Tag Archives: Memorial

Auschwitz III

This is the last of 3 related postings regarding Auschwitz.  The first post is available here and the second here.

The last selection took place on October 30, 1944. In September Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, ordered the crematoria destroyed before the advancing Soviet Army reached the camp. The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide their crimes.

Large rectangular concrete bunker in the ground with roof collapsed

Gas Chamber with Collapsed Roof

The SS command sent orders on January 17, 1945 calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the order was never carried out. They did try to evacuate the camp though.  Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in Wodzisław Śląski, over 60 kilometers away.  Many never made it.  On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.

Twisted concrete and metal amid a field of debris

Remains of a Crematorium blown up by the Nazis

On November 24, 1947, the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in Krakow began the trial of only 41 of the over 6,000 Nazis who worked at Auschwitz.  It took less than a month.  23 death sentences were issued, as well as 16 imprisonments.  Commandant Höss was found hiding among the German civilian population.  He was tried, found guilty of numerous war crimes, and then hung on a gallows specifically erected for this purpose, in a place just between the home he shared with his wife and children and the first gas chamber at Auschwitz I.

Simple wooden gallows with 4 steps on grass with green trees in background

Gallows built to execute Commandant Rudolf Höss

Visiting the Memorial

In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II.  It receives about 1.3 Million visitors annually.  Why do they come?  Why did I come?  I had already been to see 2 other concentration camps in Germany, Dachau and Buchenwald.

Visitors to Auschwitz I are required to go on a guided tour.  It includes the grounds, several of the barracks (including Block 11), and the first gas chamber and crematorium.  Particularly shocking are the exhibitions showing the confiscated belongings of inmates found by the Soviet liberators.  These include hundreds of eye glasses in a tangled pile, thousands of pairs of shoes, a room full of prosthetic limbs, a huge pile of suitcases (many with the names of their owners written on the sides), a 30 meter (98 ft.) long room filled with 2 tonnes of human hair, and nearby a display of the products made from this hair.

Pile of old leather suitcases (brown and black) with names written on the side in white paint

Suitcases of some of those who died

Some of the prosthetic limbs were from German Jews, veterans of World War I who fought for their country, only to be killed by the Nazis 25 years later. We also saw baby clothes and dolls of some children murdered here.  These items really brought home the humanity of the victims.  They were not just statistics, but real people just like us, who had children to be consoled, who wore shoes and who needed glasses.

While visiting we observed several other groups that were obviously Jewish.  We saw a group of Israeli military with the Star of David on their uniforms and a group of young men in black dress pants and white shirts wearing yamikas who were accompanied by a rabbi.  I wondered how many Jewish people are drawn to this place, to see what happened here.  How surreal must this be for them.  Notably, the signs at Birkenau II are in Polish, English, and in Hebrew.

There were many more visitors here than when we went to Dachau or Buchenwald, partly because it was a week with 2 national holidays, a week when many Poles take time off work.  When we arrived, there were touts trying to direct cars and buses to their private parking areas.  The staging area where people purchased tickets and waited for their guides was crowded and loud, too busy to encourage self-reflection at the start of the tour.  After this point, all visitors to Auschwitz I wear headsets to hear their guides’ voices transmitted wirelessly.  The barracks were similarly crowded with visitors, and the logistics of keeping our group together and on pace was distracting.  The whole thing had a feeling of mass-production.  For me, I could begin to reflect upon things only when we reached the quieter, open spaces of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Many visitors passing through gate with words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work will make you free) above

Many visitors enter the gates of Auschwitz I.

The guide’s narrative was fast-paced and direct.  He did not pull any punches, rely on subtle differentiations, or utilize any euphemisms.  This surprised me because there were some young children in our group.  I wondered how many of them really understood what he was talking about.

