Secret Heroes

Secret Heroes

When we visited the death camps at Auschwitz, we were told something which has stuck with me, something which made me realise that some people are incredibly brave, even unto death, and are never recognised for it. Not in this life, anyway.

We were told that as the Nazis refined their killing systems, they realised that the part that took time, that could not be rushed, was the disposal of the bodies. They had learned (the hard way) that having thousands of decomposing bodies in the ground was something of a health risk. The only way to successfully complete their genocide, was to refine the disposal of the bodies, and thus they built the crematoriums. The crematoriums were worked by prisoners, who were themselves killed after a certain period, so that no one knew too much and the scale of what was happening could be kept hidden. (I have no idea how hidden, or how you keep such a thing a secret, but that was their claim.)

Now, Auschwitz Birkenau was something of a model camp, and they increased their killing capacity by building more crematoriums. However, things didn’t go smoothly, as the new crematoriums kept breaking down. The Nazis complained to the engineers and architects, who blamed the Sonderkommando (the prisoners tasked with burning the bodies). Apparently, they said that it wasn’t their fault, the Sonderkommando must be scraping the inside of the ovens when they added bodies, which was breaking the seal, so the furnaces kept breaking.

Now, stop and think about that for a minute. We were told this by our guide in passing, as an interesting snippet of information. But stop and consider. These people were living under huge duress, their job was to load bodies into the ovens, they knew they wouldn’t survive for very long themselves, they had no power to fight the Nazis…and yet they managed to slow down the killing by damaging the ovens. Who did this? We don’t know. Nor do we know how many lives were saved by slowing down the process, but I’m guessing it was thousands because the prisoners could not be gassed until there was a way to dispose of the bodies, so every time a crematorium was out of order, the whole system would slow down, and fewer people would be killed.

I keep thinking about this, about those brave people who managed to find a way, even in their position, to save lives. They must have known that if they were discovered doing it, they would be shot. They would have known that they would soon be killed anyway, and yet they did what they could. In secret. No medals, no honour, no recognition—they may not have even told the people working next to them. I think, of all the stories we heard when at the camps, this was the one which affected me the most. It gives me hope that even in such awful times, individuals were able to be brave and do good. The challenge has to be, would we?

Anne E Thompson has written several novels, which are available from bookshops and Amazon.
Anne also writes a weekly blog — describing her travels, her animals, and life in general — Why not sign up to follow her blog today?


Auschwitz Birkenau

Auschwitz Birkenau

The second Auschwitz camp was built in 1941, using prisoners from Auschwitz 1 as labourers. The focus had shifted, the prison was no longer viewed as a work camp for people who opposed the regime, it was primarily a death camp. Although there were still other prisoners, mainly gays, gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war, the vast majority were Jews.

We drove to Auschwitz II, and parked outside the main gate. This is the image so often seen in films, of the cattle trucks on the railway, driving into the camp, and stopping inside where the prisoners are unloaded. In reality, the railway lines finished at the gateway, and were only extended inside the camp in 1944 (or so I understand from what I have read) because the Nazis were losing the war and were keen to exterminate as many Hungarian Jews as quickly as possible.

The thing that struck me first was the size of the camp. After Auschwitz 1, this was a whole village in size, it was death on an industrial scale.

The trains would draw into the camp, the people (who had travelled in awful conditions for several days) would be unloaded, then made into lines of men and women. A doctor would then look at everyone, deciding who was fit for work, and who was not. Those deemed able to work would leave their belongings on the platform, strip, be shaved, showered in disinfectant, and given a uniform and tattooed with a number.

Those deemed incapable of work—the old, the ill, the very young—would be sent to the ‘bathhouse’. These were the crematoriums at the end of the camp, next to the forest. They consisted of an undressing room, a gas chamber, and a crematorium. We went to have a look, though the buildings have now been demolished.

Now, I have read several books about the holocaust. As a teenager, I read all the books by Corrie Ten Boom, and Sophie’s Choice, and more recently I read Schindler’s Ark, The Tattooist of Auschwitz and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I therefore knew a lot of facts, but what I was not expecting, was how weirdly civilised the killing seemed. The photographs show people discussing things with the Nazis, everything appears calm, organised. There is no panic—until later, when they were actually inside the gas chambers, when it would be too late. Right until the end, people thought they were simply being processed, and they were not being forced along at gunpoint.

