Today is the 30th of April 1945, and Henri Marti is allowed to leave Pottenstein concentration camp, he is free, finally.
Yet there is no time to lose, Henri Marti must reach France as soon as possible.
He holds a knowledge he must share and spread.
He saw the gas chambers.
Back in 1941, Henri was arrested on suspicion of tracts distribution. The police searched his house, they couldn’t find anything. Henri was a smart man, he had hidden all incriminating materials underneath his 1 year old daughter’s mattress. Yet, even without any evidence, the punishment was severe, Henri Marti was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was unfair, yet Henri was a man in an unfair situation witnessing the unbelievable. What he saw was worse than unfair, beyond unjust. It was a crime against humanity itself.
At first, the 45000 didn't notice much, they were too focused on navigating the rules of the camp, getting enough food and water for the day, surviving. They thought that everyone got a similar treatment, specially as the 45000 were labelled Nacht und Nebel, which amounted to a disappearance order.
Soon they noticed that the jewish, tziganes and homosexuals were treated differently, far more cruelly. Out of the 50 jewish men in the 45000 convoy, only 2 survived the first months, David Badache and Jules Polosecki, the rest were murdered very quickly.
They started to wonder how thousands of people could arrive every day and disappear right away. Where were they going? There were elders, childrens, in those trains, but they were nowhere to be found in the camps.
Henri heard about groups gathered and killed in trucks, shocked to death by the engine fumes of those hell vans. He heard about murders by rifle. Yet the count still wasn't there, you can't kill that many people everyday that way, it just doesn't make sense. Surely they must have gone somewhere, in another camp maybe.
How could you imagine the gas chambers? A factory conceived to lure people in a room, in the pretense of a shower disinfection, kill them with zyklon B gas, then burn them. A murder factory. Nothing to produce, only a population to destroy. How can you accept that concept?
Pure hatred mixed with taylorisation efficiency.
Even if they heard stories, even if they saw some of the 45000 heading to the gas chambers, even if they saw the factories chimneys burning constantly and releasing a terrifying smell, they still struggled to accept the truth. They knew, but they didn't want to believe.
The quarantine was a relief for the 45000, it also was a moment for them to reflect, to discuss and share the stories they heard. There was no doubts that the crematoriums were a place of deaths. Still, no 45000 had seen the interior of the buildings, nor knew what happened exactly there.
The SS made sure that the gas chambers remained a mystery. The crematoriums were built on the side, separated from the camp, isolated. In 1944, they extended the railing so the trains could reach the gas chambers directly, rather than having trucks waiting near the station. More efficiency. The crew working in the gas chambers was a very special one, the Sonderkommandos, a selected jewish group, better treated, better fed, isolated from the other prisoners. They would take care of all things related to the gas chambers, bringing the group to the fake showers, closing the doors, carrying the bodies to the ovens, and taking care of the items left near the showers, clothes, luggages, glasses, jewels. Being part of a Sonderkommando meant having an expiration date, as they were murdered and replaced on a regular basis. The SS knew from the start they wanted no proof of the gas chambers, they were efficient to the end.
Henri Marti was affected as a plumber, an enviable profession, as he was able to go back and forth, move between Auschwitz and Birkenau. It allowed him to, under the supervision of Eugene Garnier, to communicate with the 31000. He was even allowed to get closer to the crematoriums.
One day, in 1944, with Clement Coudert and Cyril Chaumette, he met with a member of a Sonderkommando, a french man, Georges Berman as he remembered. He was a lonely man, broken, aware of his condition, of his expiration date arriving soon. Georges asked Clement, Cyril and Henri to follow him. He wanted them to see, to remember, to tell everyone once they came out of this place.
“None of us in here will survive, I know our days are counted, I will never see Paris ever again. But you, htr “political prisoners”, you may come out alive, you have more chances than we do.
I want you to hold your breath, and your heart, because of what I am about to show. One day, you will tell about what you saw. Everyone must know. Open your eyes, wide open, and watch.”
He opened the doors of the gas chamber and showed the 3 men what was inside, who was inside.
