Eric Francis Blog

Auschwitz Photo Series | Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006

Photo Above: Mug shots of Auschwitz Concentration Camp victims Hlawica Zdenka and Holan Adalberta, in Oswiecim, Poland, surrounded by hundreds of others. Documentary photos that will be presented this week were all taken by Eric Francis, on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2006. Newest edition is in Eric's blog, and additional photos are in the October photo gallery.

WHILE I WAS visiting Poland last week, I went to pay my respects at Auschwitz. I actually didn't plan to go, and I didn't really want to go, but I've also had a lifelong commitment to do so, and this was my chance.

Avoiding the place was why I planned a trip to Warsaw for a week -- halfway across the country, far away. But everyone I talked to said that Krakow was the more beautiful city, not bombed so badly during the war, still intact with all its old character, and that I must see it. So I went to Krakow, 70km from Auschwitz, not sure what I would do when the time came to decide if I wanted to make the rest of the trip.

I arrived in my hotel, a beautiful, elegant little place that cost just $40 per night, including breakfast, and a dependable Internet connection in my room. There was a big Manora on the lobby window, facing out to the street -- the Jewish symbol of Hanukah. It seemed bold and reassuring to be staying in a place that was advertising its Jewishness to the world so close to where so much evil happened. Seeing that, I felt I had a purpose for being there.

The next morning, I woke up, and called Arthur, the taxi guy who'd taken me from the train station the day before, who also takes people to Auschwitz for the day. It didn't cost that much more than a tourist bus, and I wanted the freedom to keep my own schedule as I explored the territory. He showed up for me, my cameras and my iPod stereo, on which I played a lot of Grateful Dead songs driving through the Polish countryside for an hour on the way to the camp. Arthur happened to be a fan of old American rock and roll, he knew some impressive details, and he'd heard of Jerry Garcia and loved Johnny Cash. It was still a grim journey, despite the great tunes and even if the land and buildings were beautiful.

I've been involved with Holocaust studies for a long time, thanks to a teacher who ran a special center dedicated to the subject at my high school in Brooklyn. [This was Ira Zornberg at the Holocaust Education Center in the John Dewey High School library.]

There is a reason we study these things, which is so that we can both honor history, and respect the loss to humanity. But it's also to be forewarned, in the present, when something amiss is happening again. The real problem with the Holocaust is how systematically exterminating 12 million people in the midst of civilized Europe kind of snuck up on the world.

As part of my personal investigation, I had visited three different Nazi facilities prior to this -- first being the places I believe the Holocaust began in February 1933, in an urban neighborhood in Erfurt, Germany called Ilvers Gehoffen (see article "Hell's Bells" on the Planet Waves cover Wednesday). Incredibly, the one of the very first concentrations camp was surrounded by inhabited apartment buildings on all sides. On the same trip, I visited the Citadel of St. Peter and St. Paul, an actual citadel more than 1,000 years old, placed on a little hill in Erfurt. This is the walled-in Roman Catholic facility that was taken over by the Nazis and -- starting eight days after Hitler assumed office without havng been elected -- was used for imprisonment of people who disagreed with Hitler, for sham capital (as in death penalty) trials, and probably for executions. Napoleon had also been there -- the massive barracks he built in the Citadel were used by Hitler's army, too.

Then some days later, I visited Buchenwald, the famous concentration camp for political prisoners near Weimar, in the "green heart of Germany." Fifty-four thousand people were shot, strangled or died of starvation, disease and overwork at Buchenwald, but it was not a death camp, per se, it was a forced labor camp where many people lost their lives. These visits were in 1998, and I've been considering what I saw ever since. So I had some preparation.

Yet nothing prepares you for Auschwitz. I walked in knowing that. This was an industrial-scale factory devoted to mass murder and torture. It is as large as any full-scale state university campus, with land and buildings stretching in either direction as far as you can see. There were in fact three main camps and about 100 smaller sub-camps. Five gas chambers and crematoria were the murder scenes of as many as two million Jews, Poles, Sinti and Romany people, and nationals of every country in Europe from Russia all the way west to France; north into Scandinavia; and south into Greece.

