Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 24, 2009

A sad chapter to remember

Mounds of human hair lined a wall of the room. A sign explained it was shorn from inmates and used to make textiles.

I had to leave so I wouldn't become sick.

Other rooms contained combs, shoes, belts, salve cans, aprons, baskets and Jewish prayer shawls, all sorted into piles and on display behind glass. The sheer number took me aback.

Husband Art, daughters Mariya and Katie and I visited the Auschwitz memorial in Oswiecim (ouwsh-vee-en-cheem), Poland on our spring trip to Europe. Each of us was apprehensive, yet we agreed it was something we should see. Nadja, our German exchange student from four years ago, and her boyfriend Tim also made the trip with us.

I hadn't realized before our visit that Auschwitz was three different camps. One was used to supply a factory with workers. Another one inside the city was a converted military barracks and housed Polish and political prisoners. But Auschwitz-Birkenau just outside the city is what most of us think about when we hear the name Auschwitz. It was the place where 1.5 million people were murdered at the hands of the Nazis - equivalent to killing about one of every two Kansans.

I had seen documentaries about the Holocaust and had visited concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt during previous trips.

And just a few days before, we spent several hours at Bergen-Belsen, where the buildings had to be burned because of the typhus epidemic. All that remains are huge mounds of earth, each of which is marked with the number of people buried underneath: "Hier ruhen 5,000 tote" - here rest 5,000 dead. Another is for 1,500 dead and yet another for 2,500 dead. And there are more still. It's peaceful, but it's a peace marred by great sadness. Anne Frank and her sister Margot were somewhere among those thousands.

So those experiences hadn't left me completely unprepared. Still, what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau made those other camps pale in comparison.

Located at a major railroad hub, it was easy to transport people there. A siding ended in the center of the camp. Although the camp was about 2,500 feet on a side, it typically held about 40,000 people - roughly the population of Manhattan.

Arriving prisoners stepped out onto the platform "ramp," where they were "sorted" into those who could work and those who couldn't. The latter group - children under 15, the elderly, pregnant women and the ill - were immediately sent to the gas chambers and then cremated. At the camp's busiest, the crematoria could handle only two out of every three victims. The remaining bodies were burned in piles in empty fields.

The prisoners who could work had their hair shaved, were tattooed with identification numbers on their wrists and were issued striped uniforms. Occasionally they were herded into a large building, where they were de-loused. Survivors said the water the guards used was either freezing cold or scalding hot. This wasn't done to protect the prisoners' health, but that of the camp guards who came in contact with inmates.

The tracks and some barracks are still intact, but the crematoria are largely gone. One was destroyed by prisoners during a revolt, and the rest were blown up by the Nazis near the end of the war in an attempt to destroy evidence of what had been done. Preservation efforts are now underway on the crematoria. Grave markers in a field near the crematoria indicate where ashes were dumped. An international memorial to the dead also lies at the back of the camp.

But most of the buildings are gone now and those that remain are crumbling. There is just too little money available to preserve them.

Although this was a sad chapter in the book of the human race and one some would rather forget, I think it's important that we don't. Perhaps Otto Frank, the father of Anne Frank and an Auschwitz survivor, said it best: "To build up a future, you have to know the past."

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