Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year. It’s a time for everyone to pause to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. On HMD we can honour the survivors of these regimes and challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today. 27 January marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.
How can life go on? is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2017.
The aftermath of the Holocaust and of subsequent genocides continues to raise challenging questions for individuals, communities and nations. HMD 2017 asks audiences to think about what happens after genocide and of our own responsibilities in the wake of such a crime. This year’s theme is broad and open ended, there are few known answers.
Author and survivor of the Holocaust Elie Wiesel has said:
‘For the survivor death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.’
The term ‘genocide’ was first used in 1933, in a paper presented to the League of Nations by the Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin. He devised the concept in response to the atrocities perpetrated against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1918.
The term holocaust originally derived from the Greek word holókauston ( ὁλόκαυστος ), meaning a “completely (holos) burnt (kaustos)” sacrificial offering to a god. Its Latin form (holocaustum) was first used with specific reference to a massacre of Jews at York in England by the chroniclers Roger of Howden and Richard of Devizes in the 1190s. The biblical word Shoah (שואה) (also spelled Sho’ah and Shoa), meaning “calamity,” became the standard Hebrew term for the Holocaust as early as the 1940s. Shoah is preferred by many Jews for a number of reasons, including the theologically offensive nature of the word holocaust, as a Greek pagan custom. But the ancient Greek meaning of the word seemed terribly apt as we headed the 60km or so from Krakow to the Polish town of Oswiecim to pay our respects to the victims at the mass murder site of Auschwitz – Birkenau where so many bodies of the victims were burnt in crematoria.
There have been genocides in history, the 8 million South American indigenous people’s estimated to have perished in silver mines in Bolivia and in the 20th Century and before WWII writers such as Winston Churchill used the terms to describe the destruction by the dying Ottoman Empire of the Armenian population of Turkey, as well as the attempted destruction of the Greek and Assyrian populations, a process observed by a joint Germano-Austrian military mission. But what makes the Nazi Holocaust of Jews and others in Germany and 23 occupied and allied countries unique is the scale, the premeditation and the sheer cold ruthlessness and cruelty in implementing the policy for a “Final Solution” agreed at the Wanesee Conference in 1942. Every arm of Nazi Germany’s bureaucracy was involved in the logistics of the mass murder, turning the country into what one Holocaust scholar has called “a genocidal state”. But, before all this happened the German public had come to accept the “Fog and Night” killings of the Nazi’s political opponents and the killing of 70,000 disabled and mentally ill people in the name of racial purity. Before all this happened the Nazi Reich had turned hospitals into places where people were murdered and Courts into places where the Law was denied. As Churchill was later to declare about the Holocaust; “… and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe.”
Konzentrationslager Dachau was the first concentration camp established in Nazi Germany – the camp was opened on March 22, 1933. The camp’s first inmates were primarily political prisoners, Social Democrats, Communists, trade unionists, habitual criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, beggars, vagrants, hawkers.
In the late 1930’s the Nazis killed thousands of handicapped Germans by lethal injection and poisonous gas. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, mobile killing units following in the wake of the German Army began shooting massive numbers of Jews and Gypsies in open fields and ravines on the outskirts of conquered cities and towns.
Eventually the Nazis created a more secluded and organised method of killing. Extermination centres were established in occupied Poland with special apparatus especially designed for mass murder. Six such death camps existed: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Large-scale murder by gas and body disposal through cremation was conducted systematically by the Nazis and Adolf Hitler’s SS men. Victims were deported to these centres from Western Europe and from the ghettos in Eastern Europe which the Nazis had established. In addition, millions died in the ghettos and concentration camps as a result of forced labour, starvation, exposure, brutality, disease, and execution.
You can read all you want and see as many documentaries as you want but nothing quite prepares you for the experience of visiting the profane cruelty of Auschwitz and the scale and bleakness of the killing machine known as Birkenau 3km away.
