The shadow of Auschwitz
By John Lichfield
27 January 2005
Ahead, through the swirling snow, looms a single railway line, disappearing through a tower in a long, red-brick building - the terminus of a short branch line to Auschwitz-Birkenau built in the spring of 1944. Beyond are three long railway sidings, tall barbed-wire enclosures, wooden watch-towers, and dark huts in neat lines. Some huts are ruined. Others stand pristine in freshly fallen snow, as if enchanted by a curse and frozen for all time.
All is symmetrical and orderly, the product of rational, intelligent minds - modern, Western minds.
If you stroll to the end of the railway tracks, you find the rubble of two buildings strewn in front of a small birch wood (Birke means birch tree.) Two other ruins stand a little way over to the right. The remains of two cruder buildings can be seen in the distance.
Inside, or just outside, these six buildings at least one million people, almost all of them Jews, were gassed and cremated during 1942, 1943 and 1944. Birkenau, only part of the Auschwitz complex, was, among other things, a factory, a purpose-built human abattoir, an assembly line of death.
The factory's raw materials were men, women and children, whose only crime was to be Jewish or Gypsy. The Jews came initially from other parts of Poland and nearby Slovakia. Later, they were transported for hundreds of miles across Europe, from Greece, from Hungary, from France, from Belgium, from the Netherlands, to be reduced to ashes, their gold teeth, hair, clothes, false limbs recycled into raw materials for the Nazi war effort. These, however, were merely by-products. The chief purpose of Auschwitz-Birkenau was to destroy a race and to obliterate the 800-year-old Jewish-European civilisation. (In this second task, the Nazis succeeded.)
Auschwitz was not, in itself, the Holocaust. There were five other Nazi death camps in Poland, some of whose names are still scarcely known to the general public (Belzec, where 550,000 Jews are thought to have died; Sobibor, where 200,000 died).
Auschwitz has, nonetheless, become the prime symbol of the bureaucratically organised, orderly frenzy of killing in which at least five million European Jews were murdered by the Nazis (maybe as many as six million) between 1939 and 1945.
Many other victims were also deemed unfit to live by the perverted Darwinism of Nazi, racial ideology: not just Gypsies but also homosexuals and the handicapped. Pre-planned Nazi mass murders were also carried out - it is sometimes forgotten in the West - of hundreds of thousands of Russians and at least 1,500,000 Polish officers, intellectuals, students, priests and randomly seized civilians. The Poles were slaughtered to reduce their country to a slave state, permanently colonised by Germans.
On a first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the mind revolts against the proximity of roundabouts and barbed wire, of supermarkets and gas chambers; against the juxtaposition of the death camp and the pleasant Polish town of Oswiecim, now as much part of the European Union as Dorking or Macclesfield. In truth, this is no anachronism, but a useful reminder. The Holocaust began three years after Walt Disney made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; 20 years before The Beatles and Swinging London. Auschwitz is part of Modern Times.
Today, politicians from 40 countries will travel to the Birkenau camp to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the discovery of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in January 1945. Up to 400 survivors - the remaining, fit survivors of the maybe 60,000 survivors in 1945 - are expected to be there.
Among those at the Birkenau commemoration will be Raphael Esrail, 80, who was taken to Auschwitz from France in February 1944, at the age of 19, and is now secretary general of the French association of Auschwitz victims. "There have been other anniversaries and there will be others still to come," he said, "but this is maybe the most important. First, because it will be the last big anniversary to have so many living eyewitnesses. Most of us are already in our eighties."
"But it is crucial also for another reason. The world has changed. And not in the way we had hoped. After the war, we comforted ourselves that this terrible experience might finally teach mankind to love mankind, but what do we see now? We see again the rise of anti-Semitism and we see a world torn apart by fanatical hatreds and by absolute certainties."
In other words, the most important lesson that we can learn from today is that Auschwitz is not just part of our history. It is part of our present. This is a lesson that seems to have escaped the 45 per cent of Britons - according to a recent poll - who have not heard of Auschwitz.
In truth, the story of the Holocaust is imperfectly understood, even by many of us who think we know what happened. (I was astonished by my own ignorance when I visited Auschwitz, even though my father was Jewish, even though some of my distant, Slovakian-Jewish relatives almost certainly died there.)
The details are imperfectly known, even to honest, specialist historians, because so much of the evidence was destroyed by the Nazis. The story was further muddied by the Soviet domination of Poland up to 1990 - years when Auschwitz was turned into an "anti-fascist" shrine and the suffering of the Jews was pushed into the background.
