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Friday, October 31, 2014

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A broken doll at Auschwitz-Birkenau

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There it was, a broken, decapitated child’s doll, displayed on purple sheets inside a glass case containing children’s clothes, socks and shoes.

The doll, its right leg and fleshy pink knee smudged, was clad in a short red and blue tartan skirt, a discolured pinkish blouse and a brown jacket with short sleeves and four brass buttons on each side.

A child’s doll [Sheldon Kirshner photo]

Around its neck was a black bow tie, which was slightly askew. A black belt with a silver buckle was cinched around its tiny waist. Part of its head was plainly visible, lying discarded on one side. A wig and a portion of its scalp rested on the other side.

Of all the heart-rending sights I encountered in the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, this one had the greatest effect on me.

A simple doll whose provenance will probably never be known.

As a father of two grown daughters, I was struck by this forsaken doll as I wandered through Block 5 of a Nazi death camp that callously consumed the lives of 1.1 million victims, 90 per cent of whom were Jews.

The name of the Jewish child who clutched this doll before she was ruthlessly killed  was not documented. She is a statistic, one of the more than one million Jewish children  swallowed up by the Holocaust.

As I gazed at the doll one recent morning, I asked myself a rush of questions. Who was this child? How old was she? What was the colour of her eyes and hair? How tall was she? Where did she come from? When did she arrive at this diabolical place? What were her hopes and dreams? Could she have been  confused and frightened? What were her last thoughts and words as she was herded into a gas chamber?

Contemplating her fate, my mind raced back to my own family history.

In the summer of 1944, after the Lodz ghetto was liquidated, my mother, her seven-year-old son – the older brother I never knew – and her second husband-to-be, my father, were transported to Auschwitz.

My parents survived. The boy did not.

Since that black, incomprehensible moment, not a single day has passed without his image having flashed before my mother’s eyes.

The pain is deep, unimaginable.

The doll was but one of the innumerable, numbing exhibits at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswieim, Poland.

In the same barrack, once reserved for emaciated Polish, Russian and Jewish prisoners, more artifacts of the detritus of death were on display.

A field of eye glasses and prosthetics. A dozen prayer shawls, hung out like so much laundry. Kitchenware, mainly pots and pans. A jumble of suitcases, the names of their owners stencilled in neat lettering. A mountain of shoes. A sea of shoe polish, brushes, combs, creams and cosmetics.

The exhibits in the other other blocks were no less jolting: stark photographs of Jews arriving at the camp. A map of Europe with lines converging on Auschwitz, the northernmost line starting in Oslo and the southernmost one ending at the Greek island of Rhodes. Empty canisters of Zyklon-B, the cyanide-gas-cum-insecticide developed, ironically, by Fritz Haber, a German-Jewish chemist who won the 1918 Nobel Prize. A lumpy mound of dusty hair, shorn from some 40,000 people. Registration cards and photographs of newly arrived inmates.

The gas chamber, with its chimney poking harmlessly into the sky, looked deceptively innocuous until my guide, Pawel Sawicki, diverted my attention to the four vents on the roof from which white Zyklon-B pellets were poured.

We got into a car and drove a few kilometres to Birkenau, the vast killing centre adjacent to the peaceful village of Brzezinka.

Birkenau, with its maze of wooden barracks and ruins of crematoria, is nothing less than surreal, an open-air museum documenting the dark underbelly of human nature.

With the Red Army advancing on the camp, the Nazis dynamited the crematoria. They are now a heap of blasted bricks, ashen rocks and twisted metal, testaments of astonishingly warped minds.

Next to a shattered crematorium was a small pond, which, I was told,  is saturated with human ashes. Pensive visitors crowded around it. I bent down to examine white specks scattered on the ground.

The guide said they were hard-packed human remains.

The wooded area bordering the crematoria was reminiscent of a well-tended nature reserve. As I walked along a shady path opposite long abandoned and crumbling sewage plants, I heard the insistent chirping of birds. The sweet sounds were incongruous, totally at odds with the unprecedented crimes that were perpetrated here.

Beyond the sewage plants, amid a line of trees, was “Canada,” the network of warehouses to which the belongings of the victims were consigned. The Nazis set fire to “Canada” in 1945, leaving only the foundations.

I went into a barrack. Its three-tier bunk beds accommodated as many as 700 people at one time. The overpowering whiff of disinfectant and varnish impregnated the air.

Trudging back to the car, I paused at the infamous rail-line ramp where the capricious “selections” of Jews took place.

Hard as it was to grasp, the fate of my older brother was coldly determined here. Life itself hung in the balance here.

Before driving back to Krakow, some 50 kilometres to the west, I stopped in Oswiecim, a clean, pleasant town of 46,000 near the camp.

In 1939, Jews comprised more than half of its population. Many were murdered in Auschwitz. The last Jewish resident of Oswiecim, Szymon Kluger, died nine years ago.

Nineteen of the town’s 20 synagogues were destroyed by the Germans. They converted the last remaining shul into a munitions warehouse.

After the war, Jewish survivors held services in it. When they left Oswiecim some years later, the building was nationalized and used as a carpet store.

Nine years ago, the shul and two adjoining private Jewish homes were fused to form an educational and cultural facility, the Auschwitz Jewish Center. Adorned with nostalgic photographs and artifacts, it resurrects a bygone era, a lost world.  

As a brochure states, “Before Auschwitz became the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, it was just an ordinary Polish town known as Oswiecim.”


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