Commentary: By the spring of 1944 the Nazis had completed this railway spur, up from the main line in Auschwitz town, straight through the gate house of Birkenau into the camp. They finished the work just before the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. The spring and early summer of 1944 would see almost a frenzy of killing at Birkenau. These Hungarian Jews were forced out of the train wagons in to the heart of the camp. Shocked and disorientated, they had no real clue as to where they were and what was the true purpose of this place.
Words of Alice Lok Cahana (Hungarian Jewish deportee): Your brain cannot take it in. You say that’s a mistake. They will apologise. They will come and say, ‘No, we’ll take you home. You don’t belong here. This is not where you belong.’ You can’t take Grandfather to this place, you cannot. He’s my Grandfather, he’s so wonderful.
Commentary: The new arrivals were ordered to form two lines. One men and one women and children. Each line was then assessed by an SS doctor. Those thought fit to work were sent to one side, those unfit for work to another.
Laurence Rees: The majority of the Jews would be selected here for immediate death, and taken to one of a number of different gas chamber complexes that existed within the camp. Two of them are situated here, either side of the railway line.
Commentary: Most of the Hungarian Jews, especially the women and children, were murdered within a few hours of arriving at Birkenau. This photo shows a group being led directly to the gas chambers.
Laurence Rees: The SS were killing so many people here at Auschwitz/Birkenau that the crematoria couldn’t cope with the number of bodies to be burnt. So they opened huge pits behind me just here, and threw the bodies in here to be burnt.
Commentary: One of the Sonderkommando prisoners risked his life to take this secret photo, which shows the bodies being cremated in the open. What all this meant was that by the end of 1944 more people had been murdered at Auschwitz than any other single place in history. It was the murder of so many innocent people, in such a manner, in such a place, for no reason other than pure prejudice, that marks this crime out for all time.
Words of Alice Lok Cahana (Hungarian Jewish deportee): Normal children. Here they are going to their death. How could the twentieth century tolerate such horror? How could they even conceive such obscenity, that they take normal human beings, healthy human beings, and put them in the gas?
The photo of the burning bodies is from the collection at Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial State Museum.