The Lost Family. The 63rd Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz
Former Auschwitz prisoners; representatives of the Polish parliament, government, and President; deputies of the European Parliament; members of the diplomatic corps; residents and officials from Oświęcim powiat, invited guests, and all those desirous of taking part in ceremonies marking the liberation of the camp by Red Army soldiers attended commemorative ceremonies on Sunday, January 27. The Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, and Mrs. Kaczyńska were the honorary patrons.
This year’s ceremonies were dedicated to the tragedy of the families of various faiths and ethnic backgrounds who suffered and died in the camp. The theme of this year’s ceremony, “The Lost Family,” was chosen in view of two historical anniversaries that fall in 2008. In 1943—65 years ago—the Nazi Germans opened two “family camps” in Birkenau, for Roma and Jewish families. The majority of the people imprisoned in these camps died there or were murdered in the gas chambers.
Toman Brod from the Czech Republic, Lidia Maksymowicz from Belarus, Krystyna Kobylańska and Jerzy Ulatowski from Warsaw, and Zofia Cielecka-Nowak from the Zamość region of Poland, all deported to Auschwitz as children, attended the observances and recalled those tragic events.
Museum Director Piotr M. A. Cywiński asked those present: “How could a small child deny a superpower living space? How could an old lady endanger racial purity? To whom should I direct these questions today? There is something dramatically human in the experience of Auschwitz. Something that can make anyone uneasy. And so it should.”
“The world owes remembrance to all those who stood up against, and continue to stand up against the killing of the innocent,” said Minister Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka of the Chancellery of the President of the Polish Republic, speaking of the heroes who helped others during the war.
“May remembrance serve us and the coming generations as a shield to protect us from malice, hatred, aggression, racism, and anti-Semitism,” she said.
The minister remarked that the ceremony, which was attended by more than 50 former prisoners, was especially dedicated to the story of families. She recalled that parents and children were brutally separated in Auschwitz. “This year sees the 65th anniversary of the deportation of the first Roma families, and Jewish families from the Theresienstadt ghetto,” she said.
She recalled the fate of Polish families deported from the Zamość region in 1942, and from Warsaw at the time of the Uprising. She urged that the Polish families who rescued Jews, sometimes whole families, not be forgotten. “Let us remember the heroic attitudes of the Ulm, Kowalski, and Kosielski families, and many others, who were murdered by the Nazis for concealing Jews who were their fellow countrymen,” she said.
Tomasz Merta, the deputy minister of culture and national heritage, said that it was precisely in Auschwitz that the family, the mainstay of all values and the basis for the formation of the individual, was supposed finally to cease to exist. “There were hundreds of thousands of families whose normal lives were interrupted by Nazism,” said the minister.
He stressed that the government of the Republic of Poland is aware of the importance of the conservation, education, and exhibition tasks that stand before the Museum, and that both the government and the minister of culture therefore fully support the projects being created and developed by the staff of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. “Nothing should be allowed to stand as an obstacle to commemoration and to the education of the increasing numbers of visitors from all over the world,” Tomasz Merta stated emphatically.
Young people from the Stanisław Konarski secondary school in Oświęcim also attended; they were responsible for the musical accompaniment. Members of the local Roma community joined the students in reading from accounts by former prisoners.
In the second half of the ceremony, the participants walked to the Monument to the Victims of the Camp, where they placed wreaths commemorating the victims. Rabbis and Christian clergy from various denominations joined together in the reading of the 42nd Psalm.
In the morning, former prisoners and Museum staff paid tribute to the victims of Auschwitz by placing floral tributes at the Death Wall. They also recalled the liberators of the camp—soldiers of the 100th Lvov Infantry Division of the 60th Army of the Red Army’s First Ukrainian Front, commanded by General Major Fyodor Krasavin. A total of 231 Soviet soldiers died fighting to liberate the Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Monowitz camps, and the city of Oświęcim.
In view of the significance of the place and the importance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau site as a symbol for the entire world, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted in November 2005 to observe International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of the camp.
Remarks by Museum Director Piotr M.A. Cywiński
I would like to welcome everyone here.
In this very place,
Where so many were never bidden farewell.
I wish to welcome each one here. Regardless of their rank or role,
Function or the motives that brought them here.
The people who ended up in the Sauna, too,
Were students, diplomats, politicians, clergy…
They were parents, children, cousins.
In this place, none of that mattered any more.
From then on, they were only victims. Today we are here for them.
Sometimes I imagine what it was like before,
Before it all happened.
What it was like in the times
When people thought that only depraved individuals
Could become murderers. They never suspected that
A whole system, culture, politics, society could turn out
To be murderous on such a scale.
Before that, winter also existed.
Here, on the roads, in the thatch-roofed villages,
The snow squeaked underfoot.
Seventy years ago in this place
Where we stand, no one suspected a thing.
No one suspected a thing in many other places around the world.
And then, the thing that no one suspected occurred.
