Articles about the holocaust
Have a bagel. With these warm words, I was introduced to Chuni Kahan our host for the Auschwitz trip. I had been quite anxious about the trip, not sure how I would cope with what I expected to see, hear and feel. I instantly felt that I was in safe hands with Chuni and so it turned out for the duration of the trip. Chuni looked after us so well, he was extremely kind and attentive. He said a few words as we stood at the Auschwitz II memorial, the place where his grandparents were killed. His message of tolerance and the importance of talking about what happened during the Holocaust, of never forgetting and of calling out injustice was a powerful message to reflect on and to bring home.
The trip was very intense, it took place over 30 hours and covered a lot of ground physically. We spent the morning touring Auschwitz I, a brief 10 minute lunch on the coach was followed by the afternoon spent at Auschwitz II/Birkenau. We also spent some time walking around Krakow, the Jewish sector before dinner and the flight home. It was also a profoundly moving experience. Chuni had said at the start that the trip would be something that would take some time to assimilate and to process. I kept referring back to this during the day- I saw and heard so many horrifying things. I kept asking myself How could this happen? Why did people behave like this? How did anyone survive this? Was it better to die than to endure life here? What would I have done- would I have had the courage, the insight, the moral strength to try to change what was happening? What could I have done? What can I do today? and I had to let go of trying to process everything. It was better to just be there listening and being aware of where I stood. There is no possible way of making sense of what happened here, of ordering it in the mind.
Our Auschwitz guide, Marta, was superb. She grew up locally and has been working as a guide at Auschwitz for 15 years. She guided us around Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- there was no drama in the way she presented the horrifying information, she explained things with clarity and in a calm way. She was brilliant at pulling out stories of individuals- some of whom survived.
These stories were the counterpoint to museum displays listing the numbers of deaths, the sadness of the glass cabinets housing tonnes of female hair- now grey, the wall to wall mounds of shoes or spectacles taken from those gassed. I wont forget the childrens clothes- tiny little knitted jumpers and embroidered dresses or the empty suitcases and baskets- people were told they could bring a bag here- they expected to be set to work and had come prepared with their pots and pans, their shaving kits, their essentials. Thanks to Marta I will also remember Hugo Lowy who was a Hungarian Jew, deported to Auschwitz in 1944. Stepping out of the train he was classified as fit enough to work rather than be immediately gassed but he refused to leave his prayer bag containing special objects (his tefillin and tallit). He was beaten to death on the spot by SS guards. Over 60 years later, his son Frank unveiled a restored freight car of the type used to transport people to Auschwitz. During the ceremony, his own bag containing a tefillin and tallit was placed inside the freight car before the carriage was locked. Frank lost his father when he was 13 years old. He was 80 years old when he took part in the service of remembrance for his father and all Hungarian Jews brought here. I kept thinking about how important it is to remember each life- and how so many people murdered in the Holocaust would have had no family members left to do this.
One of the many moving moments on this trip was seeing the Book of Names, an immense tome compiled by Yad Vashem listing (to date) over 4 million names of Jewish individuals murdered during the Holocaust. As it says on the front cover The names of the murdered are inscribed in this book as an eternal memorial.
The stories of resistance and survival were incredibly inspiring. One story that stayed with me is of a woman living outside the Jewish ghetto in Krakow. She realised that elderly people were deported to the camps and was able to smuggle hair dye into the ghetto so that those with greying hair could disguise themselves as younger people and hopefully avoid the camps. In another example of resistance, family photographs of Jews brought to the camp were destroyed under Nazi orders. Yet someone took a huge risk in saving hundreds of photographs and hiding them. These poignant photographs; of newly married couples, family days out, birthday party gatherings have survived and and form a beautiful display in the museum. There were so few options open to prisoners and yet still people found ways of resisting Nazi commands. One of the stories about survival was about two sisters Eva and Miriam who survived Auschwitz because they were twins and who were used for scientific experimentation. Eva was dangerously close to death after a round of chemical injections. If she had died, her sister Miriam would have been killed also. Eva willed herself to survive so that both sisters could live.
Zalman Gradowski, a polish Jew forced to join the Sonderkommando (special unit- assigned to clearing bodies from the gas chambers) managed to keep a secret diary in which he described what was happening at the camp. His diary was buried in the grounds of the Auschwitz and was found, after the camp was liberated. He wrote Come here you free citizen of the world, whose life is safeguarded by human morality and whose existence is guaranteed through law. I want to tell you how modern criminals and common bandits have betrayed the morality of life and nullified the postulates of existence.
During the trip we talked about the steps that lead to genocide. Ive been thinking about this a lot since the trip. The 10 steps that lead to genocide starts with Classification: people are divided into them and It ends with Step 9: Extermination and step 10:Denial. Towards the end of the day, Chuni gathered us together to reflect and to observe a minutes silence. We stood by the International monument at Auschwitz II/Birkenau which is built on the site of the (now-destroyed) gas chambers. The gas chambers were blown up by the Nazis as they fled the camps in an attempt to hide evidence of their activities here. Earlier in the day, our guide had reminded us of Eisenhowers words after visiting another concentration camp Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses -because somewhere down the road of history some b--tard will get up and say that this never happened.” What happened during the Holocaust does defy belief and this trip has highlighted the importance of tolerance and of speaking out on behalf of others. It was an unforgettable experience and I am so glad that I was able to take part.
As I stood there with my two precious girls, I started crying. You see, only a few days ago I went on a trip to Auschwitz. All I could think as I embraced my daughters under the light of the fireworks was that there were (and probably still are) people who would erase my childrens existence from the world. Had their dastardly plan of the Final Solution, the complete extermination of every Jewish soul in Europe, been brought to successful fruition, those little people standing next to me would not have brought their light to the world. I looked at my girls and could not see a speck of anything on them that was worth hating.
It wasnt the fireworks that shone brightest tonight; it was my gorgeous girls. Auschwitz is a place that defies human comprehension. In this three-part camp the Nazis enacted their belief to rid the world of something that they believed was evil. They were on a mission to expunge from existence every Jewish soul. In typical German efficiency they industrialized the killing, not just with the machinery and the infrastructure they developed for the purpose, but they also managed to turn it into a profit making scheme. They sold the belongings and clothes... and even the hair of the victims... of my people.
Had I been around then, they would have done the same to me and my girls. My daughters, who are not even Jewish according to Jewish law. I dont claim to be anyone special, but I dont think that there is anything in me or my children worth hating. And yet, just for our religion alone, we would have been annihilated.
As the tour group was shown around the museum, different members were moved by different exhibits. Some shed tears over the piles of shoes and others at the endless display of hair. For me, it was when we entered a room with a display full of thousands of suitcases and the guide read some of the owners names and places of origin. Suddenly these people became real for me, I could see them as real humans, living their lives with goals and dreams.
As an agnostic orphan it hit me that the most I could do for them was think of them in a good light, as I do for my parents. It keeps them in the world in positivity, and for a moment I was doing the same for those who died, those victims.
We were shown the Book of Names, which we were told is a chronological list of those who had perished. I immediately realised that it would be impossible to find my own ancestors names amongst the list, as I didnt know when they died, and somehow this felt like a loss to me. I decided to read as many names as possible within the limited time frame, to show my respect to those victims. The Book of Names looks like a large phone book, approximately two and a half feet tall. But, placed on a table, it would reach approximately 20-25 feet high. This mammoth volume is filled with names of people who perished, some with their place of origin and date of birth. I placed myself in front of the book and began to read.
By the fourth or fifth name I realised that the volume was not in chronological order of death, but rather in alphabetical order of name. I realised that I could actually find the names of my family members who died. And as I frantically began turning pages, I began to cry. Tears were falling down my cheeks, and a stranger who was also at the museum photographed me. I eventually found my mothers maiden name, and I struggled to photograph the page. But, in a show of support, a stranger with an understanding and sympathetic smile held the page for me. I was crying so much that I couldnt read the names, but thanks to the kindness of a single stranger I will be able to study the photograph in greater detail at a later date. A simple moment of kindness in a place burdened by evil. Auschwitz 1 really tugged at my heart.
