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On 27 January 1945 Soviet troops discovered, almost by chance, seven thousand haggard survivors of the concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ten days earlier, the Nazis had begun evacuating the fifty-eight thousand survivors in what became known as "death marches." The Soviet soldiers did not at first comprehend what they had just "liberated." The name Auschwitz was familiar but what had transpired there was not. Auschwitz-Birkenau was in fact a vast complex with two main camps: Auschwitz 1 was a concentration camp opened by the Nazis in Oświęcim, Poland, in 1940 to imprison Polish victims of the repression; Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz 2, was the extermination camp built in 1942 to kill Jews of the region and later deportees from the whole of Europe. To these may be added Auschwitz 3, which consisted of the IG Farben synthetic rubber factory known as "Buna" and forty-odd smaller labor camps.


Auschwitz-Birkenau began to enter the consciousness of the world only in the last twenty years of the twentieth century. The Cold War, persistent anti-Semitism in Poland and Russia, resistance to survivors' stories, and the greater attention given to accounts by non-Jews long hindered any real acknowledgment of how the Jewish victims had suffered. On 27 January 2005 European leaders gathered at Birkenau, "the largest cemetery in the world," to issue a reminder about the worst atrocity in history. As Primo Levi, a survivor, described it, "At no other place or time has one seen a phenomenon so unexpected and so complex: never have so many human lives been extinguished in so short a time, and with so lucid a combination of technological ingenuity, fanaticism, and cruelty" (Levi, 1988, p. 21).

Adolf Hitler clearly outlined his racist policy in Mein Kampf and began to put it into action in 1933, but it was a long road from his maniacal Judeophobia to extermination at Auschwitz. Since he understood the world as a superior race's struggle for survival, he ordered sterilization, internment, and eventually extermination of elements that might "contaminate" German blood. These included the physically and mentally handicapped, who became victims of the T4 euthanasia program, as well as Gypsies, homosexuals, and above all, Jews, since Hitler's biologically based racist ideology was combined with an apocalyptic vision of the world in which Jews were considered demons.

The opening of the Soviet front in June 1941 accelerated and exacerbated the brutality and led to a radicalization of the racial policy of interning, humiliating, and murdering targeted groups that had begun in 1933 and intensified in 1939. Jews and "defective" Germans and Poles were deported to Auschwitz. Meanwhile, during the summer and fall of 1941, the Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing units, machine-gunned men, women, and children en masse. Later, the Nazis used mobile gassing trucks and gas chambers. Forced ghettoization and executions were carried out by region. After the Wannsee Conference of 20 January 1942, at which the "Final Solution" was translated into bureaucratic language, Jews were transported thousands of kilometers by train for "industrial extermination" in death centers at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and finally Birkenau, which would become the central location for the destruction of the European Jews.

In March 1942 the first convoys of Jews arrived, from Silesia, Slovakia, and France, initially for forced labor. On 4 July 1942 Slovakian Jews became the first victims of the gas chambers, where they were sent upon their arrival. Subsequently, the Nazis created a carefully laid-out industrial plant—buildings designed for the extermination process, Zyklon B (a deadly gas that became active when exposed to the air), crematoriums—to perpetrate their crimes against humanity. This system operated like an elaborate conveyor belt. Victims were first sorted out or "selected" on what became known as the "ramp of death": those who were to be immediately killed were separated from those destined to perform slave labor in the camp. These prisoners then underwent industrial "disinfection" for "bacilli" and "vermin." Those with interesting physical peculiarities—dwarfs, giants, twins, and so on—served as guinea pigs in gruesome "medical experiments" before rejoining the others for the "full treatment." Their hair was shaved in a "hygienic" operation and they were exterminated in the "shower room," after which any gold in their teeth was extracted. Personal belongings were appropriated and everything was exploited for profit: victims' hair sometimes went to make blankets, and artificial limbs were recycled for use by the army. To prepare ever more victims for the "Final Solution," four additional buildings were built. Crematoriums 2, 3, 4, and 5 included rooms for undressing, gas chambers, and ovens. But the sheer number of corpses made it difficult to destroy them quickly. For this reason the Nazis resorted to open-air mass graves. The prisoners known as Sonderkommandos, who were responsible for disposing of the bodies, were themselves regularly exterminated; photos taken by one of them at unimaginable risk show naked, living women, along with trees, smoke, and masses of burning cadavers.


