Chapter 7B: Hell on Earth

How did Auschwitz happen, and what are my thoughts?

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I wanted to follow up and address two points: First, how did we get here? What happened in Germany to cause the extermination of an entire ethnic group?

Second, what are my thoughts after visiting this place?

How Did We Get Here?

“How did Europeans sit by and watch their neighbors be arrested and killed?” is a question held my many, myself included. You have to realize that terrible things don’t happen over night. They are the end result of dozens, maybe hundreds, of small actions that compound over time.

Germany was always a proud nation, and the country was embarrassed in the post-WW1 era. The government was in shambles, the central banks were in debt, and the nation could raise no army. There was a common conspiracy circling among Germans that the war wasn’t lost on the battlefield, but on the home front. The German revolution in 1918 disrupted the nation in the heat of war, and many looked at the Jewish population as a scapegoat.

A charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler, representing the nationalistic Nazi party gained support from patriotic citizens by promising to return the nation to its former glory. The early 20th century was defined by a global interest (including the US, unfortunately) in eugenics and dominant bloodlines, and Hitler’s belief in a dominant German bloodline resonated with many of his countrymen.

In the 1920s, Jewish Germans were normal, respected members of their communities. After the Nazi party gained power, they began promoting antisemitism in Germany through various propaganda campaigns. Things escalated when Hitler declared a boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933, and the Nazi government gradually outlawed Jewish employment in public universities, civil service, and medicine. All non-Aryan books were destroyed, and all Jews lost their German citizenship.

In 1936, Germany issued its Nuremberg laws, which forbade Jews from marrying “natural” Germans. Towns across the nation began posting signs saying that they wouldn’t accept Jewish businesses. Thousands of Jews tried to emigrate, but even this was difficult thanks to both a 90% wealth tax on emigrants and strict immigration laws in foreign countries.

The Nazis spent a decade alienating Jewish Germans from their neighbors. As they lost their rights to work, socialize, and live in Germany, Jews were forced to retreat from broader society. Friendships and bonds between Jews and their fellow Germans faltered as the former found few areas where they could still connect, and the collapse of German-Jew relationships in the middle class was the final step before the full brutality of the Nazi party would emerge.

Terrible things don’t happen over night. People don’t abandon their friends and neighbors on a whim. But a decade-long propaganda campaign combined with increasingly restrictive legislation can effectively alienate an entire ethnic group. When these friends are no longer friends, and neighbors are no longer neighbors, it becomes much easier to make them disappear by the millions. After all, when you are a proud German, and everyone around you is now a proud German, why would you concern yourself with anyone else? Ignorance is bliss.

If you think this can’t happen today, you are wrong.

Take America as an example. 9/11 was the biggest catastrophe our country had seen since Pearl Harbor. An attack on our soil by a foreign enemy. After 9/11, the country was unified by patriotism. This attack was orchestrated by an extremist group from the Middle East that believed America should be destroyed.

Now imagine that our government began discriminating against Middle Eastern businesses, calling for boycotts in the name of the war effort. Then a few years later, we roll back citizenships of Americans from Middle Eastern nations. Afghani professors lose their jobs. Iranian doctors lose their licenses. Pakistani restaurant owners are forced to close their businesses. Middle Eastern children are no longer allowed to attend public schools.

As these rights are pulled back, you start losing contact with your Middle Eastern friends. Their children are no longer playing sports with your children. Your dentist used to be from Iran, but now he’s from New York. That Middle Eastern restaurant you frequented has been replaced by a wing place. Your economics professor from Kuwait is replaced by someone else from Chile. And all of this takes place over 5-6 years. Meanwhile, we are waging war in the Middle East.

Then someone burns down a mosque. The authorities do nothing. More people begin burning down and vandalizing Muslim buildings. Then we realize that the Middle East is an enemy that must be removed for America to successfully move forward. Maybe this means deportation, maybe something worse. With all connections between Middle Eastern and non-Middle Eastern Americans effectively severed, the government will be able to act swiftly with little resistance from its citizens.

Thankfully, none of this happened in America. But you see how quickly a few “nationalistic” steps can snowball into discrimination, violence, and widespread persecution? That’s what happened in Germany. Vigilance is key, and if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

My Thoughts

Walking through Auschwitz is a somber feeling. You can sense the weight of millions of souls around you as you walk across those cursed grounds. 1.1 million innocent “prisoners” died in three years, making Auschwitz the most efficient murder machine in the history of mankind.

The original gas chamber in Auschwitz 1 (multiple camps at Auschwitz were built by 1945, the largest being II, Birkenau) is still standing, and I had the opportunity to walk through it. It sent chills down my spine. When you walk through that massive cement room, you know that 80 years ago, thousands of people were trapped in there. Begging for air. Slowly suffocating, with no chance of escape. This was the first gas chamber that the Germans used, and it was the one where they perfected the murder formula. This chamber was first used on prisoners of war, and it took two days to kill them. The one saving grace of the later gas chambers was that they were quick: 20 minutes. In 1941, the Nazis were just beginning to experiment with Zyklon B. It took time to get the compound right. That first group spent two days locked in this chamber. Two days slowly succumbing to that poisonous gas. I couldn’t imagine a worse death.

And there I was, standing where thousands before me took their last breaths. I saw the furnaces as well. The chimney where countless prisoners finally left Auschwitz as puffs of smoke and ash. It was a surreal experience, to say the least.

I saw the electric fences that offered a final escape to many prisoners, and I wondered if I would have chosen the fence or continued to live. I saw the “medical barrack” where Dr. Mengele conducted his horrible experiments on children. I saw where infants were drowned. Women were sterilized. I saw the death wall where prisoners of war were executed before the gas chambers were built. The windows on either side of this alley were boarded up, so other prisoners couldn’t see the executions.

I also saw the gate through which Kazimierz Piechowski three of his friends escaped in SS uniforms and a stolen sedan. almost 1000 prisoners dared to escape, but less than 200 made it. Over a million prisoners. Less than 200 escaped.

At Auschwitz II, I took a moment and stood where the selection process happened. I probably would have been directed right to a labor camp, but when your life is in the hands of a subjective guard or doctor, there is really no way to know. I walked the road that hundreds of thousands had walked unknowingly to their deaths, and I looked upon the collapsed remains of gas chamber IV.

My takeaway?

It could have been me. Or you. Or anyone. We don’t pick our parents. Our ethnicity. Our homeland. We’re just born somewhere to some family. And yet, these very things that we don’t pick led to more than six million deaths. A group of people who didn’t pick to be German decided that they should live, while a group of people who didn’t pick to be Jewish should die.

Your career wouldn’t save you. Your doctorate. Your pedigree. Your connections. If your grandparents were Jewish, you were sentenced to death. What a horrible, ignorant, disgusting ideology. And yet it was pervasive across a nation.

No man can determine the worth of another. We’re worth more than our ability to labor. More than our skin color. Religion. Ethnicity. Every person has a right to live, and love, and struggle, and celebrate, and do all the things that humans do.

My takeaway was pure disgust. F*ck the Holocaust and all of the hatred that the Nazis propagated all of those years ago. So much pain, suffering, and death for what? They really thought the Jews were preventing Germany from being a world power? The Jews were undermining an entire nation? Killing an entire people group would elevate Germany to the next level?

The only difference between the man pointing left or right and the prisoner whose fate he controlled was a roll of the dice. And yet for six million people, that roll proved to be fatal.

Thank you for reading. I hope you guys have a great week.


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