In August of 2014, I traveled to Poland to conduct research for a film I was producing about an extraordinary incident inside the death camp at Auschwitz involving hundreds of Greek prisoners.
The long-used expression “Eleftheria I Thanatos” (Freedom or Death) that was used by Greeks fighting in a revolution two centuries ago couldn’t be more relevant in this contemporary instance.
Prior to my trip, I had found spotty references to the story but nothing concrete beyond a line or two in various books and survivor testimonies. I needed concrete evidence that these men existed and that this unprecedented act of bravery actually took place.
My research trip to Auschwitz was funded by a grant from my long-time supporters at Libra Group. The trip involved four of the most difficult days of my life, walking in the footsteps of millions of people before me who, unlike me, did not leave the camp alive.
As you will read from my experiences below, I was literally walking amongst the spirits of the restless dead.
The research eventually led to the creation of a wonderful team of writers, producers, actors, singers, musicians and other talented people who came together to create a wonderful short film called “Eleftheromania” which told the story of these 400 Greek men and their desire to be free.
The film (Now streaming free and also available with Greek subtitles) could not have been made had it not been for these four fateful days inside the Camp of death. This was my journey.
Part One: (Monday, August 25, 2014) The Ghosts of Auschwitz Were Everywhere
Four days in Krakow, Poland and extensive research for a film I’m producing has been difficult. I spent hours on end flipping page after page of archives in a second floor reading room in a building that once housed concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz. At times, in the still of silence, I swear I heard screams and moans.
I would stop my research, look around to the others sitting around me at reading desks, doing their own research, seeing them unfazed. OK, it was nothing, I thought. My own imagination. But then occasionally, I would notice other researchers doing the same thing. Stopping their reading– looking around at everyone else– probably wanting to say “Did you just hear that?”
But none of us asked each other… It just went on throughout the day. Not often, but often enough to creep me out a bit.
I visited Auschwitz for three days to conduct research for a film I’m producing called Eleftheromania– a story of 400 Greek prisoners during the Holocaust. I prepared myself as much as I could by reading books on the subject.
One book, in particular, “We Wept Without Tears” was especially helpful as it included a series of testimonies by Auschwitz survivors who were forced to work the gas chambers, including testimony by a Greek prisoner. But no book in the world could prepare me for the range of emotions and numbness that I experienced while here. None.
It was one of the ugliest places on earth– where man’s inhumanity to man was manifested in the form of an industrialized death machine– and the mechanisms they used were right there in front of you.
They were three of the most challenging days of my life. I cried a lot. A lot. I stepped inside a gas chamber– where thousands of people over the course of only a few years, were gassed– then burned. I saw the ovens that they were placed in, as well. I walked along barbed wire fences that separated the prisoners from freedom, and on which so many threw themselves– because death was their only access to the freedom they were longing for.
I stood outside the “clinic” where Nazi doctors performed some of the most heinous “tests” on women known to humankind. Human guinea pigs. I just stood outside this building and shook— thinking of my mom, my aunts and cousins— all of the females in my own life and wondering how on earth any human could commit such evil on a woman.
I also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp– a second of a series of dozens of camps the Nazis built, where tens of thousands of prisoners lived in horrific conditions and where the remains of four gas chamber and crematoria buildings stand– remains, because the Nazi German cowards blew them up and tried to hide their crimes as they retreated as the Allies were approaching at the tail end of World War II.
I saw the Gate of Death– and stood inside the watchtower were some of the most evil men in history stood, where directly underneath, endless trains filled with human cargo arrived on a daily basis, bringing people from throughout Europe– including 50,000 from Greece, to their final resting places.
But are they resting? It was a thought that stayed with me throughout my four days visiting this dreaded place.
I saw hundreds of thousands of pairs of shoes occupying a single, cavernous room and another room filled with 7000 kilos of hair— once attached to human beings.
There were so many other horrific sights, like a room full of eye glasses. Tens of thousands of them. And another room with various prosthetic arms, legs, wheelchairs, crutches and canes.
