By Mary Fulbrook
Take a trip to the Polish town of Będzin today, and there is not a lot to see. The ruins of the old castle rise above the town; a Lidl supermarket helps the casual traveller searching in vain for an open pub or restaurant. And for anyone arriving by public transport, the bus terminus and neighbouring railway station seem about as desolate as can be. This certainly does not seem to be a key location on the trail to Auschwitz, now the epicentre of what might be called Holocaust tourism.
But think back seventy years, and things looked very different here. What is now the bus terminus was then the Jewish ‘Hakoach’ sports field – Hakoach meaning, roughly, ‘The Strength’. And on this sports ground, on 12 August 1942, some 15,000 Jews were brought together under the cruel pretext of an identity card check. They were forcibly held there for several days, without food, water or shelter, surrounded by armed police, members of the Gestapo and the SS; those who sought to resist, or to flee, or who even stood up or sat down at the wrong times, were brutally beaten or shot dead on the spot. One by one they had to come up to a table where they were directed into different groups, with the elderly, the infirm, and the very young pointed to a corner headed for death. A further 8,000 Jews faced a similar ordeal at another nearby sports ground; there were also selections in the neighbouring town of Sosnowiec at this time.
In an ‘action’ that lasted nearly a week, from 12 to 17 August 1942, some 4,700 Jews from Będzin were sent down the railway tracks to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a mere 25 miles to the south. Thousands of others were chosen for the slave labour camps run by the SS across Upper Silesia, a part of the Greater German Reich. The rest were allowed to go home – for the time being – as still potentially useful workers in the locality. Within a year they too would be headed for the gas chambers, wiped out in the final ghetto clearance of the summer of 1943.
One of those at the Hakoach sportsground was a teenager by the name of Rutka Laskier. She recalled the selection of August 1942 just a few months later, in a diary entry written in the ghetto. After describing her own experiences, she added:
Oh, I forgot the most important thing. I saw how a soldier tore a baby, who was only a few months old, out of a mother’s hands and bashed his head against an electric pylon. The baby’s brain splashed on the wood. The mother went crazy. I am writing this as if nothing has happened. But I’m young, I’m 14, and I haven’t seen much in my life, and I’m already so indifferent. Now I am terrified when I see ‘uniforms’. I’m turning into an animal waiting to die. One can lose one’s mind thinking about this.
Rutka died in Auschwitz just a few months later. Another Jew, who was lucky enough to survive, later recalled the days following the deportations of August 1942 in her memoirs:
For the next several days Będzin was a city of tears. Mostly people just stayed in their homes mourning and praying. I would say that, at the most, only about one fourth of the people from our apartment complex returned to their homes the night of this devastating selection. The rest were on their way to Auschwitz or a slave labour camp.
By the time the area had finally been rendered ‘Jew-free’, a total of perhaps 85,000 Jews – more than were deported from the whole of France – had passed through the linked ghettos of Będzin and Sosnowiec on their way to Auschwitz.
There is nothing at Będzin’s decrepit bus terminus or forlorn railway station today to commemorate the frightful events of those days in August 1942; nothing to indicate what had gone on in this place of terror. There are no memorial ‘sights’ at what should have been a key ‘site of memory’.
Contrast this with the veritable rash of ‘stumbling stones’ (Stolpersteine) across the streets of Berlin (below), commemorating former Jewish residents who were killed, or the massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located by the Brandenburg Gate at the very heart of Germany’s capital city. The Federal Republic of Germany has (belatedly) come to identify overwhelmingly with the victims of Nazi persecution.
Even so, there remain massive difficulties in Germany with confronting the personal legacies of parents and grandparents who had supported the Nazi regime. One such conformist was the former principal civilian administrator of Będzin, who had implemented the ghettoization of the Jews in his area while growing increasingly uneasy about the transformation of everyday racism into policies of mass murder. His own role at the time, his ambivalence, and the subsequent gaps in his memory of these events, shed much light both on how it was possible for Hitler’s murderous policies to be effected, and how so many Germans after the war could profess that they were ‘always against it’ and had ‘known nothing about it’.
How should we remember these events of seventy years ago? Should there be a plaque at the Będzin bus terminus, or the railway station, to the deportation of tens of thousands of victims of Nazism – or should today’s inhabitants be able to live undisturbed by the ghosts of the past, untroubled by the murder of half the former residents of their town? Memorialisation is anyway always partial, in both senses, selectively highlighting aspects of the past while serving particular interests in a later present. Certainly the reintegration of former Nazis helped establish a powerful democracy in postwar West Germany, even while it explicitly rejected its Nazi heritage.
Perhaps letting the dust settle on this awful past was the best way to try to heal the wounds – at least among those who were not too scarred by its tragedy. Or does this desire to cover or ignore the traces do an injustice to the pain of survivors and the memory of so many victims?
Mary Fulbrook is Professor of German History at University College London. She has written widely on modern German history. Her most recent books are A Small Town Near Auschwitz
Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust (OUP, 2012) and Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships (OUP, 2011). A fellow of the British Academy, she is former Chair of the German History Society and a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Foundation for the former Concentration Camps at Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora.
Images: Będzin Bus Terminus, photo courtesy of Mary Fulbrook; Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, by alessandro0770, iStockphoto; Stolpersteine, Berlin, from the private collection of Mary Fulbrook.