Robbed of a future

Robbed of a future

The sign in Auschwitz reminds one that those who do not remember history are bound to live through it again. Sanjay Austa writes about this gruesome reality

The cattle-wagon on which the victims were brought to Auschwitz

I board the bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Krakow and immediately the driver plays Auschwitz on the TV, a primer perhaps, before we see the real thing. But the prisoners arrived to this death factory on trains, herded together like animals in cattle wagons. They came standing, some of them for days, packed together like sardines, without food, water or hope. A bucket in the corner for toilet, if they could reach it at all. 

On disembarkment, at Auschwitz II, they encountered an atmosphere of deathly calm and an odour of burning flesh. The SS men, with vicious dogs straining at the leash, summarily examined them and on the basis of their usefulness decided, which ones of them would be exterminated immediately and which ones would be sent to hard labour — to die a slow excruciating death.

This evil is exhibited in all its gory detail in Auschwitz I and outside its famous gates — the gate with the wavy metal sign proclaiming in German, ‘work will set you free’.  

The Zyklon-B canisters
The Zyklon-B canisters

On peak days, Auschwitz gets as many as 30,000 visitors. The worn off stairs of the buildings bear testament to that. This year, on January 27, Auschwitz commemorated 75th year of its liberation by the Red Army. Survivors, most of them in their 90s, gathered here with dignitaries from over 50 countries to remember, and be reminded, as the sign here reminds you; “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

While you wait to be frisked, rows of three storey ochre-brown buildings await grimly to tell a grisly tale. Some of them housed prisoners. Some the SS men. Some were torture chambers, others death cells. 

Auschwitz I is essentially a museum to Nazi sadism. Among the photographs of prisoners, taken by the SS, the photographs of twins tell the story of the Angel of Death, Dr Josef Mengele and his ghoulish experiments on twins.  If one twin died, which was often the case, the other was killed immediately with an injection to the heart, so Mengele could do comparative autopsy. 

What also leaps out from the exhibits, is a photograph of children, all of them less than five years old, accompanied by women with babies in arms, on the way to the gas chambers blissfully unaware of what awaited them. 

‘Work will set you free,’ a metal sign at Auschwitz I
‘Work will set you free,’ a metal sign at Auschwitz I

The men and women marked for the gas chambers were separated from each other. They were told to undress for a ‘shower’. But from the shower-heads fitted to the ceiling, oozed Zyklon-B, suffocating them to death. 

The gas chambers that snuffed the lives of over 1 million victims here, majority of them Jews, were destroyed by the fleeing Nazis in 1945, hoping to erase evidence of their crimes. But there is a reconstructed gas chamber in Auschwitz II along with a crematoria for visitors to see.   

The exhibition halls have old leather suitcases of the victims, most of them marked with Jewish names. There is a room full of John Lennon designer glasses. A room full of shoes, mostly of toddlers. There are combs, shoe-polish, shaving brushes and toys, and among them, a broken doll.

But it’s the roomful of hair that stays with you. The victims were shorn of their hair and the hair was used to make a rough fabric or to line shoes. 

What is absent from the exhibition halls is the gold, the jewellery and the cash, that the SS men looted off the victims, immediately on their arrival here. “ They did not need them”, was a candid explanation of Oskar Groening, the former SS guard at Auschwitz, who was asked by the judge in the 70-year-too-late-a-trial in 2015, as to why he robbed the victims of their possessions.  

A photograph capturing children and women walking towards the gas chambers
A photograph capturing children and women walking towards the gas chambers

This largest extermination camp in the world, was built not just for the killings. It was meant to dehumanise and degrade its victims before it did so. You see this in the barracks in Auschwitz II, which is about two kilometres from Auschwitz I.

The victims were crammed into bunkers, with no water or toilet. The toilet was practically an open sewer but you were lucky if you managed to get in. Sometimes you had to use your aluminium bowl. The  same bowl you used for the scraps they threw at you to eat. 

Apart from the obvious lessons from Auschwitz, is the unsettling reality that the perpetrators here were also loving fathers, brothers, and sons. They cared for their flower gardens and cried when their dogs died. They were  art collectors, appreciated good music and danced at weddings. In other words, they were people just like you and me. 

In that, is maybe a cautionary tale that, despite the religious postulates exhorting us to believe that we are all born good, we may to the contrary have what Stephen Dawkins called the “selfish gene”.

Which, indeed had evolutionary rewards when humans lived in isolated bands, and had to kill the “other” for survival.  

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