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Thoughts on a Visit to Auschwitz

Block 11 (link to gallery) find out more
by Bryan Gibson (author of The Pocket A-Z of Criminal Justice)

(page 3 of 3)

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.

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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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