Memories Of Auschwitz
Jonathan Webber, The Guardian (London), 1/13/05
Auschwitz is far and away the largest single site of the mass murders committed during the second world war. It is the largest cemetery in the world, containing the last remains of well over a million human beings - men, women and children, murdered in the name of a state ideology. The corpses were pushed into giant incinerators and their ashes dumped into nearby rivers and ponds, or simply strewn over neighbouring fields. The sheer scale of the atrocities, the horrific industrialisation of mass murder by poison gas, the systematic robbery of personal property - all this, and very much more besides, rightly confirms the name of Auschwitz as an indelible stain on the moral history of humanity and on the social and political history of Europe.
So it is not difficult to understand why the liberation of Auschwitz, on January 27 1945, is an event of singular importance deserving serious and thoughtful commemoration. But how adequate is Auschwitz as a symbol of the totality of the Holocaust, which claimed six million Jewish lives, and as a symbol also of the deaths of many millions more of other European populations during the war (notably Poles, Gypsies and Russians)? What about the five other death camps specially constructed by the Germans in occupied Poland - Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Chelmno? Many people have never heard of them. How is this possible?
The short answer is that what most people know about the Holocaust derives to a great extent from survivors. It is absolutely right that we listen to their voices, out of respect for the dead and out of concern for the suffering of those who managed to live through it all. Auschwitz had 40 sub-camps, constituting one vast prisoner universe of slave labourers; the largest of these, at Birkenau, was alongside the gas chambers. It meant that if, on arrival, a deportee was sent to an Auschwitz labour camp, rather than to the gas chambers, there was a possibility that he or she could end up surviving the war. At Belzec, in contrast, there was no labour camp. About half a million Jews were murdered there, on a piece of land not much larger than three or four football pitches; fewer than 10 people are known to have survived. More than double that number were murdered in Auschwitz, but many tens of thousands managed to survive through being assigned to one of the labour camps. Auschwitz survivors were thus numerous enough to ensure their story was told to the world. Many Auschwitz survivors are still alive today (about 150 of them in Britain alone) - whereas from Belzec we have just two testimonies, and those two survivors are long since dead. No wonder so few people have heard of Belzec.
Well over 100 buildings survived intact in Auschwitz, in addition to the ruins of the gas chambers themselves, and visitors have a good deal to gaze at there. Nothing at all remains of Belzec or Treblinka, except for memorials. Auschwitz was carefully preserved as a museum by the Polish government, and today it has a staff of 200 people, including research historians who have together published more than 400 titles in many different languages; Treblinka, where 800,000 people were murdered, has no museum.
Auschwitz was also more international than other camps: people were deported there from all over Europe, from as far away as northern Norway and even from the Greek island of Rhodes. All over Europe the memory of this camp located near a small Polish town thus lives on, as a horrifying reminder of the evil perpetrated by the German occupying forces.
During the war, Auschwitz was already a household name in Poland: this was the camp to which Polish intellectuals, priests, members of the resistance movement, and indeed ordinary Poles arrested in street round-ups would be sent. As many as 75,000 ethnic Poles were murdered in Auschwitz: their families knew where they were since they could send them postcards, even food parcels. Auschwitz (or Oswiecim in Polish) became synonymous with the horrors of the occupation; little wonder that the communist government after the war preserved the place as a reminder of the evils of fascism, and a visit there was an obligatory part of the school curriculum.
These are some of the reasons why Auschwitz is so well known. But the fury and the brutality of the Holocaust extends much further than Auschwitz, where not more than a quarter of the six million Jewish victims met their deaths. Probably as many Jews were murdered by firing squads and their corpses dumped in mass graves - across eastern Europe this happened at so many hundreds of sites that their names will never be well known. Nor will the names of the ghettos into which the Jews were forced, usually in appalling conditions, before being taken out and murdered. We will never know the exact number of the victims in each of these stages and settings of the genocide, mainly because the historical records are incomplete. We owe it both to the historians and to the survivors, each in their different ways, for our detailed knowledge. But when the generation of survivors slowly comes to an end, we will still have our film-makers and other artists, among many others, to fill out our understanding.
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