Conservative MPs Iain Duncan Smith (accompanied by Betsy), Andrew Rosindell, Angela Watkinson and Bob Neill - along with Jonathan Isaby of ConservativeHome - visited Auschwitz last Wednesday on a trip which was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of its Lessons from Auschwitz project. Here Iain Duncan Smith reflects on what he observed at the notorious Nazi death camp.
The alarm went off at 4am and I slowly heaved myself out of bed. Staring heavy eyed at the dark windows I cursed myself for having agreed that Betsy and I would take part in a visit to Auschwitz, as part of a Holocaust Educational Trust programme. There had been votes at the House of Commons until way past midnight and the two hours sleep I had managed to grab only made me feel worse. As we raced for the flight, I silently questioned the need for my visit: I had so much work to do and couldn’t spare a day away. After all, I had always been strong in my commitment to stamp out anti-Semitism, volunteering for the all-party anti-Semitism Committee and the terrible story of Auschwitz was already well known to me.
The flight was full of students with a smaller number of journalists and some MPs. As the flight took off, none of my colleagues seemed overexcited either - unsurprising, considering each stared bleakly at a variety of newspapers, pages and pages of which were filled with stories of allegations of political corruption. Putting my paper down, all I could think was that it was a bad day to leave the office; I confess, Auschwitz at that moment was not at the forefront of my mind.
Yet a few days days later, despite the continuing political crises and the pressure to catch up on work which should have been done before, hardly an hour passes that I do not find myself thinking about Auschwitz. From the iconic watch tower to the destroyed ovens, images flash past at random and I find I can hardly talk to anyone without telling them about what I saw, before urging them to visit. As Rabbi Marcus said to me, "hearing is not like seeing".
It was when we walked into Auschwitz 1 through the gate with its infamous statement, Arbeit Macht Frei, that I realised how little I really knew about this place of cruelty and death; like everyone else, of course I knew of it, but I found I really knew little of any substance about it.
I hadn’t realised that there were three Auschwitz camps: Auschwitz 1 had been a Polish army barracks, converted into a concentration camp for political prisoners and Jews. In a space smaller than the Houses of Parliament, 20,000 people were confined. Beaten, marched huge distances to work and fed only meagre rations, they died in large numbers. It was at Auschwitz 1 that the Nazis began to experiment with different ways of murdering their victims. The first gas chamber was built in the camp and in September 1941, 850 malnourished and ill people were gassed for the first time. In some of the ‘barracks’ the conditions have been reproduced and it is difficult to describe the inhuman squalor in which they lived. In one small courtyard, movingly surrounded by candles and prayer cards, stood a small wall where prisoners were shot routinely for the smallest reasons.
As Auschwitz 1 was too small, in 1942 the Germans opened a purpose built camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz 2). I found it was the visit to this camp that made me understand the true horror of what had gone on. Purpose built to house at least 100,000 people at any one time, this camp for the first time had a number of gas chambers and crematoria, capable of disposing of thousands of people in a matter of days. For me, the saddest part of the visit was the moment we stopped on a path across the railway tracks and were told that this was where Dr Joseph Mengele, the ‘Angel of Death,’ divided the groups up. To the left, women with children, pregnant women, the old and the infirm: they were walked a couple of hundred yards to the gas chambers and crematoria. All the while the chimneys of the crematoria would have been belching out their foul-smelling smoke as they processed previous groups. As a father of four, standing alongside my wife Betsy, I froze at the thought of what a man watching his family ripped away from him must feel.
On one occasion a mother refused to be parted from her son and as she screamed at the SS soldiers, Mengele drew his pistol and shot them both. Then, turning to the guards, he told them to round up the whole trainload - including those already selected for the work details - and ordered them all to be sent to the gas chambers, shouting, "away with this shit!" If I close my eyes, I can still see a picture, taken by an SS officer, of a mother and young children, part of a column walking away from the train, with the chimney in the background.
Even if selected for work details, the outcome was likely to be the same. So insanitary were the conditions that disease spread through the camp, killing thousands of weak and malnourished people. In long wooden huts originally designed for horses, people were crowded together in the triple level bunks. The weakest were left on the bottom - not a place to be as with so many suffering from dysentery and often unable to move, the lower bunks got covered in excrement. Too many in those terrible conditions just gave up and died.
