Last night we were the house guests of a lovely Polish couple – the parents of Carol’s roommate. We arrived at their home in Auscchwitz around 8:00 pm after an 8-hour train ride, and then they treated us to a traditional evening meal.
Irene and I met for coffee early this morning. Even though her English language is very limited and my Polish is nil, we were able to communicate using simple words, pictures, and hand gestures. What a sweet lady!
After breakfast on the patio, Carol took us to the Aushwitz Museum. This was sobering, to say the least. More than one million people died there in the 1940s. It originally held Polish political prisoners – doctors, lawyers, professors, and such. It later evolved into a killing house when the Germans’ plan to purge the region of Jews failed. Palestine and other countries around the world refused to accept Jews as immigrants, so the Germans rounded them up and sent them to the camp. There they died either by gassing, hard labor, or starvation.
A map showed how far people were transported – in cattle cars – to the camp. Considering that some came from 2000 km (approximately 1200 miles) away, it’s no wonder many died enroute. Once they arrived, life turned into hell on earth. Upon deboarding the trains, Jews were immediately sorted by their ability to work – the able-bodied were sent to the left while most children, the sick, and the aged were automatically sent to the right. That meant being gassed under the guise of having showers. One’s chances of survival were based largely on job assignment (an office job would require less physical output, therefore starvation was less likely than if doing strenuous manual labor) or outside contacts (Polish prisoners could receive care packages from family members while Jewish prisoners could not).
Various signs told the story along the tour: “Corpses of those killed trying to escape were left in this place as a warning to others.” “Roll call took place here, sometimes lasting a dozen hours or more.” “Hundreds of people died working in the quarry at this point; others were executed.” Watchtowers enabled guards to watch all movement in the lanes between the barracks, and electric fences kept people from escaping, although some prisoners committed suicide by deliberately running into them.
Inside the museum, we saw collections of prisoners’ shoes, clothing, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, hair brushes, and even human hair. Nothing was wasted – human hair, for instance, was stuffed into large bales and shipped away to be made into mattresses and blankets and other products. Unbelievable. Whatever personal belongings the prisoners brought with them were collected, sorted, and stored in warehouses until they could be shipped to Germany for distribution. Interestingly, these storage warehouses were nicknamed “Canada” because they were a symbol of affluence.
Perhaps the most sobering moment for me was stepping inside the gas chamber where several candles burned beside three floral bouquets. A sign at the doorway asked everyone to be silent to honor those who had died there. As often as the Germans deemed necessary, 800 men, women, and children would be told to strip and were then jammed into this small enclosure. A soldier would open a canister of poison and drop it through a hole in the roof. Everyone died within 20 minutes. Before the bodies were incinerated, other prisoners were forced to shave the heads and extract all gold teeth. I believe the horror witnessed in this room will never be fully comprehended. It is said that, if the cremations had been a faster process, the number of people gassed would have been much higher.
One prayer ran through my mind over and over as I toured this site: “God, save us from ourselves.” The depravity of mankind, the evil of the human heart defies comprehension. Why are we offended, then, at the thought of being sinners in need of a Savior?