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Why has Auschwitz Become a Synonym for the Holocaust?

Posted by 131, 2017-03-03 10:22:51

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'Arbeit macht frei' (Work liberates you) on entrance gates at Auschwitz

Entrance gates at Auschwitz, date uncertain; WL954

As a student of History and French at Royal Holloway University of London I have been able to study what Eric Hobsbawm described as Europe’s “Age of Extremes” through historical scholarship, but also through the study of French literature, culture and film. Literature has proved a vital part of my learning about the Holocaust. Works in French and English covering the concentration camps, resistance to the Nazis and the Second World War have informed my knowledge of history and the way I think about the experience of genocide.

This is my third blog for The Wiener Library following my articles on the legacy of Elie Wiesel and on my favourite piece of Holocaust fiction, Alone in Berlin which I wrote in honour of International Literacy Day 2016.

Why has Auschwitz Become a Synonym for the Holocaust?

On 27 January 1945 Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. This day was subsequently chosen to commemorate the Holocaust both in the United Kingdom and internationally, except in Israel where the ‘Yom HaShoah’ is observed in spring. An incidental by-product of the Russian winter offensive, the liberation of the camp was not a strategic aim of the Soviets (Stone, 46). Auschwitz was located in southern Poland, in a portion of the country that was annexed by Germany at the beginning of World War II. The approaching Soviet troops had encountered evidence of Nazi atrocities as they marched from the east. When the Red Army encountered Majdanek and the Reinhard camps (Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka), during the summer of 1944, they would have been forgiven for thinking that what they found there were sadistic aberrations. Plaszow was liberated by the Soviets on14 January 1945, followed by Chelmno six days later. By the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, however, the worst rumours and reports of Nazi atrocities had been confirmed. Despite the fact that it was not the first camp to be discovered, ‘Auschwitz’ has been crystallised in historical memory as a word synonymous with the Holocaust itself. This phenomenon gives rise to varied explanations. The sheer scale of the infrastructure of industrialised murder established there defies explanation, but it is also the demographic of those sent there, the duration during which it operated, and the almost incomprehensible number of victims that has ensured that Auschwitz has become infamous as the “capital of the Holocaust” (Stone, 41).

The Sheer Size and Scale of Auschwitz

Almost 1 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz - more than in any other single site of mass murder (Stone, 46). Although cumulatively the camps in the Lublin region, primarily Majdanek and the Reinhard camps, accounted for the murder of more Jews than at Auschwitz, only in Auschwitz did they kill Jews deported from all across the continent. The vast number of victims is also accounted for by the fact that industrialised murder at Auschwitz took place for a longer period of time than in other camps. Despite not being constructed for the purpose of mass extermination like the single-purpose death camps further east, this emerged as its primary function by 1942, sparking an operation that would become the technologically sophisticated zenith of the Nazis’ killing operation (Stone, 41). The scale of the extermination was intended to be increased further, as indicated by plans for the establishment of a new site nicknamed ‘Mexiko’, already underway in 1944. The naming of areas of the camp after countries was meant to symbolise the conditions there. In an area nicknamed ‘Kanada’ inmates had access to clothes and food, symbolising the wealth of the country, while conditions in ‘Mexiko’ were dire, reflecting the impression of Mexico as a poorer country.

The size of the camp, the sophistication of the gas chambers, and the combination of slave labour, like in the Buna-Monowitz plant attached to Auschwitz and mass killing as seen in Birkenau, was truly the peak of Nazi barbarism. Throughout the Second World War the ‘bloodlands’ of Eastern Europe constituted a shifting geography of killing, beginning with the Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet Union and moving westwards to the overcrowded camps within Germany. Throughout 1943 and 1944 this “shifting murderous zone” had Auschwitz-Birkenau, the final destination for trains converging from across Europe, as its epicentre (Cole, 69).

What Remained of Auschwitz after Liberation?

Another explanation for the status of Auschwitz as being synonymous with the Holocaust is the wealth of information scholars have about the camps compared to other sites of genocide. Since January 1945 the photographers and film crews who accompanied the Red Army had been documenting Nazi atrocities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for three years. These images were to be used for propaganda purposes and their value to the USSR was colossal. These films confirmed the wartime accusations of Nazi inhumanity that galvanised the Soviet troops, incentivised their fight against the Germans and were used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials. Despite the fact that they minimised the suffering of Jewish victims in favour of the denunciation of industrialised murder as the inevitable result of fascism, the films established a powerful iconography that would last in representations of the Holocaust. And, although we know the images of smiling inmates under the notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign was taken a few days after they actually liberated the camp, the footage remains invaluable.