At times, I swear I thought I heard things– strange sounds, human noises. I felt people brushing up against me, only to turn around and see no one around me. I stood in empty, cavernous rooms– cell blocks, with the strangest feeling of being in a crowded room.
I walked along the train tracks, and stood at the platform where the selection process took place. Those who were selected for work, or those who went to their immediate death inside the gas chambers.
All around me and all the time I could hear see and smell the events of 70 years ago. It wasn’t anything staged. Yes this place is now a museum, and they have done a great job at preserving the place and in some cases, recreating and renovating certain places. But these were experiences that couldn’t be created by contemporary man. The ghosts of Auschwitz Birkenau were everywhere, and they were following me everywhere I went.
I couldn’t write while I was in Krakow. I was numb most of the time and paralyzed, reserving my commentary to occasional posts on my Facebook page.
But now that I’ve had the chance to regroup, emotionally, I’ll be sharing— in chronological order, my experiences. I hope you’ll follow along and at least try and understand what went on at this horrific place.
Part Two: (Tuesday, August 26, 2014) Auschwitz, The Ugliest Place on Earth
The feeling of walking through the main gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau is indescribable. You’ve seen it a hundred times, in photos and documentaries; in Schindler’s List and so many other films. “Arbeit Macht Frei”— Work makes you free, that notorious German expression that was placed over a number of concentration camps by the Nazis to try and trick the prisoners into thinking they were entering a work camp— and not a death camp.
The overwhelming sensation of “becoming frozen” is a feeling I’ve never had. You want to cry but nothing comes out. You have a sense of anguish knowing that you’re walking on the very space where hundreds of thousands of people were herded off trains and “selected” for either immediate death by gassing in incineration buildings, or for work duty in the camps.
You just stand there. Wondering. How this happened.
I spent the day today– over 8 hours, touring the grounds of the massive camp network across several square miles, known as Auschwitz and Birkenau. It wasn’t a single place– but a meticulously thought-out network of train tracks, administration buildings, infirmaries and barracks, that were designed to house tens of thousands of people at any given time. And there were the death factories, places of mass death known as the gas chambers and crematoria where the bodies were burned.
This was meticulous and systematic German planning and efficiency at its best. Everything down to the last nut and bolt used in the pre-fabricated structures, so that when they were finished, they could be taken apart and relocated elsewhere and used somewhere else in the war effort. These camps were even built strategically next to idyllic streams and rivers so the ashes of the victims could be dumped— used as fish food and easily transported to area farms for fertilizer.
What I thought at the time would be the most difficult part of the visit— rooms filled with human hair— almost 8 tons of HUMAN HAIR, shaved from the heads of hundreds of thousands of incoming prisoners. It’s hard to fathom the magnitude of what 8 tons of human hair means. Hair doesn’t weigh that much. And certainly much of the hair they cut early in the war effort had already been sent away for use in some kind of sick industrial operation.
This was almost 16,000 pounds of human hair that was found when the camp was liberated in January 27, 1945. Incidentally, they asked us not to take photos of the hair– out of respect to the victims. I struggled with their admonition and decided on a compromise– I’ll shoot the picture in black and white, out of respect to the people, so no color is present. I will de-personalize the picture a bit. But for the sake of understanding how terrible this place really is, the hair was a must see experience for all of those who might not make it here.
There were also rooms filled with shoes— thousands of pairs of shoes. Brand name shoes, shoes with the soles cut out (the Nazi vultures even searched there for valuables the incoming prisoners may have placed there), and baby shoes. A red pair of shoes caught my attention and focus for quite some time. I thought of the girl in the red dress from Schindler’s List.
And suitcases— endless piles of suitcases marked with the name of the owner and his/her city of departure: Hamburg, Paris, Amsterdam… Preveza, Athens, Volos, Thessaloniki, Corfu.
