A few years ago, I wrote something about a visit to Auschwitz, which has come back to mind for three different reasons.
One is that Bullet visited the camp in the last few days and I’m looking forward to seeing him again when he gets back from his travels because I want to hear what he thought of the experience.
The second is that I’ve had five years to reflect on that visit and try to make sense of what went on in those hellish industrial-murder camps of Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek and Treblinka.
And the third is that, going through some of my photo collection, I came across an image I took in a Krakow hotel that exemplifies for me precisely what the old central European elegance meant. It was taken in what used to be the old Jewish quarter of Krakow before the brutes of the SS marched in and ejected the people who used to live there.
The day after taking this picture, I went to visit Auschwitz, about 20 miles west of Krakow, and there I took very different pictures.
Many years ago, I found myself in London, bored and in need of mental stimulation, so I signed up for a course in German. I don’t know why, but it seemed more attractive than Spanish and besides, I already had some grasp of French, however shaky. It was Whitechapel, in the East End of London, and your average Eastender had little interest in learning German when there were other courses on offer. Motor maintenance. Plumbing. Flower-arranging, even. Photography. And that’s why I found myself alone in a class, the only student of a native German speaker, Mr Henry Glanz, a Polish Jew from Danzig / Gdansk, whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz and who had been evacuated as a young child in the Kindertransport.
I can’t say I was the best student he ever had but I did manage to obtain a half-decent grasp of conversational German, though it has withered over the years from lack of use. I also gained something far more precious: an insight into why extreme thinking is such an abomination, and a great respect for Mr Henry Glanz, who was an immensely cultured and modest East End Jew with an enormous intellect and a vast understanding of European history. He taught me far more than my few words of German.
I promised myself that one day I’d do honour to the memory of those who gave Mr Henry Glanz life and civilisation, though to my shame, I never made the same promise to Henry himself. That’s a pity because I know he’d have appreciated it.
Fast forward to 2008 when a bunch of us landed in Krakow. Because it’s the 21st century, we carry an overlay of all the images and factoids that have been thrown at us, and therefore we know, or think we know, all manner of things. We think we know that this is where Oskar Schindler, who might also be Liam Neeson, had his factory. We know that this is a city just like many others in Europe, where the Nazis rounded up Jews to be exterminated in the nearby death factory at Oswiecim, or Auschwitz as the Germans renamed it.
The area of Kazimierz, just north of the Vistula, is where the Jews lived from the 14th century until the brutes of the SS rounded them up 600 years later and exterminated them like vermin. Herding them into the Podgórze ghetto across the river , they surrounded the open-air prison with a concrete wall in the shape of Jewish tombstones. On the 20th March, 1941, the Nazis barricaded 18,000 Jews into this tiny space, less than one-tenth of a square mile in area, before gradually emptying the ghetto of its prisoners, either murdering them in the street or at Auschwitz and other camps.
As we looked at that wall, parts of which still survive, I found myself trying to imagine what sort of mindset could devise such an obscene visual joke.
Sometimes, the human imagination is defeated, and as we walked among the houses once occupied by Jews, all I could think about was the effort it took to construct these pre-cast concrete wall slabs shaped like tombstones. Why surround a Jewish ghetto with such things when a plain concrete wall would have been far cheaper?
The answer is simple: it was sadism.
If ever there was a tangible monument to insanity, irrationality and cruelty, it was these appalling walls.
In the public square at Podgórze , the people of Krakow have placed an art piece intended to evoke the shocking brutality of the Germans against the Jews of the city. It consists of chairs, thrown around as the furniture of the people was in the 1940s when the thugs dragged the people from their homes, but for me it seemed a bit tame. I found it a little bland, but maybe that’s just me. It needs to be more chaotic. More disordered. Brutal.
By 1952, of those Jews who survived the death camps, few remained in Krakow. Most had left by then to escape anti-Jewish attacks by their predominantly Catholic fellow Poles.
