Saturday, 23 July 2016

In the heart of the death star: Visiting Auschwitz

Some time ago, I visited Auschwitz, one of the most famous memories and memorials of World War II. About 1.1 million people died here.

I went through an emotional whirlwind and came back mentally exhausted and heartbroken. I was guided through various barracks in which inmates were kept in overcrowded conditions with minimal facilities for sanitation hygiene. I saw various exhibits of piles of bags in which people brought their belongings to the camp, thousands of shoes, purses, pieces of utensils and corridors full of photos of men and women who died at Auschwitz. A quarter of one of the rooms was filled with blond hair taken from people who died in gas chambers.

As I walked through these rooms hearing stories of atrocities and inhuman behaviour, I was slowly getting overwhelmed. The tipping point came when I entered a room dedicated to children. One one side behind the glass was a heap of toys and the room was filled with photos and stories of children who died or had medical experiments conducted on them at the camp. This is when my eyes filled with water and a single drop rolled out. I am not trying to be poetic here. Most people who visit Auschwitz do get overwhelmed by the experience. At the end of the our guide said, "I hope now you will tell others about Auschwitz and help them understand what happened here better" (paraphrased). I thought I would take a shot at it.

As I write this post I am also reading a book I bought there. Its 'This way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen'. Its written by a Polish literary genius, Tadeusz Borowski who spent 2 years in the concentration camps from 1943 to 1945. He was not a Jew and survived the concentration camp. He killed himself at the age of 28, ironically by breathing gas from a gas stove. I will quote paragraphs from his book at places to illustrate what happened in Auschwitz.

Civilisation is a farce
Human to inhuman is a thin line
Auschwitz was the biggest concentration and extermination camp run by Nazis during World War II. Auschwitz I used to be a Polish army camp before that. The concentration camp stated in 1940 and exterminations in 1941, initially for Polish prisoners. From 1942 onwards the camp became a site where Jews from across Europe were brought to put into forced labour and extermination.

Auschwitz I 

When the camp was first set up by the Nazis local residents were forced to move out of the area and bricks from homes were used to build camp buildings. By the end of 1941, the camp was overwhelmed with prisoners and construction was started on Auschwitz II.

Work brings freedom

The entry gate to Auschwitz I has the motto Arbeit macht frei meaning 'work brings freedom'. This gave those arriving at the camp a false sense of hope. They were given the impression that they were brought here for work which would lead to a better life. However, for most there was only forced labour (work) and only freedom they got was through death.

When people arrived at the camp all their belongings were confiscated. They were told that they would not need these at the camp and all their belongings will be kept safe for when they return. So people put their names and other identification marks on their luggage. Their cloths were also taken away and they were given camp cloths.

"The heaps grow. Suitcases, bundles, blankets, coats, handbags that open as they fall, spilling coins, gold, watches; mountains of bread pile up at the exits, heaps of marmalade, jams, masses of meat, sausages; super spills on the gravel". (pg38)

Luggage with name and other identification details

Even when people found out the reality of the camp, escape was close to impossible. The camp was completely surrounded by electrified double fencing.

Electrified double fencing around the camp

Caution: high voltage, danger to life
Danger signs are everywhere
Beyond the electrified fences were several watch towers with always alert Nazi guards ready to shoot at the smallest of infractions.

"the two story barracks, the double row of barbed wire, the concrete wall beyond it, the solid watch-towers.. And they did not even know that the wall extends two yards into the ground, to prevent us from digging our way out!" (pg111)

One of the many watch towers around the camp
Within the camp there were separate areas for housing inmates and guards and officers. Close to 7000 SS guards and officers managed the inmates. Unfortunately only a small number of these were convicted after the war. Auschwitz I was the head office for SS guards of both Auschwitz I, II and other satellite camps around. In total there were about 16,000 prisoners here.

Here also lived Rudolf Franz Ferdinand Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz camps. He had the company of his wife and five children. The house is just outside the double fencing but next to one of the gas cambers. Höss played a key role in devising the plans for extermination of Jews at Auschwitz. A year after the war when Höss was caught and convicted, he was hanged to death right next to this house.

Commandant's house

A block to house inmates
more inmate blocks

Auschwitz I was also the cite of medical experiments by Dr Josef Mengele of the SS. One of his key experiments was to understand how and why twins were born. According to our guide, he wanted to find this out for a quick acceleration of German population growth by birth of more twins. Experiments were also conducted on particular racial groups.

"The women in No. 10 are being artificially inseminated, injected with typhoid and malaria germs, or operated on". (pg108)

Block 11 was a key block of Auschwitz I. Here a periodic hearing was held to convict deviating inmates. I say 'convict' because every case was given only about 1 min. In this time one had to defend and also get the sentence. On top of that, the judges only understood and spoke German. This made things difficult for Polish, Hungarian and prisoners from other countries. So, the idea was to put up a farce and convict people. Under this block were also the torture chambers. There were rooms were inmates were hung by their arms until they separated from their sockets. There were suffocation chambers where people were crammed in until eventually oxygen became scarce and they started dying. Then there were standing chambers, each the size of a mobile toilet or smaller. There was a small door at the bottom through which people were supposed to get in. Each room was filled with 4-5 people so that there was no space to move other than standing.

Infrastructure to hang people (at the far end)
Between block 11 and 10 was the execution space. Convicts were made to stand with their face towards the wall at the far end and shot in the back. The windows of block 10 which housed inmates were blinded so no one would know what was going on between the two blocks.

