What is the real situation of the Nazi camps nowadays? What is their quality of maintenance? Do politicians and bureaucrats really care about it, or just they pretend when discussing the Nazi atrocities for just political purposes?
When one politician, statewide or central, says one thing, or agrees to someone, or angers with other, all that is part of a very large politician game. A citizen can never see the other side if he is just reading newspapers or watching TV. Through media people on their pay-roll, they give you all rotten food served in a nice dish, colored and flavored to your liking.
Newspapers around the world proclaim that Angela Merkel will be remember as the first German chancellor to visit the former Dachau Nazi concentration camp, but…, hey! Hold down for a minute, Merkel & Company: Someone has even mentioned about the professionalism of the guides that take tourists around the sites where Nazis committed their atrocities? Why officials have decided to close to the public most of the barracks at the Birkenau women’s camp, or why is so difficult to find the remains of Płaszów camp (have you even ever heard about it? Well…, is the place where that lunatic, named Amon Göth, used to step outside his villa with his rifle to shoot people around the camp. The movie Schindler’s List, makes you click…?) where nobody cares for the remains of a destroyed Synagogue and some open and broken graves? Even the villa of that lunatic is put on sell for YOU to buy it, like if is the grandparents house of someone.
-“Who lived here?”-A client asks-.
-“Ah! Nobody relevant and important…-The property dealer reply-; Just a little naughty and cute old lady named Mrs.Trunchbull! (Roald Dahl‘s character in Matilda).”
-“Good -the buyer says-; I buy it. I will demolish it and construct on this soil a Halal-Doner-Kebab restaurant called Kabab Torki-کباب ترکی, or better thinking…, with a huge-green-flickering-outdoor-neon-sign: Ka-Bob-Estanboli.”
-“Do whatever you want. Nobody cares.”
My long conversation with Spaniard Jesús Maguregui, it’s not funny at all, and the pictures on this series (divided in different Parts) of interviews speak by themselves.
Jesús Maguregui was born in 1967 in Tetouan; a northern city of Morocco which has been home to an important Sephardi Jewish community, which immigrated from Spain after the Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition, and then years later a new generation emigrated back to Spain, France, Canada and Israel. He lives in Madrid working as Regional Sales Director for a multinational Travel Management Company. For the last twelve years he has spent reading testimonies of Nazi camps’ survivors, and just three years back, decided to collect books and documentaries addressing issues of the Holocaust.
Alfredo de Braganza: -You are not Jew; your religion is not Jewish. You do not have any relation with Israel, and any of your family relatives are Holocaust’s survivors or fought in WWII. Your professional occupation doesn’t have anything to do with the subject of History, or writing, or academic teaching. But, however, you have a library of more than 400 volumes besides a collection of more than 200 movies and documentaries on the sole subject of the Shoah (meaning “calamity”; Hebrew term for the Holocaust). So, why, when and from where comes your interest in keeping records about the Holocaust? Did you experience personally “something” that called your attention to this subject in any particular time of your life?
Jesús Maguregui: -That is a great question I have been asked many times and I do not have a clue how to answer it. Probably it is due to many reasons: Being born in Tetouan (Morocco), where three cultures (Jewish, Muslim and Christian) must live together. We were accepted by all three communities; even my dear father was loved and respected by Muslims. In an environment hostile to them, my father helped several Jews to get jobs in the Spanish multinational where he was CEO. My parents were proud of their friendship with the Chocrón Sananes, the Serruya, the Benarroch and other Jewish families in Tetouan.
My father did his best trying to make us big readers since very young, not very successfully in my case, I admit it. Reading was so boring! Among the library of my father, since I was a child, there were some testimonials of Spanish Republicans who suffered in the camp of Mauthausen.
One of the first books I remember reading about Shoah was the Memories of Violeta Friedman, a survivor of Auschwitz, who lived in Spain. She was a neighbor of my brother, and she became famous for having fought legally to end the impunity of the Nazi Leon Degrelle. It impacts to meet a Holocaust victim. To look at her eyes and see that they were dry, no more tears to show and a look lost on the horizon.