I also saw bunches and bunches of empty gas canisters— Zyklon B gas that was used to asphyxiate the unsuspecting victims in the massive room below. Someone actually held those canisters, I thought to myself, and dropped each one into a specially fitted air hole above the cavernous gas chamber.
Each canister had enough deadly gas to kill 700, 800, 1000 people, depending upon the size of the particular room. And it was all over in 20 minutes. That’s all this gas took to murder 1000 people at a time. More props to German efficiency, I thought.
Another room was filled with medical supplies brought by the thousands of disabled prisoners– crutches, walkers, artificial limbs. These were the first to go– useless in the eyes of the Nazis seeking to build their master Aryan race.
Then things got really bad. Walking into the gas chamber in Auschwitz I you feel an immobilizing sense of panic. Your knees buckle and your lips start quivering. I was standing in a gas chamber where 70 years ago, someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother— was gassed to death. And from an abstract sense of nothingness, you walk to the next adjacent building and see ovens— ovens that look like pizza ovens. Instead, these were made to fit a single human body.
At this point you are emotionless. Completely desensitized. Unable to feel.
The hospital where heinous tests were conducted on innocent women by twisted Nazi doctors and the “wall of death” where thousands faced execution at the whims of Nazis that I saw were child’s play, compared to the experience of walking through a gas chamber and seeing ovens that human bodies were burned in. I mean child’s play.
Today was indeed a strange day. It’s hard to describe the feeling but the best word I can think of when describing my feelings– desensitized. You just can’t feel. You walk around like a zombie, seeing one thing worse than the next, saying to yourself, nothing can be worse than this. But every time, something worse than what you’ve seen only moments before.
And to think, I had only experienced Auschwitz (#1)… After four hours here, the next stop was Auschwitz II-Birkenau, just a kilometer away but still part of this dreaded camp network– the ugliest place on earth.
Part Three: (Wednesday, August 27, 2014) Another Auschwitz? Indeed, There Wasn’t Just One
Adjacent to the main camp called Auschwitz I, about a kilometer away is a second camp called Auschwitz II-Birkenau.This is the camp with the famous “Tower of Death” that the endless train transports passed under on their way to “selektion.” You’ve seen it in countless documentaries, you probably remember it from Schindler’s List. It’s a chilling site that represents all images from the Holocaust.
When you get here you realize that the camp with the famous gate wasn’t the main Auschwitz, but only one of a network of several camps and sub-camps the Nazis built– just in this Polish village alone. And the Auschwitz facility was just one of dozens throughout Eastern Europe. It is mind-boggling.
Reading Prof. Bowman’s book The Agony of the Greek Jews was helpful to put this experience into a Greek context. More than 50,000 Greeks were sent here to their deaths from Thessaloniki alone. They also were transported here from Rhodes, Ioannina, Corfu and elsewhere throughout Greece.
I walked the length of the train tracks from the gate to the platforms where incoming prisoners were herded off trains and Nazi doctors stood— hand picking people for work, or for death. On those very platforms where I stood still for an hour, just staring, thinking— all of the incoming women, children and elderly were sent to the left and able-bodied men were sent to the right.
I imagined being there with my mom— and all of the sudden, being separated from her. I imagined the feelings of the victims as this happened. The cries, the screams, the begging— all things not deserving of human beings. I thought about my family, my brother, my nephews, and other people important to me, and said to myself— “what would I have done if all of the sudden, someone just came and took them away from me— forever.”
At the end of the train tracks are remains of what were the crematoria and gas chambers— remains, because the retreating Nazi cowards wanted to hide their crimes against humanity and they attempted to destroy any evidence. Even in ruins, the site was chilling. These were the factories of death– long, underground rooms where thousands were herded into to face death by gassing. The steps leading down to the gas chambers are gated– out of honor to the victims.
They also burned records— millions of pages of records, a fact that has a lot to do with the complexity of my research work that I was there to do, which you will read about in my next post.
