Fifty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazis' most infamous death camp, the facts of its construction and operation are as chilling as ever, but there will always be more to learn and remember about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Dr. Raul Hilberg told a chapel gathering during last week's Holocaust Memorial Service.
Dr. Hilberg, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont, delivered the MIT Hillel Abramowitz Memorial Lecture on Thursday. He worked on the War Documentation Project after serving in the US army from 1944-46 and has written and edited several books about the Holocaust.
Jews and other Holocaust victims died at many camps and locations (some of which were named at the service as part of the Kaddish, or Jewish prayer of mourning), but Auschwitz is the best-known. "It's a symbol today because it's a headline, and we have room for only one headline at a time," Professor Hilberg said. "It is, when all is said and done, the place where almost a million Jews died."
The first inmates of Auschwitz were not Jews but local Poles; it did not become a site of mass extermination until early 1943, he explained. Before that, the German company IG Farben (with the help of a tax incentive from the Third Reich) decided to expand into captured territory and required large amounts of cheap labor. To meet this need, thousands of captured Soviet prisoners of war were transported to Auschwitz. During the planning and construction process, crematoria were included, since "it was natural, with the planners thinking of everything, that they would anticipate an attrition" among those prisoners, Professor Hilberg said. More than 100 private firms were involved in designing and building the massive complex, he added.
By 1942, the influx of Soviet prisoners had slowed considerably, yet three more furnaces were built because "Auschwitz was going to achieve a third mission-the final solution of the Jewish question," Professor Hilberg said. The SS conducted experiments with hydrogen cyanide gas on prisoners, "and when [Auschwitz director Rudolf] Hess looked at the corpses, he convinced himself that suffering could not have taken place."
In August 1943, a report about the Auschwitz atrocities was conveyed to the War Crimes Commission, the Army command and the US Office of Strategic Services, "and it died in all three channels," Professor Hilberg said. "Again and again, the reports were filed away. Everyone who heard about Auschwitz disbelieved the evidence." Consequently, the camp was never effectively bombed by the Allies and the full scope of what the Nazis had done was not known to the world until the end of the war.
By then it was too late for millions of people. The camp was operating as late as November 1944 because "the Germans insisted on finishing the job during the last year of the war, which they knew was lost," Professor Hilberg said.
Survivors of the Holocaust were discouraged from discussing their experiences. Likewise, when he was a graduate student in 1948, studying the Holocaust was "barred, taboo. but I'm driven by Jewish tradition-I want to know," he said. "We remember Auschwitz, and in remembering, we recognize the limits of our knowledge. We also recognize how much more there is to be said and to be known. We cannot simply remember; we must learn what is to be remembered."
Thursday also marked the opening of a commemorative photography exhibit, "Resistance and Rescue: Denmark and the Holocaust," which will be on display until May 25 at the Religious Activities Center (Building W11).
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 3, 1995.