All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. It was established by the Nazis in 1940, in the suburbs of Oświęcim, which, like other parts of Poland, was occupied by the Germans and annexed to the Third Reich during World War II. The name of the city was changed to Auschwitz, which became the name of the camp as well. Konzentrationslager Auschwitz. Over time it became the largest such Nazi camp.
The first flashback
„It was real, thus the work of people, the work that can be researched…
Auschwitz must be understood as the historical past, must be
recognisable in the here and now, and it must not be
ignorantly detached from future perspectives.
Auschwitz does not lie only behind us…”
recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature, best known for his first novel, „The Tin Drum”
It was summer 1991. Two years passed since Poland`s election of June 1989. I don`t remember what an exhibition it was except for the fact that it was held in Warsaw, my home town but I still have my American friend`s face in my mind and hear her voice asking me: “OMG! Did the Holocaust exist then? We are taught it was just the propaganda.” I got shocked with what she said and she was shocked with what she had just discovered. We were both shocked, each of us in our own way. I thought the extermination was out of indoctrination. And I have to mention that my friend is a very well-educated, intelligent and wise lady as she has always been.
Initially, Auschwitz was to be one more concentration camp of the type becoming the most infamous one in result
Auschwitz-Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz I and II. These camps are probably the most infamous camps of World War II. The complex was made up of three smaller sub-camps. One was a work camp. When the prisoner was too old or too sick to work, he was sent to the death camp. Once murdered, slain prisoners were sent to the final facility – a crematorium. Auschwitz had the capacity to murder 20,000 prisoners per day. It is estimated that at least 1.1 million people died there.
The second flashback
World Youth Days took place in Cracow on the last week of July. The Pope`s visit to Auschwitz was scheduled for Friday July 29th. My colleague and I were broadcast editors there. A day before TV transmission we were at the camp for fact checking. It was a nice sunny day. There were lots of visitors. Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is not just another place of interest and you musn`t call it pleasant sightseeing, more the most important life lesson that everyone should learn but when I recall January 27th, 2010 I may call last July visit the pleasant one. I was the broadcast journalist of Polish and international transmission of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And only one TV journalist there. I remember that I wore a few layers of clothes for cold weather. It was freezing and whatever direction you looked in the only one view you had was blocks. If I was asked to name a few nightmares I have experienced so far I would say my TV job at the camp on that January day was one of them. I was being there in freezing temperatures. It was grey around, the blocks stretched all the way to the horizon, I was on my own for three locations there and ceremony delayed for 40 minutes. Instead of a few minutes, we must have done 40-minutes talk on air before ceremony began. Being there was depressing and stressful but I felt I had the Angel. My grandfather from father side died there on the liberation day. He refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste and got to the camp.
Six years later, on Thursday July 28th my colleague and I were standing between blocks in very pleasant temperature and listened to Memorial and Museum press officer who was telling us how prisoners were made ready for execution. I almost fainted. Blood was beating rapidly in my head and I was wondering which block my grandpa was staying in.
In years 1940 – 1945, Nazi Germany deported approximately one million three hundred thousand people from European countries occupied by the Third Reich: one million one hundred thousand Jews, up to one hundred fifty thousand Poles, twenty three thousand Roma (Gypsies), fifteen thousand Soviet prisoners of war and twenty thousand prisoners of other nationalities. Most of them died as a result of starvation, labor that exceeded their physical capacity, the terror that raged in the camp, executions, the inhuman living conditions, disease and epidemics, punishment, torture, and criminal medical experiments.
Many Nazi concentration camps were located in Poland, but to call them “Polish death camps” is a huge error made by press, media and many personalities. My colleague and I insisted to call the camp with full name during our last July transmission. When I read about or hear someone saying “Polish death camps” all I can do is to ask “Polish death camps? Excuse me?”. I am the journalist and I know how much responsible journalists and everyone saying in public should be.
Little Known Facts about Auschwitz
Auschwitz first prisoners were Poles because the direct reason for the establishment of the camp was the fact that mass arrests of them were increasing beyond the capacity of existing “local” prisons. These were people regarded as particularly dangerous: the elite of the Polish people, their political, civic, and spiritual leaders, members of the intelligentsia (inteligencja – a social class of people engaged in complex mental labor aimed at guiding or critiquing, or otherwise playing a leadership role in shaping a society’s culture and politics), cultural and scientific figures, and also members of the resistance movement, officers, and so on. The first transport of Poles reached KL Auschwitz from Tarnów prison on June 14th, 1940.
