Commentary: The spring of 1943 was a hugely significant moment in the history of Auschwitz/Birkenau. Because this building opened. A combined gas chamber and crematorium. And the remains of this killing factory can still be seen today.
Laurence Rees: New arrivals to the camp who had been selected to die by the SS were told to enter the building just over there, into this long, rectangular room. This was the undressing room. These new arrivals - men, women and children - would be told that they had to take their clothes off because before being admitted to the camp they had to take a shower. They were then hurried round to the right, here, into this part of the building. This was the place where they would be gassed. Once everybody inside this part of the building was murdered their bodies were then taken up, just behind me here, to this level. This was the crematorium. Here their bodies were burnt in ovens.
Commentary: The killing operation at the crematorium was overseen by just a handful of SS. Much of the intensely psychologically disturbing work involved in the killing process, like cleaning the gas chambers and removing the bodies, was performed by Sonderkommando - prisoners forced to help the SS on pain of their own immediate execution.
Words of Dario Gabbai (Auschwitz Sonderkommando): Could you imagine what was done with the children and the families? They didn’t know what to do, scratching the walls, crying, you know, and everything else. They were killing for the sake of killing, that’s the only thing I can say.
Commentary: Auschwitz/Birkenau was now evolving into a place that would be central to the Nazi vision for the future of Europe. One which, as they saw it, was racially pure. And, crucially, ‘Juden Frei’ – Free of Jews.
Laurence Rees: By the summer of 1943 a total of four combined gas chamber and crematoria complexes were in operation. This one behind me, like its sister just over there in the trees, were different from the other two in that they had the gas chamber on the same level as the ovens of the crematorium. This made it easier for the Nazis, once the people were murdered here, for them to take the bodies through there to be burnt.
Commentary: By the end of 1943 Auschwitz/Birkenau possessed a vast capacity to kill. And in 1944 mass murder would be committed here on an almost unimaginable scale.
The photo of the combined crematorium/gas chamber complex is from the collection at Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial State Museum.