On Jan 27, 1945, 73 years ago, Soviet forces entered the Auschwitz death camp in Poland and liberated 7,000 sick and dying prisoners left behind by the fleeing Germans. My parents, both deported to Auschwitz in June 1944 from their homes in Hungary, had by that time been shipped to other slave labor camps and had to endure several more months of starvation, beatings and slave labor before they too were liberated at the end of the war.
Much has been written about Auschwitz. Who were the prisoners who died there? Who were the people who survived and were liberated? And finally, who were the murderers? Established in 1940 after the fall of Poland, the camp was used, at first, to house Polish political prisoners, such as resistance fighters, priests and other enemies of the Third Reich. Later, gypsies, communists and homosexuals were shipped to Auschwitz – all were considered to be “sub-human” by the Nazis and were marked for extermination. In 1942, 15 high-ranking members of the German government and the Nazi party convened a conference at Wansee, a suburb of Berlin, to discuss the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
It was decided to exterminate the remnants of the 11 million Jews living in Europe by sending them to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz and its sister camp Birkenau, about 2 kilometers away, five gas chambers were built with accompanying crematoria to gas and burn the Jews.
By the time Auschwitz/Birkenau was liberated, over 1.5 million men, women and children, mostly Jews, had been exterminated in the gas chambers of the infamous death camp.
In May of 1944, with the war nearing its end, Nazi Germany along with its ally, the virulently antisemitic government of Hungary, began to feverishly speed up the deportation of the Jews of Hungary.
The Hungarian Jews were the last large Jewish community under Nazi control.
In less than two months, just over 55 days, the Hungarian government, showing rare efficiency, forced tens of thousands of Hungary’s Jewish citizens, including most of my family, into cattle cars for transport. The victims were told they were being shipped “east” for forced labor, but the destination was Auschwitz.
The Hungarian countryside was being rapidly emptied of Jews. What happened to them upon arriving? My parents described arriving after a five- or six-day journey, 80 people to a car, without food or water or latrines. They told me stories of disembarking and being selected for either the gas chambers (usually the old, sick and the women with children) or, for some of the more fit, slave labor. My parents were lucky, as they were selected for labor. My father’s first wife and his four-year-old boy, along with his mother, mother-in-law, brothers and sister, nephews and nieces, were all selected for death. Growing up, I would hear these stories endlessly. Later, I read many books by survivors. The stories were all the same.
Doing research for my book Recipes from Auschwitz into the story of my parents, I came across a remarkable photo album, called the “Auschwitz Album,” published by Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum.
It contains pictures depicting a train loaded with Jews arriving in Auschwitz/Birkenau.
The pictures show the disembarkation from the cattle cars, the selection into groups of men and women, the confiscation of the meager belongings they still possessed, and the march toward the building housing the gas chamber.
One photo even shows a group of women and children patiently waiting in a grassy clearing for their turn in the busy gas chamber, once the previous group of Jews was removed.
The photos show the entire story.
The Germans, meticulous record keepers, stationed photographers to record and immortalize the “Final Solution” in action. The remarkable story of the discovery of this album is detailed in the foreword of the book.
Lili Jacob, a Hungarian survivor, found an album of pictures in a drawer of a German officer’s barracks, after her liberation. She was astonished to discover that the pictures were of her and her family, taken the day they arrived on May 26, 1944, in Auschwitz. Many years after discovering the album, she donated it to Yad Vashem.
I studied the portraits over and over. Although they tell the story of Jews from another part of Hungary, I feel as if I know them. Are they my family? I look at the photos and my mother’s stories come alive. The photos show a simple story. Simple men and women with resigned faces. Children frightened, not knowing what is to become of them. Mothers clinging to their precious little ones, or supporting parents.
Some stare into the lens of the camera, wondering. I realize that my parents looked just like them. So did my grandparents and my little four-year-old brother. If you lived in Hungary, at that time, the photos could be of your family. Most of those in the pictures were killed.
Very few survived.
The portrait of the murderers, however, is less clear. Who were these men and women who were capable of the mass murder of millions of human beings as if they were vermin or cockroaches? My mother told me of the beatings administered by the female guards.
They were often more sadistic than the men. Did they know they were monsters? What made them hate so intensely? There is a second album, also containing pictures from Auschwitz.
This one was discovered in 2004 and contains photos of the German officers and staff responsible for the killing.
Far from looking like monsters, the pictures show ordinary Germans relaxing at Solahutte, a resort located on the Auschwitz complex, a mere few kilometers from the gas chambers. Documents reveal that for meritorious work or for rest and relaxation, the Nazis were rewarded with short stints at this resort to relax and recuperate.
Murdering twelve thousand people a day must be hard work.
The photos show women cheerily eating blueberries, groups of Germans men in SS uniforms singing to the accompaniment of an accordion.
They looked like ordinary people out on a picnic, relaxing on a balmy summer afternoon. Yesterday, they cruelly separated family members and herded them into the gas chambers. Today, they relax, eat blueberries and sing songs.
This album shows pictures of the top brass, the leadership of Auschwitz.
They are all there: Rudolph Hoess the camp commandant, Dr. Joseph Mengele, who carried out the terrible human experiments, Karl Hoecker, the owner of the album, Otto Moll, the chief of crematories.
The album contains a who’s who of German murderers.
Many were executed after the war, but many more escaped.
The very ordinariness of the scenes and people in the photos is frightening. How could they shove a four-year-old into the gas chamber and go on to sing and eat blueberries? What influenced these ordinary Germans to carelessly murder millions? The Polish, the Ukrainians and the Hungarians? The Germans may have created Auschwitz, but they did not create antisemitism. Hatred of Jews has been a disease eating away at the Christian soul for 2,000 years.
Unfortunately, this is the historical fact.
So, as we take a moment to commemorate the million-and-a-half men, women and children murdered in Auschwitz, we should consider this a teaching moment. Never again.The writer is a retired physician-scientist whose research field was children’s pulmonary function, and a karate instructor. Author of the forthcoming book Recipes from Auschwitz – My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.