“Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
“Work Sets You Free”
This was only the start of the evil deceptions and torture of those who entered Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the cruel irony of it still silences a crowd instantly.
We arrived in Poland after a long over night train, but we were unable to check into our AirBNB until later. So, with the day looking dreary and rainy, we decided to go ahead and take the short 1.5 hour bus ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau, rather than waiting till our last day in Poland. The weather seemed more appropriate for the trip, and no one was feeling their best. We have been learning much about WWII and the enormous role it played in the many countries we have visited recently. We felt it was crucial that the kids experience Auschwitz considering how close we were.
The Nazis came to power in the 1920’s, in the wake of a frustrated German public following WWI. Economic ruin, loss of territory, and significant limitations on their military were clear indications that Germany was no longer a world superpower and the population was not satisfied. Hitler’s rhetoric convinced the nation that they had a divine right to return to power. After Germany occupied Poland, they worked to get rid of all Poles, either by expulsion or extermination to make new land available for Germans. In addition, they worked to achieve the cultural genocide of Poland by closing or destroying schools, universities, libraries, museums, laboratories, and monuments; as well as, forbidding the use of the Polish language. They deported or executed those considered part of the intellectual elite. Himmler’s May 1940 memorandum demoted Polish elementary education to the following: “The sole goal of this schooling is to teach them simple arithmetic, nothing above the number 500; writing one’s name; and the doctrine that it is divine law to obey the Germans. . . . I do not think that reading is desirable.” On March 15, 1940, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and German police, said: “All skilled workers of Polish background are to be used in our war industry. Afterwards, Poles will disappear from the world. . . . Every German’s time is coming. That is why it is necessary for the great German people to see their main task in the destruction of all Poles.”
At its peak in the summer of 1944, Auschwitz covered about 40 sq. km in the main area, and more than 40 branch camps within several hundred kilometers. At this time, there were about 135 thousand people (105 thousand registered prisoners and about 30 thousand unregistered) in the Auschwitz complex, which accounted for 25% of all the people in the entire concentration camp system.
The camp started in 1940 for deported Poles and political prisoners and became exclusively a concentration camp in 1942, which from their website was defined as “a place of slow killing as the result of deliberately created, inhuman conditions, above all starvation.”
The presentation of hair was undoubtedly the most disturbing. We were all overcome and tears immediately sprang to your eyes as you felt nauseated by such a cruel injustice. Something about the personal nature of this assault just seems unbearable.
Canisters which contained Zyklon B, a pesticide.
Plundered Jewish possessions as they entered the camps.
Notice the different colors of the pots, which was common due to the needs of Kosher cooking.
The different personalities and style of each individual observed in their shoes also pummeled you with the unimaginable cruelty perpetrated here.
Approximately 232 thousand children and young people up to the age of 18 among the 1.3 million or more people deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
The prisoners clothes were marked with different symbols to denote their category:
The red symbolized political prisoners, green – criminals, and the yellow SU symbolized Soviet POWs. Soviet POWs were sent to Auschwitz in June of 1941. In the beginning most were shot in gravel pits nearby. Police operational groups—Einsatzgruppen—were supposed to seek out and kill the commissars and communists from among the soldiers. About 600 Soviet POWs were gassed with the first round of Zyklon B in the cellars of the camp hospital. This would be later used for mass extermination of the Jews. Exceptionally brutal for the Nazis seems hard to imagine, but the website’s history shows the POWs had to “strip naked near the railroad platform and immerse themselves in kettles of disinfection fluid, before running naked to the camp. The fall of 1941 was exceptionally cold, with frequent snow. It took a long time to count the prisoners, and only afterwards were they allowed to enter the blocks. Several days passed before they received clothing, and they also had to wait to be given camp blankets…It is estimated that at least 15 thousand POWs arrived in Auschwitz; 12 thousand were entered in the camp records while 3 thousand remained unregistered. Those in the latter category were killed soon after reaching the camp.”
The White/Black with a Z was for the Roma or Gypsies. They were considered inferior or “racially alien.” A specific section in Auschwitz-Birkenau was designated for Gypsy families, but they were often allowed to stay together. The Sinti and Roma imprisoned in the camp came primarily from Germany, Austria, the Protectorate of Bavaria and Moravia, and Poland, with smaller groups arriving from France, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia/Croatia, Belgium, the USSR, Lithuania, and Hungary. There is also mention of Sinti and Roma citizens of Norway and Spain.
According to the website, “About 23 thousand men, women, and children were imprisoned in the camp. About 21 thousand were registered in the camp (including the more than 370 children estimated to have been born there). A group of about 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma was murdered immediately after arriving at the camp, without being entered in the records. Of the approximately 23 thousand Sinti and Roma deported to Auschwitz, some 20 thousand died or were murdered in the gas chambers.”
