Do not read this post if you do not want to be deeply disturbed.

What follows is not fiction. This is an eyewitness account from Auschwitz-Birkenau. The authenticity of Filip Müller’s narrative has never been seriously questioned.

Filip Müller was a Czech Jew. He was deported to Auschwitz in April 1942. He was forced to work for three years as a member of the Sonderkommando preparing the condemned for death, clearing the gas chambers after each execution, and stoking the ovens of the crematoria. Astonishingly he survived and went on to bear witness to the darkness in which he had existed from 1942-1945.

Contrary to common impression, not all those who died in Auschwitz-Birkenau were killed the relative anonymity of the gas chamber. Thousands of victims in Nazi extermination centres were lined up against execution walls and shot at close range by members of the SS.  Müller witnessed many of these executions but one particularly haunted him after his liberation. He described the scene in dreadful detail in his book Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers.

Please be warned this is a troubling scene. But it captures graphically the extraordinary brutality of the Holocaust and so brings into harsh focus the tragic nature of events during World War II. If we are going to avoid such horror in the future, we must be willing to face its reality in the past.

Again, do not read what follows unless you are willing to be profoundly unsettled.

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Müller describes the scene as a small group of Jews is assembled in the courtyard outside Crematorium 5:

I was watching a young mother. First she took off her shoes, then the shoes of her small daughter. Then she removed her stockings, then the stockings of the little girl. All the time she endeavoured to answer the child’s questions steadily. When she asked: ‘Mummy, why are we undressing?’ her mother replied: ‘Because we must.’ When the little girl went on to ask: ‘Is the doctor going to examine me, and make me well again?’ her sorrowful mother replied: ‘He will, my darling, soon you will be well, and then we’ll all be happy.’

It cost the unfortunate woman all her self-control to utter these words. She was struggling to go on talking to her beloved child quite normally to spare her the terror of her imminent death. In these last few minutes the young mother had aged fifty years. What were her innermost thoughts at this moment? Was she remembering her own youth, her home town, her parents’ house or the brief days of her marriage?

At last an SS man came to take her to the place of execution. She lifted up her little girl and hugged her tenderly. She even forgot, so engrossed with her child was she, to bid farewell to her husband who was standing not far from her. And now she stood in front of the wall of execution, holding her child clasped tightly in her arms. The room reeked of fresh, warm human blood.

Motionless, her eyes closed, the woman waited for the end; she waited and waited for the killer bullet to take her away from this tormenting life, from this hostile world, into another realm.

Did she consider that, as she fell, she might pull her child down and bury it beneath her? That was surely not what she wanted. But neither did she want to be an eyewitness when the life of her darling was extinguished.

Meanwhile Voss, the executioner was circling round mother and child looking for a spot on the child’s little body at which to aim his gun. When the distracted mother noticed this she began to twist and turn to the left and to the right, back and forth, anything to take her child out of his field of fire.

Suddenly three shots cracked through the silence. The little girl was hit in the side of the chest. Her mother feeling the child’s blood flowing down her body lost all self-control and flung her daughter straight at her murderer’s head while he was already aiming the barrel of his gun at her.

(Müller, Filip. Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1979, p. 72)

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These things happened. There is no escaping the brutality of which human beings are capable.

There can be no adequate response to such violence. All one can hope is that by staring deeply into the dark abyss of this horror, those of us who still walk this tortured earth may find our hearts opening to deeper gentleness and greater compassion. If facing the terror of such an event strengthens our commitment to preserving the dignity of all human beings, perhaps it will not have been entirely in vain.

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