Seventy years of horror ago today, on January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops, a day commemorated around the world.
On December 24th, my daughter, Korey, and I had the opportunity to tour Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau Concentration Camps. Just 62 kilometers/39 miles from Krakow, Poland a campus of inhumanity unfolds in now quiet rows of brick buildings. Over the entrance of Auschwitz I is a wrought iron banner which says “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Translated: “Work makes one free.” Hardly. How is it that Krakow/Crakow can be so charming and historic; the people so gentle-speaking and yet, down the road is the horror of the Nazi effort during World War II, where millions were gassed, gunned, starved and beaten to death. The development of Auschwitz (which happened quickly) was astounding – both in size and the evil thought that went into planning it. Prisoners were forced to build the crematoriums, in which they would soon meet their death. There aren’t words. Oddly enough, display cases, which held evidence of the carnage, struck my core. The contents from thousands of suitcases are separated into hair brushes, combs, eyeglasses (all wire-rimmed), adult and children’s shoes, prosthetics, and the hideousness of hair, shaven off the victims, upon entry. Mixing bowls, sterling sugar and creamer bowls and other items used in daily living really created chills up and down my spine. People herded to camps seriously thought they were setting up for a new life. The innocence hurts my heart.
Our Polish tour guide, Kate, spoke flawless English. I told her about my dad, who as a P.O.W. in the Battle of the Bulge, had lived in similar barracks, sleeping on straw covered concrete, mattresses of straw, or bunks of thin plywood. We saw a barrack of latrines that thousands could use, but just twice a day. Otherwise, there was a bucket in the corner of their sleeping rooms, which 70-100 prisoners would have to use. Yes, the same bucket. I can’t think about it, it’s so animalistic. A box car still sits on the tracks, in memory of those herded to camp by train.
Both civilians and military prisoners were starved on grass soup or dirty rotten potatoes. (My dad rapidly lost 60+ pounds.) We saw solitary confinement, which were purposely in total darkness, or standup cells, where prisoners were forced to stay awake and erect for hours.
Many prisoners were led to the shower building with the knowledge that one of two things would come from above them; either a shower of water or gas. We were taken into one shower room, but they didn’t even install dummy shower heads, just a hole in the ceiling where the Zyklon-B gas was injected into the room. Understand there were no survivors. To take it one step darker, the Crematory was connected to the showers for quick disposal. Except the ovens couldn’t keep up. Guess who they made build more? Yep, the prisoners. The prisoners building their own death trap. Unthinkable. Yet, it happened. Repeatedly, for years. The Nazis intended to kill so many thousands at these two locations only that they ended up shutting down the showers and just built more Crematories.
If you didn’t succumb to gas, you were probably going to starve, get sick or be tortured through work or worse. The average length of life, once a prisoner entered Auschwitz-Birkenau, was three months. As we completed our tour, I commented to Korey, “I can’t imagine how anyone could survive physically or emotionally in a nightmare like this. I guess it takes a strong will to live.”
“Or hope,” Korey added.
Yet, there are many stories of survival. Not as many as we wish. Jeff didn’t need to experience the tour, so he didn’t go with us to Poland. Korey and I needed to see it. I felt as if I could better envision the conditions in which my father was forced to live for six months, and that is a complete disconnect for my brain. Honestly, I don’t know how any survivor goes on to live somewhat of a normal life. God bless these survivors. I bought a book in the Camp’s bookstore by Victor Frankl, survivor, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I recommend it, if you have questions about this experience.
And for those individuals who don’t believe the Holocaust happened, I may have to buy a one-way trip to one of the camp for a tour of education. It’s one way, because as far as I’m concerned, they deserve to stay there until they understand this was real. Never again.
“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” unknown