The Death Camp, 50 Years After

January 27, 1995

In February 1940, the German Concentration Camp Inspectorate found a place in conquered Poland suitable for punishing recalcitrant Poles. It was an old Austro-Hungarian cavalry barracks outside the Polish town of Oswiecim. As western Poland was being incorporated into Greater Germany, it was called by the German name, Auschwitz.

In June, the Germans deported 728 Polish prisoners to Auschwitz, three of them Jews. In summer 1941, the Germans sought a more efficient form of mass execution than shooting. The first experiments in gas chambers using a commercial pesticide made of Prussic acid were done at Auschwitz in August. Mental patients and political opponents were the first targets. In early September, six hundred Soviet prisoners-of-war and three hundred Jews were gassed to death at Auschwitz.

On Jan. 20, 1942, senior Nazi officials met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to plan "the Final Solution to the Jewish Question." Jews were to be exterminated. The first word of German mass gassing of Jewish civilians in camps in Poland was printed in a Warsaw underground newspaper in June 1942, and treated with skepticism in the West. Auschwitz became the extermination camp for Jews from Eastern Europe, though Gypsies and political prisoners were also killed there. All told, some 1.5 million prisoners were murdered at Auschwitz, about 90 percent of whom were Jews. Some used for slave labor were spared.

On Jan. 18, 1945, with Soviet guns heard in the distance, the Nazis began to break up the camp as though to hide evidence. Soviet troops entered on Jan. 26, and from then on, eye-witness to the truth began to accumulate. The Nazi German death machine had murdered more than seven million prisoners, some six million Jews, the others being Gypsies, militants of every nationality, Communists, democrats, homosexuals, physically disabled and mentally impaired.

The effort at remembrance has gathered force in recent years as the survivor population ages and thins out. A new round of officially sanctioned remembrance began yesterday with commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and its gas oven section, Birkenau.

It is important that the world remember with clarity when the survivors are gone: To know that evil is possible; that it can be routinized by mass production into banality, with murder described as "processing." Even the disputes over who should be commemorated and by whom, shadowing events yesterday and today in Oswiecim, are positive efforts at remembrance.

The year 1945 was full of tumultuous events including the first nuclear bomb, the end of World War II in Europe and in Asia and the birth of the United Nations. There will be a lot of commemorating in 1995. The understanding of evil should not be lost beneath the waving flags.

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