Last week I watched a film called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. It tells the story of the friendship that develops across the barbed wire of a German concentration camp between a captive Jewish boy and the son of the camp commandant. For me, the film’s stunning ending brought tears and a fresh reminder that not only must we not forget the Nazi atrocities of World War II, we must also actively remember.
January 27 marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest and one of the most notorious of Adolf Hitler’s killing centers. Located some 40 miles west of Krakow, Poland, Auschwitz was made up of three main camps that held at least 1.3 million people condemned to die as part of Hitler’s maniacal drive to exterminate Jews. About 1.1 million of them died at Auschwitz alone.
Massive, industrialized killing was just one of the immense horrors of Auschwitz. At the Auschwitz I camp, physicians conducted experiments on infants, twins and dwarfs. Adults were castrated and sterilized. The most notorious of these ghouls was Dr. Josef Mengele.
The center of operations was carried out at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazi SS used Zyklon B gas to kill Jews, gypsies and others deemed not worthy of life. Four large crematoriums were used to dispose of the bodies after the gassings were complete. Trains arrived at Auschwitz from across Europe. Those deemed unfit for forced labor were sent to an immediate death. The eventual toll was breathtaking: 960,000 Jews, 74,000 Poles, 21,000 gypsies, 15,000 Soviets and up to 15,000 people of various nationalities.
As the Soviets fought their way nearer to Auschwitz in early 1945, the SS forced tens of thousands of prisoners into a death march west and northwest. Anyone who fell out of line was shot. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, up to 15,000 people died on the death marches. The Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, freeing some 7,000 prisoners.
In 1991, I visited the concentration camp at Dachau, just outside Munich, Germany. I vividly recall the fields of concrete foundations where the prisoner barracks stood. As I wrote at the time:
A cool wind rustles through the dead leaves of last season. It whispers what seems to be an audible tale of the cruelty and atrocities committed here between 1933 and 1945. …The area has a rich culture of its own, but the world will always associate Dachau with death.
Persecution of Jews is again rampant across Europe. The year 2015 was one of the worst on record for the killing of Christians around the world. We must remember the atrocities of World War II, so they can never happen again. The voices of the innocent from Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, Buchenwald, Sobibor and all the other Nazi killing centers still cry out to be heard. Are we listening?
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