Wednesday, December 14, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Christmas at Auschwitz

SS officer Karl Hoecker lights a candle on a Christmas tree only weeks before the liberation of Auschwitz, USHMM
     Thanks for bearing with me through some weird technology weeks! As of now I believe things are back to normal and hopefully that won't ever happen again. I realize that this week's topic is a bit dark for the holiday season, but I've been doing some work on the Holocaust lately and happened upon this story. It's important to point out before we start that the Jewish prisoners would not have observed the holiday, but Christian Polish inmates did celebrate to the best of their ability during the five Christmases during the camp's operation. In addition, the Nazis employed at the camp held their own horrific festivities, as will be mentioned. These descriptions come from the testimonies of Polish prisoners who survived the infamous death factory and were compiled by the Auscwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

     The first Christmas Eve behind the barbed wire in 1940 was one of the most tragic, and created a terrible tradition which was repeated in subsequent years. On the roll-call square, the Nazis set up a Christmas tree complete with electric lights. Beneath it, they placed the bodies of prisoners who had died while working or freezing to death at roll call. Former prisoner Karol Świętorzecki later recalled that Lagerführer Karl Fritzsch referred to the corpses beneath the tree as “a present” for the living, and forbade the singing of Polish Christmas carols.
A Christmas tree standing in front of Block 15 in Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
     The next year, the Nazis organized another dark Christmas. During the return from slave labor on the construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, they killed around three hundred Soviet POWs who were too weak to walk that day. According to an eyewitness account by former prisoner Ludwik Kryński, there was a second roll call at 6:00pm after the SS men had finished the first roll call and eaten their supper. In temperatures well below freezing, the prisoners were forced to listen to Pope Pius XII's Christmas Eve proclamation recited in German. Forty-two prisoners succumbed to the cold, and numerous others were brought to the point of nervous breakdowns at the sight. 
     Prisoners also tried to celebrate in their blocks and attempted to help their fellows whose spirits had been broken. An account in the Museum collections by Józef Jędrych from Block no. 10a describes how “the singing of German carols began, and then like the waves of the sea came the powerful words [from a Polish carol] ‘God is born, the powers tremble’ and others, until the final chord in the form of the Dąbrowski Mazurka [the Polish national anthem]. Everyone exchanged warm, cordial embraces and cried for a long time. There were those who sobbed out loud. . . . Such a grand moment never fades from memory. That Christmas is fixed forever in my heart and memory.”
     Henry Bartosiewicz smuggled in a small Christmas tree, which stood in room 7 block 25. Polish Army cavalry-platoon commander Witold Pilecki, a hero of the camp resistance movement, adorned it with a White Eagle carved from a turnip.
Christmas Eve Władysław Siwek. Auschwitz State Museum (APMA-B-I-1-107)
     The Germans set up another tree at Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1942 and once again placed the bodies of murdered men beneath it. Former prisoner Krystyna Aleksandrowicz recalls their deaths: Before Christmas in 1942, the SS men put up a Christmas tree for us. On Christmas Eve, they gathered the labor details from the men’s camp and ordered them to carry soil in their coats. They shot any man who gathered up too little soil. Then they stacked a whole heap of corpses underneath the Christmas tree.”
     That Christmas was twenty-two year-old Walentyna Nokodem's first at the camp, and she later reflected on that horrible tree: "I remember my first Christmas in Birkenau. There was a Christmas tree and they gathered us up in the roll-call square, and under the tree they put the bodies of man, the bodies remained there for the whole Christmas, and they forced us to look at them. They put the Christmas tree by the end of our section, just by the barbed wire. I can't remember exactly but there were hundreds of bodies of male prisoners. It was my first Christmas in the camp. The women didn't want to look. We all cried."
     In her Auschwitz Chronicle, the late Danuta Czech, the Museum historian, notes under the date December 24, 1942 that, in the evening, Polish women prisoners in the Stabsgebaude [staff building] lighted candles on a fir bough that had been smuggled in. Carols were sung in many places around the camp, which lifted people’s spirits and gave them hope of surviving. In Block 18a, Christmas Eve had a religious dimension. A prisoner who was a Roman Catholic priest obtained some bread and used it as a substitute Host.

     By 1943, the November arrival of new camp commandant Arthur Liebehenschel had improved the prisoners' lives and there were no macabre "presents" that year. Many of the Polish prisoners received communion wafers in parcels from their families and shared them with other prisoners, including the Jews. In many blocks, the prisoners organized Christmas observances. 

     1944 was the last Christmas spent at Auschwitz. Since the days of the Third Reich were numbered, the holiday atmosphere was completely different. Father Władysław Grohs de Rosenburg, the prisoner priest, was even allowed to hold a midnight mass. The women in Birkenau prepared “Christmas gifts” for the children in the hospital, using material supplied by other women to sew about 200 toys. They attached two lumps of sugar or a piece of candy to each, and wrote the children’s names on the presents. One of the women dressed up as St. Nicholas and passed out the presents on Christmas Eve. Fifteen children from another block also received presents.
    Auschwiz-Birkenau Museum historian Teresa Świebocka says that in 1944, Leokadia Szymańska, who was then a patient in the camp hospital, made a small Christmas tree that is now part of the Museum’s collections. It features Polish flags and a Polish eagle at the top.
     The camp was liberated shortly after, on January 27, 1945,  finally granting the wishes made during the five Christmases observed there.   

      I hope this glimpse into some of history's most terrible Christmases was an interesting and thought-provoking reminder of how much we all have to be grateful for this holiday. I'm looking to explore the camp's celebrations held by Nazi guards and staff next week so that the two stories can be compared. Thanks so much for spending part of your busy holiday season reading this post!
     Delany Leitch (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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