We just returned from a tour of Central Europe. We visited Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava, and Prague. On our drive from Warsaw to Krakow, we stopped at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, renamed Auschwitz when the town and the surrounding area were incorporated within the Third Reich.
We have seen newsreels of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps at the end of WW II and a number of movies depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. However, newsreels and movies did not really prepare us for an actual visit to the site of the largest mass murder in history. As many as 1.5 million were murdered at Auschwitz, mainly Polish Jews, but also Soviet prisoners-of-war, Gypsies, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French, Austrians, and Germans.
First a little background on the beginnings of the Holocaust. In January 1942, a conference was held in the Berlin suburb of Wannesee, chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, acting under the orders of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, to devise a solution to the “Jewish Question.” The result of the conference was Nazi Germany's plan and execution of the systematic murder of European Jews. Heinrich Himmler was the chief architect of the plan, and Adolf Hitler termed it "the final solution of the Jewish question." A surviving copy of the minutes of this meeting was found by the Allies in 1947, too late to serve as evidence during the first Nuremberg Trials. I recommend Conspiracy (TV-2001), a dramatic recreation of the Wannsee Conference, in which actor Kenneth Branaugh played Reinhard Heydrich.
In 1940, the SS set up a concentration camp at KL Auschwitz because of overcrowding of the existing prisons in Silesia and because further arrests were anticipated. in Silesia and the rest of German-occupied Poland. Why Oswiecim? Because there already existed an abandoned pre-war Polish barracks in the town and the town was an important railway junction.
IThe camp had 28 buildings housing between 13-16,000 people, reaching 20,000 in 1942.. In 1941, a second camp was built called KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau in the village of Brzezinka about 3 kilometers away. In 1942, KL Auschwitz-III was built iin Monowice near the German chemical plant IG-Farbenindustrie. And in the years 1942-1944 about 40 smaller camps were built in the vicinity of steelworks, mines, and factories, where prisoners were exploited as cheap labour.
KL Auschwitz I and KL Auschwitz II-Birkennau are now maintained as museums open to the public. The Museums include some barracks, the main entrance gates to the camps, sentry watch towers, barbed wire fences, the remnants of four crematoria, gas chambers, and cremation pits and pyres, the special unloading platform where the deportees were selected to be exterminated or used as slave slave labor.
Those deemed unfit for labor, including women and children were told they would be allowed to bathe. They undressed in the “shower” room. The doors were locked and Cyclon B was poured from special openings in the ceiling. After gold teeth fillings, rings, other jewelry, and all hair had been removed, the bodies were taken to the incinerators. The human hair was used by tailors for lining for clothes. A room full of human hair and some of the prisoners’ belongings are on display at Auschwitz. The human ashes were used as fertilizer.
SS physicians conducted experiments of prisoners. Professor C. Clausberg tested women in an attempt to develop sterilization techniques to creat an efficient method for eliminating tfuture ”inferior” persons. Dr. Joseph Mengele experimented on twins and handicapped people. Prisoners were also used as unwilling subjects to test new medical or chemical substances. Toxic substances were rubbed into the skin and painful skin transplants were performed. Hundreds of prisoners died during the experiments or suffered severe physical damage or became permanently disabled. Despite ethical qualms, some of the Nazi research data was used by the Allies and others after the war.
Above the main gate at Auschwitz where the prisoners passed each day after working 12 hours, was the cynical sign “Arbeit mach frei” (Work brings freedom). Most of the prisoners believed that they were being resettled. That’s why they often brought their most valuable possessions with them. In a small square by the kitchen, the camp orchestra made up of prisoners would play marches, mustering the thousands of prisoners so that they could be counted more efficiently by the SS.
SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Rudolf Höss was the first commandant of Auschwitz.. He was hanged in 1947 following his trial at Warsaw. While awaiting execution Höss wrote his autobiography Death Dealer: the Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz. His memoirs became an important document attesting to the Holocaust.
Höss wrote: “I am completely normal. Even while I was carrying out the task of extermination I led a normal family life and so on.” The commandant’s living quarters were a scant 150 yards away from the barbed wire enclosed concentration camp. We envision Höss, his wife Hedwig and their four children living a “normal” life a short distance from where over a million prisoners were being overworked, starved, and murdered. Just imagine Höss having dinner with his family after a tiring day of supervising the murder of prisoners. We wonder if they celebrated Christmas with a decorated tree and listened to Christmas music. . There has been much written about the banality of evil in connection with those involved in the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt, in a report in The New Yorker, covered the Otto Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. She wrote, "The deeds were monstrous, but the doer ... was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous." She further observed, "... the only specific characteristic one could detect in his [Eishmann’s] past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think."
On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and liberated more than 7,000 remaining prisoners, who were mostly ill and dying. Poland then traded German occupation for Soviet occupation until 1989. when the independent Republic of Poland was formed.
As a non-Jews, our visit to Auschwitz was sobering. we cannot imagine what a visit must be for a Jew, especially someone who has lost family members at Auschwitz or at another concentration camp.
It is estimated that over 100 million people have been the victims of Genocide. As George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Perhaps, the Auschwitz museums will help us “remember the past” so “never again” will have meaning. We are hopeful but not optimistic.