Posts Tagged ‘Jew’

“Arbeit macht frei” is a German expression which means “Work brings freedom”. This phrase originated from the title of a novel written by Loernz Diefenbach in 1873 and in the novel, the protagonist is a fraudster and gambler who finds the path of righteousness through proper employment. An expression which can be deemed to be mildly motivating – except when you see it written over the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp when you walk in.

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It chilled me to the bone when I read it; what struck me was not the absurdity or even the cruelty in having such a slogan at the entrance to a concentration camp where innocent people where brought in just because fate played a cruel trick on them, in the accident of birth called religion. It was a kind of prescient moment for me, it made me understand how extreme cruelty can be inflicted on fellow human beings by people deemed normal. Work! Work on improving production; work on arriving at a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”. It was just work – how to kill efficiently; how many deaths per day will help achieve the target of extermination of a race by a certain date; what can be done to ensure that a race does not survive by ensuring that its women are sterile; how much can medical science advance if it had access to enough humans whose life did not matter and hence any type of experiment could be conducted on them – it was just work. The trick was to change the complexion of the terrible acts from what it really was to “work” and the Nazis knew this and that is why they posted “Arbeit macht frei” at the entrance to all their concentration camps. And it worked; for as George Steiner said: “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning”.

Auschwitz, where approximately 1.3 million people were killed in about 3 years – that is an average of little over a thousand a day; Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi concentration turned extermination camps; Auschwitz, where Anne Frank was an inmate (though she did not die there); Auschwitz, which Viktor Frankl and Ellie Wiesel survived and wrote about; Auschwitz, a timeless reminder of the depths to which man can fall!

Auschwitz (situated near the Polish town of Oswiecim) was started as a concentration camp in 1940 and it was converted to an extermination camp in 1941. The first gas chamber was constructed here in 1941 and after the Nazis became convinced that gas chambers using the poison Zyklon B were an efficient method for mass killing, the camp was extended to include Birkenau which had four gas chambers. Over 1.3 million people are estimated to have been killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau with about 90% of them being Jews. The whole area was about 40 square kilometres with a plant for producing synthetic rubber also included in this space. Most of the tour is in the Auschwitz I camp as that is what has survived, including the gas chamber. In Birkenau (Auschwitz II) there are only a few barracks left and the gas chambers were demolished by the Nazis towards the end of the war in a desperate attempt to destroy the evidence of their heinous crimes.

We visited Auschwitz on a cold, bleak day and perhaps that was fitting to the mood of what we were about to see. The guide led us through the gates of Auschwitz and we could see a row of neatly arranged brick buildings, which looked quite peaceful and even serene. These were the barracks that prisoners were housed in.

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The visit started with a building that had a gruesome exhibit – an urn containing human ashes found in the camp.

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There were many photographs also exhibited in that building.

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The photographs were taken by the Nazis to help with documentation and were mostly about prisoners arriving at Birkenau, awaiting selection etc. A passage from Dr. Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” came to my mind about how he himself stood in such a line upon arrival at Auschwitz. The prisoners were asked to go to the right or left. Although they did not know it at that time, those sent to the left ended up in a gas chamber within a couple of hours and seventy five percent of the prisoners that arrived were sent straight to the gas chambers. The Nazis wanted all those that could not work to be killed immediately, without having the need to “waste” resources on them. Don’t be appalled, just think of it as a demonstration of efficiency!

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This image really broke my heart. If you take it out of the context, this might look like children walking in a village or out on a picnic; but this a photo of kids walking to their death. Young and innocent and yet…

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Some prisoners were chosen to help with disposing the dead bodies and they were called the “Sonderkommando”. Of course, those chosen had no option but to be part of this group and some of them tried to take photographs clandestinely to show the world the reality of Auschwitz. Such an image is shown below, of mass burning of dead bodies.

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The poison gas, Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers came in these canisters. Zyklon was used as a chemical weapon by Germany in World War I and was banned later. A chemist named Bruno Tesch and others made some modifications to use this as an effective killing agent this was named as. Zyklon B. Tesch was executed in 1946 for his role in this war crime as he knew that Zyklon B was being used to kill people.

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Prisoners were brought into the camps in railroad wagons with 80 to 100 prisoners crammed into each wagon. Mostly, they had to leave their homes with very short notice and had just a few pitiful belongings with them. Even these were taken from them when they arrived at the camp and today we can see these heaped up, as exhibits.

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Some of the stuff was used for war efforts. For instance, prisoners were shaved before they entered the gas chamber and the hair was used to make vests for soldiers. Gold teeth were pulled out and the gold reused. Of course, what use do dead men have for gold!

Initially, the Nazis used to photograph each prisoner and keep records but they stopped this when the volumes increased as Hitler moved toward the Final Solution of killing all Jews in Europe. This meant that a huge portion of the people that were killed in Auschwitz were never recorded as having arrived there as they went straight to the gas chambers. Later on, the Nazis claimed that they had no idea about these “missing Jews”, in an effort to escape punishment for this criminal act.

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Facilities for the prisoners

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The sadistic and ruthless criminals from among the prisoners were chosen to be guards called “Capos” and the Capos enjoyed some special privileges including better accommodation.

