"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
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
(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
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
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.