I lived in Paris for a while, and on every street, I mean every block, there is a plaque somewhere about the people who were deported to the camps during the war.

They were sent to die in Auschwitz and similar facilities, sometimes after having been sold "new land" and "new businesses" in their "new homes" by the German government. Auschwitz was the prototype and the biggest of the death camps. About three-quarters of the people who arrived, with bags packed in earnest, with precious family photos and a little to eat, were taken to the gas chambers instantly on arrival; the strong were made to work for a month or two, to support the German war effort, and then they too were gassed.

Those deaths could be called humane, compared to the thousands killed following medical torture and sexual experimentation (from castration of men to sterilization experiments conducted on women), most of whom were killed by injections of phenol to the heart; who died of starvation and exhaustion; who were beaten to death; who died of the cold or of dehydration.

In this photo series, I'll share images of interior and exterior facilities at Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau as they exist today. When people were allowed to live briefly after arriving, they lived like we treat animals in industrial farms. They could be beaten or killed for having an accident outside the vastly overcrowded latrines. When condemned to die, they were made to strip naked and face a wall where they were shot, or died huddled naked together in gas chambers, breathing in cyanide. If they happened to be alive after the gassing, they were burned alive. Their hair, previously shaved off, was sent to a factory in Bavaria that made some kind of materials for the war out of it.

It all sounds like so much. It sounds like nothing that could ever happen, but it did happen, and it happened yesterday. Though there have been many genocides in the 20th and 21st centuries, some of which are ongoing, the most frightening thing about what happened under the Nazis is that it occurred in a society just like our own, supported or acquiesced by normal people living normal lives. People with things to worry about other than the Jews or some dirty Gypsies.

We need to remember how modestly this started, with a few undesirable people here and there rounded up for "good reasons" (they were the wrong religion, they were gay or lesbian, they were alleged Communists, they were alleged terrorists, they did not want to work so hard, etc.), until it knew no limits -- and 1,500 men, women and children could be gassed and cremated in a single session. On the way out at the end of the war, the SS men dynamited the gas chambers and crematories to hide the evidence of their crimes.

The big problem with the Nazis is we consider them someone other than ourselves; a culture other than our own. But Nazi Germany was an advanced industrial and technical society, with ethics and an economy and lots of people who wore crosses around their necks and who went to church every Sunday.

Germans are proud, intelligent people who like to do things right. The mass murder that was perpetrated was conducted by well-heeled, supposed Christians; by the highest orders of elite military men; and supported by capitalists and businessmen. One of the big things the whole plan had going for it was a "united Europe" which meant big business for certain people. According to what I learned in Holocaust Studies and in my follow-up research, the gassing effort was also supported by IBM (whose German subsidiary lent computers to the Reich to track concentration camp inmates); by ITT (which provided other technology); by Dow Chemical (which provided chemical components for the cyanide gas, called Zyclon [Cyclone] B). Other United States corporations and some politicians were involved. Swiss banks that today still exist processed all the gold taken from the teeth of the victims. I have read recently that there is no processed gold on the market that does not contain traces of concentration camp gold.

And we forget how recently it happened. My parents were born in 1941 and 1942, when Auschwitz and many other death camps were in full operation. If something happened in your parents' lifetime, it happened yesterday, and it could happen tomorrow. The same is true if your grandfather or grandmother remembers it. That is the definition of 'very recently'.

Mainly, we forget how it happened -- because people let it happen; because they were in denial about what was going on two miles from their house, or right outside their window. We forget that an environment of anti-Semitism in Europe allowed the beginning to occur, and that fear of others was used as a weapon against people -- much like in our own country (UK, United States and Australia) where an atmosphere of anti-Muslim sentiments is allowing many laws that protect everyone to be suspended. Why? Because who cares about them? "They're all terrorists." Ah, but then all these really weird powers are in place and the normal rules of the game are off.

