This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski is a graphic but extremely informative account of what went on inside one of the Holocaust’s most well-known death camps, Auschwitz. Borowski, who spent time in the abominable place himself, uses a first-person narrative to capture the horror of life (what little there was) in a death factory. The book does not mince words. It actually opens with the story of a Nazi SS man nonchalantly flinging a naked Jewish girl into a flaming pit, right after he declares that she is startlingly beautiful. The book’s narrator focuses mainly on surviving, but upon rare occasion he does admit that the steady flow of Jews to the gas chambers and ovens both astonishes and sickens him. He describes the road to the gas chambers as never untraveled, but always occupied by a steady stream of people – most of them utterly oblivious to their final destination. And it is no wonder: at that time, Auschwitz was executing over 1,000 people a day.
Material on the Holocaust is not, however, entirely devoid of a bright side. The film Schindler’s List, produced by Steven Spielberg, recounts the amazing story of Oskar Schindler and his amazing efforts to save as many Jews as possible. The film begins in color but quickly fades to black and white, symbolic of the Holocaust’s bleak time period. Schindler, a shrewd businessman, acquires an abandoned enamelware factory from a bankruptcy auction and returns it to working condition, quickly filling it with cheap, Jewish laborers. After witnessing a 1943 raid on a Krakow ghetto, however, his feelings toward the extermination of the Jews changes from disinterested annoyance to moral outrage. Though himself a member of the Nazi party, Schindler uses his abundant financial resources and societal influence to help the victims of the Holocaust rather than harm them. His factory quickly becomes a safe haven for the persecuted. No worker is beaten, tortured, or killed by guards. Workers are even allowed to observe the Jewish Sabbath. (Spielberg) None of this tolerance toward Jews would have been allowed by the Richt, of course, had Oskar Schindler not been so well-loved by his peers. For example, he was arrested for kissing a Jewish girl who brought him a gift on his birthday but his friends (fellow members of the Nazi party) actually plead for his release. By the time the war ended, Schindler had managed to save the lives of 1,200 Jews, and in his opinion, that was far less than enough. Even though he was completely destitute due to the lack of productivity in his factory and the massive amount of money he used for bribery, Schindler undoubtedly died with a quiet conscious. (Spielberg)
In “Escape from Belzec: Saved by a Pair of Heels,” Hanna Cohen escapes death at the hands of her captors more times than most would even think possible. Her first escape takes place after the liquidation of the neighborhood in which she lived. She asks an old German (clearly not a Nazi SS man) to help her, and though he cannot, he gives her a hug and tells her that he believes that she will “survive the war.” In the confusion before boarding the boxcars, he hands her one of her shoes that has fallen off. It is that shoe that Hanna Cohen uses to beat the grate out of the boxcar window. She then wiggles out of the small opening despite the fact that the train is moving and the other captives are positive that she will fall to her death. Miraculously, she survives, and then takes to the countryside where she encounters a Polish farmer. Cohen, being a Jew, does not find it easy to trust a Pole, but she has little choice in the matter. He asks her for what destination her train was bound, and when she tells him Belzec he calls her escape a miracle, as Belzec was a death camp. Cohen would escape certain death twice more before finally being liberated and allowed to return to her hometown of Lublin. Her home, of course, was merely rubble. Her father had died in a concentration camp and her brother had been shot to death on the street by an SS man. Hanna Cohen married and gave birth to one child, a daughter, before dying of old age in 1943. After many years Hanna finally told her daughter of a few of her tribulations and miracles during the Holocaust, and it is through the preservation efforts of Julia Cohen that her mother’s experiences survive today. (Cohen)
Lastly, the outstanding survivor story of Henry Greenbaum exemplifies the possibility of life after so many brushes with death. Though Greenbaum’s story begins when he was young, he was not blind to what was happening. Though not Jewish, Greenbaum grew up playing with Jewish children and even went to a Jewish grammar school. He was only 11 years old when Germany invaded Poland on September first of 1939. He and his family were herded into a ghetto where they only survived because Greenbaum’s father’s skills as a tailor were considered valuable to the Nazi SS men. The Greenbaum family was, however, in no way privy to special treatment just because they were not Jewish; they still had to kowtow to the Nazis in many ways, such as getting off of the sidewalk when officers passed by. Greenbaum and his eight siblings went to work in the factories and for two years avoided being killed. In 1942, he found himself in a labor camp, where he stayed for another two years. Conditions, of course, were deplorable. He slept on bunk with no mattress when he slept at all. He survived typhoid and had lice but was never given any access to soap. In the labor camp, the name of the game was staying as healthy as possible so that the killing unit would not select him to join the mounds of corpses rotting in the deep trenches surrounding the camp. Another year later, he was transported again, this time to a satellite camp of Auschwitz. A number was tattooed on his skin and his was finally allowed to shower. Still considered an able bodied worker, he was given to the owner of a German factory – free labor. It was one day, while bagging the clothes of people who had been murdered, that he heard artillery outside. The Russians had come to overthrow Germany. After a two-month death march during which he and nearly a hundred others were only given straw to eat, they encountered a tank and the SS men guarding them fled in to the woods. The American who then popped out of the tank was described by Greenbaum to be “as beautiful as an angel as he told us we were free.” Greenbaum later moved to America, putting his experiences behind him in favor of starting a better life. (Greenbaum)
The Holocaust was a tragedy that cannot, or certainly should not, be denied or forgotten by the world. Holocaust deniers do, shockingly, exist. In fact, it is a topic that is not even broached in German schools. With an attitude like that, no lesson can ever be learned, and it seems that those six million dead find no justice even in their grave.