It was the day Britain discovered the truth about mankind’s most heinous crime – the systematic industrial murder of six million Jews.
Eighty years ago this week, the first eyewitness account of what later became known as the Holocaust emerged from Hitler’s death camps.
But even after three years of brutal war, the idea that Germany could kill tens of thousands of men, women and children in gas chambers seemed too implausible to accept without examination.
So instead of immediately shouting the news across their front pages, the world’s newspapers buried it inside.
Szlama Ber Winer, a Polish Jew, had escaped the Nazi-run Chelmno camp in Poland, where he was forced to bury the bodies of thousands of victims when they were thrown from gas vans.
His detailed testimony of the atrocities he witnessed – including the need to bury his entire family – was first published in a Polish underground newspaper on June 1, 1942. However, it was to be almost a month before it was reported abroad.
On June 25, the Daily Telegraph described how the Nazis used mobile gas chambers for industrial killings and that “an average of 1,000 Jews were gassed daily.”
But the story, which referred to “the greatest massacre in world history,” was published on page five of a six-page issue and was largely ignored.
It was not until the spring of 1945, after the Red Army had liberated the Auschwitz death camp and horrified British and American soldiers began liberating camp survivors in Germany, that the true extent of Hitler’s Final Solution was finally revealed.
By mid-1945, most European Jews—two out of three—had either been murdered, starved, or died of disease.
In Auschwitz alone, the SS killed a million Jews, mostly in specially constructed gas chambers.
Until 31-year-old Winer managed to escape from Chelmno and tell of his horrors, most people – including the Jewish community itself – believed that the camps were not set up for extermination but for the exploitation of slave labor.
In fact, a full year before Winer’s escape, the Nazis had already implemented their plan to wipe out Europe’s Jewish population.
Alamy Stock Photo)
And just a month before the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, when officials met to work out the Final Solution, gas vans were being used in Chelmno to kill up to 1,000 victims a day.
Born in central Poland, Winer was among 1,600 rounded up in his village and transported to Chelmno on January 5, 1942. There the SS had set up one of the first facilities in which poison gas was used for mass murder. The prisoners were told to undress and put in vans, which were driven into the forest before the exhaust fumes were piped inside.
Without a chance to escape, they would be dead in 15 to 20 minutes.
Winer was among 15 “lucky” men selected not for outright killing but to work with the Sonderkommando – death attendants who are forced to dispose of gassed victims.
He later described the entire horrible process. “We didn’t have to wait long for the next truck to arrive,” he wrote.
“It looked like a normal big truck, painted gray, with two hermetically sealed rear doors. The inner walls were made of steel. There was no seating. Under a wooden grate were two pipes coming out of the cab. They had small openings from which gas flowed. The driver pressed a button and got out.
“At the same moment, horrific screaming, screaming and pounding against the side of the van was heard. This took about 15 minutes. Then the driver got back in, shone a flashlight in the back to see if the people were dead, and pulled to within fifteen feet of a ditch.
“As the trucks approached, we had to stand five meters from the ditch. The leader of the guard command was a high-ranking SS man, an absolute sadist and murderer.
Alamy Stock Photo)
“He ordered us to open the doors of the truck. The smell of gas that came our way was overwhelming.” Winer recounted how he was forced to get the bodies out of the vans and dump them in the ground.
“The bodies were thrown on top of each other like rubbish in a heap. We grabbed her feet and her hair. Two men stood at the edge of the ditch and threw in the bodies. Two other men stood in the ditch and grabbed her head to toe, face down. If there was still room, a child was pushed in.
“What did the dead look like? They weren’t burned or black; their faces were unchanged. Almost all were dirty.”
In the most harrowing part of his account, Winer described finding his parents and brother among the dead. “During lunch I received the sad news: my dear parents and my brother are in their graves.
“By one o’clock we were back at work. I tried to get closer to the dead to see my loved ones for the last time.
“I was hit by the good-natured German with a pipe with a frozen clod of earth and the ‘whip man’ shot me.
“I’m not sure if he meant to miss or if it was a fluke, but I survived.
“I ignored the pain and worked very quickly to forget my terrible loss, even for a while. I was alone in this world now. Of my family of about 60, I was the only survivor.”
Once one of the men who worked with him recognized his own son.
“My friend Getzel Chrzastowski cried out terribly for a moment when he recognized his 14-year-old son who had just been thrown into the ditch. We had to stop him from begging the Germans to shoot him too. We argued that it was necessary to survive this suffering so that we could repay the Germans later.”
Winer described the growing realization that he and his accomplices would soon join the bodies they were burying and that escape was their only option for survival. He wrote: “Around five o’clock we stopped work. The eight men who worked with the bodies were made to lie face down on them.
“An SS man with a machine gun shot their heads.” On January 19, 1942, Winer managed to escape through a bus window as he was being transported to another horrific day of burying bodies.
He wrote: “When I hit the ground, I rolled over a bit and scraped the skin off my hands. The only thing I cared about was not breaking my leg.
“I turned to see if they had noticed anything on the bus, but he continued on his way. I wasted no time, but ran as fast as I could across fields and forests.”
Winer managed to reach the Warsaw Ghetto, where he received help from a lawyer who documented Nazi persecution for the underground group Oneg Shabbat.
He wrote Winer’s report under the assumed name of Jakub Grojnowski before smuggling it to the Polish resistance.
On June 1, 1942, Liberty Brigade, a Warsaw underground newspaper, published the report.
A week after the Telegraph article, the New York Times published its own account of Winer’s information, describing how the Nazis “were methodical in their campaign to exterminate all Jews.”
It added that the victims who were rounded up and murdered included “children in orphanages, old people in workhouses, the sick in hospitals and women”.
But again, despite describing the most horrific atrocities, the article was hidden on page six and received little attention elsewhere.
No doubt dismayed by the apparent lack of interest, Winer would not survive to find out what happened next.
After escaping to a relative in Zamosc, he wrote to his contacts in the Warsaw Ghetto and described how the rest of his family had been killed in another camp, Belzec.
He said: “Please imagine my desperation. I’ve run out of tears. This will probably be the last letter I am writing to you. I will probably join my parents in the same way.”
Days later he was transported to Belzec, where he met the same terrible fate.
But his courage in making the world aware of Hitler’s crimes was not in vain.
Three months after its report was released, the US State Department confirmed the information.
A report followed from the Polish government-in-exile warning the Allied powers of Germany’s plans for annihilation and calling on the world to “draw the appropriate consequences”.
And on December 19, 1942, the UK, US and ten other governments issued a statement denouncing Nazi Germany’s “intent to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe” and warning that “those responsible for these crimes of retribution will not escape”.
This time the news was on every front page. Finally the whole world knew.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/how-truth-behind-gas-chambers-27141057 How the truth behind gas chambers and death camps was exposed by one man 80 years ago - World News