Actually standing in the room where gas was released to massacre hundreds had a time, with strong climbing over the weak in order to get the cleanest air, just so that they could live, survive, for a moment longer. And all this evil was overlooked by the Commandants house, whose wife chose to live with the smell of human flesh gas chamber furnaces, even after her husband was promoted to Berlin. She chose to stay amongst the murderous depravity, all for the comfort of a bigger house, exposing her own children to the evil being perpetrated there. Auschwitz 2 felt purely industrial. This large camp acted as residences, if you could call these cold wooden barracks as such, for the workforce the fuelled the money making factories. These factories were created as an ever more efficient means to murder Jews.
The camp is huge. From the famous watch tower overlooking the misty camps and train line surrounded by beautiful woods, it is impossible to see to the other end of the camp.
At the end of the tour, standing at the memorial at the end of the train line that is flanked by the destroyed remains of the gas chambers, I lit a candle to remember. Behind us, trainee officers of the Israeli Police Force prepared for a ceremony during their officers cause, in defiance of those who tried to eradicate them from existence, living in self-determination after the mass slaughter of the 6 million. I found renewed meaning in the words Am Yisrael Chaiâ?,? The Nation of Israel Lives. And so, on the following evening, I stood next to my wonderful wife and my two beautiful children, under the flickering flames of the fireworks, I shed a tear for my family members and the countless victims who perished, and revelled in the joy of my family, who are still standing proud in defiance to those who wished us dead.
By Gill Levy, a Father, Husband, Brother, Uncle, Cousin, Friend, Policeman, British, JEW! 06/11/2015 In memory of: Wilckowsky, Ester, 1880, Slomniki, Poland, Murdered In Auschwitz, Poland; Wilckowsky, Menachem, 1885, Kielce, Poland. Murdered in Treblinka, Poland; Wilckowsky, Mose, 1884. Murdered in Treblinka, Poland; Wilckowsky Yona, 1914. Place of death unknown; Wilckowsky, Zanvel, 1908. Place of death unknown; And not recorded in the Book of Names, Wilckowsky Rosa, Place of death unknown, who was the daughter of Fela and Feleg Wilckowsky, sister of Hanna and Miriam who lived on and after. May all their souls, whatever form they take, find the purity of light.
TESTIMONEY BY IRENE WEISS on 1st July 2015
Irene Weiss was born Iren Fogel on November 21, 1930, in B?NLG³tr?NLG¡gy, Czechoslovakia (now Batrad, Ukraine) to Meyer and Leah Fogel. Upon arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, her mother, three younger siblings, and older brother were killed.
Statement for the Trial of Oskar Gr?NLG¶ning, July 1st, 2015:
My family lived in a small town in Hungary. My father had a lumber business. We were a family of six children, between the ages of 7 and 17. I was a schoolgirl of 13.
Life had already begun to change for us in 1940, when Hungary joined the alliance with Germany and began to institute the Nuremberg Laws. Jews who had lived there for generations had to prove their citizenship. My fathers business was confiscated by the government and given to a non-Jew. We were required to wear the yellow star. I was expelled from school.
In April 1944, it was announced that all Jews had to assemble at the town hall the next day, bringing with them not more than one suitcase each. My mother began preparing food to take with us without knowing where we were going. She also sewed some family jewellery into pieces of clothes, with the idea that it could later be exchanged for food for the children.
The next morning, the mayor, police chief, and my school principal knocked on the door. They demanded our valuables, and my father gave them some money and jewellery. We left our house, my father closed the gate behind us so our dog wouldnt follow.
Along with the 100 or so other Jews in our town, we were taken to an abandoned brick factory in the city of Munkacs, some miles away. There we joined hundreds of Jewish families from neighbouring towns.
We stayed there for about a month, sleeping on the crowded floor of the factory. Our food from home was soon gone, and we were dependent on a daily soup ration. One day there was an announcement that all girls under 16 must have their heads shaved or their fathers would be beaten. My mother gave me a kerchief to cover my newly shorn head.
In the middle of May 1944, a freight train arrived on the tracks alongside the factory. Loudspeakers announced that everyone must get into the train. No one told us our destination.
Flanked by guards, my family struggled to stay together, managing to get into the same boxcar along with some 80-100 people. For the sake of modesty, men moved to one side and women to the other. A guard slammed the door shut and bolted it from the outside. Instantly it was dark. The only air and light came from a small slit in the upper corner of the car. Hours later, the train began to move.
There was a bucket for the toilet in the middle of the car. Hours passed, a night and a day. The bucket filled. Peering out the slit, my father confirmed our worst fear: the train was crossing into Poland. We had heard rumours of mass shootings of Jewish families in the forests of Nazi occupied Poland. We had never heard of Auschwitz.
Finally the train stopped. We are at some kind of camp,â?,? my father said. There are barracks and prisoners in uniform. This must be a work camp.â?,? We were relieved. The rumours had been wrong: we were not going to be shot in the forests of Poland.
When the doors of the train opened, we heard shouting, Out! Out! Fast! Leave everything behind!â?,? Hearing that, my mother pulled out extra clothing and told us to put on more layers. My head was already covered with a kerchief, and I put on an over-sized winter coat.
Hundreds of people poured out of the train. Prisoners in striped uniforms jumped into the boxcars, began dumping suitcases and possessions onto the platform, and loading them into trucks.
On the platform, my family clutched at each other, trying to stay together in the crush of people, noise, and confusion. SS Guards with guns moved the huge crowd forward, up the platform.
An SS guard shouted, Men to one side, women and children to the other!â?,? In an instant, my father and 16-year-old brother disappeared into a column of men off to one side. I never saw them again.
My mother, my older sister, Serena, 17, my younger sister, Edith, 12, my two younger brothers, and I, joined a column of women and young children. Smoke billowed from a chimney in the distance. The column edged forward. When we reached the front of the line, our way was blocked by 10 or more SS guards. One held a small stick.
The SS guard with the stick motioned my older sister, Serena, to one side, and she moved down a road in that direction, disappearing from view. The guard motioned my mother and my two little brothers to the other side, and they also disappeared from view. Only my younger sister Edith and I remained. The stick came down between us.
Edith was sent in the direction that my mother went. The SS guard looked at me and hesitated for an instant. Although I was only 13, my kerchief and coat may have made me look older. He motioned me to go in the direction that Serena and the other young adults went, and turned his attention to the women and children lined up behind me.
Irene (second woman from left with a scarf) separated during the selection at the Rampeâ?,? from her sister and trying to see if she had caught up with her mother (higher resolution).
I didnt move. I leaned over, peering into the crowd and trying to see if Edith had caught up with my mother and my two little brothers. Women and children continued to move in that direction. It was not possible to see what had happened to Edith in the fast-moving crowd. During the separation, we made normal assumptions that this was a work camp and that we would be reunited with the family. I was horrified that she would not find our mother. No names or identity information were taken. She would be lost to our family, alone among strangers.
Our family had tried so hard to stay together, with the older children looking after the younger. We were now completely torn apart. The trauma of this separation lingers with me to this day.
The SS guards motioned for me to get going and I ran, catching up with Serena. Why didnt you go with Mom?â?,? she said.
Serena and I were directed into a bathhouse, where newly arrived women were shaved, disinfected, and handed prison clothes. We were then moved to a barrack with about 200 other women. We still didnt know where we were. We asked the other prisoners, When will we see our families?â?,?
A woman pointed to a chimney and said, Do you see the smoke? There is your family.â?,?
I thought Why would anyone say such a thing?â?,?
Serena and I were assigned to a bunk basically a wide wooden shelf. Six of us shared one thin blanket. None of us could sleep. My sister tells me I cried for days.
We were awakened before dawn every morning for inspection or Z?NLG¤hl Appell. We were made to line up in the morning cold, five in a row, standing for hours to be counted. This was also another opportunity for the SS to pull out children they missed at the selection ramp, and those who looked sick. This was a very dangerous time for me because I was only 13 and small. I tried to stand on a rock, so that I would seem a little taller, and pinched my cheeks, so that I would look healthier.
