Torture and mass killings in concentration camps became the pinnacle of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis. Sophisticated methods and tools to make people speak or force them to obey have existed throughout history. The 20th century, with its totalitarian regimes, was not an exception. However, it was the Third Reich which managed to apply the efficiency of the factory assembly line to torture and execution, without neglecting true German meticulousness, precision and stolidity.

The moments when one of the most eloquent and shocking pieces of evidence of inhuman Nazi atrocities against POWs was presented were described by the Soviet writer Boris Polevoy. In the book “The Final Reckoning - Nuremberg Diaries” he wrote about the blackest day of the Tribunal, when illustrative evidence was presented.

“It was all dreadful enough, but the most dreadful part, it turned out, was yet to come, the writer noted. - The showcases in the centre of the hall and the bulky exhibits on the tables were still shrouded with sheets. After the recess, the Prosecutor tore the cover off one of the exhibits on the table. The bewildered public hushed and then began murmuring in horror. A human head was standing on an elegant marble base under a bell-glass. Yes, a human head with long, swept- back hair, shrunk in some incomprehensible way to the size of a large fist. (…) The prisoner who caught the gentleman- or lady-visitor’s eye was killed, the brain and crushed bones of the head were extracted by some technique through the neck, the head was shrunken by some process, stuffed and mounted as a statuette or ornament”.

“As we looked at this head under the bell-glass we felt our flesh creep”, Polevoy wrote, describing the feelings of people present in the courtroom. “A woman screamed hysterically in the visitors’ gallery above us. People rushed to carry her out. Lev Smirnov continued his speech. He produced the evidence of a certain Sigmund Mazur, a ‘scientist’ from a Konigsberg research institute. In calm, scientific terms this ‘scientist’ described how the laboratories of the institute searched for the ‘rational industrial utilisation’ of human flesh, fat and skin, the waste products of the gigantic death camps.”

As Polevoy wrote, when at the prosecutor’s behest, all the sheets were removed from the display stands and tables, nobody failed to understand first what was on them. “We saw a display of human skin in various stages of processing: freshly flayed, cleaned of flesh, tanned and, finally, finished leather articles—elegant ladies’ shoes, hand- bags, brief-cases, blotting-pads and even jackets. Boxes of different kinds of soap were also lying on the tables: ordinary soap, household soap, baby soap, industrial soap and fragrant toilet soap in attractive colorful wrappings.”

According to Boris Polevoy, the prosecutor continued his speech amidst absolute silence. “The defendants sat in tense poses. Ribbentrop rolled his eyes and bit his lip with a pained expression; Goering, pulling a wry face, scribbled note after note to his Counsel. (Julius) Streicher coughed and giggled hysterically. Lanky (Hjalmar) Schacht was again on the verge of fainting and his usually motionless, cruel bull-dog face was waxy and nonplussed.” 

Being a war correspondent, Polevoy had previously visited the Auschwitz concentration camp (also known as Oświęcim), but he was deeply shocked by "the items created from the waste products of the gigantic death camps":

"A feeling of nausea rose in my throat and I wanted to jump up and rush out of the courtroom. (...) But there was something truly dreadful about the calm, business-like way in which Sigmund Mazur wrote his evidence: ‘Human skin is not Covered by hair and thereby lends itself extremely well to processing from which, in comparison with animal hides, a number of costly operations may be omitted…’, or ‘After cooling, the boiled mass is poured into the usual molds and the soap is ready’.

I noticed for the first time that the three Kukriniksi were sitting stunned with their folders open before them and their pencils poised.

‘Dante’s Inferno was just like a musical comedy show compared to this,’ Yuri Korolkov whispered to someone, but the courtroom was so silent that we overheard him three rows away.

We left the session in silence.

‘You know, I really won’t be able to eat meat any longer’, said Mikhail Gus as he got into the van.

‘Then, logically, you shouldn’t wash with soap either’, Semyon Narinyani joked sadly.

Our interpreter, Maya, felt really bad. She was sitting in the shuddering car, sobbing hysterically and biting her lips, and the typists next to her were pushing some pungent smelling-salts under her nose.

That day, at least, we all well and truly lost our appetite and sleep."

The prosecution described their impressions in similar words. "We of the Western World heard of gas wagons in which Jews and political opponents were asphyxiated. We could not believe it. But here we have the report of May 16, 1942 from the German SS Officer Becker to his supervisor in Berlin which tells this story:

Gas vans in C group can be driven to spot, which is generally stationed 10 to 15 km from the main road, only in dry weather. Since those to be executed become frantic if conducted to this place, such vans become immobilized in wet weather.

Gas vans in D group were camouflaged as cabin trailers, but vehicles well-known to authorities and the civilian population, which calls them 'death vans'.

Writer of the letter (Becker) ordered all men to keep as far away as possible during gassing. Unloading the van has an 'atrocious spiritual and physical effect' on men and they should be ordered not to participate in such work."

The assistant to the chief prosecutor from the Soviet Union Lev Smirnov, the one mentioned by Boris Polevoy, was even more emotional: "At the foot of the communal graves where rest the bodies of the Soviet people murdered by 'typical German methods’-I shall, later on, present to the Tribunal evidence of these methods and of the regularity of their application-at the foot of the gallows where the feet of the adolescents danced on the air, at the ovens of the gigantic crematories where the murdered internees from the extermination camps were burned, at the sight of the dead women and girls, victims of some sadistic whim of the fascist bandits, at the sight of children, who had been torn in half-by all this evidence did the Soviet people recognize the mighty chain of crime extending, as the Chief Prosecutor of the U.S.S.R. so aptly said, ‘from the ministerial armchair to the hands of the executioner’,” he highlighted in his report.

According to him, all these monstrous crimes had a definite system. "One and the same system prevailed in the construction of the gas chambers, in the mass production of the round tins containing the poisonous substances Zyklon A or Zyklon B. The ovens of the crematories are all built on the same typical lines, and one was the plan extending over all the camps of destruction. There was uniformity in the construction of the evil-smelling death machines, which the Germans referred to as ‘gaswagen’ but which our people called the ‘soul destroyers’; and there was the same technical elaboration in the construction of mobile mills for grinding human bones. All this indicates one sole and evil will uniting all the individual assassins and executioners," Smirnov reported.

"It became obvious that German thermo-technicians and chemists, architects, toxicologists, mechanics, and physicians were engaged in this rationalization of mass murder on instructions received from Hitler's government and from the Supreme Command of the German Armed Forces. It was also evident that the ‘death factories’ brought into existence an entire series of auxiliary industries.

But the unity of this will-to-evil was not only apparent there, where a special technique had been evolved to serve the purpose of very evil murder. The unity of this will-to-evil was also apparent from the similarity of the methods employed by the murderers, from the uniformity of type in the murder technique evolved as well as from the fact that, in cases where no special technique was employed, use was made of ordinary weapons of the German Armed Forces," the Soviet prosecutor noted.

Sources: “The Final Reckoning: Nuremberg Diaries” by Boris Polevoy

Nuremberg Trials Stenograph, Volumes I, VI, Translated from English by Sergey Miroshnichenko