Over my years of travel, I have had the privilege of being a passenger aboard some of the most famous of the world’s trains: The Orient Express, the Trans Siberian, the Indian Pacific, and Africa’s Blue Train. These trains are among the world’s most storied rail services. With polished wood, sumptuous upholstery, antique fixtures and unparalleled service, these trains epitomize the glamor and elegance of the Golden Age of travel during the 20s and 30s. Today, when passengers board modern reproductions of trains like these, there is an instant dose of nostalgia that many believe is worth the expense.
Of the train trips I have taken, however, the one that made the deepest impression upon me was not those journeys made aboard one these fine trains. Rather, it was on a simple “local” train that I took in 2012 when I traveled from Krakow to Oswiesim, Poland–the home of the single place in the world that most typifies “man’s inhumanity to man.” This short 40-mile journey took me for the second time to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.
I had visited here in 1995, arriving that time by car and I must say that arriving at this awful place by train had a totally different effect upon me. Try as I did during the one-hour journey, I could not rid my mind of the images of the poor, condemned souls who traveled these very same tracks so many years ago–many of whom had no idea of the horrific death that awaited them. While I sat comfortably in my padded seat, most of those destined for Auschwitz in the 1940s were forced to stand upright, crammed into cattle cars with no water, food, or toilet facilities, Many of the elderly were DOA when they arrived at the platform inside the camp.
The Holocaust is such a horrific and unthinkable chapter in human history that the temptation to repress it is far easier than coming to grips with the depth of human depravity it exposes. The magnitude and the results of the Holocaust are so devastating we can barely imagine that it could even happen at all. This is precisely why we must remember and forever denounce this scar upon human history.
Try to imagine, for a moment, what could have been accomplished by those who were murdered here. What discoveries could have been made, what books written, what ideas promulgated, what artistic masterpieces bequeathed to the human race. The talent and the promise of these generations of European Jews has been lost to the world forever.
A Polish couple with their three young children were sitting just a few seats away from me. The Holocaust Institute estimates that at least 100,000 children under the age of 12 were murdered at Auschwitz. Looking into their faces, so animated and innocent, I wondered how some regime, any regime, could systematically plan and successfully murder so many millions of innocent people.
During the years of my professorship at Mercer University I was amazed and confounded to discover how many students had never heard the word “Auschwitz.” I fear that ignorance about the Holocaust is far more wide-spread than we may realize. So because of the failure of our culture to come to grips with this ugly chapter of human history and because 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Auschwitz, I thought it appropriate to write about the Holocaust in general and Auschwitz in particular.
Among the scores of concentration camps operated by the Nazis, Auschwitz is the most widely known and the most lethal. Of the six millions human beings murdered by the Nazis, about 20 percent–some 1.1 million individuals–died at Auschwitz. I have had occasion to visit Treblinka, Sorbibor, and Belzec. In these instances, the Nazis had time to conceal the evidence of the atrocities they had committed. Little remains at these sites except for various memorials and markers. At Auschwitz, however, the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes remain for all to see. Sure, they used dynamite on the gas chambers and ovens in their vain attempt to cover up their existence, but you can look down into theses subterranean chambers and see clearly what they their purpose had been.
Let your imagination take you back in time to early 1945. Even in such an horrific place as this, in January of that year, good news swept throughout the camp. In excited, hushed whispers many of the thousands of persons imprisoned there were learning that the Red Army was only a few miles away. They would finally be liberated! The bad news, however, was also making its rounds: The camp guards were organizing forced marches for those prisoners who remained. They would be herded toward the West, deeper into areas still controlled by the Third Reich. These marches would later come to be known as a “death marches” because many of those who were forced to leave died along the way from illness, starvation, fatigue, and from the cold. Any who fell behind and could not keep up were shot to death on the spot and left where they fell.
The impending collapse of Auschwitz had caused a marked deterioration in the already deplorable conditions at the camp. Little water and food remained. There was no heat in the barracks against the bitter winter temperatures. The ovens used to incinerate the corpses dragged from the gas chambers had stopped working, and the dead were stacked in huge piles around the compound.
One ingenious prisoner devised a plan to survive until liberation without being forced to march miles through the winter snow. He hid himself underneath a pile of corpses where he patiently waited almost 40 hours for the camp to be liberated.
Then in the mid-afternoon on January 27, 1945, soldiers of the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army arrived at the camp. These professional, battle-hardened fighters who were all too familiar with death, were shocked and sickened by what they found. These soldiers encountered almost 9,000 survivors, mostly elderly and young children who had been left behind.
Townspeople and the Red Cross worked tirelessly to help these survivors; however, what these folks witnessed inside the camp was a gruesome sight indeed. Bulldozers had been brought in to push mounds of bodies into mass graves. Prisoners, weakened and starved, patiently waited in line to be sprayed with disinfectant. Some of town’s people turned away when they saw these retched souls whose emaciated bodies were scarred and riddled with gaping sores. The stench of death permeated every corner of the camp.
When Soviet soldiers poured into the camp, they found several warehouses that had not been successfully burned down by the Nazis. They were filled with massive quantities of other people’s belongings. They found more than 100,000 pairs of eyeglasses, more than a million items of men and women’s clothing and nearly eight tons of human hair. The Nazis wasted nothing.
Auschwitz was originally conceived as a concentration camp that was to be used as a detention center for the many Polish citizens arrested after Germany annexed the country in 1939. These detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members, and luminaries from the intellectual and scientific communities. Hundreds of university professors and clergymen were imprisoned here. The original camp (Auschwitz I) evolved into a “forced” labor camp selling labor to local industries. The camp was later augmented by two additional camps often designated as Auschwitz II and Auschwitz III. It was Auschwitz II (known as Birkenau), created by the SS in 1941, that was monstrously designed for the specific purpose of killing other human beings. Birkenau included several “shower rooms” in which prisoners were gassed to death, as well as giant ovens designed for the disposal of the dead. Also, thousands of prisoners were also used in grotesque medical experiments overseen and performed by the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, known as “the Angel of Death.”
Trains entered Birkenau through the “Gate of Death” and proceeded to an unloading ramp where the victims underwent “the selection.” Families were divided and lined up in two columns, men and older boys in one column and women and children of both sexes in the other. Then the camp “doctors” would evaluate them on sight and instantly decide whether they would live to work as forced laborers, or whether they would go straight to the gas chamber.
Those victims who were selected to be murdered were told that they had to be disinfected in the “showers.” The Nazi and Ukrainian guards herded the victims only a few yards to the steps that lead down into the gas chamber. After undressing, they were ordered to enter the gas chamber with their arms raised above their heads. This posture would allow as many people as possible to fit into the gas chamber. The Nazis had learned that the tighter the gas chamber was packed, the faster the victims would suffocate.
Today, believe it or not, there are those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened at all! To these people, I say, take the train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walk thorough the Gate of Death and see the enormous size and scope of this place. Look down into the remains of the gas chambers. Try to imagine the horror and the fear of those who arrived here by cattle car. Read the words inscribed upon the English memorial placed at the end of the railroad tracks adjacent to the gas chambers: “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.” Then see if you remain willing to deny the Holocaust.
Next time: “The Passion Play at Oberammergau”