Auschwitz. The very word is enough to send a shiver down my spine. It equates to unspeakable horror, monstrous crimes. Nazi Germany was the focus of my studies at university, so I can claim to know a little more than many people about the Holocaust. But the history degree was many years ago. Before we set out on this trip, I read Thomas Keneally’s award winning book, Schindler’s Ark, and I watched Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie interpretation, Schindler’s List, when we got home. Schindler’s enamel works was in Cracow, one reason I’d wanted to see the place. The factory is still there, something of a tourist attraction, but our tour director, Tomas, told me the Poles don’t think much of Schindler, since he exploited Jewish labour to make a profit. Yet in Israel, he’s a hero. Certainly, the twelve hundred or so Jews whose lives he saved appreciated his efforts. By some weird coincidence, when we came home I found myself stumbling over articles and documentaries about the Holocaust, as if the Universe was reminding me that this was real, this happened to real people of my parents’ generation. Yes, not long ago at all.
On a grey, drizzly morning the bus took us the short distance from Cracow to Auschwitz. I could so easily turn this post into an essay on the Holocaust, but other people, far more qualified than I, have done that. I shall try to confine myself to a tourist’s impressions. Even so, it’s worth giving a little bit of context.
Auschwitz was huge. It consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration/extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labour camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps. Auschwitz I was a Polish military base which the Germans initially used for Polish political prisoners, and that is the camp with the famous sign “arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). But Auschwitz II – Birkenau is the one I’m told you’re more likely to recognise – the picture at the head of the post.
When Himmler and the SS embarked on the ‘final solution’, the area within 20km of the old military base was cleared of all Poles, and their villages destroyed. There was a level of secrecy in the whole operation. The Germans didn’t want the Jews to know what was happening, or the local civilian population, or, indeed, the Allies. Auschwitz was run like a factory, with a production line. The start of that production line was the first place we visited; Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau.
If you’ve seen Schindler’s List you’ve seen this portal, an entrance for the trains of cattle cars carrying the Jews to their fate. Black and white photographs, taken by the Germans at the time, have been placed on boards with explanations. When those still living exited the cattle cars, they were sorted; women and children on the left, men on the right. From there, everyone was inspected, and the old, sick, and infirm (anybody who couldn’t work) were added to the left-hand column, and the fit and childless women sent to the right. Our guide stressed that these people had no idea what was happening, and in fact believed after the ordeals of the ghettos and the cattle trucks, they’d come to a better place. Before they were sent away they’d been told to pack their bags and label them carefully so they could collect them when they arrived. Some Hungarian Jews actually bought one-way tickets to Auschwitz, believing they were going to set up new businesses.
The people in the right-hand column were marched off to the barracks.
The people in the left-hand column were marched off to the gas chambers.
Let’s follow the left-hand column – which would consist of around ninety percent of the group just processed. The guards continued with the subterfuge, telling the people they would need to shower. They gave them soap, told them to leave their clothes in neat piles. There were even shower heads in the gas chambers – but no plumbing. The people were killed with a cyanide based poison, Zyklon B. When the gas had done its work, Jewish special prisoners (called Sonderkommando) came in to shave hair from the bodies, remove any gold in their mouths, dispose of the remains, then clean out the chamber ready for the next lot.
Birkenau was a death camp. The gas chambers and crematoriums, and the wooden barracks, were destroyed by the Germans as they retreated, but they ran out of time to destroy everything before the Russians arrived. A few of the horrible barracks have been rebuilt to show visitors how the prisoners lived. Our guide showed us inside one, explaining that six to eight people slept in each bunk, across from side to side. Although they were expected to do hard physical labour, they were given starvation rations. When they could no longer work, they were sent to the gas chambers. A lucky few had skills the Germans prized, like the women who made fashion garments for the officers’ wives. This story is particularly confronting because our guide told us that when Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz, was transferred, his wife didn’t want to go. She lived a life of luxury next to that hell-hole camp.
So how did Birkenau affect me? The photographs were the thing. Look at the people, the women and their kids. They look tired, perhaps a little apprehensive, but not frightened. They’d swallowed the con, and in a couple of hours, they would be dead. Their hair would be cut off, any gold in their teeth broken out. Everything of value had been stolen from them, including any last vestige of dignity, then they were burned. In the Spring of 1944 the SS killed as many as 6,000 people at Birkenau every day. The air was thick with ash, drifting down like snow.
