Ross Northing reflects on time spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Perhaps it seems totally opposite to the theme of my sabbatical, which was looking at art and the possibilities for its use in catechesis, but I knew right from the outset that if I ever reached Krakow then I would have to make the journey south to what has become the most infamous of all the Nazi concentration and death camps at Oswiecim (the village of which the Nazis changed the name and as which the first of the two camps is known).
A group of us met at 7am for the 75-minute journey. We were a group made up of nationalities from across Europe and with a couple from the USA. The first 20 minutes was spent watching a presentation on a drop-down screen on the story of the camps we were about to enter. After that presentation the journey there was spent mainly in silence—talking seemed somehow inappropriate.
Arrival at Auschwitz 1 is disconcerting. The car park is immaculately laid out and surrounded by beautiful mature trees. A simple coffee shop and other facilities were at hand and we were encouraged to use them as there are none in the camps—they are, after all, a memorial.
Security checks followed, just like those at Heathrow before I flew to Krakow. The group I had travelled with were met by our ‘educator’ (note that they are not ‘guides’—they have a job of education to do). The Polish nation decided after the war to maintain the sites as memorials and to educate people as to the horrors that took place there, so that the world would never forget.
Our group’s ‘educator’ was a Polish Catholic lady. She first took us to the infamous gate with its cynical inscription ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work sets you free’). The first thing you learn is that this is Auschwitz 1, a concentration camp, and work certainly did not make those prisoners free: it wore them out until they were either beaten, experimented on, shot or gassed to death.
Our educator took us into various of the barracks, where we were shown the evidence of Nazi atrocities: the piles of human hair, the spectacles, the artificial limbs, the bowls, the hair and nail brushes, the shoes, and the talliths (Jewish prayer shawls), such vast quantities of each that it cannot be taken in. Then the children’s clothes…
Throughout it all our educator was giving us lots of information about what took place. We saw the block where Josef Mengele carried out his evil experiments; we saw the punishment block and the tiny cells in which four prisoners were crammed-in, bent double; we saw the cell in which St Maximillian Kolbe died taking the place of a Jewish man condemned to death; and we saw the wall of death where countless prisoners, having been stripped naked to humiliate them, were then beaten once more and taken out and shot in the back of the head. Throughout it all there is hardly a moment when the tears are not flowing or the emotions are not running high. And still the information keeps coming, so much of it that you find yourself becoming numb to it, and then find yourself feeling guilty for not being able to take it in, and for feeling numb.
The time spent in Auschwitz 1 concludes by walking to the roll call square and the gallows on which prisoners could be hung during roll call, then to the gas chamber and crematorium in that camp, and ends with another set of gallows, constructed after the end of the war by the Polish government to hang the first Kommandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau facing the concentration camp.
While we were being taken around Auschwitz 1, I noticed young people’s reactions: young women smiling when faced with overwhelming horror and grief, and sometimes even laughter occurs. What we are seeing and hearing is so beyond what we should be seeing and hearing that the mind and even the body does not know how to respond. Young men in tears, their girlfriends and wives stroking their arms, shoulders or backs. A middle-aged lady complains, asking why she couldn’t take photographs of the human hair— everyone in our group is so shocked that we don’t feel able to remonstrate. Our educator simply says that they are the rules and it is not her role to change them, and we move on to more horror.
Then we are taken on a 15-minute journey to Birkenau and we trace the steps along the railway lines that took countless people in cattle trucks to death. Birkenau was a death camp, not a concentration camp. Again we are given lots of information by our educator who is still accompanying us. She leads us through that archway through which the trains passed and we walk all the way up to where the people were unloaded from the cattle trucks. We are then told about the selection process: to the right meant death within the hour, to the left meant tattooing and forced labour to maintain the rest of the camp. We are told of Josef Mengele’s visits to select prisoners for his experiments, and of his choice of children, especially twins. The only work the Nazis did was guard, beat, torture and gas those that arrived—everything else was done by slave labour.
We are then told of the four gas chambers that were built, which at the peak of the camp’s activity were murdering between them 10,000 people a day. We then walk to the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria (the Nazis blew the Birkenau ones up before fleeing in early 1945). What we are told of the process would not be appropriate to relate here, but the numbness takes over again at the sheer overwhelming horror of it all.
We are then taken to the memorial on a plaza constructed just beyond the crematoria and in front of trees. Here there is somewhere to pay our respects—this at last seems human. However, we have not finished our journey. We are taken to the pits where human ash was thrown. Mercifully, there is another memorial at which to pause and at least do something decent for the souls of all those who were slaughtered by that murderous regime with its warped ideology.
We are then taken into a part of Birkenau where a few huts still remain. We are taken in to just one. It is a hut for women prisoners who sleep on wooden bunks designed for four people but upon which 12–16 were forced to try and sleep. Again there is a punishment yard, and a wall where people were shot before their bodies were carted to the crematoria. 50% of those admitted to the ‘prison’ element of the camp died of starvation, their bodies being taken to the crematoria by other prisoners.
The visit ends with the story of the Nazis’ flight from the camps and the forced march of those prisoners fit enough at the time to walk. The rest were left to either fend for themselves or die. A total of 1.3 million men, women and children were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of those approximately 1.1 million were murdered. The most reliable statistics indicate that, of that 1.1 million, 1 million were Jewish, 140,000–150,000 were Polish, 23,000 were Romanies, 15,000 were Soviet POWs, and 25,000 others (of whom a few dozen were homosexuals, mainly of German origin). It is estimated that 232,000 children (216,000 of whom were Jewish) were deported to Auschwitz, and records show that 700 children were born there. Of that 232,000 only just over 700 were found alive on liberation in January 1945.
To quote an official publication: ‘Auschwitz is forever a painful expression of the world’s bad conscience. The remains of the Nazi death camp reminds us of the darkest moments of human history.’
At the end of our time in Auschwitz-Birkenau our educator asked one more time if we had any questions. There was silence and people began to drift back towards the coach. I approached our guide and told her that I had just one question: ‘Why?’ Her response will remain with me: ‘That is the only question, but it is one for which I do not have the answer.’
Postscript: My accommodation was in Krakow’s Jewish quarter, from which residents had been deported by the Nazis into the ghetto. It is now once more a thriving area and I was encouraged to go to a particular square and enjoy a good Jewish meal. I sat at a table outside a busy and popular restaurant with live music by three incredibly talented young people, young people that the Nazis would rather not have existed.
I had been told that after my visit I would find it difficult to overcome my numbness, but that there would be a trigger which would cause me to sob. On listening to those three young musicians I thought that was going to be the moment, but I found myself rejoicing that they were alive and able to bring joy to those listening to them.
The next day I had an hour to spare before returning to the airport. I decided to visit the synagogue. Two ladies showed me in and made me very welcome. Around the interior walls on easels was a photographic exhibition of life before and during the Nazi era for the local Jewish population. There were only two easels that held boards upon which there were words. The second I read told me that after the deportation of the Jewish people into the ghetto, the Nazis had turned the synagogue into stables. That was the trigger…
On leaving I recalled the words of St Paul: ‘Did God reject his own people? Certainly not.’ Rom. 11:1
Fr Ross Northing SSC is rector of St Mary and St Giles,
Stony Stratford. He is the Vice-Chairman of Forward in Faith.