That is the true beginning, the elimination of basic rights: the ones you never hear of, such as Habeus Corpus. Or the ones you do, such as elections. Habeus corpus is the right of a person to demand to know why they are being imprisoned. It used to exist in Germany before the Holocaust, and it used to exist in the United States, before last week, when a law supposedly directed at "terrorists" took that right away, little noticed by the public and the media.

But at the heart of it all is cruelty. Cruelty is existent in the world, like bacteria. But it grows better under certain conditions, fuelled by its fertilizers, intolerance and hatred.

It is said that a picture paints so many words. All the images in the world don't quite sum up Auschwitz like this letter scribbled on a scrap of paper by a man about to have his life taken for nothing:

Farewell, my most beloved wife, my dearest Lolunia, and my mother. I am about to leave this world. I am going to be sent to the ovens on the 30th at 7 o'clock in the evening. I have been sentenced to death as a bandit.

My dearest Bronislawa, I am sorry to leave you. Believe me, I cannot write more because my hand is trembling and my eyes are full of tears because I die so consciously and without being guilty.

Fifty-eight of us will die, including ten women. I kiss you and Lolunia many times. At 7 o'clock in the evening...I think of you. On the 30th of October, pray, say your prayers. Tell Lolunia that father has already passed away. I cannot write. I cannot write. Farewell, all of you. Be with God.

A Prison System for the Innocent | Oct. 5, 2006

Photo above: Looking to the right as you walk in through the main gate of Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Oswiecim, Poland. This is the view standing directly beneath the sign that says 'Arbeit macht frei', or, 'Work makes one free'. Photographed Sept. 27, 2006 by Eric Francis.

WHEN the Nazis took control of Germany in February 1933, there was a fast seizure of, and concentration of, government power, and within eight days, the roundup of enemies of the Reich began.

Hitler was not initially elected. After many months of extremely complex political maneuvering, he was appointed to the office of chancellor by Paul von Hindenburg, then the president of Germany, and this was the transition to the Nazi state. Hitler had been an up-and-coming figure in Germany for decades, and was the leader of something called the National Socialist movement. It had nothing to do with socialism in the true sense of the word; it was fascism supported by business leaders.

Much of how power was concentrated involved a 9/11-like incident called the Reichstag Fire. This is an infamous event in 20th Century history that everyone should know about. Less than a month after Hitler assumed the chancellorship, the building where the German Parliament met in Berlin was burned down, and this was used as an excuse to give the government carte blanche to do anything it needed to "protect people."

The fire was blamed on the Communists (enemies of the Nazis), but there is trial testimony from the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials that it was set by the Nazis, particularly Hermann Göring (who, according to court testimony, admitted to it). Wikipedia states that "it is generally believed the Nazi hierarchy was involved in order to reap political gain -- and it obviously did."

In the aftermath of the fire, all basic civil liberties were curtailed, including freedom of the press, and the state granted itself extra powers to stop its supposed enemies -- which soon turned out to be everyone. Hindenburg, after signing these laws, died of lung cancer the next year, after which Hitler declared the office of the president perpetually vacant, in effect merging it with the office of chancellor. He thus held both offices for the duration of his life, and the war, about 11 more years.

Initially, prisoners of the Reich were kept in makeshift or improvised facilities, such as the torture yard in Ilvers Gehoffen, now part of Erfurt, or a Roman Catholic citadel on a hill in central Erfurt. [Both of these are covered in my 1998 series written in Germany.]

Soon after, construction of a highly organized camp system began, and then mass arrests, deportations, relocations, and then extermination of many millions of people. Jews were a central focus, and a major excuse, but nobody was exempt. The people arrested were guilty of no crime, though many of the early ones were those who opposed fascism. Many others were simply on the list of who was going next. The terror created by the roundups was enough to keep the rest of the population silent, and for the most part, people were glad the Gestapo were coming for their neighbors and not for them.

Then the effort spread to the countries neighboring Germany, where poor farmers are said to have resented the wealthier urban Jewish people. At the beginning, this sentiment (known as rampant anti-Semitism) was an excuse for looking the other way as the atrocities began. There is a name for this routine: divide and conquer.