All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. It was established by Germans in 1940, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a Polish city that was annexed to the Third Reich by the Nazis. Its name was changed to Auschwitz, which also became the name of Konzentrationslager Auschwitz. The direct reason for the establishment of the camp was the fact that mass arrests of Poles were increasing beyond the capacity of existing “local” prisons. Initially, Auschwitz was to be one more concentration camp of the type that the Nazis had been setting up since the early 1930s. It functioned in this role throughout its existence, even when, beginning in 1942, it also became the largest of the death camps.
At first sight Auschwitz I looks disarmingly normal, a Polish Army Barracks of 20 barrack buildings built in the 1920s to which the Germans added a further 8 brick built barracks in the same style. But here you find horrifying stories of Auschwitz-Birkenau and a clique of fanatical, ruthless SS-men. And you find stories to bear witness to goodness – in Auschwitz the missionary Jane Haining refused to reject her children and showed herself to be a saint. And Oscar Schindler came to Auschwitz to save 300 Schindler-women from certain death. He managed to do it – the only shipment out of the Nazi death camp during WW2.
In his book Sheltering The Jews the Holocaust historian Mordecai Paldiel later wrote:
“Never before in history had children been singled out for destruction for no other reason than having been born. Children, of course, were no match for the Nazis’ mighty and sophisticated killing machine ..”
Prisoners at Auschwitz were slowly and systematically starved, and their pitiful rations were barely enough to sustain a child: one cup of imitation coffee in the morning, and weak soup and half a loaf of bread after work. When food was brought, everyone struggled to get his place and be sure of a portion.
The Auschwitz concentration camp complex of over 40 camps was the largest of its kind established by the Nazi regime. It included three main camps, all of which deployed incarcerated prisoners at forced labour. One of them also functioned for an extended period as a killing centre. The camps were located approximately 60 kms west of Krakow, near the pre-war German-Polish border in Upper Silesia, an area that Nazi Germany annexed in 1939 after invading and conquering Poland. The SS authorities established three main camps near the Polish city of Oswiecim: Auschwitz I in May 1940; Auschwitz II (also called Auschwitz-Birkenau) in early 1942; and Auschwitz III (also called Auschwitz-Monowitz) in October 1942.
Auschwitz I, the main camp, was the first camp established near Oswiecim. Construction began in May 1940 in an abandoned Polish army artillery barracks, located in a suburb of the city. The SS authorities continuously deployed prisoners at forced labour to expand the physical contours of the camp. During the first year of the camp’s existence, the SS and police cleared a zone of approximately 40 square kilometres’ (15.44 square miles) as a “development zone” reserved for the exclusive use of the camp. The first prisoners at Auschwitz included German prisoners transferred from Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany, where they had been incarcerated as repeat criminal offenders, and Polish political prisoners from Lodz via Dachau concentration camp and from Tarnow in Krakow District of the Generalgouvernement (that part of German occupied-Poland not annexed to Nazi Germany, linked administratively to German East Prussia, or incorporated into the German-occupied Soviet Union).
Similar to most German concentration camps, Auschwitz I was constructed to serve three purposes:
1) Incarcerate real and perceived enemies of the Nazi regime and the German occupation authorities in Poland for an indefinite period of time;
2) To have available a supply of forced labourers for deployment in SS-owned, construction-related enterprises (and, later, armaments and other war-related production); and
3) To serve as a site to physically eliminate small, targeted groups of the population whose death was determined by the SS and police authorities to be essential to the security of Nazi Germany.
Like most other concentration camps, Auschwitz I had a gas chamber and crematorium. Initially, SS engineers constructed an improvised gas chamber in the basement of the prison block, Block 11. Later a larger, permanent gas chamber was constructed as part of the original crematorium in a separate building outside the prisoner compound. At Auschwitz I, SS physicians carried out medical experiments in the hospital, Barrack (Block) 10. They conducted pseudo scientific research on infants, twins, and dwarfs, and performed forced sterilizations, castrations, and hypothermia experiments on adults. The best-known of these physicians was SS Captain Dr. Josef Mengele. Between the crematorium and the medical-experiments barrack stood the “Black Wall,” where SS guards executed thousands of prisoners.