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This is Block 10 where experiments were conducted on women to see how quickly sterilization could be done. The Nazis planned to rid Europe of Slavs after the Jews were exterminated as the pure Aryan race could then thrive and have enough space for itself. The Slav population at the time was estimated to be 100 million people and they realized that killing so many people was no easy task and so they needed a multi-pronged approach. One of the ideas was to sterilize women so that there would be no progeny. Here also, volumes posed a challenge and in Block 10, they conducted experiments on the inmates to develop efficient means for sterilization. Doctors who had taken the Hippocratic Oath were the ones conducting such experiments! Such is the power of hate peddling, the power of creating an “other” – the others are not humans anymore and thus do not deserve to be treated as such and of course, the others are at fault.

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Every day, the prisoners had to assemble in a particular area where their count was taken. If there was anyone missing, the count was taken again and again till the authorities were satisfied and the prisoners had to wait in the open till then. The guide told us that this exercise went on for 9 to 10 hours at times. Many prisoners did not even have shoes and their clothing was totally and completely inadequate to meet the winter conditions when the mercury dropped well below zero. As I stood there on that slightly cold day, I couldn’t even imagine standing barefooted in the mud in those pitiful robes at minus twenty degree Celsius for hours on end. Those are hardships that can’t even be imagined.

If a prisoner was missing, his or her cell mates were taken to task, tortured or killed. The idea was to make everyone suffer if one escaped. This was a cunning method to ensure that the prisoners themselves would try to stop anyone from even thinking of escape. In such conditions as in Auschwitz, the veneer of civilization drops and man starts to focus only on the primordial instinct of survival. Dr. Frankl has mentioned about how the all pervasive thought that was foremost in every prisoner’s mind, was about food as they never had enough to eat. They were fed a coffee kind of liquid in the morning, a limited quantity of very thin soup in the afternoon and some black bread in the evening. With this diet, they were expected to do heavy labour such as creating roads, buildings etc.

Our guide mentioned that the average life expectancy of a prisoner in Auschwitz was three months! In his book “Night” Elie Wiesel speaks about how a fellow inmate advised him to forget about looking after his father and try to focus on his own survival – caring for the father being a burden in that case. Such indignity can’t even be imagined by people like us and thus the horrors of Auschwitz can never be fully understood by those that weren’t there.

Facing the square for assembly are the gallows where prisoners found guilty of serious offences were hanged.

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There were tall barbed wire fences and guard posts everywhere. Anyone approaching within a certain distance of the fence was summarily shot. Yet, some prisoners did manage to escape, such is the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

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Right next to the gas chamber is another gallows. This was where Rudolf Hoss, the longest serving Commandant of Auschwitz was hanged in 1946. He was the one who perfected the use of Zyklon B and proudly spoke about how they were able to kill 2,000 people in one hour. He repented before his death and in a farewell letter to his son he wrote: “Learn to think and judge for yourself, responsibly. Don’t accept everything without criticism and as absolutely true… The biggest mistake of my life was that I believed everything faithfully which came from the top, and I didn’t dare to have the least bit of doubt about the truth of that which was presented to me. … In all your undertakings, don’t just let your mind speak, but listen above all to the voice in your heart.” Sage advice and valid even today, maybe more so today!

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Prisoners were led to the gas chambers straight from the train. They were told they were being taken for delousing and disinfecting and since this was standard practice in camps, nobody suspected anything else and they went along peacefully. I read somewhere that an SS guard had mentioned that it was easier and faster to get people to obey if you asked them politely instead of shouting at them. Once inside the gas chamber, the prisoners all stripped down and the chamber even had fake showers. The reality sunk in only when the gas started coming out of the faucets but then, it was too late.

Entry to the gas chamber

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Plan of the chamber

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Probably, this is what many a prisoner saw as the last sight of outside world before being sealed in the chamber

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Inside the chamber

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Furnaces for burning bodies

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Birkenau is slightly far from Auschwitz and we had to catch a bus to get there. The entrance to Birkenau has a familiar look from the scenes in “Schindler’s List”.

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Prisoners were brought from various parts of Europe in wagons such as these and each wagon was filled with 80-100 prisoners.

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There were four gas chambers in Birkenau and most of the people were killed here as Auschwitz I had only one gas chamber. However, there are only a few barracks to be seen here today as the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of mass killing and dynamited all the gas chambers. The fields look very green now but the guide said that when the camp was functional, there was not a single blade of grass as the camp was overcrowded and there were people everywhere.

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Ruins of the gas chambers

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Ash from burning bodies were dumped into ponds like these

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In 1967, a monument was erected in Birkenau to serve as a reminder and warning to mankind about the horrors of Auschwitz.

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The terrible despair and sense of dejection that one feels at Auschwitz is far beyond description; my writing skills are totally inadequate to the task and I have not been able to capture even a small percentage of that horror. As one wanders through the camp the question that keeps coming up is “How”. How could a people have been so cruel? How could a people have supported such an atrocity? How could normal, respectable individuals support such inhuman crimes? How could a whole nation be brainwashed to support the bigotry of a few? I think these are very important questions and these questions need to be reflected upon by peoples of various countries even now.

This is what we have to be aware of when we see people’s minds being filled with hate for the “other” (as in India, for instance). This is what authoritarian, oppressive regimes will do and we have enough examples from the past – Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. This is what we have to guard against when we see signs of such regimes, be it in any part of the world. During the tour, our guide said: “We preserve this as a museum because the world should know that this happened and this can happen in any country, at any time”.

This is why history is important. It teaches us to be on our guard and recognize the signs of Fascism and oppression. This is why George Santayana’s quote is displayed at the entrance to the first barrack in Auschwitz: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

This is why Auschwitz should not be forgotten…