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February 19, 2013

Prize-winning essay written by an Israeli visitor to Auschwitz: “Auschwitzland, fun for the whole family”

Filed under: Holocaust — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 1:24 pm

I was searching for more information about the scratch marks on the walls of the Auschwitz gas chamber, when I came across an excellent essay written by a young Israeli visitor to the Auschwitz camp. The word “Auschwitzland” in the title of the essay is a play on words, comparing Auschwitz to Disneyland.  Unfortunately, in today’s world, that is a valid comparison.

As I read this essay, I was reminded of the writing style of Tadeusz Borowski, whose collected essays were published in a book entitled This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.  In particular, it was these two sentences near the beginning of the essay, which reminded me of Borowski’s writing:

Everyone seemed to know one another, and the groups of girls would squeal with delight and kiss the air around one another’s cheeks, looking over their shoulders to see who was watching. The guys were a bit more awkward, shaking hands and standing in tense circles, holding their paper plates.

Although I enjoyed the essay very much, I was puzzled by some of the descriptions of Auschwitz-Birkenau.  For example, the Israeli essayist wrote this about the ashes from the crematoria at Birkenau:

We walked across a green field, to some ponds, and stopped at the edge of one of them. […] If I really concentrated on them I could almost ignore the ominous brick chimney looming in the distance. […]  I was brought back to reality as Avi [the tour guide] explained that these ponds were man-made. A place was needed to dump the ashes from the crematorium, ashes of the Jews who were tortured, humiliated and systematically murdered and then burnt by the Nazis. This pond was built to receive these remains.

The ash ponds at Birkenau are shown in my 2005 photos below.

Large ash pond at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Large ash pond at Auschwitz-Birkenau

In the photo above, you can see the ash pond for the Krema IV crematorium in the foreground and the Central Sauna in the background. On the right in the background, you can see the ruins of Krema IV. The Krema IV building had above-ground gas chambers that were disguised as showers.

Krema V was located on the other side of a road that runs east and west from one end of the camp to the other. Krema V has its own ash pond that has now dried up.

In the photo below, you can see the dried up ash pond for Krema III, which had a large underground gas chamber.

Dried up ash pond for Krema III

Dried up ash pond for Krema III

In the background of the photo above, you can see the round brick structures of the water treatment plant for the Birkenau camp. In the foreground, you can see what looks like a small bog garden. This is where the ashes from the crematory ovens in Krema III were thrown. The dried up ash pond for Krema III looks very similar to the dried up ash pond for  Krema V, which I did not photograph.

Markers at the dried up ash pond for Krema III

Markers in four languages at the dried up ash pond for Krema III

The photo above shows the black markers in four languages that identify the ash pit for Krema III. The Krema III building held one of the two largest gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. An estimated 1.3 million people were gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, most of them in the Krema III and Krema II gas chambers.  Yet, the ash pond that (according to a tour guide) was deliberately dug by the Nazis, has now completely dried up and no ashes can be seen.

Ash pond for Krema II at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Ash pond for Krema II at Auschwitz-Birkenau

In the photo above, you can see, on the right side, the ruins of Krema II, a building which housed a large underground gas chamber.  On the left side of the photo, you can see the ash pond where the ashes of millions of burned bodies were allegedly thrown.  In the background on the left is the ruins of the underground gas chamber in Krema II. On the right is the collapsed roof of the brick building where the bodies were cremated.

The ash pit in the photo immediately above does look as if it were deliberately dug, but would the Nazis have deliberately dug such a pond and thrown the ashes into it.  I don’t think so.  The German people are extremely neat and Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of all the camps, was especially persnickety. He would not have allowed the ashes of millions of people to be thrown into a man-made pond.

I previously blogged about the ashes at Birkenau here.

At other Nazi camps, the ashes of the prisoners who died in the camp were put into urns, like the ones shown in the photo below, which was taken in the Buchenwald crematorium. When the Bismarck Tower on the Ettersberg, near the Buchenwald camp, was blown up by the Soviet Union to provide a place for their Bell Tower Monument in honor of the Communist prisoners of Buchenwald, they found 1286 urns full of ashes in the basement of the tower.

Urns which were used to hold the ashes of prisoners who died at Buchenwald

Urns which were used to hold the ashes of prisoners who died at Buchenwald

In a book, written by Auschwitz-Birkenau camp secretary, Lore Shelley, entitled Secretaries of Death, the author mentioned that the Nazis hauled the urns containing the ashes of the murdered Jews out of the camp before they abandoned the camp on January 18, 1945.

There are some people who claim that the ashes of the Jews were thrown into the Sola river, which runs through the town of Auschwitz.  I don’t think so.  Himmler had a degree in agriculture; he was way ahead of his time, and would never have allowed the ashes of millions of Jews to be thrown into a river.  So where are the ashes of the 4 million Jews who were murdered at Auschwitz?  Excuse me, I mean the 1.1 million people who were killed at Auschwitz.

