. Eventually he would be tasked with delivering large quantities of Zyklon B to Auschwitz and other camps, but the methodology was much cruder in 1942 when Gerstein was sent to inspect the mass murder facilities at Belzec and Treblinka. There, carbon monoxide gas, generated by large diesel engines, was used to murder prisoners in gas chambers. Belzec was the first of three killing centres linked to Operation Reinhard, the name for the SS plan to murder almost two million Jews living in German-occupied Poland. The third camp was Sobibor.

Just before he allegedly committed suicide in 1945, Kurt Gerstein, haunted by memories, wrote an account of events he had witnessed in 1942 at Belzec.

The Gerstein Report

Kurt Gerstein

Kurt Gerstein

“The train stopped, and 200 Ukrainians, who were forced to perform this service, tore open the doors and chased the people from the carriages with whips. Then instructions were given through a large loudspeaker: The people are to take off all their clothes out of doors and a few of them in the barracks, including artificial limbs and glasses. Shoes must be tied in pairs with a little piece of string handed out by a small four-year-old Jewish boy. All valuables and money are to be handed in at the window marked ‘Valuables,’ without any document or receipt being given. The women and girls must then go to the barber, who cuts off their hair with one or two snips. The hair disappears into large potato sacks, “to make something special for the submarines, to seal them and so on,” the duty SS Unterscharfuehrer explained to me.

“Then the march starts: Barbed wire to the right and left and two dozen Ukrainians with rifles at the rear. They came on, led by an exceptionally pretty girl. I myself was standing with Police Captain [Christian] Wirth in front of the death chambers. Men, women, children, infants, people with amputated legs, all naked, completely naked, moved past us. In one corner there is a whimsical SS man who tells these poor people in an unctuous voice, “Nothing at all will happen to you. You must just breathe deeply, that strengthens the lungs; this inhalation is necessary because of the infectious diseases, it is good disinfection!”

“When somebody asks what their fate will be, he explains that the men will of course have to work, building streets and houses. But the women will not have to work. If they want to, they can help in the house or the kitchen. A little glimmer of hope flickers once more in some of these poor people, enough to make them march unresisting into the death chambers.

“But most of them understand what is happening; the smell reveals their fate! Then they climb up a little staircase and see the truth. Nursing mothers with an infant at the breast, naked; many children of all ages, naked. They hesitate, but they enter the death chambers, most of them silent, forced on by those behind them, who are driven by the whip lashes of the SS men.

“A Jewish woman of about 40, with flaming eyes, calls down revenge for the blood of her children on the head of the murderers. Police Captain Wirth in person strikes her in the face 5 times with his whip, and she disappears into the gas chamber …”

The Grojanowski Report

Jews being sent to be asphyxiated

Chelmno was the birthplace of industrialized mass murder. (Click)

Known as Kulmhof in German, surrounded by forests, on the Vistula River, north of Łódź, near the centre of Poland, tiny Chelmno was the crude prototype for Auschwitz. Here ongoing Nazi experiments were undertaken in earnest for the streamlining of death.

During two periods of the camp’s operation, at least 172,000 Jews were murdered at Chelmno, as well as 5,000 Roma and Sinti people, making tiny Chelmo the fifth-deadliest concentration camp (after Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor). It operated from December 8, 1941 to April 11, 1943, and again from June 23, 1944 to January 18, 1945. Most of the victims were gassed to death in specially outfitted vans.

Little would be known about Chelmno unless there had been seven escapees—all Jews—who survived in the burial squads. Their names were Mordechai Podchlebnik, Milnak Meyer, Abraham Tauber, Abram Roj and most importantly Szlama Ber Winer (or “Szlamek”), as well Mordechai Zurawski and Simon Srebnik who escaped as labourers during the dismantling of the site in January of 1945. Podchebnik, Zurawski, Srebnik and Roj survived the war but it was “Szlamek” who was the prototype for Rudolf Vrba.

A Death Truck for gassing prisoners

One of the death trucks used for gassing prisoners with carbon monoxide. (Click)

Born in 1911, in Izbica Kujawska, Poland., Szlama Ber Winer escaped from the Chełmno concentration camp in February of 1942 after only one week within the Sonderkommando unit of the camp. He found refuge in the Warsaw ghetto where he related his experiences to the Oneg Shabbat group headed by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum. The Jewish underground smuggled Szlamek’s unprecedented account of Germans systematically killing Jews with poison gas to London by June of 1942.

It was this startling report that generated coverage for a New York Times article that was published on page-six of the July 2, 1942 edition. Like Rudolf Vrba, the whistleblower Szlama Ber Winer would be accorded a fictitious name for his safety. Hence the “Winer Report” was dubbed The Grojanowski Report, ostensibly by Jacob (Yakov) Grojanowski, as determined by the Oneg Shabbat group.

Arriving in Chelmo in late January of 1942, Szlama Ber Winer —again like Rudolf Vrba—was fortunate to survive as someone chosen to meet the transports. Realizing he would surely be murdered like all the rest, Winer escaped after only about a week on the job by squeezing his way through an opening in a transport van in transit.

It was early enough into the Holocaust that some copies of his report were made in German with the hope that German people would be shocked and want Chelmno to be closed.

Here is a sample of the mostly overlooked Grojanowski Report—rarely mentioned in the same company as the Polish Major’s Report or the Vrba-Wetzler Report.

Chelmno Extermination

From the US Holocaust Museum

Unlike Rudolf Vrba, Winer never knew his report made any difference. Before his reportage reached London, he was recaptured in April and gassed to death in Belzec.

The Podchlebnik Testimony

Winer’s fellow Chelmno escapee, Mordechai Podchlebnik, survived and later gave testimony at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, along with two other Chelmno escapees. Here is a sample of his testimony about Chelmno.

Lorry Experminators

It is noteworthy that among the Nazi experimentalists at Chelmno was the sadist Paul Blobel who has been credited with organizing and executing the Babi Yar massacre, in a ravine near Kyiv, in September of 1941, murdering 33,771 Jews, a Nazi record number at the time.

At Chelmno, Blobel had free reign to undertake fatal and gruesome experiments with flame-throwers and incendiary bombs. He also tried constructing funeral pyres on railway tracks, building carefully layered edifices of firewood and corpses.

Paul Blobel Super Murderer

Super-murderer Paul Blobel has been credited with introducing the concept of gas chambers for the concentration camps. (Click)

There were so many inventive ways one could murder.

At Poltova, in eastern Ukraine, Blobel had introduced the use of portable gas vans in the countryside after Nazi forces had swept through the town killing 5,000 Jews. [Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, was born in Poltava, a town that had 13,000 citizens in 1939. In 2018, a swastika and the words “Hiel Hitler” were spray painted on a monument for Holocaust victims in the city. The vandals wrote “Death to the kikes” and were never apprehended.]

The use of gas vans for more efficient murdering was further perfected at Chelmno but Blobel was not yet satisfied. Before he was sentenced to death at Nuremberg and hanged on June 7, 1951, Paul Blobel claimed to have personally killed somewhere between 10,000-to-15,000 people. Experts have tallied his overall death toll at more than 59,000.

So it is that the Grojanowski Report has something much in common with the Vrba-Wetzler Report: It merits being better known.


I escaped from Auschwitz

The story of Vrba's arduous escape with Wetzler overland to Slovakia has been told in considerable detail by Alan Bestic and Rudolf Vrba in their book I Escaped From Auschwitz, still widely available. Vrba tells his own story best. Please buy that book if you want to know the particulars. A new book called The Escape Artist is mostly a retelling of Vrba's account.