Today is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, January 27th, 1945, by the Soviet Army as it pushed from Russia into the German-occupied Eastern Europe. Auschwitz was not the first camp to be liberated; that would have been Majdanek, an extermination camp outside Lublin, Poland, in July,1944.
When my son and I visited the Imperial War Museum in London in October, we viewed a Holocaust Museum established in the back part of the building, on the 3rd and 4th floors, separate from the rest of the exhibits. It was two floors worth of pictures, artifacts, and video presentations (mainly interviews with survivors), but the thing I remember most was a model of the “reception area” of Auschwitz.
Taking up the full length of a long room, the model (buildings, trains, train tracks, figurines) showed how the trainloads of people were received at the train station, unloaded, and then herded down a long path next to the train tracks. The able-bodied workers would be diverted through one gate that led to processing rooms and barracks; the not-as-able-but-still-able workers and the women would be diverted through the next gate, leading to processing rooms and barracks; then another gate, and another gate, the last being the gate through which people would be herded into a processing room (to take their clothes and belongings) and then marched directly into gas chambers. The crematorium to burn their bodies were behind the gas chambers.
It was like a meat processing plant.
When Auschwitz was liberated, they found 800,000 women’s outfits, hundreds of thousands of men’s suits, and more than 14,000 pounds of human hair (used to make industrial felt). At Buchenwald, there was a bin of thousands of pairs of baby shoes.
Between 1943 and 1944, an average of 6,000 Jews were sent to the gas chambers EACH DAY at Auschwitz. In total, across all the camps, about 6 million European Jews, about two-thirds of the Jewish population at the time, were murdered during the Holocaust.
The Jews were not the only targets. The Third Reich’s master plan included anyone in Eastern Europe and Western Russian who were not descendants of the Aryan Race, including the Poles, Slavs, and Russians. Six million Poles were murdered; four million Soviet troops; eight million Russian citizens; and the list goes on. The intention was to destroy most of the native inhabitants of the lands so that Germany could resettle the lands with Aryan descendants. Any remaining natives would become serfs to the German landowners.
How did they murder so many? By design. The lead editors of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-45 of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, operating from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.
How could all of this happen? How could Hitler and the whole nation of Germany become a society based on irrational hate?
Hitler and the National Socialist Party (the Nazi Party) were elected to power. They did not overthrow the previous government. When new elections were held, they controlled the media, controlled their message, whipped the populace into fanatical rallies, and played dirty with their adversaries. After getting into power, they made it illegal to oppose the Nazi Party. The first concentration camp at Dachau was established in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler to hold “political prisoners”, who was anyone who opposed the National Socialist Party. Within a year, almost every city and village in Germany had at least one of their citizens imprisoned at Dachau, having been arrested for “opposing the government” or for “disturbing the calm” of the rest of the population.
The purpose of the camp was expanded in 1934 to include the “racially undesirable elements”, such as Jews, Gypsies, Serbs, Poles, disabled people, and criminals. Later on, it included Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Catholic clergy.
Dachau, at the end of its 12th year, had held 200,000 people and had murdered 41,000 of them.
This is a day to remember.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.