Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation by elements of the Red Army’s First Ukrainian Front of the Polish city of Oswiecim and the German konzentration/vernichtung lager system surrounding it. Auschwitz (Hell realized on Earth) is quite real. I’ve been there. The only difference between 27-Jan-45 and today is that you can visit this hell without getting burned. They sell postcards and photobooks in Hell on Earth’s gift shop, actually. It’s jarring, but quite human, to buy postcards at the gravesite of 1.1 million murdered people.
I took pictures there 15 years ago this April. It was quiet and beautiful and a nice springtime day in rural Poland. Hell had moved to other places long before I got there.
Yes, the Shoah is real. And no, it shouldn’t happen again. But it has happened/is happening again since ’45 and it will again after this anniversary. The first concentration camp was set up by Spain in Cuba in 1897. We had them scattered throughout the American west during the 19th century and we’re still operating one at Guantanamo Bay today. The Russian gulags are probably still operating as well, and no telling what North Korea is like; it’s darker than the Polish Warthegau/Generalgouvernement areas were in 1943. But we do know that millions have probably died there.
The Auschwitz complex is huge and covers many miles in up to 45 different satellite camps. Auschwitz I – Main is the site of Gaskammer/Krema I, where Zyklon B was first used. Now the main camp houses a museum with human hair (many still braided as it was when it was cut off) and luggage and eyeglasses and prayer shawls and cooking pots and dentures and shoes. You can stand in Gaskammer I and see the purple stains on the wall, remnants of Zyklon B.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau is down the road a couple of miles from the main camp. It is the most photographed/well known; Gaskammers/Kremas II – V are located there and it was in those buildings that most of the 1.1 million Jews, Gypsies, mischlinge/halflinge, political prisoners, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other undesirables met their deaths.
Auschwitz III – Monowitz/Buna is where slave labor (those who were selected for work instead of extermination) produced synthetic gas and rubber (using fuel from such sources as Standard Oil of the US, which continued to provide Germany with Ethyl gas (remember that brand?) up until the early months of January 1942. IBM provided the machines that tabulated and kept tabs on the undesirables. General Electric, Ford (and Henry and Edsel themselves) and other American companies and individuals helped out too. And yes, we knew the camps were there (and had aerial photos), but refused to bomb it out of existence, fearing we would “kill innocent people,” a concern that apparently was out of fashion by 1945, re. Dresden and Hiroshima.
I took pics of the main camp, Auschwitz I: One as we got ready to walk through the famous gate with its encouraging “Works Makes [you] Free” sign (stolen a few years back, recovered in pieces and now in the museum, replaced by a replica). Another of the highly electrified no-man’s land separating the prison blocks from administration blocks at Auschwitz I. Yet another of Gaskammer/Krema I, where Soviet prisoners of war became the first to inhale Zyklon B en masse. Underneath that chimney are two crematory ovens. To the side is the gallows where they hung the camp commandant in 1947. Just to the side of the gallows is the pretty white house where his wife and five children lived; they played in the yard as their father burned people next door. And more (I hope to get the time to post them here soon.)
We then went a mile down the road to the more famous Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the vernichtungslager (extermination camp). It housed workers and Roma and Sinta families and the Sonderkommando responsible for pulling bodies from the gaskammers and putting them into the ovens. Most Sonderkommando, after a certain time, followed the dead up the chimney. I took more pics; one of the latrine for Birkenau slave labor. No, there were no toilet seats or running water. Use of these communal spaces was permitted twice a day; when you left for work and when you came home to bed. Another pic I took was of the view SS officers in charge of “selections” had: the trains arrived from all over Europe, passed through the arch in the guard house and were parked on this siding. The selection chose a small quota for work; everyone else went up the chimney … sometimes in as little as an hour.
Today, speeches were made, the last 300 survivors were paraded in a tent and one noted, “Jews are targeted in Europe once again because they are Jews … Once again young Jewish boys are afraid to wear yarmulkes [skullcaps] on the streets of Paris, Budapest, London and even Berlin.”
The response? Statements by world politicians were issued with the usual words, but without an effort to actually fly to Cracow and drive 45 minutes. The leader of the liberating nation sent his regrets; seems the Red Army is a bit preoccupied in the Ukraine again. So he stayed in Moscow and posed with a rabbi lighting a candle. American and British politicians roused themselves briefly to post platitudes on Twitter, then went back to plundering their respective treasuries. Germany’s bundeskanzler called Auschwitz “a disgrace.” And executions for all kinds of reasons proceeded apace this week in Saudi Arabia, Syria, China, North Korea … Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma …
Sorry to be on the pessimistic side … but I’ve been there. And if we can’t learn from setting our own eyes on Auschwitz/Birkenau (and events of this century so far indicate we have not) … then … there will be more anniversary commemorations in other places in the world.