This quote is also from the prize-winning essay:

We went to the town of Tarnow. Some of the buildings lining the main square dated back to pre-war times. They were quaint and beautiful. People rode by on bicycles, children kicked a soccer ball. Two old men sat on a bench in the sunshine. In this square Jews were forced to sit on their knees without moving for two days. Anyone who looked up off the ground was shot instantly. They were humiliated and tortured. This square, so refined and sophisticated, was witness to such pain and suffering I expected to see blood come seeping up between the paving stones.

I immediately recognized the name Tarnow, which I had learned in my research into the Auschwitz camp a few years ago.  I regret that I never took a side trip to see the town.

The first prisoners in the Auschwitz main camp were Polish political prisoners, including some Jews, and a few German criminals, who were brought to Auschwitz to assist the Nazis in supervising the other prisoners. The first transport of prisoners to the main Auschwitz camp consisted of 728 Polish inmates of the Gestapo prison at Tarnow, Poland. They were mostly university students, including a few Jews, who had joined the Polish Resistance.

Among the first 728 prisoners who arrived at Auschwitz on June 14, 1940 was 18-year-old Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who later became Poland’s foreign minister and a pioneer of German-Polish reconciliation. Bartoszewski fell seriously ill and was released from Auschwitz six months later, thanks to intervention by the Red Cross.

But I digress.  To get back to the essay, I was surprised to read this:

We had driven by the tall guard towers, and seen the train tracks leading into the camp. These tracks exemplified the Nazis’ manipulation and duplicity. They were designed to look like they continued into the distance, to make sure the passengers on the train weren’t aware that this was their final destination; just one of the ways the prisoners were kept in control.

The Nazis just can’t catch a break.  Everything they did affronted the Jews — even the fact, that they extended the train tracks from the Auschwitz station into the Birkenau camp in 1944, offends the Jewish tourists now.  Before the tracks were extended inside the Birkenau camp, the Jews got off the trains at the Judenrampe, near the Auschwitz train station.  The Judenrampe was about a mile and a half from the camp and the prisoners had to walk to the gas chambers before the tracks were extended into the camp.

The location of the Judenrampe where Jews got off the trains

The location of the Judenrampe where Jews got off the trains

The location of the Judenrampe, which is shown in the photo above, became an official Memorial Site in early 2005 when 5 markers were set up along the tracks, including one in honor of the French Jews who were sent to Birkenau. In the photo above, a tour group reads the sign placed at this location.

Between February 1942 and the end of April 1944, when the railroad tracks were extended inside the Birkenau camp, there were approximately 500,000 Jews who arrived at this ramp. According to the Auschwitz Museum, at least 75% of them were immediately gassed. The old people, who couldn’t walk to the gas chambers, were taken on trucks.

Train tracks go through the Birkenau gate house

Train tracks go through the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate house into the camp

The railroad spur line that goes through the Auschwitz-Birkenau gate house begins on the left side of the gate, about a quarter of a mile away, and curves around until it forms a straight line in front of the gate. Trains coming from the west entered the Birkenau camp from tracks on the left side of the gate, as you are facing it, and did not pass the railroad station in the town of Auschwitz. Trains coming from the opposite direction passed the train station in Auschwitz and then entered the camp on the spur line. The train tracks end only a few yards from two of the gas chambers inside the Birkenau camp — the Krema II and Krema III gas chambers.

Train tracks inside the Birkenau camp

Train tracks inside the Birkenau camp

The photo above illustrates what the Israeli essayist said about the train tracks, which I am quoting again:

These tracks exemplified the Nazis’ manipulation and duplicity. They were designed to look like they continued into the distance, to make sure the passengers on the train weren’t aware that this was their final destination; just one of the ways the prisoners were kept in control.

I don’t think that this was what the Nazis had in mind when they extended the railroad tracks inside the Birkenau camp.  They were trying to make it easy on the Jews; when the tracks were extended, the Jews could now ride to the gas chambers, instead of having to walk more than a mile to their deaths.

The tracks were extended into the Birkenau camp in order to facilitate the killing of the Hungarian Jews.  On May 8, 1944, former Commandant Rudolf Höss (Hoess) was brought back to Auschwitz-Birkenau to supervise the deportation of the Hungarian Jews. The next day, Höss ordered the train tracks to be extended inside the Birkenau camp so that the Hungarian Jews could be brought as close as possible to the gas chambers.

According to Laurence Rees, in his book Auschwitz, a New History, the first mass transport of Hungarian Jews left on May 15, 1944 and arrived at Birkenau on May 16, 1944. The mass transports consisted of 3,000 or more prisoners on each train.  In only 10 weeks time, as many as 500,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed and burned.  Strangely, most of the Holocaust survivors, now alive, are Hungarian Jews.  Each of them has a story to explain why they were not gassed.