Auschwitz as a Symbol of Genocide:
A Chronicle of Atrocities
Because of the murders of more than 1,000,000 Jews at Auschwitz, the name of this concentration camp has become synonymous with brutality, inhumanity, and death. Personal memoirs and historical accounts of these atrocities support this idea that Auschwitz was not the only concentration camp in Nazi Germany nor was it the only site of the execution of Jews and other ethnic minorities of Allied soldiers, as these types of events occurred all over Germany and the European front, however, Auschwitz stands out as the largest camp and most remembered. Luckily many captors were released to tell their story after their liberation and Primo Levi in his memoir, The Reawakening details how deep, harrowing, and horrible the scars of those that survived Auschwitz really are. As well, editors Roselle Chartrock and Jack Spencer write of the accounts of those, who also survived the horrors of Auschwitz in Can it Happen Again? Chronicles of the Holocaust. Finally, Jack Fishel in his book, The Holocaust, writes as a historian who puts historical context with these personal stories to show that the horrors at Auschwitz and the attempted elimination of the Jews should never be forgotten.
Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, writes about his encounters across several countries and with several groups of people that were displaced as part of World War II. He focuses on recounting the stories of specifically the prisoners of Auschwitz in their return back to what was left of their homes. Levi describes people, who are very badly scarred and scared and they have little explanation for the level of hatred that caused the death of family members and the torture of themselves. Levi seems to focus on seeing the good of the people he encounters, though the underlying theme of the book seems to be that despair will be a mark left on the Jewish people forever, because of Auschwitz and other places where atrocities were committed on the Jewish community. Though Levi focuses on his own salvation and redemption, he seems to show that others may never have peace again and that this is was the Nazis wanted, to exterminate Jews and to psychologically scar any witnesses to their actions.
After Levi is liberated by Russian soldiers, he is in poor health and his mental state is fragile as are the mental states of those around him. Levi speaks of his first bath after his liberation and how it was difficult to take a bath without recounting the horrors of the humiliation of the conditions of the camp and how the lucky ones were actually only humiliated while others were told that they were going to the showers, only to be executed. Many seemingly simple activities along Levi’s journey brought back horrible flashbacks. He says of one old man, whom he admired “he was possessed by a desperate senile madness; but there was a greatness in his madness, a force and a barbaric dignity, the trampled dignity of beast in a cage” (Levi, 99). It becomes clear that what Levi is searching for is what all Jews and others liberated from Auschwitz are searching for and that is their dignity. To Levi, there is a certain extent of dignity in being able to tell his story and that of others, no matter how tragic and hopeless many of these men felt. There must be dignity after tragedy and hopelessness and despair must be turned into a chronicle of history that is never to be forgotten, so that it never happens again.
What Levi proves is that Auschwitz is a symbol for atrocities, but it was also a unifying factor in the survivors of the camp, who had to heal their emotional and mental wounds from the horrible experiences they endured. Many of Levi’s encounters were saddening and sickening proving that the Germans has exerted their power over some of the men forever, even if they did survive. Levi spoke of the “many whom the ferocious life of the camp had half destroyed, and then left to their fate, sealed up (and perhaps protected) by a thick armour of insensitivity of open madness” (37). It seems that the survival of sanity and the retelling of the events of Auschwitz did equal dignity in the survivors and editors Roselle Chartrock and Jack Spencer in Can it Happen Again? Chronicles of the Holocaust, help to also tell the stories of Auschwitz survivors. They tell stories of starvation, human depravity on the part of the Nazis, horror, helplessness, but most importantly, the inability for Jews to understand why they were so hated.
The hatred of the Nazis in their Final Solution to kill all Jews is something that these authors outline to express their own fear that if the events at Auschwitz and elsewhere in this war are forgotten, then this can happen again. The level of surprise that the survivors had to the extent of the Germans’ hate toward them makes this, indeed a reality. William Shirir writes in Chatrock and Spencer’s collection of stories about Auschwitz as a “death house” where young Jewish children and other undesirables in the eyes of the Nazis were slaughtered while those fit to work were starved and made to be slaves. “These would be marched one by one by the doctors, who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit to work would be sent into the camp“ (Shirir, 29). Prisoners never knew if they would be next to be killed, as there seemed to be little rationale for who was spared and who was summarily shot. Others died from disease or a slow, torturous death of starvation.
The starvation of prisoners led them to act as if they were animals, and they were treated as such by the Nazis. As well, Naumann in the chronicle of “The Horrors of Daily Life” in Chatrock and Spencer’s book relays that in Auschwitz fleas infested the prisoners, prevented them from wearing shoes and their malnourished bodies were further destroyed by these parasites. Prisoners were also denied any privacy in using the restroom and were chased away with sticks, as if they were animals, by the Nazi guards if it was felt that a person was spending too much time in the latrine. As well the frenzy over getting food was another example of the dehumanization of Jews at Auschwitz and other places that led the people to acting savagely due to their dire hunger.
