In the summer of 1995, I visited the remains of three of the Third Reich's most infamous concentration camps, Mauthausen, Auschwitz-Birkenau (HYPERTEXT LINK) and Majdanek. (HYPERTEXT LINK) I made this trip because one of my main research interests as a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business is studying the role of business in the Holocaust. Visiting these horrible places gave me the opportunity to see and think about how businesses were involved in and profited from the most systematic mass murder in human history.
The format of the article reflects where the passages were written. Everything that appears in italics is my account of what I was seeing and thinking about while I was in the camps. Thus, a significant portion of this article was actually written while I was in the camps I am describing. Everything written in regular type, including this section, either is background information on the camps I visited, or details and explanations of my trip that I filled in afterwards to make my observations more understandable.
The Nazis' most brutal concentration camp is located in the picturesque Austrian countryside, along the beautiful Danube river. In Mauthausen, the conditions the prisoners had to endure while being worked to death were far harsher than those that existed in other camps. Dying in Mauthausen typically involved being crushed or suffocated in the lethal Mauthausen quarry.
The Weinergraben (or "Vienna Ditch"), as the quarry was called, was a 300-foot crevice which was separated from the main camp by a set of steps and jagged cliffs. The set of 186 steps was also known as the "death steps," because prisoners were often forced to run up the steps carrying heavy rocks, while being shot at and beaten. The jagged cliffs were also known as the "parachute jump," and its victims as "paratroopers," since SS guards regularly threw prisoners off the cliffs to their death in the quarry below.
Businesses were key players in the quarry, in that they provided the economic rationale for working the prisoners to death. Prisoners assigned to work in the quarry rarely lived more than three months, as they were forced to use primitive methods and equipment to mine granite from the quarry. While scores of firms took advantage of the granite and the slave laborers from Mauthausen, one firm, Messerschmidt, stands out; in that it actually built a factory in the Weinergraben quarry. A private company, therefore, willingly benefitted from the most brutal and extreme form of what the Nazis called "extermination through labor."
On the morning of June 30, I left Vienna, Austria on a train which, annoyingly enough, had a number of passengers who were going to visit the location in the nearby Alps where The Sound of Music was filmed. It goes without saying that these kinds of tourist attractions are rather aggravating when one is thinking about one's upcoming visit to a concentration camp. In order to get away from this, I took out my diary and began writing about what I thought it would be like to be inside an actual concentration camp:
I will soon be setting foot in a concentration camp for the first time in my life. Right now, it honestly doesn't feel like I'm traveling to the horrible place I've read so much about. Since I've never visited a concentration camp, I'm starting to wonder about what it will be like to actually be inside of one. Honestly though, at this point, I'm more worried about being on the right train than anything else.
My feelings of detachment continued even after I entered the gates of Mauthausen and began to look around. While the austere stone courtyard and drab barracks were rather imposing, I actually thought to myself, "This isn't that bad"; especially as I walked through the calm and quiet memorial park inside the camp. I guess I expected to be overwhelmed by the evil feel and appearance of the camp. But at this point, the impact of where I was and what had happened here had not yet hit me. Then, I found the quarry:
I am currently sitting on a hill at the bottom of the Mauthausen quarry. Walking down the death steps was absolutely frightening. You walk down this long path which is paved with stones that you know were brought up from the quarry by prisoners who probably died unimaginable deaths. As if what happened on the path isn't enough to think about, you walk a little bit further down the path and the quarry appears out of nowhere, and it's worse than you could have ever imagined. Walking down the 186 steps that lead into the quarry instantly conjures up thoughts of the prisoners being forced to run up these same steps with fifty pound rocks strapped to their backs. How could the Nazis have done this to people?
After having this powerful reaction to my initial walk down the steps, I took a long walk around the quarry and sat down in the shade underneath a giant granite rock near the steps. It was there that I noticed the next thing about Mauthausen that will remain indelible in my mind, the quarry walls:
Reading about everything that happened here pales in comparison to looking over and actually seeing the steps and the quarry walls. As I glance over to the hill where I was sitting about five minutes ago, I've suddenly realized that hundreds of people were probably killed in the same spot where I was just sitting.
The quarry walls and the quarry steps are the epitomes of evil in my mind. They are absolute evil, with the walls being so defined and so real. It's incomprehensible that the SS could have taken prisoners and just thrown them off the wall. Until I saw these walls, with the jagged rocks sticking out, it was hard to grasp that a quarry could be used to inflict death. When you actually see this place, with the cliffs jutting out, it becomes painfully clear how men were able to use it for such a horrible purpose. It's almost as if the Nazis left this place intact to mock you, as if to say, "we made this place what it is."
