November 15, 2017
By David M. Fortier
When I visited Auschwitz in 2012, I did it for personal reasons. I never intended on writing about it. It was to be a simple, and private, pilgrimage for me. At the time I was visiting Poland on business. My travels had initially brought me to the famous city of Radom, which I have written about in the past. During my stay, my hosts provided a unique opportunity, the chance to visit the somber place known as Auschwitz. I did not turn the offer down and was soon driving South with a friendly young Polish couple to act as my guides and companions. My interest in this forlorn place was more than just passing. I could have spent the day in less muted and much more exciting places. But it was a trip I could not turn away from.
It is a bit of a drive from centrally located Radom to Oswiecim in the South. The town lies 31 miles West of Krakow, the ancient city of Polish Kings. It is not far from where the Vistula and Sola rivers meet. The Old Town is east of the Sola while the railway station is across the river. It was near this town, which the Germans called Auschwitz, that a great horror was perpetrated.
Auschwitz today brings instantly to mind the picture of a concentration camp. In reality though, Auschwitz was not just ‘a’ camp. Rather it was a network of concentration, labor and extermination camps with some 45 satellite camps. The core of this facility was Auschwitz I which acted as the Stammlager or base camp. A short distance away was Auschwitz II- Birkenau which was a Vernichtungslager or extermination camp. Then there was Auschwitz III- Monowitz (Buna- Monowitz) a labor camp.
The site chosen by the Third Reich for Auschwitz had originally served as barracks for a Polish artillery unit. The area was cleared of local residents and forced labor was brought in for construction work. Cold stone buildings were erected to house prisoners with the first arriving in May 1940. Prisoner types (Jew, Gypsy, Jehovah Witness, Soviet military, etc.) were distinguished by marks on their clothing. Of these the Jews and Soviet POWs were treated the harshest. Prisoners were forced to work in various arms factories. However a lack of food combined with extremely harsh conditions led to very high death rates. Parts of the facility were reserved for torture with certain dark ‘starvation’ and ‘suffocation’ cells’ set aside for murder. On September 3, 1941 Zyklon B (a cyanide based pesticide) was first tested on Russian POWs and Polish inmates. A gas chamber and crematorium were constructed and it was then put to work exterminating prisoners. During its time in operation approximately 60,000 people were gassed at this small facility.
The original camp is in the western part of the town while Auschwitz-Birkenau is to the west of the railway station. Birkenau is German for the Polish Brzezinka or birch forest. It refers to a small Polish village destroyed to make way for the Nazi extermination camp. Birkenau, a sprawling facility, is very different than Auschwitz-I. It was this ground Heinrich Himmler designated for the ‘final solution of the Jewish question in Europe’. The camp was carefully designed with one end goal, the systematic extermination and cremation of staggering numbers of people. In early 1942 trains began transporting Jews to the camp and the killing began. Men, women and children were deported from all across Europe, many required to even pay for the ticket taking them to their doom.
In early 1943 Crematorium II was converted to allow very efficient gassing of prisoners. This was accomplished by adding a gas-tight door and vents and ventilation equipment. Three more crematoriums followed with all four operational by June 1943. The trains ran relentlessly until late 1944. Just how many people perished here will never be known. Careful research has led to an accepted figure of approximately 1.3 million with 90% being Jewish. Those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, individual executions, medical experiments, forced labor and exposure.
Every dog has its day though and on October 7, 1944 the Jewish Sonderkommandos (inmates working in the gas chambers and crematoria) of Birkenau Kommando III did the unthinkable. Realizing they would soon be put to death, they carefully planned an uprising. Then when SS guards came to take them to their death they rose up and fought back. Hammers, axes, work tools and even rocks were pressed into deadly service. Taking the SS guards by total surprise they hacked down the company commander and set out to destroy Crematorium IV. Their goal was to prevent it from taking more innocent lives. They damaged this facility using explosives smuggled in from a weapons factory. Seeing the flames, the Birkenau Kommando I of Crematorium II joined the revolt. They tossed one guard into the crematorium, killed three more SS guards and wounded another 12. Next they cut the telephone line. When suddenly faced with resistance the well-armed SS guards reacted by running away in panic. The two groups then managed to break out of the compound and some 600 inmates escaped. Their freedom was fleeting though as an SS company doggedly hunted them down and killed or captured them all. But while they paid for it with their lives, Crematorium IV was never used again.
