Olga Lengyel was taken to Auscwtiz-Birkenau with all of her family in May 1944. She was the sole survivor. Her husband, their two sons, and her parents, were all murdered in the camp.

Olga had an amazing eye for detail that she used to chilling effect to tell the story of her internment in her memoir Five Chimneys. In chapter 10, with the clinical precision of a statistician, Lengyel gives some glimpse into the enormity of Nazi atrocities in Birkenau. Lengyel writes,

Of the four crematory units at Birkenau, two were huge and consumed enormous numbers of bodies. The other two were smaller. Each unit consisted of an oven, a vast hall, and a gas chamber.

Above each rose a high chimney, which was usually fed by nine fires. The four ovens at Birkenau were heated by a total of thirty fires. Each oven had large openings. This is, there were 120 openings, into each of which three corpses could be placed at one time. That meant they could dispose of 360 corpses per operation. That was only the beginning of the Nazi “Production Schedule.”

Three hundred and sixty corpses every half hour, which was all the time it took to reduce human flesh to ashes, made 720 per hour, or 17,280 corpses per twenty-four hour shift. And the ovens, with murderous efficiency, functioned day and night.

However, one must also reckon the death pits, which could destroy another 8,000 cadavers a day. In round numbers, about 24,000 corpses were handled each day. An admirable production record – one that speaks well for German industry. … I have the figures only for the months of May, June, and July, 1944. Dr. Pasche, a French doctor of the Sonderkommando, in the crematory, who was in a position to gather statistics on the rate of the extermination, provided me with these:

May, 1944                           360,000
June, 1944                           512,000
From the 1st to the
26th of July, 1944


(Lengyel, Olga. Five Chimneys. London: Granada, 1959, pp. 80,81)

It is unimaginable that educated, civilized human beings could dedicate their minds, their energy, and their expertise to creating a system designed to slaughter 24,000 people every day. Architects, engineers, chemists, and medical personnel in the Nazi concentration camp world were united in turning their knowledge and their expertise to producing death on a vast scale.

Birkenau was a factory of death. As Lengyel describes it in horrific detail, death was preceded by agonizing degradation, abuse, suffering, and endless sorrow for those whose only realistic expectation from life was extermination. In the violent ground of the Nazi concentration camp world death multiplied like a vicious virus infecting every person.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, speaking through Moses, God is reported to have said,

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

The arithmetic of death in Birkenau is a stark challenge to all who live in the shadow of the Holocaust to ask ourselves how we might choose life.

The math is always the same: the choice for death adds more death. When I choose the small violent world of my determination to force my will on the world, death multiplies; life is diminished.

In what ways do I make choices that add death? What power do I have to make different choices?

Even in the midst of the horror of Nazi terror, it was always possible to make at least tiny choices for life. No matter how limited my options, I can always take a small step towards life.

What does it look like to set in motion the way of life rather than death?

If there is to be any hope that the horrors of the Holocaust might be avoided in the future, it will only be as I choose the gentleness and openness that move towards life.