Auschwitz-Birkenau also contained the facilities for a killing centre. It played a central role in the German plan to kill the Jews of Europe. During the summer and autumn of 1941, Zyklon B gas was introduced into the German concentration camp system as a means for murder. At Auschwitz I, in September, the SS first tested Zyklon B as an instrument of mass murder. The “success” of these experiments led to the adoption of Zyklon B for all the gas chambers at the Auschwitz complex.
Near Birkenau, the SS initially converted two farmhouses for use as gas chambers. “Provisional” gas chamber I went into operation in January 1942 and was later dismantled. Provisional gas chamber II operated from June 1942 through the fall of 1944. The SS judged these facilities to be inadequate for the scale of gassing they planned at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Four large crematorium buildings were constructed between March and June 1943. Each had three components: a disrobing area, a large gas chamber, and crematorium ovens. The SS continued gassing operations at Auschwitz-Birkenau until November 1944.
In July 1942 Heinrich Himmler again visited Auschwitz. There were approximately 30,000 inmates there at the time, most of them Jews and Polish political prisoners. He inspected the main camp, the expansion at Birkenau, and the synthetic rubber factory being built in nearby Monowitz. Himmler also witnessed the gassing of Jews, and he promoted Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz’s commandant, to SS Lieutenant Colonel.
Sixty miles northeast of Warsaw, the SS built a death factory called Treblinka. Unlike Auschwitz, its only purpose was to kill people. Ultimately, about 800,000 Jews, many of them deportees from the Warsaw ghetto, were gassed or shot there. It was second only to Auschwitz as the most murderous place in the Nazi state. A clearing in a forest and memorial stones are all that is left of it today.
New arrivals at Auschwitz-Birkenau underwent “Selection” on the Judenrampe, the platform where the trains halted after going into the camp through the “Gate of Death.” To be sent to the right meant slave labour; to the left, the gas chambers. The SS staff determined the majority to be unfit for forced labour and sent them immediately to the gas chambers, which were disguised as shower installations to mislead the victims. The belongings of those gassed were confiscated and sorted in the “Kanada” (Canada) warehouse for shipment back to Germany. Canada symbolized wealth to the prisoners. The vast majority of the victims – who came from both Western and Eastern Europe including Belgium, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and other countries – were unaware of their destination and of their fate. They were transported like animals in cattle-cars and arrived in a state of total collapse to the camp. Most of the people actually never really entered the camp, but just crossed it on the way to the gas chambers.
The dehumanised minority often became registered prisoners with shaved heads in striped uniforms. Jews chosen for slave labor were stripped of everything, including outward differentiation between male and female. Prisoners’ personal identities were taken mainly by the act of tattooing their arms with numbers – replacing their personal names. As you walk about Birkenau it is not difficult to picture the squalor and anguish that victims had to endure. The living accommodation tended to be built like makeshift barns. There were no foundations, and little defence against the elements. Unsurprisingly, inmates were plagued by ill-health – the bitterness of the Polish winter must have been unbearable.
During the Holocaust, concentration camp prisoners received tattoos only at one location, the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, which consisted of Auschwitz I (Main Camp), Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz and the sub camps). Incoming prisoners were assigned a camp serial number which was sewn to their prison uniforms. Only those prisoners selected for work were issued serial numbers; those prisoners sent directly to the gas chambers were not registered and received no tattoos.
Initially, the SS authorities marked prisoners who were in the infirmary or who were to be executed with their camp serial number across the chest with indelible ink. As prisoners were executed or died in other ways, their clothing bearing the camp serial number was removed. Given the mortality rate at the camp and practice of removing clothing, there was no way to identify the bodies after the clothing was removed. Hence, the SS authorities introduced the practice of tattooing in order to identify the bodies of registered prisoners who had died.