I was shocked by how almost peaceful, some scenes were. For example, the cremating part of the process took hours, so the Nazis did not have the capacity to murder the thousands of arriving Jews immediately. There are photographs of families waiting their turn. There they are, sitting under the trees, grandparents and children, clearly exhausted from their journey, waiting. There seemed to be no resistance, no screaming; people were waiting calmly, looking serene, wondering how long they would have to wait for. The area was surrounded by tall hedges (to hide what was happening from the neighbours) and is bordered by forest—there would I assume have been birds in the trees, in the summer there was grass to sit on; such things seem incompatible with the horrors of what was happening, and that is my point. Auschwitz was not set on the moon, it existed in the midst of life and nature, which somehow makes it worse.

Whereas Auschwitz 1 was very informative, with information and displays, Auschwitz II gave you more idea about how the place would have felt. We saw the brick buildings, which are now beginning to need structural support, crammed with bunks. There were wooden huts—made elsewhere for easy assembly, and designed originally as horse shelters (we saw the rings in the walls for tethering horses). They were designed to shelter 52 horses, they housed 400 people. Many of the huts have disintegrated over time, and all that is left is fields of chimneys, all that remains from their heating system.

We saw the toilets (2 visits per day allowed) and the brick-floored washing area. The hut has since been rebuilt, and today it smells of fresh wood and creosote.

This was a vast camp, with thousands of people crammed together, in terrible conditions. Many people starved to death, or died when working or due to cold. I knew all this before I visited, but to stand next to the electric fence, and stare at row after row of huts, to imagine those people running between them was something no book could explain. Auschwitz today is a quiet place, where larks sing overhead, and people come to remember. I do not know how we make sense of what happened there, when I stare at the photographs of the guards I do not see evil people but I cannot fathom how they could have been part of such horrific actions. Perhaps the problem starts when we begin to see ourselves and those like us, as better than others. If we begin to think some groups of people are less good than us, do they become slightly less human in our eyes? If we think our race, our religion, our career, somehow makes us better than others, then is that the first step along the road we should never travel again? I don’t know, but I pray that we will learn from our mistakes.

Thank you for reading.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

Visiting Auschwitz

Visiting Auschwitz

We followed a long line of coaches and minibuses, alongside the disused railway line, to the car park. It was a huge car park, with hundreds of people. Our guide went to park, and we went in search of washrooms.

The washrooms are in the basement of a brick-built building—we stand in line on stairs which wind downwards, the walls are grey, the steps are concrete, surrounded by people speaking various languages—we pay 2 zloty to the women at the counter—we file into the clean but over-used cubicles. There are lots of people, everyone sombre, all sort of waiting for what comes next on our tour. Which has faint echoes of the past with the immense difference that we are here voluntarily, and only our emotions are at risk.

We are at Auschwitz 1 (there were two camps—I’ll explain later). This camp has the iconic gateway, with ‘Work Makes Free’ welded above it. We walk through the gate, into the camp, and look around. My first impression is that there are trees (were there trees when it was a prison, or have they been added since it became a museum?) and that it is relatively small—when you stand in the centre you can see all four corners. It reminds me of a students’ hall of residence, which is perhaps not surprising as it started life as a barracks for Polish soldiers, though was extended by the Nazis.

Auschwitz is the German translation of Oswiecim, a small town in Poland, which before the war had a population of about 70% Jewish Poles. It was chosen because of its position, in an area of forests, near good resources, with excellent transport and several large industries (which could be supplied with workers). The Nazis turned the barracks into a prison, filling it with anyone who was deemed to be an enemy of the state (so initially, mainly Polish people who were resisting the occupation, and later gypsies and Jewish people). It was designed as a work camp, with the prisoners sent out of the prison to work, marching to the nearby factories. As the war progressed, the inmates were gradually starved, abused and finally executed.

Auschwitz is now a museum, and although it’s possible to visit alone, there is more opportunity if you have a guide. When we arrived, we had our bags checked (you can’t take much more than a bottle of water and sunglasses inside) and were given headphones. These connected to a microphone which our guide spoke into, making it easy to hear him, so there was not a general cacophony of noise with various guides all trying to out-shout each other. It also meant that when I wanted to simply think and absorb what I was seeing, I could turn him off (though that probably wasn’t the plan). We did though have to follow the route that the guide chose.

We were taken to the extermination block: Block 4. We filed inside, squashed on all sides by people from around the world, a murmur of other languages, cameras in hands, bags slung on shoulders. The building smelt clean, but of bodies—a bit like a school. The stairs were dipped, worn down by thousands of feet—but during the war, these buildings were relatively new, it is tourists’ feet that have worn things down.

The block has been set up like a museum, with display boards and signs and maps and photographs. (The photographs were found by chance, by a little girl after the war, and were taken by German photographers.) The map showed how people from all over the occupied world were sent to Auschwitz. In 1942, the inmates changed to being mainly Jewish, and it became a death camp. The numbers are so big they begin to lose their meaning. The local town became full of German families, moving into the area.

