Himmler and Hoess at Auschwitz

This rare image of Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hoess at Auschwitz was found in The Death Factory by Ota Kraus and Erich Kulka (Pergamon Press, 1966). It might well well have taken on the same day described in Vrba’s memoir when he came face-to-face with Himmler. Both Kraus and Kulka gave evidence for the March, 1947 trial of Hoess in Warsaw. Hoess’ confessions and memoir, written in prison, were sent to Rudolf Vrba to read for his comments prior to their publication. Hoess’s sometimes candid confessions were used as the basis for a novel in French by Robert Merle, La Mort Est Mon Metier, republished in Czech in 1955.The following year, Hoess’ memoir was published in Poland and it was made available in German in 1959.

There is an axiom in storytelling that every good hero requires a formidable villain. Rudolf Vrba’s story of perseverance, pluck, luck and ingenuity does not overtly conjure forth Adolf Hitler as his nemesis. Instead, with a storyteller’s instinct, Vrba and his co-his writer Alan Bestic opted to start I Cannot Forgive with a second visit to Auschwitz that was made by its top-ranking overseer, Heinrich Himmler, in July of 1942, some seventeen days after Vrba’s arrival.

“We stood in erect lines,” he recalls, “before our respective block buildings, near and erect in our uniforms, like well-trained Zebras; and I was a very prominent Zebra indeed, standing in the front row of my block, where I had been placed deliberately because, after only seventeen days in the camp, I still looked fairly healthy.”

This tragic-comic narrative deftly includes the execution of a helpful, frail, simple-minded prisoner named Yankel Meisel simply because one of the buttons on his striped prisoner’s garb is undone. For this sin, he is clubbed to death, just minutes before the Nazi inspectors arrive, because his overseer was enraged to notice the gaping neck of his tunic.

And so the scene is set for a face-to-face, nose-to-nose, silent encounter between hero and villain. Because Vrba’s barracks were closest to the gates with its Arbeit Macht Frei sign, his face would be one of the first that Himmler would see upon examining the camp with Commandant Rudolf Hoess.

Prisoners' Orchestra

Prisoners’ Orchestra, Auschwitz 

Before Himmler appeared after a prolonged breakfast, the Auschwitz orchestra–consisting of the finest musicians drawn from the capitals of Europe, with a conductor who had been in charge of the Warsaw Philharmonic orchestra–had been playing a superb rendition of ‘Why Should We Not Be Merry, When God Gives Us Strength?’ from the Czech opera The Bartered Bride. On cue, as Himmler appeared in his slow-moving, chauffeur-driven Mercedes, the orchestra started playing “The Triumph March” from the opera Aida.  Vrba then recalls how Himmler gets out of the vehicle smiling, seemingly charmed by the music.

Having anticipated the arrival of an all-powerful ogre, Vrba was disconcerted to see the somewhat portly Himmler parading himself with a grace and charm that made him think of echelons of English royalty at an English garden party. “Like English royalty, too, he seemed to have the knack of putting others at their ease quickly, effortlessly.” [The reader should bear in mind this memoir was co-written. As a teenager growing up in smalltown Slovakia, Vrba had minimal knowledge of English garden parties. Likely the analogy is derived from the perspective of his Irish-born co-writer Alan Bestic.]

Himmler at the age of 29

Himmler at the age of 29.  

The narration continues to describe how the assembled prisoners were awestruck by the Nazi leaders’ razor-edged trouser creases, the clicking of heels as arms speared the air with a Nazi salute. Vrba then describes a face-to-face encounter. “I studied his pale, flaccid face, his expression that was tolerant and condescending, slightly bored and slightly amused. His rimless glasses glinted in the sunshine. His uniform, unlike all the others, did not seem to fit very well and I thought: ‘This man is no monster. He’s more like a schoolteacher. An ordinary, run-of-the-mill schoolteacher! Years later I learned that in fact he had been a teacher of mathematics before he became architect of Hitler’s extermination camps. To him, indeed, death was no more than simple arithmetic, row upon row of figures in a neatly kept ledger…

“The photographic sycophants scurried before him, their Leicas and their cine-cinemas clicking and whirring. They postured and pranced backwards, shooting from their knees, from their stomachs, searching frantically for new, improbable angles on a little piece of history, darting to and fro like tugs before an ocean liner.

