As we have come to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it seems an appropriate time for this post. —TMLL
“…Krakow is also just a few hours’ drive from Oswiecim, the former Auschwitz prison complex set up by the Nazis during World War II. The Nazis persecuted the Communists in Poland. After the war, when the Communists came to power via the Soviet Union, the Polish parliament voted to preserve the Auschwitz prison camps as an historical monument.
The Nazis constructed this prison complex in 1940. There was a double wire fence around the Auschwitz camp and lookout towers were stationed at points along the fence. The guided tour of the prison complex yielded some reminders of the horror of war. The Nazis would kill a dozen prisoners if one prisoner escaped. Stakes rose up from the ground; nearby markers explained the prisoners were dangled from these stakes while tied up with their hands behind their backs. One group of cells was described as where prisoners were sent to starve to death. In frames on the walls were lines of photos of some prisoners. The information under each photo told of the prisoner’s entry date and death date. Some died in days, some in weeks; one took 18 months. That sounded the worst. Information on prison life noted the prisoners received 15,000 calories a day, had access to toilets twice a day for 30 seconds at a time, had a change of underwear every three weeks, a shower once a month, and were punished for helping one another. The camps were set on a swamp so it was wet, and the winters were miserable. We saw a wall against which prisoners were executed; the Nazis had boarded the windows of the adjacent building so there wouldn’t be any witnesses. But prisoners could still see the wall from an attic of another building. We saw cells where signs said prisoners were forced to stand through the night (four to a phone booth- sized stall) before going out for another day of hard labor. The prisoners were mustered for a count and then marched to work to an orchestra’s music. Nazi propaganda photos showed an orchestra playing at Auschwitz.
Signs at Auschwitz said it was some British soldiers imprisoned there who were instrumental in getting the word out to the Red Cross that the Nazi’s bathing facilities were gas chambers. We saw the gas chamber and were told they put pellets of Cyclon B into the under- ground room via the ceiling pipes, which caused people to die a very painful death from asphyxiation after 20 minutes. The Nazis would gun their trucks and motor- cycles when stuffing the final screaming crowds inside the gas chambers, which were complete with shower nozzles. It seemed there had been definite efforts to keep ‘the final solution’ a State secret. The corpses were shorn of hair and emptied of gold teeth before being triple-stacked onto coffin-like slots that were pushed into an oven. The burnt remains were used to fill in the swampy area around the camps or distributed for fertilizer.
The Nazis had transported Jews from all over Europe to Auschwitz and told them they were going to be resettled there. We saw train tickets that some had even purchased to get to the camps. Nazis placed the prisoners’ belongings into warehouses to sort and ship the goods to Germany. The Jews could only take one piece of luggage to their new ‘homes’ so many took precious items with them. There were rooms of luggage that were marked with the owner’s surname, address and birth date; rooms of kitchen goods, rooms of shoes, rooms showing piles of human hair and rooms with stacks of eye glasses. Birkenau was the largest prison camp constructed in the Auschwitz complex. The retreating Nazis destroyed much of Birkenau, but American planes had taken aerial photos of the camps prior to their destruction. There were four gas chambers that held 2,000 people each. I saw the infamous track where the train pulled in and the platform on which Nazis determined those who would be sent for immediate extermination and those who would become laborers. People getting off the trains didn’t know they were going to die. There was a black and white photo of three boys (about ages three, five, and seven) walking together with their arms around each other’s shoulders looking hopeful though timid, and they were headed toward the gas chambers. They reminded me of my three nephews when they were younger; that is when the horror of the place finally got to me. That and the pair of tiny red ballet-style shoes with bows that were in the shoe pile in the room full of children’s shoes. I think subsequent reflec- tion proved more disturbing than the actual viewing. I returned to Krakow and procured some bison vodka (having a brand name pronounced shoe-brew-fkah) and blamed my inner discord on the full moon.”
—from Chapter 19 “Mushrooming Anxiety” in Tattoo—Journeys on My Mind
Buy it. Read it. Let me know what you think. –TMLL