As I sat in the quarry and looked at everything around me, I was mesmerized by what I was witnessing. I realized that I had found my first piece of "evidence" of the role of business in the Holocaust, as I remembered that private companies actually assisted the Nazis in the quarry's activities. This place was used to inflict torture and death systematically, and business was a part of it. How could a business that was out to make a profit be a part of the death steps and the parachute jump? I soon became overwhelmed by how the quarry, in its natural state, was used to make people suffer. I walked halfway up the steps and began writing again:
Being on the steps just makes the whole destruction process seem so systematic. The Nazis actually knew that people would die, through slow and painful suffering, by running up these steps with rocks on their backs. Thousands were tortured and killed on this very spot where I'm standing, in the most brutal and inhumane way possible, "extermination through labor," with the help of companies like Messerschmidt. I just cannot get over this. The purpose of these steps was murder, and nothing but suffering and death was expected. For some reason, businesses saw this place as an opportunity. Why?
I walked the rest of the way up the 186 steps, thinking to myself "the worst is over." But as I looked down at the path I was walking on, I had another startling revelation:
The horror has been extended as I walk up on the path, because it is "equipped" with sharp stones which jut up from the ground. Prisoners were forced to run up this path with almost nothing covering their feet, which had to have been sheer agony. Just to imagine what it must have been like, I have taken off my shoes as I walk up the path. I actually cut my foot on the rocks, which is really eye-opening, since I was walking carefully and gently, as opposed to the quick pace the tired and broken prisoners were forced to maintain. Who could have thought of such a way to inflict torture?
The remainder of my trip was spent touring the main camp. The Austrians have done a thorough job preserving the camp and conveying what went on there. Honestly though, seeing the rest of the camp was rather anticlimactic after being in the quarry. The camp itself is deserted and lifeless, while the quarry is still basically the same as it was fifty years ago. The camp's buildings and courtyards almost conceal their sinister purpose, while the sharp walls, brutal steps and heavy granite of the quarry still take on the appearance of a killing machine.
Auschwitz-Birkenau The "Core of the Holocaust" is located an hour's train ride away from the splendid medieval city of Krakow, in the small Polish town of Oswiecim. Calling a place the "Core of the Holocaust" suggests that it epitomizes the evil which led to the most egregious treatment of a group of people in human history. Auschwitz-Birkenau, the place where the orderly murder of more than a million Jewish people was conducted at an unthinkable level of efficiency, is symbolic of this evil.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is actually two different camps which had different purposes. The main Auschwitz camp was established as a concentration camp shortly after the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939. The camp's function was to hold Polish intellectuals and political leaders. Birkenau, which is located two kilometers from the Auschwitz camp, was established for the sole purpose of becoming the center for the annihilation of European Jews. Birkenau was the site of the most devastating machinery of death that mankind has ever used.
Incredibly enough, a private business played a major role in the construction of the machinery of death that transformed Auschwitz-Birkenau from a brutal concentration camp into one of the most infamous places on the face of the Earth. The J.A. Topf and Sons firm of Erfurt, Germany helped design, construct and test all five of the crematoria which were used at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is estimated that the bodies of more than 900,000 victims were disposed of using the machinery supplied by this civilian firm.
I left Vienna on the morning of July 1, still stunned by what I had seen the day before at Mauthausen. Unlike my trip to Mauthausen, in which I was in regular contact with tourists, I was alone on the train for most of my journey. At first, being alone while traveling to Auschwitz did not bother me, because I tried not to think about where I was going. But as I drew closer and closer to my destination, being on the train took on a significance in-and-of-itself:
A tremendous feeling of fear has overcome me. I've suddenly realized that I'm riding the same rails that took more than a million people to their death, on a train that will soon be arriving at the core of the Holocaust. It was one thing to say to myself and to others, "I'm going to Auschwitz when I visit Poland," but another to actually be on a train that is going there. As I sit here looking out the window, I am struck by the fact that many of the structures the train is passing were probably here over half a century ago, meaning that they "witnessed" the death trains to Auschwitz. As I see these houses and barns, I wonder about the people who lived in them while the trains were passing. There is no way they didn't see the trains. They had to have heard the screams and wailing of the victims. What did these people think? How did they react? What did they do? The train just blew its whistle, which just pierced my heart. For an instant, my mind jumped to the scene in Schindler's List when the women were being transported to Auschwitz, and they see a little child mocking them by slashing his finger over his throat. Is that all these people did was mock the victims? Was this their only response?
