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Thoughts on a Visit to Auschwitz

Thoughts on a Visit to Auschwitz

by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

The Holocaust remains one of the most iconic of world events. Two things stand out – its magnitude and timescale. The events span a collapse of public service values in the mid-1930s to the erosion of the right to life that reached its peak from 1942 to 1944. It seems apposite that to mark the liberation of Auschwitz Concentration Camp, a Holocaust Express ended its journey at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2008 after touring Germany. A reminder of the many Jewish transports this also symbolises the speed of events.

It was at Auschwitz-Birkenau that the notorious trackside ‘selections’ took place. Euphemisms frequently play a part in dark deeds. Women, children, the elderly and infirm were sent straight to the gas chambers. Men fit for work were led towards the endless rows of barrack huts. The luckier ones found their way to Auschwitz sub-camps as labour for IG Farbenindustrie, Siemens and other household names. This was later immortalised in the book and film Schindler’s List. Life expectancy was measured in weeks. Jews were there to work or die. The edict applied regardless of rank, ability, intellect or status. Working was an interlude between incarceration and death.

A tiny proportion of prisoners survived: through stamina, bravery, an instinct for self-preservation or chance. Some managed to make themselves invisible, others turned to corruption or worse. There is an old adage that a condemned man will do or say anything to save his neck. With most of those killed in the Holocaust, men women or children, the majority seem not to have resisted fate-a notion that has proved highly controversial.

Click to view Auschwitz photo gallery from Bryan Gibson's visit

A sense of normality
A first thought on arriving at the gates of Auschwitz I-over which is emblazoned the infamous lie, Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free)-was that here might be a sense of evil. The gates seemed smaller than in the grainy news footage. What struck home was the ordinariness of the place. There was a mismatch between the location and its notorious past. Nestling in a charming corner of south-east Poland near Oswiecim (renamed Auschwitz during the years of Nazi occupation), Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau (aka Auschwitz II built from 1942 onwards a few kilometres away) register more for their vastness and scale than intrinsic terror. Many of the buildings would grace any neighbourhood. What the place may have seemed like in the depths of a Polish winter is perhaps another matter. Normalisation often goes hand-in-hand with horrific behaviour.

In search of evil
The modern-day quietness makes it hard to comprehend how such extreme and bustling events occurred at the same spot. Auschwitz I and II are not unlike any other largescale secure complex. Both enjoy an airiness. I would contrast it with a visit I once made to Plötzensee Prison on the outskirts of Berlin. This is where the Nazis sent 3,000 of their own people for execution, including judges and lawyers who would not toe the party line. Their sentences were carried out at random and without prior warning. The July bomb plotters of 1944 who came within an inch of ending the Third Reich were hanged at Plötzensee using piano wire. Plötzensee had a perceptibly dark aura.

You can’t hold us to blame
The agenda of those safeguarding Auschwitz as a memorial includes distancing the Polish people from the events of the 1940s. Whole populations were removed from the Auschwitz area which was made subject to special laws. It was ruled from Berlin and no questions could be asked. Poland is a big country and what became the Auschwitz exclusion zone tiny. In this remote area, secretive events unfolded. As with some German people, many Poles did learn what was going on. Others had their suspicions. It is hard to believe that such news did not travel fast indeed. There was a local resistance movement. Many of its members perished as a result of summary justice dispensed by Nazi officers in a small, bare, makeshift courtroom. Those convicted were taken outside immediately and shot in the head from behind.

Block 11, where this took place, contains a maze of below ground passageways. They are darker and danker than those of any ordinary prison. One cell was known as the ‘airless cell’. It has restricted ventilation. It is where Polish political prisoners were held 20 to a cell to the point of suffocation: as punishment or torture as a prelude to interrogation. It adds terrible meaning to the throwaway line: ‘We have ways of making you talk’. Along a further claustrophobic passageway are the remains of the standing cells-windowless, not a metre square but of standard height, in which prisoners stood for days. Others starved to death there. It is hard to believe that such methods were in use in the 20th century, more so to figure out how prison guards became complicit other than because of the ultimate dilemma that their own life was in peril if they resisted.

Information about exterminations, executions, beatings and cruelty did reach the outside-as did news of medical experiments, including on twins as part of the search for Aryan genes. There is a direct line from Darwin, through Nietche to the Nazis and their Master Race. As early as 1941, news reached the Polish Government in exile in London. Within days, the British and American governments knew. Polish, German, British or allied, I am reminded of the words of the 1970s protest song penned by the American troubadour, Tom Paxton:

We didn’t know at all
We didn’t see a thing
You can’t hold us to blame
What could we do?

