By Anna Siatka
Imagine one day you just lock the door of your house, take a suitcase with your most important belongings, and together with your husband and children go to a new place that is supposed to be a paradise. Deserted green fields, forests, birdsong, wild deer. Sounds like a picturesque landscape. After a long trip you are so happy to have finally arrived. But in fact it is not at all like what you expected.
No examination of the Holocaust would be complete without a visit to Birkenau, the concentration camp and killing center located in a small village close to the Polish town of Oświęcim. So here we are: thirty FASPE fellows and faculty members with two local guides standing on the swampy ground on an extremely hot June day. We can only imagine what people waiting for ”their turn” several hours in the sun could feel.
Under the guidance of Paweł Sawicki from Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum we follow the procedure of extermination from the reception of prisoners to their burial. So what happened first? And what happened next?
When the prisoners got off the trains, the process of selection began. Healthy and strong people, usually men, were sentenced to work at the camp and the rest were exterminated immediately. If you were a woman with a small child, your fate was probably death. Your husband may have survived if he was strong enough. For many families this was a good-bye time, forever.
Officers promised the unlucky ones hot soup, new houses and jobs, but first asked them to take a shower. Usually women with children went first, as the kids were impatient. Nobody expected that ordinary-looking shower rooms would be places of mass murder.
But once the prisoners were inside the shower room, not water but the lethal gas Zyklon B poured from the shower heads, other holes and columns. The groans lasted five to six minutes, but just to be sure that no one survived, the operation lasted about 25 minutes. Then the bodies were burned in crematoria.
A special unit made up of prisoners, the Sonderkommando, was responsible for disposing of the bodies. They had to be fit and were quite privileged: they did not suffer from hunger and had access to food brought by the prisoners from all over the world. But after around three months these men were killed and replace by new ones.
In Birkenau there were four regular gas chambers with their own crematoria and two provisional ones called “The Red House” and “The White House.” Both were former houses of resettled inhabitants. Some of the buildings had a few chambers of different size for economic reasons: depending of the number of people to be killed the Nazis could use a room of the correct size so as not to waste gas. It reminds one of the famous German saying: Ordnung muss sein, which means “There must be order.”
Those who passed the selection had to go through so-called “Central Bath House.” It was a place where the prisoners were registered at the camp: they came with their names and left with numbers. Somewhat curious: Soviets’ prisoners tattoo started with the letter “R”, gypsies’ with “Z” and the rest were only numbers.
The Sonderkommando took the prisoners’ last belongings. The most poignant ones were keys, which showed that these people expected to come back home. All the valuable objects, such as golden teeth or jewelry, were kept in a special warehouse, called “Canada,” as that country was a symbol of wealth then. The Sonderkommando had access to that warehouse and could enjoy the things from there.
After registration everybody was shaved. It was especially embarrassing for women, as men shaved even their private areas. Later on there was a medical examination, with special attention paid to the younger women: if a Jewish pregnant woman was found, she was automatically sent to the chamber. After that prisoners turned in their clothes to be disinfected, which later were passed mainly to German charities, and in exchange got stripped uniforms. Strips, rugs, numbers, new life.
What was life like at the camp? The term “dehumanization” is the best way to describe it. Prisoners were housed in horse stables. One that could fit 52 horses in the past was suitable for 500 or more people.
One may think: how is that possible? I can honestly tell you: it is hard to understand until you get to Birkenau, read the prisoners’ testimonies, and see for yourself. Bunk beds, up to seven people on one level, no sunlight. Exhaustion during the hard work day, the impossibility of sleep at night. No water, no toilets in the stable, no flooring, leaking roofs, mud everywhere. Prisoners using morning tea to wash themselves. Rats not afraid of people and eager to attack them. Lice, typhus, women menstruating with no sanitary supplies… this was daily life for one million people, 90% of them Jews.
Since some artifacts of this life survived, we can have more testimonies. An interesting example is the two suitcases of photographs from the Będzin Ghetto. Helena Kubica, a researcher at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, spent two years analyzing them and the effect of her work is a great exhibition with photographs of and information about many families. It consists of hundreds of pictures, for many of who Kubica was able to discover names, though others remain anonymous. The faces seem so ordinary, yet they are so far away.
Those of us who didn’t experience the Holocaust will never fully understand what it was like. But you can come closer if you just lock the door of your house, get on a proper train and come to Birkenau.