Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Arbeit Macht Frei

Have you ever seen a flimsy moth being drawn towards a flame. It gets too close, has its wings singed, falls off, crawls away, in case it had not died already, grows the wings again and approaches the same flickering flame again.

I am that moth when it comes to Auschwitz- Birkenau.

Visited the haunting place for the first time in 2012, was left devastated, vowed never to visit again and go through the inevitable depression that suffocates you for weeks at a stretch.

I was there for the 6th time on Sunday the 13th of May 2018.

I resisted penning down my thoughts so far and I give in today.

I am a certified WW II addict. I lapped up everything available about Nazi Germany, Hitler and the Holocaust in particular.

The seminal work The Rise and Fall of theThird Reich by William L Shirer kickstarted the obsession.

Countless films, the top amongst them, The Pianist, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Son of Saul, Schindler’s List and the ultimate Life is Beautiful reduced me to copious amount of tears and a near nervous wreck.

But, none of this prepares you for actually visiting the place.

Opinion is divided on whether such trips, nicknamed Holocaust tourism, are necessary.

In my opinion, yes. 

All the more now, as most of the people with firsthand experience are dead, and those who belong to the next generation of the affected families are already getting old. Soon, there will be a complete disconnect. A visit here would be a stark reminder of what happened, not in the distant past, but in recent memory, in a world that was apparently civilized, where a world order existed. 

This is a reminder of what could happen, once again, if we choose to let a few run riot.

When I see leaders like Donald Trump, Recep Erdogan, Milos Zemen, Narendra Modi and Viktor Orban, coupled with even Nobel Peace Prize winner standing mute witness to the Rohingya crisis,  the horrors of the Auschwitz- Birkenau suddenly appear to be becoming a possibility, yet again.

After six visits, I am qualified to lead my friends on a detailed tour by myself, but to a first timer, I would strongly recommend a guided tour in a language that you are comfortable with.

The walk around tour starts in front of the incongruous “Work sets you free” sign.

The Nazis were perfectionists. The camouflage was so complete that no deported Jews, the political prisoners, the Roma Gypsies, the homosexuals, the dwarves ever suspected that anything so catastrophic was in the offing.

Everyone believed that they were being relocated. The Nazis did not want chaos, panic and disorderly conduct. They wanted everything to be smooth.

The offices of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp have done a wonderful job in coaching the guides and the guides are knowledgeable, and while they must be tired of repeating the same tour day in and day out, they appear genuinely interested in letting you know the full details.

In my last visit, our guide was one Magdalena. She was beyond perfect. She had a melancholic face. It appeared as if it was ready to break into crying at any moment. And she was elegant. She was impeccably dressed. Her diction was perfect, so much so, I had to re-look at her name tag to ascertain from her surname that she was indeed a Pole. Her voice had a quivering tenor, it was as if she was struggling not to weep as she spoke. She spoke in one constant monotone. A flat rendition. She never raised her voice. At moments she paused, as if gathering herself, recovered her composure which looked as if it was about to crumble, and continued with the same √©lan. 

She must audition to the next movie on the concentration camp for the part of the voice over, and Oscars may introduce a new category and award her the statute.

A female Morgan Freeman.

The way the visit is organized coupled with her sombre tone made the last visit of mine the most impactful.

It starts, rather innocuously, in Block 4, and continues to Block 5 and 7.

The first rooms display pictures of the layout of the concentration camps, some photographs of people arriving at the camp, a map of how Auschwitz sat right at the centre of the occupied Europe, and how several spokes from each corner all converged on the central dot, called Auschwitz.

A few quotes, slowly increasing in the vitriol, building up the sense of despondency.

The visit slowly increases the torment quotient, a isometric view of the gas chambers is shown. And blue prints of precise engineering drawings are on display. Every single detail is about efficiency. The flow of people in one direction, neatly arranged chambers for disrobing, with pegs numbered, (the victims were told that they were going for a shower, and were asked to remember the peg numbers, in order to collect their clothing on emerging), and the simple and efficient openings on the roof from which to dump the measured quantity of Zyklon-B, the electrical winch/lift to transport the bodies one level above after they were gassed, the sequentially arranged ovens to incinerate the bodies.