I arrived in Oswiecim late that evening, physically and emotionally exhausted from my trip. I woke up on the morning of July 2, and walked the half-mile from my hotel to the main Auschwitz camp. At first, there was little about the camp that stood out in my mind. I saw the barracks and the barbed wire, but there was nothing that made me think "I'm at the Core of the Holocaust." The reality of actually being in Auschwitz first hit me when I came face-to-face with the handiwork of the firm that profited from mass destruction:
I have just walked through Crematorium I in Auschwitz. It has a fully-intact furnace that looks as if it could withstand anything. On the front of the furnace is a large iron door which has shiny, bold letters that spell, almost regally, "Topf." Seeing this furnace, with the name of this civilian firm etched prominently on the front, is a powerful reminder of the role of business in the Holocaust. While the Nazis were the ones who murdered the victims, companies like J.A. Topf and Sons manufactured the machinery of death that enabled the Nazis to accomplish their sinister ends.
After leaving the crematorium, I walked through a number of the other buildings in Auschwitz, which the Nazis called "blocks." I saw, among other things, a huge display case full of human hair, an enormous pile of spectacles and a stack of dolls. While these were powerful reminders of how the Nazis stole everything possible from their victims, I soon found myself in a place in the camp that truly conveys the terror and evil of the name, "Auschwitz":
I am now sitting in the basement of Block 11, the area where the prisoners were detained, tortured and starved to death. This is unlike the rest of the camp, in that it has been left as cold and as devastating as it was when it was in use. I can't even begin to imagine what it was like to be inside one of these cells. They are cold and dark, and have open bars which must have exposed them to the sounds of the brutal executions that were occurring outside at the "wall of death." There are also cells in here which are no bigger than telephone booths. These cells have been preserved so that you can actually stand in a cell and imagine what it was like to be forced to stand here for hours and days at a time with three other people. This torture must have driven people insane. The level of fear, mental anguish and physical agony that was endured down here is absolutely unimaginable. This place probably has few parallels on the face of the Earth; it is the "real" Auschwitz.
After leaving Block 11, I decided to walk over to Birkenau. While Auschwitz was the concentration camp where political prisoners were held, Birkenau was the place where the Jewish people were sent en mass to the gas chambers. I have always associated Birkenau with the huge watch tower that "guards" its entrance. While the tower didn't appear particularly imposing on the highway leading up to the camp, my feelings changed as soon as I set foot inside the camp:
Seeing the tower from the inside for the first time has transformed this structure into the symbol of evil that I have always known it to be. It's difficult to explain in words, but the tower actually looks and feels evil. It is a reminder of how Birkenau was the point-of-no-return for more than a million people. The tower held the power of life-or-death over nearly everyone who passed through, since most people who came through perished.
Walking through Birkenau is a grueling and depressing activity. The camp has not received a great deal of maintenance or attention over the years, and the rubble of all of the barracks and crematoria that were destroyed at the end of the war has never been removed. The skeletal remains of Birkenau really give the place an eerie feeling, particularly since the camp is spread out over a large wooded area. After walking for a while, I sat down and began to think about the unbelievable size of the camp:
This place is so desolate; I can't believe how huge it is. I have just walked down a long path that is littered with shattered bricks from the barracks. This was one of the paths which led to the crematoria. I have seen countless pictures of the innocent-looking women, children and elderly who were murdered here. Retracing their steps makes me wonder what went through their minds while they were on this path. The passage is so drab and lifeless; it just does not convey that it leads to the most systematic machinery of death that man has ever used. This has just made me realize a very sad thing, that this nonthreatening path probably gave the condemned people false hope that the worst was over.
When I finally reached the rear area of the camp, I was very tired, both physically and emotionally. I walked through the remains of the crematoria and eventually made my way through the vast rows of barracks back to the place in front of the watch tower where "selections" were made. My mental and physical exhaustion made me realize that I had seen enough of Auschwitz-Birkenau; so I sat down on the selection ramp and wrote the day's final entry:
I am sitting in the spot where Dr. Joseph Mengele, the "Angel of Death," sent hundreds of thousands of people to their death with the wave of his hand. It's ironic, but the only way to be "saved" from the gas chambers was to be chosen as a slave for the SS and private industries. The only possibility of life for Jewish people sent to Birkenau was servitude to a business that would exploit their labor while working them to death. I'm stunned by how this run down skeleton of a camp was once the ultimate example of evil; where the hatred of the Nazis and the indifference of the businesses who saw this place as an opportunity to generate profit resulted in the murder of more than a million Jewish people.