At school I always defended the causes of the weak ones. Injustice has always produced me rage and impotence. And probably this sentiment has worsened as I have been becoming older. If someone asks me of whom I am a fan, I will not answer something habitual such as an artist, a musician or a footballer. No. I’m an admirer of Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of the Holocaust who devoted his life to a passion: To locate and bring to Justice the largest possible number of Nazis.
Anger came over me when I realized the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Nazi refugees who escaped in my own country, in Spain, living a relaxed maturity far from the shadow of horror that caused the death of millions of people. I myself know a very old lady (her name is Kossman and, who knows, she could be dead now), who lives in Marbella and is the widow of a command of the SS. The whole family, the brothers of her husband, bought several villas on a small and nice place. Nobody bothered them since the end of World War II. And in his living room hangs a picture of her husband, wearing uniform with all his medals.
Maybe it’s late; I have always the feeling that it’s too late. I have dreamed several times to create a Wiesenthal Center delegation in Madrid and to spend the time and money to do so. In Calpe, Denia, in Piles… In various parts of the Spanish coast I have met old German people who hide their past.
In the early 90’s I lived for some years in The Hague (Netherlands) and next to my door it hung a rusty plate that said “in memory of the 12 hidden and shot by the Nazis here.” I came back in 2011. The plate is not there anymore. Maybe this was the start of everything. Also, the Human Resources colleague who previously located my apartment and was taking care of all the arrangements for the private company that I worked could be accidentally the reason of my interest on the Holocaust. The owner of the rented apartment was a little woman, very thin, with very sharp features and very curved nose, deep and quiet eyes, smiling but easy to recognize she was sad. Her name was Marijke Koops, and everyone knew her as “mamma Koops”. Holocaust Survivor, she never wanted to talk about that. Sometimes she began a phrase…, and stood thinking.
Finally I have the luck to have acquired my father’s hobby: reading. However I’ll never get to know why my father twisted his face in disapproval when I told him that I had just finished a couple of books: The last day of Hitler and Mengele. Very probably he already guessed my interest in collecting and read all the evidence possible, archiving them properly, to visit all the camps, to keep a blog and even to dream writing a travel guide though the horror fields.
AB: -What were your feelings when for the first time you stepped inside a concentration camp, a horror field as you described? Which camp was it, and is there any particular time of the year when you usually travel to visit the camps?
JM: -It was at Sachsenhausen, at the North of Berlin (next to that, before, was the camp of Oranienburg). It is difficult to explain that feeling, which, on the other hand, I still have every time when a visit a camp, even if it is for the second or third time. The first thing that hit me was to see written on the door of that camp “Arbeit macht frei“. You wonder “but was not this at Auschwitz?”. Gradually you realize that all camps were a copy “improved” from the original, Dachau.
I always try to travel during the winter. Fewer people. No tourist. People bother me: Some of them speak loudly, some others are laughing, some run to meet friends, even some quietly eat a sandwich while they get in and out of the barracks. What I am going to say will not be appreciated, I know, but one of the worst things is to coincide with a group of Jewish students (with their flags and candles). Beyond I’ve never wanted to visit a field accompanied by a guide. Normally I dedicate my time to prepare each visit (reading the testimonies of survivors bring you to that time). But once I tried it. It was during my third visit to Sachsenhausen. I just wanted to find out if a guide could provide me more information (because when I enter to a camp all my six senses awake and perceive smells, sounds, colors…, that other visitors may not feel). I think the guided tours should follow a supervised recruitment. They should be well prepare and knowledgeable. Unfortunately mine mixed Mauthausen with Auschwitz, Treblinka with Dachau. Three hours wasted. Decidedly, I set out to explore the camp on my own. Then, I thought: What happen with the other foreign visitors to whom the same guide took them around? They lost an extraordinary opportunity because that guide mixed history facts and couldn’t explain at all what all this was about.
Every time I visit a camp I feel a tingling in my stomach. It’s like I could meet the people that suffered there the horror. An example: Mauthausen camp can be accessed directly or through what it were the garages. I had in my mind each and every one of the photographs that the Spanish prisoner Francisco Boix got off the camp. That garage was once full of naked men, many of them dying, trying to reach a sunbeam, and killing louses each other. And I was there.
