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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.