Saturday, April 14, 2018

Day 12 - Auschwitz - Birkenau


Early at 6:30 a.m. we ate breakfast in our hotel and then set out for the Polish town of Oswięcim.  The city was located on a major train track between East and West.  Mr. Barmore reminded us that two features were why the Holocaust was considered modern murder: one was the bureaucracy and one was the use of .  One of the most important technological aspects was transportation.   The Nazis decided it was easier and more efficient to transport victims to the factories of death, rather than kill them in the locations they were found.  Here in the outskirts of Oswięcim, the Nazis would establish Konzentration Lager [KL] Auschwitz.  Auschwitz was not one camp but was a complex of three primary sites:  Auscwhitz I was the administrative center and concentration camp for primarily Polish prisoners, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II] was the death camp, and Buna [Auschwitz III] was for manufacturing and testing facilities, which also had dozens of labor sub-camps.  “How do we explain man’s behavior here? “ Mr. Barmore asked.  “A factory which produces death.  So far we have been unable to come up with definitive answers.  As long as we don’t know why; none of us can say we couldn’t or wouldn’t do this, which is in itself a warning.”


We had requested Wojciech, as our guide through Auschwitz I which now serves as the museum.  Wojciech had been our guide several times before and we had been very impressed with both his knowledge and his style of interacting with the students.  We started under the iconic sign:  Arbeit Macht Frei.  There, he gave us the history of the camp.  Built in the town of Oswiecim, Auschwitz is the Germanization of the name of the town.  It was establihed by the Nazis in 1940 and was in use until the Allied liberation in 1945.  The camp has 28 brick buildings, called Blocks, which served as barracks.  


We started under the iconic sign:  Arbeit Macht Frei.  There, he gave us the history of the camp.  Built in the town of Oswiecim, Auschwitz is the Germanization of the name of the town.  It was established by the Nazis in 1940 and was in use until the Allied liberation in 1945.  The camp has 28 brick buildings, called Blocks, which served as barracks.  The camp is 200 meters long by 300 meters wide.  There were 700-1000 people housed in each building.  The capacity of Auschwitz was 20,000 inmates. 


The living conditions in the camp were severe ---hard work, starvation, disease and brutal treatment--- so that the average time between one’s arrival in Auschwitz I and his death was about 2 months. Wojciech showed us the kitchen which was a long building located to the right of the gate.  If you were lucky, you had a job in the kitchen where they were safe from most of the difficult jobs -  they often had access to some extra food, and were also protected from the weather extremes, and so their chances of survival were better than those who had to labor outside.  



Wojciech said that the exhibits we would be seeing in the first blocks were created by survivors of Auschwitz in 1956 so we would be seeing what they wanted us to see.  We started with Block 4 and a quote at the entrance:  “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” --- George Santayana.    

In 1940 there was only Auschwitz I which functioned as a prisoner of war camp.  In 1941 Himmler ordered the enlargement of the camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau was created.  In 1942, after the Wannsee Conference, this camp starts to function as a death camp.  Wojciech told us that of the 11 million Jews living in Europe, 90% lived in Central and Eastern Europe which is why all of the death camps were located in Poland.  He also said that 75% of the Jews killed in Auschwitz were not Polish, but because of railroad connections, many Jews were deported here from large centers such as Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague and Berlin.  In 1940 he told us there were only two languages spoken:  German and Polish.  By 1944 more than 20 different languages were spoken. 

An estimated 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz.  An urn with a small amount of human ash symbolizes the loss of all these lives.  

In Block 4 we were shown a large model of a gas chamber which we would see later in the day, in Birkenau, which showed the three phases of its operation.  First, there was the disrobing room where people undressed.  The second phase was where two Zyklon B pellets were dropped through the vents in the roof, which with water, created a deadly hydrogen cyanide.  The total time necessary to kill all 1500 people in the gas chamber was twenty minutes.  The third phase required Jewish prisoners in a special unit called the Sonderkommando, to remove the bodies, shave the hair and remove any gold fillings in the teeth,  and then burn the corpses in the underground crematorium.  The average length of time one served in the Sonderkommando before being killed himself, was 3 months.



