EVEN IN THE SILENCE OF THE POLISH countryside, Auschwitz can not rest in peace. The name alone prompts instant recognition--a shorthand for the criminal barbarity of the 20th century. If ever there were a place in which myth was unseemly and unnecessary, where fact could be left unadorned, it would be Auschwitz. For 50 years, that has not been the case.
The list of myths and misconceptions about the largest Nazi concentration camp is a long one. Soviet investigators declared in May 1945 that 4 million people had died in Auschwitz, and the Polish Communist authorities stuck to this inflated figure until they lost power ...view middle of the document...
If there are Jews in the transport, they don't have the right to live more than two weeks; priests, one month, and the others, three months."
"The camp was created to destroy the most valuable part of Polish society, and the Germans partly succeeded in this," says Zygmunt Gaudasinski, an early political prisoner there. Some prisoners, like Guadasinski's father, were shot; torture was commonplace, and the early mortality rate was very high. That changed once prisoners latched onto jobs--in the kitchens, warehouses and other sheltered places--which increased their odds for survival. Of the 150,000 Polish prisoners who were sent to Auschwitz, about 75,000 died there.
After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Soviet POWs were dispatched to Auschwitz. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler envisaged a huge number of POWs and drew up plans for Auschwitz's expansion by creating a second large complex at Birkenau, two miles away. The first POWs to arrive were put to work constructing the new facilities there in conditions that horrified even the hardened Polish political prisoners. "They were treated worse than any other prisoners," says Mieczyslaw Zawadzki, a Pole who worked as a nurse in a sick bay for the POWs. Fed only turnips and tiny rations of bread, they collapsed from hunger, exposure and beatings. "The hunger was so bad that they cut off the buttocks from the corpses in the morgue and ate the flesh," Zawadzki recalls. "Later, we locked the morgue so they couldn't get in."
With most Soviet POWs dying quickly and no large subsequent influx, Himmler and camp commandant Rudolf Hoss prepared Auschwitz to play a major role in the "final solution" for European Jews. Transports of Jews from all over occupied Europe made Auschwitz the most international of the camps. By the time that Birkenau and its gas chambers became fully operational most Polish Jews had already died in other death camps like Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec. About 300,000 Polish Jews were deported to Auschwitz, followed, in the summer of 1944, by an astonishing 438,000 Hungarian Jews. Auschwitz was both a death camp and a complex of labor camps, which accounts for its relatively large number of survivors. If Treblinka and other pure death camps are less well known, it is because there were almost no survivors who could testify to what happened there.
News of Auschwitz's horrors began to spread well before the war ended. Often with the help of resistance groups, some Auschwitz prisoners managed to escape and get out word about the mass killings in the camp. Two main eyewitness documents appeared in 1944. One was written by a former Polish political prisoner, Jerzy Tabeau, who, with another prisoner, short-circuited the camp's electric fence, cut through the barbed wire and fled to Cracow. His report was...