I was unaware of the Second World War until I started reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I was a 15 years old lanky teenager of standard IX, and Anne changed my world. Prior to that, I was familiar with the renaissance period of European history. It was there in our history syllabus, but beyond that I knew absolutely nothing. Our curriculum focuses on Indian history more once we step into standard IX. First and second world wars reduce to one or two paragraphs at most.
Anne Frank made me intrigued and hooked me so profoundly that I am still at awe of her. To be very honest, she was my first crush. I started maintaining a diary just like her and thus my passion for writing started.
Well, this story is not about her, not even about the Second World War. What is it about then?
When I was confirmed for an Europe assignment, three names were abuzz in my mind –
Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz.
The quest started when I was a teenager. A few books, some movies, and a series of documentaries kindled my interest. Present scenario of India fired it more, and I started to study the historical framework and background of the Second World War. Needless to say, I found uncomfortable similarities with today’s India in almost all nooks and corners. It became clear to me how Hitler strategized for almost a few decades to eliminate Jews. The more I dug, the more I got battered and scared.
Ironically, I cannot start this story with the common anecdote, ‘It is known to all…’
Trust me, it is not. I came to Europe with a few of my Indian colleagues and understood no one practically knows about the atrocities some ethnic groups faced in the reign of Hitler. Every other Indian colleague, to whom I had disclosed my plan, had been awestruck. Be it Bengali, Tamil, or someone from UP, almost everyone had asked the same question… People usually visit Paris, Switzerland, at least Spain, Italy or Greece when they get a Schengen Visa. Where the hell is this Auschwitz man? Who goes there? Why go there?
There’s a concentration camp; my reply was always patient and calm.
What’s that? Something related to yoga or meditation?
Does it happen annually?
Oh, you are a fan of meditation? I got it.
Well, I cannot tag them as illiterates, they work in one of the renowned multinational IT Companies, have quite a few heavyweight degrees in their pockets. But they do not know Auschwitz or Dachau. They know a little bit about Hitler and his torturing nature, but absolutely clueless about his vicious reign. Come on man, we have read history in school; it isn’t possible to remember all these things… excuses were always ready!
It had been four months of my visit to two infamous places of Poland – first was the Auschwitz concentration camp, which had a pet name, ‘the death camp’, and the aluminium factory of Oskar Schindler, which became immortal after Steven Spielberg’s iconic film – ‘Schindler’s List’.
So it had been four months, and every time I thought of penning down the experiences, the harrowing images resisted me from doing it. I still cannot portray the excruciating pain I have felt while visiting the death camp. Traumatizing it was. Then why all of a sudden I decided to write about it?
You have to wait till the end of the story to know the answer.
I reached the town of Krakow when evening was drooping towards night. Due to a weak internet connection on my phone, I was lost. So when I reached the scheduled dormitory where I was supposed to stay, every eatery of the town had been closed. Unfortunately, my dorm was only for lodging, so I had no other option than fasting that night. Anyway, this is not a travelogue. This is not about what I ate or how I travelled. This is about the terrible history which is unknown to many of us. Readers, who actually know about Auschwitz can stop reading from here. I can say, this is my personal memoir of revisiting the harrowing history.
Today’s Auschwitz has become a bit tourism-centric. Although Poland is a member of the European Union, still it prefers Zloty as the currency than the Euro. Just like Bhutan, which accepts the Indian currency but gives back Bhutanese in return. As the eateries near Auschwitz parking area didn’t accept cards, I had to fast again for the whole day despite having digital money in my pocket. I was not carrying cash.
Well, I couldn’t manage a decent meal for a day only, and most of the Jew people who were brought to here had to die out of starvation. They were never given enough food for how long, who knows. Wait, I can calculate how long. The life expectancy of an Auschwitz prisoner was of three months, on average. A frightfully inhuman travail and not enough food ultimately turned them into living skeletons, or better to say the shadows of their previous selves. And then, they were queued up in front of the gas chamber. And then, it used to take another twenty minutes to turn those living skeletons to ashes and smoke, and get their freedom to eternity.
‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which means work shall set you free. This aphorism can be found engraved in every concentration camp built by Nazis across Europe. It is engraved in Auschwitz’s gate too. And the only way to set the souls free was through the chimneys of the gas chambers. Statistically, almost 20 concentration camps were built in European countries like Germany, Poland, and a few others. Although, if you consider detention camps, sub-camps, ghettoes then the enumeration will cross more than 850. Auschwitz is the largest in size and death rates. Maximum prisoners died in here as they had lowest life expectancies, thus the name ‘The death camp’. There are fewer survivors from Auschwitz than other camps.
