“The scars of the outrage would remain with us forever, and in the memories of those who saw it, and in the places where it occurred and in the stories that we should tell of it.”– Primo Levi, The Truce
Over the course of three days, we were to visit Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau; two Nazi concentration camps located in the west of Poland. The 3 days spent walking in the footsteps of those whose lives perished here at the hands of evil and arbitrary madness, is hard to put into words. The following reflection is a mixture of personal insights and observations that covers the gambit of history, experience, and memory.
A little background:
Eva and her family were Romanian Jews who lived in Transylvania, which was part of Hungary at the time. When the Nazis took control of Hungary, over 500,000 Jews were deported to the various camps set up throughout Poland. Auschwitz 1- which operated on the site of a former Polish Army barracks, was initially a concentration camp where prisoners were taken out to the surrounding factories during the day to help with the war production for the Nazis. If they fell ill or were too weak to work, they were exterminated. Auschwitz-Birkenau, a much larger camp that’s a few miles away, was built by the Nazis with the intent purposes of exterminating Jews en mass. In April, 1944, Eva’s family was rounded up, along with thousands of other Jews throughout Europe, and sent here. The first place they arrived was the selection platform.
When the train would roll in from all over Europe, prisoners were shuffled off of the cattle cars onto the selection platform where Nazi doctors would determine, in a split second, whether someone was healthy enough, old enough, young enough, and strong enough to live. It was in this haphazard confusion and madness, where Eva and her sister were torn from her family, never to be seen again.
On that selection platform, Eva’s father and two older sisters were shuffled into one direction (presumably towards the gas chambers), and she was left, for a brief moment with her twin sister and her mom. The doctor looked at Eva and her sister, and asked her mother if they were twins. Her mother asked “Is that a good thing?”, to which the doctor replied “yes”. With that, Eva’s mom confirmed that her and Miriam were twins, and then they were quickly torn away….never to see their mother again.
When we visited the platform in the afternoon, the last place where this 10 year old girl would ever see her mother, father, and brother alive, Eva, now 84, read a letter she had wrote to them a few years back. The letter asks for forgiveness from her Dad, whom she was mad at because he had made the decision to stay in Romania when the rest of their family packed up and fled to Palestine. It also is a resounding tribute to her mother, who Eva says she was “lucky to have for only a few short years”. As Eva often shares in her lectures and in her book, when she was torn from her mother’s arms, she made two promises; one; to stay alive and keep her sister alive, and two; to make sure she shares her story with the world so that they will know what cruelty happened here. Towards the end of her letter, Eva proclaims, standing in the very footsteps she saw her family last, that she has upheld that promise and is working hard today to make sure that “children are not torn from their mothers’ arms, like we were”.
From the selection platform, there were two sides of Auschwitz-Birkenau where prisoners, who were “lucky” enough to not be selected for immediate execution in the gas chambers were placed. Facing into the camp, on the right side were the male barracks. These barrack, mostly built in wood and built later on, have been mostly destroyed and worn down by the time this space started to become a memorial in the 1960s. The barracks that are there today are replicas.
On the female side of the camp lied brick barracks, many of which have sustained the weather and continue to exist today. These are not replicas. Within each barrack, 700 people were assigned to live. They were originally designed with the intent of having 400, and that was intended to be overcrowded. These barracks were hastily built with no installation and no heat.
In the front of each barracks lived the barrack’s commander; a prisoner themselves, who was somehow higher on the chain of the camp’s aristocracy. These barracks’ commanders were often criminals who had been in prison in Auschwitz 1, and selected for their unique disposition towards being sadistic.
When Eva and her sister entered the camp, they were assigned to the special barracks for Jewish children; all of whom were selected to live so that Dr. Mengele could conduct experiments on them. For those who are not familiar with the history, Dr. Mengele was the Nazi’s leading doctor in carrying out their goal of creating a master, Aryan race. I won’t go too much into the different types of experiments he conducted, but lets just say they are unfathomable, by any human standards. In terms of Eva and Miraim’s fate, as well as the rest of what would come to be known as “Mengel’s twins”, he would take one twin and inject them with different things to see what would happen when they died. If one twin died, then he could kill the other twin and have a as close to perfect control (the twin’s dead body) to compare to the one he injected. At one point, Eva was injected with something and fell very, very ill. Dr. Mengele conducted his experiments at Auschwitz 1, the smaller, but more permanent camp a few miles away.
