Even today, if you scoop up a handful of dirt from the ground at Auschwitz, the Nazis’ most famous World War II concentration camp, you can find fragments of human bone, the remains of some 2 million Jews, gypsies and other “subhumans” who died at Auschwitz and its sister camp Birkenau (Auschwitz II) between 1940 and 1945. That number, 2 million, is one third of the total number of dead commonly referred to when discussing the Holocaust.
From all over Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews were shipped by train to Auschwitz, located near Krakow, Poland, where they were separated into three groups: those who would die immediately (the old, the infirm), those who would die eventually (the young, the fit for work), and those who would die gruesomely (twins, dwarfs and the deformed — the subjects of experiments by doctors such as the “Angel of Death,” Nazi physician Josef Mengele).
Death also came in several forms, the most humane being to line up the victims and shoot them. Others were sent to the gas chambers where they were literally strangled by the suffocating effects of a cyanide gas called Zyklon-B. The rest were starved, beaten, tortured or worked to death, or were killed by any number of camp diseases — typhus and dysentery the most common — which spread easily among the unsanitary living conditions. Inmates slept three to a bunk, shared one toilet (a hole in a wooden bench), and except when working were locked in their barracks even in the most oppressive heat.
As a result, as many as 20,000 people a day perished, making disposal of the bodies a daunting challenge — one that was met at first by mass graves and later by crematoriums that operated around the clock. A joke among the camp’s guards was that the only way a prisoner could escape Auschwitz was “up the chimney.”
Auschwitz officially opened this week (June 14) in 1940, and although it was just one of many camps working to fulfill Adolf Hitler’s order that Europe’s Jews be destroyed, Auschwitz today has become the symbol of the Nazis’ — and by extension all of mankind’s — capacity for evil.
Ensuring that no one ever forgets about that capacity is one reason the Polish government, in cooperation with several Jewish organizations, made Auschwitz a museum in 1946, and since then approximately 35 million people have visited it. For many, their visit was a life-altering experience.
To enter this “museum,” which is surrounded by the same barbed wire fence the prisoners faced, you pass through a small gate with a cruelly mocking sign above it that reads, “Arbeit macht frei”—“Work makes you free.”
At Auschwitz, it wasn’t work that made you free. It was death.