“A group of 39 children (20 boys and 19 girls) from the St. Josefspflege orphanage in Mulfingen, near Stuttgart, was also sent to the Gypsy camp. Dr. Robert Ritter and Eva Justin of the Institute for the Study of Racial Hygiene carried out various tests on them before deportation. The main purpose of this research was to confirm that the supposed Gypsy traits were inborn; despite having been raised in a non-Gypsy environment, these children had allegedly been unable to overcome a disposition to theft, vagrancy, and resistance to assimilation.”
The Purple signified Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, often referred to in camp records as “Bible Researchers,” were imprisoned for their religious beliefs and convictions against violence. They tried mightily to maintain their practices in the camps. The website sites, “Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to participate in military training or serve in the army. This refusal was punishable by imprisonment, or even death. They also refused categorically to perform any work that, as they saw it, contributed directly to the war effort—and, as is known, many German factories were mobilized for armaments production. As a result, many Witnesses, including women, were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
It is estimated that over 3 thousand prisoners classified in category IBV were held in the concentration camps. including clergy of various denominations, also wore the purple triangle in the camp. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses made up the decided majority of prisoners in this category.
“At least 387 Witnesses were in Auschwitz during the 5 years that the camp operated. This includes at least 138 people classified in the IBV category and marked with a purple triangle—in other words, who were in Auschwitz because of their faith. At least 249 others were included in other prisoner categories, most often that of political prisoners; for them, their faith was an indirect cause of their imprisonment. The records indicate that at least 152 Witnesses (men and women) who were imprisoned in Auschwitz died—132 in Auschwitz, and the other 20 in camps they were transferred to, or during evacuation or immediately after liberation. This means that at least 32% of those deported to Auschwitz died there.
There were also an unknown but probably small number of prisoners who converted to the Jehovah’s Witness faith in Auschwitz. Prisoner accounts speak of illegal meetings organized for those who wished to learn more about the Witnesses’ beliefs.”
The Pink signified homosexuals. Historical research is not clear on how many gays were imprisoned in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, but estimates are around approximately 16,000 gays and lesbians among the 400,000 registered Auschwitz prisoners. However, they were not necessarily imprisoned for homosexuality. According to the website,
“ approximately 50,000 men were penalized for homosexual behavior in the Third Reich. Yet only 5,000 of them (or perhaps two or three times that number) ended up in the concentration camps. The Nazis found this sufficient as a general deterrent. Female homosexuality was not subject to penalties, either under the criminal code or under Third Reich police policy.”
“Homosexuals, marked with the pink triangle, made up a separate category of prisoners in the concentration camps. They occupied the lowest rung on the ladder of the German prisoner population. Generally looked down upon by ‘politicals” of all nationalities, they suffered harassment not only from the SS, but also from their “green” and “black” fellow prisoners. They were isolated, and every attempt that they made at contact with other prisoners brought them under suspicion of “initiating promiscuous relations.”
All this meant that homosexuals had far smaller chances than the average prisoner of surviving the camp. We know about the fate of 64 gay Reichsdeutsch prisoners in Auschwitz; 51 of them, or 80%, died in the camp.”
The red/yellow symbols were for the Jews.
In addition to Jews, Poles, Gypsies, and Soviet POWs, about 25 thousand prisoners of other nationalities were imprisoned in Auschwitz. These included Czechs, Byelorussians, Germans and Austrians, French, Russians, Yugoslavians, Ukrainians,
Albanians, Belgians, Danes, Dutch, Greeks, Hungarians, Italians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Luxembourgers, Norwegians, Romanians, Slovaks, Spaniards, and Swiss. There were also one Argentinean, a Chinese, a Bulgarian, and an Estonian.
This was the kitchen in Auschwitz.
The Nazis deported 232,000 children an young people to Auschwitz, incluiding 216,000 Jewish children, 11.000 Roma children, 3,000 Polish children, and 1,000 Slavic children of other nationalities. The majority of the Jewish children perished in the gas chambers immediately after arrival. Altogether about 22,000 children and young people were registered as prisoners here. Only 650 were liberated and 450 of those were under 15 years old.
The housing blocks were designed to hold about 700 prisoners each, but in practice they housed up to 1,200. Each contained 22 toilets, urinals, and washbasins with trough-type drains and 42 spigots installed above them in Auschwitz.