The people in the camp were so hungry that if a bit of soup spilled over, the prisoners would come running from all sides and like a swarm of wasps converge on the spot, dig their spoons into the mud, and stuff the mess into their mouths. Hunger and extreme want made them into animals (Naumann, 32).
The dehumanization of the Jews did work via the Nazi’s torturous acts in Auschwitz and the reclaiming of dignity of the survivors, indeed served as a strong incentive for these prisoners to recount these horrors.
Jack Fishel in his book, The Holocaust, outlines the events that led up to Hitler’s Final Solution of exterminating the Jewish people and the rationality that the Nazi’s had in creating camps, such as Auschwitz. Fishel critically looks at the social psychology of the Germans involved by illustrating that a death camp like Auschwitz could not have been run so efficiently without the cooperation of many Germans and bureaucrats in the government. This also involved other sectors of German institutions, such as the railway workers, who transported Jewish people and others to Auschwitz and other camps, as well as the doctors who examined Jews ands determined who was fit enough to be put into forced labor or who should be murdered. A place like Auschwitz, that succeeded in murdering over one million Jewish people, had to be supported by many Germans and many sectors of German work and government. The masterminds and architects of Auschwitz are explained as men that were simply following orders to achieve Hitler’s Final Solution and their cold, calculated manner of building and supporting a death camp like Auschwitz is appalling.
The involvement of so many Germans was contrasted by the secrets that they kept from the Jewish population with many Jews unaware of the fate of others sent away. “The Nazis enticed thousands of starving Jews to volunteer for resettlement with the offer of bread and marmalade. Little did the unsuspecting Jews know that ‘resettlement’ was a euphemism for the gas chambers” (Fischel, 58). This shows how the Jewish community was completely cut off from the activities that went on at Auschwitz and many did not realize their fate until they arrived there and were taken to the gas chambers. Here all children were killed and only the adults were left if they were fit enough for labor. The Nazis, as well, took all of the possessions of the Jews sent to the camps to pay for the war. The Russians upon liberating Auschwitz found “348,320 men’s suits, 836,255 women’s garments, 5,525 pairs of women’s shoes, 38,000 pairs of men’s shoes, and huge quantities of toothbrushes, glasses, false teeth, gold caps…” (117). Auschwitz then was not only an efficiently run death camp, it was also a virtual stockpile of possessions stole from the Jewish people, who were duped into thinking that they were going to resettlement camps and not death camps.
Auschwitz certainly serves as the model for an efficiently run death camp, that succeeded in killing over 1 million people during the time of it’s existence. The effort that went into the architecture of the camp, as well as the set-up of railway systems that transported Jews as part of the Final Solution serves as a contrast to the Jewish people, who knew little of the camp and even willingly got on the train to Auschwitz under false pretenses. The secrecy of the Final Solution to the Jews in combination with the cold and calculating German support for the camp makes the atrocities at Auschwitz all the more chilling to those unfamiliar with the Holocaust. For those already familiar with the actions carried out there, it is of the utmost importance to teach others that genocide has been and can still be carried out efficiently and inconspicuously to it’s victims and hidden from other nations. The mark that has been left on survivors of Auschwitz has been written in memoir form by such people as Primo Levi and others, who urge the same message. This message is essentially, do not ever forget.
For the Jewish people, who survived Auschwitz and can attest to the daily horrors, death, and dehumanization, a sequence of behaviors can be seen with the survivors. They were treated like animals and then out of desperation and starvation felt and acted like animals. They lost their sense of decency as human beings and had to grapple with the fact that a place like Auschwitz was ever built and used due to a hatred beyond the realm of most human’s understanding. It can be said then, that the Germans that has any part in the orchestration of Auschwitz or any extermination elsewhere, were like animals as well but this is too simplistic of a response to this. This is why the chronological history and academic work of writers, such as Jack Fischel in The Holocaust are so essential in helping others understand how minds were changed and how death camps, like Auschwitz came to be built. As well, the accounts of Primo and those in the book Can it Happen Again? Chronicles of the Holocaust show the effects of the prisoners during their forced incarceration and after their liberation, when the Jewish people of Europe were trying to reclaim their dignity as humans and understand how deeply human hatred can run. As long as Auschwitz was running, the Final Solution was an achievement of Hitler’s that came too close to being fulfilled.
Fischel, Jack R. The Holocaust. (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994).
Levi, Primo. The Reawakening. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965).
Naumann, Bernd. “The Horrors of Daily Life” in Chatrock, Roselle & Spencer, Jack. Eds. Can it Happen Again? Chronicles of the Holocaust. (New York: Black Dog& Leventhal Publishers, 1995).
Shirer, William L. “The Death House” in Chatrock, Roselle & Spencer, Jack. Eds. Can it Happen Again? Chronicles of the Holocaust. (New York: Black Dog& Leventhal Publishers, 1995).