SA researchers pursue genocide answers in Auschwitz network of camps

The former Nazi complex of camps at Auschwitz at Oświęcim in present-day Poland is perhaps the most infamous site of the Nazi genocide during the Second World War. Seventy-two years later, it still harbours things as yet to be uncovered. Two South African researchers and an Austrian filmmaker are hoping to contribute towards recording some of them.

Gas Chamber/Crematoria II(III)

“Auschwitz-Birkenau in particular is commonly considered to be one of the most thoroughly researched places in the world”, says Prof Anthony Court, a political theorist specialising in genocide studies at Unisa. “Because Auschwitz is so symbolic of the horrors of the Nazi dictatorship, serving as a metaphor of the Nazi’s regime’s criminality, it is often assumed that research at the site has been carried out exhaustively in every respect – and yet we have photographed large numbers of material remains protruding from the soil seven decades after the liberation of the camps by Soviet troops on 27 January 1945.”

Prof Anthony Court (political theorist specialising in genocide studies at the Unisa).

Court and a colleague from the University of Pretoria, Prof Ulrike Kistner, have over a period of five years taken thousands of photographs of material remains lying half-buried in and around the former Auschwitz camps in Poland.

“In this regard, our questions are: Have researchers noted the artefacts in certain areas over the years? If they have, have there been archaeological digs to recover them? If not, why would so many of the remains be left in the ground?” says Court, whose other research focus is mass killings and genocide in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

His and Kistner’s current research in Eastern Europe centres on Polish East-Upper Silesia, and encompasses the Auschwitz camps – Auschwitz 1, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Monowitz – and their networks of sub-camps.

A closer look at well-trodden ground

The two South African researchers first encountered artefacts in former Nazi camps in Poland in 2008 while on a visit to the former concentration camp Płaszów outside Kraków, about 40 km from the former Auschwitz camps.

“Everyone we spoke to said there was nothing to see at the Płaszów site and we went there with the preconception that we would find nothing of interest from the period. We were surprised to find that fragments of camp existence are strewn across what is today a parkland field. The material remains include roof tiles, a camp tag, remains of an SS clinic and waterworks, upturned concrete structures, and shattered remnants of a Jewish cemetery desecrated by the Nazis during the period of construction of the camp. Although some of the remains, notably the cemetery, had previously been recorded, the experience influenced our outlook in regard to related sites, including Auschwitz,” Court says.

Spoon found at Birkenau.

“Upon a third visit to Auschwitz and particularly to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the earlier experience led us to shift our focus and view the camp from a different perspective; that is, to look more closely at well-trodden ground. On the occasion of viewing an industrial lawnmower traverse a section of the camp, we heard glass shatter and metal twist on blades. On closer inspection, we saw hundreds of objects exposed in the soil: cutlery, bottles of all descriptions, razors and razor blades, beads, medical utensils, fragments of toys and porcelain, toothbrushes, combs, cigarette holders, pewter, bottle tops, scissors and so on.”

It was at this point that Court concluded a more systematic research project was warranted since the objects are likely a valuable resource for reconstructing aspects of the chronology and organisation of existence and death in the camp.

Material remains could bring new insights to light

“It is beyond question, in my view, that these zones which contain the objects in the camps are among the most important sites for future research in Auschwitz-Birkenau.”

He says the Museum officials at the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen near Berlin, for example, carried out a systematic archaeological dig of a refuse dump and were able to reconstruct daily existence in the camp in a very detailed manner from these remnants. The camp museum authority then built a dedicated public research facility documenting these finds and demonstrating their interrelationships, together with a library and archive accessible to scholars and other members of the public. “The aforementioned sites in Birkenau could provide us with similar insights and evidence of the functioning of Birkenau, its ‘social’ history, and its extermination apparatus.”

Of great significance, Court adds, are locations where the “Sonderkommando” members (Jewish inmates forced to work in the gas chambers) buried objects. These include canisters containing manuscripts, as well as implements retrieved by these forced labourers for the Sonderkommando uprising of 7 October 1944.

“Museum researchers have recovered certain of the manuscripts and these have provided invaluable insights about camp processes – the relationship between camp inmates and the Polish resistance, the trajectories of victims, and the extermination process itself. But others possibly remain hidden, as some post-war accounts of surviving Sonderkommando members attest. These survivors have now passed on. Still, records of their suffering and activities, and the fate of the other victims, might still be buried beneath the meticulously manicured lawns of the present-day camp”.

Scissors found at Birkenau.

Court and Kistner entered into discussions with the Museum authorities in order to facilitate a forensic survey of these sites. This would be carried out by a world-renowned voluntary team of archaeologists and forensic scientists under the auspices of the Museum, Court says.  

“A proposal was submitted in 2011 but permission to carry out the research was unfortunately not forthcoming. It was hoped that the project would contribute towards our understanding of more detailed aspects of the camp during its relatively short existence, from October 1941 until 1945. It is perhaps understandable that there is an apparent reluctance to carry out the research at this point given the extreme sensitivity of these sites and the complex process of obtaining permissions from all concerned parties,” he adds.

Searching for detailed patterns of the genocide

“The genocide of Jews, Sinti and Roma, Slavs, homosexuals, POWs and others at the camp reflects an extremely complex process, which requires further research of the sites themselves. For example, the sheer size of the Birkenau camp, unlike that of the Aktion Reinhard death camps, points to its broader function as a ‘labour exchange’ and source of forced labour for economic functions – industry, agriculture, transport, etc – in and around the Auschwitz economic zone and in the broader region of East Upper Silesia and beyond. Contracts were concluded between a multitude of official Nazi agencies, and between these agencies and private industry and other economic interests. As a consequence, sub-camps and independent labour camps proliferated in enormous numbers across the region.”

Hence, during a five-year period from 2008 to 2013 the researchers launched a study of the networks of camps stretching across the region over an area of approximately 70 km by 40 km, identifying, recording and plotting many of the camps, utilising Google Earth, historical archives and GPS-enabled cameras. “One focus has been to identify the ethno-national make-up of the camps since in certain areas complexes of camps were divided along ethnic, national, POW, political, functional and other statuses. The inconsistency or variability of such practices across different zones provides further evidence of differentiation and a-systematicity within a broader historical context”, he states.

More objects found during research.

As part of the research, Court and the Austrian videographer are producing a documentary film; Kistner and Court are publishing their findings, including photographic material; and Court is currently preparing a new phase of the research project to record the installations of other industrial complexes, several equal in size to the I G Farben complex at Auschwitz. All of these complexes had their own dedicated camp systems, remnants of which are relatively well preserved. “This latter dimension of the longer term project promises to yield original research given the fact that these sites have not been studied in any detail,” he says.

Mass crimes have universal significance

Asked why he, as a South African, is carrying out research in Eastern Europe, Court says: “I’m not limited in my interests. From my point of view, and within the context of my specialisation, which is multi-disciplinary by definition, there is an important role for comparative genocide studies. I have written about Rwanda and its broader historical and geographical context and I am developing an interest in Europe emanating from my studies in Germany and my postgraduate research.”

Court says there are similarities and fundamental differences between genocides, and “since all research is an exploratory exercise, searching for elements by which we can connect genocides in our understanding, is a legitimate exercise, no matter where they may occur and regardless of their historical contexts. It is only with this approach, in my view, that we may come to the realisation that these forms of mass crimes are of universal significance, beyond barriers of ideological preconceptions, historical bias, political considerations and parochial interests.”