From that point on, the 3 men had to tell what they saw, as soon as possible.
War was on his side, finally, Henri heard good news from the Allies, they were winning, the german were standing back.
Separated from Clement Coudert and Cyril Chaumette, Henri was transferred on the 29th of August 1944 to Sachsenhausen. In the meantime, the german began to understand that they would be defeated, they also realised that anything related to the extermination of the jews, tsiganes and homosexuals should disparear, any evidence was to disappear. The Sonderkommando attempted an uprising, killing 3 guards, destroying one gas chamber with explosives. But the revolt failed. In November 1944, the german started to destroy all documentation related to Auschwitz Birkenau, and dismantled the gas chambers and crematoriums. The resistance in Auschwitz managed to hide some of the documents, photographs, yet most of the evidence was destroyed when the Soviet Union entered Auschwitz in january 1945. Henri Marti's testimony was more important than ever, Clement Coudert, Cyril Chaumette and Henri were living witnesses.
On the 15th of April 1945, Cyril attempted to escape the death march to Bergen Belsen. He failed and was executed.
Henri held on, worked in different places and camps, alongside Rene Petitjean, Rene Macquenhen and Auguste Monjauvis at the Siemensstadt district of Berlin. Then Trebnitz, Heinkel, Flossenburg, many different camps, for a few days or a few weeks, always in a hurry. The german army was obviously losing the war, but Henri wondered if they still saw the prisoners as a work force or evidence to be destroyed. Finally, they reached Pottenstein.
Back to the present, Henri is free, the camp was liberated by the american army.
Henri had to regain his strength for 2 weeks, and now, on the 30th of April, he must reach France as soon as possible.
He takes a train, as a free man this time. Francfort, Mayence, Thionville, Metz, Romigny, the travel is long much longer than the 2 days it took them from Compiegne to Auschwitz.
He reaches Paris, 2 weeks later, it is the 13th of May, it is 3am. Henri walks to his building, his home, his wife is there, she never doubted he would be back. His daughter Josette is there, so is his son Jean, Henri is a lucky man.
Henri knows what he should do next, he needs to reach the Humanity headquarters, a communist journal, surely with the war ending, the journal must have become legal again. He must tell them about what he saw, the gas chambers, everyone must know.
Clement Coudert arrived before, he had the same idea, the same goal, the same meaning. The journal published his testimony, the same Henri Marti wanted to make, on the 24th of April 1945. The title was clear, "Birkenau, a gigantic death making factory"
Henri reads the article, some elements are exaggerated, but it's there, for the french public to read.
But just like the 45000 when they arrived, it will take time for the whole world to understand what happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It will take time to understand the gas chambers, to accept that a population built factories, whose sole purpose was to annihilate another population.
Henri Marti knows his meaning is to keep talking about what happened, what he saw with his own eyes, until the rest of his life, until everyone, absolutely everyone, acknowledges it. Hatred, on an industrial scale.
Before they parted ways, Georges Berman also asked Henri to find his family and tell them about him. Henri promised he would. But he only has a name. Where to start? Who to ask? All those jewish families, gone, vanished in the mist, how will Henri find them?
Thank you for listening to this episode of 31000/45000, the story of 2 trains of french members of the resistance. My name is Matthieu Landour Engel.
This episode was about Henri Marti and the gas chambers. This episode is a difficult one.
For those notes I prefer to quote the 24th of April 1945 Humanity article
“It was a gigantic death making factory. He came to see, a thin man with a back bent, in clothes much too large for him. His face, his elders hands, bear the stigmata of his sufferings. He walks slowly, his breath is short, and his eyes are wide open, he is coming back to life. Clement C has lived since 1942 within the hellish world of the nazi death camps. First, he arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death factory, nearby the polish neighbourhood of Oswiecim (...) he mentions to us the gas chambers: french jewish. They were brought there, they took their clothes off. They were given some soap and a towel. They were told they were going to showers. 2 of them were talking in front of me, they promise themselves to meet again in Paris. One of them talks about his wife and daughter, his eyes filled with tears "we will be free, soon". The poor man was right, only partly. I knew he would die, within the hour, like everybody else. Suddenly, the SS raged on them, hitting them with their fists, their batons. 2000 or 3000 people were in those rooms, crammed against one another. As the door shut, there was no more illusion about the room, some already die, shocked, compressed. It was a long scream, a collective scream, lasting 6 to 7 minutes, until the gas bombs were dropped. A criminal prisoner was to take care of the whole cremation process.