One of the aspects of the Holocaust which is often overlooked is that the Nazis saw the mass murder of the Jews as part of a greater operation to build a Nazi empire in Europe, and eventually throughout the world. One of the key pieces of this master plan was Majdanek, the only major concentration camp to be located in an urban area, in full view of the population of a major city. Majdanek was located in the suburbs of Lublin, a Polish city which had several hundred thousand residents. More than three hundred thousand of the camp's 500,000 prisoners died in this less-than-discreet location.
This uniquely urban camp was also the only Nazi camp other than Auschwitz-Birkenau to operate simultaneously as a concentration camp and killing center. The Nazis intended to make Majdanek into a large city housing hundreds of thousands of slaves for the mammoth SS industrial ventures of the future. The idea was to provide an industrial center in the east for the Thousand-Year Reich. In pursuit of this broad goal, the camp was used to murder Jews, exploit Jewish slave labor and expropriate the property of Jewish victims. Unlike most of the other killing centers, Majdanek was also used to house a large number of non-Jewish political prisoners and POWs.
The most chilling day in the history of Majdanek was November 3, 1943, the day "Operation Harvest Festival" took place. In response to a number of uprisings in nearby Jewish ghettos and in Sobibor and Treblinka, Heinrich Himmler ordered the shootings of 42,000 Jewish prisoners in the Majdanek camp system. Seventeen thousand alone were shot and killed on this day in ditches behind the crematorium at the main camp.
While Majdanek was a slave labor and annihilation complex, it has gained a great deal of notoriety for its role as the main collection and distribution center for the various goods that were expropriated from Jewish victims all over the Reich. Following the camp's liberation, 800,000 pairs of shoes were discovered, as well as large amounts of clothing, furs and housewares that had been taken from Jewish victims. While most of these goods were utilized exclusively in SS-owned industries, a number of private businesses actually had contracts with the Nazis to acquire and process the vast number of shoes that were collected and stored at Majdanek.
On the morning of July 4, I left the Krakow Glowny on a train to Lublin. The four-hour train ride gave me plenty of time to reflect on the fact that it was Independence Day in America, and not only was I out-of-the-country, but I was going to a place right outside the Russian border. My realization about the Fourth-of-July, in conjunction with the tremendous difficulties I faced as a traveler in Lublin without any knowledge of the Polish language, buried the fact that I was going to visit Majdanek in the back of my mind. In fact, by the time I reached the camp, I had myself convinced that Majdanek would probably not even compare to what I had seen in Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau. As usual, I was completely wrong, as Majdanek challenged me with powerful evidence of the devastating impact of the Holocaust:
I am now in a building in the main area of the Majdanek camp. The infamous watchtowers are very intimidating, and looking at them sends chills down your spine. All of the buildings in Majdanek are wooden and painted with a dark shade of black, which make them appear almost sinister from the outside. As foreboding as they look from the outside, being inside the building that was used as the gas chamber is even more unsettling. The floors are made of a cold and unwelcoming concrete and have been covered with wooden planks which clang loudly as you walk through the building. This place is powerful.
While I should have realized that the horrors of the gas chamber were a sign of things to come, I instead let myself become overwhelmed by what I saw in the next barracks, a display in memory of the victims of the camp. Part of the exhibit was a section of the barracks which has all of the flags representing all of the nationalities of the victims. Since a few American POWs died in Majdanek, an American flag was part of the exhibit. I was overcome with emotion at the sight of an American flag, especially since I was an ocean away from America and just a stone's throw from the Russian border. I couldn't believe that I had been given the opportunity to see an American flag on the Fourth-of-July, even though I was thousands of miles away. It was truly inspiring that an American endured this place for his country. I guess I shouldn't have allowed myself to get carried away in the pride and elation I was feeling, because the next set of barracks crushed me with a powerful reminder of who was killed in the Holocaust:
I am now in a barracks which contains thousands upon thousands of pairs of shoes, the infamous "shoes of Majdanek." Until you see something like this, it is hard to envision what "millions died in the Holocaust" truly means. I just can't get over how many shoes are in here. It's absolutely devastating. All of these shoes were worn by people who died in the Holocaust. Now there's nothing left of them but their old and decaying shoes. This is incredible. I'm actually dreading the next building, because I just know that there's going to be stifling heat and the powerful smell of rotting shoes. I just know that something terrifying will be waiting.
