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Thoughts on a Visit to Auschwitz

Auschwitz gas chamber (link to gallery) find out more
by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 2 of 3)

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.

Continued ... page 1 2 3

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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