Proof – if it were needed
One block at Auschwitz I has a sign above the door saying ‘Proof of Crimes’ (proofs plural in fact: but I think something was lost in translation). Within the building are tons of hair. It was used for weaving cloth (‘The Nazi’s recycled and turned a profit on everything’). There are heaps of shoes, spectacles, artificial limbs, pots, pans and clothes (including those of tiny children). The sense that there is a need to prove things pervades the history of the Holocaust: there are no actual records for most people who went to the gas chambers. Record-keeping was abandoned early on, whatever the stereotype the methodical German. The names of political prisoners, including Communists and other radicals, or details of many of the deathly medical experiments, were never noted down. Jews who arrived on the bigger transports of 1942 or after that date were not given numbers, tattooed or recorded. There was no time. They went straight to the gas chambers or worked until they dropped. Their ashes were scattered in rivers and lakes, blown to the wind or buried in long gone pits. They were erased from formal memory as they were cremated.

This plays into the hands of the holocaust deniers, some of whom make the point that no direct evidence exists for much of what occurred. Hair can be shaved-off for legitimate purposes, especially in a prison setting where infectious diseases may be rife. The Nazis destroyed Auschwitz-Birkenau almost in its entirety and burned most of what records did exist as the allies closed in. There would have been no evidence at all of a contemporary nature had an amateur photographer not taken pictures that were eventually discovered in his loft. Better, perhaps, to quote the findings of the judges at Nuremberg (1946) and the guilty verdict in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the one-time commandant at Auschwitz executed 1962, as proof proper-and the unswerving testimony, writings and oral histories of survivors, people who somehow slipped through the net.

Events unfold
In 1939, UK Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain returned from his visit to Hitler’s Germany with his misjudged appeasement policy. The Nazi invasion of Poland followed, triggering the Second World War. By the end of 1939, mass arrests of Polish dissenters led to overflowing prisons and a project to build a concentration camp. By the Spring of 1940, following reconnaissance by Heinrich Himmler (who committed suicide following his arrest in 1945), O?wi?cim was chosen for its existing barracks and rail links. The first transport of political prisoners arrived on 14 June 1940, 728 Poles, including a small number of Polish Jews. From 1940 to 1945, a total of 405,000 prisoners were registered at Auschwitz I, some 100,000 a year. Around 5,000 local people were immediately relocated and eight villages demolished. The entire 7,000 Jewish population of the area was deported to a ghetto.

July 1940 to December 1941
The first known killings were of 150 attempted escapees in July 1940, shot to prevent escape or murdered when caught. By the autumn, the Polish Government in exile was receiving intelligence from within the camp. In November, 40 Poles were executed by firing-squad following summary ‘trial’. By Spring 1941, Himmler, Hitler’s deputy, had paid his first inspection visit and decreed that Monowitz (aka Auschwitz III) be built to supply industrial labour to the IGF rubber plant (subsequently famous for masking the smell of burning corpses). In April, ten Polish rebels were sentenced to death by starvation in return for one escapee. In June, the first transport of Czech political prisoners arrived.

On September 3, the first mass gassing-of 600 Soviet troops and 250 Polish prisoners-took place in the cramped underground cells of Block 11. That autumn, as a reaction to what had been a shambolic experiment in which many victims had to be finished-off, the Nazis constructed a purpose built gas chamber at Auschwitz I. It survives today: hidden from the main cell blocks by the original administrative quarters. It resembles a large air-raid shelter, inside and out. It sits half above and half below ground, like a bunker. Just beyond a gate in the road were staff houses (still there) outside which German children played. Crystals of the poison gas Zyklon B were poured in through a vent in the roof of the gas chamber. The building also housed a crematorium with four ovens (now restored).

The construction of Auschwitz-Birkenau involved the demolition of the village of Brzezinka. Executive housing now overlooks this partially reconstructed camp.

Thoughts on a Visit to Auschwitz
Into 1942
Towards the end of 1941, 151 Poles were executed at what was by then known as the Wall of Death by Block 11. The first mass extermination of Jews took place in January 1942 with deportations of 67,000 Jews from France and 27,000 from Slovakia. By mid-1942, Auschwitz-Birkenau was complete but lacked gas chambers. The first transports exclusively of women also arrived that Spring: 130,000 women in all arrived on these between 1942 and 1945. Temporary gas chambers were replaced by permanent ones-cavernous buildings capable of holding 2,000 people at a time under the guise of showers. Illusions and disbelief were encourage and countered respectively by the numbered pegs on which victims were asked to hang their clothes. By May, 300,000 Jews had arrived from Poland and 23,000 from Germany, along with Romany people and Communists. The first Jewish selection took place on 4 May 1942. That June, seven people escaped, another 300 dying as the ensuing mutiny. From July onwards there were transports from Holland (60,000 Jews) and a total of 50 Auschwitz sub-camps designed for prisoners who were ‘working out’ were established. A report reached Britain in July that Himmler had personally attended the murder of 499 Jews, following which there was regular intelligence. By August, Jews were being deported from Belgium (25,000) and Yugoslavia (10,000).

