Auschwitz, Stutthof, and Remembrance
Editor’s Note: January marks the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Birkenau, Poland. It’s estimated that between 1.1 million and 1.5 million people were killed, 90% of which were Jews; but also 19,000 Roma (Gypsies), and 83,000 Poles. Marina Gottlieb Sarles, a regular contributor to Wild River Review, wrote a historical novel, THE LAST DAUGHTER OF PRUSSIA about the death camps in her ancestral homeland, East Prussia. As part of her research, she and her husband visited the first German Death Camp, Stutthof, which opened in 1941.
I went to Stutthof Concentration Camp in Poland to expand my research for my novel The Last Daughter of Prussia. I had never been to a concentration camp museum before, even though I had done years of research. But searching Google, conducting interviews, and reading books is very different than standing on the ground where thousands of victims suffered and died.
What made this visit to Stutthof even more profound and painful is the fact that I am a German and my husband Jamie is a Jew. We went together, heading east in an old red Honda civic driven by our kind Polish guide and friend, Irek. Our travels took us past fields of fragrant yellow rapeseed flowers and wild lilac bushes that bloomed furiously pink and purple against the endless blue sky dotted with cottony cumulous clouds.
As we approached the camp I felt my body constricting. The discomfort grew, filling my head, chest and legs, until my feet became numb wooden blocks. I was afraid of feeling and seeing what lay before me in those barracks of death, afraid of the images that were about to present themselves. No one wants to envision death in the way that our fellow brothers and sisters died in German concentration camps.
When we arrived at the camp I was struck by the silence in the surrounding forest thick with maples and oaks, elms and pines; this forest that has also been called the Forest of the Gods by Balys Spruoga, a well-known Lithuanian professor and poet who was incarcerated there.
No nationality was spared Stutthof: Poles, Germans, Latvians , Belgians, Russians, Danes, Czechs, Lithuanians and many from other countries were brought there to die. Among these nationalities were thousands of Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Gentiles – men, women, children, infants.
Stutthof was also a place for political prisoners like the von Stauffenbergs who were family to Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who tried to assassinate Hitler. They were hung on the gallows near the far end of the camp. The gallows were painted black when I saw them.
Before entering the camp grounds I walked along the narrow road that led to the Death Gate behind which the old camp was situated. Stutthof has the distinction of being the first labor camp established in Germany. In 1941 Himmler designated it as an extermination camp. (There were newer sub camps later.)
I paused to take a deep breath. What did prisoners feel when they were forced to step beyond these iron portals? How could I even imagine what it was like knowing that above them in the dark watchtower, heartless men with guns lorded over their every movement, deciding whether or not one nervous jerk warranted the fatal bullet.
I remember waiting for the others to go ahead, my husband, our Polish friend Irek, and my two friends, Mike and AnnaMaria. I felt a deep need to enter into emptiness, into a state in which I held no thoughts, a state in which everything, all feelings and images could pass through my heart and soul. I wanted to be able to hold the deep connection to all humanity – to those who died there and those who survived.
When I felt clear enough I walked on. The former guard house on my left was now the museum administration building. Irek had arranged a tour with a young Polish girl named Joanna whose skin was as white as the dead ghosts she was to speak about.
Strange, but later I had to ask my husband what language she spoke – English – so overwhelmed was I suddenly by the Germanness around me, by the the effects of extermination arranged so systematically by my own countrymen.
The museum documents, personal prisoner files, medical and death certificates were all in German, my childhood tongue, and reading those words and names preserved behind glass made me lose all sense of language. Never in my life have I felt so hollow, so stripped of my own flesh, so empty of my own blood. To see a room where shoe soles, not shoes but shoe soles, are piled to the ceiling, tiny shoe soles too, once worn by babies and toddlers was more than I could bear.
I heard Joanna say that babies were born in Stutthof. Mothers and female inmates hid them ,but they were soon found out and the babies were taken away and shot or left to die in the snow. On the grey painted walls I saw the faces of strikingly handsome and intelligent men memorialized in photographs but long dead in the body. I held on to a wooden beam scratched full with desperate words – How many people must have grasped this slender pillar before they fell down to the dirty floor utterly exhausted.
Suddenly, I did not feel worthy of touching that beam – Not my hand, certainly not mine. There were blue and white striped uniforms. I shivered knowing that the bodies they covered in the winter were never warm, but always freezing. I saw the wooden bowls displayed on a rickety table. I knew that inmates would kill for such a vessel because it meant survival even if what went into it was nothing less than tasteless, filthy gruel. And that was only the beginning.
We passed through the doorway of a wooden structure. It was the women’s barracks. Feeling the oppressive weight of the room I turned to look out once more. Opposite me, over the wide courtyard was an area where the men’s barracks stood. How could I call that space a courtyard? Now, its grassy and full of sprouting dandelions, But once it was once a trodden, muddy field of broken bones and shattered hearts and blood.
I took another step into the room. Not a big room, mind you, but a shabby room with cracked walls open to the elements. Hundreds of women had been forced to sleep on the floor in this little square on rough dirty blankets with hardly any padding beneath their protruding bones.
Joanna told us that the women were too frightened to go out at night if they needed to relieve themselves because they would have been shot by the guards. So they went to the toilet on the blankets. And the blankets were never washed.
What a breeding ground for diseases and lice, typhus and fever to set in, not to mention the degradation of lying in feces and urine. In another room filled with wooden bunk beds – rows of three rough bunks placed one on top of the other – dysentery ran wild among the prisoners. Those who found themselves in the lower bunks were usually covered in feces dripping from above. How could they sleep. How could they dream?