The entity we call Auschwitz started with a relatively small facility, winding up with perhaps 50 brick buildings, in the polish town of Oswiecim (the Germans pronounced this 'Auschwitz' and that is where the name of the camp came from). It was founded May 20, 1940, based on the grounds of an old Polish army barracks, but soon expanded to the surrounding homesteads and farms of the locals. Of the 24 original farms in Oswiecim, only seven remained after the war, and were in bad shape; the rest had been subsumed into Auschwitz. Wikipedia tells us, "The camp was initially used for interning Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members, then also for Soviet prisoners of war."

Today it's a seemingly pleasant enough place, with tree-lined walkways and neat brick buildings about three or four stories tall. Workmen are busy restoring the details and doing maintenance projects. The presence of graceful old trees 60 years later suggests that the Nazis were planning to be there for a while (they were obviously not planted by the survivors). Architecturally, it feels a little like an old-time psychiatric hospital or sanatorium; it's a bit too organized and sterile to be a college campus. Gradually, seeing detail after detail, one connects with the menacing purpose the place was invested with.

Most of what we know about Auschwitz we know from movies, which perpetuate various inaccuracies. Few people -- I suspect even most visitors to the camps -- have read a book about the Holocaust. The facility depicted in the photo above was not the extermination facility, which was called Birkenau, and by modern historians, Auschwitz II - Birkenau. That came a little later. Let's start with the first one, and then deal with the second. Except for size and scale, one is no less atrocious than the other. Inside these gates, it's estimated that 70,000 people lost their lives, mostly Poles and Russian prisoners of war.

It was originally a forced labor and torture center, but the first extermination experiments and mass exterminations were carried out here. Indeed, the first time Zyklon B gas was used was in the basement of Block 11, the Death Block, which was the 'prison within the prison'. It was basically a place people were sent to die, many by shooting, torture and hanging by the arms. But in the quest for more efficient ways of killing ever more people, new methods were developed. Wiki reports that, "On September 3, 1941, 600 Soviet POWs were gassed with Zyklon B at Auschwitz camp I; this was the first experiment with the gas at Auschwitz." Prior to that, 250 Gypsy children at Buchenwald had been used as guinea pigs for the gas, which was originally designed as an insecticide.

Block 11 is preserved in its nearly original state, including the test gas chamber; we'll get to pictures of that tomorrow. Many of the other blocks have been renovated lightly and converted to museums and memorials which are open to the public without tour guides necessary. Some are dedicated to specific nationalities or religious faiths; others to photographic and artifact displays.

The shock of the place sets in slowly. The war itself comes into some focus, particularly thanks to a photo display of the bombing damage to Warsaw. The day I went was a beautiful clear blue day, and the presence of tourists and a lot of students brings a higher vibration. But as you look at people's faces, it becomes obvious the difficulty they are experiencing processing what they are seeing. Many have pensive, tortured looks. Sometimes the teens are clowning around, which is the result of nervousness, but also sign that they have a guide who has not put them in the appropriate frame of mind.

Most people are somber and reflective, slowly slipping into an altered state. I saw nobody crying. Most people are a little curious, even if it has a grim quality to it. Many seem to be struggling for understanding. There really is no way to comprehend what happened, but being confronted by the direct evidence is a step in the right direction.

My first cognitive impression of the place involved the sign above the gate, "Work makes one free." I thought: the problem with the Nazis was that they were liars. Everything else derived from that.

Wiki on Reichstag Fire

...on Auschwitz

...on Zykon B gas

...on Paul von Hindenburg

Cell Blocks 10 and 11 | Oct. 6, 2006

Photo above: View from Cell Block 11 towards Cell Block 10 at Auschwitz. Photo by Eric Francis, Sept. 27, 2006. Additional view of Block 10 in current cover photo gallery.