Yet the cruelty could be in pure, uncaring neglect as well. We were told as we visited the processing centre for the work detail that when the naked inmates came out of the showers, they were given their clothes and wooden clogs. If they were given the wrong size clogs which they couldn’t wear, that was the equivalent of a death sentence: they would be lame within a couple of days and the lame were shipped off to the gas chambers. That is why when someone died in the camp, the fight that followed was over their shoes.
The figures speak for themselves. Approximately 1.3 million people died in Auschwitz. The majority died in the gas chambers, but many thousands died in the work details, sick and malnourished. Over 90% were Jews from all over Europe; the others included Romany Gypsies and political prisoners, some of whom were German.
Yet terrible as they are, it is not the figures alone that shocked me. Two further factors made the visit so memorable. First, the incredible scale of the camp and second, perhaps the most difficult to comprehend, was the sheer ruthless and functional efficiency of the grisly undertaking. There have been throughout history episodes of genocide, even to the present day as we have seen in Rwanda. Yet what came home to me, standing in the middle of the huge death camp, was how the Nazis had turned genocide into a cold and systematic factory process.
It was the little details that made me shudder as I walked around: the way they had extended the railway line into the camp so that they could speed up the new arrivals to the gas chambers; the building of gas chambers near the end of the track so that people didn’t have far to walk from the platform; the way they put two gas chambers and crematoria in the woods behind the camp so that the women and children would believe they were being moved to a more pleasant environment; finally, the way they recycled the ash from the crematorium to feed the fish ponds - fish the guards later ate.
Every detail was recorded in a fastidious way and from this we can see how the camp commandant searched for more efficient and cheaper ways to do his job. At one point I found myself staring into a huge display case, inside which was an enormous pile of hair; hair of all colours, some taken from young girls, still tied in plaits, and one even had the vestiges of a ribbon attached. This hair, we were told, was used to make ropes and mats for the army. The Sonderkommando, (inmates detailed to organise the victims into the gas chambers and responsible for the cremation), even pulled the gold out from the teeth of the corpses, before burning them. This was melted down and shipped back to Germany – nothing it seemed must be wasted. When the Jews arrived, their belongings, along with their clothes were taken to a warehouse, sorted and despatched back to the Fatherland; everything had to be used.
Auschwitz was deliberately turned into a factory. To understand how this was achieved one needs to look at the Commandant. According to Whitney Harris, the American prosecutor who interrogated him at the Nuremberg trials, Rudolf Höss appeared "normal", "like a grocery clerk". And former prisoners who encountered him at Auschwitz confirmed this view, adding that Höss always appeared calm and collected. He is the greatest mass murderer the world has ever seen, and yet there is no record of him ever personally hitting - let alone killing - anyone at the camp.
Höss lived with his wife and four children in a house just yards from the crematorium in Auschwitz main camp, where some of the earliest killing experiments were conducted using the poisonous insecticide Zyklon B. During his working days, Höss presided over the murder of more than a million people, but once he came home he lived the life of a solid, middle-class German husband and father. He even said to the prosecutors that he liked nothing more than to go back to his house and play with his little children in the evening after work.
As I walked around the camp reflecting on this cold bureaucratic place of death. I was struck by one final absurdity. With munitions and men needed to fight the war in the east, shipping millions of Jews into Auschwitz and the other death camps tied up soldiers, railway trucks and engines and messed up the rail network - which must have had a disastrous effect on Germany’s war effort. Even as late as January 1945, days before the Russians arrived, the killing continued.
At the end of the visit, we all met on the sight of one of the destroyed gas chambers and crematoria. As I listened to some readings from the students, I looked around. It was a beautiful spring evening with the trees in leaf, the sun was warm and around us birds sang. Here in the heart of Auschwitz, with such benign weather and standing on the epicentre of the killing machine, I found it hard to digest it all.
Then Rabbi Marcus started to chant a prayer in Hebrew, his melodic voice carrying in the spring air. The sadness of the music with its ancient cadences stirred me and I think I finally understood. That one voice represented one person, one person who was killed in this place, one person killed one million times. I had found it impossible to comprehend the death of a million people but I could see one person, their smile, their laugh, their hair, their clothes, and now their sound.
The sadness of Auschwitz is that those who planned and built their death factory could never see that.