I have just walked through two more barracks that were completely filled with shoes. The one has two fairly large rooms, each as big as a kitchen in an average-sized house, that are filled with children's shoes. This just blew me away. After seeing these rooms, I don't know if anything is ever going to affect me again. It's like I've seen all there is to see now. You try to rationalize it. You think, "Maybe the SS men just took the little children's shoes away from them. Maybe they weren't ever killed." But then, you remember the purpose of taking the shoes, as a means of salvaging every possible aspect of a victim's body, and the reality of what these shoes represent hits you. Every pair in this huge pile of tiny, innocent looking shoes belonged to a child who was murdered for no reason. Why did the Nazis murder children? How could the little children who fit into these little shoes be a threat to anyone, much less to the SS?
Then, you think of the company that processed these shoes and you wonder how they could have agreed to be a part of this. How could they have received shipment upon shipment of little children's bloodstained shoes without ever thinking "Is this wrong?" I mean, the standard defense, "Well, if we didn't process these shoes, somebody else would," just doesn't even make sense in this case. We're talking about the shoes of murdered children, not some profit-making imperative which can be explained away by some rational calculus. How could any company process these shoes? But, obviously, there was a company that saw fit to do this. This place has just drained away all of my emotions.
Seeing the little children's shoes and then finally admitting to myself what they represented was a powerful revelation for me. This unparalleled reminder of the innocence of the victims of the Holocaust led me to say to myself: "I've seen enough, and I don't want to see any more." It soon became evident that my trip to witness the Holocaust was over. I had witnessed all that I could handle:
As if seeing the shoes of the little children weren't enough, I am now in front of the mausoleum where the victims' ashes have been deposited. The amount of ashes in this pile is unreal. It is a pile the size of a small hill. I have never seen anything like this in my life. There are ditches behind the mausoleum which the Nazis used when executing prisoners. It was here in November of 1943 that "Operation Harvest Festival" took place, as 17,000 Jewish prisoners were shot and killed in one day. As I look closely at the pile of ashes, I can see large pieces of bone and other skeletal remains.
I have just walked in and out of the crematorium in Majdanek. It is absolutely mind-numbing. They have a display case full of human bones, set as a memorial. I can't believe this place. They have never cleaned out the crematorium, meaning that there are ashes and bones still inside of the ovens. This place has truly shown the devastating impact of the Holocaust. I don't think I can bear to go to another camp. I know I'm supposed to visit Belzec tomorrow, but I just don't want to go through this again.
Making the Most of My Trip
While I ended my trip prematurely, since I didn't follow through on my planned visits to Belzec and Dachau, the true "message" of this trip lies in the fact that my journey to the camps almost didn't happen. When I was first given the opportunity to go to Europe, due to the generosity of a major benefactor of my school, Mr. David Berg, I didn't even consider using the trip to witness business and the Holocaust. Instead, I was totally preoccupied with the fact that I did not want to go to Europe.
I spent countless hours on the phone with my friend Jackie Porac, a student at the University of Delaware, complaining about how I "had" to go to Europe. Jackie, who possesses a deep sense of empathy and a wisdom which greatly exceed her years, would listen patiently as I went on and on about how the trip would be a nightmare and how I would regret going. Finally, after yet another conversation full of my seemingly-endless complaining, she stopped me and asked in a soft and compassionate voice: "Ray...why don't you just make the most out of your trip?"
It is always a great feeling when you look back and realize how someone was willing and able to intervene when you were doing the wrong thing. In this case, Jack's question simply led me to start looking at my trip to Europe as an opportunity, rather than as something threatening that I "had" to do. Within a few days, I realized that I could make the most out of my trip by using it to come face-to-face with the topic that I have studied with great intensity and passion, the role of business in the Holocaust. In addition to generating powerful feelings and memorable experiences, visiting Mauthausen, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek further solidified my desire to know more about how business was involved in the Holocaust and why. From now on, when I read about the injustice and inhumanity of the Holocaust, I will remember the powerful feelings of terror and anger that touched me on my trip.
Ray Jones is a PhD Candidate in Business and Society at the University of Pittsburgh's Katz Graduate School of Business. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.