1. Auschwitz is the global name of genocide.
2. What have we learnt from Auschwitz? Nothing!
3. Auschwitz is a moving experience if you can visualise and understand the pain. Else it is another tick in our bucket list.
4. Auschwitz had more tourists than learners. Unesco site has led to a huge influx of Instagram generation tourists.
5. Human beings are capable of the most inhuman crimes to their brethren.
6. Popular and majority view do not mean correct view – Hitler was popular and he led this genocide.
7. Why was the world silent when this was happening? Where was the greatest nation on the earth? Why did Allied forces not act earlier – Auschwitz continued for several years!
8. What would be the mental make-up of soldiers? You question how can one set of human being butcher another set of human beings which include children, women and senior citizens? Amy in war and Police in combat situations can kill but how can you kill innocent people – often fooling them? And that also millions of people.
8. The allowance for Jews for the life-move to the so called better place (Auschwitz) was 20kgs. Our cabin luggage is between 7kg to 10 kg – so imagine how can you carry your life in 20kgs?
9. More than 1 million people were killed. The youngest person was 2 year old. 90% were killed in gas chambers on arrival. 10% were kept as inmates.
10. Birkenau was 20 times bigger than Auschwitz and was designed to exterminate people quickly. More than 10,000 people were killed in a day. 4 crematoria were not sufficient and people were burnt in open.
11. Auschwitz is a shame on humanity. It is our failure. But it has happened several times after that as well.
12. McDonalds and KFC – Globalization icons welcome you as you enter Auschwitz. A brand is a living thing – then context specificity and sensitivity are important.
13. Movies to watch: The Pianist, Schindler’s List, The Boy With Striped Pajamas, Life Is Beautiful.
14. Vegetarian and Indian restaurants were very popular in Krakow. Glonojad is a clear hit with huge queues and Hindu ran out of food. I had one of the best samosas of life at Glonojad.
Auschwitz – the global name of genocide and human hatred. It is the place associated with the darkest chapter of modern human civilization.
Auschwitz was one of the places that was on my mind for a long time. Since my arrival in London, I had regained interest in this chapter of history. After Nordic Noir, Holocaust movies were a topic of my personal research. I had watched all the important movies and documentaries around this dark chapter – The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Life Is Beautiful, The Boy With Striped Pajamas etc. It was natural that the trip to this important historical centre was in the making. It was my desire to visit this place with Vipoobhai and I was very happy that he agreed to visit with me during the month of November. Travel is about destination, journey and the company as well – So I was lucky on that front.
Auschwitz was a one hour drive from Krakow. It was a small town that was physically 60 kms away from city but philosophically in a completely different world. Even today, people live in the town of Oswiecim (The Polish name is Oswiecim but Germans had renamed this as Auschwitz). Actually, there are three concentration and extermination camps in the region – Auschwitz, Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and Monowitz (Auschwitz III). However, Auschwitz is the most famous one though Birkenau saw the maximum deaths and murders in a very industrial and scalable way.
We were speaking to John, our companion cum driver, about the Auschwitz. He said that he has visited it only twice – once a student and once as an adult few years back. He found the place very difficult and depressing. He informed us that for inhabitants of Oswiecim town, Auschwitz and its memories are a part of their daily lives. As we entered the town, we saw KFC and McDonalds – the global symbols. I thought it as a case of confused branding. Brand is a living being – that is what we marketers believe. It lives in the hearts and mind of the audience. But here these ads seems out of context and out of sync with the audience’s sensitivity.
We reached the Auschwitz camp (now converted into a museum) and we had to stand in the queue till 10:45 am. There were huge crowds and it took us one hour to clear the security checks and meet our guide for the tour. The guide mentioned said that these crowds were negligible. Auschwitz had been getting popular and last three years had been phenomenal. 2014 saw 1 million plus visitors and it rose to 1.5 million visitors in 2015. During 2016, the visitor count has already crossed 2 million. And we were visiting in cold November and yet the crowds were enormous.
I was aware of the basic history thanks to my reading, movies and discussions. The Jewish and anti-Nazi regime protestors from across the Europe were brought to the concentration camps in Auschwitz. As soon as the trains arrived, the people were segregated. Healthy men were directed to work while old people, women and children were led to the gas chambers. Often, these people were dead within few hours and their death was never recorded – creating a case of missing and forgotten people. People were led to believe that they were going for bath for disinfection and the poisonous gas was leaked onto the naked people. Often all the trains were directed straight to the gas chamber without carrying any selection. The dead bodies were stripped of hair, gold teeth, watches etc. were removed and sold to finance the war economy – often with army personnel pocketing multiple things. The bodies were burnt in the crematorium and the personl documents of dead were destroyed. The conditions in the camp were pathetic and people were shot for minor offences.