The holocaust didn’t start in a day. At first, people were profiled, marked and triggered by hate speech. Jews were considered vermin and abominations. Segregation started, Germans were considered pure blooded Arians and on the other hand Jews were considered as impure, inferior race. Moreover, Germans who married to Jews used to be banished from society. These were just to begin with, slowly otherization took place. Primarily, there were different schools for Jew children being set up so that they cannot interact with German kids. Then it turned to Jews not being allowed to go at the market places with Germans at the same time, other specific time slots were allotted to them. Then their shops got segregated. After that, the authority closed their schools and higher education. Jews were barred from entering parks, restaurants, swimming pools, movie theatres, walking on the road, cycling, and every other fundamental human rights.
On the other hand, brainwashing started amongst the German kids, through formal education. They were being taught about the viciousness of Jews. Not only Jews, Communists, Homosexuals, Anti-fascists, and equalists were considered as abominations and enemies of the state. They didn’t even spare Roma or Gypsies, who were actually ethnic indigenous people. Physically and mentally challenged human beings were forcefully euthanized even though they were found to be true Germans. Holocaust came after these due processes. It was a part of the final solution. Intelligent readers will probably find a similarity with the present Indian scenario.
So what was this final solution?
It was called ‘The final solution to the Jewish question’, in German, it was ‘Endlösung der Judenfrage.’ It was basically a systematic and efficient process of Jew elimination program at low cost, which was brilliantly planned by Hitler and his followers in1942.
Auschwitz was built in the year 1940. There was a place called Oswiecim in the south of Krakow. After Nazis invaded Poland, they first turned the local civilians into forced and bonded laborers. As the number of laborers increased, they built a camp in Oswiecim and changed its name to ‘Konzentrationslager Auschwitz’, the Auschwitz concentration camp. At first, the prison which was situated here was used for Polish war-prisoners. This prison is now called Auschwitz-1. After it got crowded with nearly twenty thousand prisoners the camp was in urgent need of expansion. And for that, the local people of Oswiecim were forced to evacuate by Nazi authority.
The Nazis were not very much destructive in nature. After invading Poland, they had only destroyed Synagogues… apart from that absolutely nothing. Especially they preserved the office buildings for their usage. Low expenditure along with optimum usage of resources was one of the mottos of Nazism. That is why, they turned the neighbourhood of Oswiecim into a well-built torture chamber and prison, but within the next two years Auschwitz-1 became overpopulated. Although the life expectancies of the prisoners were less than three months, still the number of them was so high that the authorities planned to build another concentration camp. That is how in the year 1942, Auschwitz -2 took shape at Birkenau, approximately 4 kilometres away from Auschwitz-1. The total area of Birkenau camp was 150 hectares. Together, these two camps are infamously known as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Auschwitz-1 had not seen many Jew prisoners until the year1942. Mainly Polish war-prisoners, Roma, Gypsy, or communists used to be brought there. On the other hand, Birkenau was built specifically to eliminate Jews, as by then ‘the final solution’ had already been planned.
At first, the guide took us to Auschwitz-1. Such a quiet and peaceful campus that it is pretty tough to imagine that thousands of innocent people were tortured, starved, and then murdered in cold blood at this very place, just for not being the “true German”.
Let’s go through the farce named routine which was allocated to the Jews. They had to get up at 4 in the morning. Everyday. Almost 1500 prisoners used to be kept in a barrack, 100 people were forced to accommodate in the place of 30 people. Moreover, they had to sleep on the floor in the bitterly Polish winter. As a consequence, prisoners started to die out of pneumonia. Such a waste of laborers could not be afforded by the Nazi officers, hence they started to arrange cheap blankets for them. After a certain time, wooden boards were spread across the floor to get rid of the cold, as blankets were becoming too ‘costly’.
But the boards did not also serve their purpose; hence the implication of bunk beds occurred. Well, officially they were called bunk beds, but in reality, six to eight peoples were forced to sleep in the place of three. Waking up was scheduled at 4 in the morning except for the four months of winter. In those months it was scheduled for 5 am. Only one table was allocated per barrack, and hundreds were coerced to have their breakfast in five minutes on that table. You read it correct, 5 minutes, for one hundred prisoners.
The toilet system was communal, and of course without any concealment. The distribution was one commode per thirty people, the time given to use the toilet was ten minutes maximum for a hundred people… if someone took a little bit more, the skin of their back was slashed open with whips.
