“The query: “At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?” And the answer: “Where was the man?”
William Styron, Sophie’s Choice
Last week, we had initiated the topic of discovering, or rather uncovering, one’s raison détre – the reason for being and why it is extremely important to us. It’s no fun living in default mode, doing the bidding of others, not having a larger purpose in life other than materialistic goals. We need to remind ourselves that we, the unconditioned soul, have taken this birth for a definite cause. The earlier we introspect and find that cause, the happier our life’s journey will be – aligned to our raison détre.
We had started to explore the journey of Viktor Frankl which led him to his “meaning for life”, amid the most horrible, inhuman living conditions ever – the Nazi concentration camps.
One of these camps was the infamous Auschwitz, in Poland, so vividly portrayed in the iconic movie, ‘Schindler’s List’. An extermination camp where more than one million people were murdered in just five years- a staggering 85% of the people incarcerated there. A hellhole which has the ignominy of gassing 800 children to death on one day alone – 10 October 1944.
I visited Auschwitz in 2017 and that has been one of the most poignant moments of my life. Let’s take a tour of Auschwitz to appreciate Frankl’s superhuman achievement – who not only survived the holocaust but also provided a reason for living to many of his co-prisoners.
What follows in this post is out the knowledge gained during my personal visit to Auschwitz and open-source literature. The account is factual but disturbing and I will request the readers to use their discretion.
Auschwitz was established by the Germans in 1940, in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a Polish city, and came to be known as a symbol of the Holocaust and genocide. It was established to cater for the growing number of Poles who were being arrested and were exceeding the capacity of the local prisons. It was initially set up as a Concentration Camp but from 1942 onwards, came to epitomize the “Endlosung der Judenfrage” (the final solution to the Jewish question – the Nazi plan to murder European Jews.) The camp was isolated from the outside world and had a barbed wire fence all along the perimeter. There was also a 40 square Km wide “Interest Zone”, around Auschwitz which acted as a buffer and from which all the Poles and Jews were evicted after most of their homes were demolished.
The newly arrived prisoners had to surrender all their items of clothing including the undergarments, all valuables, proof of identity, and personal possessions. They were given a camp identity number which was tattooed on their left forearm – for the duration of their stay, it was the only identity they had. They then visited the camp barber who shaved all their body hair, the prisoners undressed, and went for a mass shower.
Next was a period of quarantine that served a twin purpose – avoiding transmission of communicable diseases and the psychological breaking-down of the prisoners. An SS trooper called a Blockfuhrer ensured a strict regimen beginning with a brutal awakening in the morning, unending physical exercises, learning the words of command, singing German songs, learning essential German words and phrases, etc. The living spaces were terribly overcrowded, unhygienic, and full of rodents and insects which often gnawed at the sleeping men and women.
A living hut had three-tiered wooden bunks with straw mattresses – two or three prisoners shared one mattress. For the strength of about 700 prisoners in a hut, there were only 22 toilets, which were rarely cleaned and had no privacy. There were hardly any arrangements for the prisoners to wash themselves and they remained without baths for months. Leaking roofs, damp conditions, perpetually soiled straw mattresses due to dysenteric prisoners resulted in extremely unhygienic conditions and epidemics broke out regularly killing hundreds of prisoners.
Food for the prisoners consisted of three daily meals. The morning commenced with half a litre of unsweetened black coffee or tea. Lunch consisted of stinking and watery soup with traces of vegetables or meat. Dinner had about 300 grams of bread with about 25 grams of sausage or a teaspoonful of jam or cheese. The calorific value of the daily meals was barely 1500 calories. Inhuman living conditions coupled with perpetual hunger and hard physical labour soon converted these human beings to virtual skeletons who rummaged in dustbins for something to eat. The raw peelings and rotting vegetables which the prisoners consumed out of the dustbins did nothing to appease their hunger pangs but instead resulted in hunger-induced dysentery.
