Friday 25 October 2019

Bugger it! Auschwitz here I come!

So, I went to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps earlier in the month. I will caveat this with the fact I didn’t want to go. I don’t like hearing about bad things that happen in the world – it hurts my heart.

But I had a think about it and realised that it was something that I may never get the opportunity to do again so I put my big-boy undies on (and lots of long pants and jackets and jumpers and scarves – it was minus 1 when I got picked up at 5.50am) and went.

I have actually been trying to figure out what to say ‘in words’ about what I am feeling – hence the reason it has taken me so long to write this. My family would say here, of course, that one of the biggest struggles I have in life is formulating my feelings into words.

Firstly, to be practical (and avoid the feelings!), it was nothing like I expected. Hollywood had done a great job of making me believe that these camps would be found in the middle of nowhere; we would drive through 20km or more of thick-growth forest and then drive into a clearing. Smack bang in the middle of the clearing would be the camp; with its double barbed wire fences (electrocuted), imposing guard towers, wooden huts and gas chambers. And whilst it was a little like that, especially at Birkenau, it really wasn’t at Auschwitz.

Granted the chain wire fences were there, the guard towers were there, the huts were there (stone, brick, wood), and the gas chambers. But there was no giant forest and big clearing. Maybe it was there in 1940? Maybe not! We weren’t told. There is a town around the camps which may have popped up since 1949 when the Polish realised they had a tourist attraction. Again, I’m not sure?

Keeping with the tourist attraction theme for a moment, and I am operating off a very poor attempt at numbers, I arrived at 7am. Already, the place was booming. There would have had to be about 300 people there already. Each group that went through the gates were about 30 strong. We all paid roughly $60 Australian. Groups went through about 5 mins apart, meaning that about 12 groups went through every hour; this would equal about 360 people per hour. There were also solo people going through. So, I would put it at about 500 people an hour wandering through the camps. If you take that from 6am-4pm that would be 500 people across 11 hours which equals 5500 people per day. They each paid $60 so the camp made $330 000 per day. This is on the low end of predictions.

Lets also not discount that people buy souvenirs and books. They buy tea, coffee, snacks, beer.

And you also had to pay 2 Zloty per trip to the toilet, which is a little less than $1 Aussie dollar. Granted I don’t have a great bladder so I had to visit the toilet twice but let’s just say that everyone used the toilet once – after all you are there for over 5 hours. So that’s means another $5500 earnt per day on toilet trips.

Per annum, on my likely very under-inflated statistics the camps are earning between 120-200 million dollars a year. I guess that’s a good earning for something that is showing the world the way we should try not to behave. As opposed to a beer company annual turnover, or big pharma profit, for example!

Moving onto statistics - and not feelings - not yet!

Statistically, over 1.3 million people were killed at the two camps. Yes, just those two camps! About 300 000 in Auschwitz and almost 1 million at Birkenau. These camps are situated 3 kilometres away from one another and used railway to send prisoners between them, and from the far reaches of their temporarily conquered countries. This included Africa, Scandinavia, Russia, the UK, and so on.

Doing the maths, that worked out at about 800 people a day killed, every day, at these camps during the 4.5 years of their operation. But it didn’t work like that and they sped up as the war progressed; when the Hungarian Jews arrived in 1944 the deaths rose to about 20 000 per day, every day. They were operating at peak capacity. If they could have killed more, they would have.

In a very brief, and crude explanation, basically they collected/arrested people from all over their invaded territories. These detainees were then told to pack everything they considered valuable, and what they needed for deportation to a safe zone (or they were told they were going to prison but if they behaved, they could serve their time and be released). So, of course, these people packed all their valuables. They were then loaded up into trains, often cattle trains, not human trains, and driven to Auschwitz. This could take 7-10 days with no food or water and, with the trains so crowded, a lot of them were forced to stand for large portions of that trip.