On October 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after learning that they were going to be killed. During the uprising, the prisoners killed three guards and blew up the crematorium and adjacent gas chamber. The prisoners used explosives smuggled into the camp by Jewish women who had been assigned to forced labour in a nearby armaments factory. The Germans crushed the revolt and killed almost all of the prisoners involved in the rebellion. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives into the camp were publicly hanged in early January 1945.
With the Soviet Army fast approaching the fit Auschwitz prisoners were led onto evacuation marches to other camps westwards with many dying or shot enroute. In January 1945, the SS set about their final steps to remove the evidence of the crimes they had committed in the camp. They made bonfires of documents on the camp streets. They blew up crematoria II and III, which had already been partially dismantled, on January 20, and crematorium V, still in operational condition, on January 26. On January 23, they set fire to “Kanada II,” the complex of storage barracks holding property plundered from the victims of extermination. The almost 9 thousand prisoners left behind in the Main Camp (Stammlager), Birkenau, and the sub-camps as unfit to join the evacuation march found themselves in an uncertain situation. The majority of them were sick or suffering from exhaustion. The SS intended to eliminate these prisoners, and only fortunate coincidences prevented them from doing so. The SS did manage to murder about 700 Jewish prisoners in Birkenau and the sub-camps in Wesoła (Fürstengrube), Gliwice (Glewitz IV), Czechowice (Tschechowitz-Vacuum) and Blachownia Śląska (Blechhammer) between the departure of the final evacuation column and the arrival of the Red Army.
On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Monowitz and liberated around 7,000 prisoners, most of whom were ill and dying. It is estimated that the SS and police deported at a minimum 1.3 million people to Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945. Of these, the camp authorities murdered 1.1 million. The Soviets were stunned by what they discovered as like most of the outside world the did not realise the scale of the Auschwitz complex which from the air looked like labour camps for the many factories set up by IG Fahren and other German companies in this industrial region of East Silesia. They conducted 534 autopsies on bodies they found and set up a Commision of Enquiry to document what had been found.
— Andrew Schapiro (@AndySchapiro) January 27, 2017
Auschwitz is not an easy place to visit but it is a visit which must be made. Each of the barracks at Auschwitz I is a memorial to a different aspect of the Holocaust, for instance one is a monument to Slovakian Jews, another to the Romany who perished here. It is difficult to preserve because obviously it is a memorial and the Polish authorities don’t want to enhance the site in anyway but rather preserve it as a testimony to the victims and a resource for study and research. For me some three aspects stood out.
Firstly, the cruel and callous way the victims were “harvested” by the Nazis. Their hair was shorn and made into cloth, socks etc. They were stripped naked and their clothes and shoes sent back to the Reich to be used by the German population. Their possessions were looted and dealt with the same way. And worst of all after being killed their eye glasses; prosthetics and teeth fillings were systematically removed by other prisoners who were obtaining a temporary reprieve from the same fate.
Secondly there was the whole system of slave labour where major companies (many of which still exist) paid the SS for labour and the contracts which compensated them when prisoners were executed. The same contracts also called for the labour to be in good condition so those who were sick or weak were “culled”, sent to the gas chambers or beaten to death by the Kapo, German criminals who were the most brutal guards.
Lastly there were the deliberate policies of humiliating the prisoners and stripping them of the last vestiges of human dignity. The roll calls, the use of dogs, and the 40 seconds you were allowed morning and evening to use the communal toilets, the roll calls in freezing weather for hours on end, the thin striped pyjama uniforms, the public executions and the constant violence. This is most apparent midst the bleakness of Birkenau where 400 prisoners were accommodated in 300 wooden “huts” with no services which were originally pre-fabricated German Army stables for 56 horses each.
