We Must Remember (In Detail)
This is going to be a tough read. I’m warning you. But I also implore you to read it. Because “It happened, therefore it can happen again….it can happen anywhere.” And that is why you must read this.
I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau yesterday, about 1.5 hours outside of Krakow, Poland. I went there and I listened and saw and I left. Many people, some readers of this post, have been there. Everyone knows what I am referring to when I talk about it. I think that we all have a level of collective and accumulated knowledge that brings a pain forward in our minds when we hear or say the word, Holocaust. It means something to all of us who experienced western education and who have a certain level of accumulated experience with books or media relating to the event. But we protect ourselves. Like when we hear the word “electricity”. We know what it means but we don’t do a deep dive everytime the word comes up. Who has the time?
Make the time for this.
I did a lot of reading and watching leading up to the visit because I wanted to really have my timelines and general facts straight. I read the Tattooist of Auschwitz, Night by Elie Wiesel, I watched Schindler’s List. And I watched Son of Saul.
Son of Saul was an intensely filmed movie about a sonderkommando over a period of one day in the camp, and it covers the “famous” photographic evidence. It is filmed in such a way that you follow this man at close range but in the background you see the piles of dead bodies, you hear the screams at the gas chamber doors. It doesn’t whitewash at all but it protects enough that you can get through it. I highly recommend watching.
Last night, I found myself explaining my experience to someone who lives outside the collective, accumulated knowledge of the western world. Someone who is aware of the broad brush facts of the Holocaust but was not culturally impacted. And I woke up this morning needing to share this article. Urgently. Because when you speak the truth in simple sentences it is horrifying and cold and very real.
We hear the word Holocaust and we all avert our eyes, and lower our heads and take in the “meaning” of that word, but we rarely consider the details. We need to discuss the details. It’s the bold stark details that need to be discussed over and over and over again. I learned yesterday about details that were new to me. About the crimes that were committed. Let’s be clear; these were nothing more than CRIMES committed on a massive scale by a group of sick criminals.
The Holocaust happened in my parents lifetime. My father was 23 years old when it took place. My grandparents were in their late 40’s. Late 40’s. I will assume that many people reading this are in the their late 40’s and know kids in their early 20’s.
The Holocaust happened because a group of superior-minded men, led by one crazy mother fucker, gaslit a nation into believing that their way of thinking was valid. Not scientifically supported, not proven, in fact not based on any fact whatsoever. Just “valid because I said so.” If you have watched Fox News in your life time, that is the baseline level of truth required to murder 6 million people.
Let’s be really fucking clear right here and right now. The Holocaust happen 100% because men took control. MEN took control. Men TOOK control. They took it. They just took it.
I am closely associated with one of 9 gagillion personal nightmares that is playing out because a man TOOK control. He has yet to be held in account for this taking. What the hell is wrong with us as a society that we allow this to happen over and over and over again? The consequences to human life continue to pile up in his wake. This is happening in homes on a personal level and countries on a national level all the time.
Now, it is not my intent to give that orange piece of shit any airtime, nor his jowly old man pasty skinned weasel buddy Mitch either. But the current situation south of Canada is unfolding as we speak and it’s a case of men who have taken control. Enough comparison. Back to my point.
Hitlers edict was to find the Final Solution for the “problem” of the Jews. They were labelled as less than human, among other ethnic groups, by a random man who said it should be that way. He convinced people with “fake news” that his way of thinking was valid and a lot of people believed him.
He put a system in place that ended up with other men building systems and procedures for prison camps. Systems and procedures for marginalizing, first into the ghettos, and then onto the trains, a group of human beings. Because he said it should be that way and people went along with it.
They held meetings to discuss and plan the cold blooded murder of millions of people and the subsequent disposal of their bodies and ways to conceal their crimes. Like we hold meetings to plan a fund raiser or build a website. Same, same.
Let me take you now to Auschwitz-Birkenau and share with you some snippets of what I heard and saw yesterday. Because first I saw it and I was well and truly HORRIFIED. But later when I described it to someone, I was again re-horrified by the words I was saying.
We can not just use the word “Holocaust”, like we use the word “American” and have it conjure an image in our minds. We’ve got to dig in and remember what this was.
The Holocaust took place between 1941 and 1945. In Krakow it started with the liquidation of the ghetto where the Jews had been confined by force. During the liquidation, Nazi soldiers went into people’s homes and threw their furniture out the windows. “Get out, get out.” Can you imagine that happening to you?
Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945. They liberated 7,000 people (some children) who remained of the 1,300,000 million taken there.
There were several ways to die. Some were very carefully documented and some were not at all documented, their names were not even recorded. They died on the journey, from the conditions or they were shot because some man who took control and had a gun felt it was warranted for some infraction, or simply to show others what would happen to them. ‘I’ll take this human life so you can see that if you don’t stand in this line the way I want you to, you too will die.”
You see, they had a license to kill, but in the beginning they didn’t really know how it was going to play out. They were still not sure how all these people were going to die. Just that they would. So they used this license to kill to shoot people on sight. Sort of as a warm up. Getting use to this new life of murder without consequence.
Some died from experimental medicine. Some died because Dr. Mengele wanted to know the dimensions of their internal organs, so he killed them by injection. Some died from the cold, the work. Some ran towards the electrified fences to get it over with. Many died of starvation. It turns out in Auschwitz, after some members of their work group escaped, the remaining 12 people were publicly hanged in the camp as an example. The rule was that if you killed 1 Nazi then 100 Jews would die.