Initially the inmates also included a small group of Jews and some Germans; the latter generally performed supervisory roles in the camp. In subsequent years prisoners of other nationalities were also sent there. From 1942 the vast majority of those sent to Auschwitz were Jews and they also accounted for the largest number of its victims. Other very large groups of inmates and victims included the Poles, the Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.
Auschwitz was to be one more concentration camp of the type that the Nazis had been setting up since the early 1930s. It functioned in this role throughout its existence, even when, beginning in 1942, it also became the largest of the death camps.
The third flashback
Last July my colleague and I were walking past a little square where newly arrived prisoners were greeted at the camp by Lagerführer SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritzsch: ‘You have arrived not at a sanatorium but at a German concentration camp in which the only way out is through the chimney. If someone doesn’t like this, he may at once go to the wires. If there are any Jews in this transport, they have no right to live longer than two weeks. If there are any priests, they may live for a month, the rest only three months.’
I noticed dead silence at the camp, a kind of which you can hear in graveyard. In spite of the fact there were many visitors. But even people whispering couldn`t break that. It seemed as if the time stopped there. Forever.
The landscape unfavourable for escapees
The area adjacent to the Auschwitz camp was flat, without many forests and additionally, there were streams supplying water to numerous breeding ponds. All these conditions made it more difficult for prisoners to escape. But it was located nearly 70 km from the Slovakian border and over 70 km from the border with the then Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Probably the proximity of borders influenced the decision to escape made by Czech prisoners, Czech Roma or Slovakian Jews.
In contrast to the Polish territories incorporated into the Reich, occupational authorities left there some elements of the Polish State structures. Thus, the system of controlling the Polish society was a little less strict than in the Reich. That is why numerous Polish prisoners, while deciding to escape the camp, hoped to find an effective refuge in this area. Reaching the General Government or Beskidy Mountains was facilitated by the attitude of a great number of Poles residing near Auschwitz. In spite of the threat of losing their lives and freedom, they helped the escapees they met by providing shelter, giving directions and accompanying while crossing the border. Some of them organized the escapes themselves or helped in their coordination.
There cannot be a God if Auschwitz exists
“When an SS men were bored, they would take off a prisoner’s cap and throw it away. They would then order the prisoner to fetch it. As the prisoner was running, the officer would shoot them. Then they would claim the prisoner was trying to escape and get three days off for foiling it.”
Kazimierz Piechowski`s interview for The Guardian
Kazimierz Piechowski was one of prisoners who escaped Auschwitz and survived.
He was 19 when the war broke out. He belonged to the scout movement which was seen by invaders as a symbol of nationalism and a potential source of resistance. When the Nazis started shooting the scouts Kazimierz Piechowski knew he would have been another one to be killed and tried to flee across the Hungarian border and was caught at the crossing. After eight months in various prisons he was sent to Auschwitz.
For some time, Piechowski was set to work carrying corpses after executions which were being done between blocks 10 and 11 where the death wall was placed. SS men would line prisoners up and shoot them in the back of the head. At the end there would be a pile of naked corpses and Kazimierz Piechowski along with another man would throw them on to carts, to transport them to the crematorium. “Sometimes it was 20 a day, sometimes it was a hundred, sometimes it was more. Men, women and children” – he told The Guardian`s journalist.
However he had never planned to flee until his friend`s name appeared on a death list. It was Eugeniusz Bendera, a gifted Ukrainian mechanic who worked in the camp’s garage. He had been told by those who had access to his documents that he was going to be murdered. It was when the germ of escape formed.
Kazimierz Piechowski and his mates were being held in the main camp, Auschwitz I, where the fences were covered in electrified barbed wire and there were guards every few metres. The escapees would have to make it through the infamous Arbeit macht frei gate (the legend meant “Work sets you free”).