When I watched the scene in Schindler’s List where the 300 women who were supposed to have been sent to Czechoslovakia are driven through that dreadful archway into Birkenau I felt a shiver of recognition. Our guide told us that no one – not one person – escaped from Auschwitz. Some escaped from work parties, but no one from the camps. Yet Schindler got those women out of there. He negotiated their release, paid for them. He was offered a different 300, better able to work, but he refused. The SS put his Schindlerfrauen into cattle cars and sent them back out that archway to Schindler at his new factory in Czechoslovakia.
We all climbed back onto our bus in the now-crowded car park and were driven the short distance to Auschwitz I, where we saw the famous sign erected at every concentration camp; arbeit macht frei – work makes you free. It’s not the original. The sign has been stolen, more than once. At first the camp is like any other military establishment – neat rows of brick buildings surrounded by grass and trees, quite pleasant, really – but then you notice the electrified fences with regularly-spaced sentry boxes. We were taken inside several of the buildings to see how the prisoners lived, and hear the stories about the morning roll-calls. If someone died while on a work detail or overnight, his colleagues had to bring the corpse out to the roll-call, otherwise that person was listed as an escapee, and ten people from the barracks were killed. Our guide took us to block 11, where any prisoner raising the ire of a guard was incarcerated, never to return. It was here in the cellars that Zyklon B was tested on people for the first time.
Our visit to Auschwitz I is something of a blur. Our group of sixteen was dwarfed by much larger groups, all pushing to see the same exhibits in a given time. We shuffled along through cramped, crowded corridors, never given time to look at things, to pause and reflect. One corridor had glassed-in exhibits of piles of reading glasses, boots and shoes, and human hair. Another had documents, in German and Polish, some with the orders to carry out killings or move prisoners, others more poignant – like the one-way tickets to Auschwitz. But never time to look and consider. People pressed behind, or tried to push past if there was room.
Thousands of people must have been at Auschwitz when we were there, busloads of them. Many were young, students in their mid-teens no doubt taken on a school excursion. I was told selfie-sticks have been banned after smiling pictures of teenagers appeared on the net – ‘me at Auschwitz’. One gas chamber did remain intact. You might have seen images on the net, complete with scratches at about fingernail height. But they’re not fingernail scratches. That gas chamber was a temporary one, not blown up because it was used for storage and later as an air raid shelter, so the marks have a much more prosaic origin.
I was frankly disappointed in how the visitors were handled. Perhaps more buildings could be opened to the public, giving guides choices in where to go, instead of squeezing everyone into the same space with hardly enough time to shuffle past. Maybe visits could be timed for a certain number of people. One can’t help but feel it’s a money-making concern these days.
I wonder how much those kids, whose great grandparents were of World War II vintage, would have made out of the visit. Like those black and white photographs, the reality of the Holocaust is fading into the past. I suppose that’s inevitable. Time marches on. But I, for one, hope it’s never forgotten. I know that genocide still goes on. The killing fields in Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and right now the Rohyngya in Burma. Terrible as they all are, what the Nazis did is worse because the SS set up a factory process to murder people after first exploiting them for everything they had. It was systematic and absolutely ruthless, designed to wipe Jews from the face of the earth.
Lately I’ve seen growing signs of anti-semitism. A post appeared on Facebook of a car in the US with a sticker on the bumper proclaiming ‘proud anti-semite’. Here’s the story. I read another story of a sixth-grade Jewish child (in the US) finding a sticky note on her locker with the words ‘Jews will burn’. Here’s the story. I know anti-semitism is old – two thousand years old. It was why Hitler found it so easy to blame the Jews in Germany, why the civilian populations in Eastern Europe were not averse to the ghettos and such. It needs to stop. Visits by young people to places like Auschwitz will help – if it is supported by proper education about what it is they’re looking at. In the US and Australia, young people need to know what the swastika stands for.
Young people MUST learn history. If they don’t, somewhere, sometime, the Holocaust is going to happen again.
Further reading and sources:
- Teaching German students about the Holocaust
- What one German kid thought about her visit to Auschwitz
- The United States Holocaust Museum
- Jewish Virtual Library
- Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.
- Oskar Schindler
- This is his Wikipedia entry, which basically lists the facts
And one more factoid I didn’t know – the famous tattooed number was only ever used at Auschwitz, only on people who were in that right-hand column, and only towards the end of the war (1944), when so many people were being pushed through the camps.
If you’re interested in why the Germans wanted human hair, look here
And a few more photos … because