My girlfriend cried as we stood inside the gas chamber in Auschwitz 1 camp and looked at the walls with finger scratches, the holes in the ceiling where Zyklon B pellets were poured in and where so many died before being placed in the ovens next door. I found it hard to breathe and hard to think.The chamber was restored after the war, but is extremely moving and you can sense the suffering. It is tangible in this place.
My recent visit to the two main Auschwitz camps left me, as it does with many visitors, a deep sense of shock and many questions. I was born in the UK and in a very different generation from those who experienced war. I am not Jewish, although my girlfriend is. Visiting with her was something I felt to be very important, both to support her and to deepen my understanding of what happened to Jews in World War Two. British education mentions the Nazis and their horrors, but does not enter deeply into the subject. Some schools might organise trips to the Imperial War Museum, which has a section on the Holocaust, however it depends on how much the teachers draw attention to this as part of the entire exhibition. After seeing this, I think every school should take kids to visit.
The biggest question I had was: how on earth did the Nazis get away with making a death factory? How did the other Western nations ignore it, despite having intelligence that the Holocaust was happening? The camps are immensely organised. They were production lines, designed to facilitate the death of millions with Germanic precision and efficiency. This for me was one of the most frightening parts of the experience.
I worked in the British National Health Services for a while and often they have policy documents that drive their changes and plans. These are usually put into action by a chain of managers in a matter-of-fact way, budgets assigned, systems for data collection and analysis, and other bureaucracy. The Nazis had the same sorts of processes for death of human beings. The driving policy document was the “Final Solution” document from the Wannsee Conference. The chain of command was probably more organized than that of the NHS. The systems were card-based and records were kept in meticulous ways. If computers had existed there would probably be a mass of databases and spreadsheets with names, photographs and extensive personal information. The whole thing happened like clockwork. Budgets were assigned for the camp. Designs drawn up by people trying to please their masters and implemented under an iron fist. Then there was the issue of logistics. The trains were organised to transport victims in the most efficient way to the camp. Tests were carried out by German pharmaceutical conglomerate, IG Farben (now Bayer and other companies, although the original directors were tried and convicted in the Nuremberg trials) to find the most efficient way to kill someone with gas. They did this in the basement of the detention block in Auschwitz 1, and at least 300 people lost their lives, after which they settled on Zyklon-B, a form of cyanide. Then IG Farben manufactured the product, with the help of slave labour from camp inmates. New gas chambers were built at Birkenau death camp and things became even more efficient. SS management were probably driven by targets and rewarded for their work. A report drawn up in 1943 by the camp SS construction bureau describes the capacity when all five gas chambers and crematoria were operational was a frightening 4756 corpses per 24 hour period (Source: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2017).
Entering the museum rooms, on the site of the former Auschwitz 1, revealed the horror of this operational efficiency. Just a small portion of the industrial quantities of people’s belongings, like shoes, bags, cooking pots and shaving brushes, were shown. Much of it had been destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war, who burned warehouses full of evidence. Perhaps the most distressing thing was to see a room full of human hair that had been removed from women in order to be used to manufacture cloth. second to this were the piles of children’s shoes and clothes, followed by a huge pile of disability aids and equipment. Other rooms had picture after picture of horrific events, and quotes from senior Nazis. One of these, by Hitler, read:
I am keeping ready… my death’s head units, to kill women and children of Polish birth and Polish tongue, without pity or mercy … Poland will be depopulated and Germans will settle there.” (Hitler, Obersalzburg. 22 Aug. 1939)
Himmler had already forcibly removed any Polish people from the perimeter of the area around the camps, to minimise publicity. People from various groups ended up in the camp, including political prisoners, gays, Romany and Sinti people, criminals, the mentally ill, disabled, Russian prisoners. Many died of starvation and disease.
Walking around the larger camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp was almost beyond belief. The railway track through which cattle carts full of Jewish people were shunted led right through the camp, not far from the extermination machines at the end. A ramp in the centre of the camp enabled rapid and efficient disembarkation and selection. People selected for death were sent to the right. This usually amounted to about 75% of the arrivals. the other 25% were sent to the left for labour or to be experimented on by the sadistic SS doctor, Josef Mengele and his associates.
The death machines themselves, the gas chambers and crematoria, revealed an increase in efficiency in design. The Topf und Söhne (Topf and son) company patented their design and guaranteed an exact number of Jews that could be killed in 24 hours. The orginal designer, one Kurt Prüfer, made improvements over time, frequently visiting the camp to respond to issues with the efiiciency. After the war he was sent to a Russian Gulag, where he died. In the camp, the ovens are partially destroyed, dynamited by the Nazis before they left, but looking closely it is clear to see how they were constructed and the improvements over time as each new one was built.
Walking behind these gas chambers it is possible to see soil unearthed by moles that looks distinctly grey in colour. A nearby sign states that ashes of the victims were spread behind the gas chambers, but also in nearby ponds. in other areas of the camp, the soil is light brown.
My visit to these camps was a deeply moving and necessary experience. It reiterated and strengthened my unerring support for the state of Israel and the Israeli Defence Forces, who are, for Jews, the guarantee that “Never again”, at least for them, will be a reality. In the face of continued hostility and excessive antisemitism from within the Islamic world, a world that reveres Hitler and the Nazis and openly calls for the destruction of Israel; that continually attempts to use disinformation and social media to frame Israel for a host of inconceivable wrongs, the presence of this country is ever more important. Israel, is the light in the darkness of the Middle East.