Remembering the Holocaust

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The Independent Online

As the light faded on an afternoon of brutal cold, heavy snow flakes dropping from a sky of gun metal grey, I stood upon a deserted railway line. Momentarily, it seemed as if a ghost from mankind’s most vile pages of history had loomed into sight.

No trains come here now; none have done for six decades and more. Behind me, three lines snaking their way out into a clearing lay silent, covered in snow. And yet just 200 metres from where I stood, I saw what seemed a strong single light coming towards me. In 1943, that meant only one thing at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Another transport train was arriving...

In the briefest of moments I imagined a giant steam train labouring towards the main gate of the world’s most notorious concentration camp. It would have been just like this in mid-winter. The powerful engine would have hauled up to 15 or more cattle trucks filled with human beings - the already dead, the dying and the soon to be dead - right across Europe.

They came from Greece, a journey that sometimes took 17 days for which they might have started with a few scraps of food and water to last just three. Others arrived from Norway, from Paris, Budapest, Amsterdam and Berlin.

As the giant wheels of the locomotive pulled them the last few yards under a brick arch, few could have comprehended that 75% of the arrivals would be dead within little more than an hour. Their fate lay in the hands of evil SS doctors who studied them as they clambered or fell out of the cattle trucks, gasping for air, pleading for food and water and filthy from the faeces and sickness of their compatriots on the nightmare journey.

The sick and the elderly, mothers and young children were waved to one side. The roads they walked down were known as the death roads. At the end of each one, lay an underground gas chamber and crematoria. By the end of the nightmare, around one and a half million people had perished in this place.

This Tuesday, January 27th, is World Holocaust Day. It was the day in 1945, too late, far, far too late, when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. What they found and revealed to the dismaying world that day 64 years ago this Tuesday, stained the hand of mankind forever.

No-one can ever be quite the same after a visit to this place. The sheer scale of the killing grounds is breathtaking. By the time they had fled Auschwitz/Birkenau, the Nazis had dynamited the gas chambers and crematoria, plus many of the individual huts where the prisoners who had been selected for forced labour, had slept. Yet plenty survives to indict an entire nation.

Just a few days ago, the cold at Auschwitz assaulted not just your body but your mind. Survival became a struggle as fingers froze, even through gloves, and faces felt red raw at the bitter cold. Minus 10 degrees and thick snow was close to unbearable. 24 hours earlier it had been minus 15. Multiple layers of clothing made little difference.

For the inmates, clad only in thin prison issue trousers and top, on winter days in the early 1940s, it was prolonged torture, a living death.

At Auschwitz No. 1 camp, some were selected to clean out ponds. It meant wading through icy water, waist deep and staying in it sometimes for up to 11 hours. Those who didn’t perish there and then often died that night in their unheated barracks.

The world well knows the facts and horrors of this place. What underpinned, indeed made possible everything that happened in this trembling, terrible place, was German efficiency, that nation’s well-merited reputation for ruthless organisation and neatness. Everything was planned with a meticulous evil that touched a new low in mankind’s inhumanity to man.

To walk into the very gas chamber and (re-constructed) crematoria in Auschwitz camp No. 1 where 600 Russian prisoners of war and 250 of the sick from the camp hospital earned the terrible notoriety of being the first exterminated at the camp by Zyklon B gas and then incinerated, is to brush closer than ever you would wish to man’s most bestial behaviour.

Nothing, no-one can prepare you for Auschwitz. To go in mid-winter, when the snow lies heavy upon the Polish landscape, was deliberate. We cannot know, still less understand the suffering, the torment, brutality or hatred that poured out here, like puss from a sore. But at least the brutal cold is something we can share with those who perished, many worked to the bone, starved and beaten, before they finally succumbed.

Yet even in summer, the torment endured. Summers in Oswiecim, a 75 minute drive from the old Polish medieval city of Krakow, were hot, stifling. At Birkenau, a plague of rats, lured by the filth of atrocious sanitary conditions, the smell, the weak and the dying descended upon this place to create a vision of hell of earth. They found rich pickings, among the living and the dying.

To arrive at Auschwitz was to abandon your identity. Prisoners were known no longer by names, but numbers. It was the only camp where prisoners had tattoos with numbers burned on their bodies, usually their arms. For those chosen to work, usually political prisoners or common criminals, their heads were shaved. So similar an appearance among the inmates meant that children lost fathers; brothers could not recognise their fellow brothers.

Within a year or so, on average 12-15 months in the case of men, around 6 months or often much less in the case of the female prisoners, they had died at the hands of their captors, destroyed by the labour, deprivations and illness.

The first transport arrived at Auschwitz 1 on 14 June 1940. It contained 728 people and contained many Polish soldiers, a remarkable number of whom were to survive. Young and strong, they were used to a tough military life and somehow endured the torment.