Upon arrival, for those not dead, they were taken off the trains and told to leave their bags on the platform, to be collected later. Then they were segregated into men (roughly 14 years and over) and women/children. Then an SS uniform sent the women/children immediately to the gas chambers. They were told they were going to get cleaned up and de-liced and then they would be re-acquainted with their husbands, and all their gear. So, they went to their deaths happily and, crucially, with no fuss.

The men were essentially the same, but if a man looked capable of work he was kept around for a while. The average time a strong male survived in the death camps was three months. There was a wall of faces of about 800 of the prisoners which had dates of arrival, occupation, and death. It was so wrong! It made me feel sick. It was the only place I didn’t take a photo in both the camps (apart from the places you were not allowed to take photos).

The Nazi’s preferred method of killing was by gas. They worked out in 1940 that gas was cheaper than bullets. And if they told people upon arrival that they were going to take a shower to be cleaned and de-liced, everyone went willingly. There was no panic – everyone just did what they were told because they believed the Nazi’s. The gas chosen was a pesticide called Zyklon B which, when heated, produced cyanide. When these naked, na├»ve and innocent people, walked into the shower rooms, they were gassed. Everyone in these rooms died. Nobody EVER survived the gas chambers.

The Nazi’s kept everything and recycled everything. Uniforms were re-used (and disinfected, in, you guessed it, Zyklon B) after the previous owner was killed (which was why they were naked before they died). The gear that everyone arrived with was looted for valuables. The prisoner’s hair was shaved and the hair was used for pillow stuffing, bedding, ropes, etc. Gold teeth were pulled out and melted into gold bars. Anything that was pointless was burnt. They even found a use for the human ashes. They worked out it made a good fertiliser; it could also be used to fill holes in the ground. As I walked around both camps, I was told that I was walking on 1.3 million people’s ashes. Thereby making the camps the largest burial ground/cemetery on the planet.

If people were not gassed, they were shot or experimented on in their pretend hospitals; they died from direct injections to the heart. They starved to death, froze to death, were worked to death, died of infectious diseases. Innocent people were tortured and killed if anyone ever escaped. Although only 144 people (out of 1.3 million) ever successfully escaped (0.01%); and this was not from the camps. It was whilst they were outside the camps doing work like farming, building German houses, etc. I could see why – these camps were very intimidating.

The young, the old, women and disabled were mostly all killed immediately. They served no value. Upon arrival at the camps (especially Birkenau), the only people that survived more than a few hours were the fit and healthy-looking men (and the occasional woman). They were then put to work for 12+ hours a day, every day. They were given food, but it was watered down rotten vegetables and an old chunk of bread. Hardly enough to support a hard-working individual. If these individuals started to struggle, they were shot dead.

They were allowed to use the bathrooms twice a day for about a minute. This was when they could piss, shit, wash, whatever. If you needed to piss or shit outside of that time you had to do it in your bed. Your bed was either a mattress filled with dead-peoples human hair, or you lay on straw. You couldn’t do your business away from your mattress because you would be doing that on another human being, or on their mattress. Every spare space in the rooms was taken up with mattresses, or straw for sleeping. If you were lucky you had a room filled with triple-decker bunk beds. This did allow some tiny space (walk-ways) between for doing your business if needed. Unless you were on the bottom bunk, because then you were on the ground and you therefore copped the excrement from others.

If you showed signs of sickness, or you developed diarrhoea, you were taken to the pretend hospitals, and experimented on or killed immediately. A poison was injected into the heart. Which made the heart immediately stop beating, but their brains kept working for several minutes. What a way to go! Just so fucked!

These pretend hospitals served as Nazi propaganda. They were essentially telling the world that they cared for their prisoners and were trying to save lives. Meanwhile these hospitals had no equipment to help people. Only killing equipment, poisons and experimental vaccines. They didn’t follow the rules of warfare by keeping POW’s alive; they also had very scary experiments that they did on twins or triplets.