This was the site of the camp orchestra where they were forced to play through roll call and all types of weather. And although often they might be provided a little more food, these musicians were forced to watch helplessly as inmates were marched to the gas chambers; and sometimes this included friends and family. Auschwitz/Birkenau had six different orchestras, one of which contained 100-120 musicians. The suicide rate was high among camp musicians. Only those having death detail, the prisoners who had to work in the crematorium – moving the dead to the furnace and sorting as well as moving tooth crowns or anything else valuable from the bodies, had a higher incidence.
Punishments were doled out randomly, sometimes for trying to obtain additional food, SS officers deciding you were doing your work in some unsatisfactory way, relieving oneself at the improper time, wearing the wrong clothes, or attempting to commit suicide. It was completely random what your punishment was; but the most common were flogging, confinement in block 11 (which contained such horrors as the standing room – which made it impossible for you to sit or crouch for over 24 hours and then you would be returned to your work, another room was packed with prisoners and ventilated with one tiny opening so often you suffocated to death, or the starvation room), or the “the post” which you hung by your arms pulled behind your back so they were removed from the socket. Many were also executed at the site above with one bullet to the head. The windows were covered to avoid witnesses.
Others were also hung in the main public square as a deterrent and method of instilling terror in others.
Our guide told us that most survivors she talked with said their worst memories were of the train ride to the camp and roll call. The prisoners would stand in this area for hours in all kinds of weather for hours in the morning and evening. The prisoners were counted and they had to stand until the SS officer was satisfied with the numbers. If you collapsed or could not stand you were taken away to die. These times were also used as punishment and to remind prisoners it was pointless to resist. Our guide told us of one she knew of lasting 18 hours.
The one SS officer responsible for the roll call was the only one protected from the weather.
The barbed wire was also electrified and one common way of attempting suicide was throwing yourself on it.
The first commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hess, lived within eye sight of the camp with his family. His daughter described him as the “nicest man in the world.”
The Polish Supreme National Tribunal tried and sentenced him to death here by hanging after the war on April 16, 1947. The location of his hanging was between his house and Auschwitz.
Small hole in ceiling where the Nazi’s would drop Zyklon B, which would be activated by the combined body heat of the victims below.
Criminal medical experiments were initiated and facilitated by Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, together with SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst Grawitz, the chief physician of the SS and police, and SS-Standartenführer Wolfram Sievers, the secretary general of the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) Association and director of the Waffen SS Military-Scientific Research Institute.
The website notes, “Experiments were planned at the highest levels to meet the needs of the army (some were intended to improve the state of soldiers’ health) or postwar plans (including population policy), or to reinforce the bases of racial ideology (including advancing views as to the superiority of the “Nordic race”). Aside from experiments planned at the highest levels, many Nazi doctors experimented on prisoners on behalf of German pharmaceutical companies or medical institutes. Others did so in pursuit of their personal interests, or to advance their academic careers.”
“You are in a concentration camp. In Auschwitz…”
A pause. He was observing the effect his words had produced. His face remains in my memory to this day. A tall man, in his thirties, crime written all over his forehead and his gaze. He looked at us as one would a pack of leprous dogs clinging to life.
“Remember,” he went on. “Remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. Work or crematorium–the choice is yours.”
― Elie Wiesel, Night
“Sometimes I am asked if I know the response to Auschwitz; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude HAS a response. What I do know is that there is response in responsibility. When we speak of this era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, responsibility is the key word,
The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.”
― Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, the Accident
Cattle car in which Jews were transported to the camp. The holocaustexplained.org describes it this way:
“Deportation and transportation to camps often took days. Individuals, families and whole communities together with their personal belongings were packed into cattle trucks. They were locked in and transported for days.
They had no information. They did not know where they were going, the length of the journey or what would happen to them when they eventually arrived at their destination.
The conditions on the journey were appalling.
We can learn about these journeys from the many child survivors who wrote of their experiences:
Jack, 15 years old, from Greece, talks of his experience at the start of what must have been a very long journey: “Some 20 railway cars were waiting for us… There were 70 to 80 people in a car… After a while, there was a muffled sound of closing latches… the whistle blew and the train started moving slowly. It was April 7, 1943. Penned in and cramped, we departed from our homeland, without being able to see it.”
Moshe, aged 17, from Hungary, then explains that: “the doors were shut, leaving us almost in darkness. The grills, too, were closed to prevent escape. Air entered only through the cracks. So we travelled for 24 hours, without food or water. We were hungry and thirsty. But the desire and hope to see our families made us forget everything else.”
David, a Polish Jew aged 13, graphically describes how cramped it was on the train: “There is no room to sit. In order to make room we are forced to stand with our hands above our heads…. Suddenly, the door is slammed shut and sealed. A water bucket is tossed into the car for use as a disposal container for human waste.”