“He reached the end of the row, turned and came back again, eyeing the prisoners with polite interest. Again, he passed close to me, close enough for me to touch him, and for a moment our eyes met. They were cold, impersonal eyes that seemed to see little; and yet I found myself thinking: ‘If he finds out what’s going on, maybe he’ll improve things. Maybe the food will get better. Maybe there won’t be so many beatings. Maybe . . .  maybe we’ll see some justice around here for a change…

“Already, you see, I had forgotten Yankel Meisel. And so had everyone else because Heinrich Himmler was smiling. I remember thinking: ‘If only they let him see everything! If only he insists on seeing everything. . . the gassings, the burnings, the brutality, the lot!’”

Himmler did proceed to see it all, as Vrba would learn much later, after the war, when he was sent an advance version of Hoess’ memoir to provide critical feedback. That was when Vrba knew for certain that Himmler and Hoess did proceed to thoroughly witness the emaciated victims of disease, the crowded hospital block, the primitive latrines, the selection process for extermination, the women’s camp, the whipping of a female prostitute… and the experimental gassing of Jews with Zyklon-B.

Heinrich Himmler visits IG Farben Plant

Left to right: Rudolf Brandt, Heinrich Himmler, Max Faust (an IG Farben engineer who was head of building operations at Auschwitz III), possibly Ernst-Heinrich Schmauser, and the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess. 

Historians can agree that Himmler first visited Auschwitz on March 1, 1941. On this visit, he ordered the camp to be expanded from 10,000 prisoners. The goal was not genocide. It has been suggested he was planning to enhance the viability of a planned I.G. Farben factory complex at Dwory, about a mile away, by supplying a massive workforce of slave labourers. More likely, as outlined In London Has Been Informed… (issued by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 1997, and edited by Polish historian Henryk Świebocki), Nazi Germany was planning on accommodating 100,000 Russian prisoners of war, while optimistically planning an attack on the USSR.

Historians also agree Himmler returned to Auschwitz on July 17-18, 1942, as described by Vrba, to witness the murder of 499 Jews with Zyklon-B in Bunker #2 (as was it was also reported later that same month by the German industrialist Edward Schulte). There is no doubt that Himmler  admired the efficacy of the gas chamber and the crematoria at Auschwitz Birkenau. Photographs were taken to record the visit.

Trouble is, there is still no corroboration to be found for any visit made by Himmler to Auschwitz in January of 1943.

Himmler is not a central figure as Vrba proceeds to describe how another contingent of visitors was escorted through Birkenau to witness the remarkably efficient murder factory: “Commandant Hoess, anxious to display his new toy at its most efficient, had arranged for a special transport of 3,000 Polish Jews to be present for slaughter in the modern, German way. This time I was glad to see him arrive, though not because I still nursed any faint hope that he would improve our lot through benevolence or any sense of justice. His presence was welcome to us all merely because it meant that for one day there could be no unscheduled beatings or killings.”

Nonetheless, Himmler’s presence has never been confirmed. For this reason, one assumes, the editors of the most recently published version of I Escaped from Auschwitz chose to omit this gripping opening chapter that describes Vrba’s (July 1942) encounter with Himmler and the senseless murder of pathetic Yankel Meisel for not doing up a button. A sense of caution prevailed. If there was an incorrect detail in the opening chapter, how could the reader be certain that everything afterwards was true?  If Vrba indeed had such a stupendous memory for train arrivals, how is it that his memory could be so fallible about Himmler? If would-be debunkers can find just one narrative error, a single miscue can be pounced upon to attack the credibility of an entire book. Holocaust deniers could claim Vrba must have “made it all up.”

Interviewed in late 2023, Robin Vrba provided some background as to how this error occurred. “He [Rudi] was mad at [Alan] Bestic because Bestic wanted to [just] get the book out. And Rudi said to him he wanted to correct this, and he wanted to correct that. And Bestic said to him, ‘Look, if this book survives a year, we’re lucky.’ Later, Rudi was upset because the first chapter wasn’t correct. It was not Himmler that he saw. He took it [that first chapter] out of the Czech book [translated version]… Rudi probably thought it was Himmler and found out afterwards it wasn’t Himmler.” Consequently, the 2020 reprint version co-edited by Robin Vrba and the Czech-born academic Nikola Zimring also excludes the riveting opening chapter. [Zimring has since presented a Master’s thesis for Jewish History to the Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities within the Department of Jewish History entitled The Man Who Knew Too Much in which she takes care to forge a middle ground between Vrba’s maverick perspective and the indentured opinions of Professor Yehuda Bauer, still alive at the time of its presentation, and thanks Yad Vashem, the institution that stonewalled adequate recognition of Vrba for all his adult life.]

