Friday, October 11, 2013

The gates of hell

     "The sky is wounded forever. Auschwitz was an unspeakably appalling attack upon everything that humanity stands for."
       -- Inscription on the Auschwitz memorial in Amsterdam, by Dutch artist/writer Jan Wolkers
An aerial view of the main camp at Auschwitz ... there was also the
extermination camp at Birkenau nearby (Picture from
 the National Archives, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)
(11th in a series)
       Auschwitz, the word itself, the name, connotates evil. Tragedy, death, famine, humiliation ... and, in the case of my parents, survival.
       It was a word spoken often in our home, but when you are a kid, it's really only a word. As you grow older, as you read and begin to grasp what it meant, it became more of a reality.
       My parents, as I've written before, didn't obsess about it, not in my opinion. The experience didn't overwhelm them; they went on to live their lives, and they were great lives.
        But, yes, there was survivors' guilt -- the loss of their families, their loved ones, so many friends, so many of the people around them in the camps -- and it never went away.
        Yes, there were depressive times, especially for my mother; and, yes, they wanted the world to know what they'd been through. They felt that, as survivors, part of their mission -- in addition to raising two wonderful kids -- was to tell of the inhumane treatment they had somehow escaped.
         As many people reading this blog know, my mother for more than two decades spoke publicly at schools, civic organizations, churches and conventions about her Holocaust experiences. My father,  whose English was passable but not fluid, did an interview on tape with the USC Shoah Foundation in 1996.
          Auschwitz was one of 356 concentration/extermination/work camps established by the Nazis throughout Europe. Some of the other names also are familiar: Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck, Buchenwald, Treblinka.
           But Auschwitz -- located in Oswiecim, Poland, near Krakow, established in May 1940 -- was  the biggest, and the baddest. An estimated 1,100,000 people were murdered there, most in the gas chambers, most Jewish, the great majority Polish.
            Auschwitz, the records show, was evacuated by the Germans on Jan. 18, 1945, and liberated by the Russian Army nine days later.
            Dad was one of 27 men remaining in the camp then. Some 700 men had been marched out in the woods and shot just days before.
           To hear Dad describe the day he stepped off the train for arrival at Birkenau -- the extermination camp next to the main camp of Auschwitz -- is, in my view, the most gut-wrenching part of his entire testimony.
         He had been a prisoner of the Germans, the Nazis, for more than four months -- this was after a short time as a Dutch Army POW -- when he and about 1,000 others, mostly Jews but also some Romas (gypsies) boarded the train in Mechelen, Belgium, bound for ... who knew where?
          "They told us nothing," Dad said to the interviewer.                         
           She asked him to describe the arrival at the station and what happened soon thereafter.
            My Dad, during the interview, is not often emotional. But that question made him stop for a moment.
            "Boy, that is something," he said, slowly, shaking his head. "We got off the train, and the SS guards came out with dogs [German shepherds] and everything." (Which, I believe, he meant the huge military presence and the machine guns/rifles.)
           "They told us to leave our suitcases and stuff lying over there," he continued. "We can get it later, they say, and you know it was all in German, and German was not the main language for us. So the half we didn't understand what they were saying.
           "They were hitting [people] already, and we were sent to barracks. And we saw the children and the women on the side. It was like a dream. I don't know if you'd say it was a dream, but it was something ..."
             What did you think, why were the women and the children on the side?
             "No idea. No idea," he answered. "We were talking, 'What is here?' What did we know about concentration camps at that time? We had heard and read from it before the war, what happened in Germany, [but] you no realize that happened today to you yourself."
            The Germans/Nazis had no use for the women and children. The records at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam -- which we visited in April -- show that the wife of my Dad's older brother, Regina Van Thijn-Kok, and my Dad's baby nephew, Nico, went to the gas chambers Nov. 5, 1942 -- probably hours after their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
            Apparently, Dad's mother, Sara Van Thijn-Van Beem, and his little brother, Jonas, were at Auschwitz for more than a year before being sent to the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland, where they were gassed June 11, 1943. My grandfather, Nathan Van Thijn, his occupation listed as dispatch clerk, died at Sobibor on July 16, 1943. Records show that some 250,000 died at Sobibor.
            Dad's brother Hyman, a furniture maker, died in the Gleiwitz, Poland, camp on Oct. 21, 1944.
            The bitter facts are on a panel beside the Auschwitz memorial in Amsterdam. Before the German invasion of 1940, there were 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands; between July 15, 1942, and September 1944, some 107,000 of them were deported. Only 5,200 survived, to return to Holland after the war.
            There were some 95,000 Dutch Jews sent to Auschwitz and Sobibor. Only 500 returned.
            That's one of every 190, two of 380.
            Two: Rozette Lopes-Dias (married name Lezer) and Louis Van Thyn.              
            They did not know each other, they were each married at the time they went to Auschwitz, each in their mid 20s. Their Holocaust experiences were separate. Neither of their spouses survived.
              They would soon find each other in Amsterdam, and their stories had happy endings. But the memories were haunting.
(Picture from the Main Commission for the Investigation of
 Nazi War Crimes, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)
            "In the barracks, we had some people [dressed] in blue and white stripes that were shaving us [shaving the hair from their bodies] and giving us numbers [tattooed on their forearms]," my Dad recalled. "and the SS was walking around there, they start hitting people already, and they took the biggest men first because they couldn't hit back. One tried to hit back, and he was shot right away."
            Dad's identity became No. 70726.
            "We saw the first night, there were rats on the ground, they killed them and they let [made] someone eat them," he continued. "I mean, there were different things they did over there.         
            "I remember I go [to] the bathroom and there was a man standing next to me, he was already in the camp. He asked if I had something to eat for him. He spoke Yiddish, and I no spoke Yiddish, thus I don't know what he was talking about. He asked me for some food. He say, 'Bad over here, bad over here.'
             "We could understand that."
              The next day he would see, for the first time, the infamous gate at Auschwitz, the one inscribed with "Arbeit Macht Frie" (work will make you free).
              I'm thinking it should have said "The Gates of Hell." Because for the next 2 1/2 years, that's what it was.
             Next: Living the nightmare


  1. From Tommy Canterbury: Carol and I love your reports on your Dad's brave and historical life. This last one is so special and interesting. What a blessing he was ... and still is.

  2. From Patrick Booras: Amazingly terrible to endure and survive and recover from; your parents' specific lives embody the greatest of attributes: survival, recovery and triumph.

  3. From Cynthia Aillet Murry: This is bone-chilling to read. What terrible atrocities were comitted at these camps. To read what
    your father said here is incredible.

  4. From Pam Shaw White: Just read this article to people in the room. Not a dry eye anywhere. Thank you.