Seventy years of horror ago today, on January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops, a day commemorated around the world.
On December 24th, my daughter, Korey, and I had the opportunity to tour Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau Concentration Camps. Just 62 kilometers/39 miles from Krakow, Poland a campus of inhumanity unfolds in now quiet rows of brick buildings. Over the entrance of Auschwitz I is a wrought iron banner which says “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Translated: “Work makes one free.” Hardly. How is it that Krakow/Crakow can be so charming and historic; the people so gentle-speaking and yet, down the road is the horror of the Nazi effort during World War II, where millions were gassed, gunned, starved and beaten to death. The development of Auschwitz (which happened quickly) was astounding – both in size and the evil thought that went into planning it. Prisoners were forced to build the crematoriums, in which they would soon meet their death. There aren’t words. Oddly enough, display cases, which held evidence of the carnage, struck my core. The contents from thousands of suitcases are separated into hair brushes, combs, eyeglasses (all wire-rimmed), adult and children’s shoes, prosthetics, and the hideousness of hair, shaven off the victims, upon entry. Mixing bowls, sterling sugar and creamer bowls and other items used in daily living really created chills up and down my spine. People herded to camps seriously thought they were setting up for a new life. The innocence hurts my heart.
Our Polish tour guide, Kate, spoke flawless English. I told her about my dad, who as a P.O.W. in the Battle of the Bulge, had lived in similar barracks, sleeping on straw covered concrete, mattresses of straw, or bunks of thin plywood. We saw a barrack of latrines that thousands could use, but just twice a day. Otherwise, there was a bucket in the corner of their sleeping rooms, which 70-100 prisoners would have to use. Yes, the same bucket. I can’t think about it, it’s so animalistic. A box car still sits on the tracks, in memory of those herded to camp by train.
Both civilians and military prisoners were starved on grass soup or dirty rotten potatoes. (My dad rapidly lost 60+ pounds.) We saw solitary confinement, which were purposely in total darkness, or standup cells, where prisoners were forced to stay awake and erect for hours.
Many prisoners were led to the shower building with the knowledge that one of two things would come from above them; either a shower of water or gas. We were taken into one shower room, but they didn’t even install dummy shower heads, just a hole in the ceiling where the Zyklon-B gas was injected into the room. Understand there were no survivors. To take it one step darker, the Crematory was connected to the showers for quick disposal. Except the ovens couldn’t keep up. Guess who they made build more? Yep, the prisoners. The prisoners building their own death trap. Unthinkable. Yet, it happened. Repeatedly, for years. The Nazis intended to kill so many thousands at these two locations only that they ended up shutting down the showers and just built more Crematories.
If you didn’t succumb to gas, you were probably going to starve, get sick or be tortured through work or worse. The average length of life, once a prisoner entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, was three months. As we completed our tour, I commented to Korey, “I can’t imagine how anyone could survive physically or emotionally in a nightmare like this. I guess it takes a strong will to live.”
“Or hope,” Korey added.
Yet, there are many stories of survival. Not as many as we wish. Jeff didn’t need to experience the tour, so he didn’t go with us to Poland. Korey and I needed to see it. I felt as if I could better envision the conditions in which my father was forced to live for six months, and that is a complete disconnect for my brain. Honestly, I don’t know how any survivor goes on to live somewhat of a normal life. God bless these survivors. I bought a book in the Camp’s bookstore by Victor Frankl, survivor, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I recommend it, if you have questions about this experience.
And for those individuals who don’t believe the Holocaust happened, I may have to buy a one-way trip to one of the camp for a tour of education. It’s one way, because as far as I’m concerned, they deserve to stay there until they understand this was real. Never again.
“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” unknown
7 replies on “SEVENTY YEARS OF HORROR AGO”
What terrible, horrific, unfathomable, and inhumane crimes occurred at Auschwitz. Thank you for sharing your visit and your thoughts on touring the place. We continue to be reminded of the depth and horror of what other humans did to humans. How could it happen? And scenes like these exist across the world in Africa, Asia, and other small places we don’t hear about.
One of our history teachers said…Very cool! I shared this with my class today.
Fabulous post and book recommendation. I have read it several times.
Thank you for wanting to see it, wanting to know, and conveying so much to your readers in this post. In my classics book group, we read the book you mention–so much, in spare wording. And one person in that class was 18 yrs old when he was sent to see the places you speak of, and more of them too, for evidence to be presented in the trials, in several places. He is now 70, and speaking about it, 50+years later, he was soft-spoken, but very well spoken, and he began crying. He said he had seen man’s inhumanity to man, up close, and it is still with him. To the people who think this never happened, I second your notion, let’s send them to what you saw and make them stay a bit, and have them read some books, and see some videos the survivors have made. A myth? Go see it.
Thank you Bobbe, for sharing your visit. A horrific place but a place that needs to be the reminder of our history.
On this Day of Remembrance, Dave and I attended a Screening of the documentary “Testimony to Truth” presented and done by the Holocaust Museum of Naples, FL. It was the personal stories of 5 Holocaust survivors and 1 liberator. They have interviewed nearly 100 survivors in SW FL and will eventually produce 5 more documentaries. Their overall goal is to educate middle school and older kids in the area. We also have visited Auschwitz and Birkenau and the emotions are life changing. Thanks for sharing your experience – Jan Hummel
Thank you for writing of your experience visiting these places. It is hard, but good for us to remember the reality of these things so that we can make sure they donât happen again.