Why did I visit another camp?  Perhaps because Auschwitz was different.  It was an extermination camp, the largest and the most infamous.  Why did I want to visit it?  Certainly not because my wife wanted to.  She went only at my request.  Perhaps it’s because I still can’t get my head around it.  I understand something of Nazi doctrine and how many Germans were seduced by it.  Hitler told them they were special, that he could fix their problems quickly, and he offered them someone else to blame.  I’ve studied the research that demonstrates that ordinary people can and will do terrible things to one another with the slightest institutional inducement.  The German people were not evil nor special in this regard.  Most of them didn’t know what was happening in the extermination camps.  The whole thing just seems so surreal to me.  The huge numbers of people killed make it hard to conceptualize.  The horrific acts almost impossible to imagine.

Today the confines of Auschwitz II-Birkenau are green and grassy.  It is surrounded by birch trees. When we visited, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and there was a warm breeze.  This made it difficult to visualize what happened here.  Of course, when the camp was operational, there was no grass, only mud, due to the large numbers of prisoners occupying the space.

Grassy area surrounded by a fence with a guard tower and trees beyond.

Today the fence and guard tower overlook grass and trees at Birkenau.

For all these reasons, I found my trip to Auschwitz to be less emotional than my previous visits to other concentration camp sites in Germany.   Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism to allow the contemplation of such atrocities?

Auschwitz is a place where murder took place on an industrial scale with the goal of eliminating an entire race of people.  The scariest and saddest thing is that, albeit with cruder methods, similar things have happened since in other places (e.g. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan).  Will we ever evolve to the point where such atrocities don’t happen?

This is the last of 3 related postings about Auschwitz. The first post is available here and the second here.

Genocide – by Patrick, April 7th

Today is my birthday. It is also the 15th anniversary of the first day of the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. On this day, one group of Rwandans began killing another group, and within three months over one million people had been murdered.

We went to the Kigale Memorial Center, a place dedicated to remembering the genocide. It explains the history of the genocide, with words and with pictures. There are videos where survivors of the genocide give their testimony. There is a room containing the photographs of many victims. There is a room containing the skulls and femurs of a few hundred victims, and where their names are read out loud on a continuous audio track. There is a room dedicated to the children of the genocide. Under each child’s picture is their name and some personal information about them – their favorite food, their favorite pastime, their hero, their last words, and how they were murdered.

Outside are the mass graves of over 200,000 people. No individual markings. Just huge cement blocks, each covering the combined remains of tens of thousands of people.

This morning we went to the national memorial service in a suburb of Kigale. Along with tens of thousands of Rwandans, we listened to speakers and singers share their perspective on the genocide. Much of it was in Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language, but some parts were in English. The feeling and the intention was self-evident.

First was a man missing an arm who gave his testimony. His wife stood by his side while he spoke. Giving testimony is an important part of the healing process for victims.

An American man who lived in Kigale at the time of the genocide spoke. He explained how he and his wife made the difficult decision that she and their children would leave the country for safety, but that he would remain. He explained how ordinary, unarmed Rwandans stood at his gate, and protected him from men armed with guns and machetes, using words alone. They spoke the names of the armed men they knew, and talked of how they knew one another, and how their children played together. In this rare case, it was enough to keep them alive. In most cases, it wasn’t. Now the American man speaks to hundreds of American school children each week, educating them on the horror of genocide.


Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, spoke of the need to continue to move forward, and to build a new future for Rwanda. He also spoke about the need to remember, and the people who try to deny that the Rwandan genocide occurred, or who claim that Rwanda now exploits the guilt of the world to its benefit.

Many people in the audience were crying. For those who lived through it, who were injured, or who lost loved ones, the genocide is still very recent and very real. What I wasn’t prepared for was the screams. Some people’s anguish was so great that they began to wail. Many were helped away by Red Cross medics or other attendees. This was not isolated, and overlapping cries of anguish continued throughout as a tormented accompaniment to the proceedings.

This week is an annual week of remembrance in Rwanda. Each day work stops at noon, and communities come together to talk about the genocide. There is a different theme each day. How to build a better future. How to make sure this never happens again. How to help the many children who were left parentless, and who, even today, continue to lead their households.