Jettisoning Vrba’s opening chapter was playing it safe; it was ensuring that the editors of the book could not possibly be blameworthy for a dreaded mistake, any historical inaccuracy. But when the book’s title I Cannot Forgive was changed to I Escaped From Auschwitz, and the memoir was re-issued in 2002 with a preface by Sir Martin Gilbert, it had retained the chapter called ‘When The Music Stopped’ about how Yankel Meisel was murdered for not doing up his button. One has to suggest that if one of the world’s preeminent 20th century historians was willing to tell the reader he was honoured to provide his endorsement for that version of the book, one has to seriously question the rationale for excluding that riveting opening chapter. A simple asterisk could have sufficed at the bottom of the page. “Heinrich Himmler did not visit Auschwitz Camp again in January, 1943. Any such visit cannot be be substantiated.”

Rudolf Vrba didn’t get out of Auschwitz and save 200,000 lives by playing it safe. He did not kowtow to powers that be.

If one digs deeper, one discovers that at least one ‘undocumented’ visit was made by Himmler to Auschwitz. If one consults the rather clunky English translation of the foreword to London Has Been Informed…  edited by Henryk Świebocki, on page 286 one discovers the editors at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum state that according to the statement of a Jew from the Special Commando [Sonderkommando], Reichfuhrer Himmler was said to have visited BIRKENAU on the 15th or 16th of May. “On one of those days I myself saw three automobiles and five men in civilian clothing drive toward the crematoria. The Jews who made this statement that he, as well as others, recognized Himmler, who had visited crematorium No. 1 [Editor’s note: They are referring to the first Crematorium built at Auschwitz-Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II] and after a stay of about half an hour had again driven off with those accompanying him. On the day after there was an account in the Silesian newspapers of Himmler’s visit to Cracow, so that this report could be true.” The Auschwitz Museum editors have added a footnote: “In the preserved camp documents there is no evidence of a visit by Heinrich Himmler to Auschwitz [on May 15 or 16, 1944], but this does not mean the information is not true. Himmler stayed in Cracow on May 18 and 19, 1944. During that time he might well have visited Auschwitz.”

If Rudi Vrba has a ghost and if that ghost can read one-million-word websites, he’d be pleased to read that preceding paragraph.

Sir Martin Gilbert might well have surmised, as the Auschwitz Museum surmised–if Heinrich Himmler can make one undocumented visit to Auschwitz, who can say for certain that he did not make another?

*

Occasionally, one comes across something on the internet that cannot be improved upon. Here, with a link, is one such article on Heinrich Himmler. This digest of his horrific accomplishments as the principal architect and administrator of the concentration camps is uncredited to any individual. The final sentence of this adroit summary states, “Serving as Hitler’s right-hand man, Himmler was a true architect of terror during World War II.”  The source is the National WWII Museum of New Orleans. You can visit this site at:

https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/heinrich-himmler-holocaust

Here is a selection of photos from the article above.

Here is a speech by Heinrich Himmler in October of 1943 about his plans for the extermination of all Jews at: https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-human-behavior/himmler-speech-posen-1943

“We Germans — who are the only people to treat animals decently — will also treat these human animals decently.”  Heinrich Himmler, 1943.

“Letter of 9th June 1943 from Messrs Topf and Sons to the Auschwitz Bauleitung following the meeting of the 18th May concerning 2 air extraction installations for Krematorien IV and V to be supplied at a cost of 2,510RM. Two copies of Topf drawing D 59,620 were enclosed, showing the construction of the brick-built air extraction ducts and the arrangement of the suction duct, blower and pressure duct to be supplied by Topf. The electric motors to be used were of 3.5 HP and the system would have had a capacity of 8000 m2 per hour. The installation was never fitted in either of the two Krematorien.”

Next: VRBA ON THE ESCAPE

 


The SS Commandant Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, or Hoess, managed Auschwitz from May of 1940 to November of 1943, and again from May of 1944 to January of 1945. He resided at Auschwitz in a large, comfortable home with his wife Hedwig and their five children. He was hanged on the Auschwitz gallows on April 16, 1947.