Przemysłowa Street and the surrounding area in the Polish city of Lodz, is a narrow, tree-lined, grass-verged thoroughfare with low-rise, utilitarian, multi-coloured, apartment blocks.
On a sunny day, though, it looks like it might be a pleasant enough place to stroll through, with the leaf-dappled shadows of the trees making patterns on the concrete paths.
There’s Seventies’ feel to it, but a remnant of the past still lingers among the more modern concrete – nothing special mind, just some lacklustre buildings that are now also used as accommodation.
They would be insignificant to any unknowing passer-by, but monumental for some, as they are all that remain of the Nazi camp that became known as ‘Little Auschwitz’.
For those not blinded by hate or prejudice, the Holocaust delivers horrified disgust, but the same can also be said for the testimony of the survivors of this penal camp for children aged from two years old to 16, who were brutally beaten, given starvation rations and endured forced labour.
Their testimonies are moving in so many ways. One simple line from one of the survivors referred to “the older children” when he was describing a particular incident – he was talking about children who were nine years old.
The older children…
Researchers at the Museum of Polish Children recently discovered a trove of letters written by the young inmates to their parents. Despite being heavily censored by the Nazis, pitiful insights into the children’s desperate plight are revealed.
Here’s an extract from one written on February 15, 1944, by Halinka Cubrzyńska. Halinka was 12 years old at the time: “My dear parents, if you can get me some leather boots and send me, because I have nothing to wear (…) I am asking for some soap and a spoon too, because I do not have anything to eat.”
And here’s another, from a 12-year-old Jas Spychala, dated October 16, 1944. He writes: ‘My darling mummy, please bake me 20 pancakes. And onions and mustard.’
Put bluntly, the children were starving. For breakfast, they were given one slice of bread and a cup of black acorn coffee. Dinner was a bowl of soup made from potato peelings – not full potatoes. Sometimes they would get cabbage or beet-leaf soup, which was crawling with caterpillars.
One man recalled how he ate these also, as he was told by some other children that they were a source of calcium; anything to feed a starving body.
Supper was coffee and another slice of bread, if there was any left.
Starving or not, those aged eight and over had to work – mending boots, polishing and repairing belts or backpack straps, straightening pins, weaving baskets, making straw shoes.
And if they weren’t doing that they were washing and ironing, cooking, cleaning and tending the garden – making it so tidy that not even a stray leaf could be seen on the ground or terrible punishment would be meted out.
According to the Museum of Polish Children: “The official reason behind the creation of the camp was the ‘issue’ of them being left without care and reportedly having a negative influence on German children. The children concerned with regard to that ‘issue’ were those who lost one or both parents as a result of their execution, apprehension, or resettlement in order to provide forced labour.
“Children were also sent to the camp in relation to their parents’ participation in the resistance, their religious affiliation (children of Jehovah’s Witnesses) or refusal to sign a volkslist (a document in which a non-German citizen declared that he had some German ancestry).
“Also imprisoned there were orphaned children forced to commit minor offences due to their complex life circumstances, children with disabilities or children who had simply been apprehended on the street for ‘vagrancy’.
“Living conditions for the children were practically the same as those of adult prisoners of concentration camps. Filth and insects were commonplace in the camp. The child prisoners often fell ill with diseases such as typhoid, pneumonia, bronchitis, bladder infection, tuberculosis, scurvy or trachoma.”
The brutality was truly barbaric. In his testimony, survivor Wladislaw Jakubowski recalled how he fled from a hospital bed only to be subsequently caught. He was taken to an SS officer who used a large ruler with which to beat him, so severely that he broke the boy’s arms… and then kicked him so hard that he was knocked through two closed doors.
One girl was forced to drink urine after being caught sipping orangeade in the kitchen.
According to survivor Jerzy Jezewicz, children too weak to work or to walk unaided were taken to the death barrack to die there or “were finished off at the yard”.
Imagine, little children, torn from their parents and subjected to this…
They couldn’t wash properly either, and could only use cold water, and did so in freezing conditions.
Many of the children died of starvation and disease or from vicious beatings and floggings at the hands of camp guards.
Edward August and Sydonia Bayer were two of the most notorious of the guards.
‘[August] beat and kicked them in the most sensitive places, he buried them in boxes of sand, dunked them in a barrel of water, hung them by the legs on a chain and lowered their heads into a tank with used car lubricants,” camp survivor Jozef Witkowski recalled. ”He cut their genitals with a penknife, beat their heels and extinguished cigarettes on prisoners’ chests’.
Bayer was in charge of the girls’ section of the camp.
‘She liked to drag sick children into the snow and pour cold water on them. She ordered them to be whipped, beaten, kicked, deprived of meals,” said Jozef.
Survivor Maria Jaworska recalled how a 10-year-old girl who had wet her bed was brutally beaten by Bayer, and died a few days later.
Camp records show that Bayer recorded the cause of the girl’s death as tuberculosis. Both she and August would be executed for their crimes after the war.
According to the most recent findings, in total 2,000-3,000 children were held prisoner at the camp. Of these, approximately 200 were murdered or died in the camp, although the precise number is not known.
Presiding over this vile pile of sadistic brutality was SS Sturmbannführer Friedrich Camillo Ehrlich.
Although captured by the Red Army and sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of the war, Ehrlich was later released by East German authorities, thanks in large part to an administrative error, which recorded his name as Karl Ehrlich.
Research conducted by Michał Hankiewicz, from the Museum of Polish Children, showed that Ehrlich left for West Germany, where he reinvented himself as, of all things, a consultant to the German police force.
The irony is grotesque. This monster who had ensured the torture and murder of little children wrote books on law enforcement and detection, one of which was titled Einbrecher (German for ‘Burglars’).
No charges of his crimes against children were ever brought against Ehrlich and, on 6 June 1974, he died in Munich a free man at the age of 81.
How is it that people like Ehrlich can neatly pack away the past and begin again, blotting out the horrendous killings and barbarous acts so that they can live among civilised society?
How do others do it? Between 1989 and 2003, hundreds of thousands died in a civil war in Liberia. It was a conflict that went beyond the pale in its ferocity, one in which people were literally butchered – their bodies dismembered and dragged through the streets.
One of the chief protagonists in this barbarism was General Butt Naked (Joshua Milton Blahyi). That name mays sound comical to those unfamiliar with it, but when you realise what Blahyi got up to, the smile will fall away.
Blahyi was a warlord who would go into battle without clothes as a way of showing his fearlessness – hence the nickname. Testifying in January 2008, to Liberia’s post-civil war Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he recalled his actions:
“Any time we captured a town, I had to make a human sacrifice. They bring to me a living child that I would slaughter and take the heart out to eat it.”
He can’t put a number on the amount of victims whose blood is on his hands, but Blahyi he did say that “it is not less than twenty thousand”.
Blahyi himself has since renounced his past and is now a preacher, but believes that he should be punished for his actions. He runs a centre which endeavours to rehabilitate former child soldiers and reintegrate them into society.
Life goes on, even after participating in murder and mayhem.
Human nature is a puzzle, none more so than that of the mass murderers who get to live another day, live another life, while their victims – the ones who managed to survive, that is – bear the trauma of their suffering and even the guilt of their survival.
Wiping the slate clean and starting afresh is something we all might give fanciful thought to at some time or another, but it’s galling to know that such a luxury should also be afforded to the monsters out there, the ones who kill with impunity but who get to live among us, untainted and unhaunted… the ones who get away with murder.