But images, not words, define best the horrors of this place. A surprising amount, especially in Auschwitz KL1, remains intact. What you see is what existed, how it was. The terrible runs of electrified barbed wire seal terror into the visitor’s mind, just as they would have the prisoner’s.

The two tons of human hair, shaven from the bodies of as many as 40,000 people before they were thrown into the crematoria, leave you silent. The rusting, empty cans of Zyklon B gas, leave you fearful. The piles of suitcases, most with the names and ages of the Jewish children whose belongings they held, leave you heartbroken. The shaving brushes, hairbrushes and tooth brushes brought to this place by people believing they were merely going to be ‘resettled’, leave you with a feeling of sickness in your soul. The discarded footwear, from elegant Hungarian folk shoes to simple workers’ shoes and even clogs from the Dutch victims, leave you silent.

But perhaps the sickest exhibits here are the one-way railway tickets, which the Germans forced their victims to buy so as to perpetrate the lie.

The facts assail your senses, like a series of painful, heavy blows to the stomach.

  • Human ashes, piled up in such quantities by the roaring furnaces of the crematoria which worked day and night, were hurled into the nearby rivers Sola and Vistula.
  • The Germans destroyed 90% of the documents which detailed their crimes at Auschwitz-Birkenau
  • 90% of those responsible escaped punishment after the war, although Rudolf Hoss, the first Commandant, was taken back to the camp in 1947 and hanged there. But sadistic SS doctors like Josef Mengele who conducted often agonising experiments on prisoners here, fled to South America and were never apprehended.
  • Many Polish priests and farmers were killed at Auschwitz 1. One priest, upon hearing the pleas of a fellow Pole not to be shot for he had a young family (ultimately, he survived the war), offered to take his place. The Germans accepted and the cell where he spent his last night before being stripped (like all condemned prisoners, in a final humiliation) and lined up against the death wall to be shot, is now a shrine. It was visited by the late Polish Pope, John Paul the Second.
  • Of an estimated 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war sent to Auschwitz, 90 survived.
  • 23,000 European gypsies were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 21,000 were killed, half of them children.
  • In the four gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, up to 5,000 people could be killed and then burned in a single day. Up to 2,000 people could be crammed into a gas chamber, the Zyklon-B crystals then dropped through vents in the roof. The victims suffered an agonising death from suffocation.

Photographic images of what happened hang from the walls of the Auschwitz 1 camp. They were taken by SS guards and the story of their survival is incredible. A young Jewish girl, spared the gas chamber and forced to work, was one of the 60,000 marched west to Germany by their guards as the Red Army approached Oswiecim in late 1944. The girl, Lili Jacob, survived the remainder of the war in a German camp.

One day soon after it was liberated, she opened the door of a warehouse in the camp and discovered a huge pile of left over belongings. There, she stumbled upon some pictures. They were the ones taken by the SS men at Auschwitz. One of them she came across contained images of her mother, father, brother and sister. She saw her own face in the picture. She was the only family member to survive.

Sadness and sorrow hang like a heavy curtain above Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yet something else of incalculable tragedy for future generations was also lost here. The Jews lost their hearts, their compassion. Brutalised by the Nazis, they in turn, unwittingly became aggressors, killers of innocent children in the decades to come.

In Gaza over recent weeks, the corpses of little children have been laid out beside shattered homes of Palestinian families. Provoked by Hamas terrorists, the Israelis launched a terrible vengeance on innocent Palestinians. Estimates put the deaths at more than 1,300 compared to 13 Israelis killed during the aerial assault and occupation of the Gaza strip.

Try telling any parent that the killing of innocent children is ever justified. It was never justified in the dark years of the 1940s in this terrible place and it cannot be justified, to sane-minded people, 64 years later in the wrecked communities of Gaza, far away from here in the Middle East.

No matter what the dogma from the ravings of a man’s sick mind in Germany, no matter the hatred, innocent Jews never deserved the cruel fate handed them by the evil Nazis. But equally, no provocation can justify the pitiless slaughter of innocent children and adults the world has just witnessed in Gaza.

A dead child is a dead child. The image of a parent, tears washing down his or her face as they cradle the corpse of their young off-spring who has been slain by aggressors, should be repugnant to all human beings. Here, in Poland, the Jews of today rightly ensure the world never forgets the slaughter suffered by their people. Indeed, all people from all countries should come to this shocking place. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a sick footnote in history which the world must never forget.

But what is just as difficult to ignore is that this place, and others like it in Hitler’s Third Reich, sowed a seed in the Jews who would come later. Too many leaders of the Jewish state subsequently became people without pity or compassion, willing to adopt a similar brutality inflicted upon them by their captors at terrible locations like this.

Perhaps that realisation, even more than all the piles of human hair, the children’s discarded suitcases and the little washing bowls brought here by people who trusted they were to start a new life, is the image which burns deepest into your soul.