Every single detail screams efficiency.

You see some empty containers of Zyklon-B recovered after the liberation. Ironically, the Zyklon-B, which was used to gas the victims, was produced at IG Farben, the same unit where the concentration camp inmates worked the whole day as cheap labour.

You are guided to the next room, where, all along the left wall of a 15 meter long hall, in a glass enclosure that is at least a meter deep, piled right up to the ceiling, you see human hair.

The guide mentions the term human hair just as your eyes adjust to the poor light and you flinch away from the glass partition as if someone had physically assaulted you. I saw this girl walking in front of me, it was her first time certainly, and I saw her jump three feet sideways with her hands help up and in defence. She was petrified.

The guide drones on saying how after the gassing was completed (the chambers were locked for 2 hours to ensure complete killing and then the exhaust was started) the bodies were dragged out, hair was shaved, gold filling of teeth were extracted and how every single thing that could be used was recovered before the bodies were sent to the ovens.

She reels off statistics. How the killing capacity was double the oven capacity to cremate, how one day’s killing took two days of ovens operating round the clock, how this led to the immediate construction of Birkenau, a camp 10 times the size of Auschwitz, where the killing was “improved”, the capacity was increased. Lessons learnt in Auschwitz were applied in Birkenau to make Birkenau the most efficient termination camp. (more of it later)

You come across a document fixing the price of human hair at 50 pfennig per kilogram.

The human hair was used in textiles and making wigs for parlours and anatomy lessons.

From here it is non-stop battering of your senses till they are numb.

Displays the size of a football field, hurl at you eye-wear frames, some with lenses intact, brushes, utensils, suitcases, prosthetic limbs…..

The suitcases carry the name, the town from which the person hailed from, and date of birth. In case you failed to notice, the guide is programmed to direct your gaze to that particular suitcase, the details of which tell you that the possessor of that suitcase was just six years old upon arrival and immediate death by gassing.

As you stand there transfixed and numbed by the sheer size, the guide reminds you that this was just a fraction of what was recovered upon liberation, that which the Nazis did not have time to burn away. The numbers of 1.5 million dead is repeatedly hammered into you, lest you forget it.

In one of the first three blocks, you walk along the corridor, where the photographs of the inmates adorn the wall on either side. All in striped pajamas, all gaunt, with bulging eyes, shaven head. Each one meticulously numbered, the date of birth, the date of entry into the camp, and the date of death. The luckiest one survived just a day. Few lasted two to three years.

As you walk past Block 10, the guide tells you that this was the place where medical experiments took place. Not the gory macabre Doctor Josef Mengele stuff, that was in Birkenau, this was a comparatively milder sterilisation experiments done to ensure that races other than the pure Aryan race were not procreated!

Then you approach block 11, known as the death block. Here the Nazi court tried and sentenced scores of inmates to death by execution, for something as frivolous as a stolen loaf of bread. Punishments were meted out. Prisoners were sentenced to confinements and standing cells. The ones sentenced to death were disrobed and were marched to the courtyard between blocks 10 and 11, where they were stood in front of the firing wall and summarily executed. You walk the same route that those hapless victims walked as they were led to their death. The extent of secrecy practised could be assessed when you look up to the boarded windows of Block 10 overlooking the courtyard.

The guide stops you in front of the canteen, where a makeshift gallows was erected to hang 11 men on the suspicion that they helped three inmates escape. The public hanging was meant to be a deterrent to dissuade others from trying to escape. 

The only two approved modes of death, as sanctioned by the Nazis, were, starvation and execution.

The guide informs you that you are about to end the first part of the tour and takes you out of the double layer of electric fences to the outside.

There you stand with a gallows facing you, the gas chamber to your right and a decent looking villa about 100 meters down on your left.

The commander of the camp, Rudolph Hoss (not to be confused with Hitler’s man Friday, Rudolf Hess) lived in that villa with his wife and five children, a mere 100 meters from the gas chambers and the ovens that were burning the corpses.

