“Dear father! I am saying goodbye to you before I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death, because the small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly. – Your J., 31 July 1942”
6 million people perished, following the “final solution” of a conference where the motion was passed for the systematic annihilation of all European Jews in what came to be known as the Holocaust.
The National Socialist genocide took place at thousands of locations throughout Europe. Jews were deported with the aim of their total extermination; they were shot or murdered with poison gas. The policies of persecution also struck at Sinti and Roma (Gypsies), Soviet POWs, and civilians from almost all of Europe, especially Poles, Russians and Serbs, political opponents and resistance fighters. In the occupied territories of Eastern Europe, the German leadership deliberately let millions of human beings starve to death. Groups that did not fit the image of a human being as espoused by the Nazi rulers, such as the disabled and homosexuals, also were victims of the terror.
The sites of mass murder were the gas chambers in the death camps, countless shooting pits in Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Romanian, White Russian and Ukrainian forests, and hundreds of closed ghettos. Millions died a violent death in deportation trains and mobile gassing vans, in pogroms, reprisal operations, in forced labour camps and in concentration camps.
Trip stones – square bronze stones slightly protruding out from the pavement, intended to make the pedestrian trip, and hence will look at it closely and read the engravings there. They are found on the sidewalks just outside of flats and shoplots, all around the city centre of Berlin (and all around Germany too). Engraved on these bronze stones are the names of the Jewish people and families who used to live at this exact location, before they were taken and deported to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp (or others) in the trains of deaths, and later murdered.
Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe)
Just a stone’s throw away from the prestigious grandeur of Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag, you will come across this spooky large open space which is filled with nothing but thousands of imposing concrete rectangular blocks, of various sizes and heights, no labels, no literature, no entrance and no exit. If you have not known what it is, you would think that this is just an open air abstract art gallery.
The Holocaust Memorial was built to commemorate and honour the 6 million Jews who were annihilated by the National Socialist Regime during the Holocaust period. This memorial has 2 parts – the open air concrete jungle, and a very interesting information centre just underground of it. The 2711 concrete slabs, known as the Field of Stelae, was designed to create a confusing an uneasy atmosphere. Arranged in a grid pattern on a slopping field, the slabs grow taller and bigger as you walk towards the inner part, where the ground slopes downhill. The shadows of the towering stelaes around you will make your way darker and spookier, as you can’t see what’s around you and who will suddenly appear around the next corner; it felt like you have entered a maze.
The design of this memorial can also be interpreted as a symbolism of the carriages of the “Trains to Death”, the trains that transported all those prisoners into various concentration camps, where only 2 possibilities await the survivors at the end of the horrendous journey, and their fates will be determined in a matter of 24-48 hours. : They will either be culled into slave labour, or be killed on the spot, depending on their ages and physical conditions. Initially, there were fewer prisoners and fewer trains, and fever deaths. As the Nazi regime grew stronger and bolder, they began to have mass transportations on these trains known as “trains to death”, more atrocities were committed in the train journey itself, more deaths, until the young Nazi soldiers no longer see their victims as humans and their acts as murder, but considered it a pride to be able to serve their country by cleansing it of “impure elements”. Catching, torturing and killing Jews became a way of life, just a necessary process of “ethnic cleansing.”
“Now we know all the terrible details. 5,000 Jews are taken to Ponar instead of Kovno and shot. Like wild animals before dying, people began, in their fear of death, to break open the railway wagons, smashing in the small windows reinforced with strong wire. Hundreds were shot as they tried to flee. Over long stretches the track was strewn with corpses.”
Chelmno nad Nerem was established as the first camp for the systemic extermination of the Jews in occupied Poland. Between 1941-44, the German Security Police and regular police in Chelmno murdered almost the entire Jewish population of the area.
“The victims are forced to disrobe on the first floor of the manor house, ostensibly in order to take a shower. Then they are led to a ramp in the cellar. At the end of the ramp is a lorry. During the journey to the nearby forest of Rzuchow, engine exhaust fumes are pumped into the windowless storage area of the vehicle. The prisoners inside die an agonizing death. Their bodies are buried in mass graves in the forest. Between 150,000 and 320,000 people died in Chelmno.”
There was a room in the underground info centre where there you can pick up a phone and listen to Holocaust survivors’ testimonies, in their actual account. There were 2 stories that I recalled :
Testimony #1 : Female survivor from Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
“I was on the long train journey with my elderly mother and my 12-year-old son. When we reached our destination, we were met by a man. He was smartly dressed in an official uniform and seems to speak to us in a gentle manner. I said, “Please spare my old mother, she is sick and unfit for work.” He said, “Fine, so your mother will be sent home later.” I was relieved to hear it, and I believed this kind man. Then he looked at my son and said “This boy looks strong, he must surely be above 12 years old?” Fearing that my son will be made to work, I lied to protect him: “No, my son is not 12 years old yet.” “Very well” he said, “so we shall put him together with your mother and be sent home together on the next train.” I was so happy and relieved to hear this! The next day, I found out that the man I had spoken to on the previous day was actually the senior SS official who was in charge of “categorising” prisoners. And all those who were not selected for slave labour, were already shot to death, including my mother and son. I was horrified and shocked beyond words! What a terrible mistake I did! I have been so wrong! I thought that I have spared my old mother and my young son from hard work. But what I have actually done was condemned them to their immediate deaths. It almost drove me insane. The nightmares never stop haunting me up till today.”
Testimony #2 : Male survivor from Babij Jar Concentration Camp
“I was among other prisoners who were forced to dig. They never told us what we were digging for, but we all knew it. It was our own graves. Standing in a row facing the hole, we were told to strip. Without warning, I suddenly heard the sounds of open fire from behind us. The soldiers were starting to execute us. After being shot from the back, everyone fell into the hole they just dug. I realised I had not been shot. In panic and fear, I didn’t know what to do then. I decided to jump in too. I landed on the bodies of my fellow prisoners, and then more bodies came piling up on top of me. I laid quietly, for a long time, pretended to be dead. For a long, long time, the soldiers were hovering over our pile of bodies, once a while I still heard random shots being fired, soldiers making sure all the prisoners were dead. I waited some more. Didn’t dare to move even though the blood and the terrible stench of death were suffocating me. Then, later at night, I heard the sound of footsteps again. The soldiers were back! I felt earth hitting on my face and body now. They were burying the dead. I let them do it. I was buried alive. After awhile, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I did not hear any sounds anymore. The soldiers have left us finally. So I dug my way up the earth and back to life, grateful for the fresh air that greeted me once I surfaced. When I appeared above the earth, I heard similar struggling and earth moving sounds coming from other parts of the mass grave. There were other survivors too, who were buried alive, just like me. It was the most eerie sound.”
To be continued in : Holocaust & the Horrors of Concentration Camps – PART 2