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Auschwitz Seventy Years After Liberation

January 28, 2015
IG Farben Synthetic Rubber Factory, Auschwitz - Monowitz-Buna

IG Farben Synthetic Rubber Factory, Auschwitz – Monowitz-Buna

History Moves On..Sort of…

It was 70 years ago, late January, 1945. I was on the scene, then 2 and a half months old but far away and safe. Not so many cousins of both my parents, caught in the grip of the Nazi war machine, turned into ashes in concentration camps and mobile killing vans, their bones turned to power that was recycled as fertilizer.

Now 70 years on, the suffering and death in the Auschwitz death camp is commemorated. Several hundred of the few survivors made the painful journey back to the camp, among them Jews, Poles Russians. But European politics blocked others. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, was not invited. It was a Polish decision “coordinated with the U.S. government” not to invite him although it was Soviet troops that liberated the camp on January 27, 1944. Putin took this rejection as “as an unforgivable slight that undermines the Russian narrative of the war and Fascism.

A number of documentaries and news stories of some relevance appeared. PBS ran a tv special on the camp. After having essentially sheltered hundreds if not thousands of Nazis of different levels of importance from persecution, in what is little more than a symbolic act, the German authorities have, over the past year, rounded up some for prosecution. A year ago, in February, 2014, German authorities executed raids on 12 individual accused of having been Nazi concentration camp guards. “It was hoped that the raids would make up for decades of inaction; Instead, they will likely mark the latest chapter in the German judiciary’s shameful approach to the Holocaust..” But for various reasons, most the cases were dropped and the defendants never prosecuted. Although several cases are going to go to court.
∙ Oscar Groenig, now 93, known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz” will go on trial in April in a court in the northern German city of Lueneburg. He was alleged to have been responsible for counting money confiscated from prisoners and faces charges concerning some 425,000 people sent to Auschwitz who were immediately exterminated
∙ 93 year old Hilde Michnia (born Liesewicz) will go on trial in Hamburg. She is suspected of having allegedly helped evacuate the Gross-Rosen camp as Allied forces approached, forcing prisoners on a march which killed around 1,400 of them.

A year before,one of Rudolf Hoess’s daughters, Brigitte, married an American and lived in Washington DC area for 35 years. She worked in a fashion shop there. This was reported in the Washington Post, September 7, 2013. Hoess was the commandant at Auschwitz who oversaw the killing machine. It is true that the sins of the father were not committed by his daughter who lived in a villa not far from the killing fields and whose garden was cared for by concentration camp prisoners, but so many decades later, she continues to defend her father as “a very kind man”.


Seventy years ago tonight,* on January 27, 1944 the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in Southern Poland was liberated by Soviet troops. By the time they entered the gates of Auschwitz, the 322nd Rifle Division of the Soviet Red Army had fought in some of the harshest battles of the war – the late 1941 early 1942 defense of Moscow in which Soviet forces denied the Nazi armies entry into their capitol but at great losses. Then they fought at the Battle of Kursk between July and August 1943, the largest tank battle in world history, a decisive but costly victory for the Soviets. Although they won, victory came with 690,000 casualties, dead and wounded; those losses in one battle were greater than all the U.S. deaths in the war (which totaled about half a million).

But all that blood, guts and suffering did not prepare them for what they experienced entering Auschwitz. On that late January day that they arrived at the concentration camp, they found remaining 7,500 starving prisoners left to die by the Nazis; among them was the Italian Jewish chemist Primo Levi who would write Survival At Auschwitz and other works about his Auschwitz experiences. Besides the 7500 living ghosts that greeted Soviet liberators were about 600 corpses the Nazis did not have time to incinerate, 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments and 7.7 tons (15,400 pounds) of human hair, a vivid reminder of why Auschwitz existed in the first place.

“Besides the 7500 living ghosts that greeted Soviet liberators were about 600 corpses the Nazis did not have time to incinerate, 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments and 7.7 tons (15,400 pounds) of human hair, a vivid reminder of why Auschwitz existed in the first place.”

