I’d never believed I would make the journey to Auschwitz. This place wasn’t part of my story, or so I thought. But as soon as I discover that after so nearly making it to the end of the war, Felix Rieden, my father’s uncle, had been sent to Auschwitz, I knew I had to go.
Then, as the truth about my family tumbles out of the archives ‘Osvětim’ – the Czech name for Auschwitz – appears with a deafening finality on dossier after dossier, I realise how intrinsic this dark, dark town in Poland is to our family footprint.
I now know that two of my father’s uncles, two of his aunts and a young cousin, just three years old, had been deported to Auschwitz. But the thing about the records is that there are no absolutes. In the wake of the Nazi destruction of much of their obsessive cataloguing was a painful jigsaw puzzle of partial information without closure. Could any of these five have escaped the inevitable somehow?
I hope in Auschwitz I might find some definitive answers, even a miracle perhaps.
I wear white – I don’t want to mourn, but to triumph that finally I have found my relatives, that they haven’t been forgotten by us, the Rieden family heirs; and to show them that their little Hansi, my father who escaped to England, became their secret weapon against the Nazis.
It takes five hours to drive to KL [Konzentrationslager] Auschwitz from Prague – it took my relatives at least two days, possibly more, crammed into cattle trucks, locked in with no fresh air or sunlight, desperately trying to peek through any gaps in the wooden planks to get some idea of where they were headed. This was the dreaded journey ‘East’ that everyone had feared. On the day I go it is stiflingly hot, with a powerful side wind that feels as if you’re standing in front of a hair dryer. I always pictured Auschwitz coated in thick snow, the mud paths hard with ice, but now I realise the summers must have been just as punishing.
Holocaust tourism has a tainted, grisly feel, especially when you see people clamouring to pose for photos in front of key landmarks – the watchtower, the gas chambers, the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ [work makes you free] sign . . . But very soon that uneasiness turns into shock, horror and utter disbelief. The other visitors fade into the background as I take in the ‘sites’ of this permanent memorial, walking in the final footsteps of Felix, Rudolf, Valerie, Eliska and Vera. This is now about finding my family, about refusing to let them be just numbers on a list of those presumed dead. I want answers.
My guide Vida provides a staccato commentary of what went on here, and with each monstrous anecdote the faces of my lost relatives appear before my eyes. I trace their experiences around the camp, and the more I discover about their deaths, the more they become vital and alive.
We start at Auschwitz-II Birkenau, the second part of this enormous death camp complex with its multiple sites, and the place where my relatives would have arrived and in all likelihood been killed.
With all the films, the documentaries, the books and the plays, you think you know about Auschwitz and what went on here, but you don’t. I didn’t…
The scale of this place is mind-blowing, and the sheer manpower needed to conceive it, build it, operate it and keep all of it hidden from the world unconscionable. This was not the work of one evil despot or even of a group of deluded amoral individuals. So, so many would have been involved in these barbaric acts. What had humanity come to, and how had so many been persuaded that this was the right and just course of action?
Walking under and into the central watchtower, which stands almost 15 metres high, the tallest building in the camp, I imagine the SS officers, pistols cocked, sitting up there crowing over their domain, a city of suffering that included at least five of my relatives…
Unlike Auschwitz I, which was established in existing pre-war barracks, Auschwitz-II Birkenau was completely built for purpose on the site of Brzezinka, a Polish village. The local population was expelled, the houses demolished and 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war brought in to build this city of extermination on 140 hectares of land.
By the time my great uncle Rudolf Hoffer and his wife Valerie, his sister Eliska and her toddler Vera arrived in December 1943, this place was all set up, with around 300 barracks surrounded by 16 kilometres of barbed-wire fencing. The four gigantic gas chambers were also fully operational, with crematoria attached and fired up, so bodies could be swiftly reduced to dust. The efficiency was breathtaking. This was a killing machine on a scale never before conceived.
…Through the middle of the camp the train lines scar the ground, a reminder of the constant arrival of more and more prisoners. As an example, a simple railway cart has been positioned, testimony to the conditions the deportees endured. Here, people were treated like animals, which is exactly how the Nazis saw Jews. Originally, trains arrived at the train station in Oświeçim and deportees walked from there to the camp. But these extra train tracks, specially constructed to deliver prisoners direct to the camp, opened in the spring of 1944. Felix would have arrived here, but the rest of my family had walked from the town.
On arrival, deportees were told to leave all their personal belongings on the ramp beside the train. These were collected and stored in a series of warehouses…The property was sorted and much of it sent to the interior of Germany to support the war effort or appropriated by the Nazi officers. Some ended up on an internal black market. At the end of the war, when the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz, they found warehouses stuffed with hundreds of thousands of men’s suits, pieces of children’s clothing, more than 800,000 women’s outfits and 14,000 pounds of human hair, bundled into batches ready to be sent to textile companies to make carpets and fabric.