YOU HAVE to hand it to the Nutsies: they really were evil, possessed by evil and devoted to its full expression. They were more devoted to evil than the Beatles were to music, and they were more prolific. And it's funny, we prefer to remember the Beatles. The Nazis are now like a joke or a cliché. They are a bunch of movie characters. If you mention them, you must be ignorant, or a film buff. Besides, it was so long ago.

If you take a look at what happened, it's really pretty shocking. Any public library will have a dozen books on the shelf. Librarians know what happened. Yet no matter how much we may look at them in astonishment, the ordinary people who let it go on, who knew and looked away, are, to me, stranger still. Perhaps we have some reckoning to do with the awesome power of fear.

Tell me: when was the last time you said anything to anyone about the rendition and torture flights conducted by the United States all across Europe the past five years? How many times have you discussed with your friends the American torture center at Guantanamo Bay? I truly hope your answers were 'recently' and 'often'.

Could you bring it up at a dinner party?

I concede, it's impolite. I am uncomfortable doing it myself. Mentioning torture at dinner spoils the fun -- and there must be something wrong with you. And who knows if it's really true? The media always lie, right?

But could it be that so many people believe that Muslims are a problem, that they are inherently evil, that they are terrorists, and that they are 'against our way of life', that it's more convenient to shut up than speak on their behalf? Maybe you don't like how they're being treated (imprisoned, bombed and tortured), but maybe some of them are bad people, right? If you speak up, then you can be accused of being soft on terrorism. Welcome to Nazi reasoning. They did not invent it -- like a lot of things, they just perfected it.

The core of Nazi evil expressed itself in Cell Blocks 10 and 11 at Auschwitz, camp 1. Some of the planning and thinking went on elsewhere; the ecology of anti-Semitism within which it festered was to some extent resident in many millions of people, and deeply rooted in old cultural attitudes. But the actual expression of the worst atrocities and the thoughts lurking behind them found their true home in Cell Blocks 10 and 11. These were the working prototype. These were the place the model was created, for everything from sexual experimentation to gassing hundreds of people at a time.

The photo above is what you might have seen in your last moments of life if you were imprisoned in Cell Block 11, the Death Block. You might have meditated on this view for some days, but probably not long, and miserably; those in Block 11 were beaten and tortured regularly, and like in the rest of Auschwitz, they were hungry, tired and sick. Interestingly, the Death Block includes a room that was used as a 'court' where sham military trials were held and people were condemned for various rationales. This got me angrier than any of the torture cells I saw. It's why you want your country to have real, civilian courts and actual trial by jury. It's why you want to have judges who are not appointed for their political stances but rather for their fairness and experience. True, it's accused criminals who get those trials, but you never know -- you could be one of them some day. Even my dad, a professor who worked as a consultant to police administrators for many years, was arrested once. The charge was dropped. It was ridiculous, but there he was -- facing the same bullshit as everyone else.

So that little fake Auschwitz courtroom -- I would love to have smashed the place up. It was the room where the Nazis helped themselves feel better about what they were doing, condemning the innocent to death.

Several thousand people were killed in the yard outside this window, which we will visit tomorrow. Most were shot, many were hung by the arms and allowed to die slowly as they helplessly watched others be executed.

Further down the corridor, to the right of where this photo was taken, is a women's undressing room, with a toilet, where women undressed and went to their deaths one or a few at a time, stepped outside, faced a special wall, and were shot from behind. I did not see a corresponding room for men, but I am sure it's there somewhere. The Nazis had a morbid fascination with sex and nudity. Was it really necessary to shoot their victims naked? In their minds, yes. In part it contributed to the necessary belief that the victims were not human -- an idea perpetuated so fully that many upon whom it was projected apparently accepted it themselves. Many who survived the camps say that keeping their sense of humanity intact was how they did it.

In the basement of Block 11 were something called 'standing cells', little brick cubicles where prisoners were forced to stand up for extended periods of time, sometimes all night, and even for days on end, sometimes till they died. Across the basement corridor was the test gas chamber where Zyclon B was tested on 600 prisoners, the first mass gassing at Auschwitz and, say the museums notes, the first time in the history of the German Reich. Also in the basement were suffocation cells, where prisoners were placed, in the dark, until the oxygen slowly ran out. If you tried to help someone escape, the punishment was death in a starvation cell. No form of murder was left out of the question. They were all interesting to the Nazis and there were plenty of people coming in every day to experiment on.

