What did the Allies know about the Holocaust and when did they know it?
The first information about the mass murder of Jews reached the Allies in June 1941 and more specific details became available in 1942. I recently came upon a report that was apparently in the possession of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), the headquarters of General Dwight Eisenhower, Commander of Allied forces in northwest Europe. Although he would express great shock after visiting the camps in 1945, this report indicates that Eisenhower and others at SHAEF had a great deal of information about them as early as July 1942.
The 12-page report focuses primarily on Mauthausen and the Gusen subcamp, but there are also some references to Dachau and Oswiecim (better known as Auschwitz). This is not some cursory description of concentration camps, it is a highly detailed one, which reveals the Allies were well aware of at least some of the horrors faced by prisoners.
Mauthausen, for example, is described as a concentration camp surrounded by barbed wire “charged with electric current of high voltage, causing mortal injuries.” The report even lists the numbers on the barracks and their location. The camp was constructed before the war by German prisoners “working under unspeakable conditions.”
To get a sense of the level of detail in the report, one section describes the mess hall, which was lined with cabinets. “In these cabinets the prisoners keep their dishes, cups, spoons, knives and towels, two or three men sharing one cabinet. On top of the cabinets stand wooden stools, which may be taken down only at dinner and supper, as well as four tables.” The prisoners have toilets with running water, which are “out of order most of the time” and live in unheated dormitories.
The use of the word “dormitory” may suggest a modest room like you would find at a university. The report made clear this was not the case. “The dormitories contain between 150 and 200 bed stands in an abominable condition.” Prisoners sleep on straw mattresses, which a former prisoner described as “more vermin than straw.” He also said the only people who could bathe were those who could force their way to the water. “Clergymen and Jews were being singled out for abuse,” he said. As an example, he said clergymen were forced to carry barrels filled with excrement on their backs on Sunday mornings.
The same prisoner was later sent to Oswiecim where he said they were robbed of their belongings when they arrived at the train station. The level of brutality of kapos, he said, “beggars description.” None of the prisoners were given shoes and they were forced to walk on sharp gravel that lacerated their feet. “Fresh gravel is particularly sharp edged and after one day’s work the soles of the prisoners’ feet are one big wound, whereas after a few days live flesh hangs in shreds.” Many people died from infections and gangrene.
At Gusen, “sanitation and medical care in the camp are but a figment of imagination.” The report goes on in gory detail to describe the physical condition and ailments that afflict prisoners. “The mortality is appalling, the causes being mostly exhaustion and debility. It is an absolute fact that of 700 men, who were brought to Gusen in June 1940, only a little over a hundred are alive at the moment.”
The Allies knew the camp routine as well:
The day begins with reveille in summer at 5 a.m., in the winter at 6 a.m., whereupon the prisoners have to make their beds, wash and eat breakfast till 6 (7) a.m. At 6:15 (7:15) they must assemble in front of their barracks and march to the roll-call square; at 11:45 comes roll-call and forming of work-gangs, at 7 (8) departure for work. At 11:20 all work-gangs start back for the roll-call square; at 11:45 comes the roll-call and the march back to the barracks. The midday meal is issued at noon with rest-time till 12:45, then again comes roll-call at 1 p.m. and work till 6 p.m. in summer and 5 p.m. in winter. On return from work, comes the evening roll-call. Depending on the length of the day and the regulations in force in the given camp, the length of time prisoners have to work varies from 11 hours in summer to 8 hours in winter. In summer the first gong sounds at 8:30 p.m. whereupon all prisoners must be in their beds; by 8:45 comes the “silence” signal.
The report has a similar level of detail regarding the food prisoners were given. “Briefly speaking,” it concludes, “the food rations are barely sufficient to sustain life, so much so, that many prisoners die from exhaustion due to hard work and undernourishment.”
The report also lists the positions of the authorities in the camp, which included roll-call officers, squad commandants, guards and camp directors. It does not mention any names except Bohdan Chmielewski, who is identified as the commanding officer at Gusen. Actually, his first name was Karl and nicknamed the Devil of Gusen.
Most prisoners were forced to work in quarries: “Extremely hard and exhausting work, combined with ruthless driving and beating by means of clubs (approximately 4 centimeters in diameter) kills off weaker men within a few days.” A number of other jobs were assigned in the kitchen, warehouses and various workshops. In Gusen, one of the hardest jobs is to carry stones from quarries to the camp. “The work goes on, regardless of weather, snow, rain, blizzard, freezing cold or blistering heat, without any chance at all for seeking shelter or resting. The prisoners in their tattered uniforms and shoes, are often drenched to the skin and frozen almost to insensibility.”
“The treatment of prisoners is unspeakably brutal and humiliating,” according to the report. “Face punching and kicking are daily occurrences. The Poles in particular are treated like beings of a lower order and insults and beatings from their German fellow-prisoners are a matter of general practice.”
Interestingly, in the description of the different badges on prisoners’ clothing, there is no mention of yellow triangles for Jews. The report says political prisoners wore red triangles; troublesome aliens, blue; shirkers, black; habitual criminals, green; and homosexuals, pink.”
Also, though Jews were the principal victims in the camps, the report contains only one reference to the treatment of Jews. In a long section on the “methods and types of punishment” one sentence mentions they were assigned to work in the Mauthausen quarries and were “singled out for persecution and extermination.”
The Allies knew all of this was going on in 1942. Moreover, according to the Gusen Memorial website, the camps were “the subject of continuous observation and intermittent documentary photography” by the Allies from the end of 1943 onward, but “never became a target for systematic bombing by Allied forces.” Thousands died between the date of the report in the SHAEF files and the three years it took to liberate the survivors.
This was not the finest hour for Britain or the United States.