Today no one has illusions any more. Today we stand here
And we need not even be suspicious. We know.
Or perhaps: Everything human is suddenly highly suspect.
Mama, Daddy, Little Girl, My Love,
Don’t wander away! Come on!
Those or similar words surely sounded frequently on the nearby ramp.
As they do today on family strolls.
I would like to ask.
How could a small child deny a superpower living space?
How could an old lady endanger racial purity?
To whom should I direct these questions today?
Could any answer put me at ease?
We look at this emptiness and at these ruins, and still we feel unease.
Unbearable unease—about what can happen. We remember what was, we know what is possible.
Primo Levi wrote that, when we fear the future, it is really the past that disturbs us.
Today, few among us remember the current that ran through this barbed wire and the shouts of the rabid SS men.
Yet all, even those born long after the war, we all feel unease in this place.
In other words, there is something dramatically human in the experience of Auschwitz.
Something that can make anyone uneasy. And so it should.
© copyright for the translation William Brand 2008.
Excerpts from the memoirs of Auschwitz survivors read during the commemoration by students from the Stanisław Konarski secondary school in Oświęcim (texts from the Archives of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)
The victims are already standing in the trucks, which are ready to drive away. They look around, as if they are looking for somebody. It seems to a young woman that her beloved husband will come to her from somewhere—a mother is looking for her young son this tragic night; perhaps he will come to her. And a girl, in love, is looking and straining to see if perhaps her beloved is with the people in the trucks there.
I saw Mother for the last time as, weeping, she knelt next to the barbed wire and said farewell to her four youngest children, who were being led to the train station. I have never forgotten this, it is unforgettable, it comes back in dreams.
A group of women are sitting there, embracing and kissing. Sisters have met up. A naked mother is sitting on a bench there, holding her naked daughter on her knee. The child is just a girl, not yet 15. She presses her head against her mother’s breast . . . And hot tears stream down on the young flower. The mother is crying over her child. Soon, she will have to take her by the hand and lead her to her death.
It was terribly dark and terribly cold. The wind was howling. We were in dread of the Germans and the darkness around us. We sobbed. We prayed. Every so often, someone called out: Mama, Papa. The old people tried to soothe us, but couldn’t do much. We were hungry.
It was a dark night. The Germans burst in and ordered us to leave our home. They kept shouting: Schnell! Schnell! We went outside. Nocturnal darkness. Mixed rain and snow fell. People came out of other houses, clutching small bundles. Some of them carried sick people or children, because everyone had to leave the homesteads. Troops surrounded the village. No one could escape.
The last time I saw my younger siblings, my little sister said to me in farewell: “You’re going away, and they’ll burn us.” Those were the last words I heard from her lips. I’ll never forget them.
Former prisoner Józef Ciepły (camp number 169 400)
“In the vicinity of Rajsko, not far from the camp, I noticed the hunched figure of a woman a the side of the road. It was the corpse of a prisoner, shot by SS guards. I saw the greatest number of corpses of shot prisoners between the localities of Miedźna and Ćwiklice. One of our friends, who came from Poznań, counted 114 corpses. These were the bodies of those marching ahead of us. The corpses lay scattered on the road, and we had to step around them.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives, Statements, vol. 86, pp. 125-126
Jewish former prisoner Ilona Stružinska, from Czechoslovakia (camp number A-26 082)
“The Polish residents of various towns in Upper Silesia came running up as we marched through and gave us milk and bread. The SS men pushed these people away violently and we marched on, without a moment’s pause, without being able to drink anything.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives, Statements, t. 80, k. 170
Former prisoner Anna Łuszczewska-Chomicz (camp number 44 174)
“On January 27, 1945, we heard a grenade explode near the camp gate. We immediately looked out of the blocks and saw several Soviet scouts, with their rifles leveled, coming our way from the gate. We hung out sheets, on sticks, with stripes (from the block supervisor’s pillowcases) sewn on them in the shape of a red cross. At the sight of us, the scouts lowered their weapons. Since I knew Russian, I called out “Zdrastvuytye pabiedityeli I osvoboditieli!” [Greetings, victors and liberators!]. In response, we heard, “Uzhe vy svobodnyje” [You are free]. That same day, a Russian film crew arrived at the camp with a larger group of soldiers. One of the crew was a well-known prewar Polish filmmaker, Adolf Forbert. He was dressed in a Soviet uniform, but had a Piast-style Polish eagle on his cap. We plucked the cap off his head and kissed the eagle in joy. Both Forbert’s cap and his face were wet with the tears that we shed, for the firs time in a long time, in joy.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives, Statements, vol. 75, pp. 9-14
Former prisoner Zofia Jankowska-Palińska (camp number 68 992)
“Incredible chaos prevailed over the next few days. One military unit after another marched through the camp. Various people began coming in search of relatives. A week later, a team of doctors and nurses arrived with the equipment needed for treatment. They took very good care of us. The first thing they did was to wash us, give us a change of clothes, and lay us down on clean bedding. They melted snow because of the water shortage, and brought in barrels full of drinking water. They gave us three meals a day, adjusted for our state of health. The doctors began weighing and examining the patients. I was 18 years old and weighed 19 kilograms.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives, Statements, t. 85, k. 38
THE LAST DAYS OF THE AUSCHWITZ CAMP
The Liquidation of the Camp and the Evidence of Crimes
The preparations for the liquidation of Auschwitz Concentration Camp began in August 1944, when the Germans began transferring prisoners out of the camp. Approximately 65 thousand people, including almost all the Poles, were sent in transports into the depths of the Reich by mid-January 1945.