I knew that a genocide had occurred in Rwanda. I had no appreciation of how horrific it was. I still don’t understand how a country of nine million people that murdered one million of its own citizens can move on. Many of the people who live here participated in the genocide, people who we interact with each day. Many others did nothing to try to stop it. All are guilty, but only a few can be prosecuted.

There are many victims here. This is visible in the many people with disabilities and scars that we see on the streets, and in the faces of those who have injuries other than physical ones. They are the ones who survived. Somehow they continue on, co-existing with their neighbours who tried to kill them, or who abandoned them. How they can get up everyday, and go about their business, and look into the eyes of those who murdered their families and friends is something that I have great difficulty understanding.

There are other genocide memorials in Rwanda. A church where ten thousand people were murdered. A school where hundreds of students, including many small children were killed. In this case, as if to ensure that no one can ever deny the genocide occurred, the bodies of the victims including the children were left in place, covered with lime to preserve them. We decided not to go to these places.

It was a difficult way to spend my birthday, but I’m glad to have been here.

For those who don’t know the history of the genocide in Rwanda, there is a brief summary below.

Rwanda was a German colony until its defeat in World War I, when it was granted to Belgium. The Belgians played on ethnic differences to divide and conquer the population. Based on questionable religious and anthropological theories, they divided the population into two main tribes – Hutus (‘hoo-tooz’), the majority of about 85%, and Tutsis (‘toot-seez’), the minority. In some cases, the assignment was done based on the number of cattle a family owned. The Belgians concentrated power in the hands of the minority Tutsis, to keep control over the Hutus. After Rwandan independence in 1962, the Hutu majority came to power, and retaliatory policies were introduced to put restrictions on Tutsis. Inter-tribal tensions continued, with periodic outbreaks of violence. In 1990 a civil war erupted between factions drawn along tribal lines. This continued until a ceasefire and power sharing agreement was being established by the President of Rwanda in 1994, but some in the Hutu majority were dissatisfied with this.

On the Rwandan President’s return from a peace conference on the night of April 6th, 1994, his plane was shot down while landing at the Kigale airport. Extremists among the Hutu dominated political and military ranks began to execute a well-planned final solution to the Tutsi issue. On April 7th, the moderate Hutu Prime Minister was also murdered along with ten UN peacekeepers from Belgium, prompting Belgium to withdraw its troops entirely, thereby making it possible for the genocide to begin.

Rwandan army and Hutu militia groups called ‘Interahamwe’ began a systematic campaign of looting, torturing, raping, and killing Tutsis across the country. Tutsis were executed wherever they were found by shooting, but more commonly with machetes or clubs, along with any Hutus suspected of sympathizing with them. Tens of thousands were murdered each day, and the streets piled up with bodies. Those who took refuge in schools or churches were executed nevertheless; in some cases whole churches were detonated or burned with people inside.

The United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), led by Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire was present, but was powerless to stop it. Despite his warnings and requests for assistance from the UN, he had only 250 volunteer peace keeping troops from Ghana, and was under orders not to use deadly force. The world did nothing to intervene, despite clear evidence that a genocide was occurring.

The focus on exterminating the Tutsis was the Hutus undoing. The Tutsi dominated Rwandan Democratic Front (RFP) took advantage of the anarchy to counter attack, and pushed the Rwandan military and Interahamwe out of the country. This was done by a small minority against overwhelming odds, without any assistance from the international community.

Rwanda was devastated by the civil war and subsequent genocide. Bodies had to be buried quickly in mass graves. Dogs had to executed on mass because they had developed a taste for human flesh. There were hundreds of thousands of injured, orphans, and refugees.

Justice is being sought through an international court established in Arusha, Tanzania (also the home base for our Kilimanjaro climb in June). Due to the large number of perpetrators, local tribunals called ‘gacaca’) have also been adapted in a unique form of community justice. Many of the guilty escaped the country, but many remain. Because so many Hutus (men, women, and children as young as ten) participated to a lesser extent, as a practical matter, they will remain unpunished.