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.
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. As already mentioned in the PRECURSORS section, Kurt Gerstein, haunted by memories, wrote an account of events he had witnessed in 1942 at Belzec just before he allegedly committed suicide in 1945.
The Gerstein Report
“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
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.
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. You can read some of his report here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Notes on Auschwitz
Mankind’s most notorious murder factory, Auschwitz, is generally referenced as a composite of three camps–Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz–but this complex known in German as Konzentrationslager Auschwitz also encompassed a mini-galaxy of more than forty so-called work camps. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Auschwitz was conceived as a prison camp for alleged political prisoners, mostly Poles, after Germany had annexed and occupied Poland in 1939. The Schutzstaffel, or SS, converted the former Polish army barracks because it was situated approximately 40 miles west of Krakow, near the confluence of the Vistula and Sola Rivers, and it was accessible on major railways via Prague.
As head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler officially ordered the creation of a concentration camp at Oświęcim (a town of about 12,000 people including 5,000 Jews) on April 27, 1940. Auschwitz was the German name for Oświęcim. German criminals were imported as camp guards and monitors, thereby institutionalizing cruelty as normal behaviour in support of discipline. Jews were not the first detainees to be gassed and collectively murdered. Group executions of both Polish and Soviet captives were commenced at the notorious Block Eleven building in August of 1941.
Plans for the creation of a second section, Auschwitz II, 1.5 miles to the west from the main camp (or Stammlager), were first set in motion by Himmler on March 1, 1941. Construction of the more efficient and vast murder facilities at Birkenau (German name for the Polish village of Brzezinka) commenced in September of 1941. German engineers estimated its four crematoria could incinerate 4,415 bodies per day but that number was often below the daily capacity of the gas chambers.
By the end of 1941, plans for another expansion were set in motion. Known as Buna-Monowitz, Auschwitz III took its name from the Buna synthetic-rubber factory at Monowice where the gigantic German corporation of I.G. Farben mercilessly used slave labour from the other camps in it mostly unsuccessful effort to bolster the Nazi war machine.
Most estimates as to how many Jews were murdered in Auschwitz collectively tend to be lowball projections so as not to run any risk of giving nutbar denialists fodder for crazed allegations that six million Jews were not really killed in Europe at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators (throughout much of Europe).
Estimates made by Wikipedia that 802 prisoners tried to escape overall, and 144 succeeded, are also misleading. It was far easier to attempt escape from sub-camps. Escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most lethal death centre, was almost impossible. Most historical institutions, authors, scholars and websites have claimed only five Jews ever managed to escape successfully (not be re-captured) from Birkenau. This website corrects that error. There were (at least) six Jews that escaped from Auschwitz.
See THE SIXTH JEW on this site.
As of 2023, Wikipedia — with all due respect to an invaluable website — states that only 960,000 Jews were killed at Auschwitz overall, including 865,000 who were gassed. This figure is not one that Rudolf Vrba would have accepted as true. To be sure, with paper trails, experts behind desks with university degrees can more effectively measure statistics in retrospect as to how many SS staff from Auschwitz ever stood trial (789 or about 15%). But they were never there rigorously counting the trains.
Since the founding of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and Birkenau in 1947, the death toll estimates of major institutions dedicated to Holocaust commemoration and research have fluctuated. Estimates are quite obviously flexible, in keeping with the tenures of their times.
Vrba’s projections resembled those of the most notorious Auschwitz camp commandant Rudolf Höss who first stated in 1946 that three million had been murdered at Auschwitz (this estimate was lowered when he was placed on trial). Later, in an affidavit that Vrba swore in 1961 as a submission to the Adolf Eichmann trial, Vrba estimated that 2.5 million had been murdered at Auschwitz, with a possible range of numerical dispute at plus or minus ten percent.
From April of 1942 to April of 1994, Vrba believed, approximately 1,765,000 had been killed. Although Vrba had been at Auschwitz from July 1, 1994 to April 10, 1944 (approximately 22 months), his colleague and co-estimator Wetzler had been at Auschwitz from April 13, 1942 to April 10 (approximately 24 months). Their combined time in Auschwitz was four times greater than the combined time in Auschwitz that enabled Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and Viktor Frankl to write their books on Auschwitz.
Primo Levi (tattoo # 174517) was in Auschwitz for eleven months prior to its liberation. Wiesel (tattoo #A-7713; alleged but not photographed) arrived, at age 15, in May of 1944 and was transferred to Buchenwald in January of 1945 (8 months). Even though about half of Frankl’s famous book Man’s Search for Meaning is seemingly set in Auschwitz, he never received an Auschwitz tattoo. Timothy Pytell’s disturbing book about Frankl, The Missing Pieces of the Puzzle: A Reflection on the Odd Career of Viktor Frankl, reveals that Frankl was never registered at Auschwitz, and was never tattooed and mostly likely spent only a two-to-three days there as a “depot prisoner” before he was shuttled to Kaufering III, a subsidiary camp of Dachau.
The point must be impolitely made that none of the most revered chroniclers of Auschwitz knew as much about Auschwitz as Rudolf Vrba, whose awareness was augmented by the knowledge of his co-chronicler Wetzler.
These maps [below] are from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
For a virtual tour of Auschwitz/Birkenau, click here. Note the Panorama button at the bottom of the screen. You can move around the camp easily that way. You will soon realize how huge it was.
Next: DEFENDING VRBA