On 27 January 1945, the Red Army liberated the largest camp of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp complex that was used to commit the worst act of barbarity in European history.
1.1 million people perished the camp in four years
Of the 1.3 million people sent to the camp, 1.1 million perished in less than four years as part of the state-sponsored genocide designed and carried out by the Nazi leadership. The vast majority of those sent to the camp were Jews – about 90% of which were gassed on arrival – and the rest of the death toll is composed of other minorities that were deemed to be untermensch (sub-human): non-Jewish Poles, homosexuals, Roma, Soviet POWs, and other citizens that lived in occupied Europe. Those that were not killed outright perished by being worked to death, by individual execution, by infectious disease, or by being used during medical experiments.
The Nazis built three separate camps that together make up what we now think of collectively as Auschwitz. There is Auschwitz I, the main camp in Oświęcim; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the massive concentration/extermination camp with the infamous train track that led straight to the gas chambers (situated a few minutes down the road); and the now completely demolished Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a labour camp which was originally created to provide chemicals giant IG Farben with slave labour, as well as dozens of subcamps.
It was an unspeakably cold day when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I still remember the odd feeling I got when I walked through the security barrier and stepped into Auschwitz I, which I experienced again when entering Birkenau. It’s incredibly bizarre to suddenly find yourself standing in a place you’ve heard so much about, seen so many photos of, and seen featured in so many films. The various buildings in Auschwitz I contain several exhibitions and leftover belongings from the innocents that were sent there, such as glasses and shoes. A relatively recent addition is a room with a row of several overhead televisions airing various speeches – with a different set of subtitles for each language on each screen – from Nazi leaders such as Joseph Goebbels, screaming about the downfall of the Jewish race in Europe. One thing that was particularly striking was a hole in a brick wall in one of the buildings, filled with various items such as a razor and some shoes – presumably hidden by an inmate waiting to escape. The ‘Death Wall’, located in the yard at the side of block eleven, was the site where the SS shot several thousand people – now often covered in wreaths and flowers. Birkenau was even more unsettling to stand in. The place is so enormous that you can stand on the train tracks next to the entrance and struggle to see the end of the camp. It was quite touching to see two students from a Jewish school walk around with a flag bearing the Star of David.
On 23 January, world leaders including Prince Charles, Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Macron of France, US Vice President Pence, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gathered at the Yad Vashem remembrance centre in Jerusalem for an event held by the 5th World Holocaust Forum. The 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation arrives in an unfortunately germane context – a recent poll marking Holocaust Memorial Day found that 5% of UK adults (which when extrapolated is equivalent to 2.6 million people) deny that the Holocaust ever happened. 8% say that the scale of the genocide has been exaggerated, and one in five said that fewer than two million were killed. This is not just limited to the UK. A poll carried out in November across seven European countries found that one in three people knew little or nothing about the Holocaust, and in France, 20% of 18-34-year olds said they had never heard of it, with the figure in Austria being 12%. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Tel Aviv University researchers last year recorded nearly 400 attacks against Jewish people in 2018, with France and Germany experiencing a rise in reported anti-Semitic violence of over 70%. 40% of European Jews are considering leaving their countries. Increased migration to Israel in recent years is not happening for no reason.
It’s why Holocaust Remembrance Day matters. And it’s why everybody should visit Auschwitz.
Last modified: 9th February 2020