Our tour started with the guide explaining us the history of the place. Auschwitz was originally built as a prison for Polish political prisoners. The first batch of Poles reached in 1940 from Tarnow prison. It was an army garrison at that point of time. But with passage of time, it became the prime centre for extermination of anti-Nazi protestors and Jewish people. It also had people from Roma, Soviet Union and other places. Auschwitz soon ran out of place and Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and Monowitz (Auschwitz III) were built. Birkenau was 20 times bigger than Auschwitz. All the camps were isolated from the world and thick barbed wire fencing surrounded the camps. The camps were run by the dreaded Secret Service (SS) and German state financed it.
Why was Auschwitz chosen as the location for these concentration camps? Three reasons:
1. It was one of the well-connected junctions. People from all over the Europe could be brought here. People were brought here from even Oslo.
2. It was easy for Nazis to hide their crime in this remote place.
3. Poland and Krakow had a sizeable Jewish population. About 30% of European Jewish population was in Poland. So, it had the right population to start with.
More than 1 million people lost their lives in Auschwitz – though the unofficial figure could be even higher. Many more people were killed and these statistics were not even recorded. The youngest person to be killed was a 2 year old child. Out of the million plus people who were killed, 90% were killed on arrival. Rest were kept as inmates and killed later – by shooting, hunger, bad weather etc.
As we entered Auschwitz, I saw those famous words on the gate – ‘ Arbeit Macht Frei’ – ‘Work brings freedom’. People had to work and work hard to avoid death. They were lonely and alone and without family. They had poor food and nutrition and had to toil hard. These words were a slogan and a motivator.
Auschwitz camp was a huge place. We saw the different blocks. Originally, it had 21 blocks and inmates built more blocks during their stay. One block could hold more than 1000 people. It was a rainy winter day that day and I could imagine what it would be without my warm clothes and shoes – most prisoners had to live in pyjamas and they were given only one set of uniform. They had to wear it everyday. Often people died of harsh and cold winters. We later saw photographs of people who survived only one day in the camp – either they were shot for minor offence or they must have died due to harsh situation.
The blocks had very tiny rooms and hundreds of people had to live in them. There were barracks and three level of bunks. Often they had to fight between them to ensure that they got good place to sleep. The floor was not heated and in winter it was a big problem. The floor was damp and lices and rats were there as well. There were limited toilet blocks and it could not be used in night. They were given a single bucket in the single for usage. The toilets had no water or tissue papers. Hundreds of people lined up for toilet every morning. People were given limited time for their daily needs and hundreds of people had to queue for toilet etc. outside the block in cold or rainy weather. It was sheer humiliation. Some sanitation condition improved after 1943.
We visited Block 11 where many prisoners were kept in a very small cell and they could only stand. Nothing else. It had a tiny hole for air. They had to crawl to get in and get out. Often prisoners were kept hungry after a hard day’s work – they had to work more than 12 hours a day. They were given tea or coffee in the morning, soup in the day and bread/burger/sausage in the evening. The quality of food was pathetic – soup was often of rotten vegetables. Inadequate food led to malnutrition and many died because of hunger.
Nazis had to save money as the war was a costly affair. They used the work of prisoners for industrial work. Women worked for bullet making factories. Inmates were slaves for SS. Long working hours and fatigue also led to deterioration of health. Nazis also sold the hair and belongings of killed prisoners for financing the war expenses.
SS officers regularly gave punishment for simple things like trying to get more food or not obeying them. They were flogged in the public. And killed by shooting many times.
In one of the blocks, the belongings of the Jewish inmates were kept. The inmates were told that they were taken to a better place to work for. They were given hope of a better life. Hence many came with their belongings like utensils, personal grooming products etc. In fact, the irony was that many actually paid to come to Auschwitz as it promised a better life and they could escape the atrocities back home. But here they were cheated. As soon as people landed, there was a selection process. The camp doctor would classify people into strong and weak. One sign of hand of the camp doctor and the fate was sealed. The camp doctor would immediately send the weaker people and children and old people to gas chambers. Or phenol was inserted into their hearts. Hence their belongings remained at Auschwitz – we could see many kitchen utensils, shaving brushes, shoe shine, shoes, luggage bags, bags of kids etc. Each item had a life story. It was sad.
