Today, April 8, is Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a part of Holocaust Days of Remembrance, established by the U.S. Congress as the nation’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust. The U.S. Army remembers the six million Jewish and millions of other victims of the Holocaust and honors the survivors’ resilience.
In Hebrew, Holocaust Remembrance Day is called Yom Hashoah.
The internationally recognized date for Holocaust Remembrance Day corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
I have been to three of the most renowned among the almost 44,000 Concentration Camps established between 1933 and 1945 by the Nazi regime.
Auschwitz, even today, has a spirit of death and foreboding. Located in Poland, the country with the largest Jewish population at the time, it was the largest and the deadliest of the camps. Built in 1940, it was an extermination camp, or a “killing center,” the euphemism for mass murder. But it was also a prison camp and slave-labor camp.
Somewhere between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died there of malnutrition, disease, but mostly from deadly Zyklon B gas (hydrogen cyanide). 90% were Jews.
At the height of its operation between 1943–44, six thousand Jews, on average, were gassed each day. Just walking through the gate made you feel surrounded by darkness.
In October 1941, work began on Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, located outside the nearby village of Brzezinka, just north of the Auschwitz camp, as you can see from the ariel photo below, labeled “B.”
In the late winter of 1943, trains arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau regularly carrying Jews from virtually every German-occupied country of Europe — from as far north as Norway to the Greek island of Rhodes off the coast of Turkey in the south, from the French slopes of the Pyrenees in the west to the easternmost reaches of German-occupied Poland and the Baltic states.
Dachau was the first Concentration Camp; the prototype, the training center, originally established in March 1933 near Munich, Germany, soon after Hitler rose to power.
At first, Dachau held only political opponents, but more and more groups were imprisoned there over time. It became a forced labor camp, with workers taking the night shift at the local munitions factory. Thousands died at Dachau from starvation, maltreatment, and disease. I have written a 4-part series of articles on the background of Dachau, which you can find here.
I visited Dachau 50 years after my father liberated the camp in April of 1945. This war ended only a few weeks later. I tell his story in full here.
“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
— Professor George Santayana, Harvard
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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