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Escape From Auschwitz

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Escape or Resistance

Escape was extremely rare at Auschwitz, but was not unknown.

The most famous case was that of Mala Zimetbaum and her Polish lover, Edek Galinski. She was a Lauferin, or runner, in the camp, able to move about on errands and carrying messages. Both had been members of anti-Nazi undergrounds, he in Poland, she in Belgium. He obtained an SS uniform, she "organized" a pass, and they left the camp together in the guise of an SS man transporting a prisoner. Many Auschwitz survivors remember them, for they inspired everyone with tremendous hope, but the accounts differ on details as to the distance they got before being arrested and returned to the camp. Some survivors remember them getting as far as Krakow. Back in Auschwitz, both were tortured and then led to the gallows for public execution. Mala slashed her wrist with a razor blade she had concealed, was beaten to the ground and loaded onto the crematorium truck without ever being hanged. Across the camp, Edek leaped into the noose and kicked away the bench before the death sentence was read; the SS rescued and re-hanged him.

There were six hundred other cases of escape from Auschwitz. Almost four hundred were captured. When an escape was detected, all prisoners in the camp stood at attention for hours on end, while the fugitive was hunted outside the camp; once captured, the escapee was tortured, then paraded around the camp with a sign saying "Hurrah, I'm back," and then was hanged in front of the rest of the camp. Friedrich, pp. 58-60.

Primo Levi, in his chapter on "Stereotypes", remarks that he was often asked why he did not escape from Auschwitz:

(T)here existed....several million foreigners in a condition of slavery, overworked, despised, undernourished, badly clothed, and badly cared for, cut off from all contact with their native land. They were not 'typical prisoners', they did not have integrity, on the contrary they were demoralized and depleted....For them escape was difficult and extremely dangerous; besides being demoralized, they had been weakened by hunger and maltreatment; they were and knew they were considered worth less than beasts of burden. Their heads were shaved, their filthy clothes were immediately recognizable, their wooden clogs made a swift and silent step impossible. If they were foreigners, they had neither acquaintances nor viable places of refuge in the surroundings....The particular, but numerically imposing, case of the Jews was the most tragic....In what direction could they flee? To whom could they turn for shelter? They were outside the world, men and women made of air.

Levi, Drowned, pp. 153-154.

Resistance was almost impossible in Auschwitz, where disobedience meant torture and death, for one's peers as well as oneself. Nevertheless, it occurred. The most notable instance was that of the Sonderkommando that seized a crematorium.

Just months before the liberation of the camp, when it was already known that the Russian army was approaching, the SS caught wind of the fact that the last of the Sonderkommando--the squads of Jewish prisoners formed to shepherd their fellows to the gas chamber-- were planning an uprising. They determined to eliminate them all.

On October 7, 1944, as the SS were forming a detail of three hundred members of the Sonderkommando for some outside work (this was thought to be a ruse to separate and execute them) the Sonderkommando began pelting the SS with stones and drove them off. They packed crematorium IV with explosives they had "organized" or stolen, and blew it up. Eighty to one hundred trucks of SS men arrived and the Sonderkommando fought them with stolen machine guns and grenades they had been stockpiling; the SS responded in kind and by unleashing fifty attack dogs.

Sonderkommando in other units rose up too; some seized crematorium II and threw an SS man and a kapo into the furnace alive. Some men cut holes in the barbed wire and fled, but in the wrong direction, remaining within the larger confines of the extended camp. The SS trapped some in a barn and set fire to it, and hunted others down in the woods; by the end of the day, hundreds of members of the Sonderkommando had been burned or shot to death.

After the revolt was put down, the remaining two hundred members of the Sonderkommando were executed, some with flamethrowers.

Friedrich, pp. 80-85.

 

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Electrified Fence



The camp is surrounded by double-cordoned, formerly electrified barbed wire fencing. Now gone, one can easily imagine the tramping of SS boots, the shouts of guards, and barking of their attack dogs.

