I stepped blinking into bright afternoon sunlight on Ealing Broadway. The buzz of a busy Saturday filled the space; the rumble of West London traffic; chattering shoppers; pigeons flapping and cooing as they disturbed litter and dust on warm, white paving slabs. The scene was entirely normal, yet I was completely unable to speak.
It was 1994 and I had just seen Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, which follows the story of ordinary people. Jewish people from Kraków, who were going about their everyday business in the same way as the bustling crowds in Ealing. Until the day they were rounded up; confined in a ghetto; stripped of their possessions and wealth; then shipped in cattle trucks to one of the most notorious death camps of the Nazi era.
What if the authorities suddenly deemed Ealing residents with knobbly knees undesirable? Declared those who worship at the temple of the wrong T.V. soap enemies of the state? Sentenced to death those wearing shell suits, a perfectly acceptable sartorial choice in the 1990s?
Such criteria are as arbitrary as any made over race or religion, and as trivial as those that lie behind genocide and ethnic cleansing. I don’t like you; I don’t agree with you; you don’t deserve to exist.
It takes courage to walk through the gates of Auschwitz and stare into the dark heart of humanity. Courage I do not possess, so once again, I must hand you over to Mark.
I was a bit nervous the day before my planned visit to Auschwitz. We had been on the loveliest four-hour walk in Narodowy Ojców that morning, then spent the afternoon at Ogrodzieniec Castle. Although I’d already purchased a ticket online, I was still deciding whether to go, because of the emotions it was stirring.
I don’t want to dwell on the rise in populism in today’s society, or liken the current situation across the world (including Poland and the U.K.) to Nazi Germany, since nothing can compare to a period in history that is so repulsive that it should never happen again.
As a society, we must not blame other ethnicities for our woes, and it is critical to recognise that many of those in power use such hateful narrative to control our thinking and manipulate our behaviour. The 99% of us must guard against the 1% who try to use us like sheep.
I don’t hate the German people for the atrocities in WWII, but I do hold them to account for letting themselves be duped into giving power to a despot. Before Hitler, Germany was a liberal democracy. Humiliated after WWI, Hitler promised jobs and prosperity; to make Germany great again. Does that sound familiar?
The Nazi party was not elected with a majority, but Hitler was given emergency powers the day after the burning of the Reichstag, an act which some believe he ordered. Four weeks after being sworn in as Chancellor, he used this free rein to appoint his own people into key positions, then simply murdered all who opposed him. The rest, as they say, is history.
Ask yourself, what if U.S. President Trump or U.K. Prime Minister Johnson did the same? *
It seems surprising that Auschwitz is utterly synonymous with the Holocaust, yet Rudolf Höss, the man who industrialised genocide, (not to be confused with Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess), is so little known.
The arch above the gates at Auschwitz bears the words Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Sets You Free. The B is upside down; perhaps a gesture of rebellion from the prisoners forced to make it. The slogan appears at other Nazi camps, and was appropriated from Dachau by Auschwitz Kommandant, Rudolf Höss.
There are two killing sites at Auschwitz. Auschwitz 1 was an old Polish army base, given over to Höss with the instruction to massacre the Polish elite at the start of the war. Höss was repoertedly a quiet family man, born in Baden-Baden to devoutly Catholic parents. He believed in following orders. Arbeit Macht Frei could apply to him without irony. Given a task, he applied himself to it with ruthless efficiency. At Auschwitz, he excelled. He created the largest single site of mass murder known to history.
By 1941, the derelict old army camp that had been Auschwitz 1 held 10,000 prisoners and was the largest in the Reich. However, it had only a small furnace and couldn’t perform mass killings on the scale necessary to implement Hitler’s ‘final solution of the Jewish question’, which began in earnest in 1942. The Führer ordered, “Every Jew we can lay our hands on is to be destroyed now, without exception.”
To achieve this ghastly aim, Höss used forced labour from Auschwitz 1 to build a second camp nearby. Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) had four massive furnaces. That solved the question of disposing the aftermath of mass murder, but to increase the efficiency of extermination, Höss experimented with different gases. His deputy, Karl Fritzsch, discovered that the pesticide Zyklon-B, used to de-louse clothing in the camp, produced cyanide gas when exposed to air. A grisly trial on Russian prisoners demonstrated it was far more efficient than the exhaust fumes from truck or car engines that they employed previously.
When he was tried for war crimes at Nuremberg, Höss testified that it took between 3 and 15 minutes for the victims to die using Zyklon-B, and that they knew when the people were dead because the screaming stopped.
Thus began the ruthless, industrialised process of extermination. Daily, the Nazis shipped trainloads of Jews, Roma gypsies, the handicapped and other ‘undesirables’ to Auschwitz. The S.S. and doctors, including the infamous ‘Angel of Death’, Josef Mengele, carried out an immediate callous selection on the platform as each train arrived. Most Jews went straight to gas chambers, along with any deemed unfit for work. This included children under 15, pregnant women, the elderly and infirm. The young and fit were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be worked to death under starvation conditions. Many prisoners died en route to the camp; for example, 65% of Greek Jews perished on the 11-day journey in rail carts the size of our four-berth caravan, each crammed with 100 people.
To maintain a calm order on the march to the gas chambers, guards chatted to prisoners and told them they were going for a shower. Prisoners were ordered to strip and place their belongings in numbered cases. Guards instructed them to remember the numbers to reclaim their belongings after ‘Disinfektion’, and told children to tie their shoelaces together, as these would be their only shoes in the camp. This was, of course, a false hope. The Nazis took everything of value, including gold fillings, and shipped the murder victims’ clothes and shoes to Germany to help with the war effort.
