The Prisoners' Fate in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Following the German occupation of Hungary, the Nazis determined to turn the only still operational extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau into the burial ground for the Hungarian Jews. Eichmann made a brief visit to the camp and he was displeased with what he saw: the direct rail-link to the crematoria had not been completed and the instruments of mass killing lay idle. Therefore in early May commander of the camp Arthur Liebehenschel was dismissed and control over the operation of massacring the Hungarian Jews was put into the hands of the most experienced expert on mass murder: the founder and commander of the camp, Rudolf Höss. 

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Rudolf Höss

got down to work with renewed energy: he ordered the reconstruction of the crematoria, the completion of the so-called "Jewish ramp" which lay between sectors BI and BII and the rail siding. Bunker 2, left to stand idle for over a year, was reopened and the huge burning pits behind Crematorium V were excavated. He built up the strength of the Sonderkommando, a Jewish brigade that operated the crematoria, and the so-called Kanadakommando, a special team that handled the deportees' belongings. He appointed his trusted men to key positions: SS Captain Josef Kramer, later to be known as the "Beast of Belsen", was given command of the Birkenau extermination camp, and the command of the extermination zone was taken over by SS Master Sergeant Otto Moll. Although the work was not finished by mid-May, by the arrival of the first transports from Hungary, the stage was set to begin the largest extermination action in the history of the Holocaust and the entire history of mankind. It was named "Operation Höss" after its leader and overall commander.

The mass transport of Hungarian Jews to Birkenau took place between May 16 and June 11. Previous to that, at the end of April, German authorities had already sent two transports from Hungary with Jewish inmates from Budapest prisons and the interment camps of Kistarcsa and Bácstopolya. In the weeks following the mass deportations, on July 22 and 26, two additional transports arrived at the ramps with Jews smuggled out of the country by Eichmann from the internment camps of Kistarcsa and Sárvár without the consent of the Hungarian government.

Of the 445,000 Hungarian Jews deported between the end of April and the end of July, 10,000-15,000 ended up in Strasshof, Austria. The rest were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In addition, smaller Hungarian groups continued to arrive until October 1944, so the final number of Hungarian Jews deported to the Auschwitz complex exceeded 430,000 people.

Arrival, selection, "Sauna"

The deportees arrived at the ramp in Birkenau after an average of three-day journey by cattle cars.

Arrival of the Hungarian Jews to the Birkeanu ramp in May 1944

Those who could peek through the windows were often tormented by forebodings. "There was a drizzle. Never before or since have I seen such grey skies, such wasteland."[1]  Some were seized by the fear of death: "As we looked out the window, we saw a terrible sight. The entire horizon was red, and we thought we would be taken directly into that fire. Older people said the prayer of death and took farewell from each other."[2] Others tried to analyze the situation rationally and they came to the same conclusion: "We arrived in Auschwitz on a Monday morning. We waited there till midnight. We already knew that was the end. From the first car everything was piled up: bedding, clothing, food - it was clear, when they take all from a person it could only mean he would not need them any longer."[3]

As soon as the doors were opened, inmates in striped prison uniforms jumped up among the arrivals (members of the Kanadakommando), "and they shoved and kicked us out of the cars. They told us to leave all luggage, it would be brought after us later."[4] Although forbidden under pain of death, Kanada inmates often provided vital information to Hungarian Jews: "They told us to give children to the elderly".[5] There was no time for explanation; suspicious deportees were unaware that during selection able-bodied women with children were sent directly to the gas chambers, and the elderly were automatically condemned to death.

The lives of Jews ordered to line up in rows of five and separated by gender rested in the hands of SS physicians conducting the selection (usually Dr Josef Mengele, Dr Heinz Thilo, head physician Dr Eduard Wirths and the Hungarian-speaking Dr Viktor Capesius, originally from Transylvania). The Germans were looking for healthy labourers between the age of 16 and 40, the rest were gassed within a few hours. In borderline cases the doctor asked about age, occupation and potential illnesses, then made a quick decision. Starving and thirsty deportees exhausted by days of travel standing in a railroad car could not even grasp what was happening to them, while doctors decided over their life or death with a wave of the hand.