Today Auschwitz I has been restored and turned into a museum honoring the victims. Auschwitz II has been preserved but not restored. It too is open to the public, but the entire area is regarded as a grave site due to the ashes of the victims having been scattered between the huts.
As you would expect, it is a very somber place to visit. Marcin Zawiślak, his wife and I met up with our tour guide/translator at the museum proper and then toured the grounds. We entered beneath a reproduction of the famous Arbeit macht frei (Work will set you free) gateway. I experienced too much to cover in this short article so I will only share a few things which stood out to me. The first was the lengths the German guards went to keep the new arrivals calm and docile right up until they slaughtered them. They were led to believe they had been transported east by train to be relocated for work. Jews from certain countries were even required to pay for their train ticket. They were allowed to bring a small amount of luggage. Everything was done in a calculated manner to hide the truth.
At their arrival at Auschwitz II they would go through a selection process. Disembarking from the train men were separated from the women. The elderly, women with children, almost all the children and the infirm were sent straight to the gas chambers. Those selected to live would become slave labor until it was their turn to visit the gas chambers. As many as 12,000 people a day, every day, arrived only to be turned into ash. Why did so many people simply walk to their death? That is what I found so thought provoking. The Germans led them to believe there was hope right until they were sealed into the gas chambers. As an example of this, what follows is a speech given by Obsersturmfuhrer Franz Hossler. It was given to a group of Greek Jews right before they were led into the gas chamber:
"On behalf of the camp administration I bid you welcome. This is not a holiday resort but a labor camp. Just as our soldiers risk their lives at the front to gain victory for the Third Reich, you will have to work here for the welfare of a new Europe. How you tackle this task is entirely up to you. The chance is there for every one of you. We shall look after your health, and we shall also offer you well-paid work. After the war we shall assess everyone according to his merits and treat him accordingly.
Now, would you please all get undressed. Hang your clothes on the hooks we have provided and please remember your number [of the hook]. When you've had your bath there will be a bowl of soup and coffee or tea for all. Oh yes, before I forget, after your bath, please have ready your certificates, diplomas, school reports and any other documents so that we can employ everybody according to his or her training and ability. Would diabetics who are not allowed sugar report to staff on duty after their baths".
So, with a simple speech he gave them hope to grasp onto and they went willingly to their death. After they were gassed their pitiful possessions and clothes were sorted and inventoried. The hair of the women was cut off after they were dead to use in industrial products and gold teeth were pulled. Then the bodies were incinerated. My tour guide, a local girl, commented her grandparents spoke about the ash falling from the sky like snow in their village some 30 miles away.
There are a number of displays at Auschwitz I. These include some of the luggage and personal items taken from the poor souls sent here. Another is a barracks length display filled with women’s hair cut from the victims to be utilized in industrial products. Included is a roll of rough cloth used to manufacture clothing for the inmates. Testing showed this material to not only be made from human hair, but hair with traces of Zyklon B. As a father, a display of little shoes taken from small children murdered in the camp will stay with me until I go to be with God. I experienced a variety of emotions at the camp. Sadness for the victims is an obvious one. But also anger. Anger for the governments and individuals who perpetrated this crime. Anger that unarmed families were systematically murdered simply due to their religion or ethnicity.
Today, many Leftwing politicians would like to disarm Americans. They say it is for our own good, and demonize those who stand against them. They say we will all be safer if only the police and military have firearms. History proves otherwise. They tell us the government knows best. All while the liberal Leftwing ‘progressive’ media spews hate and discord 24 hours a day. We know without a shadow of doubt the Leftwing ‘Progressives’ wish to disarm us. We know they will continue to push their agenda every chance they get. We know if we defeat their legislation today they will be back with more tomorrow. Do not get complacent. Get to know your neighbors, become involved in your community and mentor those around you. Most of all, take a stand for what is right. I made a couple promises to myself standing in Birkenau. One of them was to never stop fighting for our right to keep and bear arms.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Mr. and Mrs. Marcin Zawiślak who shared this pilgrimage with me.