When the Soviet troops arrived, they found huge mounds of ashes as well as shoes, suitcases, prayer shawls, children's clothes, hair by the ton, and gold teeth not yet melted down. Several thousand survivors remained. These prisoners had suffered every sort of dehumanizing brutality at the hands of guards. At Auschwitz, survivors (or "sub-vivors," in the expression of S. Aaron) became the daily testing ground for acts of barbarism in an upside-down world made not for the living but for the dead. Those judged fit to work and to live for a few more weeks or months were branded, classified, and archived in an atmosphere dedicated to bestializing and reifying prisoners. They were called "pieces" (Stücke), "vermin," or "rats." Identities were erased: numbers replaced names and were tattooed in the flesh of the forearm. Auschwitz prisoners, with dark humor, called the tattoo "heaven's phone number," Himmlische Telefonnummer. Numbers were also painted or sewn onto clothes, with triangles in various colors to indicate the category of the prisoner: pink for homosexuals, red for political prisoners, and so on. The camp administration produced endless records, including fingerprints and anthropometric photos, each classified by the prisoner's number. By contrast, all pictures and personal items were taken from prisoners in the same depersonalization process. Survival was an act of daily resistance: to wash, to dress, to eat, to seek another's care and affection was to hold together body and spirit, to maintain one's being, one's individuality. On the traditional fasting day of Yom Kippur in 1944, Hungarian Jews, who had recently arrived by the thousands, refused their meager meal, to the astonishment of the guards.

Prisoners in the camp experienced an assault on all their senses, from shouting SS troops, barking dogs, the smoke from mass graves and crematoriums, the freighted odors of urinary incontinence, dysentery, and decomposing cadavers. On seeing the prisoners' extreme emaciation and smelling their body odor, Imre Kertész, a deportee from Hungary, was reminded of a plague; but the plague was the camp itself. In weeks, sometimes days, teenagers transmuted into old men and old women, the walking dead. Auschwitz looked like a garbage dump; all traces of vegetation had disappeared, having been trampled or eaten, roots included. The parasites and vermin that flourish in filth—lice, scabies, and mosquitoes—infected prisoners, often afflicting them with abscesses and boils. There were overcrowded barracks, too few toilets, an utter lack of hygiene, revolting food, piles of garbage foraged repeatedly for some scrap to eat. Some prisoners, known as Muselmanen, or "Muslims," having lost all hope and all human appearance, simply wandered about aimlessly.

All aspects of prisoners' lives at Auschwitz were conducted in the open; it was impossible to be alone. Prisoners were always on view, crowded together, vulnerable to all types of indecency. Any job that carried responsibility, no matter how small, was sought out because it offered a modicum of protection and sometimes additional food, and made various types of barter possible. Guards multiplied humiliations, intentionally spilling soup on the ground, for example, then forcing starving prisoners to crawl on all fours and lick it up, or to use their hand as a spoon. People were thus transformed into things that could be discarded. Weak from the arduous journey and nearly always ill, sometimes further worn down by interrogations and torture, they were forced to work while enduring constant abuse from the guards. They were even victims of the guards' cynical view of culture and civilization. Inmates left for work and even labored to the accompaniment of a prisoners' orchestra performing at the gate, under a sign that proclaimed: Arbeit macht frei (Work shall make you free). The productivity of human beings beaten, starved, and terrorized in such an oppressive environment could hardly be very high. Outdoor work was the hardest and was for the most part pointless and ridiculous: building drainage ditches and earthen embankments with nothing but picks and wheelbarrows, for example. After a time in this ghastly world, a still more horrific fate awaited them in Auschwitz 2, when laborers were sent to the same gas chambers in which, on the day they arrived, their children, wives, and elderly parents had been murdered.


