Denver Bar Association
February 2010
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Remember, and Tell People What You Saw Here

by Doug McQuiston

Main gate of Auschwitz Concentration Camp


Main barracks path at Auschwitz

"Arbeit Macht Frei." Although it was a warm day, a shiver passed through my spine as I snapped the picture at the main gate of Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

"Work makes you free."

Our young Polish tour guide, Lukasz, explained the evil meaning behind the sign as we stood under it. "My group," he said in accented, but fluent, English. "Imagine if you can, what it must have felt like to walk under this sign in the dead of the Polish winter. You would have hoped the sign meant you had been taken to a work camp, and might survive. You would find out, only too late, that it was one of many cruel hoaxes the Nazis played in the camps."

The Nazis installed the sign over the gate so entering prisoners would be tricked into passivity. By the time they learned their real fate, it was too late.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp didn’t look like what my wife and I had pictured a Nazi death camp to be. It looked more like the military barracks it was before the Nazis conquered Poland in 1940. It was easy to see how arriving Jews might have thought they had arrived at a work camp.

But Auschwitz I, and its counterpart, the far larger Auschwitz II – Birkenau, were no work camps. By the time the war ended in 1945, more than six million Jews, and hundreds of thousands of other innocent victims, were killed in these and other Nazi death factories. Auschwitz – Birkenau was one of the largest, responsible for more than 1.1 million deaths. 

"My group," Lukasz said, as he gestured down the path that separated the Auschwitz I barracks, "Auschwitz is not what you expected, yes? It is the first of the two camps here, and much smaller. When we get to Birkenau, you will see what you expected to see." 

Even his warning that we would not believe the evil our eyes would see, couldn’t prepare us for Birkenau.

In 1942, the Nazis destroyed an entire village located a mile away from Auschwitz I to clear space for Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Hitler’s deputy, Heinrich Himmler, designed Birkenau as a purpose-built death camp, scaled to be large enough for Hitler’s "final solution." The trains arrived night and day, seven days a week, loaded with Jews rounded up throughout Europe. The trains pulled straight into the gates to the "selection ramp." There, at a small wooden structure in the middle of the huge complex, whole families were split apart by SS officers standing near the trains, gesturing to their left or right with their riding crops.

 



Main gate and rail spur at Auschwitz II — Birkenau
Guard tower at Auschwitz II — Birkenau

It was impossible to grasp the sheer scale of Birkenau until we saw it. We looked out at hundreds of barracks and ruins of barracks, stretching for miles in both directions from the rail spur.

At the selection ramp, Lukasz told us a shocking truth about this huge camp: less than 20 percent of the people brought to Birkenau survived the first "selection." As vast as Birkenau’s miles of barracks were, more than 80 percent of the people the SS dragged off the cattle cars never saw the inside of one. Instead, on arrival, they immediately were directed into huge gas chambers at the end of the rails, under the pretense of going to the "delousing showers."

 

Forcing other Jews to take part in the process was another way the SS controlled prisoners. The "Sonderkommando" were other Jewish inmates, who were selected by the SS and forced to lie to incoming prisoners and assist with

the extermination. Inmates would be more likely to believe other Jews than the guards themselves. They directed the prisoners into changing rooms. They told them to fold their clothes neatly, so they could pick them up when their "showers" were done and then receive their "work assignments." Then, the prisoners were pushed into the gassing rooms, which featured fake shower heads for effect. The doors were slammed and locked behind them. SS guards dropped Zyklon-B gas pellets into the chambers from pipes in the roof. The prisoners died, packed hundreds to a chamber, their screams drowned out by the sound of the flames from the adjacent crematoria. This process went on at Birkenau, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for more than two years.

 

Those who survived the first selection were herded into barracks built from old plans for German cavalry stables. The buildings were each designed to hold 50 horses. The Nazis packed more than 1,000 people into each one. People were assigned to bunks, stacked floor to ceiling, ten to twelve to a bunk.

Those who made it to the barracks worked as slaves for as long as their meager rations could sustain them. When they could no longer work, they too met their fate in the gas chambers, without even the slight comfort of the pretense that they were "showers."

 


Guard tower at Auschwitz II — Birkenau

Himmler’s "final solution" very nearly succeeded. By the end of the war, two out of every three Jews in Europe had been killed.

We concluded our tour at the ruins of the crematoria near the back of the vast camp. There, Lukasz told us the story of his grandfather. A Polish academic and political activist, he was imprisoned in Auschwitz after the Nazis conquered Poland. He survived Auschwitz and the cruelty of the Nazis. Decades later, he took his young grandson to Auschwitz as soon as he was old enough. At the end of that first tour, his grandfather told him, "Remember this, and tell people what you saw here."

"So, my group," Lukasz said. "That is why I am a guide at Auschwitz. It is now your duty to remember this, and go tell people what you saw here."

Our journey to the camps was one everyone should try to make once in their lives. We owe that much to those who perished. We can still hear their voices, and the voices of those who survived, in the camps. We can remember. And we can tell what we saw.

 


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