Echoes from Auschwitz, 70 years later
According to Dante’s Inferno, atop the gates of hell there is an inscription that reads ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here.’ For 1.3 million people, the gates of hell read ‘Arbeit macht frei’, and this hell went by the name of Auschwitz.
Liberated seventy years ago on this very day, the very name Auschwitz still carries a tremendous weight some seven decades later, the tales of the horrors that occurred behind its gates having left a scar on the collective human consciousness that we should hope never heals.
The largest of several slave labor and extermination camps constructed by the Nazis to carry out their “Final Solution”, Auschwitz was the epicenter of the Holocaust, and has since become synonymous with the full horrors that the genocide entailed. From the time it opened in 1940 to house political prisoners to the time it was liberated by Soviet troops on this day in 1945, the scale of industrial murder committed still boggles the mind and haunts the soul.
Of the 1.3 million people who would enter Auschwitz’s infamous gates packed in cattle cars, over 1 million of them, among them over 200,000 children under 12 years of age, would be gassed in one of the camp’s four gas chambers before having their belongings catalogued and searched for anything of worth, down to the fillings in their teeth, before their corpses were shipped to the crematorium in Birkenau. Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, an estimated 1 in 6 died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
For those not immediately murdered in the gas chambers, many were worked to death doing slave labor, or died of starvation or various diseases. One of these groups, which included twins, was set aside for medical experimentation and various experiments, which ranged from pseudo-scientific body modifications to drug and disease testing, and more often than not killed the subjects, with the survivors often suffering medical issues for the remainder of their lives.
The level of inhumanity, hatred and totalitarianism that it took to construct something like Auschwitz, much less keep it operational until almost the end of the war has rightfully horrified generations, and the scale of industrial murder seen during the Holocaust has since become synonymous with fascism and Nazism. Yet the horrifying thing was that it didn’t take a few legions of swastika-clad goon squads to carry it out, but it required the cooperation of countless Germans to happen, and whose silence and consent to what went on inside its walls is no less horrendous than the wickedest inhumanities of Josef Mengele or Amon Goeth. It’s a lesson that the road to hell may or may not be paved with good intentions, but more often than not the ones paving it are people who keep their heads down, mouths shut and claim to be “just doing their jobs.”
There is also courage to be found within Auschwitz as well as horror. You have the famous cases like Oskar Schindler, whose actions helped save the lives of more than a thousand, and whose sole regret was not saving more, as well as more obscure ones like Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish resistance who was voluntarily sent to Auschwitz in order to send out reports of the full scale of what was occurring behind its walls. Of course, there is perhaps none more courageous than the survivors themselves, who in the face of mass death and extermination, survived to stand as examples of the very best of the human spirit.
In many ways, Auschwitz has become the image of the worst facets of the modern age, where technology and industry, when in the hands of racists and totalitarians, came together to create a factory for the express purpose of mass genocide. Even as the years flew by, Auschwitz has remained the face of the 20th Century’s greatest cautionary tale, a specter to forever haunt humankind and remind us of just what immeasurable sins we are capable of committing when we lose our humanity and are blinded by hatred and fanaticism.
For me, the tale of Auschwitz is a deeply personal one. My grandmother is a scholar of the Holocaust, including having written two books about a family friend and Holocaust survivor, Eva Kor. As a young boy, both would tell me stories about the Holocaust, of life and death behind the walls of Auschwitz that, which even as a young child, left an immeasurable impression on me. As a young man, I travelled with them both to visit the camp in 2012, and even all these years later, I struggled to wrap my mind around the level of inhumanity it took to construct such a place, even as I gazed upon bricks still stained with the ashes of hundreds of thousands of lives. A tremendous part of who I am and my belief systems were shaped by the same collective promise mankind made as the horrific scale of mass murder that happened at Auschwitz dawned on us: Never again.
I mention this only, because today, on the 70th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We would do well to remember now and forever the words inscribed on a memorial behind the concentration camps walls:
“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945”
Whether it be the gates of hell or the gates of Auschwitz, may we never forget the road that led us there.