Igor Bartosik, Lukasz Martyniak and Piotr Setkiewicz
The Origins of the Birkenau Camp in Light of the Source Materials
Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2017
Many iconic images surface when thinking about Auschwitz-Birkenau, particularly the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, as well as the guard towers, railway tracks, former prisoner barracks, barbed wire fences and more. These images are often etched in people’s minds, whether they have visited the grounds of this Holocaust-related authentic site or not.
This new dual Polish-English publication features 100 German documents pertaining to the plans to develop Birkenau as a large camp under the SS. The authors, historians at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s Research Center, provide historical context to this compilation of documents–many of which are published for the first time in this book. The authors highlight the problematic nature of the postwar testimony of Commandant Rudolf Höss regarding the chronological sequence of events in 1941 that led to the decision taken to build Birkenau. They also shed light on the major players who orchestrated its construction, as well as the weather conditions at the time prior to its first phase of operations. In this volume, readers can gain more information about which companies and SS personnel were involved in building Birkenau starting in Fall 1941.
This compilation of documents includes some interesting details focusing on the descriptions of the planned camp buildings. However, all of the German-language documents published here relate to the plans of the SS, so other primary sources in various languages were not included. For example, testimonies from former Jewish prisoners and/or memoirs from non-Jewish Polish prisoners would have provided additional perspectives on the establishment of this camp, as well as the prisoners' daily existence within it later on. This reader believes that a multi-perspective approach would have enriched this new volume, which can be rather technical and tedious at times. Overall, students who are interested in learning more about how this infamous camp came into being may find some of these documents enlightening.
As this book notes, Birkenau was designed to be vast, built on the edge of a Polish village, where locals raised their families and grew vegetables in their gardens. The Germans evicted Polish villagers and farmers from the area in order to build Birkenau and its related sites. Document 31 indicates that the SS recycled bricks and wood from the village homes to construct barracks. The blueprints included in this book make it abundantly clear that the SS had complete disregard for the Polish residents.
One of the icons associated with Birkenau is its electrified fences. Fences became the borders of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi industrialized extermination center, where more than a million Jewish people were murdered—often transported from afar—during the Holocaust. Survivors of this camp, such as Pelagia Lewińska and Henryk Porębski, often highlighted the barbed wire and electrified fences in their testimonies. In a film that Yad Vashem produced about the personal story of Ovadia Baruch from Greece, he recalled the humming of the electric fences and the "burning of the glowing wires," and Primo Levi recounted in Survival in Auschwitz:
It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.
In the "Progress and Course of the Construction Work Section" of this volume, Documents 48-50 refer to a German business in Gliwice that the SS contracted to build fences in Birkenau. Gliwice is some 67 kilometers from Oświęcim, the site of the Auschwitz Stammlager, and a company owned by Josef Kluge won the tender to construct the Birkenau camp fence. Document 49 notes how Kluge agreed to “keep the entire building project secret.” According to the guidelines of the SS, all employees of this contractor, “both office workers and laborers, had to sign written pledges to maintain secrecy.” Document 50 outlines their detailed work plan to build the fence, including the suggested number of laborers and itemized construction materials per their projections in late 1941. These specific documents open a window into the widening circles of collaboration between regional businesspeople and the Nazi industrial murder apparatus.
Cantor Josef Grabowski was married in Gliwice in 1938, as his wife came from there. They fled Poland, seeking refuge far away from Nazi Germany in Trondheim, Norway. Unfortunately for the Grabowskis, German forces eventually reached this northern Norwegian city and Cantor Grabowski was imprisoned on account of antisemitic racial policies. Following his imprisonment in Falstad, Norway, he was deported back to Poland and murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau within the fences that Josef Kluge's company built.
It should be noted that Gliwice was not only home to Josef Kluge's company, but – like Oświęcim – also to a once-vibrant Jewish community that had dwelled in this part of Central Europe. In 2016, a former synagogue was reopened as a museum for Silesian Jews in Gliwice, thanks to the initiative of a few Polish citizens who sought to preserve their local Jewish history.
In the eyes of this reviewer, readers would gain a better understanding about the construction of Birkenau – and its significance – had the voices of Holocaust victims been interwoven with the compiled blueprints, reports and other German documents. In light of the perpetrators' intention to brutally dehumanize those prisoners who were not murdered immediately upon arrival, highlighting the victims' perspective becomes an educational imperative.