‘In Auschwitz, you got used to anything’
70 years ago Russian soldiers liberated the Nazi death camp in which a million people perished. Some of the last survivors tell of the unthinkable things they saw there
The infamous inscription that reads ‘Work Makes Free’ at the main gate of the Auschwitz camp. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Auschwitz: victims’ glasses at the concentration camp. Photograph: LAPI/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
Jozef Paczynski, 95: “After a while in Auschwitz my life became immaterial to me.”
Tadeusz Smreczynski, 91: “My abiding memory of Auschwitz is the piles of bodies. Bodies everywhere.”
Seventy years on, what is left to say about Auschwitz? Has everything not already been said and written, every feeling felt and every tear wept about this godforsaken place?
Seared on to our collective conscience as ground zero of Nazi atrocities, Auschwitz is the A-Z of man’s inhumanity to man.
Yet, walking around the camp in the winter sunlight, it remains a struggle to comprehend the scale of the absent life on display: the tangle of sightless spectacles; the shrivelled, footless shoes; the mountain of matted human hair from long-gone heads.
Auschwitz opened in 1940 as a concentration camp, largely for Polish political prisoners. By 1942 it was a full-fledged death camp where most of the arrivals – largely Jews, from all over Europe – went straight from the cattle wagons to gas chambers disguised as showers. There, naked and terrified, they drew their last, cyanide-filled breaths. Charlotte Delbo, the French writer and Auschwitz survivor, wrote later: “They expected the worst, not the unthinkable.”
As the horror of what happened at Auschwitz begins to vanish over the horizon, we have one last chance to allow survivors to help us think about the unthinkable.
On Tuesday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the Nazi genocide of six million Jews, the one million Sinti-Roma, the homosexuals and the euthanasia victims. The day falls on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp – January 27, 1945 – after a million people perished there.
A special ceremony at the memorial there on Tuesday – Ireland marks Holocaust Remebrance Day on Sunday – will remember the dead by to listening to the living. Such as 91-year-old Tadeusz Smreczynski, who locked up here as a 19-year-old political prisoner to work in the SS kitchen. Life was cheap here, Smreczynski says, with bodies everywhere: in rotting piles on open bonfires or being pulled in overloaded wagons towards the crematorium.
Smreczynski, an elegant and softly spoken doctor, remembers watching a group argue about a man beneath a pile of corpses on the wagon. “They said he was still alive and wanted to take the man out. But the men with the cart said, ‘We can’t take him out of the pile, because he’s been taken off the list of the living.’ Causa finita.”
The Nazis fled the camp a week before the Russians arrived, destroying many buildings and most documentation as they departed – and sending 100,000 prisoners westwards on a death march.
Death march survivor
Jozef Paczynski, a spry 95-year-old, is one of the death-march survivors and one of the earliest Auschwitz inmates. As prisoner number 121, he saw and heard everything (see panel, below).
One minute Paczynski enthuses about the camp’s “world class” orchestra playing The Radetzky March; a moment later he recalls seeing his best friend dead in the camp crematorium. Auschwitz, he says, was a place where you got used to anything.
“When we arrived in June 1940,” he says, “Deputy camp commandant Karl Fritzsch told us, ‘This is not a spa. It is a concentration camp. You will live three months. The priests and Jews among you will last six weeks. There is only one way out of here: through the crematorium chimney.’ ”
Paczynski survived five years in the camp barber shop, cutting the hair of SS men as well as the commandant, Rudolf Höss (see panel).
For him the most important place is not the Auschwitz memorial itself but the nearby International Youth Meeting Centre, where we are talking. This bright and cheery building, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2016, welcomes thousands of groups of young people each year, including Irish, to meet people from different countries and deepen their knowledge of the Nazi era.
Some, such as 19-year-old Tobias Fiedler from Vienna, elect to spend their gap year here, helping visitors. “What I understand now is that Auschwitz was and will remain incomprehensible,” Fiedler says. “Our responsibility is to keep a connection to the present, to discuss the issues that lead to Auschwitz which still affect us.”
Bridging the gap between yesterday and tomorrow is the fault line on which this year’s anniversary takes place.
Many believe that Nazi mass murder, in particular the unprecedented extermination of Europe’s Jews, must stand alone. Others, including the director of Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Piotr Cywinski, believe Auschwitz must serve as a “prism through which we can and must view the challenges of today’s world”.