The people that ended up in these camps were primarily Jews. Others included Gypsies, Polish people that may have stirred trouble (Poles of importance), Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people and POW’s. Each of these people were given a different coloured triangle so everybody in camp knew who they were. As most of you know, the Nazi’s were trying to build the perfect Aryan race – all men with blonde hair and blue eyes – I have read reports that suggest they believed the Aryan race were direct descendants from Atlantis. If that is true, then the Nazi’s killed millions of people on a myth. What I also find quite amusing, in a disturbing way, is that the Nazi leader didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes; and neither did a large percentage of his ruling power. So, what the fuck? There is even a book I read once that suggested Adolf Hitler was actually gay! Having not seen that written anywhere else I’m reluctant to agree, but it’s out there. Regardless, it appears that when you lead an army, you can be everything that is not what you want from your army (and future race) to be. I just can’t make sense of that!

There were about 8000 SS guards working at these camps. Of those, only 1000 of them were ever put on trial for war crimes. The rest, lived a free life. Some of them until very recent times!

At its peak, there were 70 000 prisoners living in Birkenau. There may have been 5000 guards, but, assuming they ran on 12-hour shifts, that put about 2500 guards looking after 70 000 prisoners. Looking at the maths, and accepting that there were double electrocuted/barbed wire fences, trenches, machine guns, I still question how those 70 000 didn’t consider a full-blown assault on the guards? But I was not in their position, and they were probably more in a dead-man walking phase rather than a free-man walking phase. Or, they genuinely thought that if they toed the company line they would survive. Or, they thought the war would end and they would be released.

Plus, after spending only four hours at the camps, I can kind of get a sense why they never did. Sure, there was one revolt where they tried to destroy gas chamber no.4 but it was fairly unsuccessful in terms of damage and everyone involved was shot dead.

To get a sense of the size of these camps I can only run off hectares, acres and metres. I also like using some sort of visual cue. Both camps were about 190 hectares, or 470 acres in total. Auschwitz is 20 hectares (49 acres) and Birkenau is 171 hectares (422 acres). So, what does that mean really? Well if we take your average footy field, it would mean roughly 280 footy fields. Now try and shove 70 000 people into that tiny space. If that doesn’t work for you, then picture a town the size of Bundaberg or Mackay, and having them shoved into that space. Granted it might sound like plenty of space, and when you are walking around it, there seems like plenty of space, but try and shove 70 000 people into it and it suddenly sounds crowded. Particularly when you stuck them into crowded barracks that were not heated or cooled.

A lot of Birkenau was destroyed as the Nazi’s tried to hide their crimes. But they were unsuccessful in some of their attempts. Which makes the experience all the more surreal? Even more so, when you hear that they were actually expanding their camp up until the days when they needed to flee (and destroy) the camp.

In the end, the thing that disturbed me almost the most was when our guide spoke about the sheer numbers of people. But the kicker was when I stood where they stood. Where the walking dead stood. When I saw pictures, and took photos of those pictures, and then 2 hours later, stood on those same spots, that’s when I lost it. The only other time I cried was when I saw all the disabled and crippled people’s braces, canes and prosthetic limbs. There were thousands of them, and that was only a small portion of what was originally there. But the Nazi’s burnt a lot of stuff when they ran, to try and keep their crimes hidden from the world.

You will see pictures of the camps; you will see pictures from inside some of the buildings. It was so very very sad. The most disturbing was the rooms with the dead people’s belongings, which the Nazi’s were unable to completely destroy as they ran away from the approaching Russians. They didn’t choose to stand and fight – they ran like giant fucking pussies! They were happy to be the dominant bully when they had complete control, but when it turned pear-shaped, they ran as fast as they could. In the end, they were just the worst of the worst.

The rooms were full of shoes, brushes and clothing. Apart from the disabled equipment, the next most disturbing room was one that was filled with hair. Hair from the people that were killed. Hair that had not been recycled into anything when the Nazi’s fled.

But what did I FEEL?

