Walking through the Auschwitz compound, one will not be blamed for thinking it unsettling that horrific atrocities were committed in such mesmerising scenery.
The purpose of my visit was to understand and witness the past. By understanding, I mean educating oneself about history. Of course the Second World War, and Nazism in particular, were and continue to be taught. It is hard to forget the Holocaust, but easier to dismiss the intrinsic details that allowed it to happen in the first instance. It will not be bold to assume that most of the world’s population is familiar with the Holocaust and its subsequent consequences, but less on how it came about. It may come as a surprise to many to learn that the Third Reich, in establishing its hate campaign, never once broke the law. The Holocaust occurred within the ambit of the German legal system. The law then became a tool for injustice. Contrary to popular belief, the law then does not necessarily uphold justice nor is the law necessarily moral. This must always be remembered; the power of the law was used and continues to be used as one of the greatest weapons of injustice. On the contrary, the greatest power on earth is our collective conscience and the power of people to stand up for justice amid injustice.
The first thing I did during my recent trip to Krakow, Poland, and indeed the entire purpose of the trip, was to visit Auschwitz. Originally, the Auschwitz camp was used as Polish army barracks in Oświȩcim. When the Germans occupied the city in 1940, they changed its name to Auschwitz, and consequently this also became the name of the camp. The Auschwitz camp began its life under the occupation by housing Polish political prisoners. However, over the years, the Nazis began to deport Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies and prisoners of other nationalities, as well as Jews. To deal with the influx of prisoners, the camp expanded, comprising three main parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. Although estimations vary, at least 1.1 million Jews, 150,000 poles, 23,000 gypsies, 15,000 soviet prisoners of war and 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups, were imprisoned at the camp.
At the gates to the museum I saw three Israeli soldiers and pointed them out to my travel companions. Our taxi driver overheard my amazement and informed us that not only is the Auschwitz museum controlled by the Israeli army for purposes of preservation, but that they also controlled the local airport for security concerns. My amazement was premature. A few minutes into our tour, I saw clusters upon clusters of Israeli soldiers touring the camp. I could not help but wonder if Israel had sent its conscripted soldiers to Auschwitz for induction, to train them and motivate them into believing that their current military forays were justifiable under the pretext of, “we cannot let this happen again.” The soldiers, coupled with civilian Israeli visitors, confirmed to me that Auschwitz has become akin to a pilgrimage site for many Jews.
During our visit to the camp, we saw Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau. Birkenau was the largest of the camps and consisted of 300 building blocks. Out of these 300 only a few remained. Among the proof of their existence are the many hearths that remain intact. Birkenau is also said to have housed the largest gas chambers. It was Auschwitz I that was the main museum. In our tour we visited various building blocks. In one block we saw items belonging to the prisoners that the Nazis had confiscated or removed. Among them there were Jewish prayer shawls, a pile of spectacles, many suitcases, shoes, bowls, pots and pans, and even shaving brushes. Artificial limbs and bundles of human hair were also on display. In another block we witnessed the process prisoners went through on entering the camp. At first prisoners slept on straw scattered across the floor and later on three-tier bunks. Each bunk was occupied by two prisoners. At Birkenau, we also saw the toilets – appalling is not a strong enough adjective to describe it. All visible living conditions would today be regarded as contrary to existing human rights laws. There is no doubt that prisoners perished from appalling sanitary conditions, punishment, hunger and hard labour. Another point of interest was the prison within the prison, where inmates were re-imprisoned for upsetting the status quo. Amongst the various cells, the one that stood out was cell 22 which contained four standing cells, measuring 90 x 90cm. In each standing cell four prisoners were placed. For those who watched Channel 4’s The Promise, which aired earlier this year, you would have seen the character Len and two other sergeants held captive in such a cell by a Zionist organization in mandated Palestine.
At Birkenau we were shown the remains of two crematoria and gas chambers, and were told it was possible to discern the underground changing room and gas chamber among the rubble. However, there remained only a heap of misplaced bricks. Nevertheless, at Auschwitz we were able to see one gas chamber, not much bigger than a bedroom. Our tour guide drew our attention to the openings in the ceilings where Cyclone B was poured in, and informed us that within 15-20 minutes, those trapped inside would die. In the adjacent room there were two furnaces where two or three bodies would be thrown in at a time. I later found out that the ovens were rebuilt by the museum.
Auschwitz is, and will remain, proof of the brutality of the Nazi regime. It is one the most inhumane penal complexes to date, where thousands perished at its hands. But I left Auschwitz with many questions left unanswered. Some observe that the remnants of the gas chambers were not necessarily enough to reflect mass genocide, many others will argue that witnesses have testified to its existence. However, the museum itself acknowledges that the chambers were secret. If so what witnesses were actually there? I am not sure of much but I do know that I left Auschwitz more puzzled than I felt before my arrival. It was the disproportion that did not make sense. Despite this, I felt that this was a part of Europe’s history, and as its citizens, we have a duty to enlighten ourselves.
Photo Credits : http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjurman
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