Typically speaking, when one sees or experiences something it is best to record your thoughts as soon afterwords as possible or else something may be lost and forgotten. But there is nothing typical about a trip to Auschwitz. I started this description not long after our visit in 2016 but did not complete it or post it. Now, after 2 years and a visit to another camp I have returned. No less changed and no less awed by the power of the visit.
Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said “One death is a tragedy; one million a statistic.” I say reputed because the exact wording and context are not known as well. Also at issue is whether or not he was the first to espouse the concept. He was not.
In 1759 Beilby Porteus, who later went on to become the Bishop of the Church of England, wrote Death: A Poetical Essay in which he said:
’Twas not enough
By subtle fraud to snatch a single life,
Puny impiety! whole kingdoms fell
To sate the lust of power: more horrid still,
The foulest stain and scandal of our nature
Became its boast. One murder made a Villain,
Millions a Hero. Princes were privileg’d
To kill, and numbers sanctified the crime.
Ah! why will Kings forget that they are Men?
And Men that they are brethren?
This is a sentiment that was repeated by Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux in 1947: “That’s the history of many a big business. Wars, conflict, it’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify my good fellow.”
Mother Teresa, whose canonization for sainthood is likely to be soon, once said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.”
If Mother Teresa and Joseph Stalin seem to agree it gives pause for thought. Bishop Porteus echoed in a Charlie Chaplin movie may seem a stretch, but Chaplin shared a birthday and had his trademark mustache copied by a man who would be king. A man who thought himself a hero. A man who made others think him a hero. A man who forgot he was a man, perhaps on purpose.
From the text of affidavit signed by Rudolf Hoess on 5 Apr 46 the former commander of Auschwitz estimated at least 2.5 million victims were executed and exterminated by gassing or burning, and at least another half million by starvation or disease making a total dead of 3 million. Hoess estimated this to be 70-80% of the people sent there as prisoners. Maybe he overestimated, maybe he couldn't count, but never forget, these fuckers kept meticulous records even though they began to destroy them when the enemy was at the gates.
The sheer magnitude of what occurred numbs the mind. The surreal power of the place 70 years later has the same effect.
By the time we arrived in Oswiecim, Poland it was not a dark and stormy night, but it was a dark, wet, and dreary night. The view from our window at the Hotel Galicja had two deserted loading docks on one side and a big empty field with a well worn footpath alongside a babbling stream. The overcast fog and light drizzle covered the cold night air. The tone was well set for the next day's event.
The sunrise brought no relief. The sky was overcast and gray with a light sprinkling of rain. The temperature was cold, downright bone chilling. There could be no better weather for a visit. This is a place I never in a million years imagined I would be. But here I was with my seventeen year old daughter, Lizi.
Germans had a history of renaming Polish towns even before they were a country. But this was different. The town was renamed by the Nazi invaders who then used on the camp. Over the course of the camp’s existence they also removed the inhabitants of the town and brought in new settlers. They were removed partly to keep secret what was happening, partly to keep residents from helping escapees, and partly because the whole justification of taking over Poland was to provide liebenstraum for the German people. Not so much to subjugate the people as to eliminate and make room for agriculture to provide for the Reich.
It began as a Polish military barracks, evacuated and abandoned but repurposed as an overflow location for the town’s prison facilities. As the former allied Soviet Union was turned on by the Reich, Soviet prisoners of war were interred as well as interned there. The list of prisoners continued to grow to include Jews, Romanies (Gypsies). Contrary to Hoess's numbers, it is estimated to have contained 1.3 million people over the course of its lifespan. Lifespan doesn’t feel appropriate yet there is no antonym that does.
Of those people, 1.1 million perished. By gas, by starvation, by lack of oxygen, by disease, by hanging, or by being shot, there was little difference how. Most of the rest were shipped to other locations deep in the Reich as the Red Army advanced late in the war. The crematoriums and gas chambers were sabotaged or destroyed. The wall where prisoners were shot was torn down. The gallows were removed, and many records burned to hide what had happened. A mere 7,500 remained to be liberated, 500 of which were estimated to be children. For all its infamous brutality it had been an efficient extermination center.
The best way is to reserve a tour guide which takes several days advance preparation. While we knew when we were going, by the time we looked there were only Polish and German slots available and even then only one each. There are also 6 hour and multiple day introspective tours given but we knew those were not for us. The gates opened at 8 but you have to enter before 10 or after 3 if you tour at your own pace.