Oswiecim is a modest town of 40,000 people with little to distinguish it. In contrast to the ancient medieval charm of Krakow, it has the drab, downtrodden, mass-produced feel of any post-Soviet dormitory town. The Czechs have a word for it: Panelák
When you arrive at the railway station, there’s no indication that you have arrived at the heart of darkness, which perhaps is understandable for a place whose name in German has become synonymous with evil, but still, we were surprised that there wasn’t a single sign, brochure or indication of the remotest kind that this was the place where the Nazis’ most notorious extermination camp was established.
If you don’t know where to go, you’ll need to stop somebody in the street and ask with sign language how to find Auschwitz, which proves almost as bizarre as the conversation in the Krakow train station when buying a ticket. Do you want a one-way or a return? asks the clerk, and we do a little double-take. What?
Walk down the street directly across the road from the railway station. Pass row after row of apartment blocks, and eventually you’ll come to a mixed small industrial area. There’s the guy who changes tyres. There’s the exhaust-replacement shop. That’s the concentration camp, and over there is the place where you can get your diesel injectors fixed.
Yep. It’s about as stark as that. The infamous concentration camp is located in a nondescript suburb in a small Polish dormitory town. That guy up there in his apartment might get up tomorrow morning and as he shaves, look out his window at Auschwitz.
Of course, Auschwitz isn’t just one camp. It’s three.
This is the first one, built by the banks of the Sola River, on the site of an old Polish army artillery barracks.
About two or three miles north-west is Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, the place where the Nazis set up an industrial-scale death factory, one of several in Poland, to carry out Aktion Reinhard, the systematic murder of all Jews. And about three miles north-east is Monowice, where Auschwitz III, Monowitz, supplied slave labour for IG Farben.
IG Farben is beyond doubt the really important link in this mesh of lies, criminality, greed and madness. The giant manufacturing conglomerate provided the means by which the Nazis were able to wage war, producing synthetic rubber, fuels, explosives and assorted chemicals including the notorious Zyklon B insecticide, which was used to murder prisoners in the death camp gas chambers throughout Europe.
Without IG Farben, Hitler simply would not have been able to prosecute the war. It supplied his forces with nearly everything they needed, to the extent that the company and the State almost merged into each other. It never attempted restitution to any of its its slaves, and yet many of its personnel convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg went on to assume senior positions in German business, though of course, it wasn’t alone in its crimes of slavery.
Household names like BMW, Opel, Bayer, Krupp and Volkswagen all used slaves from the death camps, not to mention Austrian firms such as Puch and Steyr.
There are Trans-Atlantic ripples too. Exposure of IG Farben’s connections with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, exposed in 1941, should have led to an investigation but this was shelved due to America’s entry to the conflict. In Dora-Mittelbau, 20,000 Jewish slave labourers died to support the rocketry efforts of Wernher Von Braun, who later became the darling of the US space program. The good SS Sturmbannführer Dr Baron Wernher Magnus Maximilian von Braun went on to become Vice President of Fairchild Industries and a director of Daimler-Benz, a company that happily used Jewish slave labour from Majdanek and Mauthausen-Gusen. General Motors somehow magically severed its connections with Opel from 1939 until 1945 yet regained control of its subsidiary right after the war. It even contrived to get $30 million in compensation from the US government for the loss of a factory bombed by the US airforce.
IG Farben chose the Monowice location for a number of reasons: good access to coal-mines, availability of limestone, suitable geology, proximity to the Polish railway system which sat at the hub of European communications, but mostly because the Auschwitz concentration camp was so convenient. They built their factory on land from which the Polish population had been expelled and they housed their executives in homes formerly owned by the Jews who were now dying in the camps. They knew it. They knew the SS were killing people on the factory grounds. They knew about the beatings because their engineers witnessed them every day and sent reports back to HQ. Indeed, when prisoners became too weak to work, they insisted on replacements, in the full knowledge that the rejects would be murdered.
Their argument was a cold economic one: why should we house such slow workers in barracks that cost us so much money to build?
