Monday, January 27, is the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi camp at Auschwitz.
The knowledge that Auschwitz and Birkenau have got UNESCO tags comes as a bit of a shock. Why would anyone want to protect areas where the most awful genocide was committed against the Jews and other minority communities? But they do bear testimony to the country’s terrible past, thus providing the physical significance for a World Heritage Site.
Never did I imagine that I would be among the thousands who would step into Auschwitz and Birkenau. Having read about the tragedy of the Holocaust, I had the worst pictures in my head, even as I put on my ear-phones. The guide, an enthusiastic young lady, adopted a gentle manner, but decided to say it all.
The sight of the gas chambers and the guide’s words were chilling. Even worse were details about the medical experiments conducted by SS doctors in a “hospital” in Block 10. These were divided into three categories including finding cures for contagious diseases, which lead to excruciatingly painful deaths. Joseph Mengele also known as the ‘Angel of Death’ was the one who decided which fresh batch of prisoners would be transported immediately to the gas chambers, and who would be retained for his infamous experiments. After hearing their description, it seemed that those chosen for the chambers instantly were perhaps the more fortunate ones. This is not to say that death in the gas chambers was any less traumatic. Zyklon-B gas, after a test run, became the main means for mass extermination. By 1945, 11,00,000 men, women and children had lost their lives here.
Even more than the extermination areas, the most profound impact of the Holocaust Museum is in viewing the personal effects of the people, mostly Jews, who were brought to these camps. There is a hushed silence in the area where these are displayed behind glass cases and a feeling of committing sacrilege in taking out one’s camera to click pictures. Shoes, suitcases (2,100 of which carry their owners’ names and provide the only documentary evidence of their stay), prosthetic equipment, clothes and vessels are all piled up. There is poignancy in witnessing the belongings of the children who lost their childhood and ultimately their lives. Helmets, boots, whips and clubs speak of the cruelty of the SS guards. Canisters that contained Zyklon-B bear testimony to the extermination of prisoners.
Then the one-in-a-billion chance of running into a Holocaust survivor happens when Bernard Offen decides to speak to the guide. Bernard makes me realise that the history of a country is as much about its negatives as it is about its positives. He explains, “My decision to keep returning to Auschwitz to bear testimony was triggered by the publication of circles and diagrams of what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded. It made me realise that this was our civilisation’s improvement on the gas chambers and there was no need for concentration camps or trains. Not only Jews, but all of us have been exposed to the nuclear doomsday devices. I recognised the insanity of calling nuclear weapons, defensive devices.” Bernard’s sister and parents perished in the concentration camps, but he was reunited with two older brothers from whom he had been separated during the Holocaust.
Bernard’s books and films, as well as those of his brothers, provide documentary evidence about the Holocaust, with the number of survivors dwindling. He says, “It is information for which our civilisation is in denial in many ways and it is business as usual, thanks to nihilistic, self-destructive capitalism. We as human beings don’t count!”