In  1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union,  Heinrich Himmler ordered the enlargement of the camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau was establihed.  There another 300 buildings were constructed for an additional 90,000 prisoners.  In 1942 after the Wannsee Conference this camp starts to function as a death camp.  Wojciech showed us a map of the European cities which transported Jews to Auschwitz and a plaque with the numbers of victims.  In the 5 years of the operation of the camp, an estimated 1.3 million came and 1.1 million were murdered.  90 % of the victims were Jewish and most of them never saw the sign, Arbeit Macht Frei as they were taken straight to Auschwitz-Birkenau and executed.  An urn with a small amount of human ash in Block 4 symbolizes the lost of all these lives.  

We were shown glass cases in which were documentary evidence of the Nazi processing of 
Prisoners, lists of countries from which Jews came (Hungary was the largest group, Norway the smallest), pictures of the selection at the ramp in Auschwitz-Birkenau as Nazis determined who would live and who would die.

As we climbed the stairs to the second floor of Block 4, we were shown a large model of a gas chamber which we would see this afternoon in Birkenau and which showed the three phases of its operation.  First, there was the disrobing room where people were told to disrobe.  They were often told to remember the number on which they put their clothes, or make sure to tie their shoes together, some were even given a piece of soap – all in the name of deception.  A gas chamber could hold 1,500 people at a time.  The second phase was to have two Zyklon B pellets dropped through the vents in the roof.  The Zyklon B pellets alone were harmless, and had been used in delousing, but when dropped into water created a deadly hydrogen cyanide.  In 20 minutes, all the people would be dead and the room would be ventilated which required half an hour.  The third phase required Jewish prisoners in a special unit called the Sonderkommando to remove the bodies, shave the hair and remove any gold teeth from the corpses, and then burn the bodies in the underground crematorium.  The average length of time one served in the Sonderkommando before being killed himself, was 3-4 months.  About 80 Sonderkommando survived the war and were able to provide testimony.  

In  Block 5 were exhibited the ‘evidence of crimes’:  belongings brought by victims to Auschwitz, confiscated by the SS and found after liberation.  Separate rooms containing shoes, eyeglasses, prayer shawls, shaving kits, household cooking items, baby clothes, and other items which had been packed in the labeled suitcases they packed.  These provided physical evidence of the existence of so many victims as well as some insight into what they might have thought was their destination.  Wojciech said that the shoe polish, to him, was an indication that they had no clue what was going to happen, but were focused on tomorrow, not knowing there would be no tomorrow.  He noted that these would be packed by men who thought they might need to be looking their best, to look for a job.









A large room with a wall-to-wall display case of human hair was especially moving.  When the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz they found 7 tons of women’s hair in warehouses from 40,000 women who had been killed; the only remaining trace of them.  In this room was exhibited 5,000 pounds of hair.  The hair was sold during the war to textile manufacturers for production of army uniforms or gloves and socks for railroad workers.  We were shown a bolt of fabric; 30% of it was made from human hair.  We could see strands of hair protruding from the fabric.  

In Block7 we saw the living conditions of prisoners in Auschwitz I.  There were rooms with typical bunks, washrooms, and offices.  On the walls in the hallways were pictures of mostly Polish prisoners -  men on the right, women on the left.  These photographs were taken as a part of the processing into the camp, most by Wilhelm Brasse, himself a prisoner.  He spoke fluent German and was a photographer before the war.  This made him useful to the Nazis who wanted good photographs of the prisoners as well as someone to take pictures at their private SS parties and of the experimental surgeries.  In this manner he was able to survive the war.  Wojciech told us that it was traditional for a moment of silence to be observed at Jewish burial in memory of the departed.  If that we're to be done for each person whose photograph hung in the corridors of Block 7, it would require 8 hours.  If this same moment of silence was to be observed for each of the 1.1 million victims of Auschwitz, it would take two and a half years.   

Wojciech told us that photographs were initially taken of Polish prisoners, and later some of the first transports of Jewish prisoners, to have a method of locating them should they escape. He told us that for the most part only Polish prisoners tried to escape because outside, if you couldn’t speak Polish you would be helpless.  You were also easily identifiable as a foreigner. After a few months, due to the minimal food, prisoners no longer looked like their photograph and that’s when they began to tattoo identification numbers on the arms of inmates.  He told us to note the date the prisoner was deported and the date of death, and we quickly saw that most prisoners died within a few months to a year.  