There were 6 major death camps in Germany and Poland. Auschwitz was the largest. The place I visited yesterday was the site of the murder of 1,100,000 human souls.
Once the SS had their methods worked out, they moved them from the ghettos to the camps. They took the people by force and loaded them onto cattle cars, standing room only, no toilets, no food, no water, and made them travel for days with no simple comforts. They told them there would be work at the end of it, so they packed up things of value, precious items, family photos, tea pots. I saw a tea strainer someone wanted to have along, so they could build a new life in this new place with a few simple comforts. And make tea.
It’s going to get brutal now. Stay with me. For them.
Many died along the way of cold, lack of food, disease, exhaustion. The first groups were taken to Auschwitz and made to work. They were separated out and given jobs. At this time they were still trying to work out their methods of mass murder. It was here that they built the first gas chambers and crematoriums.
It was the job of the sonderkommando, based on the fact that they younger and strong, to collect the clothing, the jewelry, the valuables, the suitcases, the spectacles, the clothes, the shoes, and to separate them out because they would all be reused.
In the museum in Auschwitz you pass through a room where all the hair that was collected on liberation is kept behind glass cases. So much hair. Braided hair. Piles and piles of human hair. Piles of it. That was the part where I started to cry. The tears came and just poured down.
See the photo below of the shoes? SO MANY shoes. It went on for several display cases. So did the hair. In piles just as large. You can’t take photos because its part of a human corpse. But imagine. All the hair. All those people.
Later, after experimenting with killing methods with a ‘tester’ gas chamber over at Auschwitz, they started to get the whole mass murder process worked out. Thats when the train cars started pulling into Birkenau.
After coming off the train they would all line up for the selection. An SS man who took control would look and decide – to the left or to the right.
Mostly women, children, pregnant women, the sick, and elderly went off to the left. They couldn’t work you see. Only 20% made it to the right to work. Some went directly to the showers, others where housed in barracks, so they could work.
In the barracks they slept 4 to row in 3 tiers. The sick were on the bottom (the floor) because they couldn’t climb to the top. The walls were one brick thick. It’s Poland, in the winter it gets to sub zero temps easily and often. They had some basic clothes and thin blankets. One blanket per tier. For 4 people.
It was off the trains, on these platforms, on the rough path made of dirt and stone, that families were separated. This is where fathers and children last held hands, or laid eyes on their loved ones, before they were torn apart and separated, never to see one another again. I did not take a picture of this platform. How can you possibly photograph this unholy ground. Every single step I took twisted my stomach in another knot.
There were sights to see and comments made throughout the experience. The tour was fast paced. While this may be a function of moving 1,000’s of visitors through in an efficient matter (as the Germans did with the murder victims), it was also a blessing because you had to just keep going. You had to hold it together because it was fast. Thank God.
At one point we came to one enclave that housed a large urn on a pedestal. This was a collection of human ashes found at liberation.
You see things started to pile up near the end. Towards the time when the Soviets were getting closer. They started to have too many ashes to shovel into the river. Too many belongings to disperse. Too many bodies to cremate. Too many people to murder. Too much evidence to burn. Too many buildings to take apart and move. Too much proof of their heinous crimes.
Because the bitch of it all is this. The men who took control, they made false statements and they publicly condemned 6 million human souls as being unworthy of life.
But they knew all along that this unchecked mass murder was illegal. They were all fully aware of their crimes. They knew they were criminals and they took measures to hide the evidence. Fuckers.
Before they came up with the more efficient-less-overhead method of tattooing the humans that entered the camps, they photographed them. They kept impeccable records. Dates of birth, date of interment and date of death. The walls of one of the building we toured were lined, 3 rows high, with some of these photos.
As we walked the corridors at a pretty quick pace, I become absolutely frantic to look at the photos. To see the faces. I had to SEE those faces. I had to look at these people and see them. I looked up to top row to be sure they were seen, I looked across the hall to see both sides, I focused on as many as I could. I looked into their eyes. I said “I’m so sorry. I see you.” Those poor lost souls. The tears are streaming as I type this. It was my own moral imperative to see those people. Gah.
At the end of the prison area at Auschwitz you see the Gestapo barracks. Not far back from there you can see a house which housed the commandant and his family. His 5 children lived in that house. He went home at night to his wife and 5 children. I have no more words to follow that sentence.
At the end of it all, Rudolf Hoss, the first of three commandants, was sentenced to hang on these gallows, where prisoners had been interrogated “back in the day.” Dr. Mengele escaped justice and lived in South America until he died of natural causes.
As awful as this is, and as hard to read as it may be, please consider that this is simply one of the most well documented atrocities of our time. It is not the only one. By any stretch of the imagination.
If you are white and privileged, which I assume you are because you have an Internet connection and you are safe enough to sit and read this……please thank your God for the lot you got assigned in this life on a completely random basis. I know I did.
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I remember the marker the Nazis had for incoming victims. If you passed under you were immediately sent to your death, and I thought of my daughter, about five at the time, and she definitely would have passed under. Quite a moment. Thanks for sharing, and for bringing it into focus in a contemporary setting. Lest we forget.