“A person growing up today cannot understand the world unless they are exposed to, and immunised against, the horrors of its past,” says Cywinski.
Even after the last survivors pass on, the director is confident that the authenticity of Auschwitz, which drew 1.5 million visitors last year, will retain its potency because, unlike other camps, it is largely intact. Here are the rail line and infamous selection ramp, there the barbed-wire fences. In a muddy corner of Birkenau are the faded murals and bunk beds in the musty “children’s barrack”.
For the nearby town of Oswiecim, Auschwitz is a historical nightmare from which they are still trying to awake. This is a place with a rich, 800-year history as an independent duchy. Its buildings range from a 14th-century church to a Lidl supermarket – but all that outsiders know of Oswiecim is the legacy of five years beginning in 1940, when the Nazis occupied an old Polish army barracks, ejected locals and Germanised the town’s name.
“This is a normal, living city; the Friday-afternoon traffic is proof of that,” says Oswiecim’s mayor, Janusz Chwierut, over coffee and apple cake. “A camp like Auschwitz could have been set up in France, Italy or Belgium.”
Each summer the city hosts the Life Festival, devised by a local DJ, Dariek Maciborek. He hopes the crowds drawn to the festival – previous headliners include Sting and Eric Clapton – can help “break the spell” of Auschwitz over Oswiecim, without dishonouring the memory of the victims.
The coming days are a chance to remember: to take a virtual tour on auschwitz.org, to watch Schindler’s List or to read If This Is a Man, by the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. There is no one lesson from the camp except to keep its memory in motion.
As another survivor, Elie Wiesel, put it, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
Surviving Auschwitz: Two survivors’ tales
Jozef Paczynski, 95
In 1939, when I was 19, I wanted to join the partisan Polish army, but I was arrested in Slovakia and arrived in Auschwitz in June 1940, as prisoner 121. I still remember the sign in Gothic lettering – Auschwitz – although we didn’t know where we were. I worked in the SS barbershop and cut the hair of camp commandant Rudolf Höss in the bathroom of his villa.
“The first time I was shaking and had spots before my eyes. He came in, I cut his hair and he left without a word. I must have done a good job, because I was summoned back. Of course I could have killed him with the scissors, but he would have been replaced, and I would have been executed, along with half the camp, as punishment, and everything would have continued.
“I remember, one evening, 600 high- ranking Soviet officers and 250 Polish prisoners were locked in the cellar of block 11, with the windows and doors sealed. A friend who helped remove the bodies after told me about it, the first experiment with poisoned gas.
“After a while in Auschwitz my life became immaterial to me. The human is an animal that can get used to anything.
“My secret for a long life? I get up early, bathe warm and then cold. I do my gymnastics and eat a good breakfast. I’ve lived a long time because I tried to be a decent person.”
Tadeusz Smreczynski, 91
“I don’t like going to the Auschwitz memorial. For years I tried to avoid it. A lot of people I worked with didn’t know my past. I came to Auschwitz after I was arrested in Cracow for contacts with the partisans and underground press.
“My abiding memory of Auschwitz is the piles of bodies. Bodies everywhere. They wanted to kill as many people as possible, 2,000 to 3,000 a day. But the crematorium couldn’t keep up, so bodies were burned in piles in the open, and the black smoke hung over the camp.
“I worked in the SS camp kitchen. I remember one day hearing through an open window a man singing an aria from ‘Tosca’. Then I saw three SS men running towards the building, and the singing stopped. Later I heard the man had been a star tenor at the Brussels opera. His family had been gassed earlier that day, and then the SS shot him, too.
“Whenever I hear that aria from ‘Tosca’ the day is over for me.
“I remember the German psychologist Harald Welzer wrote that, in two weeks and in the right circumstances, everyone can be turned into a murderer. That’s how it was in Auschwitz.
“It was such a terrible system that destroyed everything. I don’t feel hate towards any individuals: crimes must be investigated and criminals punished. But I survived, married my school sweetheart, had children and travelled a great deal.
“It was 1979 the first time I went back, and, even now when I talk about it, my wife says I always come home as pale as a ghost afterwards. I am only happy that you don’t have to go through what I did.”