The Germans Called It Auschwitz8 August 2018
CONTENT WARNING: HOLOCAUST, ANTI-SEMITISM
There is a village in Poland with a blue steepled church. It has a cobbled square surrounded by pastel buildings, with wrought iron lamp posts. There is a small café patronised solely by old men with greying moustaches and suspicious demeanours, and the busiest place is the Lidl just outside of the town centre. In the dead of winter, late January, it’s about zero degrees celsius on average. It’s so quiet it can’t be described as sleepy; more like comatose. They call it Oświęcim, but the Germans called it Auschwitz.
We arrive in the middle of the night. The streets are lonely and dark, paved with fracturing ice. Our landlady leads us up concrete steps to a recently refurbished apartment, telling us that the building used to house the families of the guards who worked nearby.
In the morning, we rise early and buy coffee and milk from the corner store. The man behind the counter chats to his wife in lilting Polish, and he uses his fingers to tell us how much we owe him. There’s a population of around 40,000, but we see no-one else. On our walk toward the compound, we pass a lone chair half-submerged in grass that winter has turned into a small frozen pond, and a school with dark windows and a deserted playground. It is only as we approach the visitors’ centre that we see busloads of people milling around, on day trips from Krakow mostly. Once they’ve done the tour, they will pile back on the bus without ever having to step foot outside of the camp.
The story of Oświęcim begins long ago in the days before countries and nations existed. Europe has never been a stable patchwork of states. It has existed in constant flux, pulling towns and cities between empires and duchies and kingdoms. Poland has oft sat in the middle of these contestations, suffering through fragmentation, partition, and invasion; Oświęcim’s history reflects that. Now it is a town in the south of Poland, but it has not always been. Born to the patriarchs of Slavic tribes toward the close of the first millennium, it has belonged to Polish Dukes, Bohemian Kings, a powerful Polish– Lithuanian Commonwealth, Austrian Emperors and a German Führer. It has suffered the invasions of Mongols and Swedes, been razed to the ground and risen again.
After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain beginning in 1492, Poland became home to many Jewish migrants, with the first synagogue built in Oświęcim toward the end of the 16th century. It was a period of religious and social upheaval in Europe, and Poland, with its laws of tolerance, became a centre of Jewish life. With the first partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772, Oświęcim was absorbed into the Austrian Empire. This was an arrangement unfavourable for the Jewish people in the Pale of Settlement, the territory which fell into Russian rule with the Commonwealth’s complete fragmentation in 1795. However, in the midst of the Enlightenment sweeping across western Europe, Austria was comparatively tolerant, and Jewish life in Oświęcim went on. After the dissolution of the Austrian– Hungarian Empire at the close of the Great War, Oświęcim was returned to the newly reunited Polish state. Yet the period of foreign rule had fostered widespread nationalism throughout the country, carrying with it polarising connotations of ethnic identity. Anti-Judaism had been a constant feature of Europe for as long as it had existed, but with the anti-religious nature of the Enlightenment came the necessity for a new justification for Jew-hatred. Populist rhetorics of race, associated with Darwinism and the ensuing Eugenics movement, transformed this rationalisation from deicide to blood and race. While Poland’s Jewish population expanded in the inter-war period, so did its anti-Semitism.
Iron letters curve above me. Sunlight slips in between the skeletal tree branches as I tilt my head back to translate the German words which arch over the gate I am paused in front of. Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes you free.
When we move on to Auschwitz II about 15 minutes away, my first thought is how big it is. It stretches to the edge of the horizon, the rows on rows of brick chimneys spotted occasionally with remaining wooden bunkers. We begin the procession up the railway tracks which run right from the entrance to the crematoriums: the Judenrampe.
On the 1 September 1939, the Germans came. Poland was carved up once again; the Soviets annexed the eastern region of Kresy, while the rest went to the Germans. Parts of western Poland were “reclaimed” into the German Reich as lebensraum: land that had once belonged to the German state of Prussia but which they had lost when Poland re-gained statehood in 1918. Oświęcim, however, belonged to the General Government. It was an area essentially intended to function as a colonial reserve of resources and labour.
