When the Soviet Army entered the gates of Auschwitz 70 years ago they had no idea what awaited them. In the days prior to the liberation, the Nazi camp guards had marched those inmates that were capable of walking out of the camp on to a Death March, so that those found by the liberators were the seriously ill, the walking skeletons, the few.
The Auschwitz camp complex was built by the Nazis in occupied Poland as a Prison concentration camp and then expanded into a Death camp at Birkenau, with the specific intention of killing people on an industrial scale, having first separated out those to be worked to death or experimented on. In Auschwitz Birkenau the Nazis were capable of killing over 10,000 people a day in the gas chambers. Over 1.1 million Jews were killed at Auschwitz in total, as well as thousands of Roma and Sinti (gypsies), and Polish political prisoners (killed because of their job, beliefs, family and resistance). In total it is estimated that across the Auschwitz complex, between 1.25 – 1.5 million people from all across Europe were killed there.
When the Soviet Army arrived they found piles of belongings from the victims, including tonnes of human hair, cut from the women to be used for furnishings. The ideological hatred towards the Jewish people by Nazism meant no respect for them, living or dead, and each victim was to be robbed of their being – belongings, hair, gold fillings, etc. The soldiers could not believe what they were seeing and insisted the evidence remained untouched so they could assess it further. Although the most notorious camp of death had stopped production, the war was not over, and for the Allied Armies the push was still on to defeat the Nazis.
For the remaining months of the war many Nazi Camps across Europe would be liberated, releasing the few remaining survivors from their torment. The condition that many of the victims were in meant that many died, regardless of their new freedom. When British servicemen and doctors arrived into Bergen-Belsen, Germany in April 1945, they found people who had been deliberately starved and deprived of water so that typhus was killing them by the hundreds. The British authorities had no choice but to burn the camp huts down in order to remove the unhygienic conditions that the victims had been forced to inhabit. For those present at liberation, the horror that that they saw in Belsen and other camps remained with them forever.
To forget that time, to brush away the potential lessons that it could teach us, to ignore the warnings and to forget the names of the millions would hand the Nazis the victory they never achieved at the time. It is our job as educators to ensure that on the 70th anniversary we renew our pledge to remember the Holocaust; to continue to read the literature of the survivors and eye-witnesses; and to take new generations to the sites of murder and Remembrance.
For me the reality of the Holocaust never fails to hit home when I see the piles of shoes at Auschwitz. For a military friend of mine it was the piles of prosthetic limbs taken primarily from elderly German Jewish men who had fought and been injured fighting for Germany in the First World War. For any visitor to Auschwitz, Belsen, Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, Dachau or any of the others, it is the haunting realization that people are capable of barbaric acts of brutality regardless of our intellectual or technological advancement.
On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz we need to reflect on how we help a new generation to learn from the past to try and make a better future. The Nazis and their supporters were not monsters, but men and women that behaved monstrously, lets teach our children how not to forget that and to work towards something better.
27 January is now Holocaust Memorial Day and remembers all victims of genocide.