Saturday Reader: The Holocaust at 70 – A Retrospective Essay

A-B headerOur “worst” day is still no comparison to their “best” day

70 years ago this week, the Nazi German extermination and concentration camp Auschwitz was liberated. 1.1 million people were murdered in the camp complex including Jews, Sinti-Roma, Polish political prisoners, Soviet POW’s & 10,000 -15,000 members of other nationalities.

This essay is dedicated to remembering and honoring the victims of the Holocaust and the victims at the hands of Nazi control within the confines of the city of Oswiecim.

There are so many stories and numerous images about Nazi atrocities in general and Auschwitz in particular.

A harrowing image from 1941 shows the moment the Jewish population of a small town in southern Poland is rounded up by Nazis and sent to their deaths.

Other pictures show flags emblazoned with Swastikas flying from banks and outside churches, while those who stayed in the town recall the ‘disgusting glow’ on the horizon, and the fear which kept the residents hiding behind closed windows.

Because, while the small town of Oswiecim is now a quiet, rural place, during the Second World War it lay in the shadows of the crematorium at Auschwitz, and death will forever linger in the air of this place.

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Harrowing: Oswiecim – called ‘Auschwitz’ by the Germans – was home to 8,000 Jewish residents before the war; in 1941 they were rounded up by the Nazis. Pictured: Lining up in the high street.

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Quiet: By the end of the war, the town in the shadow of the death camp had not one Jewish resident. Pictured: The same high street in the sleepy town today,

Today, the buildings which once held such horror have become part of the everyday fabric of the town: annexes of the camp are apartment blocks, there is no sign of the checkpoints, and the Nazi flags are long gone.

But those who lived in the town during the Second World War still remember what it was like to live so close to the Nazi death camp.

One resident, Bogumila, who did not give her surname, and grew up in the Polish town, once told me:

“Everyone sat in their homes in silence, windows shut as tightly as possible. Of course people knew what was going on. Every now and again, my mother and I would walk toward the camp, and see the disgusting glow on the horizon. Most of them did nothing, because they were scared.”

Bozena Szczepanska, 88, who was just 12 when the Nazis invaded, said:

“It’s difficult to forget because the memory of death is all around us, on the streets, in the buildings. People were forced out, others including my parents were shot. They were brutal, evil times.”

Before the war, Oswiecim had a population of 12,000, just over 8,000 of whom were Jewish. By 1945, the entire Jewish population had gone and only 2,000 Poles remained.

Consumed as part of Nazi Germany in 1939, the town was renamed and work began on transforming the local army barracks into the biggest killing machine in history. By the time it was liberated six years later, an estimated 1.5 million people had been exterminated in its gas chambers, ranging at it height from 8,000 to 10,000 a day.

Another photo from 1941 shows two German guards on a day off pushing their bikes across the River Sola as they head into town from the death camp.

Occupation: The town was consumed as part of Nazi Germany in 1939, and work soon began transforming the local army barracks into the biggest killing machine in history.

Occupation: The town was consumed as part of Nazi Germany in 1939, and work soon began transforming the local army barracks into the biggest killing machine in history.

Changes: Today, the soldiers who used to cross this bridge are long gone - but the sense of death will always linger.

Changes: Today, the soldiers who used to cross this bridge are long gone – but the sense of death will always linger.

Local man Roman Lewicki, 55, said:

“Wherever you go in this town, there are terrible reminders of the past. I was born after the war but I know what happened here. People were executed on street corners and one of those places is now said to have a school playground built on top of it. Buildings were turned into annexes of the main camp and people were worked to death. Some of those places are now apartment blocks with families living inside.”

Horrors: The old barracks home, built for Polish soldiers, was lived in Rudolf Hoess during his time at the camp and is just a stone’s throw from the crematorium and gas chambers.

'Polish': But the couple who have made it their home see it as a Polish house, and not a Nazi house

‘Polish’: But the couple who have made it their home see it as a Polish house, and not a Nazi house

Strict rule: Nazi checkpoints were, for six years, part of daily life for the remaining residents of Oswiecim.

Strict rule: Nazi checkpoints were, for six years, part of daily life for the remaining residents of Oswiecim.

