Arbeit Mach Frei – Work makes us free. These words straddle the gateway to one of the most shameful locations in human history – the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Still sombre even today, visiting Auschwitz is a sobering experience, in spite of the 75-odd years since this still suppurating wound on the reputation of humanity was liberated.
The Soviet troops who in 1945 liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest Nazi death camp in occupied Poland, had already witnessed unspeakable atrocities across eastern Europe. No strangers they, even to instances of cannibalism as reported in the Siege of Leningrad, they were dumbfounded. Many reported falling into a deep silence as, in opening the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were met with ‘eyes’. I remember reading how one Soviet soldier described how impressed he had been with these visions of abject humanity. Reading his reactions I could not help thinking that as we say that the eyes are the mirror of the soul, this impression of a Soviet soldier was spot on: these people had been dehumanised to the point where all they had was a soul.
Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote: ” Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake”. He added that humankind is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, humanity also entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.
Humanity rendered grotesque
When the gates opened, the camp’s 7,000 surviving inmates still shocked the liberators: ruined gas chambers, victims of grotesque medical experiments, rooms full of hair and books bound in human skin. “I’m surprised not all the people here have gone mad,” wrote the Soviet commandant. The camp, where 1.1m people were murdered—90% of them Jews, along with Roma and political or war prisoners—has become a universally recognised symbol of evil and of the global commitment to prevent genocide.
The air is still heavy in Auschwitz as well as in other similar concentration camps. Steps echo. Voices automatically hush. The silence is loud and all colour seems to have been sucked out of the environment, even if in itself the colour exists. I recall a single daisy peeping bravely out. That humble little flower was, to me, a symbol of the people who, from Auschwitz, had survived and triumphed. The inmates, mainly Jews whose living testimony would, hopefully, stop a repetition of history. The German people, name tarnished by mad autocracy, recognised their errors in permitting a dictator a free hand and vowed no more.
On January 27th the Auschwitz Memorial Museum is staging a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. A long roster of international officials will attend, including the presidents of Malta, Germany, Israel, Poland and Ukraine, the prime ministers of France and Hungary and the Ambassador of Russia as well as the UN’s special adviser for preventing genocide. The gaps in the guest list testify to the modern political problems that muffle Auschwitz’s message of “never again”.