Going back to the above topic, the Jews in the cities had to first move to the Jewish ghettos. They had to give up their property etc. They had to work hard in only licensed work. They were given ID card and had to wear Jewish star. There were restrictions on what they could read, write and watch. People were killed under slightest pretext. Later they were moved to Auschwitz. But they were given a false impression of the Auschwitz. For the trip to Auschwitz, they had to carry entire life’s belongings. They were only allowed 20 kgs. So most of the people took chair – the chair was versatile and could help them for various purposes. And of course at Auschwitz, they had to undergo a selection process at the unloading area. Families met for the last time at the unloading area. After that families were separated.
For the people arriving to Auschwitz from other parts of Europe, often the journey was for 4-5 days or more. The journey was in rail bogies and the bogies were cramped with hundreds of people. There was no window or toilet inside the bogey. Many people died in the journey itself. Often the bogies would be full of dead bodies only – when opened at Auschwitz.
Many healthy women and men were also selected as guinea pigs and the camp doctors did various experiments on them. Women were experimented for various sterilisation methods and many died in the process. Block 10 was the place where camp doctors conducted several experiments. Prof. Dr Carl Clauberg, a German gynaecologist, conducted several sterilisation experiements and many died from the treatment they received. Many were murdered so that the autopsies could be performed on them. Few people survived and they continued to have permanent injuries.
The area between Block 10 and Block 11 was the shooting wall. People were shot dead. The windows next to the wall were covered with wood – so that inmates could not see what was happening. They could hear but not see. In one of the blocks, we saw an entire floor full of hair of dead women. These hairs were collected to sell in the market for textiles and other purposes. The 1 kg of hair was sold for a price that was equal to one quarter price paid for cigarettes.
In Block 11, more than 250 prisoners were killed by Zyklon B in one of the first case of mass extermination and it was then repeated often. But soon they realised the need for a dedicated crematorium.
We finally came to the gas chambers. Nazis were finding it difficult to kill so many people everyday by shooting. It was also affecting morale of some soldiers. So they wanted to find new means to exterminate the Jews. They were given the solution to kill people by gas.
The people arriving at the railway station were directed straight to the crematorium. The people were tricked and they entered the gas chambers assuming that they were going for a shower bath. They were asked to get naked and their belongings were taken away. They were told that after the bath and cleaning wash and disinfection, they would be given appropriate jobs in the labour camps. Even the existing inmates left their uniforms outside. Once the Jews entered the chambers, the doors were closed. An SS officer in a gas mask would take off the chimney lids of the crematorium, open the Zyklon B cans and release the contents onto the heads of the victims. The inmates cried and died within minutes – their cries were shut by engine of nearby lorries. Then their bodies were burnt continuously. The smell conveyed it all to the other inmates. The output of the furnaces was low as compared to the death and corpses were also being transported to Birkenau and buried in mass graves.
After Auschwitz, we went to Birkenau- it was 20-24 times bigger than Auschwitz. Wherever your eyes could see, you could see the camp. It was much bigger and designed to exterminate more people. 10,000 people could be killed in one day. It was the extermination factory. It had 4 crematoria but they were not sufficient and people were burnt in open as well. There were several prisoner volunteers and SS officers who worked hard for extra cigarettes and liquor.
We saw the huge gas chambers and the crematoria. We saw the block for women. The block had minimal room and 600 women were cramped into it. The irony was that there was only one bucket for toilet and 600 women had to share that for their needs. Women were suffering from diseases and diarrhea. Women had three level bunk bed and top was the best place – because on ground or mid floor – people could get wet due to stool from above. Many times women were left out in the open courtyard – and they died in winter in 2-3 hours.
Only about 200,000 people survived the concentration camps. Last year, during the celebrations of 70 years, about 2000 people were present. Many people do not talk about this dark chapter of their lives.
Nazis later destroyed the records and exterminated the witnesses. The mass murder apparatus was terminated. These buildings in Birkenau were destroyed by the Nazis themselves as they feared as their crimes would be exposed.
We asked: what did we learn as humanity from this? Nothing!
Auschwitz is a shame on humanity. It is our failure. But it continues….