Regular transports followed. Auschwitz III (Monovitz) opened in October 1942. Jews arrived from Bohemia and Moravia (46,000 Jews) and Norway (700). This was followed by the General Plan East under which 50 million Slavs were evicted. Poland was colonised and occupied by Germans who shared out its vast agricultural resources. Sterilization experiments began towards the end of the year.

This year saw the setting up of The Gypsy Camp and deportation of 55,000 Jews from Greece. By the Spring of that year a total of four permanent, purpose built gas chambers were in use at the end of the railway line at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was during this period that German businesses began to see an increasing vested interest in forced labour to keep down costs. In July, 12 Polish prisoners were subjected to simultaneous hangings-the largest single such event-following the discovery that intelligence was reaching the outside world. In October a transport of 7,500 Jews arrived from Italy.

In May 1944, British and American planes flew over and photograph Auschwitz I, II and III and the sub-camps, confirming earlier intelligence reports (if confirmation were needed). IGF and other factories were bombed. Nevertheless, in May a railway siding was still under construction. This allowed transports to pull in alongside the gas chambers. Thereafter, 438,000 Jews arrived from Hungary and 67,000 from Lodz (Poland). The Gypsy Camp was liquidated by the Nazis on August 2, a total of 3,000 people; and later that month 13,000 Poles, arrested en masse, arrived following the burning down of the Warsaw Ghetto. The notorious Sonderkommando mutiny took place on October 7, in which three members of the SS and 450 Sonderkommando-Jewish prisoners, many hardened criminals, even psychopaths, who had been placed in charge of the general run of prisoners and who had a reputation for extreme brutality (‘kill or be killed’)-were murdered. In November, the mass exterminations stopped abruptly. A makeover began.

1945 and liberation
The year 1945 saw the final executions of Polish prisoners by firing squad (70 people) as well as the last public execution by hanging, of four women for assisting the Sonderkommando mutineers. On January 17 the Death Marches, designed to further erase the evidence, and the burning of those records that did exist began. Over 60,000 prisoners were marched-in light clothing and a severe winter-from all of the Auschwitz camps to the German interior. Many died en route, including when shot for not keeping up.

The camps were liberated on 27 January 1945 by the Russian Army. They found 7,000 prisoners who for whatever reason had been left behind, many emaciated, starving and skeletal. The main culprits were in hiding. Some were later tried and executed at Nuremberg; others, such as the head doctor, Josef Mengele-the ‘Angel of Death’ responsible for many of the selections and unspeakable experiments-were never found (He drowned whilst swimming in 1979). Only modern-day truth and reconciliation and facing up to the past by the German people has started a process whereby Polish and German people have begun to treat one another with the pre-1930s levels of respect.

Decency and human rights
People who decry human rights might as well deny that the Holocaust existed. The events trigger connections to a range of human rights: the right to life, prohibition of torture, cruel or unusual punishments and forced labour. The world over gross violations of human rights have often had slow and seemingly innocuous beginnings. It is this feature that human rights law targets. For the hangers and floggers, taking small points may seem pithy or pedantic. Human rights are thus ‘bad mouthed’ or the butt of jokes around their easily manufactured absurdities. But the European Convention On Human Rights occurred as a direct result of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust demonstrates how easily repressive laws, their blind application, a bureaucratic mind-set and exhortations from on high can create an ethos in which decency evaporates. To look out from the watchtower at Auschwitz-Birkenau across a countryside scarred by the one-time footings, brickwork and chimneys of several hundred demolished huts-and to reflect on how it was possible to reach the stage that the Nazis did in the space of a few short years-is to remind oneself of how easily malevolence, noble cause corruption and the actions of dubious people in power, can, notch by notch, destroy human values and eventually human life. The Nazi state was not in any sense a democracy (some prisoners were sent to Auschwitz for urging democratic treatment), its courts were not courts of justice (they were staffed by agents of the state or ‘telephone judges’ ready to serve the Nazi cause), and there were no ethics or high moral purposes in ranks of the Gestapo, SS or prison guards. There are some parallels with events in other parts of the world since that time, however small by comparison. We should never become complacent. Previous pages … page 12

View Auschwitz photo gallery from Bryan Gibson’s visit

* ⌐Bryan Gibson 2008. A version of this article appeared in Justice of the Peace in April 2008

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