As a recent article in the German magazine Der Spiegel related:

“The SS ground up the bones of the corpses and sold the meal to a fertilizer company in the vicinity. The ashes of the incinerated bodies were used in road construction, the hair of the women was spun into yarn and processed into felt, and gold tooth fillings were removed and melted, formed into bars and turned over to the Reichsbank, Germany’s central bank during the Nazi era.”

Those inmates that remained at the camp had been deemed too weak to be forced on a death march north to the Baltic Sea, where, with prisoners from other concentration camps, they would be put on ship sent out into the Baltic Sea and sunk by Nazi gunners. The Nazis had planned to execute them all but had to leave in a panic as the Soviet troops approached. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at the death camp at Auschwitz, the SS marched nearly 60,000 prisoners out of the camp toward Wodzislaw Slaski (German: Loslau), 56 km (35 mi) away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. Approximately 15,000 prisoners died on the way. Among those executed on that march was Victor “Young” Perez, Tunisian-Jewish world featherweight champion (1930-1931).


Today the general horror story of Auschwitz is well-known. It is the chilling history of the death machine, of the lives of inmates from different countries, of the utter cruel, racism, barbarism of the overall Nazi death machine, which, before it was destroyed, killed 6 million Jews, 4 million Poles, an estimated 27 million former Soviets, 600,000 former Yugoslavs, perhaps as many as 800,000 Greeks, 500,000 Hungarians and hundreds of thousands of others. But for all that, there really is no way that can capture the extent of the horror the Nazis inflicted upon Europe and the world in their short desperate bid for global hegemony. Even now, seventy years later, new chapters in human inhumanity to other humans conceived and carried out from the decade from approximately 1935-1945 continue to surface.

Part of the problem in conceptualizing the horrors of Nazi Germany is that the scope of the horror is so broad, so breathtaking and insidious that it is difficult to fathom. It was a laboratory of human suffering, torture and death. The Nazis killed in many ways. Their victims were killed in the vast network of concentration camps, many in the gas chambers, others worked to death or beaten savagely by camp “kapos.” Still others were gassed also by mobile Waffen SS death units that followed the German Army on its trek for conquest. Hundreds of thousands were killed in battle, many died simply of starvation, exhaustion, others of torture or execution. People were exterminated because they were mentally or physically handicapped (eugenics), they were executed for their politics, left or liberal, for their ethnicity – for being Polish, Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, for their adhesion to trade unions (French miners and railroad workers), for not being ardent enough Nazis. Hundreds of thousands were killed for their sexual orientation, for being gay, transsexual, or for having engaged in prostitution. Others, several hundred thousand, were worked to death in Nazi forced labor camps throughout Europe or succumbed as a result of Joseph Mengele’s demented medical experiments.

Of those targeted, a number of groups stand out: Europe’s Jews and Gypsies were special targets, exterminated without mercy. So were Poles, Soviet prisoners of war (Soviet P.O.W.s) of whom it is estimated that some 5.7 million were exterminated with modern factory-line efficiency, many of them at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside of Potsdam, not far from Berlin where they perished along side of French miners who refused to mine iron and coal for the Nazi war machine. Still there is a reason that Jewish organizations target Auschwitz for their annual memorials to mark the Holocaust. It is estimated that at least 1.1 million people in all died there, but of that number a full 90% were Jewish. It is estimated that 1 of 6 Jews in World War II died at that camp giving it a special horrific place in Jewish history. The camp itself – a huge complex that included a synthetic rubber factory run by IG Farben.


