60 years ago today: The evacuation of Auschwitz and start of the death march

As I've mentioned before, I have an interest in history, particularly in World War II, the Holocaust, and the more modern topic of Holocaust denial, which I've been been refuting on Usenet for at least seven years now. To our eternal shame as professions, doctors and scientists were integrally involved in providing the "scientific" (pseudoscientific, actually) rationale for the Holocaust, based on a perversion of Darwinian principles, and for actually helping to carry out the slaughter. (I will have much more to say about the unfortunately prominent role of doctors and scientists in conceiving and carrying out the Holocaust in future posts over the next few weeks.) It is this aspect that perhaps drives my interest in the Holocaust and leads me to ask over and over how it could happen and how a profession dedicated to healing could justify mass murder. Discussing Holocaust denial is not as incongruous to the majority of material on my blog as you might think. Like evaluating alternative medicine and pseudoscience like creationism, discussing Holocaust denial involves logically and carefully looking at the evidence and then thinking about how we know what we know about a topic, in this case history. It also involves being able to recognize and refute logical fallacies used by ideologues.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, 2005 is the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. One feature I am adding to my blog is to do posts on the 60th anniversary of important dates in World War II, sprinkling them among the usual daily rambling s on alternative medicine, conventional medicine, science, and skepticism. Besides allowing me to discuss the liberation of the camps and the horror of the last days of the Third Reich, this feature will add an "as it happened" feel to the discussion of the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, hopefully making the discussions more immediate and pertinent. I will continue this through the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, which will provide a convenient springboard into discussions of the ethics of medical research, given that much of the ethical framework behind our laws governing human subjects research derives from Nuremberg. This is the first such post.

60 years ago today, the Soviet Army had just taken Warsaw. The Red Army entered the empty streets of the shattered city on January 17, 1945. During over five years of Nazi occupation, Warsaw's Jewish citizens had been segregated into overcrowded, filthy ghettos, from which many of them had been sent to Auschwitz to meet their doom. In August 1944, Polish partisans, seeing the approach of the Red Army, rose up against the Germans. Stalin, not wanting to have to deal with an independent Polish force, held back and offered no assistance to the rebellion, allowing the Germans to brutally crush it by October. In retribution, the Nazis systematically destroyed all the historic monuments of the city. When the Russians arrived, only 162,000 of a prewar population of 1,310,000 remained, most of whom were starving.

After the taking of Warsaw, Red Army continued to advance relentlessly west through Poland towards Berlin, intent on avenging the horrors perpetrated in western Russia and the Ukraine by the Nazis during their invasion three and half years earlier and during the occupation afterward. As the vanguard of the Red Army approached Auschwitz, the most infamous of Nazi death camps, the SS personnel running the camp realized that very soon they were soon going to be overrun and held accountable. Over four years, approximately 1.1 million had died at Auschwitz. Those killed had either been immediately sent to the gas chamber on arrival or had died more slowly of intentionally inflicted overwork and starvation, which also resulted in huge numbers dying of disease in the crowded camp. A smaller number died during horrific "medical experiments" carried out by Josef Mengele.

The SS scrambled to do what they could to hide the evidence of their crimes and escape to Germany. They burned files and destroyed the gas chambers. The Nazis also began removing prisoners from Auschwitz 60 years ago today, on January 18, 1945. Tens of thousands of prisoners from Auschwitz and other camps were forced to march on foot in brutal winter weather, without adequate clothing, food, or shelter, to concentration camps in Germany proper. Thousands who were too weak to march or who committed any infraction at all during the forced march were shot and left at the side of the road. By the time the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, only a few thousand emaciated and dying prisoners were still in the camp.

With the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approaching, now is a good time to reflect upon the horrors of the Holocaust and how a regime like the Nazis could perpetrate such a crime and believe it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, even today, the world is not free of similar, but smaller, genocides, and, sadly, although we like to tell ourselves that it could not happen again, that is almost certainly not true. Starting tomorrow on PBS, an extraordinary new history series, Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, will begin airing and will continue until January 26. Synopses of the six episodes are available here.

They include:
  1. Surprising Beginnings (March 1940-September 1941)
  2. Orders and Initiatives (September 1941-March 1942)
  3. Factories of Death (March 1942-March 1943)
  4. Corruption (April 1943-March 1944)
  5. Murder and Intrigue (March 1944-December 1944)
  6. Liberation and Revenge (January 1945 and beyond)

Aerial view of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1944

It tells a comprehensive history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex of camps, which functioned as both a work camp and a death camp. Prisoners would arrive by train. Upon arrival, they immediately would be subjected to "selection" by doctors. Doctors would do a cursory examination and decide each prisoner's fate within seconds. Young, healthy patients would be sent to work for the industries located in the main complex or in one of the subcamps. The old, children too young to work, the infirm, and the excess would be sent immediately to the gas chambers at Birkenau. Over time, from its start in 1940 (when it functioned as a concentration camp), to 1942 (when mass gassings began and it became a death camp as well), throughout the rest of the war, Auschwitz-Birkenau expanded to cover a huge area, with over 40 subcamps located in the surrounding countryside. Workers "lucky" enough not to be gassed immediately toiled in the labor camps and lived in horrific conditions, intentionally starved and overworked. Not surprisingly, most of them eventually became ill or too weak to do the often demanding labor required. When that happened, the gas chambers at Birkenau were always waiting.

The horrors perpetrated at Auschwitz are a cautionary lesson in man's inhumanity to man and must never be forgotten. It's hard to believe such a thing happened within my parents' lifetime and that men I know (now in their 80's) actually fought in the war that ultimately put a stop to it. Unfortunately, the generation with firsthand experience of the Holocaust is rapidly dying off. If it's at all possible for you to do so, I urge you to watch all six episodes. Check your local listings through the PBS website for dates and times. In my area, the series appears to be scheduled to air in blocks of two episodes in a row.


  1. There is a good new series on Auschwitz on the BBC at the moment. It's on at 9, on BBC2 tonight

  2. My friend Laura went on a "Bearing Witness" retreat, sponsored annually by her employer, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. She posted a story, with photos, about her experience. Although she went two years ago, you can still read it here.

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