A painful reckoning with the conscience of mankind
There is a list of words which can be used to describe the immensity of the atrocities and crimes committed by the German occupier during World War II. Auschwitz is one of the top words on that list. Eighty years ago ‒ on 14 June 1940 ‒ the first transport of 728 political prisoners from Tarnów was brought to the German concentration camp established in Oświęcim ‒ in the Polish territories annexed by the Third Reich. It is on that day that we celebrate the National Remembrance Day for Victims of the German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps.
From the outbreak of the war on 1 September 1939, German aggression on Poland was marked by crimes: raids on defenseless cities, executions of civilians and prisoners of war, the burning down of towns and villages ... “Kill men, women and children of Polish descent and Polish speech without mercy,” Adolf Hitler instructed. According to his order, social and political activists, officials, teachers, clergy, Silesian and Greater Poland insurgents were murdered, because “only a nation whose elites have been destroyed can be pushed into the role of a slave.” In the first months of occupation, Wehrmacht soldiers, members of the Einsatzgruppen, and Selbstschutz murdered tens of thousands of people as part of Intelligenzaktion and AB-Aktion.
However, German terror did not break the will of Poles to resist. Prisons continued to fill up with members of the emerging underground organizations who were not captured in the first weeks of occupation. Apart from increasing repressions, the Germans decided to implement other methods. In April 1940, the Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of the Auschwitz concentration camp. It was to be yet another camp alongside Stutthof, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, etc. Their names conjured up terrifying images, but it was Auschwitz which, with time, became a symbol of the hell on earth to which the Germans condemned so many people during World War II.
Apart from Poles, representatives of several dozen other nations were also sent to Auschwitz. They were subjected to bestial torture and brutal killing methods ranging from slave labor to beating and pseudo-medical experiments. The construction of the Birkenau camp in nearby Brzezinka began in the autumn of 1941. It became the site of the mass extermination of the Jewish population.
Evil did not ultimately prevail behind the barbed wire. There were people ready to form underground resistance in the camp – among them members of the first transport. Witold Pilecki, prisoner No. 4859, volunteered to be arrested and as a result found himself in Auschwitz in September 1940. He became the symbol of resistance. The road to holiness also led through this terrible place. Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for a fellow prisoner, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the name taken by the German philosopher Edith Stein. “How many similar victories have taken place here” ? asked John Paul II when in 1979, he came to the place where "reckoning with the conscience of humanity" was still ongoing, a place where one must “think with fear of how far hatred can go.”
We are still asking ourselves how in the world it was possible for the nation of Dürer and Bach, the nation which built cathedrals in Aachen and Cologne, to commit such crimes. The prisoners also asked themselves this question. After many years had passed, the Pope from Germany, Benedict XVI attempted to find the answer. Looking at the faces of the victims, he said: “They jar our memory, they touch our hearts. […]desire is to help our reason to see evil as evil and to reject it; their desire is to enkindle in us the courage to do good and to resist evil. They want to make us feel the sentiments expressed in the words that Sophocles placed on the lips of Antigone, as she contemplated the horror all around her: my nature is not to join in hate but to join in love.”
Let the texts below serve this purpose.
President of the Institute of National Remembrance
Read about these first arrivals here:
Large-scale German repressions against the Polish nation demanded a large terror facility: in all, 400,000 numbers were issued to the inmates, and some 900,00 were murdered without being registered.
Their ordeal ultimately killed most of the first arrivals.
The chances of survival of the people who ended up in KL Auschwitz were slim; the camp was built to eliminate the Third Reich's enemies.
Auschwitz was not an exception - the German terror machine relied on a dense network of such facilities.