Among the flood of materials that continues to be published on Auschwitz, I want to discuss only two – one quite dated but the importance of which has been overlooked, the other more recent shedding light on one aspect of the tragedy. In 1952 French author Robert Merle, who later would go on to write a 13 part historical novel on France in the 16th and 17th century, published a small volume called “La mort est mon metier” (English translation: Death Is My Trade, published in English in London, 1954). It is a fictional biography of the life of Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz who was tried at Nuremberg, found guilty of crimes against humanity and executed by hanging  soon thereafter at Auschwitz where he organized and oversaw the death factory. The other book I want to discuss is John Tully’s The Devil’s Milk: The Social History of Rubber. (Monthly Review Press: 2011). Auschwitz is discussed towards the end of the book; one of the three main concentration camps within the Auschwitz system was Monowitz-Buna, otherwise known as Auschwitz III. The Nazis constructed a synthetic rubber plant there staffed with forced prison labor in hopes of producing synthetic rubber for the war effort. One of its employees, one of the few who survived, was Primo Levi.

Livre de Poche (popular French paper-back series) cover to La mort est mon metier.

Livre de Poche (popular French paper-back series) cover to La mort est mon metier.

La mort est mon metier

As mentioned in other blog entries, this year is the 50th anniversary of a year I spent in Rouen, France – a classic junior year abroad with St. Lawrence University. One of my professors that year was Robert Merle. In commemoration of that year – and the impact that Robert Merle had upon my life – I decided to read as much of his life’s work as possible  in French. It was in that spirit that I picked up and read La mort est mon metier. It is a psychological novel in large measure, Merle’s attempt to get into Hoess’s head, to understand how it was that nice German middle class boy could become – and did become a mass murderer on what amounts to an unprecedented scale who took his task of exterminating as many Jews as possible quite seriously and was, unfortunately, rather good at what he did.

Robert Merle knew the Nazi prison system rather well. Captured at Dunkirk, unable to evacuate, he spent three years in a German prison camp that included one escape attempt. Through the intervention of French friends and family – his mother played no small role here – he was released back to France in 1943 where he spent the duration of the war. By the end of World War II, Merle’s life path was pretty clearly established: continue his studies to earn a French doctorate and become a writer. It was only much later in life that he began to write the historical novel series for which he would become famous (and wealthy), but earlier in his career he tried his hand at what can be considered political writing. Besides his book about Hoess he also wrote one about Castro’s rise to power, another one essentially a series of interviews with Ahmad Ben Bella, Algeria’s first president. His first novel, published shortly after the war was entitled Weekend a ZuydcooteZuydcoote being the beach adjacent to Dunkirk where the great evacuation of British (and some French) troops was organized in June, 1940 as the Nazis swept west into Belgium and then south into France. For that he won France’s prestigious 1949 Prix Goncourt which put him on the map so to speak as a major postwar cultural figure, a status he would never lose.

La mort est mon metier came next, published in 1952 in French, 1954 in English. As in Weekend a Zuydcoote, in this work he explores another aspect of World War II, the mind of a Nazi concentration camp director. Although a fictional account, Merle admitted that the book was essentially about the life of Rudoph Hoess. It was based largely on Hoess’s written testimonies, produced while he was preparing his defense for the Nuremburg Trials, and on court records of the trials themselves. While many members of the SS were convinced bigots, believing in their Aryan superiority and all that nonsense, Merle paints a somewhat different picture of Hoess, who seems cut out of a  different mold, similar to that of Adolf Eichmann with whom he worked closely. To quote Merle in 1972 reflecting back on his book and Hoess’s life:

“Everything Rudolf did, he did not out of viciousness, but in the name of the categorical imperative (the central tenet of Kant’s moral philosophy) of duty, of loyalty to his commander, in submission to orders, out of respect for the State. In short, as a ‘man of duty’; it is precisely for this behavior that he is monstrous.”

That is precisely the psychological portrait Merle paints of Hoess. Like Eichmann, Hoess claims to just have been following orders. He would have killed anyone whom Heinrich Himmler, his superior, ordered him to kill and do so without any ethical considerations. No, he didn’t particularly hate Jews, but was just commanded to kill them and tried to do “his job” as thoroughly as possible – the modern bureaucrat stripped of all moral or ethical considerations just “doing his job”. Merle’s dissection of Hoess’s early years – his repressive parents, his eternal search for a father figure as cruel and regimented as his own, made him easy prey for Nazi organizers. If they gave him a little pat on the head, like a trained Doberman, there really was nothing that he wouldn’t do. This characteristic developed early in his life and led him to his Auschwitz commandant activity.