The selection process on arrival has been well documented: the commotion, the terror, the brutality and then the finality of being directed to the left or the right by an SS officer, with the power of life and death in one hand gesture. Those loaded onto the trucks hoped they were being shipped out of Birkenau, maybe to the labour camps… But the trucks took victims straight to the gas chambers.
Those who stayed were marched to the ‘Sauna’ building. This complex opened in December 1943, and my relatives were probably among those to have passed through here. Every part of the Auschwitz journey was designed to degrade, to humiliate and to dehumanise. Tens of thousands arrived at the ‘Sauna’ to queue up for the Birkenau induction, often waiting for hours in bitter cold or, as I experienced, searing heat.
First the new arrivals would have had their heads shaved. Camp barbers used blunt instruments and worked quickly, so prisoners were often left with painful bloody cuts. Next, the deportees were stripped and herded into shower rooms, where disinfectant rained down. Today the ‘Sauna’ remains as a memorial.
It takes a while for me to grasp that this was the very room where in all likelihood my family stood, naked and wet on the concrete floor, exposed to drafts, as they waited, often for several hours, for their clothing. It’s unlikely that Rudolf and Valerie, husband and wife, were together, but I am hoping Eliska was holding her daughter Vera tight as they passed through this purgatorial waiting room.
Registration followed and – the final insult – the camp number that would now replace their name was tattooed on their arm.
As I file out of this hovel of humiliation, I stop at walls of beautiful photographs, mementoes from the luggage of the Auschwitz victims. Here are families dressed up in their finest: proud, vital, happy and very much alive. I stare into their eyes… Is my family here? … I long to catch sight of them, something to show they had been here, that they couldn’t just disintegrate into thin air without a trace.
Next stop is the gas chambers. I have been steeling myself for this. The chambers were destroyed by the Nazis on 20 January 1945, blown up with dynamite a week before the Soviet Army liberated all of Auschwitz, and what remains is rubble, but enough to build a picture. A chillingly comprehensive floor plan on a sign in front of one of the chambers, plus the detailed model in part of an exhibition in Auschwitz I builds up a picture I can never erase.
Most of those who came here were straight off the transport – filthy, smelly, their legs coated in urine, exhausted, sick and terrified, clinging to each other. A large number of these people had arrived on trucks. They had been told that they were going to labour camps outside Birkenau, and here they would first be disinfected and could wash. It was of course a lie. Others arrived on foot, either marched under guard from transports or selected from inside the camp.
The chambers were underground. This I wasn’t prepared for. Victims would queue up, walking down a stone staircase into a subterranean network of chambers. There they were told to remove all of their clothes. In some cases, the disrobing was done outside, and queues of naked people huddled in lines under the command of SS officers, crowding the entrance.
Next, they were told they were going to have a shower, and to add credence they were given soap and a towel. They would carry on walking, thousands herded like sheep, and eventually end up in the gas chambers. Many broke down and started to panic, and screaming could often be heard by those in the barracks and surrounding houses.
In the chambers they could see the pipes above on the ceiling. Some who had heard rumours feared gas would come out of them. Others believed they would be showered with water, some relief after their tortuous journey. But the pipes were just for show. The SS often told them to sing through their shower, which many did; this would have hastened their death as they breathed in the gas more swiftly.
The doors were bolted shut, and then through hatches in the ceiling, granules of Zyklon B were dropped into metal mesh columns. On hitting the air, the pellets turned to suffocating gas. Usually it took a few minutes for everyone inside to die, the bodies piling on top of each other, and when the doors were opened they would tumble out in a mangled mess.
The Sonderkommando – a ‘privileged’ group of prisoners tasked with working in the gas chambers – then dragged the corpses out and set about the task of untangling them. They had to cut off the hair from those women who had come directly from the transport, to add to the camp supplies, and remove jewellery and metal dentures. Gold fillings were melted down in a crucible. The bodies were then either burned in the crematoria, which had been built next to the gas chambers for maximum efficiency, or on a pyre. Any bones that didn’t burn were ground down into powder. Even so, there was a great deal left of these human beings. The amount of ash produced was substantial. Some was thrown in the rivers Soła and Vistula, some tossed into nearby ponds and some used to fertilise the surrounding fields or to level uneven ground.
The gas chambers, I’m told, were dismantled on 2 November 1944.When I hear this I immediately pull out my diary where I had recorded the details of the transports that brought my family here. I thought nothing more could shock me, but there it is in black and white. Felix would have been among the last Jews to have been gassed in Birkenau. My great-uncle’s life ended here where I am standing, just two days before gassing ended altogether.
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