By sheer luck, we discovered my mothers two sisters, Roszi and Piri, in a nearby barrack. Their loving devotion helped to protect and shield us in this terrifying place.
In a few weeks, numbers were tattooed on our arms. Soon after that, we were sent to work near crematoria # 4 at a storage and processing area that the prisoners called, Kanada.â?,? There we sorted through mountains of clothing, shoes, bedding, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, baby carriages, suitcases, books, pots and pans, and every other household item. We were ordered to hand over any valuables that were found among the belongings.
While at work one day, sorting clothing, I found my mothers white dress, and beige shawl.
We worked outside day and night, to bring the belongings into the barracks, out of the weather. But the trucks kept bringing more and more from the platform and the crematoria, and the piles never became smaller. The piles reached as high as the roof of the barracks. Once the goods were sorted inside the barracks, we tied them into bundles. Male prisoners then came and loaded them into trucks.
Because we worked and lived next to the gas chambers and crematoria, I had first-hand knowledge of what had happened to our families. Day and night, columns of women, children, and elderly would pass by our barrack and disappear into the gate that lead to the gas chambers.
Her two brothers (to the left) and her mother (kneeling behind) in the birch forest in Birkenau waiting near the gas chamber.
Her two brothers, Reuven and Gershon (left) and her mother, Leah (kneeling behind) in the birch forest in Birkenau waiting near the gas chamber (higher resolution).
My brothers Reuven, age 9, and Gershon, age 7, stand in the lower left of this picture. My mother Leah, age 44, is seated just behind them. They are waiting with others in a grove just outside crematorium 4 and 5. Soon after this picture was taken, everyone in the picture would be killed in the gas chambers.
The sounds were magnified when I worked outside at night. First, I would hear the whistle of the train, and the hissing of the steam engine arriving at the platform. The people coming from the train at night saw the fire from the chimneys, and began to scream and pray. I plugged my ears to block out the sound. Then there was silence. In the distance I would hear the whistle of another train arriving. Day and night, the transports kept coming.
In January 1945, we were taken on a death march from Auschwitz into Germany. Those who stopped to rest or fell from exhaustion were shot on the spot. By the time we reached Ravensbr?NLG¼ck, and then Neustadt-Glewe, we were sick and emaciated. My aunt Piri came down with Typhus and was taken away by truck. Soon after, Serena was also selected for death. When I realized that we were about to be separated, I said, I am her sister!â?,? I was told, You can go, too.â?,?
We were put in a room with other selected women, awaiting a truck that would take us to be killed. Perhaps because of the approaching Russian front and the resulting chaos, the truck never came. Soon after, the guards fled and the remaining survivors drifted out of the camp.
In the years since I was in Auschwitz, I never talked about my father, other than to say that he didnt survive. I couldnt bear to talk about how he died.
He was a loving, gentle, kind person. When we were little, he found a fun way to teach us the Hebrew alphabet, so that we would be able to read the prayers. Our living room ceiling had wood beams, with knots in them. He would attach a coin to the tip of a broom handle, and when we performed well, he would lift the broom handle to the ceiling and hit a knot in the beam, causing the coin to fall, as if from heaven. We were delighted and amazed, and would run to the store across the street to buy candy with the coins. Every night, when he came home from work, we children would surround him, and he would give each of us his attention and love. His whole life was his family and his faith.
This was my father, aged 47, who upon arrival in Auschwitz, was forced to work in the Sonderkommando, pulling bodies from the gas chambers. We learned that he was in the Sonderkommando from a young man from our town, who passed us a note over an electrified fence separating us from crematorium 4. From this note, we learned that he was shot not long after being made to do this work.
We never learned what happened to my 16-year-old brotherâ?,?¦â?,?¦ From my immediate family of eight, only Serena and I survived. All thirteen of my young cousins perished along with their mothers. When I saw children after the war, I stopped and stared. I had not seen children in almost a year and a half. Children were condemned to death in the world I had just come from.
In closing, I would like to address some comments the defendant has made regarding his role at Auschwitz. He has said that he does not consider himself a perpetrator, but merely a small cog in the machine. But if he were sitting here today wearing his SS uniform, I would tremble, and all the horror that I experienced as a 13-year old would return to me. To that 13-year-old, any person who wore that uniform in that place, represented terror and the depths to which humanity can sink, regardless of what function they performed. And today, at the age of 84, I still feel the same way.
You can find more about Irene Weiss and a her survival here.
When I first heard about this trial from my lawyer and friend Heinrich Rothmann this past January while visiting Auschwitz, my birthplace, for the first time in 70 years, I was not ready to testify. After watching the media coverage of the trial and some convincing from my lawyer, I changed my mind and stand before you today. I thank you for giving me this opportunity to tell you about the suffering of my family and the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were taken to Auschwitz where more than 90 percent of them were murdered.
I was born in Auschwitz, weighing one kilogram.
I survived for a reason.
I have a mission. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. To carry the torch and tell my mothers story and the story of the Holocaust of European Jewry. To stand and point an accusing finger at those responsible for the inhumanity into which I was born. Those who helped watched and profited from the terror. Those like you, Herr Groening.
Europe has become a dangerous place to be a Jew once again. We have to remind people over and over of what happened during the Holocaust. No one was the same person after surviving Auschwitz. No one who lived through the horror was ever okay again. Never had a comfortable nights sleep. My mother could never take a shower because of what had happened to her. She spent her life with a limp and a blackened right leg, because of a bone she found in her soup. She was so happy to have that small bone, until an SS man saw it and kicked her below the knee. All her life she carried these and many more scars. Both physical and psychological.
I am very afraid for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. When all this happened more than 70 years ago, the world kept quiet. Now, once again we have anti-Semitism, all over and openly. And the world is silent again.
Two of my granddaughters carry my mothers name. They will tell her story to future generations. I have brought my grandson here to Luneburg to be in this courtroom, so that when he will have a family of his own, he will tell them of the horrors of the Holocaust. So that our legacy of suffering will not be forgotten.
My story begins with my mother, an educated woman from Budapest. Her father was an architect; to this day you can still find his name on buildings in that city. Her mother was intelligent and sophisticated woman from a cultured family. They had French nannies, and my mother spoke perfect French, Hungarian, Slovak and German. After finishing high school, she could not go on to university, because Jews were no longer allowed a higher education. Instead she got a job as a nanny for a very young motherless boy. In Sarospatak, she met my father and in March of 1943 they were married. As a young couple in love they lived a happy ideal life, until 1944 when the Nazis invaded Hungary.
The morning after Passover in April of that year, there was a banging at the door. It was the Gendarmes, the local Hungarian militia who were worse than the police, said my mother. My parents were forced from their home in Sarospatak and herded on to a cattle car train, which took them to the ghetto in neighbouring Satoraljaujhely. Because it was the day after Passover they did not even have bread to take with them on the journey. From the middle of April until May 22nd, we spent our last days as a family together in that crowded ghetto. Then we were forced again into cattle car on a trip that lasted three days. On May 25th, we arrived at the living hell of Auschwitz.
I heard that you, Herr Groening, described arrival at Auschwitz as orderly. To the Jews there, it was not. Instead it was traumatizing. We, I in my mothers belly, were beaten and herded by SS men with whips and machine-guns shouting Everyone out!â?,? Schnell!â?,? Leave your baggage on the train.â?,? There were SS men, your colleagues, Herr Groening, standing in watchtowers with machine guns and spotlights on us, watching the chaos. From up there, the madness may have seemed orderly, but down on the platform it was not. To her dying day, my mother was afraid of barking dogs, because of that day. Perhaps you remember her, Herr Groening. She was a light brown-haired beauty with greenish grey eyes. Perhaps you saw her standing in that line to be judged by the angel of death, Dr. Josef Mengele. I know you saw others join that line.
