08 January 2017

Auschwitz is a reminder
of not challenging racism,
hatred and extremism

‘Arbeit macht frei’ … the sign at the entrance gate to Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is observed on 27 January, is an international memorial day recalling the victims of the Holocaust, when six million European Jews as well as millions of other people were annihilated by the Nazi regime, including two million Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 gay men.

The day was designated by the United Nations General Assembly in a resolution in 2005, and the date was chosen because on 27 January 1945 the largest Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops.

This was the largest of the German concentration camps, and it was a network of Nazi concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II.

The ‘Gates of Hell’ … the entrance to Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in an attempt to hide their crimes from the advancing Soviet troops. The SS command sent orders on 17 January calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp. But in the chaos of the Nazi retreat, the order was never carried out.

A few weeks ago, I spent a city break in Kraków in southern Poland, staying the old Jewish Quarter in Kraków. During that visit, I spent a traumatic day visiting the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Bikenau. There alone, about 1.5 million people were annihilated by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945.

My visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau challenged my thoughts for my sermon on Remembrance Sunday in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. But it took me some time before I could write about that visit.

Familiar images

The train tracks in Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

So many of those images from Auschwitz and Birkenau are familiar to all of us, yet none of them prepared me for the ghastly reality of what we are capable of doing to each other in war, in the outworking of racism and religious hatred, in our demeaning of any part of humanity, in allowing political extremism to go unchallenged.

I walked into Auschwitz under one of those familiar images, the sign above the gate that proclaims with cynicism and sick satire: Arbeit macht frei.

The German phrase, meaning ‘work sets you free,’ is derived from the title of a novel by a 19th century German pastor, philologist and extreme nationalist, Lorenz Diefenbach, Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung von Lorenz Diefenbach (1873), in which gamblers and fraudsters find the path to virtue through labour.

The phrase was also used in French (le travail rend libre!) by Auguste Forel, a Swiss writer in his book Fourmis de la Suisse (Ants of Switzerland, (1920). In 1922, the Deutsche Schulverein of Vienna, an extreme right-wing group of Germans in Austria, used the slogan on their membership cards.

The slogan Arbeit macht frei was erected above the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps on the orders of an SS general Theodor Eicke, inspector of concentration camps and second commandant at Dachau.

The slogan was first used over the gate of a camp set up in an abandoned brewery in Oranienburg in 1933. This camp was later rebuilt in 1936 as Sachsenhausen. It was then used in other camps, although the slogan at Buchenwald was Jedem das Seine (‘to each his own,’ or ‘everyone gets what he deserves’).

The fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The BBC historian Laurence Rees, in Auschwitz: a New History, which I bought at Auschwitz, says the sign at the entrance to Auschwitz was erected on the orders of the camp commandant Rudolf Höss. This particular sign was made by slave labourers in the camp.

Rudolf Höss regarded his decision to erect the motto so prominently at Auschwitz not as a gesture of mockery, nor did he even intend to have it interpreted literally, nor was it a false promise to camp prisoners of eventual release. Instead, he thought of it as some type of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour in itself brings a kind of spiritual freedom.

As I walked under that sign, I noticed how the lettering includes an upside-down letter ‘B.’ It is said that this was an act of defiance by the prisoners who made the sign.

A wagon on the train tracks in Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The slogan can still be seen at the sites of several concentration camps as well as Auschwitz. However, the original sign at Auschwitz was stolen in December 2009, and when it was later recovered it had been broken into three pieces. Anders Högström, a Swedish neo-Nazi, and two Poles were jailed for the theft, and the original sign is now in storage at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and a replica is now in its place over the gate.

Two Irish victims

Inside a gas chamber in Auschwitz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In Birkenau, a series of memorials in a variety of languages commemorate the victims of the Holocaust who were murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Over 20 languages can be read on separate plaques, including English, Greek, Italian, Romanian, French, Russian, Hebrew, Polish and German. They represent the variety of languages spoken by and nationalities among the victims.

There is no plaque in Irish, however, although at least two Irish citizens died in Auschwitz – Ettie Steinberg and her son Leon.

Over 1.5 million people were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkemau … some of the furnaces remain to this day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The historian Conan Kennedy has researched the sad story of this mother and her child, and more recently her story has become the subject of a new play, Ode to Ettie Steinberg, by Deirdre Kinahan. The story begins in the former Czechoslovakia, where Ettie was one of the seven children of Aaron Hirsh Steinberg and his wife Bertha Roth.

In the 1920s, the family moved to Ireland, and they lived in a small house at 28 Raymond Terrace, in ‘Little Jerusalem’ off the South Circular Road in Dublin.

The seven Steinberg children went to school at Saint Catherine’s School, the Church of Ireland parish school on Donore Avenue, off the South Circular Road.

Ettie later worked as a seamstress in Dublin before her marriage. Her sister Fanny Frankel later recalled in Toronto that Ettie had ‘golden hands’ and that she was an excellent and creative seamstress. Other people who could remember Ettie said she was a ‘beautiful girl and tall and slim with wonderful hands.’

