Little Bits of History

January 27

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 27, 2017

1945: Auschwitz concentration camp is liberated. The camp was part of the Nazi system built by the Third Reich in Poland. The original camp, Auschwitz I, and the second camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau were later joined by Auschwitz III-Monowitz. The first of the concentration camps was built in 1940 and the first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941. Auschwitz II-Birkenau went on to become a major site for the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Between 1942 and late 1944 trains brought prisoners to the camp in droves. Jews especially were brought here where they were killed in gas chambers filled with the pesticide Zyklon B. At least 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, with about 90% of them Jews. Seventeen percent of all Jews killed in the Holocaust died at this camp.

Jews were not the only people sent to Auschwitz. There were also 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Russian POWs, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and tens of thousands of others. Another targeted group were homosexuals who were persecuted regardless of religion or national origin. The gas chambers were not the only way for prisoners to die. Others were killed by starvation, forced labor, disease, executions, and medical experimentation. The Nazi staff at Auschwitz consisted of about 7,000 members of the German Schutzstaffel or SS and about 12% of the staff was later convicted of war crimes. Rudolf Höss, the camp commandant, was executed for his role in the mass killings.

During the last half of 1944, when the War was coming to an end, not in favor of the Third Reich, there were about 130,000 prisoners held at Auschwitz. As the Soviet Red Army got ever nearer, about half of the prisoners were transported to other, more distant, prisons. As the Red Army entered Poland in November 1944, Himmler ordered the mass scale gassing operations to cease not only at Auschwitz but across the Reich. Creamatorias were dismantled or repurposed into air raid shelters. The SS was ordered to get rid of evidence of the mass executions. To that end, as the Red Army drew ever closer, the remaining staff burned records and demolished many buildings.

At the beginning of the month, Himmler ordered evacuations of all camps. On January 17, 58,000 Auschwitz prisoners began a forced march towards Wodzisław Śląski but thousands died or were killed on the march. On this day, the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the camp were only 7,500 prisoners remained alive along with over 600 corpses. Also found at the camp were 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 8.5 tons of human hair. This date is celebrated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the camp site has been dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The sad and horrible conclusion is that no one cared that Jews were being murdered… This is the Jewish lesson of the Holocaust and this is the lesson which Auschwitz taught us.  – Ariel Sharon

That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal. – Elie Wiesel

Jews survived all the defeats, expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, the centuries in which they were regarded as a pariah people, even the Holocaust itself, because they never gave up the faith that one day they would be free to live as Jews without fear. – Jonathan Sacks

The Holocaust, taken by itself, is a black hole. To look at it directly is to be swallowed up by it. – David Novak


Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 14, 2014


June 14, 1940: The first transport of 728 Polish prisoners arrive at Auschwitz. The camp first opened with 30 German criminal prisoners arriving in May. These men were intended to act as functionaries within the prison system. On this day, 728 Polish political prisoners from the city of Tarnow arrived. They had been involved with the resistance movement and most of them were Catholics, although there were 20 Jews included. They were sent by the German Security Police or Sicherheitspolizei. The people had been held previously at Sachsenhausen and were ordered to take a shower and disinfect themselves the previous day. From there they were marched to a train station escorted by the SS and pushed into waiting rail cars.

Original records show that 753 people were on a transport list. The twenty-five person discrepancy is a mystery. There was one person who was released at the train station, according to witnesses. The people arriving at Auschwitz were numbered 31 through 758, since the original German prisoners took the first numbers. There is a notation in the records at Auschwitz for June 15 which reads, “Transport Stalowa Wola, 24 persons” and so it thought that perhaps the 24 missing people were from Stalowa Wola and returned on the next day.

Number 31 was given to Stanislaw Ryniak, the first Pole at Auschwitz who was 24 years old at the time of his entry into the camp. He had been arrested in May and accused of being a member of the resistance. He survived the war and became an architect afterward. He lived to be 88 and died in 2004. The last of the numbers for this group was assigned to Ignacy Plachta who had been captured while trying to escape to Hungary. Also in this group of prisoners, number 349, was the Polish Olympic skier Bronislaw Czech. He was not as lucky as Ryniak and died on June 4, 1944 at Auschwitz at the age of 35.

