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Article 4
Kingston Daily Freeman, Sunday, Sept 5, 1993

There’s no way to prepare for hell on earth
John J. Neumaier
Editor's note: John Neumaier attended the World Congress of Philosophy, which met in Moscow late last month. He filed this column from that city.

MOSCOW - It is one thing to describe and interpret the Holocaust. It is another to come to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek and see with one's own eyes the gas chambers and crematoria where so many innocent people, most of them Jews, were sent to their deaths, and the dismal barracks and fields where countless prisoners died from ghastly overwork, brutal punishment, and rampant epidemics.

Yet even the nausea and revulsion brought on by seeing the remaining traces of the mass murder and human degradation that was perpetrated by the Nazis some 50 years ago is nothing as compared with the cruel life and dreadful death of those who were their victims.

The system of death camps, located across occupied Europe, was organized by the Nazi SS, under the direct command of Heinrich Himmler, taking his orders from the Fuehrer of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler: The camp's grisly purpose was served by thousands of guards, orderlies, clerical staff, German business and industrial concerns, engineers, doctors, transportation specialists, and academics.

It is hard to grasp the awful fact that people drew material benefit from the process of systematic killing. SS guards pilfered goods stolen from victims, camp commanders appropriated what they wished, "Aryan" citizens -- whether they did so by choice or not -- became the owners of the landholdings, businesses, and homes of those who were sent to the extermination camps.

Originally the concentration camps (Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) were organized to incarcerate opponents of the Nazi Reich, to eliminate any opposition through intimidation and terror. It was called "reeducation." During the war the camps became centers for forced labor and for the systematic extermination of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, and others whom the Nazis regarded as "sub-humans."

The history of what transpired during the years of "industrialized death," from 1941-1945, is by no means complete. Much of the documentation was destroyed by the Nazis, and much of it was taken away by the liberation forces of the Soviet Union (presumably it is in Moscow archives). Records, statistical data and eyewitness accounts are still coming to light.

The Polish State Museums at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, although under-financed, represent vitally important and praiseworthy efforts to preserve, research, interpret and make accountable to the world's people what happened there. The Majdanek museum was created within months after liberation, and will hold a major observance of its 50th year in November 1994.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was located some 30 miles west of Krakow, in an area bordering the industrialized town of Oswiecim, which the Germans incorporated into the Reich and renamed Auschwitz. It served first as a concentration point for Poles and for Soviet prisoners of war, and later became the largest work and extermination camp of the Third Reich. The location provided ready access to a railway network that could be used to transport the victims from all over Europe, and to transport their looted property back to Germany. After the middle of 1942, the largest group of victims was Jewish.

At the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum I talked with a number of the administrators, including the former long-time director, Kasimierz Smolen, who was himself a prisoner in Auschwitz. His guidebook provides visitors with a basic orientation to the camp. I also talked to Dr. Franciszek Piper of the historical research department at the State Museum, who published (in Yad Vashem Studies, Jerusalem 1991) a study called "Estimating the Number of Deportees to and Victims of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp."

From his work and that of others it can be concluded that the precise number of those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau by murder or by the multifold forms of cruel deprivation is unknown and perhaps unknowable. Unfortunately, the problem of varying estimates, including early overestimations by survivors and even in testimony of Nazi officials, added to the fact of the destruction of documents by the Nazis and the Soviet transfer of materials to Moscow, has played into the hands of extreme right-wing groups which have made attempts to downplay and even deny the Nazi genocide of European Jews and the millions of other victims.

In this report I will concentrate especially on Majdanek, to which I was drawn by deep personal tragedy. It was there that my mother was killed 50 years ago. I will not dwell here on my feelings toward my mother who has been always close to my heart. A popular opera singer from Frankfurt (born and trained in Vienna), she was on one of the last Jewish transports from Frankfurt to Lublin She might have been spared if she had not gone to the Gestapo to plead for a Catholic banker, who had been denounced for having counseled her about her increasingly difficult financial situation. (She had not been able to accompany my father when he emigrated earlier because the U.S. consul in Stuttgart refused to issue her a visa, based on his interpretation of the U.S. immigration quota laws.)

Majdanek (pronounced Maidanek) is a suburb of Lublin, located about 100 miles southeast of Warsaw. The Germans called it Konzentrationslager Lublin. The first day that we visited, hardly a person could be seen, in contrast to Auschwitz, which was full of visitors, Polish and foreign. At the museum's small administration building; we found that the director, his deputy, and the librarian were all on vacation, and the library locked, though it should be said that the museum grounds are open especially long hours during the summer tourist season.