Whereas the Allies “had little professional or personal experience with Nazi atrocities” when they encountered camps inside Germany, the Soviets were busy documenting the barbarism that would increase their stake in the post-war world (Stone, 66). More important still, what survived, awaiting the Red Army at Auschwitz, was the infrastructure of mass killing. At Plaszow, Chelmno, and camps in the Lublin region of Poland, barely a trace of genocide was left. However, many of the barracks, gas chambers and warehouses remained after the Nazis’ frenzied evacuation of Auschwitz. It was also partly its enormous scale that ensured that Auschwitz remained intact at the end of the war.

Survivor Testimony

The wealth of information available about Auschwitz is also a result of the vast numbers of survivor testimonies. Several tens of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners survived the war and many of them told their story (Wachsmann, 292). In contrast, the camps built purely for extermination left few witnesses. Only three survivors ever gave testimony about Belzec, and only two men survived Chelmno, one of whom escaped certain execution by a bullet to the back of the head when the bullet missed the vital parts of his brain (Srebrnik). Furthermore, Auschwitz was also used as a transit site for those prisoners en route to other camps, thereby dramatically increasing the number of witnesses to what happened there. As well as the testimony of those survivors of Auschwitz whose words became famous works of Holocaust memory (Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Otto Frank are notable examples), a plethora of interviews and documents remain invaluable for the historian. The Wiener Library is home to the personal papers of British Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman, Austrian born Freddie Knoller, Rolf Pakuscher, present during the camp’s liberation, and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, one of the last survivors of the Auschwitz women’s orchestra. Their personal testimony, as well as that which has been published in books, collections and memoirs, has all contributed to wide knowledge of, and sustained interest in, Auschwitz. Survivor testimony also provides evidence that it was in Auschwitz, the most international of all the camps, where victims began to realise that their persecution was part of a project of killing and enslavement on a continent-wide scale (Cole, 70). Tim Cole writes that while prisoners could not understand what each other said, “Their presence spoke powerfully of the European-wide scope of the persecution” (Cole, 71). The spectrum of languages and cultures present in the camp revealed the pervasiveness and the scope of Nazi antisemitism, contrary to the more remote extermination of Polish Jews by the Einsatzgruppen and camps further east.

A multitude of factors have therefore ensured that conceptions of Auschwitz stand apart from other landscapes of the Holocaust. It is not scale alone that has determined the particular status of Auschwitz in Holocaust memory, it was so lethal because it was the place where organised mass deportation and industrialised murder reached its peak. It was also where this zenith lasted the longest, as it continued to produce victims far longer than in the other camps. However, the abundance of survivor testimony of life and death in Auschwitz, in various languages, provides perhaps the most powerful indication of the influence of this camp in Holocaust memory.

The words and images of Soviet soldiers, testimonies and depositions of survivors, and the experience of visitors to what remained of the camp after it became a site of memorial in 1947, all contribute to the prominence of Auschwitz in popular conceptions of the Holocaust today. In a recent report by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education entitled “What do students know and understand about the Holocaust?” the prominent role of Auschwitz in the genocide was correctly identified by secondary school students. However very few of those interviewed were aware of the association of camps like Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen with the Holocaust, and their knowledge of what happened at Auschwitz is mediated by the fact that very few students were aware that the vast majority of the extermination of Jews took place in Occupied Poland, not Germany. Although knowledge of this site of extermination is essential to an understanding of the particular nature and dimensions of the Holocaust, it is clear that popular misconceptions about the Auschwitz camp and its role in the genocide continue to prevail.

Works Cited:

Cole, Tim. Holocaust Landscapes. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Foster, Stuart et al. What Do Students Know and Understand About the Holocaust? UCL Centre for Holocaust Education.

Stone, Dan. The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath. London: Yale University Press, 2015.

Stone, Dan. Concentration Camps: A Short History. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Szymon Srebrnik. Chelmno Survivor Testimony. Holocaust Research Project

Wachsmann, Nikolaus. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. London: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Suggested Further Reading:

The Wiener Library holds many books and documents relating to the Auschwitz concentration camps, some of which are listed below:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Auschwitz-Monowitz (sub camp of Auschwitz); Auschwitz (memorial site);Oswiecim; Auschwitz-Birkenau (concentration and extermination camp); Auschwitz (entire camp complex); Death Marches; Liberation; Survivors

Photo Credit: Wiener Library Photo Archive WL954

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