Everyone who came to Auschwitz stood in this line until it split at Mengele. To the left were sent women who showed signs of pregnancy, children under 15, the elderly and frail, these were the ones to be murdered that day. Everyone over 40 was sent to the left, as well. They were told to hang up your clothes; youre going to take a shower.â?,? And they believed it. These Jews were not showered-instead they were gassed. Herded into gas chambers. Dead before their belongings had been collected and taken to the warehouse. It is a painful death from Zyklon B gas. A pesticide. It can take 20 minutes to die with foaming mouth and bleeding from various body parts. Horrible deaths, millions of children and adults, Herr Groening, and you knew what was happening. Because of this, for the rest of her life, my mother couldnt take a shower. Just baths. After many years, she still couldnt believe that it was water coming out of the shower, not gas.
My parents were sent to the right, which meant temporary reprieve from death. When it was her turn in front of Mengele, my mother told him that she was pregnant, hoping he would be compassionate and would let her stay with her friend. She had already been separated from my father and would never see him again. Mengele snapped "du dumme gans" [you stupid goose] ordering her to the right. She was good stock, healthy and strong enough for forced labour. The same had happened to my father, but he did not survive the inhumane conditions and he died of exhaustion. No, that isnt right. He was murdered by exhaustion. Forced to work until his dying breath.
In an interview with her granddaughter for a school project, my mother described what happened next. After arrival in the labor camp, I got tattooed. From that moment on, I wasnt Vera; I was A 6075, totally shaven, given a uniform and wooden clogs. The shaved heads, the tattoos, these were symbols of our dehumanization, all our dignity was taken from us, we no longer counted as human beings.â?,?
My mother was assigned to work the nightshift in the warehouse in Camp A that contained the personal belongings of the victims. Here my mothers job was to pick out anything of value that the Jewish victims had brought with them from home. Those were the valuables you kept account of, Herr Groening, the bookkeeper of Auschwitz. All these possessions which they were forced to leave behind as they were forced off the train. The train was then unloaded and everything was taken to the warehouse. They dubbed this depot Kanada, because it was as rich in stock as Canada is in natural resources. My mother had to sort and separate everything into separate piles: shoes, linens, clothing. Then they would search it all for valuables. To see if there was any jewelry sewn into a lining or money hidden at the bottom of a suitcase. The SS men who supervised them took anything they found. If the prisoners stopped working, or worked too slowly, they were beaten. The SS took the finest clothing to be disinfected and distributed to the German population. That is where the things you kept track of came from, Herr Groening.
When she was five months pregnant, my mother was transferred to Barrack 2 where she was assigned to an Aussenkommando that worked outside the camp. There she did heavy labour, building roads and working in the fields. She told me, we found plants in the fields, animal food not even meant for human consumption, there was a celebration among us. It was as though we found treasure. Like a Sachertorte. We shared it. We ate it.â?,? They ate animal food and celebrated.
Later my mother was assigned to kitchen duty. There she managed to scrounge some potato peels, the only reason I was able to remain alive in her belly. The rest of her daily diet consisted of Ersatzcoffee in the morning, a sometimes-warm soup made from grass for lunch and a slice of bread for dinner.
My mother was forced to do very hard physical work, so she went to the Blockaelteste, and told her, she was pregnant.â?,? Under the rules of Auschwitz, this confession meant she would be sent to the gas chamber immediately. Instead, she was sent to a barrack in Camp C. There she took care of children, especially twins who were used for medical experiments by Mengele and his fellow colleagues who called themselves doctors. Among these children were Eva Kor and her twin sister. Eva gave testimony in this court last month about this.
Later my mother became a human guinea pig for the Mengele team. In October, when she was 7 months pregnant, Professor Carl Claubergs team selected her for sterilization experiments. They injected a burning substance into her cervix. Right behind, in her uterus, was the fetus. Me. These injections were terrible, painful. Injection one, the fetus moved to the left sideâ?,?¦.next day another injection, the fetus moved in the other direction. And they played that game for a while. Those experiments are the reason I do not have any brothers or sisters.
Somehow I survived. After they finished observing the effects of injecting caustic chemicals into my mothers cervix, my mother went back to her barrack and luckily was forgotten about by the Angel of Death. Because she was fed so little, I was so tiny that the pregnancy didnt show. If not for this we would have both been killed, before I had taken my first breath.
When my mother was 8 months pregnant, a Hungarian woman doctor possibly Gisella Perl who worked under Mengele and knew about my mothers pregnancy- came to the barrack one night and offered my mother an abortion. She told her, When you give birth, we dont know how Mengele will react. If he is in a good mood, only your child will die. But if Mengele is in a bad mood, both of you are going to the gas chamber. You are so young, you could save your life.â?,? My mother promised she would think about it, and give her an answer the next day. That night in a dream she saw her mother begging her, Veruska, the fetus is a child already, almost ready to come out, trust in G-d, and you will be helped. Dont have the abortion.â?,? The next day she gave the doctor her answer, a definite no.
At that time, there was another woman who had given birth and Mengele bound her breasts, wanting to see how long the baby would live without being fed. Shortly after, both the mother and baby were murdered.
My mother was not sure of the date I was born. All she knew was that it was three days before the SS celebrated Xmas. So if they celebrated on the 24th, my birthday was on the 21st of December and if they celebrated on the 25th, then I was born on the 22nd.
On the day I was born, my mother told her Blockaelteste, who was a prisoner from Czechoslovakia, that she was in labour. Since her father had been a doctor, the Blockaelteste knew a little bit about what to do. Somehow she managed to get a sheet, some hot water and a scissors. She told my mother to go up to the top bunk. In the barrack, the bunks were three on top of each other. She went up after my mother and helped her give birth.
That is how I came into this world. In a barrack filled with children, none of whom knew I was born. I was so malnourished that I weighed one kilo and was unable to cry. This was the only reason I survived.
Three hours after giving birth, my mother had to leave me alone in the bunk and go outside for roll call, Appell. To this day I am amazed that my mother was able to do this. What courage, what incredible strength to be able to do that. It was December, it was freezing cold and she only had rags for clothing. My mother had to stand at Appell for a long time. The whole time she was praying that I would still be alive when she returned to the barrack. It was winter, and the wooden shoes the inmates wore were dangerous because of snow and ice. If she fell, they would shoot her. She was shivering, no clothes, no shoes, but one thing was burning inside her: I have a child, I have to save her!
One day not long after, a few days before liberation, my mother heard people yelling Schnell! Schnell!â?,? The German guards herded the surviving inmates like my mother into a tunnel beneath the camp and told them they would be blown up inside. This did not happen, but to her last days my mother retained a mortal fear of tunnels.
On January 27, 1945 Auschwitz was liberated. That day another child was born. His name was Gyorgy Faludi. The two of us are the only ones born in Auschwitz, as far as I know, who survived. Gyorgys mother did not have enough milk to nurse her son, so my mother fed us both. This was the beginning of a long friendship between these two mothers.
After liberation, my mother met Mr. Polgar, father of Tibor Bolgar who testified before this court last month. Mr. Polgar reminded my mother that the baby needed a birth certificate. My mother was not interested at all in paperwork, but he insisted and went into the town of Auschwitz to get the document that shows my place of birth.
My mother only was able to return to Hungary with me in November 1945. Through Katowice and other Polish cities, with a long stay in the Russian DP camp of Sluzk, my mother came back to Budapest to look for a doctor who could help us. I was a very sick baby. In November, when I was almost a year old, I weighed 3 kg. Any normal baby is born weighing 3 kg. My mother went from doctor to doctor but none of them had any hope that they could help, or that I would grow into a healthy baby. My mother was the only one convinced that I would live. People used to call her a crazy woman. They thought she had lost her mind in Auschwitz and that I was a doll, because I couldnt move. I did not look like a human baby. I looked like a rag doll. One doctor held me upside down like a chicken, and said that if I raised my head there was a chance that I might survive, and he would help. I did! After that he cared for me for several years until my bones were strong enough to walk on. The legacy of Auschwitz, of my mothers starvation and abuse, never disappeared completely. I stand less than 5 feet tall today.
Yet, in this madness many miracles happened. My mother was starving and yet had milk to nurse me and after the liberation, even another womans child. From the food they gave her she had maybe 300-400 calories. How did she have milk? A miracle. But I am not here to talk about the miracles.
