Sunday, January 23, 2005

Auschwitz-Birkenau

They came, bundled and crammed, on train cars. The sign on the gate - if they could read German - said "Work Makes One Free." When they finally pushed their way out of the train cars and onto the platform, they deposited their suitcases, had their gold teeth removed, their heads shaved, and their clothes stripped from them.

Then they were examined and selected - selected to either go to work, or go to the gas chambers.

Somtimes, when the Germans were too lazy to evaluate their prisoners, they would allow the prisoners to unknowingly select themselves: as they exited the train, they could choose, left or right. If one chose the left side, he lived; the right side, he died and was incinerated.

This was Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was conceived and designed by the Germans as the prototypical Utopian city - once it was conquered, of course - and it resided in Western Poland. The city eventually was transformed solely into a death camp. In 1942, Jews began arriving at Auschwitz by the tens of thousands, where they were either put to death or put to work until the work killed them.

Those were the two realities.

Before World War II, an estimated 3.5 million Polish Jews existed. Today, an estimated 5,000 Jews still live in Poland.

This week marks the 60th Anniversary of the liberation by Soviet forces of the Auschwitz -Birkenau death camp.

Here's a poem, from a good friend of mine:

Pigtail
by Tadeusz Rozewicz
When all the women in the transport
had their heads shaved
four workmen with brooms made of birch twigs
swept up
and gathered up the hair

Behind clean glass
the stiff hair lies
of those suffocated in gas chambers
there are pins and side combs
in this hair

The hair is not shot through with light
is not parted by the breeze
is not touched by any hand
or rain or lips

In huge chests
clouds of dry hair
of those suffocated
and a faded plait
a pigtail with a ribbon
pulled at school
by naughty boys
(see picture above of hair)



A different, but close, friend lent me his copy of Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, which is as stark, detatched, and horrifiying an account of the death camps as I could ever imagine.


Finally, for a very brief summary of the events, go here.

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