The History Place - Points of View

'It's Amazing That a Bird Can Sing Here'

by Barbara Beckwith

"Be prepared: You'll be walking in the ashes of the dead," a colleague from the United States reminded me the night before we were to go to Auschwitz. When the chimneys of the crematoria were blown up by the retreating Nazis, they were so filled with human ashes that human remains coated the fields for miles around.

Three months after I visited the U.S. Holocaust Museum, I had the opportunity to find out how truthful its presentation is, and to consider the Holocaust from the perspectives of people from all over the world. As part of an International Catholic Union of the Press (UCIP) meeting in April in Krakow, Poland, about 30 of us journalists and editors made the pilgrimage to Oswiecim, which was given the German name of Auschwitz after the 1939 fall of Poland to the Nazis.

Auschwitz began as a concentration camp in 1940 for Polish political prisoners. Then the Nazis began to deport to the camp people from all the countries they conquered, mainly Jews, but also Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, Czechs, Slavs and others. The site was selected because of the convenient rail lines with spurs coming directly into the camp. In 1941 a second camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, was built a mile away. Mass killing began in 1942. The elaborate complex of gas chambers and crematoria with giant smokestacks was actually at Birkenau. In 1943 Auschwitz III was established at German chemical plants, steelworks, mines and factories where the prisoners could provide cheap labor.

One and a half million people were probably put to death at the Auschwitz camps, although this number is hard to document. By the end of the war people were no longer being registered, photographed or tattooed, but sent, nameless, directly to their deaths. At its largest in 1942 Auschwitz I housed 20,000 people; by 1943 Auschwitz II-Birkenau housed 100,000. Nearly all of those not killed immediately died from hunger, execution, hard labor, punishments and the appalling sanitary conditions.

A Prison Inside a Concentration Camp

We toured the brick buildings of Auschwitz, walked under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign beside the rail line and barbed wire, saw the building where hideous medical experiments involving sterilization were performed, and stood in the first gas chambers where it was calculated how much Zyklon B and how much time was needed to kill so many people in so much space.

All personal effects brought to the camp were confiscated by the SS to be recycled to German families. We saw Jewish prayer shawls, toothbrushes, shaving brushes and mugs, artificial limbs and spectacles. The shoes left by dead prisoners, shoes that looked as if their owners would return momentarily but never came back after their "showers," affected me more than I can say. A woman journalist from Malaysia said the hair covered with dust (and human ashes) got to her. The hair shaved from the dead and cut from those selected for work was made into blankets and haircloth (a graphic reminder of practicality gone mad). Our Polish guide looked at the two of us women and said she had decided not to show us the stacks of baby carriages; we thanked her. On display is only a fraction of what the camp's storehouses once contained; as the Nazis fled the camp, they blew up 30 warehouses of such items.

We saw Block 11, the infamous Death Block, which the guide described as "a prison inside a concentration camp inside occupied Poland." At the "Wall of Death" the SS shot thousands of prisoners. In the courtyard prisoners were flogged or hanged using a stake through their arms bent behind their backs. The wall nowadays is covered with flowers; while we were there, a group of Polish schoolchildren processed in singing and carrying more flowers. Inside Block 11 we saw "standing cells" where four men were corralled in a 3' x 3' cubicle and made to hold one another up until all were dead; another American called this the worst thing he has ever seen.

In the assembly square all prisoners had to turn out for roll call, the living carrying the dead, for the sake of accurate German counts.

The gallows are still in place in back where the camp commandant, Rudolf Höss, was hanged after the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army.

Birkenau Gas Chambers Are Rubble

"It's amazing that a bird can sing here," a Canadian colleague said when we heard chirping while walking around Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Here rail spurs lead right in to the point of selection. To the right were the gas chambers and crematoria; to the left, the barracks. Usually, the prisoners had had an awful ride, crammed like cattle into closed boxcars, often without food or water for seven or even 10 days.

Birkenau still has the wooden barracks in the back, and only brick chimneys in the front. (Desperate Poles after the war raided the camp for building and burning materials.) Many barracks were made from converted stables, with three-tiered berths for sleeping. Our guide said that one woman survivor was surprised to discover that there had been latrines in back; during the two years she was there she never knew that.

(Here at Birkenau Anne Frank and her sister Margot were confined after being hidden in the Amsterdam attic apartment of their father's company and before being sent to Bergen-Belsen camp where they died. It is Frank's famous diary that introduces most young people to the Holocaust.)

The gas chambers and crematoria were blown up by the retreating SS in 1945 in an attempt to conceal what they had done. The concrete chunks and twisted metal pieces are preserved.

'We Are All Victims, All Perpetrators'

Amid the crematoria ruins, at the end of the railway lines that were for so many literally "the end of the line," is the modernistic International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz, dedicated in 1967. It was here that our group held a prayer service. Father Owen Campion, associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor and UCIP's ecclesiastical adviser, reminded the journalists from many countries that we are all victims and all perpetrators.

Our German colleagues, some of whom had themselves resisted the Nazis or had family who had, were uncharacteristically subdued. The international president, Dr. Gunther Mees from Muenster, remarked when he saw young people picnicking on the lawn in front of the Auschwitz visitors' center that he feared they will come to treat Auschwitz as commonplace and the Holocaust as trivial. They are "distancing themselves" from what happened here even as they become more familiar with it.

A Jesuit priest from Pakistan wondered aloud how it is that these things still keep happening throughout the world. He mentioned a new finding of bones and skulls in Cambodia that indicates another mass murder by the Khmer Rouge.

Our Polish guide, who normally works in the public relations office for the Auschwitz State Museum, said she cannot give these tours more than once a month. How she can do them at all is a testimony to the human struggle to understand and remember.

Copyright © 1996 St. Anthony Messenger Press All Rights Reserved

Barbara Beckwith served as Managing Editor of St. Anthony Messenger and is a graduate of Marquette University's College of Journalism. She grew up in Skokie, Illinois, where many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps and other Jews settled after the World War II. She remembers women in the local five-and-dime store reaching for items and exposing the ID numbers that had been tattooed on their forearms in the Nazi camps.

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