Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The hangings: a gruesome spectacle

(21st in a series)

The gallows at Auschwitz (from Jewish Virtual Library;
photo by Mitchell Bard from Auschwitz museum
     The subject is gruesome, as most things concerning the Holocaust are. Most everything the Nazis did to their prisoners -- most of them Jewish -- were gruesome.      My Dad (Louis Van Thyn) saw many men beaten, and he was a victim of that several times. He saw them starved, tortured ... and shot to death. And twice in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview, he mentions the hanging of prisoners.
       Those are two of the times in viewing his 2 1/2-hour interview that one might stop and swallow hard or reflect on the madness of it all. Of course, there are quite a few moments like that.
      He was detailing some of the various types of punishments the Nazis dealt out when he said, "... And I saw some hanging over there in Auschwitz. There were eight [men] escaping (or trying to escape), and they hanged them; we [all the other prisoners in camp] had to stay on appell [stand at attention].
      "We had to stay 24 hours on appell [because] there were something going on," he said. "But it was not the invasion of Europe [by the Allies]; we had to stay on appeal in June [1944], too (after the D-Day invasion)."
      Dad pointed out that the Nazis used the hangings for shock value, for warning of what could happen, and made the entire camp of prisoners stand and watch, waiting for hours, until the hangings were finally carried out.
      The subject surfaced again as he talked of missing the "Death March" that marked the end of hell-on-earth for the prisoners who survived it and was the end for thousands of the starving, debilitated who never made it to another camp, or wherever the Nazis were marching them.
      "You know we had a hanging over there, too," Dad said to the interviewer. "We had a German prisoner who escaped eight times out of different camps. Then in '44, he came to our camp, and he tried to escape, and they catch him. He had made [dug] a hole under the fence and he was close [to getting] out, and they catch him.
      "That was the eighth time he had escaped [or tried to], and then they hang him in our camp, and we had to stay in the camp and see how he was killed. We saw that."
      From the section about hangings on the web site en.auschwitz.org:
      "Execution by hanging took place sporadically. Hangings took place in public, usually during roll call, in order to intimidate the other prisoners. One of the most notorious episodes was the hanging of 12 prisoners from the surveyors’ labor detail on July 19, 1943, in reprisal for the escape of three others from the same group.
      "The last hangings came shortly before the liquidation of Auschwitz. Five participants in an unsuccessful escape attempt two months earlier (three Austrians and two Poles) were hanged in the main camp on December 30, 1944, and four Jewish women were hanged on January 6 for supplying Sonderkommando prisoners with explosives that they used during their mutiny."
      The interviewer asked Dad: "Was it the first time you had seen such atrocities?"
      "Yeah, yeah, that was the first time," he answered.
      Interviewer: "What did you think?"
       "What do you think? They scare you to death," he replied. "You know they used things to let you see that you were scared."
       The fact is that many of the Nazi officers captured and tried after World War II, at the Nuremburg Trials and the like, were sentenced to death by hanging. Some of them died by suicide before their hangings could be done.
       I don't know how Dad felt about that. I believe he found value in every human life; I know he was not a vengeful person. But knowing that so many millions died -- including almost his entire family -- and so many suffered, including himself -- at the hands of the Nazis, I think he (and the rest of the world) could find justification for the post-war hangings.
       On this blog, I could have used photos of people hanging at the gallows; there are plenty available online. But it's difficult to look at those photos.
       Just imagine -- my Dad and thousands of other prisoners had to stand there and watch it happen. Gruesome.
       Next: An empty camp


  1. From Tommy Youngblood: Well-written on a very difficult subject. I think everyone over a certain age should be told these memories. No one should forget.

  2. From Jimmy Russell: Just makes me wonder how anyone survived this.