Auschwitz: There Are No Words

I have explored two fantastic Holocaust Museums – the one in Washington DC and in Cape Town, South Africa.   Visiting them left me unsettled in heavy emotions.

However, nothing quite prepared me for a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in Southern Poland.   We visited on a mid-September day – still officially summer on the calendar – yet the day was chilly, blustery and grey.  The biting north wind forcing us to feel what the victims endured in their threadbare striped pyjamas.

©Katsjourney 2019

Nearly everyone on earth knows at least some history of World War II and the brutality of the German Nazis under Hitler’s regime, seeking world domination for a “perfect” Aryan (Caucasian-European) race through genocide.

We do not know the exact number of deaths performed at these particular camps, but historians estimate it to be 1.1 million between 1940 and 1945. Not only were Jews sent to these camps, but non-Jewish Poles, Roma gypsies, and Soviet pows.  The intellectual Poles were singled out first. The great philosophers, artists, professors, doctors. Why? Because when you take away the intelligence of a community, it is much easier to fool and control the remainder of the population.

I must say the Nazis were brilliant at systematically conducting these atrocities. Methodically passing through the stages of genocide with near perfection.  

  1. Classification
  2. Symbolism
  3. Dehumanization
  4. Organization
  5. Polarization
  6. Preparation
  7. Extermination
  8. Denial
Nazi tile at the Jewish Ghetto in Schindler’s Factory Museum, Krakow. ©Katsjourney 2019

We witnessed the control of all forms of the media, including propaganda posters of smiling people waving goodbye as they departed for “work camps”. I can see how it actually tricked people into a sense of nationalism and unification. When you first enter Auschwitz, you see a symbolically sinister sign juxtaposed against the dreary sky stating Arbeit macht frei – meaning “Work sets you free” in German.  In this case, it was death that ultimately set the prisoners free.

©Katsjourney 2019

Before the send-off to the “work camps” many of the Jews were initially stripped of their freedom, rounded up, and sent to the Jewish “residences” in Warsaw, Krakow or one of the other 400 ghettos across the Third Reich occupied territories. They were forced to wear the Star of David on their clothing to be easily identifiable to the German police.  Once the ghetto was formed, the Nazis walled the complex and forced families to live in tiny flats, one room per family and share a toilet with many. They were not allowed to leave the ghetto unless they possessed a specific skill the Germans required.  This created discord within.  Dividing a once united community.

Auschwitz displays many larger-than-life photos found in a German officer’s file post-liberation. They tell the gruesome history clearly.  These people had NO IDEA they were being marched to their death sentences.  They were each told to pack a suitcase for their stay there.  What would you pack?  Some clothing. The nicer stuff, since you are unsure of when you will return.  Valuable family heirlooms?  Of course.  What a brilliant way for the tyrants to effortlessly steal from you?  They stockpiled mountains of valuables to be used for the war efforts, sold or stolen for personal gain.  The prisoners called the storage complex “Canada” because Canada was known as an uber-rich and safe country.

When Auschwitz could not keep up with the demand of the killing machine, Birkenau I & II were built nearby to accommodate the massive daily numbers of prisoners.  Visitors can follow the train tracks into this death camp, which we also visited. I felt chills of supreme sadness as I conjured up images from the 1994 movie, Schindler’s List. When these unsuspecting families exited their over-crowded, fetid, boiling (or freezing) railroad cars, they were immediately separated – families torn apart.  Men on one side and women/children on the other. Can you imagine being torn from your family not knowing when/if you will see them again? Not understanding the foreign language instructions being barked at you? Still…the captives did not suspect they were to be murdered. That was the precision of the plan, never let them panic.

The final approach into Birkenau death camp. ©Katsjourney 2019

With the wave of a German officer’s hand, the fate of life or death was made instantly.  Elderly, children and many women were sent straight to the gas chambers. Others who were fit to work were given the opposite direction hand wave.  Any trace of dignity was lost as prisoners were forced to strip in front of everyone and be “decontaminated”. Bodies tattooed with a number (dehumanization, lose your name). Heads were shaved.  We learned the Nazis kept mountains of hair to be shipped off to weave into textiles.  They stored everything for future use – cosmetics, shoes, artificial limbs, eyeglasses.   Seeing the enormity of these precious belongings in person was haunting. The shoes, oh the shoes were almost more than I could bear.

