Thursday, January 27, 2005

Auschwitz 60 years ago

If you have ``Schindler’s List’’, ``The Pianist’’ or other Holocaust movies in your collection you might like to watch one again today. If you have Holocaust books, behold the photographs or immerse yourself in the survivors’ accounts.

Today is the 60th anniversary of the liberation of prisoners in the German Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz in Poland.

Thousands will be flocking to Auschwitz today, among them world leaders and monarchs, to remember the more than three million people, the majority of them Jews, who were mass murdered mostly in the gas chambers there and in other death camps in Europe.

The European Jews were the primary victims of the Nazis. According to a Holocaust website, in 1933 nine million Jews lived in the 21 countries of Europe that would be occupied by Germany during World War II. By 1945, two out of every three European Jews had been killed.

But the Jews were not the only group in Hitler’s hate list. So were 500,000 million Gypsies, 250,000 mentally or physically disabled, more than three million Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Social Democrats, Communists, partisans, trade unionists and Polish intelligentsia.

Auschwitz’s three main camps saw the biggest mass killings by gas—almost 1.5 million from 1940 to 1945. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, historians estimate that among the people sent to Auschwitz alone were at least 1.1 million Jews from all the countries in Nazi-occupied Europe, over 140,000 Poles who were mostly political prisoners, some 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war and over 10,000 of other nationalities. The majority of the Jewish deportees were sent to the gas chambers to die as soon as they arrived.

It is sickening to know that there are neo-Nazi diehards now espousing the cause to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. They are very much in the league of those who are trying to prove that the moon landing was a hoax, that it was staged in the Arizona desert. On second thought, these Holocaust deniers are a league of their own. I can live with a moon landing hoax theory, but not with a brazen attempt to obliterate the historical fact of six million people mass murdered because they belonged to a certain race or were simply different.

Auschwitz in Poland, more than Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and other concentration camps in Germany, has become known as a symbol of terror and genocide. It was established by Hitler’s Nazis in 1940, a year before they embarked on the so-called Endlosung der Jugenfrage or ``Final Solution of the Jewish Question’’ (euphemism for mass extermination, by the way).

Annexed by the Nazis to the Third Reich, Oswiecim was renamed Auschwitz. It was at the center of German-occupied Europe and therefore people could easily be sent there. Auschwitz prisoners were used in synthetic rubber, fuel and military plants. It later became the biggest of all death camps.

The local populace of Poles and Jews living near Auschwitz III were driven out of their homes. Many homes were demolished, others were assigned to officers and their families.

In the beginning Auschwitz was just for the ``dangerous’’ Poles—the elite and the intelligentsia, the artists and the scientists and those in the resistance movement, the likes, perhaps, of Karol Wojtyla. Later, the Nazis sent in their prisoners from other countries. Many died there as a result of starvation, disease, torture and criminal medical experiments.

Dr. Joseph Mengele did many of his experiments there—surgeries without anesthesia, blood transfusions, isolation endurance, sex change operations, injection of lethal germs, incestuous impregnations, limb removals. He was fanatical about identical twins and dissected them meticulously.

In a 1995 signed statement, Nazi doctor Hans Munch recounted how he witnessed the selection process on who was to live and who was to die. ``Children and old people, the sick and those unable to work were sent to the gas chambers. These were innocent human beings. Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Hitler’s political opponents—anyone who did not fit Hitler’s idea of a pure Aryan race.

``I, a former SS physician, witnessed the dropping of Zyklon B into simulated exhaust vents from outside the gas chamber. Zyklon began to work as soon as it was released from the canisters. The effects of the gas were observed through a peephole by an assigned doctor or the SS officer on duty. After three to five minutes, death could be certified, and the doors were opened as a sign that the corpses were cleared to be burned.

``This is a nightmare I continue to live with 50 years later. I am so sorry that in some way I was part of it. Under the prevailing circumstances, I did the best I could to save as many lives as possible. Joining the SS was a mistake. I was young. I was on opportunist. And once I joined, there was no way out.’’

While many brave individuals and families risked their lives to help Jews escape genocide, only one man, Oscar Schindler, succeeded in getting Jews out of Auschwitz on the pretext that they were his workers and by bribing the Nazis. He spent millions, all he possessed, to save ``his Jews’’. Schindler died poor.

With the Soviet Army advancing, the Auschwitz officials started destroying documents and evidence of their crimes. They evacuated prisoners in mid-January of 1945. The able-bodied were marched out in columns by the German guards. Many died in the ``Death March’’ and the few thousands who were left behind in prison were liberated on Jan. 27, 1945.

We must know and remember.