In the next barrack I saw the operating room – if one can actually call it that. Nothing sterile, one cracked washbasin, a chair, a table that served as a gynecological table for female prisoners – (women were made to strip and get up on the table so that they could be examined in this way simply for humiliation’s sake.) and a death bed for lethal injections.
Then, the roughly tiled washing area – only four round concrete basins if I remember correctly, with bases painted bright blue. The blue hurt my eyes because it contrasted so cruelly with the joylessness and disgracefulness of the room.
A little pipe rose upwards out of the middle of each basin, and from what I know it gave off barely a trickle or water. Five thousand women had to wash here every morning! How could they? They didn’t. And if they managed to get close enough, they were often so thirsty that they drank the water instead, which made them sicker. I saw only one latrine and one long stone trough that must have been for washing too.
By this time I felt faint. I found myself shuffling along, my feet so heavy, so numb that I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I was grateful when Joanna led us out into the brilliant sunshine and fresh spring air. Twenty minutes – I had been in those rooms for only twenty minutes and I felt like I was dying. And those women had crawled around those dismal walls for days and months and years.
We walked on along a narrow cobblestone path maybe 2 feet wide. It led to the far end of the camp, to the gas chamber and the crematorium.
In front of the gas chamber I noticed my husband, Jamie, standing alone. He stared at the roof corner where the executioner dropped the Zyklon B pellets (cyanide based insecticide) into the death chamber below.
What was Jamie feeling? I wanted to go to him, but I could not for I felt overcome with such a profound sense shame and guilt – as though my heritage made me a perpetrator too. Jamie had the right to identify with the victims.
As a German however, part of me identified with the perpetrators, damned forever. Somehow Jamie and I stayed physically separate. It wasn’t a conscious choice but it happened nevertheless. Somehow I did not feel that I had the right to be with his thoughts. When his eyes searched mine, I wanted to hide from his gaze. There was a nagging part of me that wondered if he saw me as one of them – even for half a second. Would he stop loving me for that moment?
If he did, I would understand.
Joanna was talking softly. She said that death in the gas chamber was excruciating and there were reports that the dying in the chamber had scratched out their own eyes in agony. Prisoners who knew they were going to the gas chamber put up a fight.
The camp authorities did not like that. They started tricking the prisoners. They told them they would be taken to a sub camp where they would do lighter work. Hopeful, the prisoners climbed into railroad cars that were stationed on the tracks at the end of the camp – They had no idea that these cars were moving gas chambers.
We moved on. I was crying. We all were crying.
In Stutthof there were eventually so many bodies that the crematorium could not handle the daily amount of corpses. The commanders of the camp had the inmates dig mass graves in the forest. Body after body, some still alive, were placed on planks of wood. When one shelf was full, they laid more planks and added more bodies until finally the grave was brimming with corpses and then setting the bodies on fire they started a giant funereal pyre.
As I stood in front of the cast iron crematorium doors that now framed a bouquet of orange roses and green ferns, I heard a lark sing in the trees outside, its lovely melody floating down through the dust and ashes that had been swept away by children and other prisoners. Something in that birdsong was so beautiful and precious, so uplifting. Soon another lark joined in. I felt the larks would always sing for the dead souls here in this forest. And the larks, so pure in spirit, were truly worthy of singing this piercingly peaceful melody.
The last leg of Joanna’s tour took us to a room that showed the Death March routes. Terrified of what might befall them when the Russians liberated the camp, Stutthof’s commanders led thousands of prisoners on death marches through the snow, shooting anyone who fell behind. Most of the prisoners died on that last icy journey. I learned in Stutthof that many of the commanders and perpetrators did not receive heavy sentences for the crimes committed.
Finally I stood before a huge glass enclosure behind which the bones and ashes from the crematorium were kept. I wept here and I wept here some more. They were tears from far beyond myself.
Joanna came to stand beside me. I saw such depth in those young eyes when I turned to look at her, my voice choking. “You are contibuting a huge piece of healing here just by your presence and your willingness to tell the truth over and over again no matter how painful,” I said.
“Thank you,” she nodded. “But I do it because I feel I have a duty to humanity, to my fellow human beings. The people who died here are all heroes. They must be remembered.”
She paused before adding, “Sometimes I do tours with schoolchildren. It is hard for me when they giggle and don’t listen, but when I see that people are truly moved I know that I am doing the right thing. And perhaps something will remain in the hearts and memories of the schoolchildren after all.”
“Yes,” I said “Oh yes.”
Marina Gottlieb Sarles grew up in The Bahamas. Her stories draw inspiration from her childhood in the islands, where her parents who emigrated from East Prussia were the village doctor and nurse. Formally trained in Europe and the United States, Marina studied physical therapy and energy healing. A former faculty member of the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, she has conducted personal enrichment seminars in Japan, America, and The Bahamas. ESPN produced a special feature segment for their True Outdoor Adventures series based on her short story Peter and The Shark. Her short story, The Circumstantial Dentist, was published by Macmillan Caribbean in the collection, Under the Perfume Tree. She is a regular contributing writer of feature stories for Grand Bahama ISLAND Magazine, and a contributor to the online magazine, Wild River Review. After spending time abroad, Marina has returned to her roots in the northern Bahamas where she lives with her husband, James, and their son, Nikolai. She is currently completing a novel set in her family’s homeland, East Prussia, during WWII.