You have heard of the village of Oswiecim in Southern Poland about 40 minutes from the ancient Royal Capital of Krakow. Today it is more commonly known by its German name as Auschwitz. I visited this village and the Death Camps about 5 times while in Poland. I did not know much about it at first, no more than the average person did through the usual media reports, movies and history that has been repeated so many times about the Holocaust. I went many times for official reasons to attend ceremonies or because our visitors wanted to see it. It is not a place you want to visit more than once.
Oswiecim, Southern Poland, today
Oswiecim was an ordinary Polish village with a small Cavalry school, the school was closed at some point and then the buildings became a trade school which was in turn closed. The area is covered by forests, it is swampy land and it rather picturesque.
On my first visit on 02 August 1998, I went with several Diplomatic delegations to attend a commemoration ceremony for the SINTI people who were Gypsies (Roma) marked for extermination. Some 23,000 were imprisoned at the larger Auschwitz II Camp Birkenau. Heinrich Himmler, the Head of the SS wanted to study them, they apparently belonged to an Aryan tribe and he wanted their habits and lifestyle studied, the Sinti were housed in Birkenau which is the large industrial extermination camp, Auschwitz I is very small in comparison. After the study was concluded, Himmler had them all gassed in one night. There was one survivor at the ceremony I attended, this gentleman survived because he was sent to another camp the day prior to the mass execution.
Before we attended the ceremony, my colleague suggested I might want to look at the Auschwitz I camp first before going to Birkenau which is 5 minutes away by car.
The buildings are all brick and are built in that style found in Poland, it was a school and the buildings are neatly arranged. It does not look at first like anything special, just old buildings. The electrical wire double fence still rings the whole place and of course the infamous entrance way with its sign above ”Arbeit macht Frei”.
Auschwitz I with its brick buildings.
We walked around and saw how the camp was organized, the house of the Commander and his family, I could not imagine having your family living in such a place but it was very common amongst SS Guards. The small gas chamber next to the house and the crematorium and the still standing gallows from where Camp Commander Höss was hanged in 1947 by the Polish Government. Different buildings and different purpose. The site after being approved by Himmler was refurbished by the SS just after the invasion of Poland and first opened in May 1940, it was used to house and kill the Polish Intelligentsia, Polish Resistance Fighters and Russian prisoners and Resistance fighters from many other European countries, Priests and Nuns also. Later Jews will also form a contingent of prisoners. Some 70,000 people will die at the Auschwitz I Camp.
There was one building in particular I will never forget, it was the Camp Tribunal, if you can call it that, given that the only sentence was death. Prisoners were brought in and a quick trial took place, mostly to humiliate and degrade the person, this was common for political prisoners, the inmate was then made to strip naked, taken to the outside stone courtyard, where they knelt and were shot behind the head. Prisoners assigned would then drag the body with meat hooks to the crematoria, the ashes were simply dumped outside.
In this building, in the administrative room, which had been old school room, were on displays all the insignia prisoners had to wear, different insignia indicated to what class of prisoner the person belonged to. I suddenly realized that the list of people who did not fit into the political agenda of Nazi ideology was very long. I could have been on that list and found myself in that camp. The criteria could be racial, ethnic, religious, political, medical, sexual orientation, general, etc… It was not restricted to Jews only, they were one part of the whole population.
In Poland, the first victim of the Second World War, some 7 million Poles died, Poles were a special target, Poland was to be wiped out completely and systematically, it cities totally destroyed, nothing was to be left standing, Warsaw suffered that fate amongst many Polish cities. Russians and other Slavic people also where targeted for extermination. Opponents, resistants of any stripe, persons belonging to an opposition or a labour union, journalists, teachers, people suffering from a physical or mental handicap also exterminated. In Germany hospitals were emptied, families received an official death certificate with an invented cause of death. Catholic Priests and Nuns were not safe either, despite the fact that the Nazi Regime was Atheist, the old rivalries of the Thirty year War between Catholics and Protestants were playing out again, in Bavaria a Catholic stronghold repression was vicious.
Courtyard where executions of Political Prisoners took place against the wall at the back. On the right are the steps into the building where death sentences were pronounced. The boarded up windows on the left was to prevent prisoners from seeing what was happening.
Here I was now in a place where evil had reign supreme, I could still feel it and this camp was what evil looked like, unabashed and proud. I remember feeling sick with dread, I could sense the presence of the ghosts of those tormented souls who had perished. I walked into the gas chamber, though abandoned, I could smell the fear and death as if etched in the concrete walls.
Auschwitz I also has very good records of the inmates, each person on arrival was photographed, many with smiles on their faces, they had no idea what was going to happen to them. Little library cards recorded in details their lives and who they were. Why keep such records if you intend to exterminate them all, what madness was this and how could anyone, every day for several years work at killing people systematically. Killing a boring ordinary task, though some enjoyed it and kept thinking of ways to torture inmates, that too is documented. I suddenly understood that humans are capable of great evil which boggles the mind and becomes incomprehensible.
We proceeded to Birkenau for the Commemoration ceremony to the Sinti people. This camp was built on the ruins of a small village called Brzezinka, the ground is swampy. Birkenau or Auschwitz II is immense, cheap wood barracks lined up. I could not quite believe the size of the camp, it was surreal, it opened in November 1943. This is the camp where the trains entered through the infamous gate tower. Where Dr.Mengele worked, he and his acolyte decided on the spot who would die now or be worked to death or who would be subjected to horrible pseudo-medical experimentation. The camp was divided in neighbourhoods, all fenced in from each other. Most prisoners at Birkenau were Jews and Gypsies with populations of Russian prisoners, there was also a section for Czech and Slovak families. This is were one million people perished.
At this point I was rather stunned by it all and could not think clearly. I was thinking mostly of all those people who were put to death without mercy, their crime, they did not fit into the Nazi World Order. There was no human emotions involved, we were in the cold mechanization of death as a means to achieve a political goal enshrined in an ideology of hate which became acceptable because it was presented to the masses in Germany as well meaning and reasonable to ensure prosperity.
Of all those visits to these two camps, my thoughts and prayers always returned to the people who perished and those who survived to tell their tale but also live with the horror for the rest of their lives. The total numbers of dead is not that important, what is important is to remember that these people were just like you or me, ordinary people with jobs, families and friends, from all walks of life, from many countries, princes and paupers, of various religions and beliefs. What the Nazi destroyed was Europe, culture, education, humanity, a whole way of life. They also introduced into the world an evil we still live with today, that evil was not destroyed in 1945, it lingers, if the war in the former Yugoslavia 1991-1995 is anything to go by and so many on-going conflicts.
On this anniversary of the liberation of the inmates of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Russian soldiers in January 1944 let us remember all those souls whoever they may be and those who also perished in all the other Nazi Death Camps. As human beings let us reflect on what it means to live in Peace, understanding and the value of human life.