How the truth behind the gas chambers and death camps was revealed by a man 80 years ago – Reuters

It was the day Britain discovered the truth about humanity’s most heinous crime – the systematic industrial murder of six million Jews.

Eighty years ago this week, the first eyewitness account of what would later be known as the Holocaust emerged from Hitler’s extermination camps.

But even after three years of brutal warfare, the idea that Germany could kill tens of thousands of men, women and children in gas chambers seemed too incredible to pass without verification.

So instead of immediately screaming the news on their front pages, newspapers around the world buried it inside.

Szlama Ber Winer, a Polish Jew, had escaped from the Nazi camp at Chelmno in Poland where he was forced to bury the bodies of thousands of victims as they were thrown out of petrol vans.

His detailed testimony of the atrocities he had seen – including having to bury his entire family – was first published in a Polish underground newspaper on June 1, 1942. But it would be almost a month before he begins to be brought abroad.

Child survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp after liberation


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On June 25, the Daily Telegraph described how the Nazis used mobile gas chambers for industrial murder and that “on average 1,000 Jews were gassed daily”.

Yet the story, which referred to the “greatest massacre in world history”, ran on the fifth page of a six-page issue and was largely ignored.

It was not until the spring of 1945, after the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz death camp and horrified British and American soldiers began freeing survivors from the camps in Germany, that the true scale of Hitler’s Final Solution was finally revealed.

By mid-1945, most European Jews – two out of three – had either been murdered, starved to death, or died of disease.

In Auschwitz alone, the SS killed a million Jews, mostly in specially constructed gas chambers.

Until Winer, 31, managed to flee Chelmno and recount his horrors, most people – including the Jewish community itself – believed that the camps were not created for annihilation but to exploit slave labor.

But in fact, for a full year before Winer’s escape, the Nazis had already implemented their plan to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe.

Destroyed Magirus-Deutz van found in 1945 in Kolo, Poland


Alamy Photo)

And just a month before the Wannsee conference of January 1942, when officials came together to devise the final solution, gas vans in Chelmno were being used to kill up to 1,000 victims a day.

Born in central Poland, Winer was among 1,600 people arrested in his village and transported to Chelmno on January 5, 1942. There the SS had established one of the first facilities where poison gas was used for murders of mass. The prisoners were ordered to strip naked and placed in pick-up trucks which were driven into the forest before the exhaust fumes were redirected inside.

With no way to escape, they would be dead within 15-20 minutes.

Winer was among 15 “lucky” men chosen not to be killed immediately but to work with the Sonderkommando – agents of death forced to dispose of gassed victims.

He then described the whole horrible process. “We didn’t have to wait long for the next truck to arrive,” he wrote.

“It looked like a normal big truck, painted gray, with two tightly closed rear doors. The interior walls were made of steel. There were no seats. Under a wooden grating were two tubes that came out of the cabin. They had small openings from which gas came out. The driver pressed a button and got out.

“At the same time, frightening screams, screams and banging against the sides of the van could be heard. This lasted about 15 minutes. Then the driver got back in, lit a torch in the back to see if people were dead and came within five meters of a ditch.

“When the trucks approached, we had to stay five meters from the ditch. The head of the guard detachment was a high-ranking SS man, a sadist and an absolute murderer.

A Holocaust memorial for the victims of the Nazis


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“He ordered us to open the doors of the truck. The smell of gas that met us was overpowering. Winer recounted how he was forced to pull the bodies out of the vans and pile them into the ground.

“The corpses were thrown on top of each other like rubbish on a heap. We seized them by the feet and the hair. At the edge of the ditch stood two men throwing the bodies away. In the ditch stood two other men who piled them upside down, facing down. If there was room left, a child was pushed into it.

“What did the dead look like? They were neither burnt nor black; their faces were unchanged. Almost all were soiled.

In the most heartbreaking part of his report, Winer described finding his parents and brother among the dead. “During lunch, I learned the sad news: my dear parents and my brother are in their graves.

“At one o’clock we were back at work. I was trying to get closer to the dead to see my loved ones for the last time.

“I was hit with a frozen clod by the good-natured German with a pipe and the ‘Whip man’ shot me.

Szlama Ber Winer managed to escape to reveal the truth

“I don’t know if he wanted to miss or if it was by accident but I survived.

“Ignoring the pain, I worked very quickly to forget my horrible loss, even for a moment. I was alone in this world now. Of my family of around 60, I was the only survivor left.

Once, one of the men working with him recognized his own son.

“My friend Getzel Chrzastowski screamed terribly for a moment when he recognized his 14-year-old son who had just been thrown into the ditch. He had to be stopped from begging the Germans to shoot him too. We argued that it was necessary to survive this suffering in order to be able to repay the Germans later.

Winer described the growing realization that he and his fellow Deathbenders would soon join the bodies they were burying and that escape was their only means of survival. He writes: “Around five o’clock, we stopped work. The eight men who had worked with the corpses had to lie on them face down.

“An SS man with a machine gun shot them in the head.” On January 19, 1942, Winer managed to escape through the window of a bus as he was being transported to another horrific day to bury bodies.

He wrote: “When I hit the ground I rolled around a bit and scratched the skin on my hands. The only thing that mattered to me was not breaking my leg.

“I turned around to see if they had noticed anything on the bus but it continued on its journey. I wasted no time but ran as fast as I could through fields and woods.

Winer managed to reach the Warsaw Ghetto where he received help from a lawyer documenting Nazi persecution for the underground group Oneg Shabbat.

He wrote Winer’s account, using the false name of Jakub Grojnowski, before smuggling it to the Polish resistance.

On June 1, 1942, Liberty Brigade, an underground newspaper in Warsaw, published the report.

A week after the Telegraph article, The New York Times published its own report on Winer’s information, describing how the Nazis were “methodically pursuing their campaign to exterminate all Jews”.

Adolf Hitler in Munich in the spring of 1932


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He added that among the victims who had been arrested and murdered were “children in orphanages, the elderly in hospices, the sick in hospitals and women”.

But again, despite depicting the most horrific atrocities, the article was tucked away on page six and received little attention elsewhere.

No doubt appalled at the apparent lack of interest, Winer wouldn’t survive to find out what happened next.

After fleeing to a relative in Zamosc, he wrote to his contacts in the Warsaw ghetto describing how the rest of his family had been killed in another camp, Belzec.

He said, “Please imagine my desperation. I have no more tears. This is probably the last letter I write to you. I will probably join my parents in the same way.

A few days later, he was transported to Belzec where he suffered the same terrible fate.

But his bravery in alerting the world to Hitler’s crimes was not in vain.

Three months after the publication of its report, the US State Department confirmed the information.

This was followed by a report from the Polish government in exile, warning the Allied powers of Germany’s extermination plans and urging the world to “draw the appropriate conclusions”.

And on December 19, 1942, the United Kingdom, the United States and ten other governments issued a statement denouncing “Nazi Germany’s intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe” and warning that “those responsible for these crimes will not escape reprisals”.

This time the news was on all the front pages. Finally, the whole world knew.

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