After the farce breakfast and freshening up, the prisoners had to form a queue and wait for their daily counting. So apparently, a queue of famished unwashed people waited from 4 to 9 in the morning for their well-fed Nazi officials to finish their nap and breakfast and come down to count them. Oh, I must mention that they were not allowed to sit. Then counting used to start, sometimes it continued for three rounds. And brutal punishment waited if the number of prisoners mismatched with the previous day.
But sadly, every day a few people used to die in those barracks. Due to starvation, pneumonia, and diarrhea mostly. Others had no option but to sleep with those dead people and carry them for counting on the next morning. Else, painful tortures awaited as the counting would not match with the previous days.
Now a question will definitely arise in your mind, did not they try to escape? Of course, they did. Some did escape the frontier of Poland in a night and became a survivor. And the rest of the people who were not able to escape did have to suffer for it, which was called as ‘collective responsibility.’
So what was the punishment?
Per one fugitive three persons had to die, three random persons who maybe had no inkling about the runaway. Either they were shot at the head or hanged till death. Others were made to watch those punishments so that they do not even think of being a fugitive.
Honestly, the people around me who still support death penalty as a form of punishment in this era, so much remind me of Nazis and their discretionary power.
A different type of punishment awaited prisoners who were ungovernable. There are few small rooms in barrack no. 11, just like a cubicle. Three rebel Jews were literally stuffed inside that room along with an enlightened candle. The candle used to burn out the oxygen and eventually the rebels were slowly but surely suffocated to death along with its unfortunate carriers.
The stories of barrack no. 10 is tad different, that was an experimental chamber. Thousands of Jew women and children were treated as guinea pigs of medical experiments. Just like we used to experiment in biology labs, German doctors treated those Jew women and children in the same manners. After experimentation, barely alive bodies were dumped into gas chambers.
Life was so miserable in the camps that after a point of time people became suicidal and depressed. Some might have never stopped looking for an opportunity to escape, but most of the others awaited death. But the reality of the gas chamber was hidden from them until they were assigned to be executed there, one final day.
Epidemics used to happen; typhus and diarrhoea were the common ones. Toilet break was twice a day, once in the dawn, another at night. But naturally it was not enough for a diarrhoea patient. As a consequence, their uniforms used to be always filled with their own feces. If nature calls were unavoidably required at midnight, poor Jews had to use their own food bowl. And in the morning, they had to eat breakfast from that same bowl which they had to clean in five minutes. Pathetic, isn’t it?
Naturally, the barracks were the birthplace of infections. So, what measures did Nazis take to mitigate it? Well, they used to eliminate the whole infected barrack in the gas chamber, and then kept another bunch of Jews in it. Oh, they never forgot to disinfect after the ‘ethnic cleansing’.
People died here like pests, well, Jews were nothing but pests to the Nazis.
Let’s now take a look at the efficient killing machine – gas chambers…
Practically, the process was very much cost-effective for killing a whole lot of people in very short time span. It was even better than shooting at point-blank range as bullets used to make holes in the prisoner’s uniform (thus making it not reusable) which gas chambers did not. Nazis had plans for recycling prison uniforms also, and those plans were so efficient that per hour 1000 of them got recycled.
There were other benefits of gas chambers too; no one would have a slightest inkling about the advancement of death. Accursed Jews were asked to stand in a queue in front of the chambers. Then they were asked to strip off as part of the ‘disinfection’ process. They were even asked to remember the sequence of hangers in which they used to hang up their uniforms so that they could find them easily once they ‘come back’ after disinfection process ends. Poor Jews, they literally believed in these words of Nazi officials that this is nothing but a mere process of disinfecting. Nearly one to two thousand people used to be pushed inside the gas chamber after this farce. There was only one small door to get inside.
Birkenau had four gas chambers, each could accommodate two thousand people at a go. On the other hand, the solo gas chamber of Auschwitz-1 could accommodate maximum 400 people. It still exists as a memoir, all four gas chambers in Auschwitz-2 Birkenau had been destroyed before the Nazis fled away in 1945.
The gas chambers had only one door for entering, as there was no need of coming out from it. The only way out was flowing out of the chimney as a cloud of smoke. After closing the door, one masquerade man used to pour Zyklon B in the room from a square gap on the roof.
