By Ron Jensen
Published January 27, 2022 in The Burg
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The United Nations designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Soviet troops in 1945. In this week’s By the Way column, Ron Jensen recalls a visit to the camp.)
The sign outside the gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland warns, “You are entering a place of exceptional horror and tragedy.”
Children under 13 are not allowed.
On the day of my visit in December 1994, the sky was darkly overcast and a cold wind rattled the windows of the deserted buildings, appropriate conditions for the task at hand. The camp was empty except for a handful of other visitors and the gloom that perpetually shrouds the place.
The Nazis shipped more than 1.3 million people to Auschwitz between 1941 and 1945 and methodically murdered 1.1 million of them, burning their bodies in ovens built for that purpose. Nearly all of the victims were Jews, but also killed were non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners and others deemed unfit to live by the Third Reich.
During World War II, the 174 newly built brick barracks housed 125,000 prisoners in crowded bunks. Graffiti scratched by prisoners is still visible on the walls. One message: “31-10-44 sentenced to death.” Next to it: “1-11-44 still alive.”
Some exhibits at the camp are horrifying in their ordinariness. Thousands of shoes in a pile and a mound of entangled eyeglasses. Suitcases by the hundreds, many marked with names and addresses—L. Berman, Hamburg; Schwartz, Wien, Hollandstrasse 8-2.
I stopped at a mass of hair turned gray by poison gas and shaved from corpses by other prisoners. Hair was bagged and sent to Germany to be woven into uniforms and blankets. The Red army troops who liberated Auschwitz 77 years ago discovered seven tons of it ready for shipment.
The gas, Cyclon-B, was an insecticide. The Nazis tested it on prisoners to determine its effectiveness on humans and found it suitable for their goal of mass murder.
The Block of Death was a prison within a prison where inmates were taken for “crimes” such as an untimely stumble or an unsolicited utterance.
Among its horrors are four standing cells, each about a yard square, built from floor to ceiling like chimneys. After a day of labor, prisoners marked for further punishment were forced to crawl through an opening at the floor and spend the night pressed against three other inmates in total darkness.
I wondered then and now what kind of a mind could conceive of such torture.
Before leaving, I stopped at the wall where prisoners were executed with a simple gunshot to the back of the head. More than 20,000 people died on the patch of ground beneath my feet.
People deny that the Holocaust happened. Not many, but enough. It’s a cruel delusion. The documentary evidence—photographs, diaries, personal stories—is too massive, too stark.
Disbelieving is a form of antisemitism, a way to further punish Jews. With antisemitism rising here and abroad, it is important that we acknowledge Holocaust Remembrance Day.
I have no uncertainty about the Holocaust. I’ve met survivors and seen the numbers tattooed on their arms that were their identities inside the camps.
Any doubters should visit Auschwitz, a place of exceptional horror and tragedy.
(The author was raised near Gerlaw and went to school in Alexis. He has worked for The Review Atlas, The Register-Mail and other publications, including as editor of National Guard magazine in Washington, D.C.)