Auschwitz Camp Essay

This essay has a total of 1674 words and 8 pages.

Auschwitz Camp

Auschwitz

EVEN IN THE SILENCE OF THE POLISH countryside, Auschwitz can not rest in peace. The name
alone prompts instant recognition--a shorthand for the criminal barbarity of the 20th
century. If ever there were a place in which myth was unseemly and unnecessary, where fact
could be left unadorned, it would be Auschwitz. For 50 years, that has not been the case.


The list of myths and misconceptions about the largest Nazi concentration camp is a long
one. Soviet investigators declared in May 1945 that 4 million people had died in
Auschwitz, and the Polish Communist authorities stuck to this inflated figure until they
lost power in 1989. Since then the number has heen revised to between 1.1 million and 1.5
million, which most historians now believe is accurate. Until the Soviet bloc fell, the
exhibits at Auschwitz downplayed the number of Jewish victims, suggesting that their part
of the total was smaller than the 90 percent figure generally accepted today. In the West,
many erroneously believed that the camp was created to murder Jews, and that Auschwitz was
the primary killing ground for Polish Jews. The facts are more complex.


A former army barracks located near the town of Oswiecim, or Auschwitz in German, the main
camp received its first transport of 728 Poles in June 1940. These were political
prisoners, usually affiliated with resistance movements. In most cases, they were
Catholics, since the deportations of Jews had not yet begun. But as soon as those first
prisoners arrived, they were treated to a speech that signaled the future evolution of the
camp. "You have come not to a sanatorium but to a German concentration camp where the only
way out is through the chimney," Karl Fritsch, the SS chief in charge of the prisoners,
declared. "If someone doesn't like it, he can throw himself on the barbed wire. If there
are Jews in the transport, they don't have the right to live more than two weeks; priests,
one month, and the others, three months."


"The camp was created to destroy the most valuable part of Polish society, and the Germans
partly succeeded in this," says Zygmunt Gaudasinski, an early political prisoner there.
Some prisoners, like Guadasinski's father, were shot; torture was commonplace, and the
early mortality rate was very high. That changed once prisoners latched onto jobs--in the
kitchens, warehouses and other sheltered places--which increased their odds for survival.
Of the 150,000 Polish prisoners who were sent to Auschwitz, about 75,000 died there.


After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Soviet POWs were dispatched to
Auschwitz. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler envisaged a huge number of POWs and drew up plans for
Auschwitz's expansion by creating a second large complex at Birkenau, two miles away. The
first POWs to arrive were put to work constructing the new facilities there in conditions
that horrified even the hardened Polish political prisoners. "They were treated worse than
any other prisoners," says Mieczyslaw Zawadzki, a Pole who worked as a nurse in a sick bay
for the POWs. Fed only turnips and tiny rations of bread, they collapsed from hunger,
exposure and beatings. "The hunger was so bad that they cut off the buttocks from the
corpses in the morgue and ate the flesh," Zawadzki recalls. "Later, we locked the morgue
so they couldn't get in."


With most Soviet POWs dying quickly and no large subsequent influx, Himmler and camp
commandant Rudolf Hoss prepared Auschwitz to play a major role in the "final solution" for
European Jews. Transports of Jews from all over occupied Europe made Auschwitz the most
international of the camps. By the time that Birkenau and its gas chambers became fully
operational most Polish Jews had already died in other death camps like Treblinka, Sobibor
and Belzec. About 300,000 Polish Jews were deported to Auschwitz, followed, in the summer
of 1944, by an astonishing 438,000 Hungarian Jews. Auschwitz was both a death camp and a
complex of labor camps, which accounts for its relatively large number of survivors. If
Treblinka and other pure death camps are less well known, it is because there were almost
no survivors who could testify to what happened there.


News of Auschwitz's horrors began to spread well before the war ended. Often with the help
of resistance groups, some Auschwitz prisoners managed to escape and get out word about
the mass killings in the camp. Two main eyewitness documents appeared in 1944. One was
written by a former Polish political prisoner, Jerzy Tabeau, who, with another prisoner,
short-circuited the camp's electric fence, cut through the barbed wire and fled to Cracow.
His report was circulated by the London-based Polish government-in-exile. The other
shocking report was produced by two Slovak Jews whose detailed descriptions of mass
gassings reached Jewish groups and Western governments.


Even a half-century later, their cries for help are searing. In his "Report of a Polish
Major," Tabeau described the torture of Polish political prisoners, the murder of sick
inmnates with phenol injections and "the mass murder of Jews" in Birkenau. Although most
Polish political prisoners remained in the original Auschwitz camp, Tabeau was transferred
to the Gypsy camp in Birkenau where he could directly observe what was happening. Tabeau,
now a retired cardiologist in Cracow, recalls: "From the Gypsy camp, you could clearly see
the ramp and the transports arriving. The people were marched to the crematoria, and two
or three hours later there was this black smoke. When the crematoria could not keep up,
you could see piles of burning corpses."


In the postwar era, the Soviet and the Polish Communist authorities imposed their
ideological vision on Auschwitz, condemning fascism and extolling the heroism of Communist
prisoners. Among the national pavilions set up in the 1950s, the most jarring were those
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