Auschwitz: A Grim Reminder of the Holocaust

Auschwitz, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, Poland, was a complex of three concentration camps, Auschwitz I for death, II for slave labor, and III for transport.  It was the scene of one of the world’s greatest tragedies, the mass genocide of over one million Poles, European Jews, and Roma people (the gypsies) in the darkest years of WWII.  This was the “killing ground,” the “final solution” to what the Nazis termed a “Jewish problem.”  There is nothing we can relate to or compare with the cruelty and evil that took place in Auschwitz.  The main camp consisted of 28 barracks buildings, housing up to 20,000 prisoners at one time, who were systematically put to death, as more victims continued to arrive.  In just one two-month period of one year, almost a half a million Jews were exterminated.Â

Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, was chosen for its proximity to the railroad lines, where prisoners, rounded up from every part of the country, were transported in cattle cars and dropped off by the trainloads at Auschwitz III.  Here, they were selected and separated from their families to exist as laborers under the most inhumane conditions or to be immediately eliminated.  Others were chosen for chemical and physical experimentation.  Birkenau, the larger of the two camps, covered 425 acres, with 300 buildings that could house up to 200,000 prisoners.  Four brick buildings, with gas chambers and ovens, were added to speed up the process of mass murder as more and more Jews were seized and deported.

During the years immediately following WWII, it took some time for people, other than the survivors and relatives of the victims, to attach much credibility to the ongoing news reports of Auschwitz and other similar concentration camps.  Such stories were met with shock and disbelief; how could such things have happened.  For many of us, it wasn’t until the criminals responsible for these atrocities were put on trial that we finally faced the terrible reality of the Holocaust.  On Jul 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament combined two of the Auschwitz camps in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the third camp was subsequently destroyed.  Auschwitz I and II have been preserved for the millions of tourists who come each year to view the Museum and Birkenau, the largest Jewish graveyard in the world, where the ashes of over a million victims were scattered across the fields.  People from every country and every religious faith have shared in the sorrow and relived the nightmare of Auschwitz.

Over the entrance to the main gate of the camp, we read the irony in the sign, originally placed there by Rudolph Hoess, whose villa and garden where his children played stood next to one of the crematoriums.  The words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” translate to  “work will set you free.”  The Jews were, in fact, not brought here to work; they were brought here to die.  What spiritual release he was referring to in such “work” is beyond our comprehension.  As we walk through the area, we listen to a flow of information given by smiling, friendly tourist guides.  The scene is one of horror, where abandoned suitcases, prosthetic limbs, human hair, children’s shoes, eye glasses, and empty Zylon B gas canisters are piled together, grim reminders of the mass graves of so many innocent people.  We pass the gas chambers, the experimental lab, the sterilization ward, one of the four crematoriums, and the incoming ramp to the ovens where the original metal rollers are still in place.  We can somehow hear the cries of the dying and feel the grief that is all around us.

Where does one look in such a place, where there is nothing to see, but the reality of a tragedy that should never have occurred?  We can only contemplate and reach out in spirit, as we remember and hope that the darkest days of history will not repeat themselves.

Auschwitz was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1979 and to date over 25,000,000 have visited the site.  Tourist hotels in Krakow are only an hour away and guided tours, advisable for groups, can be arranged for 3 1/2 hours, or one and two days.  Admission is free and the Museum is open seven days a week during the following hours: 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., December through February; 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., March & November; 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., April & October; 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., May & September; and 8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. June, July, & August.

Sharon L. Slayton

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