Not too long ago, I checked my wordpress “site stats” to see which post had gotten the most hits “of all time.” It turned out that one of my posts about Elie Wiesel was the all time favorite of the readers of my blog. I have been posting on my blog for almost a year now, and I have written 364 posts so far. Out of all those posts, why is there so much interest in the subject of Elie Wiesel? The obvious answer is that students in most schools in America are required to read Elie’s book Night. But I find it hard to believe that students are reading a blog written by an old fogey like me.
I read Night many years ago, before I knew a lot about the Holocaust. I knew about the gas chambers at Auschwitz, but Elie’s book didn’t mention the gas chambers, which I thought was odd. When Oprah picked Night as her book club selection a couple of years ago, a new edition was released, which has some changes. You can go to amazon.com and search inside the new edition. The part about the burning pits starts around page 32 and continues to page 34.
How could Elie Wiesel not have known about the gas chambers at Auschwitz? Anyone who was there would have known. Many survivors have written books in which they said that the Kapos, who met the train and removed the luggage, told them to lie about their age so they would not be waved to the left during the selection process; the left meant that you were in the group that was destined for the gas chamber. (Elie was told by one of the Kapos to lie and say he was 18; his father was advised to say he was 40.)
The photo above shows the selection process for the incoming prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two SS officers in uniform are shown, along with several prisoners in striped uniforms on the far left. The woman carrying a baby is headed toward Krema II, but she will have to walk a long way to get around the train that is in her way. According to many survivors, mothers were asked to hand over their babies to the elderly women, but those who refused were sent to the gas chamber.
In his book entitled Absence of Closure, Dr. Gustav Schonfeld wrote about what happened when his family was transported to Auschwitz from the town of Munkacs in Czechoslovakia, which had become part of Hungary after Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Hungarian army in 1938. Schonfeld wrote that, during the selection process at Birkenau, his father ran ahead in the line to see what was going on, and then ran back to tell his wife that she should let her mother hold her baby, and she should tell the selections officer that she was a nurse. This saved his mother’s life because if she had not handed her baby over to her mother, she would have been sent to the gas chamber.
According to Dr. Schonfeld, Dr. Josef Mengele told his mother not to worry, that she would see her baby later. Later, when his mother asked Dr. Mengele where her baby was, she was told to look at the camp’s smokestacks. Dr. Schonfeld wrote that his mother never forgave herself for giving her baby to her mother.
Elie Wiesel wrote in Night that he and his father were waved to the left. Then he wrote:
“We did not know, as yet, which was the better side, right or left, which road led to prison and which to the crematoria.”
I am not sure, but this sentence might have been added in the new edition released for Oprah’s book club. He couldn’t add the term “gas chamber” in the new edition, but since everyone knows that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were in the crematoria buildings, this was just as good.
In the background of the photo above, you can see the tall chimneys of the Krema II and Krema III crematoria where the gas chambers were located. Almost every survivor mentioned that the first thing that they saw when they got off the train was smoke, or flames, coming out of the two chimneys. Elie and his father arrived at night so, of course, they didn’t see the chimneys. What they saw instead was far worse: two burning pits, one for children and one for adults.
Here is the part about the burning pits in the new version of Night:
Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck grew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes …. children thrown into the flames. [..] A little farther on, there was another, larger pit for adults. [….] We continued our march. We were coming closer and closer to the pit, from which an infernal heat was rising. Twenty more steps. If I was going to kill myself, this was the time. Our column had only some fifteen steps to go. I bit my lips so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering. Ten more steps. Eight. Seven. We were walking slowly, as one follows a hearse, our own funeral procession. Only four more steps. Three. There it was now, very close to us, the pit and the flames. I gathered all that remained of my strength in order to break rank and throw myself onto the barbed wire. […] Two steps from the pit, we were ordered to turn left and herded into barracks.
Many survivors wrote that mothers with children were always sent to the gas chamber and that mothers and babies were gassed together. I have read many survivor books, but none of them ever mentioned that the babies were grabbed out of the mothers’ arms and thrown into a truck to be taken to a burning pit.
According to the display board shown in the photo above, this road was a shortcut to Krema IV and Krema V where there were gas chambers, disguised as shower rooms. Note the photo on the display board which shows a woman and three children; the text on the display board says that they are on their way to the gas chamber. This famous photo is from the Auschwitz Album; it was taken by an SS man on May 26, 1944. The photo was shown as evidence at the Auschwitz Trial in Frankfurt where 22 SS men, who had formerly worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were put on trial by the Germans in 1963.
If my memory of the original version of his book is correct, Elie Wiesel and his father arrived at Birkenau around midnight, and were assigned to a barrack in the Gypsy camp, which was to the left of the interior camp road shown above, behind the Men’s camp.
(Click on the photo to enlarge)
In the new 2006 version of Night, on page 37, it is mentioned that Elie and his father were “herded into yet another barrack inside the Gypsy camp.” In 1944, part of the Gypsy camp had been converted into a transit camp for the Durchgangsjuden who were held there temporarily until they could be transferred to another location. Elie and his father were transferred to the main Auschwitz camp and then to the Auschwitz III camp, also known as Monowitz, which was a labor camp.
There is a story, often told, that Heinrich Himmler witnessed Jews being shot by the Einsatzgruppen, early in the war, and this affected him so much that he decided to use gas chambers to kill the Jews. But why did Himmler change his mind and decide that innocent babies should suffer the most ignominious death of all — being burned alive?
Elie Wiesel and his father were selected for work when they arrived at Birkenau. Why were they sent down the same road where the babies were being burned alive? Did the Nazis deliberately provide witnesses to the cruel deaths of the babies?
A couple of months ago, I got into an argument with one of my readers and a history professor about whether or not the prisoners were marched out of the camps so that they could be killed because the Nazis didn’t want to have any witnesses who could potentially testify about the atrocities in the camps. I maintained that the prisoners were marched out so that they could be taken to labor camps in Germany to work.
Elie and his father were witnesses to the most horrible atrocity of all, yet they were marched out of Birkenau on January 18, 1945 and taken to Buchenwald. O.K. now I am confused. First Elie and his father were marched down the road to the burning pits so that they could get a good look at the babies being thrown off a truck into the fire, but then, according to the history professor, they were marched out of the camp in order to kill them because they were witnesses.
As it turned out, Elie wasn’t killed on the march out of the camp; he survived and told the world about the babies being burned alive.
The German people are some of the smartest people in the world, yet they made many stupid mistakes during the Holocaust. Like bringing witnesses to see the burning pits and then allowing them to survive.
You can read more about Elie Wiesel and Night here on the web site with the title Elie Wiesel Cons the World.