With my first step outside, into Auschwitz I, there was a smell. With all seriousness, there was a smell. I can’t even describe it now – it was leftovers, cement, heaviness, time. It was a smell definitive of the 1.1 million innocent individuals murdered there: jews, poles, gypsies, soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals… 1.1 million faces perished, only for their shoes, keys, glasses, photographs, and hair to be discovered under dirt of hydrogen cyanide gas or phenol injections or medical experiments or bullets or frozen, thinned bones. And then to stand on that same ground where, 70 years ago, infants and children, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were torn away from each other and torn away from their hopes, dreams, and ambitions for a future forever… to stand on that ground broke my heart. (Wednesday, March 22, 2017)
On the date the picture above was taken, I was in Poland, at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is the infamous location of three concentration camps where the murder of 1.1 million individuals took place. Shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland (the Nazis invaded the town of Oświęcim on September 3, 1939 and then renamed it Auschwitz), the request for this concentration camp to be built was sent out and, by the end of 1940, it was already functioning. There were a total of six death camps and they were all on Polish territory, strategically located to be close to large populations of Jews and main transportation routes (primarily the railway).
Before the Holocaust began, Jewish life in Europe was thriving. Jews were in abundant numbers (in Greece the Jewish community had been established for approximately 2,239 years and in Italy for 2,100 years) and they were a community. There was tradition and there was heritage. In fact, in many towns the population of Jews and their quality of life was far greater than that of the inferiority. For example, before invasion the Jewish community made up 58% of the population in Oświęcim. This is why some historians may argue that a factor that led to the Holocaust was jealousy towards the Jews.
Initially, Auschwitz was the location built for political prisoners, prisoners of war, gypsies, and Jews. This was Auschwitz I, keep in mind, but since the way the Nazi concentration camp system worked was that there would be one main camp with several subcamps, by March 1941 it was decided to build Auschwitz II. This subcamp was built on the site of Birkenau and originally held prisoners of war. During this same time period of construction, Auschwitz III was being brought into use. Auschwitz III was located at a chemical plant known as Buna-Monowitz and was used as a labor camp.
Hence, there were three camps of Auschwitz: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau (22 times the size of Auschwitz I), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz.
It is important to note how it has been stressed that the initial purpose of these camps was labour work for prisoners. That is the alleged truth, yet contemporary findings have proven that the Nazis had planned almost everything that then happened at these sites. For example, showerheads were discovered without any link to a water reservoir which means that the gas chambers had been built from the very start for the same purpose they ended up being used for.
What happened at Auschwitz in the few years that followed is not sad—it is utterly crushing. It is not a sentiment of disbelief and shock anymore—it is a sentiment of emptiness. It is a sentiment of emptiness because anyone who can describe to you precisely what they must have felt while walking to Auschwitz today is lying. The truth is, there is no description of Auschwitz. There is no definitive method of explaining the feeling of standing in between the blank walls of Auschwitz today because the feeling is so powerful and so painful that thinking about it is enough to place you back there.
That feeling is disappointment. It is disappointment with the world and of how the Holocaust ever happened. How is it that 6 million absolutely innocent Jews, Poles, prisoners were locked up in between walls of ice or forced to work with their ribs popping out their bodies? How is that 6 million faces perished in the timespan of a few years?
Every single one of these individuals had dreams and hopes and ambitions.
When I grow up and reach the age of 20,
I’ll set out to see the enchanting world.
I’ll take a seat in a bird with a motor;
I’ll rise and soar high into space.
I’ll fly, sail, hover
Over the lovely faraway world.
I’ll soar over rivers and oceans
Skyward shall I ascend and blossom,
A cloud my sister, the wind my brother.
These are two first stanzas of a poem written by Avraham Koplowicz before he was 14 years old. The poem was entitled “Dream”. He was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of 14.
In the end, it is with a firm belief that I state how important it is to understand that it wasn’t 6 million people that died during the Holocaust, but 6 million individual faces that were murdered. Yet even that will never be enough. For no one will ever be able to truly and fully comprehend the immensity of the Holocaust and the pain of being so unlucky to have been born during such an unfair time in history. If only we could remember all of the names, faces, families, hobbies, likes and dislikes, and hopes of every single one of the 6 million headstones that were not even built, for too many of the bodies were burned and separated.
Why is it so important? It is important to remember the Holocaust because, as George Santayana said,
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Article by Bianca Lazar