Did 5,000,000 Jews die in the Holocaust or 6,000,000? Even now, honest historians disagree. The generally accepted figure of 1,100,000 dead in Auschwitz alone (including 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles and 21,000 gypsies) is a "conservative estimate", according to the head archivist of the Polish state museum on the site, Piotr Setkiewicz. "It was almost certainly more than that. These are just the people that we can say with absolute certainty died here."
One of the perverted oddities of the Final Solution is the mixture of brazen pride and shame with which it was implemented. Intelligent, educated men believed that they had a right to destroy millions of fellow human beings. At the same time, they felt it was necessary to lie about, and cover up, what they were doing. The same twin impulses - denial on the one hand, and pride in the Holocaust on the other - persist among Nazi apologists to this day.
The 60th anniversary has brought an abundance of new studies, including the excellent BBC television series on Auschwitz, and the accompanying book by Laurence Rees. All the same, confusions remain in many educated and unprejudiced minds: confusions which are often exploited by Holocaust-deniers and relativisers. There is, especially, an abiding confusion about the different kinds of camps which existed in the Nazi archipelago of evil.
Broadly speaking, there were labour camps, concentration camps and death camps. Life in the labour and concentration camps, such as Belsen, south of Hamburg, and Dachau, north of Munich, was barbaric. Life expectancy was short. These camps had tens of thousands of political prisoners, and resistance activists, from Germany and from occupied countries - and some high-profile Jews.
Much of the confusion, in the West, arises because these camps, in the western part of Germany, were liberated by the British and the Americans. They provided the images which were first seared onto the world's memory and conscience: images of walking skeletons in striped uniforms and heaps of emaciated bodies being cleared by bulldozers.
But these were not the death camps. There were no planned mass killings - no gas chambers or crematoria - in Belsen or Dachau or Ravensbrück or Mauthausen or anywhere within Germany's pre-war borders.
The Holocaust happened further east, in Poland, notably at Auschwitz but also in five other camps, some of which were no larger than three or four football pitches: Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno and Majdanek.
The unfamiliarity of these names - apart from Treblinka - is significant, and deliberate. They were dismantled, and the ground ploughed over and planted with trees, by the SS at the end of 1943. By that time, it is estimated that 1,700,000 people had been murdered there, mostly Polish Jews, mostly killed by carbon-monoxide poisoning (Zyklon-B gas was an Auschwitz speciality.)
Mr Setkiewicz says: "We have very, very little direct information on what happened in these places. There are few records, few eyewitness accounts, no survivors. We know only that transports took Jews out of the ghettos established by the Nazis in Warsaw and other cities and they took them to these camps, which were set up as extermination centres. There was no room for people to live or work in these places. No one came back."
Auschwitz was unique. It was the only site which contained both an extermination camp and a labour camp (in fact 40 different camps, spread over an area covering 40 square kilometres, the Auschwitz "zone of interest").
Because both kinds of camp existed side by side, there are survivors, Jewish survivors and Polish survivors, to tell us what happened in Auschwitz. But the existence of both kinds of camp on one site, or at one complex of sites, is also fertile ground for the negationists.
Look, they say, Auschwitz had a swimming pool; it had a brothel for inmates, an orchestra, a sauna. How bad could it have been? Yes, Auschwitz had an orchestra but most of the 1,100,000 people who died there never heard it play.
The complex has two main camps: the original Polish army barracks taken over by the Nazis in 1940, and the much larger Birkenau camp, three kilometres away, built by slave labour from October 1941.
The original Auschwitz camp - which looks like a pleasant army base or a university campus - has its own horrific tale to tell. It was here that the first mass killings of Poles and Russian prisoners of war took place.
It was here that the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, devised methods of mass slaughter with Zyklon-B in the first of the Auschwitz gas chambers (built at the end of the garden where his children played). It was here that the SS doctor Josef Mengele conducted medical experiments on twins and pregnant women.
It was here that the orchestra, comprised of musically talented inmates, played merry dance tunes and waltzes as the half-starved work groups - kommandos - struggled in and out of the gate marked Arbeit macht frei (work makes you free).
The swimming pool and brothel also existed - but only for the kapos or inmates promoted to be overseers.
Tens of thousands of people died in the original camp but the greater slaughter happened down the road at Birkenau, conceived originally as a labour camp but then developed into an industrial killing-machine.
Another grim distinction needs to be made. The Belsen-generated image of the Holocaust - emaciated people in striped uniforms being herded into gas chambers - is largely false. Most of those who died at Auschwitz never wore camp uniforms. They never received a number tattooed on their forearm (another Auschwitz speciality which did not occur elsewhere). Most were led, or taken in trucks, directly from the trains to the chambers. They died, not as dehumanised skeletons, but as people looking and feeling like citizens of the mid-20th century.