Today would be my father, Dr. Tibor Beins, birthday. He was a successful lawyer, murdered in his prime at the age of 32.
Herr Groening, I am sure you visit your wifes and your parents graves to pour out your heart, if you have one. I cannot do that. I cannot go to my fathers grave to say a prayer, because he does not have a grave. His remains were burned and his ashes scattered around Auschwitz, maybe in the grounds of the camp, maybe shovelled into the forest or used as fertilizer on the surrounding fields. Auschwitz is my fathers grave.
When I returned to Auschwitz this past January, I walked around as if in a trance. I had difficulty breathing. I was afraid that every step I took was on someones grave. Seventy years of heat, rain and snow does not erase that. Nothing can wipe away the inhumanity and nightmare of what took place there.
We Jews just celebrated the holiday of Shavous. On this festival we say kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the deadâ?,?¦including the many murdered martyrs. In my synagogue, seventy years after the war, one still hears loud, bitter crying during this prayer. Many members are Hungarian Holocaust survivors. We all still cry for those you took from us, Herr Groening. We do not forget nor can we ever forgive.
Herr Groening, how can I ever forgive? How can I ever forget? Although after the war my mother seemed to have put the horrors of Auschwitz into the back of her mind and lived as a happy and loving person, when she lay dying of cancer at the age of 71, in Toronto, the nightmares came back. She saw Mengele standing at the door of her hospital room. No amount of morphine could make him disappear. She died on January 28 because January 27 was the day Auschwitz was liberated and she said she just did not want to die on that day.
Every April 3rd, on my mothers birthday, I am sad because she was taken so young and after so much suffering. My son knows its a hard day for me. Many years ago, 16 years after my mother died, he wrote me about how much she meant to him, her grandson:
I have no doubt in my mind that this day is a special one. Bubby was an incredible special woman. She defined what a woman is, what a mother is, what grandmother is and most of all what a true human being is. I tremble in love for her. And I remember her loving me. I remember how she used to wake up early in the morning just to tape my favourite cartoons, even though she enjoyed sleeping in. I remember how she used to sit me down by my little table and give me hotdogs while I watched those cartoons at her house. I remember our birthday trips. I remember the warmth and the kindness. Most of all I remember her selflessness because I continue to see those same characteristics in her offspring. So yes, today we will go about our normal daily routine, only today we will be more successful in our daily endeavours, because today is indeed a blessed day. Today is the day that God blessed the world by giving us a special gift 89 years ago. That special gift will remain special for many years to come.â?,?
So, in memory of my father, who I never knew, and in memory of my mother who had given birth to me in those indescribable conditions, beaten by SS men, surviving on less than 400 calories a day, for that and for everyone you helped murder, I cannot forgive you, Herr Groening!
I would like to finish by saying that I am grateful to this court and to the German government and to my lawyer Herr Heinrich Rothmann for making my testimony and this trial possible. Because of my parents and my wider familys fate, the terror of Auschwitz has been and will be with me all my life. The past is present. This makes it impossible for me to forget or forgive those who were responsible for Auschwitz, the many concentration camps around Europe and the murders of six million Jews. Six million innocent people killed only because they were Jews.
Sent: 24 October 2013 14:08
Subject: Greetings from Auschwitz(well, Krakow airport actually - midnight on Wednesday)
No jokes this time, no witty banter, no lighthearted tales of a day by the pool or on the beach. My email 'postcards' to family and friends are usually sent from my deck-bed as I sip a holiday cocktail. This is a more sombre trip, a longtime ambition achieved.
Ironic that we flew to Krakow on the day when The Times carried the obituary of Israel Gutman, Holocaust survivor and historian of that tragic chapter of Jewish life. This is the man who published a study, Anatomy of Auschwitz Death Camp, and argued that "Auschwitz must be preserved for as long as possible because it gives people a chance to go there, to see the real gas chambers". To read his obituary as I sat on the plane Poland-bound yesterday, somehow I see my trip as a tribute to tis man who I never met.
The newspaper obituary told me plenty - that Gutman gave compelling testimony at the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, that he helped to shape Yad Vashem, that he edited a Holocaust encyclopaedia, and that he survived the Warsaw uprising and death camps at Madjanek and of course Auschwitz-Birkenau - but nonetheless I'd always wanted to see Auschwitz for myself.
In Gutman's post-war life, he was a great advocate of the well-known phrase, "We must never forget". Well, I've been to Auschwitz and I will certainly never forget. Before I tell you about the trip, let me tell you about pre-war Jewish life in Poland. Jews are thought to have lived here for between 800 and 1,000 years, arriving initially when it was a land of tolerance during the tumult of medieval Europe that included the Black Death and the Crusades. By the end of the 18th century, Poland had the largest Jewish community in the world, which by WWII had only been overtaken by the USA. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland, around 10% of its population, typically being one-third of the population of cities and almost 100% of the population of certain villages (shtetls).
From 3.5 million Jews a century ago, there are now only around 3,000 left. We spent a fascinating afternoon today in Krakow, which - if I recall correctly what we were told - has a Jewish community depleted from 250,000 before the war to just 200 souls today.
Let me tell you about a town near to Krakow. Oswiecim has a population of 40,000, is located at the intersection of two rivers, and is a major railway junction where lines from Warsaw, Berlin, Prague and Vienna converge. Its Jewish community can be traced back to the 15th century and there are traces of synagogues which date as far back as 1588. By the 20th century Jews were integrated into local life and were represented on the local council. The community was vibrant and there was barely any anti-semitism. When a new priest arrived in the town, the local rabbi greeting him and declared that Jews and Catholics should work together.
You've probably never heard of Oswiecim. Since January 1945 the world has become horrifyingly familiar with its Germanised name, Auschwitz. I could write a book about what I've seen and heard in the past 36 hours, but you know many of the facts, and typing one-fingered on my BlackBerry is a reason to limit my words. But General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, was right in insisting that the world never forgets. In 1945 he said words to the effect: "Get it all on record now - get the films - get the witnesses - because somewhere down the line in history some bastard will get up and say this never happened".
Trust me, this happened. I know it did, because today I sat for over an hour in the sunshine of an unseasonably warm day in Auschwitz and listened to the testimony of 84-year-old Rene Salt (Google her). Wow - she distilled the monumental brutality of the Holocaust into the extraordinary experience of a real-life horror story, recounted in painful detail as if it happened yesterday. In contradiction of this, Rene told us that she has a poor memory. So you might understand her answer when one of our group asked how she remembers what happened in such detail. Rene said, "I don't remember it; I see it happening right in front of me". Rene doesn't recall what happened. She relives it. It happens in 'real life' each time she tells her story.
Rene didn't merely escape Auschwitz-Birkenau (the largest of the three camps collectively known as Auschwitz), she also survived Bergen-Belsen. Miraculously, she and her mother stayed together in camps for around five years (her sister and father perished, in circumstances which Rene recalls all too clearly), then in an agonising twist, Rene's mother from starvation and illness died two weeks after liberation.
The camps are a place I've never wanted to visit but always wanted to visit - if you know what I mean. A trip here was on my 'bucket list'. Six months ago I received wonderful warm wishes and thoughtful gifts from so many people for my 50th birthday, but no birthday present was more poignant than this trip here, a gift from my father-in-law who now sits alongside me at Krakow airport.
And now, with midnight approaching, a Ryanair flight home. Arguably the world's worst airline, already they've announced a two-hour delay. But you know what? When you've just seen and heard how six million died, such trifling issues don't seem to bother you anymore. It gives us an extra two hours to chat to 25 other people from our tour (the word "tour" makes it sound too much like a pleasure trip) about an experience that none of us will ever forget.