Barracks were built near Oświęcim in 1917 by the ill-fated Austro–Hungarian army. After 1918, they would house Polish soldiers and migrant workers. When the Germans invaded, the resistance was so ferocious the old garrisons were soon turned into a camp to contain the numerous partisans. The first victims of Auschwitz were the 728 political prisoners who moved in, as the town and its surrounding villages were gradually cleared of inhabitants, to protect the horrors which were soon to come.
For it was not until after the commencement of Operation Barbarossa—the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941—that the “Jewish question” was provided with a tentative “solution”. Because of Oświęcim’s location, with railroads that connected it to most of Europe—a reminder of its more prosperous days as an integral part of trading routes—the camp became an opportune spot for new forms of industrialised mass murder. In late 1941, the Germans opened Auschwitz Birkenau to accommodate their plans; by this point, the majority of the Polish Jewish population had been “liquidated” in the other death camps in Poland. Auschwitz, rather, was the murder site of international European Jewry. They came from France, Holland, Bohemia and Moravia, Belgium, Slovakia, Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway, Italy, and Hungary—all to meet the same fate. Estimates place the total murdered at 1.1 million.
Poland was left permanently changed by the war. Most of the land annexed by the Soviets in 1939 remained in their possession, and they quickly tucked the new Polish government under their thumb. Poland, once an ethnically diverse state, became homogeneous. On the eve of World War II, over half of Oświęcim’s population was Jewish: the town had been a place of many Jewish customs and traditions, creating a dynamic cultural life. After the war, only 77 Jewish people returned to their old home town; however, they soon found there was little left for them. The last Jewish person in Oświęcim passed away in 2000.
In the nineties, there was an initiative to open a discothèque in an old tannery, where the Nazis had once run a workshop fuelled by Jewish slave labour expropriated from Auschwitz. Of course, the tannery had already existed; it, like Oświęcim, had a history before the Holocaust. As its proponents argued, the club did not fall within the “buffer-sphere” surrounding the camps, put in place after it was granted World Heritage status in the 1970s. However, the club’s operation was fleeting, before protests from a variety of organisations and governments shut it down. Many locals, particularly youth, complained of the stigma still attached to the town. At what point, they seemed to ask, does life go on?
This is not just a question for the locals of Oświęcim: historians have been attempting to decentralise the foreboding figure of Auschwitz in the popular narrative of the Holocaust for decades. For the Holocaust did not begin with Auschwitz. Rather, Auschwitz was one of its lethal phases. Of all the death camps, it had the most survivors; because, like Majdanek, it was a concentration camp too. Few outlived the existence of the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno or Belzec.
Earlier this year, the Polish government passed a law which made it a criminal offence to accuse Poland of participating in the Holocaust. It was, after all, the Nazis who were ultimately responsible for the horrors of the Shoah. However, as many have protested, we cannot rewrite history. Perhaps the most disturbing reality of the crimes against humanity committed in Poland and the rest of Europe is the complicity of governments and peoples who were not Nazis. It cannot be denied that there were elements of society in all countries invaded by Germany who resisted and risked their lives to protect their communities, which at times included Jewish people. Yet, the Nazis could not have implemented their regime of terror without the collaboration of local populations. The question of blame is still one with which Europe continues to evade; the resurrection of far-right parties across the continent is evidence of the denial so many cling to.
Time stands still here. Our tour guide, a woman with a heavy Polish accent, concludes our tour without fanfare, and we file back to our cars. We drive through the near-empty streets, and somehow, we end up back at Auschwitz Birkenau. As the sun sets behind the ruins of the gas chambers, the streetlamps which line the Judenrampe flicker on, illuminating the railway line. I came to this place as a student of history, searching for answers I’ve never found in books. Yet I am still utterly lacking the comprehension I sought; and I realise that the truth will always elude those who try to answer the questions that war has left behind.
Oświęcim is a place where ideology and industrialisation turned on humanity. This place, while abandoned in some ways, will never be erased by life as it goes on. The people who died here will never be allowed to fade into the landscape of the Polish countryside. While it is maintained to be both a memorial and a museum, it will always remain a gap in time. It is human nature to grow over wounds and heal eventually, to take back what has been taken. But perhaps the very reason this place should never be allowed to dissolve into the dirt is because its existence was so completely inhuman; that there are just some parts of this earth that nature never wants back. This place has no flesh, it is only a skeleton. It will remain a town of bones, because what lies below the skin is out of human comprehension.