This past week was the 75th Anniversary of the arrival of Soviet troops in Poland in their offensive to defeat Nazi Germany and so called liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau Camps. Currently I am reading a biography on Primo Levi, the celebrated Italian author from Turin who was interned at Auschwitz from February 1944. In the biography by Ian Thomson written in 2019 on the centennial of Primo Levi birth, we have a very good picture in Levi’s words of what that camp life was like, of the people he knew, of those who died and those who survived. We also read about the Germans at the camp who ran the factories for I.G. Farben and BASF. In order to survive Levi says; you had to find a way to do as little as possible to preserve your energy.
Levi had a long career in Turin as a chemist and he became a celebrated author of poems, short stories for children, science fiction and on his own life experience. His work took him to Germany in the 1950’s to 1970’s and he writes about his view of Germans and Germany and also of his own country Italy and its long period under the Fascist dictatorship which led to Italian Jews like himself being singled out and how after 1945 Italy continued and continues to this day to have in its political life the heirs of Mussolini’s ideals.
Levi’s book If this is a man and his other book Truce speaks of his experience while incarcerated. Levi survived the camps because he had been educated and worked as a Chemist, his skills were in demand. After the Soviets arrival he then recounts how going home was not so simple. The Soviets had their own agenda, a harrowing tale.
During my posting to Warsaw, Poland I was delegated to go to Auschwitz- Birkenau 3 times for official remembrance ceremonies. The camps are near Krakow and a small sign on the highway to Krakow indicates the cut off to the village of Oswiecim. A quiet little village with a railway crossing it the camps are just outside the village limits.
My first visit was a commemoration for the Sinti people and the mass extermination of 2 August 1944 in the sector of the camp housing them. The Sinti and Roma imprisoned in the camp came primarily from Germany, Austria, the Protectorate of Bavaria and Moravia, and Poland, with smaller groups arriving from France, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia/Croatia, Belgium, the USSR, Lithuania, and Hungary. There is also mention of Sinti and Roma citizens of Norway and Spain.
It is estimated that about 23 thousand men, women, and children were imprisoned in the camp. About 21 thousand were registered in the camp (including the more than 370 children estimated to have been born there). A group of about 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma was murdered immediately after arriving at the camp, without being entered in the records.
Of the approximately 23 thousand Sinti and Roma deported to Auschwitz, some 21 thousand died or were murdered in the gas chambers. There was one man at the ceremony who had missed being gassed simply because the night before he was transferred to a labour camp and survived. It was very strange to see one survivor out of many thousand who perished being present to bear witness. His survival depended on Fate.
The terrible thing about those camps was how they had been set up as of 1933 to exterminate all enemies of Nazi Germany at first all German Opposition political figures were targeted, intellectuals and artists. Then the long list of enemies of the Reich, people from all walks of life, from criminals to political prisoners, to activists, people belonging to groups declared to be sub-humans like the Sinti and Roma people, Jews, priests, nuns, any religious denomination, resistance fighters, POW who were marginally better treated, homosexuals, and anyone who simply did not fit into the Nazis book for a perfect society. This also included members of Royal families of Europe who worked against Nazi occupation of their respective country. Everyone had a badge to wear to identify the group they belonged to and the number tattoo on their arm. Since the usual life expectation was 3 months, the number on one’s arm could show if you had lived beyond the usual 90 day period, some like Levi did. The memory of Auschwitz-Birkenau is that of a large industrial death factory whose sole purpose was to exterminate quickly those the Nazi had identified as undesirable.
Today some 75 years later, Auschwitz has become a name in history books. Far too many docu-drama have in my opinion cheapened the memory of the atrocities to the point of trivializing them. During my visits to Auschwitz I did hear comments from visitors which illustrated the depth of ignorance and indifference to what they were seeing, I could not help thinking that these same people could probably have been inmates if we went back in time. In the biography of Primo Levi, a quote from him illustrates how to think of this horrible episode in history, Levi says: We must master the past otherwise the past will master us.
Primo Levi (174517) 1919-1987, born and died in Turin, Italy in the same house at Corso Re Umberto 75.