The infamous Auschwitz tattoo began as an IBM number. And now it’s been revealed that IBM machines were actually based at the infamous concentration-camp complex.
IBM’s extensive technological support for Hitler’s conquest of Europe and genocide against the Jews was extensively documented in my book IBM and the Holocaust, published in February 2001. Last March, the Voice broke exclusive new details of a special wartime subsidiary set up in Poland by IBM’s New York headquarters, shortly after Hitler’s 1939 invasion, to help Germany automate the rape of Poland.
The new revelation of IBM technology in the Auschwitz area constitutes a final link in the chain of documentation surrounding Big Blue’s vast enterprise in Nazi-occupied Poland, supervised at first directly from its New York headquarters, and later through its Geneva office.
“This latest disclosure removes any pretext of deniability and completes the puzzle that has been put together about IBM in Poland,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the New York–based Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “The picture that emerges is most disturbing.”
IBM spokesman Carol Makovich didn’t respond to repeated telephone calls. In the past, when asked about IBM’s Polish subsidiary’s involvement with the Nazis, Makovich has said, “IBM does not have much information about this period.” When a Reuters reporter asked about Poland, Makovich said, “We are a technology company, we are not historians.”
But these latest revelations about IBM come during an unprecedented confession by officials of the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann (which owns Random House, among other properties) that its previous official company history was incorrect and that it actually collaborated with Hitler’s regime and used Jewish slave labor.
Bertelsmann just released an 800-page report saying that company patriarch Heinrich Mohn belonged to a circle of supporters who donated money to a group called the “SS Sponsors Circle,” which provided financing to Hitler’s elite troops. As an October 8 report by The Wall Street Journal noted, Bertelsmann’s new history stands in stark contrast to the previous official company record, which had portrayed Mohn as a devout Christian and strong opponent of Hitler.
The current chairman of Bertelsmann, Gunter Thielen, was quoted as saying the company, which is still controlled by the Mohn family, accepted the conclusions of the report. Thielen added, “I would like to express our sincere regret for the inaccuracies… in our previous corporate history of the World War II era, as well as for the wartime activities that have been brought to light.”
Jewish leaders and others have pressed IBM to discuss its wartime activities, as companies such as Bertelsmann and Ford have done. “IBM must confront this matter honestly if there is to be any closure,” said Hoenlein. And scholars have urged the company to open its New York archives to researchers.
“The news that IBM machines were at Auschwitz is just the latest smoking gun,” said Robert Urekew, a University of Louisville professor of business ethics who has studied IBM’s Hitler-era activities. “For IBM to continue to stonewall and hinder access to its New York archives flies in the face of the focus on accountability in business ethics today. Since the United States was not technically at war with Nazi Germany in 1939, it may have been legal for IBM to do business with the Third Reich and its camps in Poland. But was it moral?”
Thanks to the new discoveries, researchers can now trace how Hollerith numbers assigned to inmates evolved into the horrific tattooed numbers so symbolic of the Nazi era. (Herman Hollerith was the German American who first automated U.S. census information in the late 19th century and founded the company that became IBM. Hollerith’s name became synonymous with the machines and the Nazi “departments” that operated them.) In one case, records show, a timber merchant from Bendzin, Poland, arrived at Auschwitz in August 1943 and was assigned a characteristic five-digit IBM Hollerith number, 44673. The number was part of a custom punch-card system devised by IBM to track prisoners in all Nazi concentration camps, including the slave labor at Auschwitz. Later in the summer of 1943, the Polish timber merchant’s same five-digit Hollerith number, 44673, was tattooed on his forearm. Eventually, during the summer of 1943, all non-Germans at Auschwitz were similarly tattooed.
Tattoos, however, quickly transmogrified at Auschwitz. Soon, they bore no further relation to Hollerith operations for one reason: The Hollerith number was designed to track a working inmate — not a dead one. Prisoner deaths at Auschwitz climbed at a staggering rate. Various tattoo numbering schemes ultimately took on a chaotic incongruity all its own as an internal Auschwitz-specific identification system.
