The Lectern: Ashes of Auschwitz

The lectern

How time flies! Like play, like play, it is the year 2016. And for being here with you beautiful people on this first day of this first month of this new year, I am so glad, so grateful, so hopeful.

Hope. It is such a simple, four-lettered, one-syllabic word, and yet it is so much more. It is the reason we search out the rainbow after a storm, and it is the reason we smile after bouts of tears. Hope is the reason Vincent Nzemeke brings the ‘Ashes of Auschwitz’ to The Lectern today. This journey he leads us on is as emotionally haunting as it is true, and while it might not be the cheeriest piece of writing to begin the year with, it is a crucial reminder to us all of both the limits and the might of the human mind. Especially for us Nigerians, for Syrians, for Russians, for Americans; we can make this world, or we can mar it, it is up to us.

So here’s to a year of hope and a year of rising from the ashes.

Happy New Year! 🙂


Ashes of Auschwitz

faces of Auschwitz prisoners

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. – George Santayana

To read about Auschwitz in a book is not the same thing as visiting Auschwitz. This sleepy town in the south of Poland which has been described in some war novels as the main theater of Nazism in Europe tells a story about the Second World War that no author or historian has been able to capture in words.


Seven decades after it came into global reckoning, Auschwitz still wears its past like a garment. She is an inconsolable widow unable to let go of the grief of losing a husband. It doesn’t matter what time of the year one comes here. Summer, winter, autumn or spring, Auschwitz will always be a gloomy place – a chilling reminder of the beastly capabilities of human beings.


Like most places in Europe, Auschwitz is a now a quiet town without the booms of guns and grenades that made it famous in 1945. But the silence in this town is heavy with grief, agony, tears and blood. It is a wound that has refused to heal and every step taken in its sand, especially at the concentration camp where German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi fanatics actualized their plan to rid Europe of the “Jewish contamination” evokes memories of the agony and injustice that took place here.


At the gate of the camp there is a cynical inscription in German which reads “Arbeit macht frei”. Translated into English it means “work brings freedom” but for the millions of innocent Jews evicted from their homes in Poland, Hungary, Romania and other countries across Europe, Auschwitz was not the paradise of the freedom. It was a city of forced labour, lethal scientific experiments, agony and ultimately, death.

Arbeit macht frei sign at Auschwitz

History says about 1.1 million people (mainly Jews) died during the four years of Auschwitz’s existence from 1941- 1944. But the size of the camp alone suggests that the record of the death toll here was at best a conservative estimate.


Walking through this concentration camp wakes goose bumps on the skin. It is quiet, sad and gut-wrenching all at once. It leaves you with a flood of questions such as: “what was Hitler’s motivation? Why didn’t anyone stop him? And more importantly, where was God when this cruelty was unleashed on the Jews who according to Bible stories are his chosen people?


On this visit, our guide began by showing us the spot in the camp where the trains stop, loaded with thousands of Jews from all over Europe. The platform where Rudolf Höss, the camp director at that time stood to determine the fate of new arrivals in the camp is still there.

The trains of death that ferried prisoners to Auschwitz

Höss alongside his team of Nazi doctors were demigods who had the power of life and death in their hands. With a wave of the right or left hand they would in less than a minute decide those fit to live and those who were to die. Those who got the right hand were those considered strong enough to work in Nazi-owned factories and farms while the thousands of others who were either disabled, old or just too feeble to be of any use to the Nazis got the left hand and had to die in the most horrifying way.


If seeing where these merchants of death stood stirred an upsetting feeling, walking through the prison walls and seeing other relics of Nazi inhumanity was much more disgusting.


In Auschwitz, prisoners were stripped of every drop of human dignity. Hundreds of people were crammed in small cubicles without ventilations, they were beaten and shot by Nazi guards at the slightest provocations, and their hair was shaved and sold to textile companies in Germany. Josef Mengele, the famous Nazi doctor selected specimens for his experiments on twins here. If one twin died, he would immediately kill the other and carry out comparative autopsies. Those who attempted to stage a revolt had their guts for garters and paid with their lives.


Everything in Auschwitz makes you clench your teeth and tighten your fists but it is the walk through the gas chambers that really breaks the heart. To touch doors that opened the road to hell for millions of people and see showers that ran not with water but lethal chemicals is unnerving and tear-evoking.


The agony experienced in these rooms where the Nazis could exterminate 2000 prisoners in an hour using the Zyklon-B chemical became more palpable when the guide told a story of how the prisoners were deceived to come here.

Cans of Zyklon B used in the gas chambers

“They told them they were going to take a shower. So the prisoner excited by the prospect of having a bath after many days of suffering would take off their clothes and go in and then the Nazis will turn on the gas”, he told us.


In one room there were thousands of shoes, bags, plates, combs and other stuffs belonging to the prisoners. There are also carpets and other textile materials made from human hair by the Nazis.

Bags belonging to prisoners

And then there is a room where something that looks like an hour-glass is used to preserve the ashes extracted from the gas chamber after the Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz in January 1945. To imagine that this small glass holds the lives, dreams and memories of over a million people who died in this camp sends shivers down the spine.


In the light of all the madness happening in Nigeria, Syria, France and other parts of the world today, Auschwitz broke me and left me with two vital lessons. A war may end but the pains are eternal. Secondly, Auschwitz can happen again. It only takes another man like Hitler to start it.


By Vincent Nzemeke


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3 replies added

  1. Uncle Phil January 2, 2016 Reply

    I’m glad you wrote this. I wish a lot of people would read. Folks would readily call Hitler a madman but anytime one looks down on someone else because of where they come from, the colour of their skin, or sex, I don’t think that person is far away.
    From all you said, I surmise that “evil is lurking”. You asked “where is God”, well He’s the one who has to comfort the broken-hearted after we pull the trigger. Our world is what we’ve made it.

  2. St cathy January 3, 2016 Reply

    My heart breaks whenever I read about Auschwitz. I have struggled to understand how one man wielded so much power and influence over the minions that gleefully tortured and killed at his command . I think perhaps, they harboured some deep-seated stereotypes and only needed a leader to goad them in the direction they had no clue they’d be willing to go.

    This article is so well written I thought at first it was culled from WSJ #coversface. Sufficiently descriptive and poignant.

  3. Fifi January 3, 2016 Reply

    I can’t even begin to imagine.

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