As you read more and more testimonies of survivors, you create in your mind a virtual map of what happened in the camps. Therefore, when I entered Birkenau for the first time I was shocked. I went to that main gate tower (now forbidden at all to visitors) and I had an extraordinary panorama of the train platform. I walked slowly. I could hear elderly, women and children crying, coming down from cattle wagons after many days without eating or drinking.
Going up and down stairs several times from the staircase in the quarry at Mauthausen, stopping at each of the 186 stairs, on both sides are still gaps where SS guards were posted and were in charge of hitting prisoners carrying stones up to 20 kilos on their backs. I thought of all those who chose to jump and end their suffering. It was snowing heavily. I was warm and wearing boots. What happened to those unfortunates who just wore a shirt and a trouser as outerwear? I reached down and grabbed some moss from the staircase. I keep it in a small plastic bag sample as remembrance.
Many people who visit the monument erected to the victims in the Majdanek camp can see a chilling gigantic mountain of bones and ashes, but they do not know that few meters far from there ,are the graves of what could be the most brutal killing ever made. Just in 3 days 18,000 Jews were murdered and buried in what was called “Harvest Festival“, just because Himmler was afraid for a new Jewish prisoners’ rebellion as it happened at the Sobibor extermination camp.
I have walked slowly through the “Road to Heaven” of Treblinka, that path hidden by a barbed wire and branches of shrubs that led directly to the newcomers (once stripped, robbed and humiliated) to the chambers of gas. No words can describe it: The Shoah cannot be described.
AB: -Many inmates watched family members and friends succumbing to terrible conditions that caused them extremely great grief and most of the nights were sleepless due to pain, fright, and anxiety. Many were found dead in their bunks. For the living, the dawn brought the nightmare back to life. Furthermore the filthy and ragged inmates’ appearance became psychologically easier for the Nazis guards to shoot them since they appeared as “subhumans”. With conditions as they were, do you think some inmates welcomed death as a reprieve? How was possible to survive/to keep alive in one of those concentration camps, some inmates helped others to survive?
JM: -Whenever someone asks me about this issue, by all means I invite him to travel to that period of time, and to try to feel what is like to be on the skin of one prisoner. If we just consider the hungry, and we leave aside loneliness, horror, cold or heat, and diseases… I beg you to get in that situation: You have been three months drinking a disgusting brown water, which has caused you chronic diarrhea and is the reason why, every half hour, you do the needs on your pants. They give you a piece of bread, mixed with sawdust, which barely manages to satisfy your hunger. Besides you, is your father, or mother or brother or wife or sister…, dying, with the same piece of bread. Think about it. What do you do? Do you deliver your piece to your family member because you do not want to see him/her suffering, or do you take it from him/her because in a few days he or she will not need it anymore?
We all have to take that test. I will never stop explaining, over and over again, that nobody can judge looking back. No, no and no. We must get into their skin. People felt sick…, and when they wanted to fight, there was no energy at all… That is what we must understand. If people had known that they would end their lives dying suffocated, don’t you think that they would have made anything to escape at the beginning?
In all societies, and in all times of history, there have been people who gave their lives helping others. Like those who “organized” food or other goods for distribution in the camp. Unfortunately, there were also those who took advantage of it and from the suffering and needs of others.
Nazis were amazed by the Spanish republican prisoners. They had fought hard during the Civil War and then they were in infamous conditions far away from home and their families. No other people supported each other in the camps as the Spanish Republicans did, some of them occupied relevant positions in the camp, helped the Resistance and supported the prisoners. It is also true that it was easier for the Spanish community because of the homogeneity of the group: All of them had been captured because of the same fight. However, Jewish people were quite heterogeneous, and a rich professional Jew from Holland could sleep next to a poor farmer from Galizia (Poland) in the camp of Birkenau, but they had nothing in common, even their feelings. Please, do not forget that the “brains’ cleaning” made to the SS’ men during their years of training, led them think than Jews were less than humans, so the treatment of the Jewish people was extremely cruel. Just as example, in many camps a barrack was exclusive dedicated to Jews and they were martyred much worse than others.