We travelled with Kahan Travel, and before you balk at the idea of a travel agent making money from ferrying people on these trips, let me tell you an amazing fact. Chuni Kahan, a frum Jew from Golders Green, set up this 'travel agency' as a spare-time activity with the sole purpose of ensuring that as many people as possible - Jews & non-Jews alike - witness the aftermath of the atrocities. Far from a money-spinning venture, I suspect that it actually costs him to run these tours. From an ultra-Orthodox community who could easily preach segregation, Chuni's mission is to encourage tolerance, understanding and living together in harmony
Hats off to you Chuni. Every detail of the trip was perfect. One of the best things I've ever done. Some of the information in this email about Poland and its Jewish heritage is lovingly cribbed from a superb 'travel pack' that Chuni gave us.
We visited the camps, the Oskar Schindler museum (well worth it), a Jewish museum (also well worth it), a shul in which Rene finished telling us the story (I defy anyone not to cry) that she started earlier today on a grassy knoll in weather that seemed so unfairly warm - we really witnessed recollections of a unique slice of the most bitter experience of life in the 20th century. We heard that if you had a minutes silence for the victims of just one of Auschwitz's three camps, it would take more than four years. We stood together, we lit memorial candles and we said Kaddish (actually I couldn't say most of the words, I was too choked)
The way in which Auschwitz has been preserved without being too commercialised is a tribute to the post-war Polish government and, more recently, to UNESCO, who deemed it to be a World Heritage Site, thus saving it for generations to come. And the privilege of having a survivor accompany us on this trip meant that she was able to bring to life a story which has emerged from what I was reminded by Gerald Jacobs of the JC some years ago that TS Eliot - no hero, incidentally, to these victims of anti-Jewish scorn and hatred - called "the small circle of pain within the skull".
May all the victims rest in peace. Their stories deserve to be known, to be part of a record of horrific events which are at once a memorial to those who perished and a lesson to subsequent generations.
Simon Walters - Director
On Sunday 26 February members of the Bridge Lane Beth Hamedrash in Golders Green flew to Krakow in order to visit the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp. The group included the Rov, Rabbi Shimon Winegarten ?????? and his esteemed Rebbetzin and was supplemented by a number of senior Police Superintendants from 4 London Boroughs. Although we met at the unearthly hour of 3.50am, there was a noticeable air of anticipation tempered by an uncertainty of what lay ahead.
And what did lie ahead? A confrontation with a world of such horror that paralysed the mind and raised more questions than answers. Although on leaving Birkenau we travelled to the Jewish Quarter in Krakow where we had the great zechus to daven Maariv in the inspiring Shul of the Remo, this interlude of normality was a mere brief respite from the chilling encounter with the death factory in Auschwitz/Birkenau.
On looking back at a day which was brilliantly organised by Chuni Kahan of Kahan Travel, you try to bring some coherence to your jumbled thoughts and emotions - the reaction to seeing the notorious punishment block (Block 11) in the Auschwitz camp; the revulsion when standing next to the metal gallows on which so many Jews breathed their last; the shock at the sight of the infamous Wall of Death which served as an execution centre; and the shiver that ran up and down your spine as you stood in front of the electrified fencing which offered a quick release from the inhuman suffering of Acheinu Bnei Yisroel.
However, how can you internalise an experience so shocking in its wickedness, so depraved in its formulation and so ruthless in its execution? The answer is, you cannot! To visit the depths of Hell represented on this earth by Auschwitz/Birkenau is mind-numbing. You listen to the tour guides, so proficient in their recital of data; you see the enormous glass cabinets containing shoes, spectacles, luggage, artificial limbs
There have been many episodes throughout history where cruelty and savagery have horrified the world. But make no mistake, what happened in Nazi-occupied Europe introduced a level of cultural and religious persecution that was, and today still is, unfathomable and unprecedented. As the tour guide faithfully followed her unwritten script with impressive accuracy, recalling the numbers, figures and dates with unerring precision, you struggle to turn all this into human reality. How did 1,500 people live in a space which could only hold 400? How did Jews and others survive, some for months and years on less than 400 calories a day? How did they endure the bitter cold and stifling heat wearing little more than a shirt or dress? And what of the never-ending tortures that the Nazis inflicted for their pleasure and amusement, tortures so vile that defy belief? Again, you can only stare silently, bewildered at the conditions under which Jews were forced to live - deprived of sanitation, fresh air, water, food and clothes.
You trudge through the "shower rooms" and into the gas chambers; you step inside a typical barracks built for 250 but in which up to 1,000 people slept 3 or 4 to a mattress; you stare numbly at the rows of holes which served as toilets for the prisoners; and you keep asking the same questions - how could this have happened? How could the most cultured of peoples have sunk to a level of inhumanity hitherto unknown?
It is not only the enormity of the crime that hits you. It is also the enormity of Birkenau - the killing centre - that is staggering. Although the camp is more generally known as Auschwitz (the German name for the Polish town of Oswiecim), it was at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) where "The Final Solution" was designated to take place. This man-made Hell on earth consisted of 425 acres housing 200,000 people in which 7 gas chambers and 5 crematoria disposed of 2 million Jews at a rate of anything up to 10,000 per day. How easily those statistics slipped off the tongue of the Polish tour guides while we stood, unable to truly visualise what this meant in real life. To gaze across the vast expanse of chilling and eerie silence (bizarrely even birds never fly over the camp today) induces a kind of anaesthesia which is hard to shake off.
It is only after such a harrowing journey of discovery that you realise the countless miracles that took place even in the Hell of a death camp. Each survivor a miracle in itself; the lengths to which Jews strove to maintain a semblance of Yiddishkeit amidst the butchery defied the odds; and the numerous examples of self-sacrifice in order to help a fellow Jew were truly baffling considering one's own chances of survival hung by a thread.
A tour of Auschwitz/Birkenau will inevitably produce a range of emotions in every visitor. It would therefore by presumptuous of me to suggest that my overriding feelings would be shared by all. Such a visit creates individual and personal reflections and all that I can share are two predominant thoughts that I took away with me from this encounter with Hell.
Firstly, Jewish history has taught us time and time again how dangerous it is to believe that integration into the wider society is the antidote to rabid anti-Semitism. Whether it was in ancient Egypt, medieval Spain or modern Germany, Jews were ousted from their 'comfort zone' and had their world turned upside down in the blink of an eye. Decades and even centuries of good citizenship and loyalty did not save Jews from becoming the targets of an anti-Jewish culture enshrined in "Eisov soneh es Yaakov". Jews in Britain are blessed to be living in a "Malchus shel Tsedek", but the events of the past must not be forgotten, or presumed to be dead and buried. The world of Auschwitz/Birkenau is a stark reminder of the need for constant vigilance.
Secondly, if the Nazis taught us one thing it is that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew is a Jew. The SS did not discriminate between one Jew and another. To them the size and texture of the cappel was irrelevant; to them how many pairs of Tefillin a Jew put on each morning was immaterial; to them which Nusach he davened was beside the point; and to them whether he had peyos behind or in front of his ears or, for that matter, any peyos at all was inconsequential. To them he was first and foremost a Jew and therefore a legitimate target for extermination. How is it that these differences have become the benchmarks of today's Jewish disunity, or worse, conflict? Whether a Misnagid or a Chosid, an Ashkenaz or a Sefard, a Zionist or an anti-Zionist, a frum or a secular Jew, we all have a shared history of persecution and oppression. This is the message that rings out loud and clear from Auschwitz/Birkenau.
In the light of all of the above a further question could well be asked. If an experience of this nature can be so disorientating is it a good idea to test one's stability in the face of such mental upheaval by visiting Auschwitz? I believe we owe it to the victims of Jewish genocide to ensure that the Holocaust does not become a mere footnote to our history and faith. As the Nazi-dominated years recede further and further, each successive generation of Jews will inevitable find itself more and more detached from the Holocaust. The risk of the 6 million becoming a mere statistic will increase and the martyrs transformed into a historical curiosity. I can assure you that a visit to Auschwitz will do much to minimise that risk. The fact that we and our children are only 2 or 3 generations away from possibly having been concentration camp inmates is a sobering thought. The imperative of "Zechor al Tishkach." is a lesson to Jews for all time, but for us today a stark reminder of a Hell on earth symbolised by Auschwitz and Birkenau.