No sign: But today it is hard to imagine Nazi soldiers standing here, checking passes.

No sign: But today it is hard to imagine Nazi soldiers standing here, checking passes.

Mass murder: Oswiecim train station - through which the millions of Jews destined for the death camp passed.

Mass murder: Oswiecim train station – through which the millions of Jews destined for the death camp passed.

Demolished: Today, the building so many must have seen has been replaced with this brightly colored station.

Demolished: Today, the building so many must have seen has been replaced with this brightly colored station.

Control: Nazi flags used to adorn the buildings of Oswiecim, reminding residents they were no longer under the control of the Polish government.

Control: Nazi flags used to adorn the buildings of Oswiecim, reminding residents they were no longer under the control of the Polish government.

Peaceful: Today, the church in Oswiecim has survived - but the flags are long forgotten.

Peaceful: Today, the church in Oswiecim has survived – but the flags are long forgotten.

Symbols: The town's bank during the Second World War, with Nazi flags hanging from the windows.

Symbols: The town’s bank during the Second World War, with Nazi flags hanging from the windows.

Everyday: Now the Polish flag flutters above Bank Pekao - but the building is largely unchanged.

Everyday: Now the Polish flag flutters above Bank Pekao – but the building is largely unchanged.

The Soviet advance from the east forced the Nazis to retreat from Auschwitz leaving several thousand of their prisoners behind, among them children and those closest to death.

Survivor Bozena said:

“They left behind a town which will always be haunted by the shadow of death and unspeakable horror. I don’t want to come back here.”

70 years ago a photo was taken of children prisoners at Auschwitz after the camp was liberated. After months of researching and countless hours of work by the staff of USC Shoah Foundation, not only were all the survivors identified but some reunited for one last picture in Krakow, Poland.

70 years ago a photo was taken of children prisoners at Auschwitz after the camp was liberated. After months of researching and countless hours of work by the staff of USC Shoah Foundation, not only were all the survivors identified but some reunited for one last picture in Krakow, Poland.

Over 100 Auschwitz survivors gather together for a historic photo 70 years after the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp was liberated.

Over 100 Auschwitz survivors gather together for a historic photo 70 years after the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp was liberated.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

The quotation stems from Niemöller’s lectures during the early postwar period. Different versions of the quotation exist. These can be attributed to the fact that Niemöller spoke extemporaneously and in a number of settings. Much controversy surrounds the content of the poem as it has been printed in varying forms, referring to diverse groups such as Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Trade Unionists, or Communists depending upon the version. Nonetheless his point was that Germans—in particular, he believed, the leaders of the Protestant churches—had been complicit through their silence in the Nazi imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people.

Only in 1963, in a West German television interview, did Niemöller acknowledge and make a statement of regret about his own antisemitism (see Gerlach, 2000, p. 47). Nonetheless, Martin Niemöller was one of the earliest Germans to talk publicly about broader complicity in the Holocaust and guilt for what had happened to the Jews. In his book Über die deutsche Schuld, Not und Hoffnung (published in English as Of Guilt and Hope)—which appeared in January 1946—Niemöller wrote: “Thus, whenever I chance to meet a Jew known to me before, then, as a Christian, I cannot but tell him: ‘Dear Friend, I stand in front of you, but we can not get together, for there is guilt between us. I have sinned and my people has sinned against thy people and against thyself.'”

Auschwitz, a brand new 15-minute documentary on the history of the Nazi death camp, produced by Steven Spielberg and narrated by Meryl Streep,will be permanently installed at the Auschwitz Memorial. The documentary had its premiere this week (27 January 2015), in the presence of 300+ Holocaust survivors. ‪#‎PastIsPresent‬ ‪#‎Auschwitz70‬

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5 thoughts on “Saturday Reader: The Holocaust at 70 – A Retrospective Essay

  1. This is an incredible post. I’m a history student and I am so pleased to have come across these pictures which display the direct social impact of the Nazis occupation on Jewish communities. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

    • Thank you Alex and you’re very welcome. These were humanity’s darkest times. There have been and will unfortunately be repeats of these atrocities to be sure. Let’s hope they can be minimized, and eventually altogether non-existent, always remember and not let repeat on such a grand, horrific scale.

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