Haunted by the Holocaust: can you grieve for someone you do not know?

I DIDN’T know, although I should have, that Auschwitz was liberated 61 years ago last Friday.

We should all know that date, January 27, 1945. It should be one of the dates in history that is forever a part of us.

If there is one episode in history that must never be forgotten, it is the episode that bears a unique name, a name that cannot be applied properly to anything else. The Holocaust.

There is a Hebrew equivalent for that word, and it is Shoah.

The Holocaust, of course, lasted for years.

The reason a single date has been chosen to commemorate it is because that was the moment when it become impossible for the world to deny its existence. Many, of course, never knew throughout World War II what the Nazis were doing to Jews throughout Europe. Many more didn’t want to know.

But from the moment that Russian soldiers entered Auschwitz, to be confronted by some of the most pitiable sights imaginable, denial was no longer possible.

Justice Minister Michael McDowell spoke briefly in Dublin last Sunday night at the annual Holocaust memorial ceremony, which is held each year to ensure we never forget.

In the course of his remarks he said the death of one child in Ireland by violent means is enough to disturb us all for days. How then do we even begin to come to terms with the death of 1.5 million children, all of them destroyed in the interests of a perverted ideological idea about racial purity?

He was right to make the comparison. It is possible to read the facts and figures of the Holocaust, to follow the sequence of events in history books.

But it is not possible to understand what it felt like to be there, or how it could be possible that a civilised people did this, or how even today there are people who bear the unbearable scars that survivors must carry.

There were a number of survivors at the memorial ceremony and they spoke, almost matter-of-factly, about some of their experiences.

As I listened, I found myself thinking about their courage, the courage it takes to survive, and the added courage required when you are the only one of your family to survive.

This is what Zoltan Zinn Collins, one of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen (when he was rescued, he was five years old) said: “On the very day of liberation, my mother died. I wonder what her name was. She had black hair. Can you grieve for someone you do not know? She was my mother, but I did not know her. Her hair was black.

“A few years ago, I went back to Belsen with Suzi. For her mother had died there, too. It was a bit odd. Neither of us had ever been back. I think we were both thinking we would have to mind the other. We went to one of the mass graves, which is about all that is left of Belsen.

“We placed a pebble on the grave, and tried to light a candle. Then we looked at each other. What do you say? What was her name, my mother with the black hair? In another of those pits lies my brother, maybe my baby sister. Perhaps they are in the same pit. The pits are very big; there would be plenty of room for the two little ones. What were their names?”

Can you grieve for someone you do not know?

That was the question he asked us. And I think everyone at the ceremony, listening to him, knew the answer.

You never stop grieving for the mother you never knew.

And there were thousands, millions, of children forced to grieve for their mothers, mothers forced to grieve for their children. Millions of people killed, but killed with cruelty and barbarism.

When the Russian army entered Auschwitz, it was through a gate over which the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ had been erected in wrought iron. It means ‘work brings freedom’. The sign had been put there by Major Rudolf Hoss, commandant of the camp.

And what was the work? Killing, of course.

Between 1940 and 1945, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz. At least 1.1 million were murdered. On the day that Auschwitz was liberated, they found only 7,000 prisoners left.

That was partly because it was one of the most efficient killing machines ever invented by man.

But as the Russians approached, they realised there were still many Jews to be killed. So the SS began evacuating Auschwitz and its neighbouring camps. Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced to march west.

THOUSANDS had been killed in the camps in the days before these death marches began. Tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly Jews, were forced under the most terrible conditions to march to the city of Wodzislaw in the western part of Upper Silesia.

SS guards shot anyone who fell behind or could not continue.

Prisoners also suffered from the cold weather, starvation, and exposure on these marches. More than 15,000 died during the death marches from Auschwitz.

When they eventually arrived in Wodzislaw, the prisoners were put on unheated freight trains and transported to concentration camps in Germany and Austria, including the terrible Buchenwald and Dachau.

The rail journey lasted for days. Without food, water, shelter or blankets, many prisoners died in agony and despair.

In late January 1945, 4,000 prisoners were forced on a death march from another one of the sub-camps at Auschwitz. About 1,000 prisoners died during that march, and the rest ended up in Buchenwald. Even after the liberation of Auschwitz, the killing went on and on.

And so did the cruelty. Before killing women, the Nazis cut off their hair. Masses of hair were packed in bags. The hair was raw material for German furniture and upholstery factories.

It has been estimated that, all told, the Nazis produced 7,000 kilograms of hair from 140,000 murdered women in Auschwitz.

They made fertilisers of human bones. They tore out gold teeth and fillings from the mouths of corpses. They filled storehouse after storehouse with clothes, eye-glasses, children’s toys, all intended to be sold for a profit.

And in Auschwitz, too, they carried out experiments. Terrible experiments on twins, on elderly people, on children.

They didn’t just use the gas chambers and the ovens for Jews, they murdered tens of thousands of children with a disability, tens of thousands of young men who were homosexual.

Could it ever happen again? We hope not. We commemorate the Holocaust because that may be the best way to prevent it ever happening again.

But remember this. No one said ‘no’. No one said it was wrong. When it was over, the generals all said they were following orders.

And one soldier lower down the ranks, giving evidence at his trial after the war, said: “I was detailed with the gas van to about 12 convoys of arriving Jews. It was in 1942. There were about 1,000 Jews in each convoy. With each arrival I made five or six trips with my van. Some of the Jews were shot. I myself never shot a single Jew; I only gassed them...”

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