Last Wednesday, my alarm went off at 2.30am and it was a mixture of excitement and trepidation as it generally is when you're heading off for a flight. I piled on the thermal underwear, jumpers, hat and scarf for a day trip to Poland and the concentration camp called Auschwitz.
After visiting Dachau 16 years ago with John Moncur my West Ham teammate when we both sneaked out of the team hotel before a pre-season friendly against Munich 1860, without Harry Redknapps, permission, I've had a strange desire to visit the infamous camp. I do not know why but after all those years of waiting I got an invite from the League Managers Association to do this trip and it was one I couldn't turn down.
There was a mixture of people, young and old, solicitors, bankers, a football agent, football mangers, people studying, property developers, t-shirt designers, rich and poor, many Jewish people, rabbis and me. 90 in total. We hardly spoke to each other, the flight out with Ryanair was quiet. The bus journey to the camp was silent as we looked out of the window looking for the signs on the roundabouts and dual carriageways. When the first sign came along starting with the capital 'A' and ending in 'Z' there was a sigh taken by everyone. The tour guide got on the microphone and said we were 5 minutes away. It was a journey by bus for us that had been taken by hundreds and thousands of people on the trains from all over Europe and it felt very strange.
Upon arrival we were handed headphones and a little black box to stick in our pocket and a lovely Polish guide in a very calm and quiet voice introduced herself and welcome us to Poland and Auschwitz! No one spoke. We walked 50 yards in a group of 20 and were faced with the infamous entrance with the big redbrick building surrounded by barbed wire from the small road that all these people had walked on only 70 years ago. I've had butterflies in my tummy through playing football matches, from my first cup final when I was 8 years old, right through my life for promotion, relegation, as a coach, as a manager, to keep my job, get a job, to avoid the wraith of the directors and the supporters, but nothing has every felt as weird as I felt as a stood in that group with people I didn't know as that lady said "welcome to Auschwitz". It seemed even stranger that there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful blue and I wanted someone to paint it grey to suit the day and the place
I never planned on tweeting my experience but I took the pictures and tried to pass comments to share my experience. It was very moving to receivehundreds and hundreds of tweets from people all over the country as I wandered round with jelly legs and watery eyes experiencing this surreal day
We saw roomfuls of children's shoes and clothes, small bits of jewellery, suitcases, personal photographs, hair, extermination rooms, shooting walls, torture cells, sleeping areas so crammed. Just to be walking around it, surrounded by barbed wire and lookout towers, it reminded me of when I was a little boy and my mum and dad took me to Windsor Safari Park. The animals were surrounded by barbed wire and high fences, the guards had guns and lookout towers and as a little boy it was some of my happiest memories o f a picnic with my mum dad and sister, and it felt odd all these years later to draw the comparison, but it was people and not animals. It was a private, wipe the tears away from my eyes moment.
Still, no one spoke. There was no interaction between any of us in our tour party. There were 10 blokes all about my age who had come out the east end of London, all football supporters, people that had done well for themselves, duckers and divers and fellas you could imagine having great fun on a good night out. I caught a few of them wiping tears from their eyes and shaking their heads in disbelief
After a couple of hours we stopped outside the last building and waited for the tour group in front to clear. The guide said nothing as we waited. We knew what the building was, as there was a gin 20 yards ahead 'extermination'. Again no on e spoke. The silence was broken when the guide said "the wait you are experiencing is the same wait the people had if they could not work in the camp when they left the trains." The wait here was mainly for old people and children who had been separate from their parents.
'The wait you have had is the same wait that 200 people would have experienced - please follow me".
We all looked at each other and rolled our eyes as we went into this grey building and then into the next room that was about 40 yards wide by 60 yards long. I remembered the measurements because I walked it up and down. 60 x 40 is the same measurement as a coach or manager that I've set up for 15 years for a small-sided game on the training ground. I just shook my head as I looked around me and saw the greeny-bronze coloured shower heads above me, they went right down the middle of the 'pitch'.
There were no windows, just one door in and a bigger door out. The guide told us that it would take 20 minutes for the cyanide to murder 200 people. It was deep breath time, and you couldn't help but visualize what it would have been like for those children and old people who had stood there only 70 years ago. Thank God the doors at the end finally opened and we managed to get out.
We handed in the headphones got back on the bus and no one spoke. It was traumatizing. Weird. Scary. But for some reason I felt lucky as I passed through that infamous Auschwitz sign, that I had walked out of there.
The tour guide got on the microphone and told us we were now on our way to Birkenau. This was Auschwitz number two. Auschwitz number one was rows of 3 story redbrick buildings, in a not very big area. Birkenau was 400 acres, wood-paneled, single storey units spread out as far as the eye could see, with a single train-track running right through the middle through the infamous arch entrance, to a simple platform where people were unloaded like cattle. The people were lined up in front of a person who pointed his finger across his chest pointing left or right as they were held up in front of him by two officers. To the left meant to work and to the right meant a long walk to the back of the camp and the beautiful area filled with trees and a small pond and a singlestorey redbrick building with three chimneys.
We all took the track and the long walk that the people went on when the person pointed to the right and on the side of the road was a sign that read 'THE WALK OF DEATH'. For the first time because it was a long walk we started to chat amongst ourselves. To think that this sort of thing is still going on around the world, even now, is quite ridiculous. Everyone joined in the debate until we finally got to a lovely woodland area. The guide stepped in and said "this is where the women and children waited and the children were allowed to play in the woods as children do. The only difference was a 30 foot electric barbed wire fence was around their playground." She then told us that once the building had been cleared the party from the woods would be called over here for their showers. It was a shower as we now know that would last for 20 minutes with padlocked doors , no windows and no way out.
The murdered bodies were removed by the fit strong men who at the platform had been sent to the left. We all shook our heads in disbelief. They were then cremated in ovens similar to what the good Italian pizzerias use, but there were 20 of them. It reminded me strangely of a trip to Italy many years ago, as a portly Italian chef was sweating and sticking pizzas in and out preparing
I'm not at all religious but when both my parents were ill and both needed a miracle, I sat up and prayed for help, prayed for the miracle, but god bless them both, the miracle never happened. To listen and to watch the service we had with a rabbi outside that building next to the pond was very moving. Those people had relatives and close members of their family in this place and you just stood there and looked at them in awe. The commitment to their faith and their beliefs was awesome.
We moved on and walked to the end of the single train track and the memorials that had been built to the people that had been murdered. The sun was now going down and it was getting cold and this train track was absolutely straight and about a quarter of a mile long. Right down the end of it I could see the infamous arch and I asked the organizer, a small bearded old chap, if I could borrow his camcorder to record a message for the LMA.
Everybody else walked off down the train track back to the buses and I was left on my own with the old boy and his mate, who was also about 5'5", bearded and with glasses at the end of his nose. I finished my video, thanked them, looked down the track again and realized with the woodland areas I had not heard a bird sing all day. I had heard the rumours, but it's true. I walked a lot quicker than the two old boys and after about 50 yards, I turned round and asked them a question. I didn't beat about the bush, just asked them direct and I know the answer that I would have given if my family, relatives and friends had been murdered, but I had to ask them.
"Excuse me, I hope you don't mind me asking you both, but how do you feel having walked round here all day, knowing that your family and friends were murdered and treated so appallingly?
I know it would have given me the right hump. As we carried on walking towards the arch, one of the men looked at me and said "We feel privileged and lucky."
I said "privileged?"
He said "yes. That we are able to bring people here, show them what happened, people like you, as it's part of history that can never be forgotten." I said "Lucky, how can you be lucky coming here?"
The other one said, with his glasses sliding down to the tip of his nose as he shuffled along "yes Martin. Very lucky. But we can walk out of here."
When we arrived at the airport for our trip home, mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted, we all got off the buses and went into the departures building. It was dark now and the building was lit up by the luminous yellow departures sign. I was looking forward to getting back to Stansted and hopefully back home by 1am. As we walked through the swing doors, there was a screen in front of us as we followed the old bearded shuffler. He looked at the screen and at the top of the screen it said
RYAN AIR; STANSTED; DEPARTED
We all looked at each other as the old bearded shufflers jaw dropped. His glasses nearly dropped off the end of his nose as he turned around and said "I can't believe it." There was no one else at the airport - the last flight had gone and it was ours. The cleaners were in. the car rental booths were closed. The check-in desks were shutting down and we were stuck.