That’s where comprehension breaks down. Brutes commit murder because murder is what brutes do, but it’s when supposedly civilised, sophisticated, educated human beings display such callous disregard for human life that the spirit recoils.
Auschwitz I, the original camp, sits on a site far smaller than the the vast Birkenau complex a few miles away, but it retains every bit as much menace.
Noted worldwide for their black humour, and already chuckling at the grim wit of the gravestone walls around the ghetto, how the Jews must have laughed as they read the sign over the gate: Arbeit Macht Frei. Little did they realise how free they’d become as they slaved in the IG Farben factory, just up the road.
This was the place where the young doctor, Josef Mengele, conducted his experiments on prisoners in a building so shameful, even to the SS, that they felt it necessary to shutter the windows, for fear people would hear the screams of suffering. This is where they had a torture block, with cells in the basement into which prisoners were crammed with no space to sit or lie, so that they all had to remain standing for days on end. In the same block are the suffocation cells with windows so tiny they don’t admit enough air to sustain life and where the SS sometimes lit a candle, to eat up whatever oxygen was available, the quicker to extinguish a prisoner’s life with maximum suffering.
It must have been quite a feeling for SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudold Höss to be appointed Kommandant of this camp at the age of 40. Under this devoted family-man’s control, it was a strange, strange place, where savagery and humanity became one and the same thing. All the time he was caring for his children in the commandant’s house, he was also finding ways to improve on the mass-killing methods at Treblinka and found ways to keep the prisoners calm until the very last minute. He found new ways to murder people, but at the same time, he was happy enough with traditional methods and with torture. He had no difficulty with random murders in the street, random beatings and arbitrary attacks for no reason.
Less than two hundred yards from his children’s bedrooms, between Mengele’s block and the torture block is a yard where SS guards used to machine-gun prisoners against the killing wall. Estimates vary but it seems that about 25,000 human beings were murdered in this very spot, by other human beings. And it’s said that eventually, the practice was ended, because the murderers were losing their minds as the body-piles grew higher and they found themselves wading up to their ankles in blood.
Note that it wasn’t for the well-being of the prisoners that this practice ended, but because the killers were suffering.
Arthur Liebehenschel took over from the barbaric Rudolf Höss as camp commandant at the end of 1943 and was horrified by the savagery of the place. He immediately closed the torture chambers, the standing cells and the suffocation rooms. He put an end to the machine-gunnings and the random beatings, and yet he continued to order shootings of prisoners trying to escape and he continued to send slaves to IG Farben.
It’s true that by the time Liebehenschel arrived at the camp (as a punishment, reportedly, for leaving his wife, a thing Himmler didn’t approve of, and for becoming involved with a woman who had Jewish friends), Birkenau was now under a separate commandant, Josef Kramer, the so-called Beast of Belsen, and the gas chamber in the old camp had ceased operation. Liebehenschel didn’t send prisoners to the industrial death camp a short distance to the West, but he still tolerated the activities of Mengele and his fellow doctors in the camp and he still presided over a piece of the Nazi death machine.
One way or another, the slightly less brutal regime ended abruptly when Höss returned and Liebehenschel was sent to take over the Majdanek death camp.
His conflicted feelings didn’t do Liebehenschel much good. After his capture by the Americans and conviction in the Krakow Auschwitz trials he was summarily hanged in 1948.
Rudolf Höss, meanwhile, was back in Auschwitz to do a specific job: murdering all the Hungarian Jews, a task for which he was well suited given his utter lack of human empathy, his logical appproach to any task he was given and his technical grasp of the techniques necessary to murder large numbers of people and dispose of their bodies. He killed 400,000 of them, by his own estimate. And yet, behind all the logic and the detachment, there’s an element of utter irrationality. Höss returned on the 8th May, 1944, when it was obvious to all but the most obtuse that the war was lost. And yet, instead of expending valuable resources on defending their homeland, consolidating their defences and withdrawing to strong positions, the Germans were still devoting scarce resources, manpower and money on a campaign of murder and extermination that provided no conceivable gain and was guaranteed to come back and haunt them.
