Facts fight blind denial

Auschwitz: Some were spared to tell the world how it was.

March 04, 2001|By Hans Knight

ONCE UPON a time, as a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, I asked a group of bright high school seniors what they knew about Adolf Hitler. By then, the Fuehrer had long been dead and gone in far-off Berlin, so most of the answers were not surprising. They went something like this: "He was a bad character. ... He started World War II. ... He did a lot for the German people. ..."

Then, I asked the group what they knew about Hitler's attitude toward Jews.

"Oh," replied one young man with a touch of boredom, "You mean that 6 million bit?"

I felt a chill then and, so help me, I feel a chill now, as I write this and ponder his words: "You mean that 6 million bit?"

What brought this memory back was a recent New York Times article reporting that researchers in Poland, drawing on captured German documents newly available from Russian archives and more than five decades of Auschwitz studies, have compiled what experts call the most complete and authoritative history of the vast killing center.

"Auschwitz 1940-1945," is a five-volume work that fills 1,799 pages, and includes construction plans for gas chambers, crematories, prisoner lists, first-hand accounts, rare photographs, an almost day-by-day calendar and a 49-page bibliography.

The exact death toll at Auschwitz probably will never be known. Too many thousands of documents were destroyed by fleeing camp guards. But the history establishes that by the time the Russian troops liberated Auschwitz 56 years ago, about 1.3 million men, women and children had been transported there and at least 1.1 million, including 960,000 Jews, perished there.

The monumental work has evoked well-merited praise. "It is by far the most comprehensive in its detail and level of source material," said Rabbi Irving Greenberg, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. And Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting office of Special Investigations, calls it "clearly a landmark work and a major contribution to scholarship."

These are fine words. Certainly, telling the whole story -- can there ever be such? -- of the efficiently administered murder machine that was Auschwitz might help lift the shroud with which we often cover horrific events. At the very least, it should inspire some of us to urge the grave-defiling Holocaust deniers (there are still too many of their ilk around) to get a life. Better yet, to shut up.

Not long after that bored high school kid favored me with his icy remark, I met a couple of survivors of Auschwitz. Nice people. They didn't know each other. The only thing they had in common were some tattooed numerals on their forearms.

The woman's tattoo was barely visible. "I had it taken off in London, years ago. Why? Because people would constantly ask me, `My God, what is that?' And I would start to explain, but this is not a subject to talk about at a cocktail party for polite conversation." For the record, her number was 31386.

She held a photograph up to the light in her apartment. It showed a young girl in a short woolen dress. The girl is skating. At the moment the camera clicked, she was skating on one leg, her arms spread out like a bird's wings.

"My sister, Sala," the woman told me. "A beautiful girl full of fun. A fine athlete. She died in my arms. She was 17, and she died with a faint smile on her face. The probable cause of death was typhoid. The date was April 10, 1943. The place was Auschwitz."

The woman was 12 years old when her sister died in the death camp. She was born in the small Polish town of Grodno. In June of 1941, the German army conquered the town. "As Jews, we were not allowed to walk on the sidewalks. We had to wear a yellow band, then a blue Star of David.

"Whenever a German soldier wanted some fun, he would just walk into a home and break objects of great sentimentality. Pictures, toys, instruments. I saw people clubbed to death in front of our house."

Bright sun, bitter cold

One Sunday in November 1942, without warning, the Jews were rounded up. Her parents were taken to Auschwitz in a cramped train. She never saw them again.

In a ghetto set up by the Nazis, the two girls worked in a tobacco factory. One morning their luck ran out.

"The sun was very bright and it was bitter cold. We were rounded up by screaming German guards with dogs and whistles and swinging rubber sticks. We ... were shoved into cattle cars. Destination Auschwitz. Many people died before we got there. They were lucky. We were cramped like sardines. We had no sanitation facilities, water or food.

"I kept thinking of the times my mother would make me eat and I would refuse because I wasn't hungry. We finally stepped off at a platform. The wind and the cold hit my face and it was the only nice thing I remember. The name Auschwitz was clearly written on a sign, but I didn't know yet what the name would mean to us. The devil in his wildest dreams couldn't have conceived such a place."

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