Despite the fact that the tens of thousands of prisoners who survived Auschwitz were witnesses to the crimes committed there; despite the fact that they left behind thousands of depositions, accounts, and memoirs; despite the fact that considerable quantities of documents, photographs, and material objects remain from the camp—despite all of this, there are people and organizations who deny that hundreds of thousands of people were murdered in this camp, that gas chambers operated there, or that the crematoria could burn several thousand corpses per day. In other words, they deny that Auschwitz was the scene of genocide.
“It was not long before I was assigned to supervise the luggage collection of an incoming transport. When this was over, it was just like a fairground, there was lots of rubbish left and amongst this rubbish were ill people, those unable to walk. And the way these people were treated really horrified me. For example, a child who was lying there naked was simply pulled by the legs and chucked into a lorry to be driven away, and when it screamed like a sick chicken, then they bashed it against the edge of the lorry, so it shut up.
We were convinced by our world view that we had been betrayed by the entire world, and that there was a great conspiracy of the Jews against us. The children, they’re not the enemy at the moment. The enemy is the blood inside them. The enemy is the growing up to be a Jew that could become dangerous. And because of that the children were included as well. I see it as my task, now at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened.
And that’s why I am here today.
Because I want to tell those deniers: I have seen the gas chambers, I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits – and I want you to believe me that these atrocities happened.
I was there.”
Oskar Gröning: SS Garrison, Auschwitz
Over a million people were slaughtered here, 80% of them when they first arrived here. The vast majority of the victims, roundly 90% were Jews, 430,000 from Hungary and 330,000 from Poland. Also killed here were 22,000 Roma, Poles including many clergy, political prisoners, Gays and Soviet prisoners of war who were first used in the experiments with Zyklon-B, the “cost efficient” poison gas used to kill 800 people at a time. Our Polish guide Lukas was passionate that the memory of this crime scene must never be forgotten and when asked why he worked showing visitors around Auschwitz and Birkenau mentioned that his Great-Grand father had been a prisoner here and like many Poles is bitter that the companies which used slave labour are still trading and are now considered respectable.
“When they were leading him to the gallows, Höss looked calm. I thought as he climbed to the gallows, up the steps—knowing him to be a Nazi, a hardened party member—that he would say something. Like make a statement to the glory of the Nazi ideology that he was dying for. But no. He didn’t say a word. And during the execution you thought: One life for so many millions of people, is that not too little?”
“One woman approached me as she walked past and pointed to her four children who were manfully helping the smallest ones over the rough ground and whispered, ‘How can you bring yourself to kill such beautiful darling children? Have you no heart at all?”
– Memoirs of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz
Reading in July 1944 the first detailed account of Auschwitz, Churchill wrote:
“There is no doubt this is the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilised men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe. It is quite clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death after their association with the murders has been proved.”
The words of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Auschwitz Holocaust survivor, stand as a testament to why we must never forget this dark period of human history:
“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.”
Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface to the New Translation (New York: Hill and Wang, c2006), page xv.
In 1933 nine million Jews lived in the countries of Europe that would be military occupied by Nazi Germany. By 1945 two out of every three Jews had been killed. 1.5 million Children were murdered – more than 1.2 million Jewish children, tens of thousands of Gypsy children and thousands of handicapped children.
— HMDT (@HMD_UK) January 27, 2017
In the words of the Holocaust survivor Abel Herzberg:
“There were not six million Jews murdered; there was one murder, six million times.”
Remember the Shoah and respect the memory of the victims.
“in the world which will be renewed”
“בְּעָלְמָא דְהוּא עָתִיד לְאִתְחַדָּתָא”
In writing this piece as well as information from the Auschwitz site I’ve relied upon and quoted from some of the extensive resources and documentation which is available to ensure the victims and the lessons of history are not forgotten.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority
Jewish Virtual Library
The pathos of Jewish Kos
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.