The displays explained facts from both prisons (Auschwitz 2 is much larger). It showed how the Jewish people had been told that they were being relocated, and they paid to buy tickets to Auschwitz. They were told how much they were allowed to bring: up to 25kg of stuff, and we saw displays of their possessions. What, I wonder, would you pack if told to relocate with only what you could carry? There were scissors, and rolling pins, pots and cutlery. On arrival, people were told to leave their bags and go to be disinfected. We saw heaps of their luggage, briefcases and baskets. There was another display of their clothes—a child’s clothing was displayed in a glass case; the clothes were handmade and I wondered who had knitted the socks, who had sewn the trousers? Another display was heaped with shoes, most of which looked faded and dusty, but you could still see fashionable sandals, and fancy heels, and children’s shoes scattered at the front. The inmates were shaved, and there was a display of their hair, faded grey now, and matted with time, so it more resembles old wool than human hair. It was used to make blankets and socks for the war effort. There was a display of crutches and false limbs, which made you realise the scale of the operation, and made you wonder how it felt to relinquish these last, necessary, items. There were shaving brushes, and hairbrushes, and brushes (like my dad had when I was young) for polishing shoes. One display was given to prayer shawls.

After being shaved and showered, the prisoners were given uniforms—the blue striped pyjamas that we recognise from films. This was their only uniform, so if they couldn’t wait to go to the washrooms (only allowed toilet visits morning and evening) or if it got muddy, it stayed dirty. I guess that dirty, stinky, people are easier to dehumanise.

When they arrived, they gave their profession. It was best to be something useful (like a welder, or jeweller, or cook) rather than useless (like a lawyer or accountant—they were sent off to do hard labour).

We were taken (not my choice) to the ‘judgement block’. Some of the things were heard about were horrid, so I shan’t repeat them. We saw the wall where people were shot (I believe the original wall was destroyed, so this was reconstructed in the same place). This now has flowers and candles, with the Israeli flag flying behind it. People paused for a moment, some crossed themselves, couples held hands, people bowed their heads as if praying. It’s in a sunny courtyard, and we could hear birds singing, and the crunch of footsteps, and the murmur of guides’ voices. Then we walked, though the open wooden gates, away.

The next block was the one which I found the most affecting. It was simply showing home-movies, taken before the war. As the images flickered on the walls: a child learning to ride a bike, a family swimming, a school concert—you remembered that the people who died here had lives which were not so dissimilar to our lives today. This did not happen hundreds of years ago in a strange land. This was Europe, less than a lifetime ago.

Auschwitz 1 was where the first experiments with gas were undertaken. Zyklon B was used before the war, as a disinfectant. It is blue/grey pellets, and was sent to the camps in tins. I won’t describe how the Nazis refined their techniques, because it was horrible, but they eventually built a concrete gas chamber, and it still stands today.

As we were about to enter, our guide pointed out the corner of a house, next to the camp. This is where Rudolf Höss lived with his family. I cannot imagine raising my children in such a place (clearly what the book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was exploring.) We looked at the flat-roofed concrete building used as a gas chamber, and went inside.

There was an outer room, where people would undress (because undressing a corpse is difficult). There were drains in the floor, it was dimly lit, everything was concrete. We shuffled forwards in the line of people, into the main room. Concrete floor, concrete walls, concrete ceiling. There were scratches on the walls (don’t think about it) and drains in the floor and holes in the roof where the gas was added. I expected to feel upset, or claustrophobic, or frightened, but I didn’t. If it reminded me of anything, it brought back memories of changing in a damp concrete changing room at the swimming pool at Letchworth—not a nice place, but still just a place. I didn’t feel the echoes of the people who had gone before, I don’t think their ghosts have lingered.

Then we walked into the area used as a crematorium. There were rails and turnstiles on the floor for efficient moving of heavy bodies, and large brick-built ovens. As we stood, in silence, thinking, a woman started to weep; the only sound was of her sniffs. I touched her arm, and she clung, briefly, to me, needing the comfort of another human. I have no idea whether we speak the same language, but we are both human, and that was all that mattered—which is sort of the point of visiting this place, trying to grasp how humans could lay aside their humanity so easily. One of the saddest things I saw was the photographs of the Nazi soldiers; they were young people. They didn’t look evil, they just looked like the young people who I know and love. How could this have happened?

We went to Auschwitz 2. I will describe it for you tomorrow. Why not sign up to follow my blog so you don’t miss it?