Selection on the ramp. Dr Mengele is on the right side, smoking 

As a 15-year-old girl from Huszt remembered: "There was terrible confusion, we were dazed and exhausted after the journey, we could barely think, and just kept holding on to our relatives' hands".[6]  Others had similar experiences: "We did not even notice as men and women were separated. They tore my mother from my arms, and I was left with my two siblings without a word of goodbye", said F. R. from Munkács after the war.[7] "After a few steps we stood before a man dressed in an SS uniform who separated us with a single movement of his hand. Everything happened so fast that one did not even have time to get one's bearings and we were swept up by the crowd.", one reads in the testimony of A. T. from Nagyszőlős.[8] H. S. from Várpalánk had no idea what had happened: "There was a terrible confusion, we could not even see each other, and before I realized my mother and two siblings aged 12 and 13 were sent to the left".[9]

The majority of the survivors saw their relatives for the last time. On average, 80 percent of the transports were murdered in

Otto Moll, commander of the extermination zone

the gas chambers of one of the extermination facilities or in the reopened Bunker 2. Their corpses were burnt in either the crematoria furnaces or in the huge burning pits dug behind Bunker 2 and Crematorium V. At the end of the Operation Höss, when Zyklon B-stocks were depleted, thousands were simply shot or pushed into the burning pits alive.

The luckier 20 percent, the able-bodied inmates, was driven to a bathhouse at the western perimeter of the camp, the so-called "Sauna". There "we had to undress to the skin ...Our hair was completely cut, all body hair was shaven. ...This did not bother the SS soldiers in the least .., they walked among us laughing, stopping and watching, brutally violating our sense of propriety".[10] The sense of utter vulnerability was universal: "with our hair shorn and our clothes taken, we felt stripped of all human dignity, our human nature", remembered the B. sisters.[11] According to K. R., "The whole situation was most humiliating".[12] "It was horrible having to undress in the bathhouse in the presence of men" - said Mrs Miksa Salamon in 1945.[13]

Camp life

From the Sauna the prisoner, dressed in rags and with all bodily hair shaven, were usually driven to assigned barracks, and thus their life in the camp started. While at the start of the mass deportations the Germans made an attempt to register and tattoo those arriving in the camps, after a while the registration system collapsed under the overload, and tens of thousands of Hungarians were not tattooed at all. Several thousand employable Hungarian Jews were immediately transferred to other concentration or labour camps without registration. Many were sent to smaller satellite camps surrounding Auschwitz where inmates performed slave labour. Smaller groups were housed in the main camp of Auschwitz. The majority of the tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews remaining were sent to camp sections BIId, BIIc and BIII. Inmates referred to the latter as "Mexico" due to the prevailing conditions (with barely any drinking water or plumbing), atrocious even by Birkenau standards.

The majority of able-bodied Hungarian Jews was idle for days and spent their time in endless roll calls ("Appell"). G. R. from Carpatho-Ruthenia described the "Appell" "as one of the most effective means of torture". "We stood in rows of five from 2:30 in the morning to 6 a.m. and many times till 12 noon, arms-length from each other to prevent us from supporting or warming each other. In pouring rain, in bitter cold, in the snow - every day the same. The snow or rain fell on freshly shaven heads, or the sun was beating down, but you couldn't as much as budge, because if you did not stand at full attention you were lashed by a whip. As a form of special punishment they made you kneel for hours on wet or frozen ground, holding your hands high with a heavy stone in each."[14]  In 1945 A. T. burst out as follows: "Oh, those Appells! To stand or kneel under the burning sun or in freezing rain. We often had to kneel." If an inmate went missing, everyone else was punished. "We knelt from the afternoon until eleven at night, first until they found the girl, and later as a form of punishment."[15]

Aside from the "Appells", the prisoners' living conditions were appalling. The filthy barracks were unbearably overcrowded. "11 people slept on a single bunk. When one of them turned around, all the rest had to turn, because there was simply not enough room." [16] "There were 14 of us on a bunk; we slept on top of each other like sardines. We could not climb down from the bed, because we were beaten, and we could not use the lavatories either."[17] "This was one of their favourite methods of punishment - refusing to let us go to the toilet. Considering that almost all of us had diarrhoea and at times we had to hold back for 24 hours, we suffered excruciating pain. It happened that some could not hold out any longer and had an accident - the poor soul was severely beaten."[18] Due to insufficient provisions, inmates' lost their stamina. "There was very little food: a little black water in the morning, turnip soup and a small slice of bread at noon and again half a litre of soup in the evening. We starved a lot and suffered from the cold as well."[19] The prisoners were beaten by everyone: the SS-guards, SS-women guards, male and female capos. Even the smallest infraction (being late from the "Appell" or sneaking out to the latrines) provoked the most vicious beating.