They had no way out, they must have broken out from the camp, otherwise Eugeniusz Bandera would have been killed. Their act was very brave, even became the story of documentary movie and the song “Kommander`s Car” by Katy Carr. The mechanic had picked the Steyr 220 – the fastest car in Auschwitz, there for the sole use of the commandant. “It had to be fast, because he had to be able to get to Berlin in a few hours. We took it because if we were chased we had to be able to get away” – Kazimierz Piechowski said.
The escapees drove to the main gate – passing SS men who saluted them and were greeting them with “Heil Hitler”. They were almost successful however the biggest test was still to come. Kazimierz Piechowski recalled that “There was still one problem: we did not know whether, when we came to the final barrier, we would need a pass. We just planned that I would play the role of an SS officer so well that the guards would believe me.”
Yet as they approached the barrier, the guard did not move. They were driving towards the final barrier, but it was closed. They continued their way, they were being closer and closer and nothing changed. Eugeniusz Bendera having white face with fear and sweat on his brow stopped the car and as Piechowski stared blankly ahead, not knowing what to do, he felt a blow on his shoulder. It was priest Józef Lempart, one of escapees. He whispered: “Kazik, do something”. Piechowski said this had been the most dramatic moment, he had started shouting. The SS guards obeyed and the car drove to freedom – allowing the men to become four of only 144 prisoners to successfully escape Auschwitz.
Although there were 144 prisoners who broke out from notorious Nazi camp and survived, every escape was followed by deadly consequences.
The fourth flashback
TV crew: vision, sound and light directors, camera-men, producers and editors went down to the death cell in the basement of Block No. 11. Next day we were to make international transmission of Pope Francis visit to the former German death camp Auschwitz.
It is where Father Kolbe died a martyr’s death and was later canonized. After being sentenced to death, Father Kolbe was placed by the Germans in the cell No. 18 situated in the underground of Block 11.
Prisoner #16670 gave life for a life
After the outbreak of World War II, Kolbe remained in the monastery, where he organized a temporary hospital. After the town was captured by the Germans, he was briefly arrested by them on September 19th, 1939 but released on December 8th. He declined to sign the Deutsche Volksliste, which would have given him rights similar to those of German citizens in exchange for recognizing his German ancestry. Upon his release he continued to work at his monastery, where he and other monks provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland, including 2,000 Jews whom he protected from German persecution in their friary in Niepokalanów. Kolbe also received consent to continue publishing religious works, though significantly reduced in scope. The monastery thus continued to act as a publishing house, issuing a number of anti-Nazi German publications. On February 17th, 1941, the monastery was shut down by the German authorities. That day Kolbe and four others were arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned in the Warsaw Pawiak prison. On May 28th, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670.
While acting as a priest, Kolbe was subjected to violent harassment, including beating and lashings, and once had to be smuggled to a prison hospital by friendly inmates. At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts. When one of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “My wife! My children!”, Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
According to an eye witness, an assistant keeper at that time, in his prison cell, Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer to Our Lady. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied, so they gave him a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Friar Kolbe is said to have raised his left arm and calmly waited for the deadly injection. His remains were cremated on August 15th, the feast day of the Assumption of Mary.
On May 12th, 1955, Kolbe was recognized as the Servant of God. Kolbe was declared venerable by Pope Paul VI on January 30th, 1969, beatified as a Confessor of the Faith by the same Pope in 1971 and canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II on October 10th, 1982.
After his canonization, St. Maximilian Kolbe’s feast day was added to the General Roman Calendar. He is one of ten 20th-century martyrs who are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey, London.
The fifth flashback
Friday, July 29th 2016, 5 am. We got to the camp much too early, four hours before broadcasting started. We were very tired, we had slept no longer than for 4 hours. I was occupying the ground next to the wires trying to sleep in a sitting position. My colleague woke me up suggesting to find a ladies` room. And off we went.
We found workshops building and we got told there was Europe`s Best Equipped and Ultra-Modern Laboratory. That news made me awake in less time than it takes to say “OMG!”. I thought I knew what I would write about in my September text.
A few million tourists a year visit Museum and Memorial Auschwitz-Birkenau which is Polish most visited museum. Created in 1947 it has been the Archive and Collections as well as research, conservation and publishing center. This is a “must-see” place because there is no way to understand postwar Europe and the world without an in-depth confrontation between our idea of mankind and the remains of Auschwitz.
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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