As mentioned in an earlier post, I love history and I was desperate to stand in the place where the horrific holocaust took place at Auschwitz. Dad/Rick had absolutely no interest in it and was not one bit happy about going. I would have been happy to go by myself but he insisted on going along. He was a real sport because a) he hates guided tours of any kind, b) it was miserable hot and c) his back starts bothering him when he walks a long way. But a long way we did walk, hot and squashed into a crowd with a tour guide who droned the horrific details of that cataclysmic event for several hours either inside one bleak brick building after another or outside in the hot sun. Our hosts the night before, however had said that everyone should see Auschwitz as a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and a realization of a history that should never be repeated!
My first impression was just the amazement of actually being there…on the actual site with 360 degree vision what it must have been like to be there only about 70 years ago. As we walked through the gates of Auschwitz words above the iron gate were (translated) Work Brings Freedom! What a cruel joke!
Every day the prisoners who hadn’t already been sent to the gas chambers lined up to go to work to the music of musicians who played march music in front of this building. The prisoners were counted every night and morning and if one escaped 10 people in their barracks were starved to death or shot.
These brick buildings were already built for military housing which is why they decided to start here. They look pretty nice from the outside but the stories of what went on inside were horrendous!
Our guide, an intelligent young Polish woman from a nearby village had been doing tours there for three years. How she could stand to repeat all the gruesome details over and over again was beyond me!
The faces in photos everywhere were haunting: Not a word was spoken by the people in our group. Even with thousands of people on the grounds, it was very quiet.
About 100 people were crammed onto cattle cars like this and left for the two day journey without ventilation,food, water or sanitation, shoulder to shoulder. Those who died, died standing up. There was no room to fall.
When they arrived they were told to label their baggage and leave it there. It would be transferred to their living quarters while they took their “showers” . Most never guessed that they were on their way to the gas chambers or work camps and that their belonging would be rummaged through for valuables that afternoon and stockpiled by the state. Next a commandant stood at the beginning of the line and pointed people either to the right or the left. Old people, pregnant women, babies, children too young to work and those who were sick or infirm were sent to the right with the flick of a hand. The healthy ones who looked as though they could work were sent to the left. Those to the right were sent directly to the gas chambers.
As we worked our way through the buildings I realized that our guide was telling us MUCH more than I wanted to know! When she started showing us rooms full of shoes, baggage and paraphilia left behind by the prisoners and then even a huge room full of human hair which had been shaved from their prisoner’s heads upon arrival, I started to feel whoozy. I stood by every open window available and hoped I wouldn’t pass out or throw up! It was like being in a horror movie and not being able to get out!
At first the prisoners would be sleeping on the floor with a little straw or straw mats full of insects.Then they were sent to barracks where they were stacked, five to eight people per “birth”!
Of course these places were cleaned up for tourists. As thousands more prisoners came in they had to build a whole new giant complex called Birkenau about three kilometers away where hundreds of wood barracks and many large crematoriums were build. Most of the barracks looked more like the ones below. When the roofs fell in, it snowed on the prisoners in their beds. In winter the temperatures sometimes dropped to 30 below zero. One blanket for about every five people was issued. The conditions were extremely unsanitary and the beds were filthy. When a prisoner died for whatever reason, his old clothes were issued to the next prisoner without ever seeing the laundry.
I will spare you hundreds of other details that you don’t want to know and the ones that I wish I didn’t. It was an unbelievable display of man’s inhumanity to man! What always amazes us is that so few Germans had enough of a conscience or a sense of right and wrong to bring themselves to report what was going on or try to help in some way. The guides said that the propaganda was introduced one step at a time until stupid soldiers as well as commanders really told themselves to believe that Jews were no better then insects. Many cruel and evil men must have stayed awake nights thinking of ways to torture and execute these good people, all with interesting lives and stories of their own.
It was eerie to go up and down these stairs that had been used by literally hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
When the Nazis could see that the war was going to end, they blew up the cremetoriums at burned or destroyed most of the barracks at Birkenau to try to get rid of the evidence of all the evil they had done.
Just before the war ended, eighty thousand prisoners were rounded up for what is now known as the Death March. Most of them perished in the freezing cold of mid-winter, many without shoes.
On January 27th only about 7,000 emaciated prisoners with vacant eyes were liberated by the Russian army. The horror of Auschwitz haunted them for the rest of their lives.
There is a memorial at Birkenou to all those who lost their lives (and/or their minds) in this chamber of horrors!
What a tragic chapter in our world’s history! Dad/Rick did survive….though not unscathed, and I learned much more than I wanted to know. I was profoundly moved by sadness as I reflected on the horrors of this war and the outrageous evil that is brought about by those who somehow rationalize genocide…and those who blindly follow. It brought back memories of what I know about the recent genocide attempts in Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone and so many other places in the world.. It’s just beyond understanding.
I will ever be grateful that I have not faced war first-hand and though we were personally saved by fate not to come face to face with the Viet Nam War, we did lose friends there. So many good people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout history the numbers who died through misled men and their cruelty are countless. As Desmund Tutu once said at an International Conference that Richard attended, “There will never be peace among nations until women run the world. They would never send their sons to war!”
I came out of that experience with such a profound sense of gratitude….for those whose lives were taken and the lives of all those who would have come after them. I try to remember how blessed I am for many reasons but it’s hard to be properly grateful for that until I are jolted into something like this. Thinking of my own children, my grandchildren, grandparents, cousins and friends being yanked out of their everyday life and thrown into this nightmare blows ones mind. The memory of that day somehow makes me a little more grateful for every one of my days on earth.