Well, at first Carbon Monoxide was used. But as it was a bit expensive, Nazi researcher discovered Zyklon B, which was actually used as a pesticide. So far, Jews were considered vermin, so using Zyklon B to kill them was kind of poetic justice. A single tablet of Zyklon B was enough to kill a room full of people.
It used to take barely twenty minutes to kill two thousand people. Poor awestruck prisoners used to climb each other’s back to get rid of that poisonous gas, to breathe through the square gap on the roof, but that was quite obviously futile.
We can still see the desperate nail scratches on the walls of the gas chamber which is situated at Auschwitz-1. Their last few minutes of struggle to live, to breathe …
The next task was assigned to the crematorium. It used to take 40 minutes to burn two thousand people to ashes and smoke. Altogether, one fucking hour to eliminate two thousand people from the face of earth… simple arithmetic.
In this way, on average 8000 people used to get killed in the gas chambers of Birkenau, every day.
Another group of accursed prisoners used to help these unfortunates on their last journey. They helped the chosen ones to get undressed, even they carried and dumped the ashes and semi burnt bodies in a barren land behind the camp. They knew what was happening inside the gas chambers, that is why they were also used to be killed every month, the same way. A fresh batch used to take their place. Needless to say, it was a vicious circle.
In the film called ‘Schindler’s List’, the gargantuan gate which the train had crossed is actually the gate of Birkenau. Jews used to be brought there since 1942 through cattle cars. 100 Jews used to travel in a single wagon, where they could barely stand. Ironically, they used to be told that a new job opportunity was awaiting them, along with freedom from their ghetto life. They were even asked to bring their essential items along with food which would last for three days. The dreams of new life forced Jews to step into those trains. Alas, the dreams were equivalent to femme fatale here.
Overwhelmed common people used to stuff their suitcases with various essential items along with pieces of jewellery also. And each of those was nabbed once they reached Auschwitz.
The journey used to take three to ten days. Ten days of a rigorous claustrophobic journey without any food or water, not even a seat, people started to die since then. The rest of the unfortunates had to complete their journey to hell accompanying those dead bodies. Once the train reached Auschwitz, warlike enthusiasm used to start amongst the Nazi soldiers. Jews were mobbed, their essentials were snatched from them at first. Well, they were told things would be returned, which is obviously farce. Then the segregation process started among males and females started. Mothers were torn apart from sons, fathers from daughters. Brothers and sisters saw each other for the last time during that process. Loudspeakers were set to play rousing music to subdue those painful vociferous adieus.
Then the process of ‘final selection’ used to start. Each and every one asked to be forcefully undressed. If someone felt awkward to abide by, he or she used to be beaten harshly or more effectively shot to death. The horror of instant death compelled others to follow the instructions out of fear. The father had to undress in front of his daughter, the mother had to in front of her son. Then they had to line up for medical tests.
Nazi doctors took just a glance’s second to certify who was healthy and who was not. By the way, everything was controlled and manifested by 99% of male Nazi officers.
So who were certified as misfits and unhealthy?
The Kids below 14 years, pregnant women, elderly, physically challenged, and people who were sick due to the insufferable cattle car journey. They were taken directly to the gas chamber which was just 500-meter away from the selection area. Greyhound dogs were used to inflict fear. Within an hour, the ‘misfit’ group used to get wiped out from the earth. Only their materialistic remnants remained in the outer room of the gas chamber, a kid’s toy, an old man’s stick, watch, spectacles, and faint rays of lost hope.
The ‘fit’ people, mainly between 14 to 65 years old, were taken to barracks. Then they got their head shaved. Those piles of hairs were too commercially sold in Berlin.
After these, ‘Canada’ used to occur. A group of prisoners was sent to the station to collect those abandoned suitcases. Those were taken to an area behind Birkenau and things were sorted. Jews used to bring a lot of personal valuable objects, the prisoners’ duty was to sort them out. Stealing while sorting was an offense. Death was the only punishment for it if caught, yet people stole. Those things provided them a wee bit of comfort in the bartering process, a pack of fags, a little bit extra soup or mashed potato, or simply an onion.
But why was the procedure called ‘Canada’? As Canada was a wealthy country back then and Jews used to bring a lot of valuable ‘assets’. So the prisoners used to call the sorting place ‘Canada’. Still now, a button or a glass of spectacles, or a spoon is found in Birkenau’s ‘Canada’ region.
One can still see those rescued ‘assets’, tons of hair, thousands of kid’s shoes, Shoe brushes, uncountable utensils, suitcases, prosthetic limbs which Germans were unable to send to Berlin at the last moment.