In Block 11, we saw accommodations for prisoners who were to be interrogated and/or punished.  Downstairs we saw three types of punishment cells:  dark cell, starvation cell and the standing cell in which three or four people could be forced to stand for days at a time.  Punishment might be 3-5 days in one of these cells for a minor infraction of a camp rule or 2 weeks for sabotage.   One of the crimes was smoking in camp which would give a prisoner 5 days in a standing cell.  Smoking meant the prisoner had access to the outside world and was able to smuggle in contraband.   We were told that if one person escaped from Auschwitz, that 10 other prisoners would be brought to one of these cells and punished.  Time in a punishment cell could be a death sentence.   We viewed the execution wall, called the Wall of Death, between Blocks 10 and 11, where tens of thousands of prisoners were lined up naked and shot once in the back of the head.  

We next walked to Block 27.  Wojciech reminded us that all we had seen had been created by Holocaust survivors in the 1950’s. In Block 27 is an exhibit created by Yad Vahem which opened a few years ago.  In the 1970’s the Auschwitz State Museum started allowing national exhibits to be set up in different blocks.  Holland, Hungary, France and Belgium, for example, each have a special exhibit highlighting that nation’s experience during the Holocaust.  From the perspective of Israel / Yad Vahem, Wojciech said, Auschwitz-Birkenau has a special place, because it is the symbol of Jewish suffering in Europe.  Most Jews didn’t die in Auschwitz but it is symbolic of what the Holocaust means to Jews. 








The exhibit began with a quote from the diary of  Zalman Gradowski, a member of the Sondercommando.  He had kept a diary during  his time in Auschwitz and before his death, had buried his diary in the courtyard of Block 3, which was later found.   His quote said “Come here you free citizen of the world, whose life is safeguarded by human morality and whose existence is guaranteed through law.  I want to tell you how much modern criminals and despicable murderers have trampled the morality of life and nullified the postulates of existence.” 

The first room of the exhibition highlights Jewish life in Europe pre-war, with photographs and videos. The second room had monitors on which played speeches of Hitler, Goebbels, Streicher, and other Nazi leaders in an exhibit called “National Socialism”.  In the next room called “Geography of Murder” there was a large map showing the different camps [labor, transit, concentration] and the factories of death to which most of those inmates would be sent.  In this room Wojciech played for us a video on his phone that  he had just received which was a speech given by an ultra-nationalist in Sweden.  His words echoed many of those we had just heard from the Nazi leaders:  To basically cleanse their society to build a nation for the people in which they could prosper and live in peace.   It left us with a disquieting feeling.

There was a room with video testimony of survivors: “How Jews Coped During the Holocaust” and a room “Traces of Life” dedicated to the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust which has small drawings made by children in Terezin, almost all of whom perished.  

The final room is an exhibit called the Book of Names.  In a long room, a book as big as the room, fills two sides of 16,000 pages, listing the names and some information such as place of birth and birthdate, place and date of death, if these were known, of more than four million documented Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  Students spent some time looking through the pages, some looking for their own name, or the name of someone they knew. 





















Our last stop in Auschwitz I was the crematorium of the camp.  There we saw the home of the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss and the gallows where he was hanged for his war crimes on April 16, 1947.  The gallows was used once --- for his execution.  We then walked through the crematorium which was used to cremate the bodies of people who had perished in the camp and had been used as the prototype for the crematoria we would see this afternoon in Birkenau.  









We had our bag lunch sitting on the grass as our beautiful weather had returned after yesterday afternoon’s rainstorm, and then boarded the bus for a short few minute drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Mr. Barmore spent three hours showing us the death factory.  


Standing before the iconic gate, the entrance to Birkenau, Mr. Barmore said that Auschwitz in Western civilization was the symbol of evil.  He told us about the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961.  Adolf Eichmann, aide to Reinhard Heydrich, had escaped to Argentina after the war and Israel had tracked him down and brought him back to Israel for a trial  It was the first time Israeli society heard testimony from survivors about the Holocaust.  He said the Nuremberg Trials didn’t get as much attention and few survivors gave testimony.  He mentioned that one survivor at the Eichmann trial made one statement: “It was another planet,” and then fainted.  This one sentence received a lot of attention we were told, but saying it’s another planet takes away our responsibility to understand.  It’s our planet and that means it can happen here – Auschwitz-Birkenau is what people made; it’s a human experience.  And he again referenced Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil”.  