Here, I saw groups of Israeli young people– probably high school students, many of them draped in their national flag and others carrying candles and flowers. They were everywhere– sitting in groups, holding hands, crying, staring at the sites.
I spoke to several of them. Each of them had a story to share– their grandmother, their entire family– One said to me “47 members of my family were burned in this building.” I couldn’t even begin to fathom this.
I visited the “Sauna”, also known as the “sanitation” facility where the “lucky” prisoners who were selected for work upon their arrival were sent to be shaved, cleaned and tattooed. Bone-chilling to walk these corridors. I swear I smelled the sweat of these people. It could have been my imagination. At this point, you just don’t know what to feel.
Today was a long day. On the hour-long drive back to Krakow, I cried a lot. Peter, my guide didn’t talk to me. He had experienced this before with others, so he knew what was going on inside my mind.
When I returned to my hotel room, I was numb. I don’t know what hit me at that point. I opened my computer and hit “play” on my iTunes— Anna Vissi was playing. Songs about love, about life. I started singing as loudly as I could. And dancing. Crazy, I know. It’s all I could do after my experiences today. All I could do was to celebrate life.
Part Four: (Thursday, August 28, 2014) Day of Research and Amazing Finds
It’s never a good sign when the head of archives where you’re researching greets you upon arrival with the news that nothing exists in their records about the incident you’re attempting to find details about. Well, that’s how my day at Auschwitz archives department started.
I had just traveled 5,000 miles to not only see the place where the story of my film took place, but to gather as much information as possible about the topic. But I was in good hands.
My guide does this for a living. He is the “CSI” version of investigators for historical research and ancestral searching and has helped hundreds of people from throughout the world who have come to Poland in search of their family roots.
World War II was tragic for so many families— especially in Poland where hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews and non-Jews alike were displaced, sent to camps and spread throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Family homes were confiscated, entire neighborhoods were uprooted and people fled the persecution— thousands to America. Piotr has helped a lot of these people find their roots.
Piotr Malarek was referred to me by a network of friends and colleagues, thanks to Elaine, a friend in Pittsburgh who knew I was researching the topic. One introduction led to another and eventually, my entire 5-day trip to Krakow was planned.
Piotr helps families look for records re-connect them with their ancestral heritage. He is also an expert on the Holocaust and WWII-era Poland and conducts research assistance and tours through his company Krakow Tours.
As a Polish native and semi-fluent in German, he was able to scan through hundreds of pages of archives at Auschwitz, in search of some kind of evidence of the prisoners I was there searching for— who are the main topic of my short film Eleftheromania.
We spent hours looking through books, incoming prisoner forms, lists, testimonies. The majority of what was left (the retreating Nazis tried to burn as much evidence of their crimes as possible) had to do with those unlucky Greeks from Thessaloniki. There were pages and pages of individual intake forms for incoming prisoners— all from Thessaloniki.
I knew that the Eleftheromania prisoners were from primarily from Athens and the Greek island of Kerkyra. I had read a handful of written survivor testimonies that mentioned the subject of the film and had found some scattered records mentioning the incident. But nothing more. This is why I planned a trip to Auschwitz— not only to see the place, but to get as much information as possible about these brave Greek prisoners.
The pages and pages of records we reviewed in search of clues were telling. The Germans kept meticulous records for all incoming prisoners. Their names, address, date of arrest, date of transport and so on.
Each intake form was signed by the prisoner him/herself. All of the Greeks from Thessaloniki signed their names in their native Greek script. They signed their own death warrants. It was strange looking at all of these records… Average people going about their business, rounded up and arrested one day just because they were Jewish. They lived on streets in Thessaloniki that I recognized— Analipseos Street, Mega Alexandrou Avenue, and so on.
It was a long day and we were tired, unable to find a lead. I was feeling distressed. Maybe this was all rumors and it hadn’t really happened. It was well-known for such stories to emerge during wartime.
Then, when we were almost ready to call it a day, Piotr emerged with a lead. He was reviewing testimonies from a German prisoner that was transcribed in Polish and we struck gold.