When a train arrived (from Hungary or Holland or France), the prisoners - 1,200 to 1,500 on each train - were divided into columns of men and columns of women and children. The SS doctors and guards, often behaving with extreme politeness, selected maybe 200 young men and women from each train to be admitted to the camp as slaves for the Nazi war machine. The remainder were taken to the far end of the site - to the place where tomorrow's ceremony will take place. They were made to undress and told they had to take a shower. They were led into the gas chambers and murdered as they huddled in family groups. Their bodies were removed by the members of the sonderkommando - the Jews and other prisoners forced to do the most horrific work to protect the minds of the SS guards. Gold teeth, rings and hair were cut from the bodies before they were burnt. (The hair was made into, among other things, socks for submariners.)
It is estimated that Birkenau, when functioning at its most efficient, could murder and burn 20,000 people in a day.
How do we know all this? The Holocaust deniers say we don't know; that it is largely made up or exaggerated; that no evidence exists that the gas chambers - destroyed by the SS in January 1945 - were gas chambers. (On surviving plans they are described as "morgues".)
In truth, the amount of direct and circumstantial evidence of what happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau is huge. Twenty-five photographs were taken by an unknown SS guard, discovered in an album when the camp was liberated, showing the process of "selection" of trainloads of Hungarian Jews in 1944. Eyewitness accounts have been given by SS men and by survivors, including members of the sonderkommando, the few who survived and others who buried their testimony in the earth of the camp.
Plans show the "morgues" were designed to be gas-tight and have a high ambient temperature - counter-productive for a morgue but necessary to activate pellets of Zyklon-B. (One plan also exists which labels the gas chamber not as as a morgue, but as a "gas chamber").
Mr Setkiewicz says: "Do we have one piece of evidence which proves beyond all doubt that the Holocaust happened? No. We have a thousand."
The museum at the original Auschwitz camp presents this evidence in crushing, disturbing mass. Human hair is piled behind a glass window and covers the area of two tennis courts. Similar picture-windows display heaps of shoes, spectacles, suitcases, false legs and arms, crutches and clothes found when the camp was liberated six decades ago.
A newer exhibition has also been opened in the "sauna" at Birkenau. This was, in fact, the building where the few selected to work and suffer, rather than to die instantly, were stripped, shaved and tattooed. This display speaks of the individual ordinariness of thousands of obliterated lives. It shows hundreds of photographs, mysteriously found in a suitcase at the site - all of them pre-war family snaps taken by Jews living in the town of Bedzin: snaps of weddings and walking trips, grinning young men acting the fool, brothers arm in arm, happy picnics and shopping expeditions.
In the next room is a display of objects, confiscated from Jews as they arrived at the camp: banal objects, precious objects, objects which suggest that many of those who arrived here had no conception of the fate awaiting them. There are cigarette lighters and cheese-graters, picnic baskets and kettles, razors and chess sets, hairbrushes and cameras.
Once again, you are reminded that the Holocaust happened in a time like the present, to people like you and me. Visiting Auschwitz, and seeing sights like these, you wrestle with an impossible question. What makes Auschwitz and the Holocaust different? Are they different?
Massacres and genocides have been carried out throughout history, from Genghis Khan to the Crusades, from the American Plains to Turkish Armenia, Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.
Even the numbers killed in the Holocaust are not unique. Stalin killed more, for reasons of expediency and terror, than Hitler killed for reasons of race and ideology. Studies in comparative evil are barren and pointless: all of these crimes are monstrous. And yet there is something about the Holocaust which sets it apart, in its essence, if not its enormity.
Here was a genocide willed and planned by a modern industrial state, using all the paraphernalia of modernity, from trains to toxic gases. Here was a genocide, willed not just because a people were occupying space coveted by another people but because of a self-induced, obsessive, racial fear and hatred. In no other genocide, before or since, have hundreds of thousands of people been sought out and shipped hundreds of miles, at great expense, to their instant murder. In no other genocide have bodies been treated as industrial raw materials. It took a very advanced state to conceive and organise such an elaborate, bureaucratic genocide. It took all the resources of modern politics and mass media to brain-wash an entire people so that they were complicit in murder on an industrial scale.
What is the way to Auschwitz? The road does not just start beside a roundabout and a BP petrol station.
Teresa Swiebocka, the senior curator at the Auschwitz museum said: "The Holocaust did not begin in 1939 or 1941. It began many years earlier. It began with an obsession that one nation, one race, had absolute wisdom and absolute rights, superior to those of other races or religions.
"The question people should ask when they come here, or watch the anniversary ceremonies, is how can civilised people in a modern state be brought so far and so low? How does it begin? At what point do you take a turning which leads you eventually on to a road marked Auschwitz?"
