'Terror in the Soul': Remembering Auschwitz

Article excerpt

Sixty years ago, in January 1945, Auschwitz was "liberated". Some of the people commemorating this event are surviving witnesses, whose numbers are rapidly diminishing and will soon reach complete extinction.

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To some, Auschwitz is already an historical notion, a symbol of horror; to others, it is an impersonal subject for (academic) speculation. There are also thriving schools of "thought" questioning the sums of murdered and even the existence of gas chambers, insinuating that Auschwitz was an ordinary labour camp where inmates died of natural causes. Such and other questions are nowadays bandied around, while eyewitnesses still exist.

Auschwitz was a web of concentration camps and subcamps. The central one contained installations of torture, pseudo-medical experimentation and execution, but most of its inmates were exploited as slaves in nearby industrial complexes until their final collapse. On the other hand, Auschwitz-Birkenau, situated a couple of kilometres from the central camp, was used for mass extermination. Trains transporting millions from all over Europe arrived there, and stunned people were instantly lined up on the platform and marched toward a selection point where within seconds, with the flick of a finger, their fate was sealed. The victims, sent to the "wrong" side, had no idea what was expecting them. Gas chambers with adjacent crematoria metamorphosed thousands into smoke and ashes every night. Creatures, disguised as human forms, watched the agony of the damned through peepholes.

But even those who were directed from the arrival platform into the precincts of camp Birkenau received only a reprieve. They were instantly dehumanized, stripped naked, shaved from head to toe, clad in flimsy pyjamas, beaten, tortured, starved, counted and recounted. If there is absolute humiliation, this was it. Moments after arrival, terror struck their souls as they understood the significance of flames and smoke rising towards the sky on the horizon. Statistics of those murdered can be quantified, terror in the soul cannot. Other selections followed, able-bodied adults were marshalled into detachments, tattooed and marched or transported off for slave labour in concentration camps disseminated through the Nazi realm. Those who stayed behind knew, as they weakened, that for them there was only one way out. That was Auschwitz-Birkenau, a product of the human brain.

As the Second World War drew to a close, the extermination installations in Auschwitz-Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis themselves. It is interesting to note that the "master race", being aware of the monstrosity of their actions, tried to cover up (the magnitude of) their crime. By January 1945, the remaining inmates who could walk were evacuated by means of so-called "death marches", and all those left behind were to be shot. But the Eastern front approached inexorably and there was not enough time left to accomplish the last act upon the damned. And so the most pitiful who did not die in the intervening days of frost, disease or starvation lived to see the arrival of the Red Army.

Let us not jubilate. No one hastened to liberate Auschwitz or any other concentration camp. The Soviets had no choice but to battle and defeat the Nazi machine, or be destroyed. In the course of their movement forward, the Soviets redrew borders, occupied and enslaved the eastern lands of Europe, imposed communist dictatorships, and introduced prisons for inconvenient citizens. They replicated the proven model of the Soviet Gulag where, too, millions died. …