Up close, the mechanics of the golden ideology were profoundly disturbing. Noting the effect on the psychological health of his own men, Höss appointed Jewish prisoners the gruesome task of removing the 900 or so bodies from each chamber after gassing. In an attempt to maintain secrecy around the activities of Auschwitz, he had these Sonderkommandos – Special Commandos, murdered and replaced every few months.
Life for those interred in the camp was brutal. Inmates were forced to work hard on minimum rations and lived in cramped and unhygienic conditions. ‘The Angel of Death’ Mengele conducted his twisted experiments on inmates. Summary execution by public hanging awaited recaptured escapees; anyone who assisted prisoners; the families of those who escaped; and if there was no family, a random selection of people who shared the same work detail or barrack. A rail around the perimeter to facilitate hangings served as a warning and deterrent. Every day there was a roll call; the longest required prisoners to stand in scorching temperatures in the courtyard for nine hours
As the war was drawing to a close, the Nazis added a railway line directly into Auschwitz-Birkenau to accelerate their plans as they focussed attention on eradicating the last remaining Jewish enclave; half-a-million Hungarian Jews. By now, ‘improvements’ meant Auschwitz could kill and cremate 12,000 people per day.
To conceal the atrocities, Heinrich Himmler forbade record-keeping and at the end of the war, the Germans destroyed most of the gas chambers. At Nuremburg, Höss refuted the accusation that he murdered 3.5 million people at Auschwitz. In his testimony, he stated, “No. Only two and one-half million – the rest died from disease and starvation.”
Census figures pre- and post-war show that Poland’s Jewish population fell from 2,700,000 to 100,000; there was a similar fall in her non-Jewish population. In total, over five-million Polish people were annihilated.
These are some of the facts and figures. I can’t possibly describe Auschwitz and if you want to know about it, then visit. For me, it was too commercial and had lost much of the horror. The guide tried to dramatise what happened there; it didn’t need that. The facts are stark and grotesque enough on their own. There are all kinds of fables about Auschwitz; they say no birds sing there. That is true, but there were few trees. Like you wouldn’t hear birds at a scrap yard. My visit didn’t upset me in the way I thought.
I did shed tears just the once when I saw what the Soviets found when they liberated the camp. 7 tonnes of human hair, bagged up ready to ship to German textile factories. To put this into context, the average weight of hair from one person is 12 grams.
When Mark got back, the guys in the caravan next door asked him how he got on at Auschwitz. They seemed disappointed when he replied honestly that he didn’t find it as upsetting as he’d anticipated.
Later, he asked me if he should perhaps not admit that to people. I said,
“You should tell the truth. It’s a very personal thing and your feelings are just as valid as anyone else’s.”
In the Instagram age, there seems almost a pressure to outdo everybody else’s horrified reactions with emotional one-upmanship. “You didn’t cry? I wept buckets!” “That’s nothing, I wept buckets and vomited at the repugnance of it all.”
The following day Mark rationalised his feelings.
What happened at Auschwitz was awful, but it is now a tourist attraction. It is a story that absolutely should be told and you hope that, as a memorial to the millions who suffered and died there, it stands as a warning to history. However, for me, having it as an attraction does lessen it.
What I find THE most upsetting is that nothing has changed. The same would happen again in a whisper with the right people in charge. It’s happening around the world now, but we stand by and don’t lift a finger.
Next time you look at your boss, your colleagues, your friends or your neighbours, think about whether they would act against such behaviour. Would they collaborate for personal gain? Would they be the ones holding the knife to your throat? And what about you? Would you resist if the price for dissent was your life, or the lives of those you loved?
Decency lies in unexpected places. Contrast Rudolf Höss, who at one time considered entering the Catholic priesthood, with Oskar Schindler, the Nazi chancer who came to Kraków to make his fortune from the war. While Höss murdered millions without question, Schindler risked his life and bankrupted himself to rescue 1,200 Jews from certain death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Back in Ealing on that sunny afternoon, the reason I couldn’t speak after seeing Schindler’s List was not just because I was choked from seeing the horrors of Auschwitz recreated so vividly on the big screen. I was overwhelmed with a feeling that it should never, ever be allowed to happen again, yet even as the thought came into my mind, I knew that it was. In 1994, the genocide was taking place in Rwanda and the Balkan war was in full swing, with appalling atrocities committed on all sides.
George Santanaya said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In the 75 years since the Holocaust, more than 55-million civilians have perished in 89 major genocides around the world. (Source – A Journey into the Holocasut.)
* Do you feel safe and believe such atrocities could never happen in our cosseted modern lives? In the U.K., Prime Minister Johnson was found guilty of illegally proroguing (suspending) Parliament to push through his Brexit agenda unopposed. You might agree with Brexit and think that’s OK, but what if you didn’t? To me, an individual or group bypassing democratically elected representatives to unilaterally enforce their own will looks tantalisingly like dictatorship. Questions are already being asked about Johnson’s emergency pandemic powers being misused to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny of policy, lawmaking, and the awarding of multi-million-pound contracts to friends of Ministers and party donors.
Mark’s statement about the rise of the Right precedes by six months the storming of the American Capitol by Trump supporters. Their stated aim was to overturn the results of an election deemed to be democratic, and assassinate opponents of Trump. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, drew a parallel between the events of 6th January 2021 in Washington and the burning of the Reichstag on 27th February 1933. Former President Trump has still refused to concede either that the election was legitimate or that he lost. Imagine the outcome had Trump’s supporters prevailed. And what if they do in the future?
2020 was a very bad year for democracy.