Another “decent” job one could have in the prison was to work in the toilets. Someone was assigned to clean out the toilets, which at first does not sound like an advantage to have being you would be exposed to all sorts of diseases all day long. BUT, because Nazis would go nowhere near the inside of these places, you had privacy and could spend some time alone; a luxury for anyone in the camps.
While Eva fell deathly ill, could barely move, she remembers Dr. Mengele coming into the room, looking straight at her, and saying “Too bad she’s so young. She has only two weeks to live.” But, Eva, knowing that if she died, her sister would be killed, summoned up the strength to survive, and some how recovered and was sent back to Birkenau, only to continue to live in tormented misery.
As the war continued and the Allies advance, the Nazis began to rapidly increase the mass murder of millions of European Jews, resistance members, roma, and political enemies. By 1944, Auschwitz- Birkenau had a mass industrial system of sending inmates to the gas chambers almost down to an eerily frightening, exact science. Fortunately, some of the prisoners, many of whom were Jewish, who were assigned the duty of removing the bodies after they were gassed, took pictures of the chaos that ensued towards the back of the camp; far away from the other inmate so as not to insight panic. Thought at this point, it would be hard to not understand what was happening. Those pictures that were taken serve as a form of resistance and are displayed on the grounds where people were forced into the gas chambers. As they depict naked and vulnerable people in their last desperate panic before death, I have decided not to include them here.
As the war progressed, Eva remembers looking up at the guard towers when there was an air-aid, delighted to see the Nazis scared. By November of 1944, there were so many air raids a day that the experiments ceased.
Knowing that they had committed unforgivable crimes against humanity, the Nazis began to destroy the evidence of the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau- blowing them up, before they set out east. Rather than leave the prisoners to be liberated however, they forced those who were healthy enough on death marches to camps further east, killing those who couldn’t make the journey in the camp. When they ran out of bullets, they buried them alive.
Eva and her sister, miraculously hid in a barracks while this took place. She remembers hearing nothing in the camp, but then a few Nazis came back to fire bullets into all of the buildings, less any Jews survive. Eva doesn’t remember how, but after she blacked out, and came back to consciousness, noticed everyone around her was dead…and her sister was missing. On January 18, 1945, the Nazis fled Auschwitz, but in one last desperate and calculated attempt to annihilate any remaining Jews, they left an abundance of food behind in a Villa, all set out on a table in a buffet manner. Miriam had somehow escaped and they were reunited and sent to Auschwitz 1, on January 18, 1945, where the next part of her story- liberation- took place.
Our visit on that first day to Auschwitz- Birkenau ended with Eva taking us to the site of her former barracks, which no longer exists. In its place is a plaque commemorating the Jewish Children who perished here.
Auschwitz 1 is an equally terrifying place, albeit in its own way. It is here where the infamous “Work Will Set You Free” Sign greeted prisoners as they arrived from all over Europe. The sign that is currently at the camp is a replica as the actual sign was stolen in 2009 by a group of Polish who were paid by a neo-Nazi group in Sweden. When word of this got out, the Polish people were very upset and vowed to find who ever did it, prompting those who stole it to return it anonymously, but alas they were caught. They had also destroyed the sign, cutting it into 3 small pieces. Today, the sign is in a safe place, but it is frightening to think that there are still groups of people who exist who have not leaned the lessons of the Holocaust.
When we first visited the camp with Eva, she took us to the site where she was supposedly “liberated” by the Russians. In reality, they had already been free for many days and this particular narrow corridor between barbed wire fences served as a good place for Russian’s to film propaganda videos, a sign of the what was to come for those in the east.
Here, Eva insists on taking pictures with each individual of the group, and as each of us comes up to her from behind to put our arms around her and say “cheese”, she yells out “We’re free!!”, in a comedic fashion. I have neve met anyone quite like her. As we are going through the line up of reenacting the propaganda themed liberation, groups from all over the world walk by to which Eva yells, “Do you know who I am?” When they realize, we are met by a whole new entourage of people videoing her, interviewing her, and taking her picture. Eva eats up this attention and is more than happy to share her story with all.