Why? I don’t know if anyone will ever begin to explain such madness.
What did young Mengele think as he stood here, surveying the new arrivals? He was only 32 when he arrived at the death camp. Did he ever imagine, during his medical training, that his principal activity would be murder? How about Horst Fischer, another young doctor, who arrived in Auschwitz at the age of 31 and also took part in the selection of new arrivals.
You are strong enough to work, so you live.
You are old. You die.
You are sick. You die.
You are a child. You die.
What did Fischer’s young wife think of this? Did they hope for children of their own?
They hanged Höss here, fifty paces from the house he occupied as commandant. If his children had still been there, they could easily have seen the spot from their bedroom windows, just as they could see the crematorium beside it.
It doesn’t seem to have bothered him too much. Contemporary accounts suggest that he went calmly to his death without showing distress or empathy for his victims.
It’s a scary, strange place and it fits in with all the images we’ve absorbed over the years, from movies and from novels, but yet, we’re only scratching the surface, because the thing that makes this place so sinister is not the brutality. It’s not the mass murder. It’s not the savagery. These are things we see all the time in every corner of the world.
What makes Auschwitz, and by extension all the other Nazi murder camps, so terrifying, is the fact that the people running them were able to switch from being monsters to being perfectly normal people doing a job and leading a life, without a single thought for the poor souls they imprisoned, tortured and murdered.
I’ve said this many times before and I won’t stop saying it. There’s no point dismissing the Nazis as monsters, because we expect monsters to do monstrous things. What’s much more horrifying is when small, banal, boring workaday people carry out monstrous acts.
When dog-lovers like Karl Hoecker can ignore the fact that they are part of a mass-killing machine.
When camp staff can socialise and sing and celebrate after a day wading through the blood of their fellow human beings.
What does it mean?
To me, it means that no one human being can comprehend it.
To my way of thinking, it means we all have this darkness in us, to one degree or another. It means that condemnation isn’t enough because, even though retribution might satisfy some primitive atavistic urge deep inside the amygdala fish-brain that twitches at the core of our central nervous system demanding revenge, that’s all it achieves. It scratches an itch inherited from some primitive slime-dwelling creature before it evolved a thinking brain.
If we wish to confront this darkest of urges, we need to do more than condemn. We need to do more than shoot and hang people, and I say this as someone who enjoys the thought as much as the next man. We all love the idea of catching the bad guy and giving him his come-uppance, but where does it get us?
Anyone who lives a reasonable length of time on this planet will know by now that revenge is the most futile, self-defeating urge there is. Revenge works only in the imagination and in the movies.
The world was rightly horrified by the images coming out of Auschwitz, of Majdanek, Treblinka, Buchenwald and all the countless other places of obscenity inflicted on Europe by the Germans in WWII, but yet barbarity seems to be hard-wired into the human psyche. After all, it didn’t end with the Nazis and it’s not a numbers game. Stalin systematically killed more people than Hitler. Pol Pot engineered the most horrible genocide on his own people. The Ustasha and Bosnian Muslims, allies of the Nazis, inflicted unimaginable suffering on the Jews and the Serbs of Croatia. The Serbs in return visited the same horrors on the Bosnian Muslims and Croats in the 1990s. The Hutus in Rwanda slaughtered half a million Tutsi in a few months but nobody in Europe cared because they were all black.
There’s no end to it.
What happened when those Jews who survived the Polish murder camps went back to try and regain their homes? Many of them were murdered by their Catholic Polish neighbours who now lived in those same homes. What an appalling irony.
Have I achieved a deeper understanding of what happened in that place, after five years of contemplation? I’m not sure I have, but I’m more conscious that injustice begets injustice. The surviving European Jews, those who fought like lions and who were filled with the spirit of Nie Wieder, fled to a land designated as holy and I’m sorry to say that they started the whole process all over again.
Does anyone ever learn? Are we condemned always to this?