We all chuckled, there was no rage, there was no frustration and, as we all went to the bar to talk football, and watch the last 10 minutes of the Spurs Champions League game we talked to each other for the first time in the whole day. At that point I had no cash, my mobile battery was dead, I had nowhere to sleep, I had no flight home, but we just laughed. Having worn that gear all day (and it wasn't cold) I was greasy, sweaty, dirty and skiddy, but as we sat there for a couple of beers, (which the banker put on his credit card), we were all so happy as the old bearded shuffler was frantically trying to get us home. Not one person had a go at him and after what we'd all experienced, none of us were bothered one iota.
Spurs won and 90% of the party were happy as we set off on the buses again to different parts of Poland through the night to get early morning flights home
I recently watched Blackpool at West Ham and sat with all the Blackpool fans, and they sang:
"This is the best trip I've ever been on, don't wanna go home. Don't wanna go home, this is the best trip I've ever been on."
And it was.
Best wishes, and good health to you all.
For the past 14 years I have earned my living as a professional writer, yet this is the hardest article I have ever had to write. It's a personal account of one of the most emotional days of my life. Yesterday I was among a group of 21 Watford Synagogue members who visited Auschwitz, the largest and possibly the most notorious Nazi death camp of all, for the first time.
As the departure date drew closer, I began to feel some trepidation about the trip - what I would see, how it would affect me and whether it would simply be case of 'preaching to the converted'. We had put ourselves in the experienced hands of Kahan Travel and on the day our small group met up at the unearthly hour of 4.45am at Stansted Airport to catch the 6.10am flight to Krakow, once the capital of Poland.
On arrival, we boarded a coach for the short journey to Auschwitz, accompanied by our group leader, Rabbi Barry Marcus of the Central Synagogue. He explained that what we refer to as 'Auschwitz' is actually a complex consisting of three main camps - Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Auschwitz-Monowitz - the IG Farben factory that manufactured the Zyklon B gas tablets. Auschwitz is, in fact, what the Germans renamed the Polish town of Oswiecim, which like most other towns in Poland had a thriving, well integrated Jewish community up until the war.
We arrived at Auschwitz 1, a former Polish garrison, adapted by the Germans to form a concentration camp. Led by our knowledgeable local guide Robert Nowak, we toured blocks of seemingly identical, two-storey brick buildings. This camp was set up to incarcerate enemies of the German regime, provide a supply of slave labour and eliminate small, targeted groups perceived to be enemies of the state. In Block 10, doctors including the notorious Josef Mengele carried out their barbaric pseudo-medical research on children, twins and dwarves; and performed forced sterilisations, castrations and hypothermia experiments on adults.
We entered the former stables, originally erected to accommodate 52 horses, which were used to house up to 800 prisoners. In these cramped, draughty, largely unheated huts, prisoners slept five to a pallet on nothing but straw in subzero temperatures.
Block 5 exhibits physical evidence of the Nazi's crimes: suitcases and belongings seized from the victims, hair shaved for making nets, textiles and stuffing mattresses, piles of artificial limbs, spectacles piled to the ceiling and thousands of shoes - all badly worn from their wearers' years of suffering and deprivation in the ghettoes of Europe.
Next, we moved on to Auschwitz-Birkenau (or Auschwitz II as it's sometimes called). If you've seen the film Schindler's List you'll be familiar with this death camp. While the actions of the main characters were dramatised, our guide - who has made it his business to speak to survivors who return to the camp - assured me that its depiction of the horrors of camp life is extremely accurate.
I could not have prepared for the impact this camp would have on me. We first climbed up several storeys to the top of the watchtower to get an overview of the site. Seeing its sheer scale, spreading as far as the eye could see and dotted with barracks so familiar from films I had seen, I recalled Rabbi Marcus's chilling words. "This place was built with one aim in mind - to kill every single Jew in Europe."
Murder on an industrial scale
Birkenau was a death factory where killing took place on an industrial scale. In total, around 1.1 million Jews and 200,000 other victims were transported there to die. With the deportation of 426,000 Hungarian Jews to the camp between late April and early July 1944 it achieved peak efficiency. The SS sent 320,000 men, women and children deemed unfit for work directly to the gas chambers. By the time their pitiful belongings had been sorted for re-use in the German war effort, their owners were already dead.
The gas chambers were blown up by fleeing Nazis in the final days of the war in an attempt to conceal the horrific nature of their crimes but the foundations and rubble remain. The system was a model of ruthless German efficiency. To prevent panic or resistance, victims were told they needed to shower and delouse before they could be put to work. They were herded into an undressing area and then forced, naked, into an adjoining gas chamber, whose purpose was disguised with fake showerheads. Around 1,000 people could be crammed in at a time. Once the poison gas pellet was dropped through a shaft in the ceiling it would take between three and 20 minutes to die - depending on how close to the gas outlet people were standing.
The dead bodies were shovelled into 15 large crematorium ovens in an area next to the gas chamber. These ovens could hold up to three corpses each (depending on the size of the bodies), meaning 45 to 75 bodies could be burned at once. The victims' ashes were initially disposed of in the local Sola and Vistula rivers - until villagers living downstream complained about the ash floating on their water.
This streamlined process allowed the Nazis to systematically murder over 20,000 people daily - a death toll equivalent to that of seven 9/11s every single day.
We spent the afternoon touring the physical evidence that remains of the camp - the ruins of the gas chambers and a restored cattle truck used to transport Jews, rather than animals, to the camp in the most horrendous conditions.
I pored over a wall plastered with innocuous family photos - babies lying on fur rugs, smiling newlyweds raising a glass of wine oblivious to what lay ahead of them, families enjoying a picnic in the countryside, holiday snaps. We often talk about "the six million", turning those who died into a statistic, a number so enormous it's hard to comprehend. But seeing these photos, selected as precious possessions by those who thought they were packing for a new life, brought home to me, more than anything, that these Jews - our extended family were not just faceless victims but distinct individuals with their own families, dreams, personalities, talents and flaws. Real people, just like you and me.
Before leaving we stood at the head of the railway line that brought victims into the bowels of the camp. Memorial plaques in 22 different languages reflecting the nationalities of the victims bear the message "Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe."
Rabbi Marcus spoke powerfully as we attempted to absorb what we had seen. We then said kaddish for all those who died in the Nazi concentration camps and stood in silent reflection. Marking the end of the minute's silence, Rabbi Marcus blew the shofar, a sound of hope and freedom.
After lighting candles in memory of those lost, we left this graveyard for over a million Jews and headed back to Krakow. There, we rounded off the day with a visit to the town's Jewish quarter, which took in the excellent Galicia Museum and the one remaining operational shul.
A new perspective
Today, everything seems different. As I eat my breakfast toast, I remember how the starving Jews of Auschwitz were so desperate for even the most meagre scrap to eat, they stripped the very ground they walked on of every blade of grass. Being one who feels the cold, I wrap myself in layers of warm clothes then realise how lucky I am to be able to perform this simple act I take for granted.
In his talk Rabbi Marcus pointed out, "The Holocaust was not just a crime against the Jews, it was a crime against humanity. As the famous poem* by the Protestant Pastor Martin Niemoller so graphically illustrates, yesterday they came for the Jews - tomorrow it could be any group that's considered different.
Before my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau I'd read books and articles. I knew what happened there. But now I have seen this purpose-built death factory for myself, walked along the railway lines that brought hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to their deaths simply because they were Jews, I feel what happened there. This crime against humanity feels intensely personal and very painful.
I have returned home determined to use my writing skills to tell the world - the young, the ignorant, the deniers - about the industrial-scale killings that were committed there daily. As the philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot learn from history are destined to repeat it." The deaths of six million fellow Jews, including over a million innocent babies and children, must not be in vain.
*First they came...
By Martin Niemoller
First they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me