The camp is surrounded by double-cordoned, formerly electrified barbed wire fencing. Now gone, one can easily imagine the tramping of SS boots, the shouts of guards, and barking of their at

 

 

 

 

 

tack dogs.

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Crematory I

At the edge of the camp lies the Crematory; a small nondescript structure built into the ground. It remains as it was, complete with gas chamber, iron body carts, and furnaces

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Gallows

After his capture, trial, and having been sentenced to death, Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss was hanged on April 16, 1947, on this spot near Crematory I. "History will mark me as the greatest mass murderer of all time," Höss wrote while in prison, along with a detailed memoir about Auschwitz.

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Display of Inmates' Clothing

Inmates' clothing as well as other items are on display inside Block (Barracks) 4.

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Huge Pile of Shoes

This bin, secured behind large glass panels, contains many footless shoes of past inmates - the victims remembered only by their absence.

 

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The Wall of Death

Located between Block 10 and 11, this wall and adjacent courtyard was an execution plaza where an estimated 20,000 inmates lost their lives. Most were shot from behind while standing naked.

 

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Block 11

This basement hallway and adjacent cells now stand dimly lit and deathly still; haunted by the memory of their former occupants, the starved and the tortured; inmates no longer visible, only remembered.

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Auschwitz II-Birkenau Front Entrance Gate

This is the main entrance to Birkenau as viewed from the unloading ramp. Through this entrance train transports from twenty three countries arrived, bringing millions to their death.

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Unloading Area

This is the unloading area, also known as the ramp, which begins just inside the main gate, continues for hundreds of yards, and ends adjacent to Crematories II and III. New arrivals, exhausted and confused, immediately went through a selection process. Those chosen for work went in one direction, the remainder, falsely told they were going to take disinfecting baths and have a warm meal, were moved in procession to the gas chambers.

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Guard Tower

This guard tower stands midway along the length of the unloading area. The gate leads to a road that separated camp sections BIIc and BIId. In the background are the ruins of BIId - the Men's Camp.

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Wagon for the Dead

This wagon and others like it were used to collect and haul the dead to the Crematories.

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Ruins of Crematory II

Crematories II and III were both built by inmates. Each building had three main parts; the underground undressing room and gas chamber, and the furnace room with ovens on the ground floor. The attic was used for drying the hair of gassed women, and as sleeping quarters for the Sonderkommando slave labor squads.

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Ruins of Crematory III

On January 20, 1945, using dynamite, an SS detachment blew up Crematories II and III. This attempt to cover-up their crimes was only partially successful. The debris-covered underground rooms remained relatively intact, as did the rail system built into the furnace room floor.

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Interior Fence Line

There are many miles of this fencing still present, made of concrete posts and barbed wire, used in part to separate the camp into sections. This line of fencing is located behind the rail end in the direction of the Sauna.

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"The Sauna" (Delousing Center)

This building was used as a reception area and for exterminating bugs, mainly lice. Inmates selected for work, including new arrivals, disrobed and waited, sometimes naked in freezing weather, for their clothes to be disinfected. Zyklon-B, the same cyanide gas pellets used to kill people, was also used to kill vermin.

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Pond of Ashes

This pond contains the ashes of thousands of people who were killed in Crematory IV, which is adjacent and to the left, just out of view.

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Barracks - Section BIIa - Quarantine

These wooden-framed buildings, which at one time numbered hundreds and were originally designed as horse stables, each housed eight hundred or more inmates. Most of the barracks have been torn down, leaving behind a graveyard of foundations and chimneys.

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Interior of Barracks

At each bunk level, six to eight people slept. The center brick and mortar duct was used for heating. "If the barrack walls were suddenly to fall away, many thousands of people, packed together, squeezed tightly in their bunks, would remain suspended in mid-air. Such a sight would be more gruesome than the medieval painting of the Last Judgment..." Tadeusz Borowski in the book "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen."

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Latrine for Camp Section BIIa

Under the menacing watch of guards, five thousand to seven thousand or more inmates, many infected with typhus or dysentery, without any real opportunity to care for their personal hygiene, shared this latrine at any given time.

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