The date of January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day was the date designated in 2005 by the United Nations to annually commemorate the murder of 6 million Jews. This UN-chosen date coincides with the January 27, 1945, liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland by the Red Army. (Victory in Europe Day did not occur until May 8, 1945.)
Other organizations observe different annual dates for Holocaust remembrance. These various annual dates provide just one of the many confusing facts of the 12 years of the Third Reich (1933-1945).
In this post I would like to deal with some of these confusing facts:
As a Holocaust educator in North Macedonia pointed out to me, the term “concentration camp” is used generically for a number of different types of “camps” including:
- Forced labor/slave labor/work camps
- Prisoner of war camps
- Transit/collection camps
- Deportation camps
- Death camps
- Extermination camps
- Killing centers
Here are some significant examples of different kinds of concentration camps. (Keep in mind that many camps were hybrid camps, so even this explanation is somewhat simplistic.)
Opened in March 1933 less than two months after Hitler legitimately voted into power. Original purpose was a prison camp for political prisoners. Jewish men rounded up on Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) sent there. In the early days prisoners could be released from this camp due to various means. Starting in 1941 Soviet prisoners of war were sent here and then shot at a nearby rifle range. Some barely alive survivors of the death march from Auschwitz and other death marches ended up here in early 1945. Liberated by Allied troops on April 29, 1945.
The crematorium is in a separate section of Dachau – used to burn bodies of prisoners shot or who died of disease or other causes such as malnutrition. Dachau was not an official “extermination” camp or killing center.
An extermination camp from July 1942 to October 1943 – built with gas chambers for the purpose of murdering Jews. Victims got off the train transports and were immediately murdered. (A few victims kept alive to dispose of the bodies.) This is a killing center.
The most complicated of these three examples because it started out as one kind of camp – a prisoner-of-war camp for Poles after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 — and later was expanded to include a massive killing center – known as Birkenau or Auschwitz II. (For this discussion we will use the general term Auschwitz.)
Two confusing portrayals of Auschwitz:
1) In some Holocaust material you may notice that some Auschwitz inmates will say that other inmates are going to the crematoria or to the ovens when in fact the inmates are gassed first before being cremated.
As a footnote in Shlomo Venezia’s INSIDE THE GAS CHAMBERS: EIGHT MONTHS IN THE SONDERKOMMANDO OF AUSCHWITZ explains:
In Auschwitz-Birkenau, the term “crematorium” (Krematorium in German) designates a structure including the room where the prisoners undressed, the gas chamber(s), and the crematorium ovens. There were four of these structures in Birkenau, in addition to the first crematorium situated at Auschwitz I. Crematoria II and II were built facing each other, as were Crematoria IV and V. They were brought into service between spring and summer of 1943.
On the other hand, in camps such as Theresienstadt (Terezin) that did not have gas chambers yet did have crematorium to burn people who died of disease, starvation, and other deadly causes, the word “crematoria” only means ovens.
2) In some Holocaust material about Auschwitz you may notice that the victims walk downstairs below ground level to the gas chambers and in other material they walk directly into the ground-level gas chambers. This seeming contradiction is also true about seeing Zyklon B being dropped from ground level into an underground gas chamber or seeing a Nazi climbing a ladder to drop the Zyklon B into a ground-floor gas chamber.
As explained by Marcello Pezzetti in his essay “The Shoah, Auschwitz, and the Sonderkommando” included at the end of the above book, Crematoria II and III had two stories – a basement and a ground floor with the gas chamber in the basement. Crematoria IV and V – “unlike the two other crematoria, the gas chambers of these buildings, like the crematorium ovens, were built on ground level …”
This accounts for the differences in portrayal of where the victims entered the gas chambers at Auschwitz and from where the Zyklon B was introduced into the gas chambers.
The above are only a few examples of how the facts about the Holocaust can sometimes appear contradictory when often there is a logical explanation for what might appear as a possible inconsistency.
It is important to realize that the wholesale murder of Jews was not a static action during the Nazi regime. It was a fluid situation that could change at any time. The Nazis’ end goal? To wipe out all Jews in Europe.
On the occasion of the January 27, 2022, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, listen to the above podcast as Dutch Jew Evelyn Markus recounts the Holocaust survival accounts of both her parents and their families.