Central to the Nazi effort was a massive 500-man Hollerith Gruppe, installed in a looming brown building at 24 Murnerstrasse in Krakow, Poland. The Hollerith Gruppe of the Nazi Statistical Office crunched all the numbers of plunder and genocide that allowed the Nazis to systematically starve the Jews, meter them out of the ghettos, and then transport them to either work camps or death camps.
The trains running to Auschwitz were tracked by a specially guarded IBM customer site facility at 22 Pawia in Krakow. The millions of punch cards the Nazis in Poland required were obtained exclusively from IBM, including from one company print shop at 6 Rymarska Street across the street from the Warsaw Ghetto. The entire Polish subsidiary was overseen by an IBM administrative facility at 24 Kreuz in Warsaw.
The exact addresses and equipment arrays of the key IBM offices and customer sites in Nazi-occupied Poland had already been uncovered. But no one had ever been able to determine whether there was an IBM facility at, or even near, Auschwitz — until now. Auschwitz chief archivist Piotr Setkiewicz finally pinpointed the first such IBM customer site.
Auschwitz was actually three concentration camps, surrounded by some 40 subcamps, numerous factories, and a collection of farms. The original Auschwitz became known simply as Auschwitz I, and functioned as a camp for transit, labor, and detention. Auschwitz II, also called Birkenau, became the extermination center, operating gas chambers and ovens. Nearby Auschwitz III, known as Monowitz, existed primarily as a slave labor camp.
The newly unearthed IBM customer site was a huge Hollerith Büro. It was situated in the I.G. Farben factory complex, housed in Barracks 18, next to German Civil Worker Camp 7, about two kilometers from Monowitz. Archivists found the Büro only because it was listed in the I.G. Werk Auschwitz phone book on page 50. The phone extension was 4496. “I was looking for something else,” recalls Auschwitz’s Setkiewicz, “and there it was.”
Many of the long-known paper prisoner forms stamped Hollerith Erfasst, or “registered by Hollerith,” indicated the prisoners were from Monowitz. Now Auschwitz archivist Setkiewicz has discovered about 100 Hollerith machine summary printouts of Monowitz prisoner assignments and details generated by the I.G. Farben customer site.
Comparison of the new printouts to other typical camp cards shows the Monowitz systems were customized for the specific coding Farben needed to process the thousands of slave workers who labored and died there. The machines were probably also used to manage and develop manufacturing processes and ordinary business applications. The machines almost certainly did not maintain extermination totals, which were calculated as “evacuations” by the Hollerith Gruppe in Krakow.
“The Hollerith office at IG Farben in Monowitz used the IBM machines as a system of computerization of civil and slave labor resources,” said Setkiewicz. “This gave Farben the opportunity to identify people with certain skills, primarily skills needed for the construction of certain buildings in Monowitz.” At press time, the diverse Farben codes and range of machine uses were still being studied.
Even some IBM employees are frustrated by IBM’s silence. Michael Zamczyk, a longtime employee of the company in San Jose, California, also is a survivor of the Krakow ghetto in the early 1940s. Revelations about IBM’s ties to Hitler, which first came into public view in February 2001, spurred him to try to learn more about the company that he works for.
“Originally,” he said, “I was just trying to determine if it was IBM equipment that helped select my father to be shipped to Auschwitz, and if the machines were used to schedule the trains to Auschwitz.”
Zamczyk said he started writing letters and e-mails, but to no avail. “Now I feel that IBM owes me, as an IBM employee, an apology,” he said. “And that is all I am looking for.” But Zamczyk said he’s frustrated. “The only response I got,” he said, “was basically telling me there would be no public or private apology. But I am still waiting for that apology and debating what to do next.”
Meanwhile, wartime documents continue to be uncovered in Europe.
Edwin Black is author of IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation (Crown Publishers 2001 and Three Rivers Press 2002). This article is drawn from his just released German paperback edition. Information relating to the new Auschwitz discovery will be appended to future editions of the English-language editions.
IBM’s original statement on Black’s book.
IBM’s 2002 statement
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 8, 2002