Auschwitz received its first victims, a transport of 728 Poles, on this day in 1940. These were male political prisoners, many of them dissident university students; it would be another eighteen months before the Nazis arrived at their “Final Solution” and the first exclusively Jewish transport arrived at the camp in southern Poland.
The story of those first eighteen months, during which the Nazis worked through various non-final solutions for their occupation/annihilation problems, is given a new telling in Lawrence Rees’s Auschwitz: A New History (2005). Rees argues that the Nazi command did not initially conceive of Auschwitz as the horror it became but arrived there by way of an incremental immoral pragmatism. The sketchy initial plans envisioned only a holding camp and a labor pool, and several higher-ups, one of them Himmler, argued that “physically exterminating a people [is] fundamentally un-German and impossible.” There is also evidence that until the end of 1941 the Germans still hoped to implement their plan, first proposed in the nineteenth century, to deport all Jews to the island of Madagascar — an “African solution,” potentially just as deadly.
Such fantasies of world- and species-management are echoed in Himmler’s plan during the early days of Auschwitz to turn the camp into an agricultural research center where experiments with crops and cattle might advance the Reich-topia. But Allied resistance soon had the Nazis devising a more expedient alternative, and the million or so eventually killed there arrived at an Auschwitz stripped down to its elemental horror:
How they pushed and shoved and screamed. And these SS men with the dogs in front of us. I lost sight of what was going on. It’s crazy. And I was standing with my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law with her little girl, when someone approached us, and said, “Give this child to the grandmother.” And my sister-in-law gave the child to my mother-in-law. They went to the left, and we went to the right. And I said, ‘Why?’ My mother-in-law took the little one and went to the left. Regina, Ester, and I went to the right….
The authors of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present (Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, 1996) offer this moment — you to the left and immediate death, you to the right and a small chance — as the ultimate evil: “That process of selection is the core and moral nadir of the horror of the Holocaust — the selection, and not the gas chambers and crematoria.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.