Shocking, horrifying, depressing — but we must never forget Holocaust

Having visited Auschwitz, Trevor Laffan was given an insight into the horrors that prevailed there 75 years ago
Shocking, horrifying, depressing — but we must never forget Holocaust

Just standing under the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” is enough to send shivers down the spine, but what really got me was the sight of miles and miles of barbed wire fencing with the ominous skull and crossbones signs warning of danger, says Trevor Laffan

I TOOK my father to see Auschwitz, the site of the former WWII concentration camp that was situated in German-occupied Poland, shortly before he died. It was on his bucket list. He had a huge interest in all things associated with World War II, so it was no surprise to me that he wanted to see the place.

I wasn’t as invested as he was, but I was still looking forward to the visit. I didn’t expect it to have such an impact on me, but the significance of that camp is so immense, you can’t avoid being affected.

Just standing under the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” is enough to send shivers down the spine, but what really got me was the sight of miles and miles of barbed wire fencing with the ominous skull and crossbones signs warning of danger.

This was the first thing all those unfortunate people saw when they arrived at the camp. They must have been worried, but they had no idea of the real horror that lay ahead.

Auschwitz still exists today for anyone wishing to visit and to pay their respects. It’s a trip well worth making but it’s difficult to describe the experience to someone who hasn’t been there. It’s informative, shocking, fascinating, horrifying and depressing all at once, but it’s something everyone should go through. As time passes, there are fewer witnesses left to tell their stories of what happened in those camps, but those victims must never be forgotten.

A Nazi hunter was interviewed on the radio recently and he was describing how his organisation remains dedicated to chasing down war criminals responsible for the murder and mayhem that took place in concentration camps. They are determined to bring them to justice, regardless of their age.

Most would be in their nineties now at least, but the men who carried out these atrocities were young and fit at the time and that is what drives them on.

It’s difficult for us to understand what life was like under the regime that prevailed during those times but reading the accounts of the survivors gives us a little insight. Listening to the stories of the suffering would make you want to take up the hunt yourself.

There were many brave souls who risked their lives to inform the world of what was happening in Auschwitz, and it was thanks to them that the horror was revealed as early as it was. Rudolf Vrba and Witold Pilecki were two of those.

The Holocaust Research Project has documented the story of Rudolf Vrba who was born in Czechoslovakia and was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. He was involved in ‘Farm Work’; which consisted of excavating the bodies (for later burning), of over 100,000 prisoners that had already been murdered and buried.

When the SS, discovered he could speak German he was transferred to a storeroom, where the clothing and belongings of the dead were sorted. He later became a camp registrar, and it was in this role that he saw first-hand, the horrors of the gas chambers and the crematoria. He began to calculate and ‘mentally record’ the figures of those transported to, and later murdered, in the camp.

Vrba met a fellow prisoner, Alfred Wetzler, who was 24 years old at the time and the two men became extremely close friends. They were from the same locality so they knew they could trust each other implicitly.

They hatched a plan to escape together and two weeks after escaping from Auschwitz, Vrba and Wetzler met up with members of the Slovakian underground Working Group and began telling their stories.

The reports were sent to the U.S and British governments, the Vatican, the Red Cross, and Hungarian Jewish leaders.

The horror that was unfolding in Auschwitz soon reached the ears of the Polish resistance, who decided to send someone to the camp to gather information. Witold Pilecki volunteered. He was a 39-year-old Polish war veteran who fought against the Nazis and later joined the Polish resistance.

Pilecki is probably the only person to ever volunteer to go to a concentration camp.

He set himself up for an arrest in 1940 and was eventually sent to Auschwitz where he remained for three years.

He gathered information and secretly composed reports about life in the camp, including its transition from a prison to an extermination camp.

By April, 1943, Pilecki had all the evidence he required and decided it was time to leave.

He escaped with two others and made his way back to Warsaw where he described the horrors of the camp.

Some called for the camp to be bombed by the Allies, according to Michael Berenbaum, who wrote, “Why wasn’t Auschwitz bombed?” They argued that it would be an ease to the people imprisoned there who were almost certainly going to face death anyway and it would also put the camp out of action, thereby preventing future exterminations.

One former inmate of Auschwitz recalled hearing bombing taking place close by and said they got comfort from it and would have been happy to have the camp bombed, regardless of the outcome.

He later wrote of that event: “We were no longer afraid of death, at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life.”

Bombing a concentration camp was a difficult call to make and posed a moral dilemma for the Allies.

According to Berenbaum, Americans cited several reasons for not doing so, such as lack of resources, the possibility of failure, and a fear it might provoke even more vindictive German action.

It’s easy to be wise after the event but in hindsight, bombing Auschwitz might have been a blessing.

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