“The People Who Walked On” is the title of a short story, written by Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, which is included in a collection of short stories in a book entitled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, published by Penguin Books. Borowski was a prisoner himself at Birkenau, so he was a witness to what happened there. But what does it mean — “the people who walked on”? What’s he talking about? Maybe it would be easier to understand if his original Polish words were translated as “the people who walked on by.”
The photo above clearly illustrates “the people who walked on.” This group of women and children are looking toward Krema II as they pass Krema III which is in the background. They are headed to the intersection of the main camp road and the road to the Sauna, where they will turn right and go to the shower room in the Sauna. The intersection no longer exists because it is currently covered by the International Monument.
In the photo above, the International Monument is on the left. The fence posts for the fence around Krema III can be seen in the background. The monument covers the first part of the road that leads to the Sauna. (Krema II was blown up on Jan. 20, 1945 after the prisoners were marched out of the camp on Jan. 18, 1945.)
In his short story “The People Who Walked On,” Borowski famously wrote:
Between two throw-ins in a soccer game, right behind my back, three thousand people had been put to death.
He was referring to 3,000 Hungarian Jews who had been put to death in the four gas chambers in the crematoria at Birkenau in 1944. “The People who walked on” were Jews who walked past the gas chambers and went on to the Sauna where they took a shower.
Here is a quote from Borowski’s short story, which explains why the people walked on by Krema III:
In the following months, the procession to the little wood moved along two roads: one leading straight from the ramp, the other past the hospital wall. Both led to the crematoria, but some of the people had the good fortune to walk beyond them, all the way to the Zauna, and this meant more than just a bath and a delousing, a barber’s shop and a new prison suit. It meant staying alive. [...]
Each day, as I got up in the morning to scrub the hospital floors, the people were walking — along both roads. Women, men, children.
They carried their bundles.
The road that went “past the hospital wall” was the main camp road. The location of the hospital was just east of Krema III; it is shown on the map below. (Click on the photo to enlarge)
In May 1944, the train tracks were extended inside the Birkenau camp so that the trains could be brought right up to the gas chambers in Krema II and Krema III. The Jews who got off the train on the track on the right hand side would walk down the north-south road that went through the middle of the camp. The Jews who got off the trains on the other side would walk down the main camp road which led to the Krema II and Krema III gas chambers. In 1945, the main camp road intersected an east-west road that led to the Sauna, where incoming prisoners took a shower.
Hungarian Jews, who have just arrived on a train, form two lines before marching down the main camp road at Birkenau, shown on the right side of the photo above. Notice the complete lack of guns, dogs or even guard towers. Dr. Mengele is the man standing in front of the column on the right, holding a cigarette at chest height. The “gate of death” is shown in the background. Both columns will march to the end of the main camp road, passing Krema II and Krema III, then turn right and continue down the road to the Sauna.
The photo above was taken in 2005; it shows the road that goes from the women’s camp on the south side of the Birkenau camp, all the way to the new section, called Mexico, on the north side. This is the start of Lagerstrasse A, the road “leading straight from the ramp.” When the prisoners reached Lagerstrasse B, at the mid-point of this road, they turned left and continued on to the western end of the camp where the Sauna was located. Krema IV and Krema V were also located at the western end of the camp, very close to the Sauna. Krema IV and Krema V had gas chambers disguised as shower rooms.
Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp talk about the selection process in which those who could work were waved to the right and those who were destined to be gassed were sent to the left. Forget that. There was no right and left. Both groups walked down the same two roads, according to Borowski, and both roads led to the crematoria, as well as to the shower room in the Sauna. Some of the incoming prisoners were taken to the crematoria while others walked on by and went to the Sauna.
The incoming prisoners, shown in the photo below, are waiting in the “little wood” for their turn to go into the Sauna, or maybe for the gas chambers, disguised as shower rooms, in Krema IV and Krema V.
Borowski was not a Jew. But that didn’t matter at Birkenau. According to Borowski, even “Aryans” were sent to the gas chamber.
This quote is from page 113 of his book of short stories:
Why is it that nobody cries out, nobody spits in their faces, nobody jumps at their throats? We doff our caps to the S.S. men returning from the little wood; if our name is called we obediently go with them to die, and — we do nothing. [...] Our only strength is our great number — the gas chambers cannot accommodate all of us. [...] Do you know the last time the ‘Aryans’ were selected for the gas chamber? April 4th. And do you remember when we arrived in the camp? April 29th. Do you realize what would have happened — and you with pneumonia — if we had arrived just a few weeks earlier?
After dropping this bombshell on page 113, Borowski goes on to write about the boxing matches at Birkenau — on the same page! Soccer and boxing matches at Birkenau? Life was good, until your turn came to walk down one of the two roads to the crematoria. Hopefully, you would be one of the fortunate ones who walked right on by.
On page 116, Borowski writes about the labor Kommandos which used to march in formation back to the main camp. “The band played and the passing columns kept step with its beat.” Then one day, there were 10 thousand men marching back to the camp and they “were ordered to stop and stood waiting at the gate. At that moment several trucks full of naked women rolled in from the F.K.L. (women’s camp at Birkenau) The women stretched out their arms and pleaded: ‘Save us! We are going to the gas chambers! Save us!’ “
This was happening in 1943. The problem with this story is that the gas chamber in the main camp was not being used in 1943. The gassing of the prisoners took place in the “little red house” and “the little white house,” starting in 1942. The two little houses were called Bunker No. 1 and Bunker No. 2. By 1943, four new crematoria were in operation in the Birkenau camp: Krema II, Krema III, Krema IV and Krema V.
So why were women from the women’s camp at Birkenau brought in trucks to the main camp, two miles away, to be gassed? The worst part is that Borowski wrote that the ten thousand men waiting at the gate did nothing to help the women. Borowski wrote: “Not one of us made a move, not one of us lifted a hand.”
Several women who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau have said that they survived because they manged to jump off the truck that was taking them to the gas chamber. Borowski’s story confirms that women were, in fact, transported on trucks to the gas chamber.
The photo below shows the ruins of Krema III; the field of grass in the background is the location of the soccer field where Borowski was playing while 3,000 Hungarian Jews were being gassed. How terribly insensitive of the Germans to gas people so close to the soccer field! This also shows that they never expected someone to survive and write about the gassing, so they didn’t keep the gassing operation a secret.