After the photo-shoot, Eva directs us to barrack #22- where she was housed after the Nazis had fled. Here, she remembers looking down the long corridor of buildings are reminisces about getting hugged, coffee, and chocolate…what she calls her “first tastes of freedom.” She states that although the Russians were nice, she had heard that the Americans and British had been nicer. Here, Eva shared a story of how, when the Nazis left, they seductively and sadistically left behind a tempting buffet of food, that looked like a banquet for those prisoners who were hiding and eventually emerged when it was safe. Of course, it was poisoned, and Eva was smart enough (at the age of 10!) to assume this. Today, at the age of 84, she seems amused by the story as she ruminates on the incredible skill and luck needed to survive.
After visiting the camp with Eva, we left her for a bit and were given a tour of the camp. Auschwitz 1, the first of a series of camps, became a concentration camp when the Polish army was defeated in 1940. The camp was initially set up for prisoners, and before 1943, the majority of inmates were either Polish criminals or political prisoners from Germany. After, 1943, the camp became increasingly inhabited with Jews. Predictably, there were not enough resources to go around an thousands died from starvation. Of those that did survive, many spent the rest of their life hoarding food and hiding bread.
After exploring a bit, we came across Eva sitting in front of a picture of her being “liberated” by the Russians. She sits here all day, talking and taking pictures with visitors from all over the world, eager to share her story.
After leaving Eva, our guide walked us in and out of the different exhibits that are in many of the barracks. Although both Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau are memorials, Auschwitz 1 is more of a museum, with different exhibits and artifacts throughout. The most disturbing of these exhibits, and one in which you are prohibited to take pictures, is the collection of human hair that the Nazis saved in order to use towards war production. Within the same building, behind glass cases, there are collections of the suitcases that the Jews came to the camps with, shoes, and zyklon-B cannisters.
Before the Germany built Auschwitz-Birkenau, they began to experiment with different ways of killing Jews in mass here. The first attempt to gas them took place in a basement. Then, they constructed a working gas chamber in the rear of the camp, that still exists intact today. Eventually, Birkenau was constructed as an extermination camp, with 80 percent of the people arriving there never becoming prisoners, but rather going right to the gas chambers upon arrival.
In the end, Auschwitz-Birkenau was a brutal death camp created by humans, to wipe out an entire people; the terrible progression of industrial efficiency turned deadly. Toward the back of the camp, there lies the ruins of 4 gas chambers, where millions of people were marched to there unsuspecting (and then known) deaths. Ashes have been found in the fields in the back, as our guide pointed out “It is not natural forest land to be flat, so when you see flat land it is because of human ashes.”
And this is one thing it is hard not to forget when visiting; you are walking on the graves of millions of people. A poignant way to end our time visiting the camps, we joined Eva at the Memorial to those killed in the gas chambers, where we said a prayer and lit and placed candles on the memorial.
When the last person lit a candle, I watched Eva reach for her phone and snap a picture. 5 minutes later, it was on Twitter.
When we had first arrived in Birkenau two days earlier, I remember Eva saying “the chimneys went day and night and the world didn’t seem to care” Thankfully, the world has taken notice of what happened here, and the message of Never Forget has been ingrained on the collective psyche of Europe and the world. Unfortunately, there are still those who deny that such a thing happened, or perhaps worse, promote ideas and ideologies that could lead to a similar outcome. Eva vehemently states that all Holocaust deniers need to come to this place and see it for themselves. A place where Eva first came with a Nazi doctor, to offer him forgiveness. She eventually went on to forgive Dr. Mengele and Hitler, something that has made her very controversial among other Holocaust survivors. But Eva’s message of forgiveness is a powerful one, not because it invokes sympathy for the perpetrators of these horrible sins, but because it empowers their victims. Standing at the gates of Birkenau on that first day, Eva stated to us “I forgive them not because they deserve it, but because I deserve it.”
Words to live by.