The infamous legacy of Auschwitz, 75 years after liberation

Auschwitz is generally the knee-jerk name that comes up in the context of the Holocaust, and has attained an almost iconic status in the history of the Jewish people.

‘March of the Living’ participants leave notes on the tracks leading to the former German Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp near Oswiecim, Poland, May 2, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/KACPER PEMPEL)
‘March of the Living’ participants leave notes on the tracks leading to the former German Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp near Oswiecim, Poland, May 2, 2019.
The Nazis established hundreds of concentration camps, death camps and other means of doing away with Jews, homosexuals, the mentally ill and other “undesirables.” But Auschwitz is generally the knee-jerk name that comes up in the context of the Holocaust. It has attained almost iconic status in the annals of that horrific period of the 20th century and, in particular, in the history of the Jewish people.
In 2005 the United Nations General Assembly declared January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day because, on that date in 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest concentration and death camp facility the Nazis created.
The facts are there for all to see, Holocaust deniers notwithstanding. Between 1940 and 1945, at least 1.3 million people, most of them Jews, were deported to Auschwitz, in German-occupied Poland. The enormous conglomerate comprised three main camps – Auschwitz concentration camp; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest part of the Auschwitz camp system, which incorporated both a concentration camp and a killing center; and Auschwitz III-Monolith. There were also close to 50 sub-camps. Of those sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million were killed. Among the victims were approximately 1 million Jews, 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and between 10,000 and 15,000 others.
Auschwitz is also the place where my Vienna-born mother’s parents, and younger brother and sister, were murdered. It took me until last year to finally visit the site. The official reason was a press trip to attend the official opening of the Through the Lens of Faith arts installation on July 1.
The work was designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, himself the son of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors who was born in Lodz just one year after the end of World War II.
The installation, which was curated by Henri Lustiger Thaler, chief curator of Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, features photographs, taken by Caryl Englander, of 21 survivors of Auschwitz – 18 Jews, 2 Polish Catholics and one German Sinti Free Christian – together with brief biographical information.
The subjects were chosen because they were all religious, and all except one, miraculously, came out of the camp with their faith intact. The exception, nonagenarian great-grandfather Avraham Zelcer, said it took him a year after liberation to rediscover his faith.
The installation is moving on various levels, and primarily because it brings you face-to-face with the survivors. They are actual people, who went on to live their long lives in the States and Israel and, for the most part, had large families. Some even had great-great-grandchildren.
The oft-cited figure of six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust is staggering. But it is a faceless statistic, albeit an enormous and spine-chilling one. But each one of those six million who died, and the millions who physically survived God knows how many horrific experiences, were and are human beings. Before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, for the most part each led his or her life, with all its joys and challenges, with no inkling of the approaching cataclysmic turn of events.
Thinking of six million is a very different proposition compared with considering, for example, what Ethel from Hungary, Yosef from Romania or Nisan from Czechoslovakia went through, what they felt and thought as they were herded from their homes to a train station, then crammed into cattle cars in indescribable conditions, for days and nights, as people died around them. Then, on arrival at Auschwitz, the brutality of the guards, the dogs, rifles, shouting, and the clinical selection process, with families torn apart. Most never met again.
Survivors, including the more famous among them, such as Austrian-born neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, talked of a process of dehumanization or depersonalization. Frankl said that, in his experience and professional estimation, the concentration camp inmates who felt they had a future, had something to look forward to, survived. That may have been fueled by religious beliefs, or just an indomitable spirit.
Frankl, himself, survived four camps, including Auschwitz. Yet, watching interviews with him filmed in the 1960s and 1970s, you get absolutely no inkling of the inferno he endured for almost three years.
Frankl, clearly, found some meaning to his intolerable suffering, and came out, seemingly, in one emotional piece. That, then, elicits the question of how one can find some meaning to the Holocaust. And, if that is at all possible, what that is and how that can benefit all of us – those who went through it, the members of the second, third and even fourth generations of the survivors who, too, have to deal with their forebears’ scars, and others.
I RECENTLY read a book by Gisella Perl with the self-explanatory title I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz. In it, Perl describes her Holocaust experiences in simple, firsthand, graphic detail. Perl was a Romanian-born gynecologist who was transported to Auschwitz, along with her husband and son, in March 1944. She was instructed by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele to use her professional skills on the camp inmates and, among other things, to tell him if she came across any pregnant women, so he could include them in his demonic medical experiments. Perl, in fact, carried out numerous abortions, at night, with no anesthetics, disinfectant or surgical instruments. She knew that if a woman gave birth, both she and her baby would not survive. Without her baby, the woman stood some chance.
Putting it mildly, I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz does not make for a fun read. It was published in 1948, and written in 1946, barely one year after Perl was finally liberated, from Bergen-Belsen. She went through and witnessed unspeakable horrors, and calls the last camp she was in the “supreme fulfillment of German sadism and bestiality.” She goes on to note that Bergen-Belsen – and, naturally, the same could be said of Auschwitz – “can never be described, because every language lacks the suitable words to depict its horrors. It cannot be imagined, because even the most pathological mind balks at such a picture.”
Shortly after the end of the war, on discovering that both her son and her husband had perished, Perl tried to commit suicide. She was saved and sent to a French convent to recuperate. She later moved to the States, where she said she became “the poorest doctor on Park Avenue [in New York], but I had the greatest practice. All of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen were my patients.”
Perl went on to become a renowned expert in treating infertility, and died in Israel, at the age of 81, after happily being reunited with her daughter, whom she had hidden with a non-Jewish family.
Like Perl, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wasted little time in chronicling his experiences in Auschwitz, from February 1944 until liberation on January 27 1945, putting out If This Is a Man in 1947. The Italian chemist, partisan and Holocaust survivor opens the book, one of several tomes he published, including volumes of essays, poetry, novels and science fiction, with a poem in which he considers how it was possible for a prisoner in Auschwitz to retain his humanity. That resonates with Perl as well.
As antisemitism and racism in general continue to raise their ugly heads across the very continent racked by Nazism not that long ago, and elsewhere, the eyewitness accounts of the likes of Perl and Levi, of their time in the concentration camp that became synonymous with the suffering wrought by the Holocaust, make for gripping, chilling and compulsory reading. Sadly, the messages they conveyed to the world over 70 years ago remain just as relevant today.