Each suitcase, each shoe, each streak of hair tells stories about those wretched souls. The air is weighed with thousands of painful sighs of those people, who died a painful and humiliating death just because of their ethnic identity.
In the month of August of 1944, Anne Frank and her family were captured from their hiding place in Amsterdam. They were brought to Auschwitz at first, later Anne and her sister Margot were taken to Bergen-Belsen camp. Margot died there in 1945, she was suffering from Typhus. After a few months of that, Anne also faced that inevitable fate. Anne’s mother Edith died in Auschwitz, only their father Otto Frank survived. Bergen-Belsen got rid of Nazis within 6 months after Anne’s death.
Every tree, brick even dust particle of Auschwitz and other concentration camps are carrying the nightmarish memories of anti-Semitism and right-winged notions. If we don’t learn from these memories and history, we will never learn.
At first, pregnant women were sent to gas chambers directly. Later their utility was discovered, after giving birth they can be used as a workforce. Hence, they were allowed to live only to see their newly born babies being killed in front of their own eyes. Then they were instructed to join the workforce, else painful torturous death awaited them. They were not even allowed to mourn their child’s death, come on, vermin cannot have feelings whatsoever.
But Jew women were human right? They were not pests, not some abomination, they were fucking human. So within one month, they used to lose their mobility and urge of living. And what else place could be best for them than the gas chamber?
Often the queue used to get elongated in front of gas chambers, yeah, the queue to death. So the people who were the subsequent batch had to wait longer. Now here the longer wait meant two to three days without food or water, no wonder a lot of people died standing in that queue. Rest got the privilege of dying a choking death.
Our guide narrated the story of a mother and a son. After arriving Auschwitz, during the final selection, the mother got an inkling of her fate. Forcefully she pushed her son to the male section, cutting him from her. the 14 years old teenager did not understand the reason and shouted in angst, ‘Mother, I want you to die. I don’t want to see your face.’
As the mother had predicted herself, she was selected for the gas chamber. In the next half an hour she walked calmly to accept death, only with a glimpse of hope that her son would survive.
Her hope became true, within one and half months of this incident Soviet Army invaded Auschwitz and freed hundreds of remaining prisoners. The kid was one of them, a survivor. When he came to know about his mother’s fate, he was shell-shocked. Guilt was his only companion for the rest of his life, he wished her mother to die, only when she was really going to die.
It was December of 1943, the indomitable German regiment first got halted by the Red army near Moscow, thus the change of the warfare initiated. Hitler was still unaware of his upcoming defeat though. He became aware when the War Machine named German regiment got stuck between the trap set by the Red Army of Stalin. Hitler got scared when his famous and potential field marshal Rommel committed suicide in the year 1944. Then and there, by December he ordered to evacuate all the concentration camps and erase the proofs of the holocaust. As a result, diabolical things took place. More and more Jews got killed indiscriminately, destruction of documents was initiated. In January 1945. Four gas chambers of Birkenau were destroyed one by one. The plan of demolishing Auschwitz was almost set. And the decision was taken to shift the remaining prisoners to other camps. The weak, almost dying prisoners were asked to march towards a nearby railway station amid bitter cold snow.
Thus the infamous death march began. Thousands of prisoners died of cold, weakness, starvation, and bullets. Little more fortunate prisoners reached the railway station to get transferred to other concentration camps.
27th January 1945, the Russian Red army invaded Auschwitz-Birkenau and rescued another thousand of prisoners who were waiting to die. They were immobile and the nazi officials did not have ammunition to kill them. They just abandoned the prisoners to death.
A few of the survivors of Auschwitz are still alive, they warn humanity by narrating their account of survival again and again. Yet, we don’t listen to them, still, detention camps get their places on earth, in India, in America. History repeats itself.
The gas chamber near the Birkenau railway platform was demolished by Nazis, is a war memorial now. In this place, the brutality of fascism has been inscribed in 24 languages including English. Auschwitz-1 and Birkenau-2 together is now a Unesco world heritage site.
Today, 27th of January, 2020 is the 75th year of Auschwitz liberation. Almost 120 Auschwitz holocaust survivor are joining the ceremony throughout the world. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany along with President Frank Walter Steinmeier is also joining. Moreover, a number of statesmen are joining whose countries were once ruled by Nazi-Germany. Together they will pray for those accursed six million Jews and will take an oath to not repeat this mistake ever again.
India is not invited though… India is busy in building its own detention center, the Nazi style.
Do the following images look familiar?