I talked with Anna Wisnyewska, chief of the education and information section, and a young curator, Tomasc Kranz. Kranz was in Washington D.C. in April, representing the Majdanek State Museum, at the opening ceremonies of the Holocaust Museum. (Last year he guided Prince Charles through the Maidanek Museum.)

The camp was established on Himmler's orders soon after his visit to Lublin in July 1941. Originally it was intended to hold 250,000 prisoners, a number later cut to 50,000 because of problems and shortages caused by Hitler's worsening campaign against the Soviet Union. According to the museum guidebook, "In the years 1941-1944, some 500,000 inmates of 54 nationalities passed through Majdanek". The largest group that lived and died at the death and labor camp was made up of Jews, from over 20 European countries.

Some of the barracks are now used to display the evidence: suitcases, shoes, toothbrushes, spectacles, dolls, watches, crutches, pots and pans, and huge piles of human hair. As I looked at the suitcases, with their carefully traced names and addresses -- Vienna, Warsaw, Frankfurt -- I could not help but search, vainly, for my mother's name. I had already verified in the archives on my first day at Majdanek that her name was not among those fragments of records that had escaped destruction. Indeed it was only in 1988 that I found her name in the two-volume memorial record, published in 1986 in Koblenz, of the Jews deported from Germany. There she was reported as "verschollen" (disappeared) in the Majdanek concentration camp.

We began our walk through the camp at the field where the deportees were assembled, after marching the two miles from the Lublin train station -- except for the sick and disabled, who were brought by truck. There it was that the Nazi camp doctors "selected" those who were to die at once and those who would be spared temporarily for hard labor. For me it appeared as Dante's portal to hell with its inscription: "Lasciate ogni speranza voi che entrate" (give up every hope you who enter). The difference was that this was a real hell, a hell on earth!

The most devastating impression was still ahead, in the three rooms of the concrete "bathhouse" -- the undressing' room, the shower room, and the gas chamber. The retreating Germans did not have time to destroy the ghastly complex and related evidence, as they did in many other extermination camps.

The victims who were selected for death by gassing were all those unable to do hard labor -- usually the old men, women, children, and the infirm. Separate groups of men, women, and their children were assembled in the fore chamber and commanded to undress and divest themselves of all belongings and jewelry. Their hair was shorn (for shipment to Germany to be manufactured into cloth) and they were directed into the shower room for alleged bathing, disinfection, and delousing.

We saw the showerheads attached to the ceiling. Our guide said they were not always working, but when they were, hot water was used because the cyanide gas would work more swiftly under such conditions. Now desperate and` frightened, the people were then herded into the gas chamber, with hardly enough room to stand. The Cyclone B (empty canisters were on exhibit at Majdanek as they were at Auschwitz) was introduced through. screened openings from above; death came in 15 to 20 minutes.

Through a small, thick-glassed porthole window, an SS guard was watching the death struggle. In the corner of the next chamber was the concrete autopsy table used to remove gold fillings from the corpses for shipment to Germany. Outside was one of the converted artillery wagons used by specially designated prisoners to wheel the bodies to the crematoria. Having witnessed the horror, these special prisoners were later to suffer the same fate.

For three years the slave labor and death camp called Majdanek was the scene of terrible inhumanity. According to some of the camp records, the various killing methods included "hanging, drowning, poison injection, shooting, and gassing -- by Cyclone B or carbon monoxide." We saw the "flogging stool" where prisoners were thrashed 25 to 100 times in accordance with regulations promulgated by the SS. How can one say whether it was worse to be selected for death on arrival or to suffer the horror of camp life?

The crimes are so enormous that here only a fraction can be told. One little known event was the mass murder of 42,000 Jews in the Lublin region on Nov. 3,1943. The bloodbath was ordered by Himmler, following repeated organized resistance at some of the camps, and the uprising at Sobibor on Oct. 14. It was one of the last steps toward the Nazi goal to rid Europe of Jews. At Majdanek alone 18,400 Jews were lined up naked in most atrocious ways along prepared ditches and shot all day long, with loudspeakers from two trucks blaring Strauss waltzes to drown out the screams of the victims and the noise of the guns.
Poughkeepsie resident Dr. John J. Neumaier was president of SUNY New Paltz from 1968-1972 and of Moorhead (Minn.) State University from 1958-1968. He is philosophy professor emeritus of Empire State College, New York City. His column appears in the first Sunday Freeman of each month, and is broadcast by short-wave station Radio for Peace International.