Auschwitz eventually usurped Buchenwald, the concentration camp in Germany, as the principal symbol of Nazi inhumanity. Former prisoners who have returned to visit the camp, however, note that it scarcely resembles the place they knew. Blockhouses and paths have been rebuilt, trees planted. During the war it was the vast factory of death by forced labor, Luger pistol, torture, and Zyklon B. It is now a memorial and, in contemporary museum parlance, the "orientation center" for the entire group of camps collectively known as Auschwitz. The museum is unique in that it presents both the face of the new democratic and Catholic Poland and vestigial relics from the time before 1989, when Poland was a Soviet satellite and the Russians were the "big brothers" who had liberated the camp in January 1945. After 1989 the national exhibitions of countries that no longer exist—the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia—were closed or remodeled by the new nations that replaced them.

By turning the former blockhouses into exhibition centers for various nations, the museum demonstrates the magnitude of the enterprise of destruction, which extended throughout Europe. But so great was the effort to repress the past that for decades the dual reality of Auschwitz-Birkenau was difficult to grasp. There were resistance fighters imprisoned there, adults who made the choice to stand up to fascism. But there were also massive numbers of Jews arrested, deported, and imprisoned in death camps simply because they were Jews, regardless of age or sex. In 1943 Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide for this event, and in the early twenty-first century the wordsHolocaust and Shoah are also used to refer to the destruction of the Jews in Europe. The new national exhibitions attempt to compensate for the long years of silence. The French pavilion, for instance, describes the journey of five Jews, children and adults, to Auschwitz; the Hungarian pavilion displays a transparent boxcar on rails, inviting visitors to take a symbolic journey.

The use of Christian icons to evoke the Shoah, in an assimilation of the Poles' suffering to that of European Jews, is characteristic of the way many Poles understand Auschwitz. After a long and painful controversy that began in the 1980s, Carmelite nuns moved five hundred meters away from the camp, where they had created a cloister in a former storage area for the Zyklon B containers; a huge cross erected there was taken down. Polish visitors usually do not go to Birkenau but prefer the shrine of Father Maximilian Kolbe or other martyrs, whose cells bear Christian inscriptions. And yet the dilemma persists as to how to represent a Jewish catastrophe at this site. Christian symbols are problematic, to say the least.

The reality of the Holocaust is on view in two blockhouses in Auschwitz 1. One room is set aside for a cross-section model of the gas chamber at Birkenau. What no photograph has preserved—and for good reason—has been reconstituted with architectural precision. Also on display are the clandestine photos of the prisoner "selections" at the railhead. Canisters of Zyklon B are piled in a showcase. Victims' belongings, items of daily life sorted into immense heaps, form an overwhelming sight. All the same yet different, they are the confiscated pieces of broken lives and bodies: eyeglasses, prayer shawls, hairbrushes, enameled pots and plates, artificial limbs, corsets, infants' clothing, hair, and suitcases. On view is a blanket with a certificate from a Polish scientific laboratory identifying the fibers as human hair. Millions of destroyed lives appear with great immediacy in this accumulation of objects. There are piles of suitcases with the names and birth dates of their owners painted in white letters, inscriptions made by the deportees themselves; they serve as epitaphs, represent a memorial that rescues the victims from the anonymity of mass murder.

At the railhead in Birkenau stand the ruins of the crematoriums and gas chambers that the Nazis dynamited before fleeing. Four commemorative stelae at the top of the railway have identical inscriptions in Polish, English, Hebrew, and Yiddish: "To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace." Even though most of the victims were Ashkenazic Jews whose native language was Yiddish, the Yiddish texts appeared only fifty years after the fact.

The space occupied by the gas chambers at the end of the selection platform of Birkenau, directly across from the tower and entrance, was chosen as the site for the camp's commemorative monument, which consists of a huge pile of black stones falling over one another. At the summit of the highest section, this abstract sculpture gives way to a recognizable object, the triangle that political prisoners were forced to wear. Polish communist authorities framed this inscription: "Four million persons suffered and died here at the hands of Nazi murderers between the years 1940 to 1945." By 1989 that inaccurate text had been replaced. Four million was the wrong number. Probably 1.1 million died among the 1.3 million deported to Auschwitz: one million Jews, twenty-one thousand Gypsies, seventy-five thousand Poles, fifteen thousand Russian prisoners of war, and fifteen thousand of other nationalities. The new tablets were engraved with the following inscription in twenty-two languages: "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz/Birkenau 1940–1945."

See alsoBuchenwald; Concentration Camps; Dachau; Genocide; Holocaust; Zyklon B.


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Annette Becker