©Katsjourney 2019

The gas chambers and crematoriums? “The Little Red/White House.” Wow.  What kind of evil mind creates and implements something so unfathomable? When it was time, the prisoners were sent to their final nightmare.  After being stripped naked, the victims were told they were going to have a “shower”.  Hundreds were crowded into the crematorium underground. Again, they had no idea they were marching into their death. No panic.  Until the lights went out and the shower head’s steady stream of Zyclon B pesticide pellets pumped into the gas chambers. The first product experiments did not take effect immediately and we were told it took an unbelievable 24-48 hours to die this most unimaginable horrific death.

Shocking. At the crematorium. ©Katsjourney 2019

Had enough? Oh no, there is more. Many humans (children and adults) were kept alive for painful medical experiments. Dr. Mengele, also known as the “Angel of Death” conducted thousands of tests at Auschwitz. He infected people with diseases, he injected chloroform into their hearts to kill them and then conducted biopsies, he bled them to death. He especially loved to experiment on twins, up to 1500 sets of them imprisoned in the camp. It leaves me questioning, how can humans do this to other humans? We are barbarians.

You have probably seen the liberation photos of the starved prisoners in deplorable living conditions.

The toilets and their complete lack of privacy. ©Katjsourney 2019

Bones under a thin veil of skin.  Lifeless eyes staring into space.  All emotions erased.  They were the lucky few.  How this went on for so many years is beyond me.  I have so many words, and yet there are no words.

 

6 thoughts on “Auschwitz: There Are No Words”

  1. Hi Kathleen, I have been to Aushwitz museum when I was 12 years old.. with my school, it was a part of our education. My mom went as one of the helpers with my class. I will never forget it. I always say that everybody should visit it so it would never happen again.I can tell you incredible stories that I heard from my mom and granma that happened during the war..when you see me, remind me.

    1. Wow, I had no idea, Yvona. Yes, I would like to hear your stories sometime in a relaxed atmosphere. It is so emotionally moving to be there. I am sure it really made an impression on you at such a young age. Thanks for sharing.

  2. My wife and many friends are from Poland. Your story is critically important. It shows that Hell can exist here on earth and history too often does repeat itself. Phillip Van Doren Stern, a famous author (his writing – The Greatest Gift – inspired the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”) said, “Every generation must fight to preserve their freedom.” Thank you for a timeless literary piece on your journey, Kat.

    1. Dear Joe, thank you for reading about my experiences at Auschwitz. I wanted the world to see the parallelisms from this dark time and today. You are absolutely right about preserving freedom. We are living in unprecedented times. Wishing you and your wife all the best.

  3. Hi Kay
    Steven’ Spielberg produced the movie Schindler’s List in 1993. In 1994 he founded the Shoah Foundation a visual historical archive of the Holocaust – the Shoah let us remember He interviewed thousands of survivors and displays in photographs the story the ghettos the camps. There is even a railway car. It is a visual and audio time capsule. The interviews with survivors is crucial today as 76 years later most are not here to tell it that is why the Shoah Foundation is critical to keeping the Holocaust at the forefront of our minds. Especially since it is only a few lines in school history classes and there are many that follow the cult of Holocaust Deniers
    Since then there are
    Many Shoah foundation exhibits around the globe.
    In 1998. We took Steph and Russell on a road trip and visited the museum in Washington DC. We wanted to teach them at a young age about their heritage. To learn about the horrors by an autocrat, Hitler was a respected and revered politician that rose through the ranks and developed a following of people that believed that those with blue eyes and blond hair were superior and he called them the Aryan race. Many close generals knew exactly what they were doing and took pleasure in their rank and privileges.
    However there is a part of the story that is rarely told and can directly affect our lives today in the 21st century.
    Many of Hitlers followers were
    ordinary people many young adults and teenagers. Their friends were Jews. They listened to the rhetoric and drank the Kool aid. They wanted to belong and were swept up in a group That blindly followed an autocrat who chose to murder and commit atrocities that cannot bear to be spoken of without severe emotion. They wanted to belong.
    I want to show our children that it can happen again. That an autocrat with no feeling for humanity can attract a group of believers that blindly follow him.
    Fortunately the world does recognize when this is happening from the get go and intervene BUT no matter how much force the worlds leaders do they cannot stop this from happening. History can repeat itself. This is why we must teach our children to be believe in themselves to be strong and independent. To stand up for the respect all humanity deserves. To not get caught up in the rhetoric and blindly drink the kool aid
    An amazing story is The Paperclip project. Now a documentary
    Thank you Kat for this opportunity
    J

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