Execution space between block 10 and 11
There were also wooden poles to hang and execute people.

Wooden poles and hook to hang people. Blinded windows of block 10 in the background

Another space to hang people by their arms. This public space was chosen so others could learn from example.

Auschwitz I had one killing installation. This consisted of a gas chamber, lifts to move bodies from gas chamber to crematorium and of course the crematorium itself. Later this was converted into a storage and subsequently a bomb shelter.

Gas chamber. Opening to introduce gas

Auschwitz II - Birkenau

Auschwitz II ended up being much bigger than Auschwitz I. It became the main concentration and extermination camp. Auschwitz II covered an area of 175 acres and had the capacity to house 200,000 inmates. It became the main site to carry out Hitler's 'Final solution to the Jewish question'.

Watch tower at Auschwitz II
Railway lines were extended to Auschwitz II and subsequently a long platform was built to disembark and segregate Jews brought to the camp.

Gate of death: entry to Auschwitz II
The train coaches that people travelled in were the ones used to transport cattle or goods. Filled much beyond their capacity, they carried people for days. During this time people often had no access to toilets, fresh water or food. The train was slow and had to often give way to faster trains and freight trains. It often waited at stations for days during which time people travelling in coaches were not allowed to get out. Many perished by the time they reached Auschwitz. At the height of its functioning in 1943-44 Auschwitz II received 2-3 trains full of Hungarian Jews everyday.

"In the tiny barred windows appear pale, wilted, exhausted human faces, terror-stricken women with tangled hair, unshaven men....Heads push through the windows, mouths gasp fanatically for air. They draw a few breaths, then disappear; others come in their place, then also disappear". (pg36)

Train wagon
Everything in the camp worked like a well oiled machine. When a train arrived in Auschwitz, people were quickly disembarked and their belongings confiscated. Women and children were separated from the men. Children were kept with the women so they do no create a commotion. After this SS officers gave a cursory look to each person and selected them either to go the camp where they would be engaged in slave labour or to be directly sent to the gas chambers. Those arriving had no idea what was going on. They expected to meet their families later. So they did not resist. Most women, children and old were directly sent to the gas chambers. That is why in the camps there were only about 30% women.

"It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end. This is the only permissible form of charity". (pg37)

Segregation platform where families were separated never to see each other again

Gate to one section of the camp
Auschwitz II had 4 mass killing installations. These consisted of 1 gas chamber, lifts to bring the bodies up and multiple ovens forming the crematorium. People who were sent to the gas chambers were told that they were going to take a shower and get disinfected for a life in the camp. Most people did not suspect that they were walking to death or that they would never again see their families. That is why they mostly did not resist and everything went on smoothly. Zyklon B, a pesticide was used for gassing. This process lasted all of 20 min.

After this hair was shaved off the bodies, gold teeth and other valuables removed and the bodies were moved to the crematorium using lifts. Cremation took days. At the height of its functioning when the camp received 2-3 trains everyday, the crematoria capacity fell short and bodies were often piled up in the open and burnt. Human ash was then either filled in several ditches dug around the camp or used as fertiliser in the fields around the camp.

Remains of a gas chamber and crematorium
Barrack here were also similar to Auschwitz I but they were single storied compared to double storied blocks of Auschwitz I. Initial barracks were made of bricks but soon there was a shortage of construction material and later barracks were built with wood.

Barracks of Auschwitz II

However, each barrack here housed many more inmates. Initially each barrack was to house 550 inmates but finally the number went up to 740. There were three tiers of sleeping space with the lowest being on the floor. Each space was shared by 6-8 people. There were some windows for light but only accessible from middle and top bunks. Obviously this was a privilege to which only stronger inmates had access. There was limited heating and often due to lack of fuel it didn't work.

"Below us, naked, sweat-drenched men crowd the narrow barracks aisles or lie packed in eights and tens in the lower bunks. Their nude, withered bodies stink of sweat and excrement; their cheeks are hollow". (pg31)

The three tiered barrack
Window privilege 
For the 200,000 inmates there were only 10 barracks of bathrooms and toilets. Needless to say, this was much lower than required. The toilets consisted of a several holes in a line and were mostly packed with people. So much so that often two people shared a hole at the same time. Toilets were cleaned manually by taking shit out manually, with a bucket. These jobs were privileges as they were often indoors away from the harsh summer sun and winter chill.

Bathrooms and water were similarly in short supply. Most people got to bathe only once a month. They had no access to soaps. People lined up in the crowded bathrooms to somehow wash their bodies.

Bathroom in Auschwitz II

Since this visit my mind have been in a turmoil. I don't know how to put this place and what happened there in perspective. Does this help put our own lives in perspective? There was so much pain and suffering there. Does thinking about it make the pain and suffering in our own life smaller? 

There was so much loss. Loss of life, of friendship, of love. People struggled to find support, friendship, love, human affection. Sometimes they came to the camps with these but lost them as soon as they stepped onto the platform. Sometimes they found these in the camp but lost them soon to the gas chambers. Do the stories of these people tell us that we should not shed tears over lost affection, friendship and love for we are still free to find them? Or do they tell us that we should hold on to our affections, our friends, our love for we are fortunate to have these in our life? We should not give up on them as easily as we do for we could be in a situation that they are snatched away from us.

I am left confused.

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