Thursday, August 17, 2017

Holocaust memorials

Given the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I am going to post about the Nazis and the memorials to the Holocaust as a way to remember why we need to stand up to fascism and racism.  Throughout Europe, the same words appear over and over again on the memorials.  Never again.  That is why they are important.

The Holocaust happened.  Thankfully in Germany, it's a crime to deny it did.  It's also a crime to display Nazi symbols, outside of places like museums.  The Germans have been very frank in dealing with that portion of their history and it's refreshing.

I have not visited all the concentration camp sites.  I have only visited Dachau, Terezin, and Auschwitz.  All were horrible places, but also places that I feel everyone should visit.  There are also number of Holocaust memorials that I will be talking about.  Each is deeply moving.


Just outside of Munich is the site of Dachau, the first concentration camp.  Much of what became traits of all the concentration camps originated at Dachau.  

The inscription on the gate, Arbeit macht Frei, work makes you free was just one of the many things that spread to other camps.  Dachau became the prototype.  While Dachau was not an extermination camp (those came later as the Nazi Final Solution to the Jewish Question evolved from enslavement of the Jews to extermination of the Jews), over 30,000 people died according to camp records (and many more were not recorded).  Political prisoners, Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, anyone really that the Nazis didn't like. When they got to the camp, they were literally worked to death.

One other prominent feature of Dachau were the medical experiments.  Nazi scientists used prisoners as human guinea pigs to test various things.  Generally these medical experiments were just various types of torture, like submerging someone in freezing water just to see how long they survived.  They built a low pressure chamber to try to determine the highest altitude that an aircrew could safely parachute from an airplane.  Dachau was just one of many camps where these experiments were conducted. 

When the U. S. Army liberated the camp at the end of the war, of the 30,000 prisoners, 10,000 were seriously ill.  Many died soon after liberation. 

In visiting the site, it is an easy trip from Munich.  Public transit does reach that far, but make sure you have the right ticket, because it is not in the same zone as downtown.  When you reach the site, the main camp administration building still stands.  This is where they conducted the medical experiments.  The barracks were removed after the war because of typhus infection, but there are a few rebuilt examples to walk through.  The camp crematorium is still standing, as well as the unused gas chamber.


This site is in the Czech Republic and is really two sites adjacent to each other.  Originally founded as a fortress for the Austrian Army to protect the approaches to Prague from Saxony and Prussia, the Nazis turned it into a concentration camp.  First is the Terezin ghetto.  This was sort of a transshipment point the Nazis used to gather Jews for later shipment to the extermination camps, especially Auschwitz where they would then be murdered.  Many still died in the ghetto, as many as 30,000 people died here.  The Nazis used Terezin for propaganda purposes, trying to portray it as a model Jewish town.  

The small fortress was made into a prison camp.   This also served as a forwarding point to other concentration camps.  Prisoners in the small fortress were treated generally harsher than those in the ghetto.  Since it was more a site to gather prisoners for shipment to the death camps, they didn't do as much of the brutality here.  Of course there was still brutality, but the truly awful things were saved for other camps.  


I have not visited this site, but I feel like I should comment on it because a dear friend of mine's father was one of the soldiers who liberated the camp.  He could never talk about it after.    The horrors he witness first hand, I cannot even imagine.  

US Forces Liberate Buchenwald


While this is not a concentration camp, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin is very unsettling.  Solid blocks of stone, lined up in exacting rows, symbolizing those who were murdered

The site is right near the location of the bunker where Hitler spent his last days, another reminder of what was done.

It's hard to describe what it's like to visit Auschwitz.  The original camp, Auschwitz I, was originally a Polish military post.  The barracks were adapted into a prison. The iconic entrance gate has the same inscription that started at Dachau, Arbeit macht Frei.  The original was stolen a few years ago, but was later recovered.  

 Walking through that gate is surreal.  As you view the various buildings, you see what the Nazis did to the Jews who arrived at the camp.  Their possessions were stolen, the Nazis even had a place where all the luggage was sorted and any valuables taken.  Some of the original luggage is on display.  Heads were shaved, because it was woven into the linings of winter coats for the German army.  There are displays of actual hair from the camp.  Then there is the prison inside the prison.  Torture chambers where prisoners were placed to die in horrible ways, like an air-tight cell where people were suffocated or a standing room only cell where 4 prisoners were jammed in and kept awake until they died. 

The first experiments with poison gas were conducted in a small gas chamber on the site that is still standing.  Absolute silence is demanded when you visit the chamber to honor those murdered there.  Right in front of this gas chamber is the gallows where Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of the camp, was hanged after the war.

The worst building was where Dr. Josef Mengele did his experiments.   Mengele was obsessed with identical twins and would do experiments to try to change genetic traits, trying to create the master race.  I have identical twin boys and I just had to leave, I could not handle that building.  Mengele was the face of evil. 

A little down the road is the larger camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  This was the extermination camp.  Train tracks lead to the long platforms were Jews would arrive and then be sorted, usally by Mengele.  Those deemed fit to work were herded into the camp barracks and assigned to work, usually to death, in industries that helped the German war effort.  Those deemed unfit were herded to the twin gas chambers at the end of the platforms are immediately gassed, then burned in the attached crematorium.  As many as 20,000 people per day were killed here at the height of the slaughter.

At the end of the war as the Soviet army approached, the Nazis attempted to hide their crimes.  The dynamited the two main crematoria.  This is all that is left.

The soil in the area tested positive for human remains.

Between the two destroyed crematoria, is the international monument to the victims, inscribed in numerous languages about how many died there.

My last thoughts are to from Elie Weisel, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz and wrote about it in his novel Night.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.

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