Frozen in memory

Last Updated 26 July 2014, 20:10 IST

The Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland is a reminder of what evil can perpetuate. Ranjita Biswas revisits one of the most painful & violent chapters  in history.

Auschwitz, the name has been emblazoned in shame and outrage since the end of the Second World War. So many lives were snuffed out in this concentration camp in Poland during the holocaust of the 1940s that, it has become a subject of numerous books, research-tomes and script for movies like the Oscar winning Schindler’s List.

The wish to visit Auschwitz, now an open-air museum, was always there. Not as a ‘tourist’, but to pray for the souls lost in a barbaric act. So I left behind historic Krakow, one-time capital of Poland, to witness with my own eyes this infamous place.
The camp has not been dismantled, but preserved as a museum by the Polish government since 1947. In 1979, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage site.

Horrors of holocaust

True, war always takes a toll on human lives. The pages of history tell you that. But herding people like cattle with the intention of murdering them inhumanly in a gas chamber stands out as an example of co-ordinated evil.

The genocide by Nazi Germany killed an estimated 1.5 million people at Auschwitz. The world came to know about the extent of the monstrous act in January 1945, when Soviet soldiers walked into the camp to encounter skeletal men in striped pajamas who had survived, their numbers tattooed on their wrists.

You may have seen television features or documentaries, even movies on the subject, but it still does not prepare you for Auschwitz. Ironically, the inscription at the entrance to the camp proclaims: “Arbeit macht frei” (Work will make you free). Indeed when the people were brought here from Nazi-occupied Europe, most of them were unaware of the fate that had awaited them; they thought they were brought here to work in the fields and “resettled”. Later, prisoners called it the “Gate of Death”.

Auschwitz was a new name given by the invading German army. Formerly, it was called Oswiecim, a barrack for the Polish army. The SS turned it into Polish political prisoner camp in 1940, but later it was turned into a concentration camp. In 1941, three kilometres away, the Nazis evicted all the people from village Brzezinka, destroyed their houses, and built the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp.

According to Reminiscences, the autobiography of Rudolf  Hoss, the first camp commandant, SS boss Himmler chose Auschwitz “both because of its convenient location as regards communication and because the area can be easily isolated and camouflaged ” by the surrounding forests. 

Today, as visitors from across the world walk past the houses containing the memorabilia, some reconstructed, there is only silence, not the touristy chatter, as people get dumbfounded by an atrocity modern world has seldom seen.

The multi-lingual guides point out the exhibits — photographs of prisoners meticulously recorded with German precision, empty Zyklon-B canisters, which contained chemicals used in gas chambers, piled up hair of women prisoners, shoes which once adorned the feet of fashionable ladies and children.

Painful reminders

A suitcase bears the name: Jnes Meyer, Koln 05377, lying among many similar abandoned bags bearing the owners’ names. Thousands of Jews, Russian prisoners of war, Gypsies and those considered by the Nazis as ‘unfit to live’ were gassed, shot, tortured to death, or simply starved to death here. Many gave in to diseases in the cloistered barracks.

Outside in the courtyard, there is a wall pockmarked with bullet marks, reminder of the prisoners executed. Flowers by visitors contrast brightly against the stark wall. Also, there are the poles from which prisoners were hanged, for trying to flee, or helping someone to flee. At the gate near the kitchen, a band was made to play, so that the prisoners could march and it was easier for the guards to head-count.

After Auschwitz I, the bus took us to Birkenau. The ominous fences which were electrified then, the stilted guard houses seen in many films can be startling even today. I could feel an unknown dread creeping into my veins; it felt cold though the grass was green in the fields and the sunlight was flooding everything in a golden light.

From the watchtower at the entrance gate the view of the concentration camp looked as if  frozen in memory. The railway tracks by which the prisoners were brought in boxed-up in compartments were still there. I saw that someone had put a bunch of yellow roses on the track, perhaps for a forefather annihilated here.

On arrival, the prisoners were ‘selected’ and segregated into groups; the old, pregnant women, even children, who were of ‘no use’, were sent directly to the gas chamber. The able-bodied men were retained for work; as also young women, some of whom could later be used as guinea pigs for experiments by doctors and psychiatrists.

A German gynaecologist, Carl Clauberg, carried out sterilisation experiments on women prisoners. Ironically, photographs taken by some unknown German soldiers, the reels of which survived the burning of documents before the Nazis flew, stand testimony to this selection process. 

The living quarters, some of which are still there, show how bunkers were built into stables meant for horses; each wooden bunker sometimes accommodated more than 10 inmates. Holes in rows on stone slabs with no privacy served as toilets, obviously an ideal place for festering diseases and death.

George Santayana’s words at Auschwitz kept repeating in my mind as I boarded the bus for Krakow: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

(Published 26 July 2014, 13:34 IST)

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