The camp eventually became synonymous with the killing of Jews by the Third Reich. The first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941 and the camp went on to become a major site of the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Between 1942 and 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers and at least 1.1 million prisoners died there. About 90% of those killed were Jewish or about 1 out of 6 Jews who were killed, were killed here. Also deported to Auschwitz were 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and tens of thousands more. The gas chamber was the great killing machine, but many more died of starvation, forced labor, disease, individual execution, and medical experiments.

 Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will ever understand Auschwitz. – William Styron

Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith. – WH Auden

This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. – Jacob Bronowski

No matter what I accomplish, it doesn’t seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz. – Art Spiegelman

Also on this day: Which is Witch – In 1648, the first “witch” is hanged in Salem.
Early Computing – In 1822, Charles Babbage presented a paper on computing.
Maize – In 1789, Bourbon was first produced.
First Non-Stop Transatlantic Flight – In 1919, Alcock and Brown made it to Europe.

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Death and More Death

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 11, 2014
Rudolf Höss

Rudolf Höss

March 11, 1946: Rudolf Höss is arrested. Rudolf was born in 1901 in Baden-Baden, Germany. His father had been an army officer but now ran a tea and coffee business. The family was staunchly Catholic and Rudolf’s father was steering his eldest child and only son into the priesthood. As a teen, Rudolf was left fatherless and began drifting toward military life. His early upbringing had instilled a sense of duty and a moral life. When World War I broke out, Rudolf was only 14 but still served in a military hospital and soon after was admitted to his father’s and grandfather’s old regiment. At the age of 15 he was serving with the German Army’s 21st Regiment of Dragoons in Baghdad and in Palestine. He was a sergeant by the age of 17, the youngest non-commissioned officer in the army.

After the war ended, Rudolf completed his secondary education and then joined nationalist paramilitary groups and participated in guerrilla attacks against the Polish and the French. In 1922 he denounced the Catholic Church and soon thereafter joined the Nazi Party (Party Member # 3240). Martin Bormann (later Hitler’s private secretary) asked Rudolf and members of the Freikorps to beat up a local schoolteacher, Walther Kadow, who was believed to have betrayed a local to the French authorities. Kadow died of the beating and eventually Rudolf was sentences to ten years in prison but served only four years (Bormann received a one year sentence).

After his release from prison he married Hedwig Hensel. He was invited to join the SS in 1934 and accepted. He had met Himmler before and was happy to join the ranks of SS Mann. In December, Rudolf was assigned to Dachau where he was Blockfuhrer and was said to excel in his duties. He did so well he was promoted to the commandant of Auschwitz. He was commander there for three and a half years. During that time, he killed about 2,000,000 people. After his departure, he was called back to help supervise the killing of 430,000 Hungarian Jews in just 56 days.

When the war was ending, Höss was warned to flee and evaded capture for almost a year. He was under an alias and disguised as a farmer. His wife had given information leading to his arrest in order to protect her children. He was brought to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg on April 15, 1946 and gave detailed descriptions of his crimes. This testimony was used against other Nazi members. On May 25, 1946 he was handed over to Polish authorities and tried for murder. He was sentenced to death on April 2, 1947 and was hanged on April 16 from a short drop gallows placed immediately adjacent to the crematorium of the former Auschwitz death camp.

I commanded Auschwitz until 1 December 1943, and estimate that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3,000,000. – Rudolf Höss

Technically [it] wasn’t so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers…. The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 head in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time.  – Rudolf Höss

We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz. – Rudolf Höss

In all of the discussions, Höss is quite matter-of-fact and apathetic, shows some belated interest in the enormity of his crime, but gives the impression that it never would have occurred to him if somebody hadn’t asked him. – Gustave Gilbert, American military psychologist

Also on this day: Freedom of the Press? – In 1702, England got its first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant.
Great Sheffield Flood – In 1864, the South Yorkshire, England region was flooded after a dam failed.
LAX – In 1882, the Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association was formed.
Roxy Theater – In 1927, the Roxy Theater opened in New York City.