Well I felt anger, sadness, disgust, disappointment and disbelief. I felt incredulous; combined with a sense of injustice and devastation. I also felt a sense of disconnect – as in, I couldn’t really put myself in their shoes, even though I walked their walk. And that’s just as well to be totally honest.

My ‘Justice Metre’ went off the scales. As I write this section two days after i visited, it’s still sitting at peak capacity. For those that don’t know, my Justice Metre is something I have inside me that measures good events versus bad events. When its really bad my Justice Metre starts to rise, like the temperature gauge in a thermometer. When it hits peak capacity, I explode. This can come across as anger, sadness or the constant shaking of my head, combined with noisy internal dialogue.

These death camps have set my Justice Metre into overdrive. I am not okay that less than 1000 SS soldiers (out of 8000) were held accountable for their actions. I am not okay that they ran like giant pussies when things turned south. I am not okay that they thought it was an acceptable form of behaviour to treat other people the way they treated them. Everything about this entire historical event was not okay.

I am angry that this was allowed to happen. I am angry at all the people that allowed this to occur. And this doesn’t just include the Nazis; it also includes all of the Allies that created a layer of resentment in Germany (and other Axis countries) as a result of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI. I am angry that we can’t find a way to all just get along. We don’t have to love every other person on the planet, but can’t we just accept these differences and move forward as one giant family? I appreciate that this is wishful thinking on my part, and this also makes me angry.

I feel sad and heart-broken for the families that suffered. Nobody should ever have gone through what they went through. Its an abomination on every level.

I actually can’t adequately formulate the words to describe the way I feel. I’ve tried but I have fallen short on my efforts.

It’s also worth considering that, regardless of country, religion or desire, there have been countless wars and take-overs and rebellions in our history. The Nazi’s were one – but there have been plenty of others. I don’t associate Nazi’s with Germans, which is why I never used the word German when writing this. My ancestors are actually from Germany. Regardless, there have been dark times in most countries’ histories. What matters is whether we have learnt anything? And that’s how I would like to close this chat. But in three ways. Because when I think of what I have experienced I need to process that through three things – self, family/clan, collective.

From a self/family/clan perspective I am grateful that my German ancestors came to Australia in the 1880’s. This way none of us were in any way going to be subject to THAT history. Granted I was born in 1973, but Dad was born in 1945 – so would he have been born during that explosive time? And, of course, what about Dad’s Mum and Dad? Grandpa would never have met Mama, so this question is rhetorical. Grandpa would have avoided WWI (he was born around 1907 I think?) but he would have been drafted into WWII regardless of his age. But I’m still glad this experience is not a direct descendant experience.

From a collective experience, the more people that see the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps the better. We need to try, at least a little, to understand what horrors await, if we allow individuals with bad agendas to control our lives. In this internet driven society, I don’t see how any one person can attract the followers that Adolf Hitler was able to. We have different religions to choose from; different philosophies to choose from; we can choose to be an atheist, an agnostic, an anything! We can choose to spend all out time with our click; or nobody. But, of course, there are still countries out there where the people are suppressed and dictated to. And these are the dangerous ones. Or, we can get the free-lance leaders that nobody really likes, but managed to sell the big sell, and are now in power (I wonder who that might be?). The problem with these guys is, they have the red buttons. It just takes one press. It almost got to that point in the Bay of Pigs disaster. JFK could have pushed the red button (or the Russian dude could have too) but they didn’t and we are still alive because they didn’t. But if we focus on things that we can’t control we would probably go mad.

So instead, focus on this post. Focus on my thoughts. Focus on our time. Focus on what you can do to be a better person. Focus on how you can be the best version of yourself so that other people see this goodness and may desire that goodness in themselves too.

We can/will do it one person at a time, until it becomes a ‘collective consciousness’ or call it the '100th monkey theory' if you like.

We will succeed! We will prevail. Nothing we have been taught was for naught.


Love and light to you all

David Hartmann