Photo Above: Mug shots of Auschwitz Concentration Camp victims Hlawica Zdenka and Holan Adalberta, in Oswiecim, Poland, surrounded by hundreds of others. Documentary photos that will be presented this week were all taken by Eric Francis, on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2006. Newest edition is in Eric’s blog, and additional photos are in the October photo gallery.
WHILE I WAS visiting Poland last week [in September 2006], I went to pay my respects at Auschwitz. I actually didn’t plan to go, and I didn’t really want to go, but I’ve also had a lifelong commitment to do so, and this was my chance.
Avoiding the place was why I planned a trip to Warsaw for a week — halfway across the country, far away. But everyone I talked to said that Krakow was the more beautiful city, not bombed so badly during the war, still intact with all its old character, and that I must see it. So I went to Krakow, 70km from Auschwitz, not sure what I would do when the time came to decide if I wanted to make the rest of the trip.
I arrived in my hotel, a beautiful, elegant little place that cost just $40 per night, including breakfast, and a dependable Internet connection in my room. There was a big Manora on the lobby window, facing out to the street — the Jewish symbol of Hanukah. It seemed bold and reassuring to be staying in a place that was advertising its Jewishness to the world so close to where so much evil happened. Seeing that, I felt I had a purpose for being there.
The next morning, I woke up, and called Arthur, the taxi guy who’d taken me from the train station the day before, who also takes people to Auschwitz for the day. It didn’t cost that much more than a tourist bus, and I wanted the freedom to keep my own schedule as I explored the territory. He showed up for me, my cameras and my iPod stereo, on which I played a lot of Grateful Dead songs driving through the Polish countryside for an hour on the way to the camp. Arthur happened to be a fan of old American rock and roll, he knew some impressive details, and he’d heard of Jerry Garcia and loved Johnny Cash. It was still a grim journey, despite the great tunes and even if the land and buildings were beautiful.
I’ve been involved with Holocaust studies for a long time, thanks to a teacher who ran a special center dedicated to the subject at my high school in Brooklyn. [This was Ira Zornberg at the Holocaust Education Center in the John Dewey High School library.]
There is a reason we study these things, which is so that we can both honor history, and respect the loss to humanity. But it’s also to be forewarned, in the present, when something amiss is happening again. The real problem with the Holocaust is how systematically exterminating 12 million people in the midst of civilized Europe kind of snuck up on the world.
As part of my personal investigation, I had visited three different Nazi facilities prior to this — first being the places I believe the Holocaust began in February 1933, in an urban neighborhood in Erfurt, Germany called Ilvers Gehoffen (see article “Hell’s Bells” on the Planet Waves cover Wednesday). Incredibly, the one of the very first concentrations camp was surrounded by inhabited apartment buildings on all sides. On the same trip, I visited the Citadel of St. Peter and St. Paul, an actual citadel more than 1,000 years old, placed on a little hill in Erfurt. This is the walled-in Roman Catholic facility that was taken over by the Nazis and — starting eight days after Hitler assumed office without havng been elected — was used for imprisonment of people who disagreed with Hitler, for sham capital (as in death penalty) trials, and probably for executions. Napoleon had also been there — the massive barracks he built in the Citadel were used by Hitler’s army, too.
Then some days later, I visited Buchenwald, the famous concentration camp for political prisoners near Weimar, in the “green heart of Germany.” Fifty-four thousand people were shot, strangled or died of starvation, disease and overwork at Buchenwald, but it was not a death camp, per se, it was a forced labor camp where many people lost their lives. These visits were in 1998, and I’ve been considering what I saw ever since. So I had some preparation.
Yet nothing prepares you for Auschwitz. I walked in knowing that. This was an industrial-scale factory devoted to mass murder and torture. It is as large as any full-scale state university campus, with land and buildings stretching in either direction as far as you can see. There were in fact three main camps and about 100 smaller sub-camps. Five gas chambers and crematoria were the murder scenes of as many as two million Jews, Poles, Sinti and Romany people, and nationals of every country in Europe from Russia all the way west to France; north into Scandinavia; and south into Greece.
I lived in Paris for a while, and on every street, I mean every block, there is a plaque somewhere about the people who were deported to the camps during the war.
They were sent to die in Auschwitz and similar facilities, sometimes after having been sold “new land” and “new businesses” in their “new homes” by the German government. Auschwitz was the prototype and the biggest of the death camps. About three-quarters of the people who arrived, with bags packed in earnest, with precious family photos and a little to eat, were taken to the gas chambers instantly on arrival; the strong were made to work for a month or two, to support the German war effort, and then they too were gassed.
