70 years. It sounds like a long time and yet for some, the memory of the Second World War continues to torment. There are people alive today, that do not need to read about the atrocities committed in Europe in the 1940s from textbooks; they lived it. With the 70th anniversary of the end of the largest war that the modern world has ever seen, and with it, the liberation of prisoners from the concentration camps, it is important to reflect on the biggest act of evil committed during the period, the Holocaust.
It was 75 years ago that the largest concentration camp in the world, Auschwitz, was established. The Auschwitz camp began in May 1940, and operated for almost five years before it was liberated by the Soviet Union in January 1945. During that period, in the combined Auschwitz-Birkenau camp alone, more than 2.1 million people died. When you read a figure like that it is often hard to quantify, the number is so horrific that it almost seems unreal. It seems almost incomprehensible that the entire world stood by as the Nazi regime tried to destroy an entire sub sect of society, and yet this is exactly what unfolded.
Auschwitz developed rapidly during the course of the war. The complex was divided into three main areas, Auschwitz, Birkenau (Auschwitz II) and Monowitz (Auschwitz III). The camp was initially designed to hold Polish civilians as an intimidation technique for those opposing the German occupation. By the beginning of 1942, the function of the camp had changed completely, with Hitler’s “final solution” plan in place and the extermination of humans, most of whom were Jewish beginning. Auschwitz became a place synonymous with death, genocide and holocaust. Trainloads of European Jews were sent to the camp, with approximately 70% being sent straight to the gas chambers. The rest were then tattooed, stripped of their clothing, shaved, and sent to live in the camp as a form of slave labour. The conditions in the camp were atrocious and most did not survive. Of those who were tattooed, only 65,000 made it out of the camp alive. As the war continued, Birkenau especially developed into the main centre of Jewish extermination. Large-scale gas chambers were constructed at the beginning of 1942 and from then on it was apparent that this was to be a site of mass-murder. In November 1944, with the Nazi regime coming to an end, those in charge stopped the gassing, and a mass evacuation and burning of infrastructure was ordered. On the 27th of January 1945, when allied forces finally liberated the camp, little remained, and much of the camp had been destroyed in an attempt to hide the horror and destruction.
January 27th has been determined by a United Nations General Assembly Resolution as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, because it is the day, 70 years ago, that the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was finally liberated. It is a day, designed to remember the genocide that saw the death of more than 6 million Jews, 1 million Roma, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people and 9,000 homosexuals, as well as to commemorate those who survived, and live with the scars of a horror we cannot even begin to imagine.
In 2015 the aftermath of the holocaust continues to ricochet through Germany and indeed throughout the world. 93-year-old Oskar Groening, a former guard at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, is currently being charged as an accomplice to 300,000 counts of murder. There is no statute of limitations relating to holocaust crimes in Germany, and this makes it possible for former Nazis and guards to continue to be tried in a court of law. The issue is about accountability and whether or not this man is responsible as an accomplice. Leaving aside the moral and ethical factors for a moment, and looking solely at the facts, Groening was responsible for sorting out money and belongings from exterminated prisoners, guarding the belongings of prisoners, and bore witness to the deaths of many. However, it is alleged that he himself never directly killed anyone.
Known as the “accountant of Auschwitz,” Groening was one of many who stood idly by, while hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, but legally he specifically committed no act of murder. The prosecution’s case argues that the concentration camps were designed for the purpose of mass murder and, as such, any individual who participated in the running of said camps could be considered an accessory to murder, but in the eyes of the law, is this enough? Unlike many who took part in in the exterminations at the concentration camps
who deny their involvement, or even attempt to deny the occurrence of the holocaust itself, Groening accepts that he has a responsibility to admit to what he participated in. In a statement to the judge he said, “I ask for forgiveness. I share morally in the guilt, but whether I am guilty under criminal law, you will have to decide.” But at 93, is it too late for atonement? And under a regime where it was conform or die, is it fair to punish one for the sins of many? If found guilty, the maximum sentence that Groening would serve is a 15 year term in prison however, because of his age, it would likely be considerably less. In charging Groening and sending him to trial, the prosecution hopes to send a message to those in our global society who continue to commit appalling crimes against humanity. Even 70 years after the event, it is never too late to be held accountable.
As we reached an anniversary like this one, it is important to reflect on what occurred, so that the human race never again stands by as millions are barbarically killed in the name of purity. Although time goes on, the scars of the holocaust remain alive as a constant reminder of the evil that lives in our world. They say that time heals all wounds, but we must make sure that it does not forget all wounds.
Words by: Sarah Barrett