Background: The Camps

Hitler's plan to murder all the Jews of Europe was called "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question". The order to carry out the plan seems to have come from Hitler sometime during 1941.

Concentration camps had already been established throughout Europe. Some served as hard labour camps, other were transit camps. However six extermination camps had been constructed in Poland by the end of 1941, for the specific purpose of carrying out the Final Solution. These were Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Chelmno, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. German industrial companies supplied the sophisticated technological equipment to build the gas chambers and the crematoria ovens. These ovens were used to burn vast numbers of bodies.

A conference was held for senior Nazis in January 1942 at Wannsee, Berlin. Here plans were co-ordinated to kill all the remaining Jews of Europe - this included approximately 1.1 million Jews in Great Britain.

In order to co-ordinate the Final Solution, a massive network of services was utilised including the police force, army and private industries

The conditions in the camps were appalling. The Nazis planned to dehumanise and bewilder their victims. On arrival at the camps, officers would shout orders, and vicious dogs were used to keep control over the victims. The victims were told to leave all their possessions, which were confiscated and distributed amongst the German population.

Survivors in Topic 3, describe terrible scenes on arrival at camp. Families were separated and selected by an SS Doctor. During selection, camp arrivals were told to go either left or right. New arrivals sent to the left were taken immediately to the gas chambers. This usually included mothers, children, pregnant women, the old and the sick. They were often deceived and unaware of their destination, told by officials that they were being taken for a shower. Instead they were killed with deadly crystals, known as Zyklon B-hydrogen cyanide, or prussic acid. Those taken to the right were usually used as slave labourers, although the death toll was also very high. Life in the camps was particularly hard and regimented.

In Topic 3, survivors describe the humiliating process of being shaven and deloused and being issued with camp uniforms. Edith Birkin also mentions the role of the Kapos. Kapos were also prisoners but were granted privileges. They were used by the Nazis to keep order and could be brutal and sadistic. Roll calls often took place for hours in freezing or boiling outdoor conditions. Food was scarce and prisoners suffered death from many causes including starvation, disease, shooting, lethal injection and torture. Others died as a result of medical experiments conducted in the name of 'science' by SS doctors. These experiments violated all moral, medical and scientific codes of practice.

In this section, survivors also mention the Sonderkommando. They were special teams of Jewish slave labourers who were granted temporary reprieve from death and they serviced and cleared the gas chambers. This included extracting gold from the teeth of the dead and burning the bodies in the crematoria. The Sonderkommando were regularly exterminated in order to prevent any form of resistance. However, 300 Sonderkommando revolted in Auschwitz on 7 October 1944.

One of the unique aspects of the Holocaust, was how the SS had carefully calculated how to make maximum profit from each human life. Even bones and ashes from the dead were utilised for making fertiliser, whilst human hair from the victims was used for insulating submarine hulls. Major Industries also benefited from the Final Solution, from taking over Jewish businesses to the use of Jewish slave labourers in their factories situated near the various camps.