It was an icy cold day in winter when I walked to the end of the train tracks at Birkenau near Auschwitz in Poland, saw the chimneys in front of me and felt a different kind of chill. I knew that more than two million people had been murdered there. Gassed with poison in a building made up to look like showers. Their bodies then thrown into the fire at the crematorium next door. Old women, children, it didn’t matter. They all received the same treatment. And what was their crime? They were Jewish.
The word, Holocaust, was historically used to refer to a burning sacrifice during a religious ceremony, but after World War II, it took on a new, horrifying meaning: the mass murder of more than six million European Jews.
Adolf Hitler was leader of Germany from 1933. He had joined the Nazi Political Party. They supported his view that the Jews were responsible for everything bad that had happened to Germany. Hitler’s goal was racial purity; he had a vision of a pure race of perfect specimens: a sound, obedient mind and a slender, perfectly healthy body with no disabilities. Propaganda films showed with tall, blonde, blue-eyed youths being the perfect people. Hitler wanted a race free of any mixing with non-Aryans (white Europeans). So he hated Jews, Asians or Africans. At the time people joked that Hitler himself was not a perfect German specimen as he himself was neither blonde nor blue-eyed.
But it was no joke. At first Hitler used laws to exclude anyone considered ‘inferior’ from society. Jews were made to wear a large yellow Star of David with the word ‘Jew’ in the middle. After the outbreak of WWII, Hitler’s plan to rid Europe of Jews went into overdrive. Hitler used the SS (the Nazi military wing) and the Gestapo (secret police) to carry out his orders. By the end of 1941, Jews were being transported from all over Nazi-occupied Europe in cattle trucks and being put into concentration camps. By the middle of the war there were more than 15,000 of these camps. They were called labour camps, transit camps and work camps, but in the end they were all death camps. Prisoners were starved, frozen, tortured, beaten and kept in the most appalling conditions. In the Jewish camps, the most despicable scientific experiments were done on the inmates.
Life in the camps was hard. Inmates were given almost no food and a lot of them died from starvation. Clothes were only changed every 6 weeks. Even in the camps, different groups had to wear different upside-down triangles to show why they were there. Yellow for Jews; blue for criminals, pink for homosexuals, black for gypsies.
The largest of all the camps was Auschwitz-Birkenau. By 1944, the systems in place were so efficient, they could kill more than 10,000 people in 24 hours. Hitler’s so called ‘Final Solution’ had become a reality. And men like Himmler, Heydrich, Mengele, Hoess, Goering and others would be remembered in nightmares for decades.
After the war, when the horrors of the holocaust became known, questions were asked: why didn’t anyone do anything to stop it? It was war time and there was fighting across Europe. The usual channels of communication were limited. And when there were reports of what was going on in Poland, no-one believed them. No-one could believe that such evil was possible.
At the end of the war, the world wanted to ensure that this never happened again. The United Nations was formed and countries came together to sign the Declaration of Human Rights. But for the survivors, the most important thing is that we never forget the past and learn from it.