The Germans halted mass extermination in Birkenau in the late autumn. The last transport sent to the gas chambers arrived from Terezin (Theresienstadt) on October 30, 1944. At this time, the Germans began removing the traces of the crime—they liquidated the fields where human ashes had been strewn, dismantled Crematorium IV (damaged during the Sonderkommando mutiny), prepared the other extermination facilities for demolition, and burned camp records, including the lists of names of deported Jews. They also hurriedly shipped out the property stolen from the Jewish victims of mass extermination: between December 1 and January 15, they prepared 514,843 items of men’s women’s, and children’s clothing and underclothing for shipment.
The Germans suspended construction work at the camp in late 1944. They dismantled several dozen barracks at Birkenau and shipped the components into the depths of the Reich. Prisoners being held in various parts of Birkenau were grouped together on the grounds of sector BII.
The last general roll call in Auschwitz Concentration Camp took place on January 17, 1945. The head count noted the presence of 67,012 prisoners—31,894 in Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and 35,118 in the sub-camps.
The Evacuation of the Camp
The commander-in-chief of the SS and police in Wrocław (then Breslau), SS-Obergruppenführer Schmauser, issued the order for the final evacuation of the prisoners from Auschwitz in mid-January 1945. The Soviet offensive hastened the decision. Piles of documents burned on the camp streets in late January. Thinking only of getting away as quickly as possible, the SS did not check to see how the prisoners were carrying out their orders; as a result, prisoners managed to save some of the camp records from destruction.
The Germans also began demolishing the buildings. They blew up crematoria II and III on January 20, and crematorium V on January 26. The warehouse complex known as “Kanada II,” containing property plundered from the victims, went up in flames on January 23.
Between January 17 and 21, the SS led approximately 56 thousand prisoners out of Auschwitz and its sub-camps. Most of the marching columns went to Włodzisław Śląski and Gliwice, where the prisoners boarded open railroad cars for the trip to camps in the depths of the Reich. Some 3 thousand of the evacuees perished while they were still in Upper Silesia. At least 9 thousand, and perhaps as many as 15 thousand Auschwitz prisoners are estimated to have died during the evacuation operation as a whole.
More than 9 thousand sick and exhausted prisoners, including approximately 900 children, remained behind in the camp. The SS regarded them as unfit for evacuation on foot. All of them were to be liquidated. The Germans managed to kill about 700 of them as they withdrew.
Soldiers of the 60th Army of the I Ulrainian Front liberated the camp as they advanced along the left bank of the Vistula from Cracow towards Upper Silesia. The 100th Lviv Infantry Division, commanded by General-Major Fyodor Krasavin, was directly involved in the Oświęcim operation. Divisional scouts entered the grounds of the Monowitz sub-camp on the morning of Saturday, January 27. They liberated the center of Oświęcim at mid-day. At around 3:00 p.m., after a brief skirmish with withdrawing Germans, they entered the grounds of Auschwitz I and Birkenau, some 3 kilometers apart, simultaneously. A total of 231 Soviet soldiers died in the fighting.
About 7 thousand prisoners remained alive at liberation in Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Monowitz. The Red Army also liberated some 500 prisoners in several other sub-camps.
First Aid for the Survivors
Some of the former prisoners, to the degree that their health permitted, left for home as soon as they were liberated. The remainder were placed in hospitals set up in the first days of freedom by the Polish Red Cross and the Soviet military medical service. Residents of Oświęcim and the nearby communities also volunteered to help the former prisoners. More than 4.5 thousand of them, mostly Jews, from more than 20 countries, were admitted to the hospitals. There were more than 200 children aged 15 or below among the patients.
The liberated prisoners received treatment and returned to normality. The medical staff dosed their meals almost like medicine, so that they did not die of overeating. Many suffered from “KZ Syndrome.” Several hundred died in the first two months after liberation—they were too starved or ill to be saved. A funeral ceremony for 470 victims of the camp, who were murdered in the final days before liberation or who died shortly afterwards, was held in Oświęcim on February 28. They were buried in a mass grave adjacent to the main camp. The majority of the former prisoners left the Soviet field hospital and the Polish Red Cross Hospital within three to four months of liberation.