In any case, the book, while today 63 years old, is a masterpiece.

When it was first published, according to Merle, it elicited a weak response from a French audience both looking ahead, wanting to distance themselves from the horrors of war and perhaps, the extensive support or toleration of Hitler”s French Vichy partners, his willing executioners of French Jews. Whatever,the book did not sell well. Still there was a flurry of interest in it when the Eichmann trial began and seems to have been something akin to a psychological guide to Eichmann’s bureaucratic personality as well. Merle’s analysis of Hoess is a forerunner to Hannah Arendt’s controversial classic, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Publish a decade after La mort est mon metier, in 1963, and developing a psychological portrait of Eichmann very much resembling Merle’s description of Hoess, Arendt wrote about the banality of evil. The term  caused a virtual uproar at the time with its suggestion that, as Edward Herman described it, that “ugly, degrading, murderous and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as the way things are done. “

Hoess and Eichmann were something akin to psychological twins. In fact despite their positions rather high in the Nazi power structure, neither of them were particularly intelligent, to the contrary. Both were virtually addicted to following the rules (including those directing them to exterminate people); neither had much ability to think for themselves. The spoke in clichéd phrases, always trying to keep up with the new vocabulary that justified their actions. In fact, as both Merle and Arendt noted, these two were rather ordinary people, more classic examples of “the Peter principle” (shit rises to the top of bureaucracies) and not the psychopaths one would think would have the personalities needed to manage a system of genocide on such a mammoth scale. It is their very ordinariness as Merle notes that makes them all the more barbarous.

John Tulley's The Devil's Milk

John Tulley’s The Devil’s Milk

The Devil’s Milk: The Social History of Rubber

John Tully’s The Devil’s Milk is quite a different book in which Auschwitz enters into the text only late in the day. The subtitle of the book says it all “the social history of rubber” – and that it is. Admittedly the subject of rubber tends to make people’s eyes glaze over much of the time. A shame. What a fine volume not just filled with the economic and technical history of a substance probably as important as oil or electricity to modern industrial society, but also probes and penetrates the human price for producing it, whether it be in King Leopold II’s genocidal Congo, the upper Amazon along the Putumayo River tributary, the rubber factories of Akron, Ohio, or in World War II, IG Farben’s Monowitz  synthetic rubber factory within the Auschwitz Concentration Camp complex.

Before IG Farben was able to secure its contract with the Nazi government to build and operate a factory in Auschwitz, the company’s chairman of the board, Carl Bosch, had to purge the company of its Jewish scientists, several of whom, like Fritz Haber and Richard Willstatter, were Nobel Prize laureates in Chemistry. This was done at Hitler’s personal insistence. It was only after the purge that Hitler was willing to over the company a lucrative contract to own and operate a synthetic rubber and oil factory, both key elements for the Nazi war machine. IG Farben ran a number of synthetic rubber factories throughout Germany. Before initiating World War with his 1939 attack on Poland, with IG Farben’s technical prowess, Nazi Germany had significantly increased its production of synthetic rubber. to compensate for its loss of British controlled natural rubber from Southeast Asia, the Nazis were anxious to develop a synthetic substitute – and did. Producing some 1000 tons in 1936, IG Farben’s synthetic rubber production rose to more than 100,000 eight years later at the height of the war, in 1944.