AB: -Hitler allowed Heinrich Himmler to start using the camps’ facilities and personnel to purge German society of so-called “racially undesirable elements” such as Jews, criminals, homosexuals and Romani people (gypsies). The first camp in Germany, Dachau (which served as a prototype and model for the other Nazi concentration camps) was built in March 1933. Himmler, then Chief of Police of Munich, officially described the camp as: “The first concentration camp for political prisoners“. Then, between 1939 and 1942 during World War II, as in history books records, the number of camps exploded to more than 300. But…, just recently, Holocaust Memorial Museum, began, just in the year 2000, the grim task of documenting all the ghettos, concentration camps, slave labor sites and killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945. The result is totally astonishing: They have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany. This are the numbers: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers. Want I want to say is that, Auschwitz and a handful of other concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the public consciousness and also the Warsaw Ghetto (famous for the 1943 uprising) but, what has happen to the rest? Very little the public knows, or they may have heard ‘something’, about the camps in Mauthausen, Sobibor, Bikernau, etc… But nobody knows about the places already found, and everything should be documented for the future. That’s very important. Do you really think it is possible to preserves those new found sites been in so different countries? What do you really think about the maintenance quality of the camps?
JM: -Many people think that what the film Schindler’s List portraits was before or after of the Shoah. Later, there have been other films or books that have “popularized” this drama, such as Life is beautiful or The boy in the striped pajamas. This is where the question arises: Is it better to popularize the Shoah, or to maintain some discretion about it, or even to cover its tracks in order not to prolong the suffering of the survivors?
I must confess that I feel anger and helplessness when I see that nothing remains of camp Westerbork (the Netherlands), or at Bergen-Belsen (in Germany), or when I confirmed that the majority of the barracks in Mauthausen, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald… have been destroyed with the excuse that it was important to take away the risk of infections and epidemics. Now, late (very late in my opinion) they are trying to correct some errors. For example, they are re-building the house of the Westerbork’s camp commandant, and they are decided to close to the public most of the barracks at the Birkenau women’s camp.
I still feel anger remembering my visit to the Plaszow camp (on the outskirts of Krakow). It is very difficult (almost impossible) to find the remains of the camp. If you ask the neighbors, they are not very excited to help. The commandant’s house is abandoned, the cellars of the Gestapo (place of torture) in the basement of a house next to the camp are not identified, and it drives me crazy when I remember walking among those bushes, and accidentally you can step on the remains of a destroyed Synagogue and some open and broken graves… Not even one single Euro invested in rebuilding that to turn it into a respectable place.
One of the worst moments I’ve experienced has been during my first visit to the Sobibor extermination camp. It was a very rainy day and there were some workers with shovels and a metal detector clearing the ground. I guess they were looking for traces of the old camp. Then, the one using the metal detector went to urinate far away behind the trees. While I was taking some photographs of the station platform, I saw clearly how on the way back he found something and suddenly he put it in his pocket. Oh, God! The pain is still in me. I was supposed to face him, and I did not say anything. I am sure you will not agree with me, but in my opinion, Jews are still not welcome in Poland.
I am preparing a trip across Europe that I hope will become a reality next year. I just want to locate not only museums and memorials but places that are not easy to identify. I want to say something that many people do not know: Many camps’ facilities are currently being used by civilians, military army… I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why the house of the former commandant of Auschwitz is protected by the Polish police and they don’t permit anyone to get close and take pictures. Did you know that the camp that can be visited in Vught (in the Netherlands) is less than 10% of the original size of the camp? The same happens in Sachsenhausen, and in many others… In all them, the military army has decided to use the infrastructure, houses, barracks…
Is it better like this? Are we aware of the high costs of maintenance of a camp? Who will bear these costs? The government? Visitors with the price of their entry tickets? Will do it Germany and Switzerland? It is a very interesting debate, because unfortunately I personally have seen the extent of destruction of some camps, and it is an irreversible process.