Entering Birkenau, Mr. Barmore  told us that what we were seeing as we surveyed the huge open camp was how the camp looked in 1944.  Several changes had been made to the camp in the spring of 1944 when the Nazis expected one million Hungarian Jews to be transported here.  It was then that they added the rail spur coming into the camp, preparing for the influx of prisoners. 

We visited the quarantine barracks.  Towards the end of the war, Germany needed more workers as they sent more men and young boys to the front.  Jewish workers were shipped into Germany to fulfill that need.  The problem was that these Jews coming from camps were poorly nourished and could have diseases and secondly, they were Jews:  according to Nazi racial ideology, by definition they were disease.  Germany by now was essentially ‘Judenrein’ [Jew-free] but they were essential to the war effort so they were brought here and housed [no sleeping area -  just an open space at one end and long rows of latrines at the other] for three days until they were declared disease-free and could continue their journey into Germany. 




We also saw the Czech family camp which Mr. Barmore had spoken to us about in Terezin.  The Czech Jews had been transported to Auschwitz to reduce the overcrowding prior to the Red Cross visit as part of the beautification project.  Once the visit had occurred, however, the Czech camp was liquidated and all of its 10,000 inmates sent to the gas chambers.  Again, Mr. Barmore reminded us that the last thing the Czech Jews did before entering the gas chamber, was to sing the Czech national anthem.  “People’s attitudes can change.  Before the 20th century the Czechs were tremendously antisemitic.   Then came President Tomas Masaryk who changed the attitudes of the Czechs towards the Jews and the Jews towards the Czechs.”  Positive change can happen with the right leadership.

Mr. Barmore told us of interviews conducted by historian Raoul Hilberg after the war.  He would ask people, “What was your job?’  Responses might include: “I just alerted the gate when a Jewish transport arrived,”  “I just opened the gate to let the train in”, “I just typed up the lists of people on the transport,” “I just carried the Zyklon B cans to the crematoria”, etc.   Individuals who contributed to the modern murder did not see themselves as conspirators, guilty of the murder of the Jews.  In modern murder, Mr. Barmore told us, there is a compartmentalization of the process.  It allows people to say “I didn’t kill anyone.”  So who are the killers?  Who is responsible?   Who do we put on trial?  Wojciech had told us only 10% of the SS officers had been apprehended after the war and tried in a court of law.  

Passing a large pool of water, Mr. Barmore told us it was one of two such pools, required by the German insurance company, Allianz, before it would agree to insure Auschwitz-Birkenau. This factory of death was insured against damage by fire.

Next Mr. Barmore spoke of the importance of “The Ramp” where the selection process was made determining whether one was to live or die.  He told us several emotional stories shared with him as he chronicled survivor testimony, in which they described their experiences on The Ramp.  He told us many survivors often speak of their life “before the ramp” and their “life after the ramp.”





We walked through barracks which were part of the women’s camp.  Women sometimes had a choice, we were told.  If they were young and healthy and had young children, they could choose to go with their children to the gas chamber, or leave the children in the care of a family member or others, and go into the women’s camp.  “Who are we to judge?” said Mr. Barmore.  He told us of two women who were ‘kapos’ or leaders of barracks, prisoners themselves, Dora and Tzila.  Cruelty is the only human aspect here, we were told.  The only way to keep people accountable, was through harsh treatment. Gentle persuasion could not exist in Birkenau.  


We saw the remains of the crematoria which had been destroyed by the Nazis before fleeing.  Mr. Barmore drew our attention to one beam.  The Nazis hired professionals to do their construction. This architect knew he was creating a crematorium.  It wasn’t enough to make straight, simple lines -   he put moldings on the beam to make it more beautiful.  He was concerned with aesthetics as he was making a chamber of death.  






We saw the area which had been planned for an expansion of Birkenau, to be known as Mexico, which was never completed.  We also viewed the remains of the warehouses called Canada which were massive storage buildings which housed confiscated Jewish property taken at the ramp.  


Lastly we visited the  'sauna' which served as the building where those who had been chosen to live were processed (uniforms, tattooed, shaved) and we walked through the processing rooms, and spent some time looking at the photographs displayed which had been found in peoples’ suitcases. before walking back to the bus and heading back to Krakow to rest before dinner and process all that we had heard and seen today.  




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