Henry Bulawko, 86, a journalist and writer, was arrested as a resistance worker in Paris, identified as a Jew and shipped to Auschwitz. As a young man, he was selected to work rather than to die and survived for more than 18 months. As the Red Army neared in January 1945, he was forced to join the "march of death" into Germany but escaped. He survived in the forests until Soviet troops found him.
His sister, Freda, brother-in-law and baby niece died in the camps. The rest of his family survived in France.
"Even on the train to Auschwitz, we didn't know what awaited us. We didn't know that we were being sent to our deaths. A few of the younger men wanted to try to escape but the women in the wagon came to plead with us, and said: 'No, please don't. If you do that, we will suffer and our children will suffer. You see, it won't be so bad. They will make us work but it won't be so bad.'
"Even when we arrived, when the older men, and women and children, were separated and placed on trucks, people were saying: 'See, the Germans are not so cruel as all that. They are a civilised people. They are not going to make the old people and the children walk.' We didn't know that they were being taken straight to the gas chambers.
"Never before or since have people been brought for hundreds of miles from other countries, just to be killed, to be killed instantly at their end of the journey, just because of who they were. We were sought out, rounded up, labelled, transported, numbered and murdered, like animals, like rats, just because we were Jews."
Monty Bergerman believed he was going to a "better place" when in 1943, aged 12, he and his family were taken from the Lodz ghetto in Poland to Auschwitz.But when he arrived, he was told to queue on the left while his father, aged 46, was led the opposite way, towards the gas chambers of Birkenau.
His mother and 18-year-old brother had already died in the ghetto, where the family had been forcibly moved in 1940. He was separated from his sister at Auschwitz and found himself alone. "When we first arrived, we were ordered to take off our clothes and given a striped uniform. They woke us up at 4am every day for a daily head count. We would have to parade in front of the guards who told us to stand on our toes and whipped us from behind."
In the years that followed, Mr Bergerman, 77, who now lives in Edgware, north-west London, witnessed acts of extraordinary evil, watchingas guards killed and tortured inmates for sport. He was forced to bury the dead - and near dead - in mass graves. He was beaten, worked relentlessly and lived in a state of semi-starvation and constant fear for his life. "We became like animals. We didn't feel like human beings any more. All we could think of was the next piece of bread."
After six months in Auschwitz, he was sent to Buchenwald in Germany. As the Allies advanced in 1945, he was transported to a camp in the Czech Republic on an open cattle train. "There was a period when the food rations stopped for four weeks. Occasionally, the SS would throw half a loaf of bread in one wagon and laugh and take photos as we tried to get to the bread. After four weeks, we began eating grass and dead bodies.
"I still have nightmares about it, even now. I can forgive what happened but I can never forget."
When Natalia Karpf was caught trying to escape Tarnow ghetto in Poland with her sister, Helena, in December 1943, she knew she being taken to Plaszow concentration camp to be executed.
It was only when the camp's commander Amon Göth heard Ms Karpf, a virtuoso concert pianist, had arrived, and ordered her to entertain him at his birthday party, that she escaped death. "We were being taken in a bunker to be shot when I was told I would have to play at his birthday party," she said.
Ms Karpf, then 31, had not touched a piano for four years and felt terrified at performing in front of Göth and a room of Gestapo officers.
"I had not played since 1939 and my fingers were stiff. The guests were all looking at me and Göth called me 'Sarah' - the Nazis called all Jewish women Sarah - and told me to 'play now'. I sat down and started to play Chopin's Nocture because I have always found it very sad," she said.
Göth's manner towards her changed after her performance and he told the officers she should stay alive. Ms Karpf, 93, who lives in north-west London, was ordered to perform on a number of occasions along with many other Jewish musicians.
After 10 months at the camp, she was moved with her sister to Auschwitz-Birkenau in a cattle train in 1944. After 24 hours, she was tattooed with an identity number - a sign that she would live.
She said: "There are young people now who do not know what Auschwitz means. They just cannot imagine the humiliation and beatings and torture that a human can inflict."
EVENTS FOR HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY
Poland: Official ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau at 2.30pm in Oswiecim. Attending are presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jacques Chirac of France, Horst Köhler of Germany, Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, Moshe Katsav of Israel and Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland; from Britain, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Prince Edward
London: Talk led by Trude Levi, a survivor, at City Hall at 12.30-1.15pm. The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to host a reception at St James's Palace for 600 survivors and liberators of the Nazi death camps. The Queen then to attend a Holocaust memorial service at Westminster Hall.
Jerusalem: Israel holds its national anti-Semitism day.