Auschwitz: A Point in Evil
Having visited Auschwitz, the author, offers a lurid description of what he witnessed and the feelings that overcame him.
When I think of the numerous movies and documentaries that I have watched on World War II and the Holocaust, the first one that comes to mind is Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List", a compelling depiction of the pogrom that was the Holocaust. Incidentally, Oskar Schindler, on whom the movie is based, had his factory in Krakow, Poland - the same place where my narration begins.
A thousand thoughts were swirling in my mind when the pickup vehicle arrived at my Krakow hotel on a cold but surprisingly sunny November morning in 2019 for a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum at the site of the largest of the Nazi concentration camps - Auschwitz - located in Oświęcim, Poland about 70 kilometers west of Krakow. Now, this was far from a fun expedition! I was going to visit one of the most poignant symbols of the darkest chapter in contemporary human history. A place that epitomized evil, a place of the Shoah! The hour-long ride filled me with a sense of strange excitement and at the same time, a strange trepidation; excitement because I was finally going to tick off a major item off my bucket list and trepidation because I had read that visitors sometimes broke down when narrated the tales of horrors that transpired at Auschwitz.
On arrival at Auschwitz, I and my friends Kalyan Kalita and Partha Gogoi, were quickly and efficiently handed our tickets, our individual battery operated tour guide systems/headphones and we were handed over to our tour guide, a lady of dignified bearing, who welcomed us in perfect English and led us to the entrance of Auschwitz 1. The entrance gate had the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free) carved in wrought iron on top. To the uninitiated, it would have seemed so deceptively harmless a slogan; little did the poor prisoners know the horrors that lay beyond that gate. My mind instantly cocooned itself in a protective numbness the moment I saw that slogan so it wouldn't crumble when it scoured this place of evil and horrors.
Auschwitz was part of the diabolic German Nazi plan to bring to fruition "Endlösung der Judenfrage" (the final solution to the Jewish question). It comprised three camps - Auschwitz 1, Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau) and Auschwitz 3 (Monowitz). Auschwitz 1 was the oldest of the three and opened in 1940. The majority of the prisoners sent there were Jews from different parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. Other prisoners included gypsies, clergymen, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war. An estimated 1.5 million prisoners were sent to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1944 and of those, about 1.1 million - including pregnant women and children - were systematically murdered by the Nazis. Ninety percent of those killed were people of the Jewish faith.
A majority of the killings were effected by gassing them in the “showers”, using Zyklon B crystals, a cyanide-based chemical. But this figure of 1.1 million is disputed because no records were apparently maintained of prisoners who were immediately sent to the gas chambers on arrival. Other methods of extermination included starvation, bludgeoning and phenol injections. Prisoners were also regularly killed for amusement! Besides these methods, “Schutzstaffel” or SS doctors regularly conducted inhuman experiments on the prisoners that often resulted in death. The Auschwitz camp also supplied slave labour for the factories of the Third Reich, including ordnance manufacturing units to aid the Nazi war machine. Everything was planned to perfection. The famous German efficiency was in the service of the Devil.
Auschwitz 1 housed between 15,000 and 20,000 prisoners at any given time. The pebbled path led to the pre-war brick barracks that were requisitioned by the Nazis. There were barbed wire fences throughout the compound. These fences were electrified when it was a functioning camp. The Nazi Germans constructed an improvised gas chamber in the basement of the Block 11 (“the block of death”). A larger and permanent gas chamber was later constructed outside. We saw the cramped bunks, in which the prisoners slept, the toilets etc. Between Block 10 and 11 stood the “Death Wall” against which prisoners were executed by firing squads.
The barrack walls were lined with photographs of the prisoners. Individual photographs ominously mentioned the date of execution of that particular prisoner. I wondered what went through the minds of those tired, battered and innocent souls awaiting inevitable death. Did they welcome it as a way out of the abject misery? It was impossible to fathom. But the most heartbreaking were the pictures of little children who were blissfully unaware of the fate that awaited them. Oh, those beautiful little children! The numbness in my mind which had held so far cracked a bit when I saw the children's photographs with the accompanying commentary of the tour guide.
There was a disbelieving quietness among the many visitors as we were led from one barrack to another. We clicked pictures quietly and listened with rapt attention to the tour guide’s commentary.
The museum authorities had converted portions of some barracks into large glass paneled showcases that exhibited large piles of travel gear, utensils, footwear etc that belonged to the prisoners. These belongings represented dreams and aspirations, a hope of life somewhere. What they received instead is history.
Scrubbed to a gloss as the whole place was, nothing could gloss over the horrific crimes that were committed within those walls and those fences. In the basement of Block 11, we were shown the “Standing Cells” which were basically one square yard concrete cells in which up to four prisoners were crammed in and kept without food and water for days on end. The tour guide requested the visitors not to take pictures inside the Block 11 basement as a mark of respect. Everybody complied without the slightest protest.
From Auschwitz 1 we were taken to Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau), a short drive away. Now, this camp was on a different scale altogether, sitting on an area of about 370 acres of beguiling serenity. The train tracks terminated at a very large platform where the prisoners were de-boarded and separated. A train carriage has been preserved on site. The various sections of the camp were divided with electrified barbed wire fences, totaling about 16 kilometers.
The scale of operations here was in proportion to its size. There were four huge crematoria, eight gas chambers; forty-six ovens were for disposal of the corpses. It could house about 125,000 prisoners in impossibly overcrowded, leaking wooden barracks that resembled swamps during the rains. The ruins of the gas chambers that were destroyed by the SS guards just before the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on 27th January, 1945, have been meticulously preserved exactly where they fell.
By this time I felt mentally drained. As my friends and I trudged our way back to our waiting transport to take us back to Krakow I wondered what could drive a person to such acts against another fellow human being. It couldn’t have been just extreme hatred. No! This was unhinged loathing that wasn't even human. I unsuccessfully tried to fathom the evil that was Adolf Hitler and his cohorts, and how that evil permeated down to the lowliest SS guard, that carried out the vile deed of cold blooded, systematic extermination, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
And then I saw an elusive silver lining – the resilience of the human spirit. The Jewish people rose like a phoenix from the ashes of genocide. They created an indelible and powerful identity for themselves. Today they are leaders in every sphere, be it military, finance, the arts, and countless more.
Many believe that the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi/SS/Gestapo members did scant justice to the murdered millions. Many brilliant Nazi minds were surreptitiously absorbed by various countries.
My thoughts went to the legend of Nazi hunters who sought an eye for an eye. Were they real or merely a fable? Well, I was hoping real, for vengeance and justice can sometimes complement each other.
(The author visited Auschwitz and offers a lurid description of what he witnessed and the feelings that overcame him. The views expressed in the article are his own.)