The second world war was nearing its end in April 1945 as the allied forces were advancing towards Berlin. Hitler took his own life in his secret bunker located below the Reich Chancellery on April 30. United Germany’s then capital Berlin was surrendered to the Allies on May 2. On May 7, 1945, the German army commanders surrendered to the allied forces, ending the long war in Europe.
In January 1945, Soviet troops had liberated Warsaw, the capital of Poland. On January 27, the Red Army freed the world’s biggest Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, revealing to the world the horrors perpetrated there. Around a million people were murdered during a period of tyranny but about 9,000 starving prisoners were found alive in the camp.
A ghastly sight met the eyes of the soldiers -- millions of clothing items that once belonged to men, women and children, along with 6,350 kilos of human hair. The Auschwitz museum holds more than 1,00,000 pairs of shoes, 12,000 kitchen utensils, 3,800 suitcases and 350 striped camp garments. The museum also displays 88 pounds of eye glasses and hundreds of prosthetic limbs.
Largest concentration camp
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest and the deadliest of the extermination camps set up by Nazi Germany, where millions were tortured and murdered, in gas chambers while other inmates died after inhuman toil and virtually starvation in the notorious holocaust, under the orders of Adolf Hitler.
As the Russians liberated Warsaw, the German guards began to evacuate and flee towards German territories. They began to demolishing the structures there to cover up their crimes, systematically destroying many of their meticulous records of camp life. They forced thousands of prisoners to march along with them. But around 9,000 prisoners, including children and women in dire health remained there, with some hiding, hoping to escape.
Many of the Soviet troops have described how those survivors considered them gods when they were liberated. When the soldiers followed the scouts in Birkenau, they were led to a furnace complex, another chamber of horrors which held piles of ash that had once been human bodies. Auschwitz had broad gauge rail connection to a terminus, from where Jews from various parts of Germany were brought in for extermination. At the end of the war, these developments became known to the rest of the world. How Germany was divided into East and West Germany by a wall passing through Berlin.
Fall of Berlin Wall
The two Germanys were unified on October 3, 1990, by demolishing the Berlin Wall. Many years after the Holocaust, there are Germans who still feel ashamed of being German, thinking of the world's most heinous genocidal crime -- of exterminating 15 lakh people in the name of pseudo-nationalism -- having been intoxicated with the pride of language, race and ‘super German blood’ by a demon called Hitler.
The world is flooded with books, literature, photos and video accounts of the two notorious Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, near Cracow in Poland. However, this article is my narrative and the photos were shot by my tiny camera when we visited the sites during our trip to Poland with the then President of India, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, in 1995.
From the Polish capital Warsaw, we drove to Cracow first. Our bus was crossing through beautiful vineyards on green, uneven highlands. After lunch in the beautiful city of Cracow, when we began nearing these concentration camps, a shadow of gloom began to descend on our hearts and minds. Sensitive minds can feel the air heavy with the cries of spirits, who were butchered in flesh and blood all those years ago, sent to gas chambers to die or shot by firing squads or subjected to hard labour in their starved and malnourished state. Around 15 lakh Jews and Poles were killed in these camps.
Why were the Polish and Jews were killed by Nazis?
In Germany, Hitler had won the elections with his effective oratory against a weak and corrupt government. Gripped with an intense hunger for power, Hitler took advantage of the single religion and single language of Germany to galvanise people into neo-nationalism, embellishing his pitch with ideas of the pride of ‘high race’, ‘super blood’, language and culture, assisted by the corporate world.
The most dreaded act in the name of improving the super blood of the Nazi race was the killing of millions of Germans suffering from various physical disorders, disability and disease. Reeling under their humiliating defeat in the first world war, Germany was then in a weak economic state. But the Jewish community was still flourishing and controlling businesses.
Hitler began targeting this community to divert people's mind from real problems. He incited the ordinary German against Jews to attain his own political goal of complete dominance. Expansionism rides in the minds of ambitious rulers. Hitler began invading countries, saying Germany needed more land to settle its super race.
Atrocities, torture, public abuse and the lynching of Jews were common under the Nazi regime. Hitler set up concentration and torture camps in the countries he had invaded. His Gestapo embarked on counting Jews and dispatching them to these concentration camps on special trains.
In 1938, both Germany and Russia invaded Poland and grabbed a half each. Hitler embarked on a similar, ethnic cleansing operation against the Polish public also. They were also brought to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps for elimination.
As one enters Auschwitz, an arched grill at the entrance gate catches one’s attention – it bears the words ‘Arbeit macht freie’, a German phrase meaning – ‘Work sets you free’. What criminal intentions lay hidden behind this seeming declaration of work ethic. The heinous motive was to ‘free’ people of their very lives. Both camps have a number of large barracks, rather, huge halls fitted with wooden sleepers, where thousands of inmates were accommodated. The blocks were separated by electric double-barbed wire fences.
The railway line used to carry wagons loaded with inmates for torture and elimination has also been preserved. A Gestapo police officer on each wagon would divide the inmates into two groups. Children and the old and destitute on one side and the young and the middle-aged on the other.
The first group would be taken to the gas chambers. The Nazis made the gas chambers look like showers. They convinced prisoners that they were going into the gas chambers to shower. But what came out of the showers was the poisonous gas Zyklon B, killing everyone inside. A look at the roofs of these chambers shows the pipes were not connected to any water supply but to gas cylinders. The bodies of the victims were incinerated in Birkenau in four crematoria. All the crematoria were powered by electric furnaces. The Nazis collected kilos of gold from such furnaces, as the Jews and Polish people had gold dental fillings.
The second group was taken to the barracks for hard labour until death. They would die of disease, hunger and malnutrition. Very few survived and a few daring ones made their escape braving electric barbed wire fences and watch towers. Visitors can see the uniforms of these inmates displayed on the walls of the barracks.
To return back to 1995, President Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma laid a wreath at the memorial and we accompanying journalists watched the ceremony with heavy hearts. My beautiful interpreter Tanya told me that the 20th century is known for advancement in civilisation in all spheres of life but the people of her generation were still unable to come to terms with how such dastardly barbaric acts were committed by a so-called leader-turned-genocidal maniac just decades before. I had to agree with Tanya, telling her history could not be changed, as it is a chronicle of facts and events but the following generations can always take lessons from it, to check recurrence in the future. The greed and lust for power drives people mad.
The writer formerly worked with AIR and has travelled the world