02/24/2015 03:54 EST | Updated 04/26/2015 05:59 EDT

The Truth About Auschwitz

The Antisemitism Institute I direct in Canada received several inquiries about the accuracy of an article published under the provocative title Ukrainians Forgotten Heroes of Auschwitz, in the local daily, the Winnipeg Free Press. The questions centered on the following paragraph:

"My father spent nearly two years in Auschwitz for opposing the German Reich's occupation of Ukraine. More than a million Ukrainians were incarcerated there. I was brought up on his stories about those historic times."

The author is not a historian or a scholar and appears to have imbibed this wild invention of "one million Ukrainians incarcerated in Auschwitz" from her father.

One might expect after so many years of public Holocaust education and memorialization in Western societies that the facts about Auschwitz would be clear, and that newspaper editors printing so-called "analysis" on the very anniversary of Auschwitz's liberation might recognize such distortions, and maybe fact check their opinion writers.

Readers may wonder: what exactly was Auschwitz? Who was murdered there and how many people were actually incarcerated there? Was it a prison or a death camp?

The Germans called Auschwitz Anus Mundi, or Arschloch Der Welt, meaning "asshole of the world," which should give one an idea of the type of place we are discussing.

Between May 1940 and February 1945, 1.3-million people were deported to Auschwitz, which was located about 50 km west of Kraków in Oświęcim, Poland. Auschwitz consisted of three main camps: Auschwitz I was a prison, built largely to house Polish prisoners; Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, was a killing center built specifically to gas and burn Jews, which also housed a small number of forced laborers; and Auschwitz III, a synthetic rubber factory known as Monowitz.

Just over 1.1-million people were murdered at Auschwitz and one million of those people were Jews, accounting for 91 per cent of the people murdered there.

The remaining 100,000 or so people killed include approximately 64,000 Poles; 21,000 Roma (better known as Gypsies); 14,000 Soviet prisoners of war; and over 10,000 members of other European nationalities (Soviet civilians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French, Germans, and Austrians).

Of the 200,000 people incarcerated in Auschwitz: 140,000 were Poles; 21,000 were Roma; 12,000 were Soviet captives; 9,000 Czechs; 6,000 Belarusians; 4,000 Germans; 4,000 French; 1,500 Russians; Yugoslavians (mostly Slovenians, but also Croatians and Serbs), and Ukrainians. As well, dozens of Albanians, Belgians, Danes, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Luxembourgians, Dutch, Norwegians, Romanians, Slovakians, Spaniards, and Swiss were held as prisoners in the camp.

Due to the meticulous record keeping of the Germans, historians have been able to reconstruct the victim groups in the Nazi concentration and death camps, which clearly illustrate the specific targeting of Jews, and Jews alone, for total destruction across Europe.

The numbers from Auschwitz also clearly demonstrate the fact that Ukrainians had one of the smallest rates of incarceration in the camp, even if there were Ukrainians included in the general Soviet numbers, which scholars believe is the case.

Over 6.3-million Jews were murdered across Europe by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during WWII. The assault on Jews, however, began before 1939. Hitler's anti-Jewish policies were unleashed within days of his appointment as Chancellor on January 30, 1933. His tactics evolved over time, beginning with social isolation and enforced emigration for German Jewry from 1933-1939.


Credit: Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Once he invaded Poland, however, he was faced with millions of Jews under his control. Hitler planned for their removal, first to the far reaches of the eastern end of the Reich (somewhere in Russia), then to the island of Madagascar. That plan was finally abandoned when he failed to cow the British into submission in September 1940.

He forced the large Jewish populations of Eastern Europe into over 1,100 ghettos and sealed them from the outside world. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hitler made the decision to exterminate European Jewry, and this process began immediately with the mobile killing units of the Einsatzgruppen, who followed the German army into Eastern Poland and the USSR.

After experimenting on Jews with a number of killing methods, the Germans settled on an industrialized assembly line process and built six death camps in Poland for the specific purpose of "liquidating" the Jews of Europe.

The most lethal death camp in the Nazi system was Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is the largest killing site in recorded history. Never before or since has a state designed, built, and maintained factories for the deception, murder, gassing, and burning of babies, children, women, and men. Never before or since has the world seen the establishment of a small city of about 45 square kilometers, surrounded by 45 satellite slave labor camps built for the dedicated purpose of annihilating an entire people. Never before or since has the world seen a human killing facility that at peak capacity (in May of 1944) was murdering 10,000 Jews every day.

The clothing and belongings of these individuals were recycled and dispersed among the German population (the mountains of clothing, suitcases, razors, eyeglasses, brushes, children's toys, prosthetic limbs), their hair was shaven and used to stuff German mattresses, their bones and ashes used as fertilizer. Jews were also reserved for so-called "medical experimentation," where they were tortured with a variety of methods; and once they were killed, their body parts and skeletons were sent back to scientists in Germany and even housed in university collections.

Let's be clear: Auschwitz was not the Arschloch der Welt because it was a prison for 200,000 people, composed of over 20 different nationalities. Auschwitz is synonymous with abject evil because of the gas chambers and ovens of Birkenau, which were designed and built specifically to annihilate the Jewish people in Europe.

Today, the pressures to universalize the Holocaust experience are immense. It seems that everyone wants a piece of Auschwitz. One of the costs of the massive bureaucratization of Holocaust education and memorialization over the last decade in Western societies is the distortion of Hitler's Holocaust into something that everyone experienced. This constitutes nothing short of a second annihilation, or a double murder, and I, for one, refuse to countenance such a distortion of historical reality and violation of Jewish memory.

If readers are interested in the detailed numbers on Auschwitz, they are available here online.