The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in an attempt to hide their crimes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ettie married Vogtjeck Gluck, originally from Belgium, in the Greenville Hall Synagogue on the South Circular Road in Dublin on 22 July 1937. They later moved to Antwerp, where Vogtjeck’s family was in business, and they set up home in Steenbokstraat 25 in Antwerp.

A year or so later, as World War II was looming on the horizon, they moved to Paris, where their son Leon was born on 28 March 1939. But they continued to move from place to place in France, and by 1942 they were living in an hotel in Toulouse.

When the Vichy puppet government began rounding up Jews in the south of France at the behest of Nazi Germany, Ettie, Vogtjeck and Leon were arrested. Back in Ireland, her family in Dublin secured visas that would allow the Gluck family to travel to Northern Ireland. But when the visas arrived in Toulouse, it was too late. Ettie, Vogtjeck and Leon had been arrested the day before.

Postcard to Ireland

The Nazis planned to exterminate 11 million Jews in Europe, including 4,000 in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

As she was being transported to the death camps, Ettie wrote a final postcard to her family in Ireland and threw it out of the train window. A passer-by found it and posted it, and the postcard found its way to Dublin. It was coded with Hebrew terms and read: ‘Uncle Lechem, we did not find, but we found Uncle Tisha B’av.’

Ettie’s family understood her tragic message very well: Lechem is the Hebrew word for bread and Tisha B’Av is the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Steinberg family tried desperately to find out what had become of their daughter, their grandson and their son-in-law, writing desperately to the Red Cross and to the Vatican.

Starvation … a sculpture in Auchwitz by Meiczyslaw Stobierski (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ettie’s sister-in-law, Freda Steinberg, who had married Ettie’s brother Solomon, recalled some years ago: ‘In August 1947, Solly and I were in a kosher restaurant in Prague, where we met many survivors. One of them told us that they had escaped from Antwerp together with Ettie and family and made their difficult way to the south of France, where they slept in different houses most nights.’

There was a period of relative quiet at one time and so Ettie decided that she would stay where they were. Unfortunately, she did not heed the advice of friends.

A pile of shoes among the personal belongings plundered from the victims of the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ettie, her husband and their son were taken first to Drancy, a transit camp outside Paris. The Glucks were then deported from Drancy on 2 September 1942 and arrived in Auschwitz two days later, on 4 September 1942. It is assumed that they were put to death immediately.

Ettie’s young brother, Joshua Solomon (Solly), went to school in Wesley College, Dublin, before going on to Trinity College Dublin. He graduated the same year his sister died in Auschwitz. Later he would move to Israel and become a professor in Haifa.

Challenging complacency

Plaques in over 20 languages recall the mass murder of 1.5 million people at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

But there is yet another story from Auschwitz that is a challenge to any complacency we may have about that dread-filled and frightening place.

The Irish chargé d’affaires in Berlin at the time was William Warnock, who held strong anti-British views. In a breach of diplomatic protocol, he had publicly applauded Hitler’s triumphant Reichstag speech in July 1940. In a dispatch sent to Dublin that year, he also predicted with smug confidence that the Luftwaffe’s blitz of London would soon have a ‘shattering effect on the morale of the self-centred and self-satisfied British.’

Warnock also advised against seeking the release of James Joyce’s Jewish friend Paul Léon from Auschwitz. In 1940, Léon had rescued many of Joyce’s original manuscripts when Joyce fled the Nazi occupation of Paris. These manuscripts included the only known drafts of the ‘Ithaca,’ ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and ‘Penelope’ episodes in Ulysses.

Warnock was asked by Dublin to intervene ‘in case there is danger that Léon be shot.’ But Warnock claimed that any intervention might affect Ireland’s ‘good relations’ with Nazi Germany. The authorities in Dublin deferred to his judgment, and Léon was executed in Auschwitz in April 1942.

Shattered gravestones make a Holocaust memorial in a Jewish cemetery in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Eventually, Dublin realised that Warnock’s sympathy for Hitler and the Nazis was damaging to Irish interests. In late 1943, he was replaced by Con Cremin, whose view of Nazism appears to have been more critical. Cremin sent reports back to Dublin of the Nazis’ genocidal treatment of Europe’s Jews, and even tried – albeit unsuccessfully – to rescue some of them.

Sixty years later, the Irish Government paid €11 million to acquire the Joyce manuscripts.
Memorials in the wall of the Remuh Synagogue in Kraków recall the victims the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

● The Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration in Ireland takes place on Sunday 29 January 2017 in the Mansion House, Dublin 2, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

A memorial in the Jewish Quarter in Kraków to Jan Karski (1914-2000), a Polish diplomat who tried to stop the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in January 2017 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory.

Hope against adversity … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau; behind is one of the watchtowers and a train wagon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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