Those deaths could be called humane, compared to the thousands killed following medical torture and sexual experimentation (from castration of men to sterilization experiments conducted on women), most of whom were killed by injections of phenol to the heart; who died of starvation and exhaustion; who were beaten to death; who died of the cold or of dehydration.
In this photo series, I’ll share images of interior and exterior facilities at Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau as they exist today. When people were allowed to live briefly after arriving, they lived like we treat animals in industrial farms. They could be beaten or killed for having an accident outside the vastly overcrowded latrines. When condemned to die, they were made to strip naked and face a wall where they were shot, or died huddled naked together in gas chambers, breathing in cyanide. If they happened to be alive after the gassing, they were burned alive. Their hair, previously shaved off, was sent to a factory in Bavaria that made some kind of materials for the war out of it.
It all sounds like so much. It sounds like nothing that could ever happen, but it did happen, and it happened yesterday. Though there have been many genocides in the 20th and 21st centuries, some of which are ongoing, the most frightening thing about what happened under the Nazis is that it occurred in a society just like our own, supported or acquiesced by normal people living normal lives. People with things to worry about other than the Jews or some dirty Gypsies.
We need to remember how modestly this started, with a few undesirable people here and there rounded up for “good reasons” (they were the wrong religion, they were gay or lesbian, they were alleged Communists, they were alleged terrorists, they did not want to work so hard, etc.), until it knew no limits — and 1,500 men, women and children could be gassed and cremated in a single session. On the way out at the end of the war, the SS men dynamited the gas chambers and crematories to hide the evidence of their crimes.
The big problem with the Nazis is we consider them someone other than ourselves; a culture other than our own. But Nazi Germany was an advanced industrial and technical society, with ethics and an economy and lots of people who wore crosses around their necks and who went to church every Sunday.
Germans are proud, intelligent people who like to do things right. The mass murder that was perpetrated was conducted by well-heeled, supposed Christians; by the highest orders of elite military men; and supported by capitalists and businessmen. One of the big things the whole plan had going for it was a “united Europe” which meant big business for certain people. According to what I learned in Holocaust Studies and in my follow-up research, the gassing effort was also supported by IBM (whose German subsidiary lent computers to the Reich to track concentration camp inmates); by ITT (which provided other technology); by Dow Chemical (which provided chemical components for the cyanide gas, called Zyclon [Cyclone] B). Other United States corporations and some politicians were involved. Swiss banks that today still exist processed all the gold taken from the teeth of the victims. I have read recently that there is no processed gold on the market that does not contain traces of concentration camp gold.
And we forget how recently it happened. My parents were born in 1941 and 1942, when Auschwitz and many other death camps were in full operation. If something happened in your parents’ lifetime, it happened yesterday, and it could happen tomorrow. The same is true if your grandfather or grandmother remembers it. That is the definition of ‘very recently’.
Mainly, we forget how it happened — because people let it happen; because they were in denial about what was going on two miles from their house, or right outside their window. We forget that an environment of anti-Semitism in Europe allowed the beginning to occur, and that fear of others was used as a weapon against people — much like in our own country (UK, United States and Australia) where an atmosphere of anti-Muslim sentiments is allowing many laws that protect everyone to be suspended. Why? Because who cares about them? “They’re all terrorists.” Ah, but then all these really weird powers are in place and the normal rules of the game are off.
That is the true beginning, the elimination of basic rights: the ones you never hear of, such as Habeus Corpus. Or the ones you do, such as elections. Habeus corpus is the right of a person to demand to know why they are being imprisoned. It used to exist in Germany before the Holocaust, and it used to exist in the United States, before last week, when a law supposedly directed at “terrorists” took that right away, little noticed by the public and the media. [Note, as of the Supreme Court ruled in June 2008 by a vote of 5-4 that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay have the right of Habeas Corpus, considered a major civil rights victory.]
But at the heart of it all is cruelty. Cruelty is existent in the world, like bacteria. But it grows better under certain conditions, fuelled by its fertilizers, intolerance and hatred.
It is said that a picture paints so many words. All the images in the world don’t quite sum up Auschwitz like this letter scribbled on a scrap of paper by a man about to have his life taken for nothing:
Farewell, my most beloved wife, my dearest Lolunia, and my mother. I am about to leave this world. I am going to be sent to the ovens on the 30th at 7 o’clock in the evening. I have been sentenced to death as a bandit.
My dearest Bronislawa, I am sorry to leave you. Believe me, I cannot write more because my hand is trembling and my eyes are full of tears because I die so consciously and without being guilty.
Fifty-eight of us will die, including ten women. I kiss you and Lolunia many times. At 7 o’clock in the evening…I think of you. On the 30th of October, pray, say your prayers. Tell Lolunia that father has already passed away. I cannot write. I cannot write. Farewell, all of you. Be with God.