Otto Wolken, a Jewish physician from Vienna was deported to Auschwitz and managed to survive because he was a physician whose skills were in demand by the Germans. Dr. Wolken worked in various sections of the camp including the hospital and the quarantine section. He remained there until the camp was liberated in early 1945. Dr. Wolken stayed at Auschwitz for a few weeks immediately after liberation during which time he wrote down a chronicle of what he had witnessed for use in later war crimes trials.
He was the first witness to testify at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg and testified for two full hours about prisoner daily life and German atrocities in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Wolken’s testimony revealed the story of the Greek prisoners who are the subject of my film. It was as if the clouds above my research had disappeared and there was light. Thanks to Piotr’s insistence and hard work, I found exactly what I was looking for. One thing led to another and we eventually found a document from the Quarantine section of the camp that mentioned specific details about “my prisoners” including the barracks they were living in when they first arrived, as well as their tattoo numbers.
We then headed back to the Birkenau camp and started analyzing maps. We walked, and walked— and eventually found the Barrack #8— the exact barrack where the 400+ Greek prisoners lived for three horrible weeks before being murdered by the Nazis. It was an emotional experience.
Not only was my story corroborated, but I saw exact locations and walked the same paths they would have walked over 70 years ago before making history.
The barracks are all closed, out of respect to the prisoners who once occupied them. We were able to get up close and I found a peek hole. I shot this image with the utmost respect for the brave and courageous men who once occupied this horrific place. Obviously, time has taken its toll on most of the wooden structures inside the barrack buildings but you could close your eyes and just imagine rows of wooden slabs.
Part Five: (Friday, August 29, 2014) Finding Piroska
The film I’m producing is called Eleftheromania. It’s a word first used in French literature during the time of their revolution, describing man’s innate desire to be free. Incidentally, it comes from two Greek words— eleftheros (free) and mania (desire or madness). A very Greek-rooted word describing a well known attribute in the cultural DNA of the Greek people.
Toronto writer Joanna Tsanis has written an excellent script for the short film, describing an unknown incident that took place during the summer of 1944 at Auschwitz, involving 400 Greek prisoners and a collective act of heroism not seen before in the history of the Holocaust.
The story involves the arrival of large transports of Hungarian Jews, arrested and brought to Poland by train where the majority of them were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
We have spotty references to the story but I’m here to solidify it all together and get some kind of historic affirmation that this story wasn’t just a myth, or an “urban legend.”
In her script, Joanna introduces a fictitious character named Piroska— an eighty+ year old Hungarian grandmother who becomes a central character, despite only a brief presence in the story. Her interaction with the Greek prisoners is a pivotal scene. Writing in the Piroska’s role was completely coincidental and came from Joanna’s own creative imagination.
While visiting Auschwitz and doing my research, I visited an exhibition dedicated to the Hungarian Jews. It told a story of an ancient community, wiped out— hundreds of thousands arrested and brought here for mass extermination during the summer of 1944.
The arrival of the trainloads of Hungarian Jews was actually central to our story, for it was because of the increased numbers of incoming prisoners into the camp that the Nazis needed to enlist more Sonderkommando– hundreds of them– to work the gas chambers. These were our 400+ Greek men.
The exhibition included dozens of photos the Nazis took when the Hungarians arrived. There were photos of the unsuspecting prisoners, waiting by the trains they had just disembarked, waiting to be selected for death, or for work detail… There were photos of prisoners in long lines outside the gas chambers. None of them in these photos knew their fate at that particular time when the images were captured.
And there were photos of old ladies— carrying their grandchildren in their arms. One of the women, in particular, had a piercing look– as if she was looking directly at me. It was a remarkable moment of “life imitating art”. Joanna hasn’t been to Auschwitz to see this exhibition and the coincidence was unnerving. I wondered to myself if we had found our Piroska.
In commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day 2021, we have made Eleftheromania available for global screening, free of charge. Click here to watch.
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