Auschwitz-Birkenau – The Industrialisation of Genocide

Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight.

albert schweitzer

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.

The platform at Birkenau. Prisoners crossed the line & were marched either left to the camp to be worked to death, or right for gassing.

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.

Published by WorldWideWalkies

AD (After Dogs) - We retired early to tour Europe in a caravan with four dogs. "To boldly go where no van has gone before" - & believe me, we have! BC (Before Canines) - we had adventures on every continent other than Antarctica!

22 thoughts on “Auschwitz-Birkenau – The Industrialisation of Genocide

  1. It’s a grave indictment of human nature, isn’t it? Thanks for this well written and forceful post. I declined to visit Auschwitz. Any of a number of books will make it as graphic as you could ever need. I did, though, visit the Schindler museum in Kraków, and was moved by that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What can I say, a powerful important post. It frightens me that we seem to be forgetting the lessons of history, lessons that must never be forgotten. 🌻🌻🌻

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a powerfully, wonderfully written post. I didn’t visit Auschwitz when we were in Krakow and I feel guilty for not going. You’re right about the comparrison of what is happening today, especially in the US, and the following of Hitler. I can’t understand how people can be so hateful and blindly follow such a corrupt leader. It sure has brought to the surface a lot of racism that has been simmering for years. Thanks for sharing this. Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Maggie, I really don’t think you should feel guilty about not going to Auschwitz, although I completely understand your feelings. I did wrestle with it myself; I felt I ought to have gone there, but I just don’t think I could have coped with it. I’m a great believer in what’s right for you is right for the world.
    The blind following does concern me. Brexit has been a horrible experience in the UK – very divisive and it too has brought all the simmering racism to the surface. Our travels bring us into contact with a lot of history; Europe’s past has been seriously turbulent. I find it so sad to see it slipping back, after such a long period of peace and prosperity.
    I’m sure no-one thought there would be two World Wars, until they happened, of course. Civilisation hangs on a thread, and we do need to observe the signs and take note of history!
    Thanks for your kind words, I am pleased the post came across as intended.

    Like

  5. I visited Auschwitz. I too worried whether to go. Such a place should not be a tourist attraction.
    It may depend on your guide but ours was informative without being dramatic. I thought the matter-of-fact presentation made it all the more impactful.
    Worthwhile, if you can face it. It will make you think.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am sure matter-of-fact would be more in keeping – Disneyfication is not appropriate in a place like Auschwitz.
    It still made me think even without going, so in that sense, it did fulfil its purpose as a reminder. If people can face it, I definitely think it’s worth going. It should never be forgotten.

    Like

  7. I was unsure whether to ‘like’ this post (and not because it was not beautiful written … in fact, it was written with such compassion and sensitivity), but just because of the pure evilness that happened.
    I could hardly watch Schindler’s List … and I don’t think I have the heart (nor the stomach) to ever visit a place like Auschwitz 😔.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. No worries – your kind words are enough. It is a strange post to ‘like’ I agree!
    I could never watch Schindler’s List again and it speaks volumes that I still remember my reaction to the film so vividly nearly 30 years later.
    It’s a very personal choice whether to visit sites such as this and there is no right answer. From the feedback I have recieved from this blog, a visit to Auschwitz clearly affects people very profoundly. It is absolutely right that the site is there as a commemoration and warning to history – I just wish it had a greater effect on stopping such atrocities.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very well written!! I think that the more we can interact with each other in our community the harder it becomes to see others as seperate from us and yet this is precisely what we face today. I have visited a couple of concentration camps in Germany many years ago, not particularly willingly. The atrocities of which I learned are still strong memories some 24 years later (and why I chose not to go to the killing fields when visiting Phnom Penh, Cambodia). And while things are different today there are some themes that remain – an inability to accept opinions which conflict with our own – the beginning of ‘cancel culture’ and what may be the modern version of book burning – social media censorship. As Georg Hegel said ‘The one thing that we learn from history is the fact that we don’t learn from history’…
    It’s a daily practice to remember to practice tolerance, that those around us are just trying their best to deal with their own struggles and deserve our kindness. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Well said. Georg Hegel has unfortunately hit the nail on the head about the lessons we learn from history.
    I really admire your fellow countryman, Tim Minchin. His ‘9 Life Lessons’ speech to his former Uni made the point so well that we should practise tolerance and question our beliefs every so often and re-evaluate.
    I would really like to see the art of negotiation and compromise taught in schools!
    And you’re right – everyone deserves kindness!
    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. There is so much about this article that is absolutely right, horrifyingly so. Nothing has been learned by what happened in those camps, and yes, I’m absolutely certain that it would happen again in the blink of an eye if the circumstances were right, and as you pointed out, they have been happening even in our time. Schindler’s List left me completely shattered and despairing of humans…I never thought I’d see the day with not only the UK on such shaky ground with our democratic rights slowly being eroded subsequent to Brexit, but the US urged to commit what amounts to treason. And yet, despite all that Johnson has his rabid fans (I’m not one of them) and tRump has gotten off scot-free. Its very unnerving and we need to be very wary of any future PM/President or whatever their title who promises “; to make xyz great again”. I’ve banned myself from using the word ‘great’ in any context unless it’s part of a title since 2016.
    Thanks for a well written and very informative article, I certainly learned quite a lot I didn’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you – we really do need to learn, because I feel we’re on a slippery slope in the West with the rise of the right and populism.
      The speed with which Hitler siezed power was unnerving, and I do see parallels in Trump and Johnson. I really don’t understand The Johnson’s rabid fans – like you, I’m not one. The man is a proven liar and I despair that the most right-wing government in my lifetime was voted in by Labour supporters because of a single issue i.e. Brexit!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Too right. I’ve lived in the UK now for just on 20 years and I can honestly say that I have never felt less safe than in the last 4 years. Not from any outside or personal threat, but from the direction our country is going in…it makes me feel really insecure and unsettled.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I am so sorry you feel so unsettled, although I am not surprised. When I think back to the unity we felt as a nation around the London 2012 Olympics, I feel so sad that we have all become so divided. Thankfully, Mark and I have been out of the country for much the last 5 years, so we have missed the worst of the toxicity, although we have herad about it. I was always proud to be British, with the values of fairness and tolerance that implied, but I don’t feel that way any more. I never thought I’d feel ashamed to be British!

    Like

  13. Powerful stuff, Jackie. So well written. My Koos also went there and couldn’t bring himself to go in. He was put off by its apparent tourist attraction draw with coach loads of visitors and kiosks outside, so he would relate to Mark’s response. When I went to Poland, I chose not to go as a result, but I’ve read a lot about it, including a book written by a Dutch guy whose Polish wife grew up in the village around which the camp was built. They went there and he did some extensive research on the camp. Chilling and deeply troubling, but important to read and know. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so important to know. I read Adrian Sturrock’s post on Auschwitz yesterday – he describes a KFC outside the gate and people posing for selfies next to the cattle trucks used to transport the victims. It seems so wrong, but then if that’s what it takes to keep it in the psyche now that most of the veterans of that era are gone… I am very conflicted about Auschwitz.

      Like

  14. I agree. Very conflicted, particularly as I’m not sure it’s necessary to have tourist facilities to keep it in the world’s psyche. I’m sure people would want to visit Auschwitz anyway even without the KFCs etc. One of the things I appreciate so much about the WWI graveyards in northern France and Belgium is that there is no tourism whatsoever, and yet they are visited widely and treated with great and due respect, no selfie sticks, no kiosks, nothing but the quiet and deeply moving peace that surrounds them so it doesn’t have to be that way.

    Liked by 1 person

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