The six years between 1939 and 1945 shaped the world as we know it today. What happened in these six years is now known as the Holocaust, a period of time when Europe was run by Hitler and the Nazi party. Hitler’s anti-Semitism views started World War II. The Holocaust claimed the lives of 6 million Jewish citizens from all over Europe. Along with the Jews, around 17 million other people were murdered, including Gypsies, homosexuals, people with physical or mental disabilities and anyone who didn’t fit into Hitler’s Arian race. Survivors and artefacts are all that remain to help us put together the horrors and atrocities of the Holocaust. Their stories help to teach people about what happened in these six years in the hopes that it will never happen again.
Hanička (Hana) Brady, was a Czechoslovakian prisoner who go separated from her parents at the age of 8, when the Nazis raided her home town of Prague. Hana and her younger brother George were then taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp. In 1944, she was put on a train headed straight for Auschwitz-Birkenau. On 23rd October, less than a day after her arrival, Hana was sent straight into a gas chamber. Gas chambers were installed into extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek. The Jewish prisoners such as Hana were loaded into the ‘shower blocks’ with the hopes that they were having a shower however, Zyklon B gas, comprised of crystalline hydrogen cyanide, was leaked throughout the vents in the chamber. The gas then caused the prisoners to suffocate. Zyklon B was only introduced in early 1942, but quickly became a tool the Nazis used when it came to the extermination camps. Between the years 1942-1944, 729 tons of this gas were produced, 56 tons went to extermination camps, with Auschwitz-Birkenau receiving, 24 tons. An approximate 20 tons of this gas were used to kill the prisoners of the camp. Hana’s suitcase survived and a Japanese teacher asked to see it in order to teach kids about the conditions of the Holocaust: “A suitcase – that really tells you a story of how children, who used to live happily with their family, were transported and were allowed to take only one suitcase. The suitcase shows this journey”. Hana was just one of 1.1 million lives that were claimed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Heinrich Matthes was a German SS officer in World War II. In 1934, Matthes joined the Nazi party. When the war broke out, he was placed in the army, where he was issued a standard riffle. After two years of serving in the army, Matthes was selected to join the T4 program. A Nazi sponsored program to kill disabled people. He was given a standard issue riffle and used this to kill over 10 disabled citizens. In 1942, he was drafted into the SS and achieved the rank of sergeant and became a part of Operation Reinhard, a secret operation to exterminate all Polish Jews within the borders of greater Germany. He was then sent to Treblinka, an extermination camp in Poland, where he became the chief officer. “Matthes was obsessed with cleanliness. In the autumn of 1942, Matthes shot two prisoners because at the end of the work day they had not properly cleaned to his satisfaction” – Franz Suchomel, fellow SS officer. As chief officer he oversaw most of Treblinka’s operations and regularly shot prisoners, mostly due to them not cleaning as well as he would have liked. “He used to beat the prisoners with a completely expressionless, apathetic look on his face, as if the beatings were part of his daily routine” – Jerzy Rajgrodzki, a survivor at the Treblinka extermination camp. In 1965, Matthes was a part of the Treblinka Trials and was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment due to the part he played in the war.
Samuel Pisar was a Polish prisoner who survived the war and went through multiple extermination camps. Pisar’s mother, father and sister were murdered by a Nazi officer when raiding his town. When he was just 12 years old, he was transported by train to Majdanek, Auschwitz, Bliżyn, Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg, Dachau and finally the Engelberg Tunnel. He later escaped from the camps by running away during a death march. At the age of 16, Pisar went back to his home town to discover that he was the only member of his entire family to survive. Just like all prisoners, Pisar had to wear the stripped uniform with a colored triangle and the number on the front. The different colored triangles represented why they were imprisoned, criminals were marked with a green triangle, political prisoners with red, homosexuals with pink, whilst Jehovah’s Witnesses wore a purple triangle and asocials wore a black triangle. The number replaces the prisoners name as a way for the Nazis to establish power and authority whilst also dehumanizing the prisoners. The uniforms were often made of a coarse material that was too hot in the day and too cold at night. Uniforms were rarely changed, and prisoners had to stay in these uniforms 24/7. Uniforms also included wooden clogs, these often rubbed on people’s feet causing blisters as socks were not provided. Many survivors of the war kept their uniforms as evidence as to what happened, and they often donated them to museums in order to educate people about what happened. Samuel survived the war and donated his uniform to a museum in New York. “I had to wipe out the first 17 years of my life. I muted the past and turned to the future with a vengeance” – Samuel Pisar.
The Holocaust was an epidemic that shaped the world as we know it today. The lives of over 17 million people were lost, 6 million of those being members of the Jewish community. Artefacts help to put together the tragedy that occurred 75 years ago. The stories of survivors help to educate people about what happened all those years ago, with the hope that nothing like this will ever happen again. “The Holocaust was not only a Jewish tragedy, but also a human tragedy” – Simon Wiesenthal.