By the time the Russian Army got there, most of the surviving prisoners had been evacuated, forced to march west to other concentration camps in brutal winter weather when they were ill-clothed, ill-shod, ill-fed, and - it goes without saying - ill-treated. Those left behind were even weaker and sicker than those who were sent on the death march. There were only 7,000 of them. Many didn't survive liberation. Overall, more than 1 million people - most of them Jews - perished at Auschwitz.
I follow the Auschwitz Memorial on Twitter, so I know that today they're observing - I almost wrote 'celebrating' - the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. A number of survivors will be gathered there. Given their age - the youngest would be in their mid- to late-eighties - this is likely that last time that survivors will take part in any such memorialization of the Holocaust.
Most of what the Auschwitz Memorial posts are pictures and brief biographical snippets of some of those who were at Auschwitz - those who died there (most of the little bios) but some who survived.
And so we learn of little Shlomo Harschel, a 4-year old Dutch Jewish boy murdered in the gas chamber. Of Margot Rothensies, a German Jewish student deported to Auschwitz in 1942, when she was 20. She "did not survive." Neither did Feiga Tabakman, a hatter from Gdansk. She was 27. Bakers. Bookkeepers. Lawyers. Restaurant owners. Teachers. Clerks. Doctors. Boxers. Sales representatives. Tailors. Artists. Little kids, babies. Anne Frank's mother, Edith, died of starvation at Auschwitz, a few weeks before its liberation. A few months earlier, her daughters had been transported to Bergen-Belsen, in Germany, where they died of typhus in February or March of 1945. So near and yet...
I've been to Auschwitz.
We walked under the Arbeit Macht Frei gate. We walked through the barracks. We walked through the museum.
For me, the most heart-wrenching thing in the museum was a child's apron. A little white apron, made of heavy cotton, with pretty patch pockets in a red and blue flowered print. Maybe for a three or a four year old. Hand made. I thought about the mother, older sister, grandmother, aunt lovingly making that little apron...
I've read a lot about the Holocaust - history, fiction, survivor accounts - but top of the list of the ones that stick with me the most would be the diaries of Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness. Klemperer was a "privileged Jew", his privilege by way of a WWI Iron Cross and his marriage to a Christian. In February 1945, one of the last Jews in Dresden, he had at last been called up for deportation. Then there was the Dresden firebombing, which enabled Klemperer to escape and survive. He kept a daily diary from 1933 through 1945, and if you want an accounting of the lobster-in-the-pot-of-water way in which madness and evil completely took over Germany, this two-part work is for you.
For Auschwitz-related books, I'd recommend If This Is Man by Primo Levi, who was at Auschwitz on the day of its liberation. (Levi also wrote the brilliant Periodic Table.) And Tadeusz Borowski's short story collection, This Way to the Gas Station, Ladies and Gentlemen. Borowski was a Pole, non-Jewish, who spent time doing forced labor at Auschwitz. Having survived the war, he killed himself a few years later by putting his head in the oven and turning the gas on. His short stories are breathtaking. (Levi died in his late sixties after a fall. His death is disputed: it may or may not have been a suicide.)
For a symbolic understanding of the Holocaust, I'd recommend Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I know that this memorial is controversial, but to me - like the Klemperer book - it evokes how it happened. When you first approach, it's light and open. There may even be people perched on the blocks. But the further into the memorial you go, the darker it gets, and the more difficult it is to easily extract yourself from it.
Just a few thoughts on a day when it's not a bad thing to think about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, the 20th century's great cautionary tale...