The Nazi’s answer to the labor shortage in the region around Auschwitz was slave labor. The factory system put in place there was – in theory and practice – one which Tully describes as “extermination through work.”  The synthetic rubber factor was a part and parcel of the entire Nazi slave labor system in which IG Farben functioned, would employ some 700,000 people by 1944. When confronted at his trial in Nuremberg by the human casualties that resulted in Monowitz’s cruel slave labor Herr Doktor Otto Ambros, “a professor…a well-to-do businessman…and a good Christian gentleman” repeatedly claimed, “I was just a chemist.” One of 23 top IG Farben executives charged at Nuremberg with using slave labor and plundering the occupied nations of Europe, Ambros never accepted guilt for his actions, insisting that the crimes against humanity that he was convicted of  “had been done over his head and without his knowledge. Convicted at Nuremberg of enslavement and plunder, he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment – a criminally light sentence considering all the human lives crushed to death from over work at the synthetic rubber plant. Worse, he only served four years, was released in 1951 and thereafter “achieved prominence as an industrial consultant in both his native country and the Untied States” (Tully p.285.)

The synthetic rubber factory that Ambros directed at Auschwitz never got to the point where the production of synthetic rubber and synthetic fuel from coal could be mastered. There were continual construction delays due to material shortages. The complex was also bombed on a number of occasions by the Allies aware of Nazi plans for the place. Still, at any one time it was estimated that somewhere between 19,000 and 25,000 concentration camp inmates were employed at IG Farben’s rubber factory.  It is estimated that some 25,000 – 35,000 people, mostly Jews died at IG Farben’s rubber plant alone from the harsh conditions. The overall number of victims for the entire Monowitz factory complex (that includes several other factories) was estimated at Nuremberg to have topped 370,000 in all.  They succumbed to he effects of the miserable rations, inadequate clothing, and harsh working conditions, were killed at the construction site, or fell victim to a selection and were sent to the gas chambers in Birkenau. Those chosen to work in the factories – there was also a Krupp arms manufacturing plant there – came from all over Europe. On entering Auschwitz, they were separated from their families, their relatives were mostly murdered immediately after arrival. The factory management, headed up by Ambros, pushed the work force at a punishing pace to constantly increase production, a result achieved by repeated beating. Violence and corporal punishment were the incentives of the day that frequently resulted in prisoners being beaten to death. As one camp guard told newcomers, “There is only one way out of here, through the chimney.”

With very few exceptions, the IG Farben managers at Auschwitz got off very lightly, like Ambros, serving light sentences. While the company was formally dismantled after the war, many of its subsidiaries survived as spin offs, among them BASF, Agfa, Bayer (the aspirin company that through the good graces of Mengele did obscene medical experiments on humans)  and Hoechst, all thriving companies today who naturally prefer to look forward to their future rather than back to a past that seventy years on still nags at them.

Take for example the Bayer company. One can understand why they prefer to “look forward rather than back in time.” In an article that focuses more on the company’s post war history of price-fixing on the i-lawsuit website, the author takes a nostalgic moment to look back upon some of the Mengele-directed projects the company funded as an IG Farben subsidiary at Auschwitz:

“Wanting to better understand the human body and particularly the nuances of heredity, Mengele became infamous for his experiments that included injecting dye in to children’s eyeballs and repeated x-rays on the reproductive organs, to see if he could make prisoners infertile. By better understanding the reproductive process, Mengele wanted to propel the growth of the Aryan race while sterilizing “undesirables”- the handicapped, gypsies and those of the Jewish race.

Mengele also became well-known for performing a variety of other inhumane experiments. Some of them included injecting one twin with sickness like typhus or gangrene, and then immediately slaughtering the other when the first twin died to compare the two corpses to see the anatomical differences. To test the effectiveness of new drugs, Mengele also injected various chemicals in to his victims, often paralyzing or killing them. In other experiments Mengele would dissect pregnant mothers and children, without anesthesia. Many of these experiments were in a large part sponsored by IG Farben who aid Auschwitz doctors to test their drugs on the prison victims and to discover the “secrets to heredity”

Tully devotes an entire section to the Nazi effort to develop synthetic rubber and how that effort played out in Auschwitz. It is solid history, painful reading, yes, but solid history that elucidates yet another poorly probed layer of the horror that was Nazi Germany.


* note: I started this entry on the evening of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

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