A POPPY AT THE KILLING WALL
I had read with interest the amazing story of Hansi Keating and her tale of survival in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz (RSA Review Feb 1998), but I never thought that I would one day be standing there myself.
Some years ago I had been involved in a small way with the late Polish Government (In Exile) during the Cold War period, and earlier this year was invited to attend several ceremonies that were to take place in both Krakow (Poland), and also the Czech Republic. I was accompanied by my wife Marilyn, my cousin Basil and his wife Raewyn. While at Krakow we attended several functions and there was a day spare for participants to take in various tours of the city and the countryside. The day tours arranged for us were either to Czestochowa, the site of Poland’s shrine to the Madonna; or to Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
We decided to go to Auschwitz as it was a full day’s journey and would also give us an opportunity to see much of the Polish countryside, as well as view the ruins of whatever was left of Auschwitz.
To our astonishment Auschwitz was almost perfectly preserved and was split into three large camps spread over an area of about 10 Kilometres, numbered:
- Auschwitz 1 (a slave labour camp),
- Auschwitz 2 (a death camp), and
- Auschwitz 3 (a chemical munitions factory).
Apart from the destruction of the crematoriums as Auschwitz 2, by the Nazi’s at the end of WWII, virtually everything else remained; the electric wires, the barracks, and the guard towers. The crematoriums at Auschwitz 1 (an old Polish Army barracks) were still there so it was very easy to see how the bodies of those many millions of humans were disposed of. An ex-soldier myself I was used to the acceptance of death, but nothing ever on this scale, and as our guide Stanislaus (himself a survivor) related the various statistics to us, it was only a short time before my mind became numb as to what I was witnessing at first hand.
I was OK throughout the tour; that was until we were taken into one particular barrack room that was stacked from floor to ceiling with thousands of pairs of children’s shoes and from then on I just wanted the tour to end.
Finally Stanislaus took us into a barracks room that was set up as a courtroom in Auschwitz 1. This was the place where camp workers from the slave labour camp workers were tried for a variety of offences; the punishment for which was invariably death by firing squad at the Killing Wall. The final indignity suffered by these men and women was that in a room beside the Killing Wall was an old style wash-house where they were required to strip naked and wash their blue and white striped uniforms for the next re-issue. They were then shot naked.
The Killing Wall itself was a brick wall set within a courtyard between two double storied red brick barracks, and in front of the wall was a monument to all of those who had been executed at that spot. The entire area had a real presence about it and many people chose not to approach the wall. A Jewish lady who was with us (Ada Steiner), and who was an Auschwitz survivor herself went forward with her two adult daughters to lay some flowers, and I asked if I might take their photograph, which I did and then as I opened my camera bag to change films was surprised to see an NZRSA poppy lying at the bottom of the bag, I guess since last ANZAC Day.
I laid the poppy at the foot of the wall, said a silent prayer for all of the souls who were murdered at this spot and then rejoined my family; the poppy looked somewhat small and insignificant set amongst the many wreaths and garlands of flowers, but it was something from home, a small piece of New Zealand left as a gesture.
Lest we forget.
©Copyright 1998 by Mike Subritzky
Author’s Note: This article was previously published in the RSA Review, the official newspaper of the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association