A history that must never be forgotten
07.06.2011 - 07.06.2011 23 °C
A late morning start saw us walking through the splendors of Old Town to the decidedly modern and typically harsh main bus station in Krakow. Our destination this morning was Oświęcim (osh-fyen-cheem), the Polish town that gave its name to the infamous Nazi Death Camp of Auschwitz.
Few place names have more impact than Auschwitz. Approaching by road one imagines a place of desolation. A lone monument, testament of man’s inhumanity to man. Yet, today Auschwitz (or at least Auschwitz I – the smaller of the two main camps – Birkenau (Auschwitz II) being the larger) is nestled in amongst leafy suburbia. Washing hangs on a clothes lines, people continue their daily life yet with the barbed wire and guard towers of the Camp ever present. With the history we know of already it is almost surreal to see this place of death existing in such normal surroundings.
It is now mandatory to tour the Camp as part of a group. Whilst not our preference our Guide was excellent both knowledgeable and well paced. Our first glimpse of the Camp was bordered by the now infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign – ‘Work will set you free’. The greatest lie in all the camp. After being stolen and cut up in 2009 the now recovered sign has only just completed restoration and as such what we were looking at was a replica. However, it was still a dispiriting thought that whilst an unknown number passed under this invidious sign over one million, 90% of whom were Jewish, would never leave.
The Camp itself was built in the 1920s to house Polish soldiers. These twenty-eight red brick barracks, along with the its central European location were the prime reason that the Nazi’s chose this location to facilitate their ‘Final Solution’. In this camp up to 1,000 prisoners, from all over Europe (including British Jews from the Channel Islands) slept in each of the 28 barracks. Over cramped, filthy and disease ridden these were the ‘lucky’ ones. Those who were old, infirm, young or of no use to the Nazi war machine were never given a barrack to sleep in. They were neither catalogued nor numbered. They were simply taken straight to the Gas Chamber to ‘breathe’ Zyklon B for twenty minutes – a gas used to terrible effect by the Nazi’s but invented by a Jewish scientist in the 1920s.
Those who were of use to the Nazi’s were forced to work all day, for meager (if any) rations. At night they would sleep 2 or 3 to a bunk, again if lucky. In the punishment block we saw the starvation cells, the standing up cells (where 4-5 prisoners would stand all night in a dark, airless cell no more that 3ft square) and the suffocation cells where 40-50 prisoners would stay overnight, in an 8ft square cell, with air for only a few.
Grotesque judicial ‘courts’ were undertaken by the Gestapo that would see 200 prisoners (often political, Polish resistance and other ‘enemies of the state’) sentenced to death by firing squad over the course of two hours – 20-30 seconds, per prisoner, for their summary ‘justice’. We visited the courtyard used for these executions, the wooden poles used to hang prisoners by their arms (tied behind their backs) and of course the Gas Chambers, capable of gassing 1,000s at a time. Told that they needed to shower the Nazi’s used a converted bomb shelter, within the camp, until 1943, to gas and cremate prisoners. Yet, with the ability to ‘only’ cremate 350 prisoners a day a larger facility was required.
The new facility – Auschwitz II – was built at Birkenau. Some 2 miles from Auschwitz I it could cremate 5,000 prisoners a day. Housed in little more than wooden stable buildings and with straw for bedding, if lucky, Birkenau was (if that is possible) an even worse camp than Auschwitz I. With the ability to process the 400,000 Hungarian Jews that were transported there from Budapest, over a 3 month period in 1944, it processed death on an almost unimaginable scale.
Yet, in the warm sunlight of today it is hard to imagine the conditions and experiences of the camp – a single cotton prison uniform to protect from winters that frequently reached -25c. The average life expectancy of a working prisoner – less than one year. For women, less than 5 months. Yet these statistics make the scale and abhorrence of this Camp hard to comprehend. It is in the exhibitions in the final barracks that all but the hardest souls are moved. Two tones of human hair is still on display. 1000s of shoes, adult and children, are piled in glass cases. Huge numbers of combs, brushes, shoe polish, eyeglasses and pots and pans are all on display – remnants of the great warehouses that stored the personal processions of those taken to their lethal showers (called Canada I,II,III etc these warehouses, staffed by trusted prisoners, were used to sort and store food, clothes, shoes etc so like Canada were seen, at that time, as the promised land). Yet, it is the innocuous 1000 or so suitcases on display that most effectively demonstrate the harrowing nature of this camps history. Each one is scrawled with a name, date of birth and train of its owner. Some we can tell were but 1 year old. Others were nearer seventy. From the pictures taken of the Nazi ‘Doctor’ reviewing new arrivals, using an almost Caesar like thumb gesture to determine who should go left or right (to the Gas Chamber and death or the prison camp) , it is easy to comprehend why, for many, these bags are the only record that they were at Auschwitz. For those who the Doctor did not admit to the Camp, the old, the young and the infirm were never documented. They became part of the tragic statistic that is Auschwitz. A harrowing museum of unimaginable suffering and pain yet one that must continue for only by understanding our history can we hope to ensure that genocide on this scale is never allowed to occur again.