The day for the prisoners commenced at 4 am with abuses, knocks, and beatings. There was barely enough time for morning ablutions due to overcrowding and scarce toilet facilities and many ended up foregoing “breakfast” as it often ran out. The muster was done in rows of ten from where the squads marched off for their designated areas of work. A normal working day was about eleven hours from 6 am to 5 pm with a half-hour lunch break. The SS guards and their ferocious dogs were a constant threat to any prisoners who considered sitting down due to exhaustion. The exhausted prisoners had to march back into the camp to the beating of drums in the evening. They were searched and then allowed to go inside the huts. After supper, another roll call followed after which the orders for “lights-out” were enforced.
Any prisoner found moving out of the huts after this time was punished – often shot at. Prisoners were routinely ordered to move out of the perimeter fence and then shot dead by the SS men who claimed that they were attempting to run away. Many prisoners, having given up their urge to live, used to “go into the wire”, meaning commit suicide by running into the electrified camp fence.
Strict discipline was enforced in the camp by various punishments which included even killings by SS men for which they were not held accountable. The most common form of punishment was flogging in public. This was administered during roll calls on specially constructed benches where the prisoner, lying to receive the flogging, could not move his/her legs. The beating was done with a stick or a whip and the number of strokes was generally 25. Another punishment was called the “pillar”, in which the prisoners were suspended by their hands which were tied behind their backs, in a manner that their feet remained off the ground. The prisoners often lost consciousness due to the excruciating pain. Another form of punishment was confinement in the “standing cells”, a set of four cells each with a floor area of barely a square meter. The only ventilation was the top opening through which the prisoners were sent in and which was later closed. Hence, inside, it was completely dark with no ventilation for the four unfortunate prisoners, who could barely move being packed against each other.
Another cold-blooded manner of killing was the infamous – gas chambers. Men, women, and children selected for death were escorted to the gas chambers by the SS men. None suspected what waited for them for they were told that they were being shifted to another camp. They were asked to disrobe and go into the shower room for disinfection and a bath. What emerged from the showers was Zyklon B gas which killed the prisoners. The corpses were dragged out, women’s hair was cut and all their jewellery (if at all left) and metal dental work was removed. The corpses were then burnt in pits, or pyres, or the crematorium furnaces.
In the second half of 1944, as the Red Amy offensive reached closer, the SS authorities started to evacuate Auschwitz and send the prisoners to camps in the depths of Germany. Simultaneously, actions were taken to cover up the evidence of mass killings of European Jews by burning documents, buildings, and corpses. The final evacuation order was given in Jan 1945 when about 56000 prisoners of both sexes were led out of Auschwitz under heavily armed SS escorts. This was the infamous “Death March”, in which nearly 2.5 lakh prisoners (belonging to various concentration camps) perished. They were forced to march into open rail cars or on foot through mud, rain, and snow. Hungry, emaciated, and scared, any questions by the prisoners about their destinations were answered with a volley of machine-gun fire. One survivor recalled later, “No food had touched my lips all day before. Other snatched whatever they could – grass, snails, potatoes left in the field. My stomach was growling with hunger, I had nothing else, so I ate snow. Perhaps they are taking us again to some new installation for killing by gas? But there was no need for that; at least two-thirds of the prisoners were already lying lifeless by the roadside.”
I am sure that merely reading about this appalling and inhuman state of affairs must have numbed your senses. It is frightening to even think about our own incarceration in these camps and yet Viktor Frankl managed to find his raison détre in the wretched conditions of the camp. It is surprising and intriguing that a successful psychologist like him never found his life’s meaning while he was a free man in Vienna. Why and how did that happen is what the next post of this series all about.
Meanwhile, let’s introspect to find out what our raison détre is – a fat bank balance, the top position in our organization, the swanky car, the palatial penthouse, the exotic foreign trip, social service for the poor and marginalized of society, serving our country in whichever capacity we can, spreading happiness, or something else?Then ask yourself, at this moment whatever you are doing, is it taking you closer to your raison détre or Ikigai?
Photos: Shoes: William Warby on Unsplash, Concentration camp via Ping, Cremation oven: Wikimedia commons, Remains – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Joseph Bishop
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