Your mind connects with this scene from the film, and see how apt the scene looks now when you stand here in this spot.

The guide tells you of the poetic justice, when the authorities hunted down Hoss after the liberation and brought him to trial and agreed that he would be hanged at the spot between his villa and the gas chambers, facing the camp for which the special gallows was erected.

You then walk to the gas chamber. This was a rudimentary chamber compared to the Rolls Royce model the Nazis deigned and improved subsequently at Birkenau. This one did not have proper chambers to disrobe (as a result most often the inmates disrobed outside on the lawns), no pegs to hang your clothes, no fake shower nozzles that were never connected to a water supply.

This cavernous chamber is however big, the floors almost slippery smooth with all those rubbing and hosing down that must have happened after each gassing, scratch marks on the walls, the cyclops of an opening from where the masked Nazi soldier must have dropped the measured quantity Zyklon-B. No one speaks  a word. The guide announces before we enter the chambers that she would remain silent in respect of the dead. Jelly legged you enter the next chamber, where the two ovens stand. The spine tingles and the hairs on your hand stand on their root.

The calculated quantity part of the Zyklon -B is what unnerves you. The Nazis had earlier stumbled upon this simple means of killing by experimenting in the basements of Block 11 on a group of Soviet POWs. They later kept fine tuning till they arrived at a precise number on how many grams of Zyklon – B was needed per person.

It is not possible for a normal human being not to cry at this instant. It feels natural to wipe the rolling tears away.

You step out and see towards the villa and cannot bring yourself to believe that five children played children games and read comics by the fireplace a stone’s throw away from ovens burning human flesh.

The guide gives you a 20 minute break after which a bus will transport you to the same horrors on an industrial scale.

To Birkenau!

By this time you are already numbed. The iconic entrance gate with the railway line going right inside sends shivers down your spine. You reach the unloading spot along the railway tracks, you recognise it from those photographs. On the other side of a rather wide road, you see the sorting place.

Here, a German officer and a Doctor decided, with a simple wave of their wrist with a pointed finger, whether the new arrival would proceed to the right, inside the concentration camp, where the person would be subjected to inhuman conditions of living, a meagre ration of food and inevitably would starve to death, or walk further down the road to the end where they would go to one of the five crematoriums and immediately gassed to death. 

The old, the invalids, the women and children usually walked this way and were killed almost immediately. Here the charade was complete. A walk down a corridor, a place to remove the dresses and hang on numbered pegs, a chamber with fake shower heads, the complete works.

German efficiency at its best!

Four hours since you started and the gravity of the whole tour that you had just completed starts to sink in.

You step out of the Birkenau camp, a privilege most of the inmates did not possess, get into your car and drive away.

Just 76 years ago, millions had arrived on these very platforms, clutching their suitcases, utensils, shoe polish cans, brushes, toys and dresses hoping to start life in a new place, wondering what language they needed to learn, what new trade they had to perfect, what new neighbours that they would have and died within the first few hours.

Those who died on the arrival were the lucky ones.

Those who died after months of humiliation and inhuman living conditions were far worse.

But, those who survived, having lost the rest of the family, must have been the hardest hit.

On one of my earlier trips, I had seen a Polish gentleman who had been liberated from the camp at the end of the war. He completed the entire tour without uttering a word, silently crying.

After my sixth visit now I would go into a depressive state for a few weeks. The ever resilient human spirit will find its strength and I will get back to normalcy.

I will have one more visitor who, on spending a weekend with me at the end of a European tour, will ask me

“Is there someplace nearby, where we can just make a day trip?”

And I will reply

“Do you know Auschwitz?”


  1. Prakash NansvatiMay 16, 2018 at 6:02 PM

    Four days after we visited the place, you have brought back vivid memories of the saddest part of history Kishan! The shoes, sandles, coats, bags, tea cups, kettles....! Sending you photo of guide who was composed but just...

    1. I know
      The recovery after the visit is always the hard part