Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
In one day at Auschwitz 24,000 people were murdered. Overall 4.5 million Jews were killed along with millions of others. How were a group of us who were going to visit Auschwitz along with Lean Greenman, a Holocaust survivor, going to feel?
Auschwitz is made up of three camps: Auschwitz I--the concentration camp, Auschwitz II Birkenau--the extermination camp, and Monowitz--the work camp. We began at Birkenau. The methodical precision and calculated efficiency of the Nazis struck us--Auschwitz and Birkenau can only best be described as 'death factories'. Quite simply, people unaware and ignorant of their destiny queued to die. They were led to the changing rooms to change for what they thought was a shower--a plan to avoid hysteria. From the changing rooms they were led to their deaths in the gas chambers. The process reminded one of a factory production line. The method was shocking.
The gas chambers had not been restored in Birkenau. They were left to rot after the SS had blown them up in an effort to destroy any evidence after they had fled. The phenomenal vastness of Birkenau was staggering. Thousands and thousands of wooden and brick huts lay on either side of the railway track that ran to the crematorium. We stopped for a while near the entrance inside the camp at the place where Leon had last seen his wife and baby son Barney.
Then there was Auschwitz. We walked under the sign 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (work makes you free) and felt nothing. We looked across at the camp. It was like a little village with brick barracks lined with trees, sunshine and barbed wire. We walked into the barracks and were presented with a stark contrast. The compactness of the camps once again demonstrated the Nazis' obsession with methodical efficiency. The constant brutal reminders of death were all around--the wall of death, the gallows made for just 12 people, the suffocation cells, the gas chambers.
The preoccupation with death underlied everything in the camps, but the most shocking and extraordinary thing was that it was so far removed from our lives that the deathly atmosphere was not felt. Actually seeing parts of human remains in Auschwitz, however, allowed us to touch upon the sheer horror, and to begin to understand the scale of the extermination. I cannot possibly begin to explain how I felt when I saw piles of human hair now greying and old behind vast glass walls, the tattered worthless shoes of children, women and men; the thousands of named suitcases that had been hurriedly packed under false rumours; tooth, hair and clothes brushes that filled a room; the piles of spectacles, the false limbs and body braces; the pots and pans--nothing was wasted. Even gold was extracted from the corpses' teeth. People were reduced to ashes while their worthless tattered possessions were rendered priceless.
The depersonalisation process in its most extreme form began long before people were piled into cattle trucks. The prisoners were branded with numbers and had to wear coloured triangles that identified them from certain groups--Jews, non-Jews, political prisoners, lesbians and gays, criminals. People were so desperate that they would degrade their fellows just to survive. Yet there was resistance. Women did smuggle in explosives to blow up the gas chambers, there were revolts in the barracks and people from the outside did distribute food although they were only too aware of the consequences and many paid for their solidarity.
The fight is not over. Even in the camps there was recent Nazi graffiti. This is horrifying and deeply enraging.
I have left my tears at the camps and am bringing home the truth. To teach about the Holocaust is not compulsory in schools in Britain (although it is compulsory for every child in Poland to visit), which is why it is so important for groups like us to spread the message. We must organise in trade unions, schools, universities, hospitals--and now, or someone else will organise and we will see the consequences of fascism again, and time will run out for you.
I am of Gypsy blood, and when I was a child my parents told me about the Nazi Holocaust.
As I got older I thought, did all that horror happen just because of one mad fanatic, Adolf Hitler, and a particular trait in the German character, as a lot of people explained? Fascism is a cancerous seed trying to build a mass movement that feeds on hatred. The Nazis seek to exploit people's despair with their false ideas to turn worker against worker on grounds of race, to destroy anyone or anything which stands in the way of their attempted march to power. There were German people who fought and stood against the Nazis. Fascism was not a trait in the German character.
For a long time I intended to visit Auschwitz to honour all those innocents who were killed by the Nazis.
Going to that place where hell on earth happened, to stand and kneel in those gas chambers and crematoria tears your soul apart. I felt rage against those crimes and want to shout from the roof tops: never again.
I heard about the visit to Auschwitz at my local SWP branch meeting and decided this was the time to go. Also I'm glad to have gone with brothers and sisters from the ANL, and I feel honoured to have met Mr Leon Greenman who was a prisoner in Auschwitz and whose wife and child were murdered there.
We must unite to stop history repeating itself. We live in a dangerous and chaotic world whose roots are in our rulers' blind pursuit of profit and the preservation of their class interests--even if this means turning to fascism to smash the organised working class fighting for a decent world.
The only effective counter to this barbarism is for black and white, Jew and gentile, young and old, gay and straight, unemployed and trade unionist, Gypsies and new age travellers to fight for our class interests and join the struggle for socialism and against the bosses' system which is the breeding ground for Nazism.