One generation ago, on January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated the Polish town of Oświęcim. The world has come to know that town not by its Polish name, but by the name its Nazi German occupiers called it: Auschwitz. This account of my visit to Auschwitz is offered again in memory of the 1.1 million human beings whose voices were stilled there.
On January 18, 1997, I had opportunity to visit the death camp at Auschwitz. This is the story of that visit. I publish it now as a necessary reminder of what has happened before, for without such reminders we would be only too quick to let it happen again.
Admiral Miklós Horthy was not high on the list of Adolf Hitler’s favorite people. He had proven a lukewarm ally throughout the war. Even though Horthy’s Hungarian legions had fought bravely alongside the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union since 1941, Horthy’s government had never given its unqualified support to the Nazi regime. A particularly sore point was that the Hungarians refused to surrender their Jewish citizens for deportation. True, the leaders in Budapest had enacted repressive laws against Jews, but they never permitted the Germans to gain any measure of control over Hungary’s Jewish population. Consequently, Hungary became a place of refuge for Jews from Romania and other nations whose governments were far less willing to defy Hitler.
Perhaps the Führer would have overlooked Horthy’s insolence in this matter of the Jews had this been the only matter of concern. Yet events during the spring of 1944 brought this and other issues to a head. By March of that year, the Red Army had thrown the Nazi invaders almost completely out of Soviet territory. In the West, the Allies threatened to invade France as soon as the weather proved favorable. Such disagreeable developments merely underscored Hitler’s compelling need for full cooperation from all his allies. Since Admiral Horthy would neither listen to reason nor acquiesce to demands, Hitler employed other means to ensure Hungary displayed the appropriate measure of National Socialist ardor. German soldiers accordingly occupied Hungary late in March. Although they left Horthy in control of Budapest and its surrounding region, the remainder of the country fell completely under Nazi control.
The fears of Hungary’s Jews soon became reality as the Fascists implemented the Führer’s orders. Over the summer of 1944, 300,000 Jews found themselves crammed into cattle cars and shipped off to some faraway place. The Nazis told them they were to be resettled in the conquered lands of the East. Some believed the lie, either out of naiveté or out of the need for a hope of an end to the nightmare that had fallen upon their world. Some did not believe it. Some even whispered of the rumors that the Nazis had built a death factory and were herding all the Jews into it.
Admiral Horthy heard these rumors as well. He was no lover of Jews, but he was a refined gentleman. He was also a realist who understood what was happening to his country. An appeal from Pope John XXIII on behalf of the Jews helped to sway Horthy’s mind, and late in June he reasserted control over all of Hungary. Thanks to this, and to Allied bombing of Budapest, the deportations stopped for a brief time – but only a brief time. The Germans soon put Horthy in his place, and removal of the Jews resumed. Horthy protested and resisted up to the moment the Nazis arrested him in October, but to no avail. By the time the Red Army smashed into Budapest in late December, almost all of the Jews who had sheltered within Hungary’s borders were gone. Most of them were dead.
The story is true. I know.
I saw where they died.
The place is called Auschwitz.