The packed railway wagons would often be shunted around from one railway siding to another for days on end, and for what must have seemed like an eternity. Many of the very young, the old and the sick would die because of the inhumane conditions during the journey. Those who did survive were severely traumatised by the experience.”
The website goes on to explain, “Once the Jews were unloaded and separated into male and female lines, they were then subjected to a selection process. SS doctors carried out this selection.
Usually, those aged over 14 years of age and deemed ‘fit’ for work were sent to one side of the unloading ramp; the rest were sent to the other side.
The elderly and women with children were sent directly to the line of prisoners who were condemned to death in the gas chambers. (This is where we are walking in the picture, this would have been their path to the gas chambers).
Those Jews selected for work were sent to a separate building for registration. Prisoners would be registered, before undressing, placing their clothes on a hook, together with their shoes. They would then be tattooed with a registration number, shaved of all body hair, disinfected and forced through showers that were either extremely cold or painfully hot.
Once showered, prisoners were given the infamous striped pyjamas, hat and a pair of wooden clogs. They were marched to the blocks to begin their life within the camp.”
“It was the very discomfort, the blows, the cold, the thirst that kept us aloft in the void of bottomless despair, both during the journey and after. It was not the will to live, nor a conscious resignation; for few are the men capable of such resolution, and we were but a common sample of humanity.”
― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz
“So, let us be alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Prisoners slept on straw-stuffed mattresses laid on the floor. The rooms were so overcrowded that prisoners could sleep only on their sides, in three rows. Three-tiered bunks were present. Coal-fired tile stoves or iron stoves provided the heating, but no coal or fuel for the fire was given. No toilet facilities were provided in the barracks of Birkenau and no electrical lighting till near the end.
The website notes, “During the first year or so, water in sector BI was available only in the kitchen barracks, and prisoners had no access to it. Unable to wash, they went around dirty. They had to perform their bodily functions in unscreened outside privies. The barracks were frequently damp, and lice and rats were an enormous problem for the prisoners…The prisoners also had limited opportunities for bathing. Additionally, they had to undress in their own barracks before doing so and, regardless of the weather, walk naked to the bathhouse. For many prisoners, this led to sickness and death.”
Our guide explained that depending on how healthy you were determined where you slept on the three levels of bunks. The weakest were placed on the floor level, since often vomit and diarrhea would drip otherwise through the planks. Often this level was flooded with water, in addition to the ever present rats. The most coveted spots were beside the rock wall or window, at least there one side of your body was touching something cool. Due to the close quarters and raging fevers, the heat was often overwhelming.
“In the face of the approaching Red Army offensive in the second half of 1944, the SS authorities began systematically evacuating Auschwitz prisoners and sending them to camps in the depths of Germany. In January 1945 came the order for the final evacuation and liquidation of the camp.” These are the remains of destroyed crematoriums.
About 56 thousand men and women were led out of Auschwitz and its sub-camps under the escort of heavily armed SS troops from January 17-21, 1945.
This tragic evacuation, known as the “Death March,” ended in many of their deaths.
In order to destroy evidence of their crimes, the SS made bonfires of documents on the camp streets, blew up crematoria II and III, and set fire to “Kanada II,” that contained the plunder they had stolen from victims of extermination.
“At the time of the liberation of the camps, I remember, we were convinced that after Auschwitz there would be no more wars, no more racism, no more hatred, no more anti-Semitism. We were wrong. This produced a feeling close to despair. For if Auschwitz could not cure mankind of racism, was there any chance of success ever? The fact is, the world has learned nothing. Otherwise, how is one to comprehend the atrocities committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia…”
― Elie Wiesel, Open Heart
The ashes from the crematorium were dumped in the pits seen below. Often times, this ash was used as fertilizer in the area or dumped in rivers.
I have several times sat down to write a description of our feelings and experience during our visit, but each time I erase them. Words are just not sufficient. Especially when we can’t even imagine how intolerably horrible it must have been. These quotes, however, struck me most powerfully,
“And she felt the beauty in the music now, drank it in with tears streaming down her face. Never had she been so naked in worship before her Creator, allowing the adoration to bleed out her very fingertips onto the strings, playing her heart’s cry for every single lost soul, for the loss of innocence every generation to come would possess as a result of what happened at the killing fields of Auschwitz.”
― Kristy Cambron, The Butterfly and the Violin
“The question shouldn’t be “Why are you, a Christian, here in a death camp, condemned for trying to save Jews?’ The real question is “Why aren’t all the Christians here?”
― Joel C. Rosenberg, The Auschwitz Escape, author