It felt entirely appropriate getting to Auschwitz by train. My slow rattler was taking two hours to get me just 65km from Krakow to the town of Oswiecim. The cold snowy November weather merely added to the terrible sense of identification I was channelling as the train seemed to plough through the whitened fields. But it was superficial identification. For one, I had a view – something which would have been denied the hundreds of thousands who made the fateful journey in the war years - secondly I was here voluntarily, and thirdly I had a return ticket; again a luxury denied those doomed to take this journey in the 1940s.
It seemed doubly shocking that such a place could lie in the shadow of beautiful and graceful Krakow. The former capital of Poland remained the centre of the country’s scientific, artistic and cultural life in the middle of the last century. The city also had a flourishing Jewish population. Yet as the capital of the so-called "general government" during the Nazi occupation (with governor-general Hans Frank setting up his headquarters in the city’s imposing Wawel Castle), it made perfect sense for the area to be the centre of Hitler’s plans for a Final Solution to the “Jewish problem”.
The unassuming nearby town of Oswiecim was perhaps an appropriately grisly choice to house a German death camp. Prior to the war, it had a thriving Jewish population of its own – they even formed the majority of the town. They were a largely Yiddish speaking people who called the town by its German name Auschwitz. The outskirts of the town also held an old Polish brick barracks which was expropriated by the Nazis during the invasion in 1939. Initially the Germans were just looking for a place to store political prisoners and about 700 Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members were interned there in June 1940.
But gradually the scope of Auschwitz increased. There were a small number of Jews in the initial shipment, but it didn’t take long for their numbers to increase. Then came other undesirables and enemies of the Reich - the Communists, the disabled, the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the “gypsies”. This word gypsy (Zigeuner in German, which is why they were identified by the letter "Z") was a pejorative word for a people that in central Europe were known as Sinti and in South East Europe known as Roma. Possibly half a million Sinti and Roma perished in the death camps. The Sinti and Roma exhibition in Auschwitz I is one of the harrowing highlights of the visit.
Above the entrance to the camp is the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”. In 1872 the German novelist Lorenz Diefenbach used the phrase (roughly translated as “work liberates”) as the title of a novel and it was successfully adopted by the 1920s Weimar government to promote their public works program. The Nazis knew a good thing when they saw it and continued to use the phrase in their propaganda program. The commander of Dachau ordered it to be put on the entrance gate to his concentration camp and it was repeated at Sachsenhausen, Terezin, and most notably, at Auschwitz. Here prisoners walked under the gate, accompanied by the strains of a Jewish orchestra.
But not many Jews had this experience. Auschwitz was too small to cope with the growing number of prisoners. The Wannsee Conference had authorised the Final Solution and Germany needed a bigger and more efficient camp to process the vast numbers involved. In 1941, they built Auschwitz II in the woods some three kilometres away in a place the Poles called Brzezinka and the Germans translated as Birkenau. This was a vast emporium of death. No orchestras here, nor any pretence of “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Here, a massive tower overlooked the main gate and the railway tracks led straight to the gas ovens at the far end of the camp.
Auschwitz II was a massive operation and the largest of all the Nazi death camps. Most of the killing, torture, and medical experiments took place here. Cattle cars unloaded their cargo and those lucky enough to be selected not to die immediately were sent to one of the camps to work as slave labourers. These “lucky ones” merely had their fate postponed to overwork, hunger, sickness and a slow lingering death. But the vast majority were sent straight to the gas chambers. Four crematoria fuelled by the hydrogen cyanide insecticide known as Zyklon (Cyclone) B efficiently murdered 20,000 people each day. Evidence of the vast numbers involved is retained in the museum. Behind one glass exhibit are a vast collection of 20,000 pairs of shoes, yet this barely represents one day of gassing. There are also masses of suitcases, spectacles, human hair and other poignant reminders of the daily lives of the hundreds of thousands who died here.
By January 1945, the Red Army were closing in on the camp. Himmler ordered the camp to be destroyed and sent 60,000 survivors on a mid-Winter death march back to the Reich. Only 20,000 survived. Another 7,500 too weak to march were left behind at Auschwitz and liberated by the Russians. At least 1.5 million died (other estimates are as high as 5 million) in the camps themselves, the vast majority at Auschwitz II.
The word “Auschwitz” continues to be synonymous with the Shoah as a whole. It remains newsworthy on an almost daily basis. This week for instance, The Scotsman told the story of how educational trips to Auschwitz were saved despite government cutbacks. Meanwhile Germany is pursuing the arrest of Holocaust denier Gerald Frederick Tobin who argued the Auschwitz death camp was too small for the mass murder of Jews to have been carried out there. Across the pond, the Isthmus of Madison, Wisconsin reviewed Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” about the 8-year-old son of a German officer appointed the commandant of the camp, while the LA Times reported the death of 80 year old art dealer Jan Krugier who survived the camp and the subsequent death march. As for me, having spent several absorbing hours of tramping around these sacred grounds, I silently took the train back to Krakow thinking about the frailty of human reason.