Friday, March 5, 2010


Do you believe in true evil? That the polar opposites of right and wrong really exist? I’d like to think I don’t; that what one perceives as wickedness is rather a lack of understanding of the world. One of our largest physiological shortcomings is the thought that “we” are our egos; that our minds and bodies are the only things that exist. Many have overcome this illusion: the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, and Gandhi. But just because we can rise above the misconception of opposites does not mean that we can obliterate what causes the pain that causes many to suffer.

I’m not certain why, but I occasionally like to remind myself how much the world suffers; perhaps to make myself feel more humble or to remember the fragility and shortness of life. I still feel the need to make myself aware of how good a life I have in America that everyone, even consciously, takes for granted. And if I’m ever having a bad day, I think back to disasters like the thousands of waiting victims of Hurricane Katrina or the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001 to bring me back to reality. Over time, I’ve learned to forgive the people that made these things happen, but there is still one event that I continue to find hard to believe let alone accept; the Holocaust.

When I think of the Holocaust, I think of concentration camps. And when I think of concentration camps, I think of Auschwitz, the mother of German killing farms during World War II. Actually a grouping of 48 separate holding camps, Auschwitz was built around the Poland town of Oświęcim which was renamed after the country was seized by Germany in September of 1941.

These encampments were settled on an area rich in natural resources. The three main camps were Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz, often referred to as ‘Buna’.

aerial shot of Auschwitz

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the brain-child of Heinrich Himmler, Germany’s Minister of the Interior. He was quoted in saying the new camp would be the center of the “final solution of the Jewish question in Europe.” The camp’s first commanding officer, Rudolph Hoss, would later testify at the Nuremberg Trials that up to three million people had died there, around 90% of them Jews.

Did you know?- While many text books will tell you the Allies had no idea about Auschwitz during World War II, they actually did. Witold Pilecki, a Polish Army Captain, volunteered to be inside the concentration camp to get evidence of the German’s attempted genocide. Witold spent 945 days at Auschwitz relaying information to the Polish resistance movement which was later given to the British. When he finally escaped in April of 1943 and filed his final report, many thought that his accounts were exaggerations and dismissed his claims.

Arbeit Macht Frei - "Work sets you free."

While most know of the gas chambers that became signature with these camps, there were other more obscure forms of torture that you should know about. They include:

• Some prisoners were forced to spend nights in “standing cells”. These were 4’ x 4’ rooms where four men would be placed inside.
• In basements there were "starvation cells" where prisoners were placed with no food and eventually died. There were also “dark cells” which had only a very tiny slit of a window for oxygen eventually leading to the prisoner’s suffocation. If the process wasn’t going fast enough, an officer would occasionally place a lit candle in the cell to accelerate the process.
• Many were subjected to having their hands handcuffed behind their backs, dislocating their shoulder joints for days.
• Officers also removed gold teeth from the corpses of gas chamber victims which were melted down and reused.

Most people think that prisoners of concentration camps never got any rest, but that’s not absolutely true. Occupants’ days began at 4:30 in the morning with roll call followed by 30 minutes where they were allowed to clean themselves as best they could. Then they were led to their work station by foot wearing striped camp suits, no underwear, and wooden shoes without socks. After a 12 hour day, prisoners were assembled for another roll call, given their daily ration of bread, and dismissed into their buildings. Often, four people would share one bunk.

glasses of victims

On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was finally liberated by Soviet troops, a day commemorated around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Did you know?- At the museum there is a display case about 30 meters (98 feet) long entirely filled the hair of inmates Nazis removed before and after their deaths. Also, when the Russians arrived on site they found precisely 348,820 men's suits and 836,255 women's garments.

In 1947, Poland created a museum consisting of the remaining buildings inside the boundaries of Auschwitz I and II. By 1994 the museum had seen more than 22 million visitors. It is now believed to bring in more than 700,000 visitors annually. If you would like to help preserve what’s left of this important historical reminder, click here to make a charitable donation.

Many movies have been made on the Holocaust since the fall of the Third Reich. The most well known to my generation is Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. If you haven’t seen the movie, you can watch a trailer below.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing - very sad, and deep. :)