The horrors of Auschwitz

Last January marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, but the horrific manner in which women were dehumanised, begs for some lessons to be learned
Last Updated 30 January 2021, 19:15 IST

Oświęcim is a beautiful town in Poland, about 50 kilometres west of Kraków. The German translation of Oświęcim changes one’s perception of the town. Oświęcim in German translates to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was the site of one of the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis were masters in establishing and maintaining concentration camps and of all the camps, Auschwitz was perhaps the largest one (German — Konzentrationslager). It was certainly the camp which recorded the largest number of murders, an estimated 1.1 million.

Auschwitz began as army barracks, later converted into a prisoner-of-war camp by the Nazis. Later, as the Nazis decided to implement ‘The Final Solution’ (Endlösung) Auschwitz was redesignated as a concentration camp.

The increasing number of prisoners necessitated the construction of a second camp, called Auschwitz II-Birkenau, also called Auschwitz II which was located about three kilometres away from the main camp. Killing of the prisoners, particularly the Jews, was carried out with incredible efficiency. However, the Nazis were quick to realise that the large captive population could be used profitably before being exterminated. They decided to perform medical experiments on the prisoners before killing them.

A ‘sterilised’ solution

The experiments, which were performed on women, were particularly horrific. Professor Dr Carl Clauberg and Dr Horst Schumann were particularly interested in the sterilisation of women.

They hoped that the sterilisation methods with which they were experimenting would help in the mass sterilisation of the ‘inferior races’.

Part of Block No 10 in the Main Camp was put at the disposal of the doctors. Several hundred Jewish women from various countries lived in two large rooms on the second floor of the building. Clauberg developed a method of non-surgical mass sterilisation that consisted of introducing into the female reproductive organs a specially prepared chemical irritant that produced severe inflammation. In weeks, the fallopian tubes were blocked.

Clauberg’s experiments killed some of his subjects, and others were put to death so that autopsies could be performed. There is evidence to state that Clauberg injected the irritant and then ‘sacrificed’ the subjects at intervals so that he could identify the extent of inflammation which occurred over a period of time at the autopsy.

In June 1943, Clauberg jubilantly wrote to Himmler (Reichsführer Henrich Himmler, the second most powerful man in the Reich) and mentioned that: “The non-surgical method of sterilising women that I have invented is now almost perfected.” He further goes on to say that “…in the foreseeable future, one experienced physician, with an appropriately equipped office and the aid of ten auxiliary personnel, will be able to carry out in the course of a single day the sterilisation of hundreds, or even 1,000 women.”

An impossible problem

Dr Horst Schumann preferred to use radiation for his mass sterilisation experiments. “X-ray sterilisation” equipment was set up for Schumann in one of the barracks at Birkenau. Every so often, several dozen Jewish men and women prisoners were brought in. The sterilisation experiments consisted of exposing the women’s ovaries and the men’s testes to X-rays. Schumann applied various intensities at various intervals in his search for the optimal dose of radiation. The exposure to radiation produced severe burns on the belly, groin, and buttocks areas of the subjects, and festering sores that were resistant to healing. Many subjects died from complications. The results of the X-ray sterilisation experiments were unsatisfactory. In an article that he sent to Himmler in April 1944, titled The Effect of X-Ray Radiation on the human Reproductive Glands, Schumann expressed a preference for surgical castration, as being quicker and more certain.
However, the prize for sheer inhumanity must go to Dr Josef Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death’ at Auschwitz (German — Todesengel). Mengele’s research was predominantly centred on twins.

Dr Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish pathologist was imprisoned at Auschwitz and he witnessed Dr Mengele discussing matters pertaining to the Auschwitz KZ’s administration with fellow doctors. Apparently, Dr Mengele got up from his chair suddenly as though he had just reached a decision and said, “I am no longer able to feed the debilitated prisoners of C Camp (Women’s camp). I shall have them liquidated in the next two weeks.”

Dr Mengele’s decision to liquidate C camp was carried out. Every evening, 50 trucks brought the victims, 4,000 at a time to the crematoriums. Each truck brought a load of 80 women who either filled the air with their screams or sat mute, paralysed with fear. In slow succession, the trucks rolled up and dumped the women who had already been stripped of their clothes at the top of the stairway leading to the gas chamber. From there, they were quickly pushed down. There was a strange incident during one of the massacres. After one of the gassings, the work units made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners (German — Sonderkommando) went to clear the dead bodies. They found a girl who was still alive at the bottom of the pile of dead bodies.

She was barely fifteen years old and very frail. Dr Nyiszli revived her by giving her hot broth and oxygen. Soon, she was conscious and oriented. Dr Nyiszli took her to the SS supervisor, Oberscharfuherer Mussfeld who promptly took the matter up to Dr Mengele.

Oberscharfuherer Mussfeld came back a little later and told Dr Nyiszli a little apologetically that Dr Mengele had found this an ‘impossible problem’.

He told the Oberscharfuherer that there was only one solution. Half an hour later, the child was sent back to the crematoria and was dead in a few minutes. Oberscharfuherer Mussfeld had put a bullet in the back of her neck.

Towards the end of the war, when it was certain that the Nazis were going to lose, Dr Miklos Nyiszli summoned up the courage to ask Mengele one question, probably for the first and last time. He asked him, “Captain, when is all this destruction going to cease?” To which, Mengele replied, “Mein Freund! Es geht immer weiter, immer weiter!’ (German — My friend, it goes on and on, on and on…)

To understand the horrors of Auschwitz, one must go and stand inside the gas chamber. The fingernail marks are still there, marks of victims desperate to live. Auschwitz has been repeated after World War 2.

In different places, under different people. Pol Pot, Idi Amin and the genocide in Bangladesh are examples which show that Auschwitz will never die. “Mein Freund! Es geht immer weiter, immer weiter!’

(Published 30 January 2021, 19:04 IST)

Follow us on