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Remembering Auschwitz

Sarah Hofmann / kbm January 26, 2015

Auschwitz is symbolic for the death, murder and suffering that occurred during the Holocaust. Our images of the camps, in part passed on through art, are essential to remembering and working through the past.

Historic image of the train tracks leading up to Auschwitz, Copyright: "picture alliance/dpa
Image: picture alliance/dpa

Sometimes one word is all it takes: Auschwitz.

The name is practically synonymous with the Holocaust, the six million Jews and the many other people who were brutally killed at the hands of the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

One word, or a single image - like the tracks leading to the entrance to Auschwitz, which have been imprinted on our collective memory - and we can immediately imagine the rest: the trains packed with freight out of flesh and blood, emaciated children, piles of corpses.

Death incarnate at the front gate

Only very few of those who were transported to Auschwitz knew what awaited them there: certain death. In many cases, death didn't wait long, but met them upon arrival - in the form of Dr. Josef Mengele. "Dr. Mengele stood in front of us and made a hand movement. He pointed his thumb to the left or the right. If he pointed to the left, you had a reprieve. To the right, and you went to the gas chamber," recalled Auschwitz survivor Esther Bejarano.

More than one million people were murdered in Auschwitz. Most of them were Jews who would be killed in gas chambers shortly after their arrival. Poles, Sinti and Roma - men, women and children from all across Europe - passed through the dreaded gates.

Auschwitz stands for death

Auschwitz was not the Nazis' only death camp. They also built Majdanek, Treblinka, Belzec and Sóbibor, where human life was extinguished as if on a conveyer belt. In other camps - like Ravensbrück, Dachau, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and others - prisoners were subjected to forced labor, torture and hunger before being murdered by shooting squads or dying from illness or malnutrition. Other mass killings took place outside of camps, like at Babi Yar near Kyiv or in Poneriai near Vilnius, to name only a couple.

And yet, Auschwitz is a symbol for all of these places. It was there that the Nazis perfected their systematic killing methods. Nowhere else were so many people murdered in such horrific ways in such a short period of time.

Esther Bejarano: The girl in the Auschwitz orchestra

Smoke rose day and night from the crematorium. After prisoners were subjected to the poisonous gas Zyklon B, which led to a painful death by suffocation, their bodies were burned. It's an image that survivor Esther Bejarano will never forget - and one that the 90-year-old feels compelled to talk about. She regularly visits with school children, appears on talk shows, and was even recently invited to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Where the images come from

There hasn't always been so much interest in survivors' stories, at least in Germany. After the war, no one wanted to hear anything about it - especially those who lived just a stone's throw away from the concentration camps for many years, saw the smoke rising, heard gunshots - and finally witnessed the emaciated bodies walking out when they were liberated by the Allies.

The Allies captured the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, one of the camps, on film and commissioned Alfred Hitchcock to turn the footage into a documentary. But the project was shelved for decades. The Allies wanted to rebuild Germany with optimism and productivity and not confront the downtrodden country with its wrongdoings. The Cold War was starting and the Allies had found a new enemy: the USSR.

It took centuries for discourse concerning guilt to start in Germany. But once it began, it didn't stop.

Pope Francis with Holocaust ssurvivor Esther Bejarano, Copyright: Reuters/Osservatore Romano
Pope Francis met with Holocaust survivors like Esther Bejarano earlier this monthImage: Reuters/Osservatore Romano

Working through the past on stage

The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials from 1963 to 1965 were a turning point in Germany's working through the crimes of the National Socialists. For the first time, survivors were listened to as they recounted in gruesome detail the horrors they suffered. They explained that the Nazis weren't only interested in systematic murder, but also in exploiting the prisoners for cheap labor and in stealing their valuables.

Auschwitz was divided into three parts. Political prisoners were kept in Auschwitz I, while gas chambers and crematoriums could be found in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Auschwitz III, an industrial area was created where companies like I.G. Farben would turn a profit. The prisoners' gold teeth, valuable clothing, and even their hair were converted into money. Images of mounds of shoes, gold teeth, jewelry and other valuables have ingrained themselves into our collective memory.

During the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, the press reported daily. In 1965, dramatist Peter Weiss ensured that the public debate would continue after the trials came to an end. In his play "The Investigation," he contrasted survivors' statements with those from defendants - and caused quite a stir.

Asking the tough questions

At the end of the 1970s, a four-part American mini-series called "Holocaust" was broadcast on German television which brought the crimes of the Nazis straight to the Germans' living rooms. Meryl Streep starred as the non-Jewish wife of a Jewish doctor. The films brought up the disturbing question of what people at the time really knew about the "disappearance" of their Jewish neighbors.

The series was followed up in 1985 by Claude Lanzmann with his extensive documentary film, "Shoah," which is still considered one of the most significant documentaries on the topic. For the first time, a film team accompanied survivors as they revisited the concentration camps.

The danger of overusing symbols

In 1998, author Martin Walser, one of Germany's most renowned writers, was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. In his acceptance speech in Frankfurt, he criticized what he saw as the exploitation of the Holocaust.

"Everybody knows our historical burden, the never-ending shame. There's not a day without this shame being presented to us," he said. "But when this past is presented to me every day in the media, I notice that something inside me is opposing this permanent show of our shame. Instead of being grateful for the continuous show of our shame I start looking away."

He continued by saying, "Auschwitz is not suitable for becoming a routine-of-threat, an always available intimidation or a moral club, or also just an obligation."

Historic photo: Jewish women and children await transport to Auschwitz, Copyright: AP Photo/Yad Vashem Photo Archives
These women and children from Hungary await transport to AuschwitzImage: picture alliance / AP Photo

The term "Auschwitz club" (Auschwitz-Keule in German) was coined as a result of Walser's speech, referring to the way Auschwitz was being used, in some people's eyes, to hit society over the head with guilt. A heated debate ensued and Germany's Zentralrat der Juden (Central Jewish Council) accused the author of "intellectual arson." Walser maintained that he in no way intended to relativize Auschwitz.

However, he had posed a challenging question: How can society manage to not forget the horror of Auschwitz, and the guilt of those behind it, while preventing the word from becoming so overused that it loses its significance?

Auschwitz is deeply ingrained in the memory of the Germans and its images are ever-present. Along with historical accounts and photographs, books, films and other works of art ensure that it will be passed on to the coming generations. They only need to be watched, read and kept alive.

The documentary film that Hitchcock began making from original Allied footage has since been completed and restored. It's not easy to watch - but it's worth it.