It was then no wonder that the physical and psychological strength of Hungarian Jews declined steadily. "Life" in the camp was nothing but "struggle to go to the

Latrine block in Birkenau

latrine not only in closed rows of fives, but when nature called, struggle for a gulp of water and the chance to get washed, struggle for a piece of raw potato or a piece of cabbage that we stole from around the kitchen with trembling hearts, struggle to get round the Blocksperre
[block curfew] and sneak over to another barrack where they distributed lunch and get an extra portion."[20] An office woman deported from Carpatho-Ruthenia accurately described the conditions: "It was a struggle for survival, a battle at the expense of the weaker, the less resourceful. You either stay on top or get trampled. This was the law of nature."[21] According to S. G., a seamstress from Técső, "we practically became like beasts, suffering brought out our worst innate qualities ...We did not help each other, everyone was trying to save her own life."[22] The experience of 19-year-old H. I. was the exception: "There were twenty-five of us good friends, and we shared every piece of food among each other. This was the only way to survive it somehow."[23]

In theory, Hungarian Jews in Birkenau constituted one of the most essential labour reserves for the Nazi camp network. When fresh

Close-cropped Hungarian Jewish women

labour was needed, the required number of prisoners were selected, tattooed and shipped to the site. However, those disabled under the poor conditions were removed at regular selections and sent to the gas chambers. (The frugal Nazis did not waste gas on smaller groups of victims; Jews were simply shot in the execution chamber attached to the furnace room.) The repeated selections kept inmates under constant terror. According to recollections by K. H. from Tiszaújlak, "we lived in constant fear, our entire being was consumed by a horror of gas".[24] During selection "we stood in line stark naked, Dr Mengele came with his assistants and humming the tune of the Donauwalzer he decided over life and death with the wave of the hand. Before selection we pinched our skin to get a good colour and made an attempt to appear cheerful because he picked out primarily the sick and the dejected ones."[25]  Many hid during selections, the W. sisters "in the kitchen under the stove and among the potatoes, some climbed up the chimney".[26] By some miracle, Mrs Miksa Salamon always managed to hide her 12-year-old daughter who survived the first selection on arrival. D., who survived not only Auschwitz-Birkenau but also the work camp at Hochweiler, remembered hiding in Birkenau as follows: "I often had to run from block to block to escape being gassed. When I was sick and unconscious, Mother hid me. All day the talk was about the smoke, the chimney and the crematorium."[27] However, in most cases people could not avoid the selection. Those condemned to death by the doctors had one more chance: escape from the isolation barrack. H. M. from Botfalva, who was 15 at the time, managed just that: "At night, when the night watchmen fell asleep, the seven of us boys forced open the back door and managed to make our escape. A Magaziner [a storeman], a man from our village hid us in the warehouse nearby until the next morning. They noticed the escape before the night was over and all the Blockältsters [barrack commanders] were searching for us, but they failed to find us. The next day I sneaked unnoticed into the labour camp. This is how I escaped the crematorium."[28] However, the majority was not in a physical or mental state to attempt an escape. Within a few hours they were taken to the gas chambers.

Between 1940 and 1945, approximately 1.3 million people were transported to the Auschwitz complex, of whom 1.1 million found their death there. Nine-tenth of those killed ended up there because of their Jewish origin, and every third victim was a Hungarian citizen.[29] The largest group of victims from any single country killed in the vastest death camp the world has ever known were Hungarian citizens. Auschwitz-Birkenau became not only the largest cemetery in the world, but the largest Hungarian cemetery as well: never have so many Hungarians been killed as at that site.



[1] Protocol 2257.

[2] Protocol 2902.

[3] Protocol 2820.

[4] Protocol 313.

[5] Protocol 129.

[6] Protocol 1860.

[7] Protocol 2820.

[8] Protocol 2257.

[9] Protocol 1645.

[10] Protocol 1210.

[11] Protocol 2209.

[12] Protocol 174.

[13] Protocol 473.

[14] Protocol 313.

[15] Protocol 2257.

[16] Protocol 117.

[17] Protocol 1533.

[18] Protocol 228.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Protocol 1330.

[21] Protocol 2257.

[22] Protocol 576.

[23] Protocol 928.

[24] Protocol 1087.

[25] Protocol 228.

[26] Protocol 1051.

[27] Protocol 473.

[28] Protocol 1864.

[29] As the Nazis destroyed most of the camp documents, one can only estimate the total number of Hungarian Jews killed at Birkenau. On average, 80 percent of the deportees, or approximately 340,000 people, were found unfit for work and killed within hours of their arrival. The forced labour at Auschwitz, illness, brutal treatment and selections inside the camp claimed the lives of many thousands of Hungarian Jews. Tens of thousands were transported to other camps; of these, thousands more died within months. The number of direct and indirect victims of Auschwitz may be estimated between 360,000-390,000, i.e., 80 to 90 percent of all deportees. For estimates, see Kádár - Vági, 1999, p. 103. 


Kádár - Vági 1999

Gábor Kádár - Zoltán Vági: Magyarok Auschwitzban. (Hungarians in Auschwitz) In Holocaust Füzetek 12. Budapest, 1999, Magyar Auschwitz Alapítvány-Holocaust Dokumentációs Központ, pp. 92-123.


váltás magyarra