In this photo, you are looking from the main corridor on the first floor, through a cell, and across the courtyard. The black fixture on the building across the courtyard is one of the blinded windows of Block 10, which was a special ward for gynecological torture. The blinds were put up so that the 'patients' in the that block could not see the continuously ongoing executions and torture in the yard outside their window.

Who were those patients? I suggest considering they may have been Hlawica Zdenka and Holan Adalberta, the women whose pictures we began with. Those in Block 10 met a more sinister fate than their neighbors. There, Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg conducted sterilization experiments on women of 'undesirable' races and nationalities. Make no mistake: this is where racism and prejudice lead. This is the logical conclusion.

The methods of sterilization included the extremely painful injection of caustic chemicals into the uterus, and use of X-rays. Those to whom this was done were usually too sick to recover, and were killed with an injection of a chemical called phenol to the heart. This is from the Wikipedia entry on Clauberg, who was actually turned free for a time in West Germany after the war, but later arrested:
Clauberg looked for an easy and cheap way to sterilize women. He injected liquid acid into their uterus - without anesthetics. Most of his test subjects were Jewish or Roma women who suffered permanent damage and serious infections. Damaged ovaries were then removed and sent to Berlin for additional research. Sometimes subjects were bombarded with x-rays. Some of the subjects died because of the tests, and others were killed so they could be autopsied. Estimates of those who survived but were sterilized are around 700.

According to Baruch Cohen: "Block 10 was made up of mostly married women between the ages of 20 and 40, preferably those who had not borne children. There was a constant fear in Block 10 of being killed, sterilized, or inseminated by Clauberg. He would often tease the female prisoners that they would all undergo sexual intercourse with a male prisoner chosen especially for this purpose. At least one of the Orthodox Jewish women who heard that Clauberg selected her to be a Block 10 prostitute decided to poison herself. After he inseminated the women, Clauberg would often taunt the strapped-in women by stating that he had inseminated their wombs with animal sperm and that monsters were growing in their wombs...."
The Nazis perfected this kind of conduct, but the Americans are excellent copycats. Personally, I find the ongoing silence of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal to be as frightening as anything I've ever encountered in a few decades of considering Nazi atrocities. We don't really know what's going on inside these extra-legal prisons, but we have a clue. (Did you ever wonder why Guantanamo is on the island of our supposed communist enemy, Cuba? Because it's outside the reach of legitimate American constitutional law and lawyers -- for a good reason.)

And to think: if you're an American, you pay the salary of Donald Rumsfeld, you pay for Abu Ghraib, you pay for Guantanamo. These things always start small, and are directed at the obvious villainized enemy.

As Americans, Europeans, Brits or Australians, we are used to calling a lawyer when we have legal problems. If we get arrested for something like DUI, pot, shoplifting, protesting or writing an article, we can get bailed out and then have some semblance of a judicial hearing. If your case is interesting, it gets in the newspaper, and that helps a heck of a lot. But we really should stop to consider just what it is that keeps that system in place -- and how fragile it is, and how subject to being rendered meaningless or nonexistent by fear and hatred.

Finally, I leave you a question: What is the relationship between Janet Jackson's breast and the second photo down, at this next link?

Wiki on Abu Ghraib Prisoner Abuse

...on Guantanamo's Camp X-Ray

...on Dr. Carl Clauberg

Photo above: Exterior view of Block 10, the gynecological torture ward. The blinds were placed there so that inmates could not witness executions in the torture yard outside. This building is not open to the public. Man in image is my driver, Arthur.

Photo above: Standing cells in the basement of Block 11, where prisoners were forced to stand up, for at a time, overnight or for days on end.

Photo above: Part of the inscription from above the entrance to Auschwitz, which translates to "Work makes one free."

This series continues here