One of them calls me "Would you like to see a nice show?" He opens the gas chamber door. I run away, terrified by those open mouths, those eyes looking at me, their face freezed in agony. I can’t hear their agony, I know it is only an hallucination, but I can’t hear it.
4 crematoriums. It wasn't even enough. They murdered everyone, "those monsters"! In 2 gigantic, 150 meters deep, ditches, they sometimes burnt 10000 corpses at once. As for the children, they threw them directly in the pits.
I don’t believe it is necessary to give any more explanations. There are a few inaccuracies in the text, though, which should be attributed to the journalist who wrote the article. When the article states that a criminal prisoner was to take care of the whole cremation process, that is untrue on many counts. There was a group of people taking care of the process, named the sonderkommando, they were not criminal prisoners, and they didn’t take care of the whole process, the killing in itself was taken care of by the SS, the sonderkommando were to take care of the dead and their belongings. They were themselves dependables, as they were entirely replaced and killed on a regular basis. Those inaccuracies could be explained by the fact that the journalist may have heard that story for the first time, he may have tried to simplify the story, and attempted to make sense of it, yet it was clumsy.
I don’t wish to explain much more, it may be better to refer you to films that have tried it. The son of Saul, by Laszlo Nemes, is a very thorough account of the sonderkommandos, it is obviously a tough watch. Otherwise, the work of documentarian Claude Lanzmann explains this, as well as the holocaust, far better than I ever will.
Testimonies like Clement Coudert's, Henri Marti's, and many more are invaluable. The Nazis attempted to destroy all evidence of their crimes, which could be explained as the president of the United Stated Roosevelt, during the Moscow conference on the 30th of October 1943, that those responsible of war atrocities would be pursued. Fortunately, not all the evidence was destroyed, even though the crematoriums and gas chambers were, and human testimonies form a strong tissue of evidence.
I was lucky to have a conversation with Josette Marti, Henri Marti’s daughter. She is an artist, painter, whose work I really want to advise you to look at. She is also an active member of the Memoire vive association, and treasurer. She kindly told me about her father, a kind man, discreet, joyful, who always tried to protect his children from the horrors he witnessed. He was a dedicated member of the communist party, and like many, he believed in the values of solidarity that the party carried.
Now I would like to tell you about the man that Henri Marti, Clement Coudert and Cyril Chaumette, the man from the Sonderkommando, the man who opened the doors, Georges Berman.
In 1945, a letter was found in Birkenau, inside a bottle, buried in the ground. That letter was from a man who worked as a Sonderkommando, a letter addressed to his wife and children, a letter from a man who knew that his time was about to come. For decades, that letter was attributed to Mr Chaim Herman, and only a year ago it was acknowledged that the letter actually was written by a man named Herman Strasfogel. According to Claudine Cardon Hamet, this man was most likely the Georges Berman Henri Marti, Coudert and Chaumette met, and it is likely that they made a mistake regarding his name, as no Georges Berman was registered in Birkenau. During all his life, Mr Marti regretted that he could not have found Mr Berman’s family, it turns out he was looking at the wrong name. But thanks to this letter, the family of Mr Berman, actually Mr Strafogel, know about his fate, which officially closes the loop. If you understand french, I would recommend a fascinating conference by the Shoah Memorial on that matter. You can find a link below.
My sources for this story mostly come from the book Red triangles in Auschwitz, by Claudine Cardon Hamet, le convoi du 24 janvier by Charlotte Delbo, the website deportes-politiques-auschwitz.fr, memoire vive, the foundation for the memory of deportation website , the Maitron website, and the fantastic website auschwitz.org
Thank you very much for your attention, next episode will be about Marcel Cimier and the Cap Arcona disaster.