Dec 17, 2006

Shadows of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Thursday saw us head out early by local bus to the town of Oswiecim, better known as the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Apparently the place throngs with tourists and pilgrims in the summer months, so despite the cold day (warm by Polish standards, mind), I was happy to be there in winter, with far fewer crowds, and more time to linger at the exhibits, to truly take in the scale of what was the centre of the Nazis' "Final Solution".

There are many more places on the internet and in reference books where you can find details of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Holocaust in general, but I'd like to note down some things I personally found informative/startling/moving.
  • 70 to 75% of each train-load of prisoners - mostly Jews - that arrived at the Birkenau camp (the one most people think of when they think of Auschwitz) were sent to the gas chambers straight away. I didn't realise it was such a large number. All children, mothers with babies, pregnant women, the elderly and disabled, and people who simply looked physically-unfit were led away to their death within hours.
  • The "Zyklon B" poison used to gas the prisoners was not sprayed in via shower heads - it was merely dropped in through openings in the roofs of the subterranean gas chambers by S.S. officers. The humidity caused by the panicked breathing of 2000 or so naked people in the room below would be enough to release the poison gas from the pellets. It took 20 minutes to die. The shower heads were merely for show.
  • The Nazis re-used everything taken from the prisoners: their metal teeth were extracted; their cash and valuables deposited into Third Reich "investments"; their clothes and personal belongings washed and sent back to Germany; their hair dried and bleached and used to make fabric; their ashes ordered to be used as a fertiliser on fields surrounding the camp.
  • Those sent to work at Auschwitz suffered a different kind of hell: shaved, tattooed (only Auschwitz prisoners were ever tattooed by the Nazis), given a flimsy uniform with a badge depicting their "crime", they were ordered to live in unhygenic barracks and perform backbreaking work in terrible conditions, under the brutal supervision of fellow "functionary prisoners". These were German criminals or even Auschwitz-Birkenau inmates who often abused their power. Starvation, exposure, beatings, sexual abuse & torture were common. The S.S. guards maintained a watch over these functionary guards, but encouraged their violence as a way of keeping the inmates downtrodden and divided. Often Jews would be guards and tormentors of fellow Jews, etc.
  • Dr Josef Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death" due to his many experiments on children (mainly twins and gypsies) at the camp, was never punished for his terrible crimes. He drowned while living in South America in the 1970s.
  • The Allies knew virtually everything about the Nazis' concentration camps, mostly from spies and prisoners who'd managed to escape or at least spread information. There is still historical argument about whether or not they should have done more to stop the mass killings. Records from Great Britain declared that it was "not a military objective" - which is understandable if not totally justifiable. Other countries like Russia have not released their reasons for staying away until the very end - our wonderful guide Marzena believed that "if the Russians had had their chance to eliminate the groups the Nazis were getting rid of, they would have".
  • Occasionally neo-Nazi supporters or groups visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and exhibit appalling behaviour, such as saluting the pictures of Nazi guards, taking proud photos of themselves under the infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate, and spitting on stones marking the location of human ashes. Some "humans" are simply breathtaking in their complete ignorance and stupidity.
  • This week, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmindinejad has been holding a conference of so-called "Holocaust deniers". Ahmindinejad has been banned from ever visiting Auschwitz because of his stance; but a visit is what all of those people need.
As you can see, one learns and understands a lot more when one actually visits Auschwitz-Birkenau. It's not easy, but it is important for us to remember what evil has been perpuated in our history, and to guard against such evil reoccurring.

1 comment:

  1. A moving account which needs to be pasted everywhere...