Walking up you can see the buildings and the fence. The iconic concrete post, barbed wire fence. Rusted, weathered, dirty, and in places moldy. Some features and buildings were recreated or rebuilt, some were restored, some were left in their original condition. The fence was original. The surreality of it began to hit as we walked up to a trailer that said “Info” to get our tickets. This was not a place that topped the list of must see locations but it was certainly on the list of places I never imagined I would ever be able to see. Standing in line memories popped into my head, Mr. Belvel’s history class, black and white newsreel films, The World at War on PBS, Schindler’s List.
The bookstore had tour guides and more. We entered and looked at the books while the cashier completed the transaction with the three guys at his counter. Most of the books were sterile and un-attractive bindings. There was no brightening up the subject matter. I grew up in a tourist town. Normally doing tourist activities are things I’ve seen others do and recognize but haven’t participated in myself. As we turned to the cashier I could tell he was good. He had laid out pamphlet and handed us a tour guide as he explained the pamphlet and another I swear he materialized from his hand. The documents were all in English. We’ve gotten spoiled since almost every German we have dealt with since moving spoke our language, too. In Poland it was not the same. It took 4 people to take our order at McDonald’s but here this guy knew tourists. After we walked out I remembered that now I would have to carry the books and DVD through the whole tour but how to do that was secondary to the entrance.
Arbeit Macht Frei.
Maybe it was intended to be true when it first went up. Maybe it was a psychological ploy to give the semblance of a chance for freedom. Maybe it was just a promise that would never be fulfilled. Maybe it was intended to be just what it is: a symbol of what lay ahead, a sinister sick joke to say abandon all hope ye who enter here. But there it was. As large as life. Life sized. Again life seems a word that should not be used to describe the structures of this place. In person, not fabricated, not on television, not in a movie, not on a grainy black and white PBS special. I touched the gates of THE symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust.
There were many exhibits set up in the former barracks. One block was set up for each group of detainees: Soviets, french, Belgium, Netherlands, Romanies. I could easily spend a paragraph on each and it would never be enough. In the Hungarian display there was the sound of a heartbeat. Eerie, spooky, and chilling. In the french and Belgian display they had train sounds and a plexiglass covered set of tracks depicting the cattle cars that brought the prisoners in.
At a display of uniforms there were many original sets of clothes hung on makeshift frames behind barbed wire. Unlike the United States, in Germany they do not protect you from yourself. If you want to do something stupid (or against the rules) you can. Tactile memories can make one feel a part of what went on and I find myself touching the wall, or the stair rails, or whatever historic venue I happen to be at. These uniforms were not for touching. I didn’t touch the closest ones, I bent over as far as I could and grabbed one. The coarse weave of the material had a utilitarian, uncomfortable feel to it.
Outside Block 11 there were a family of owls living. Block 11 is where most of the executions were carried out. It is where the first test of Zyclon B was done. It is where the optimal density, timing, and amounts needed were determined. Owls hoot into the now silent building of such suffering.
We were traveling alone, just the two of us but there were may groups there. For the most part we tried to avoid going into buildings with them. It did not always work. In one building we failed miserably to avoid them. Even with ventilation and lighting it was dark and stuffy, especially with too many people.The mass of people filing through the basement was bad. Slow, shuffling, muffled. No one spoke. One line headed down the hall another back. But we had space. Personal space we all gave each other as much as possible. As close as we would get to what had happened, yet not. It would have been indescribable back then. Downright claustrophobia inducing.
We walked between the buildings where most of the executions were carried out. And past the gallows, and the daily roll call. The condition of the roads was similar to what it was 70 years ago. Gravel with imperfections, potholes with water. Misty rain. It reminded me of the Rudyard Kipling story that convinced him to be against capital punishment where a man, literally on the way to his death, avoided a puddle.
There was a display of cloth made entirely of human hair. It was not a small bolt. There was a tangled mass of wires that when you got close to it were wire-rimmed glasses. Thrown there because their owners did not need them any more and they would not burn. There were rooms full of pottery, family heirlooms, and my God the luggage. Suitcases with the hopeful, hastily scratched addresses of their former owners on them. Hopeful because they believed they would be reunited with them again. And the room of shoes. If I one day honed my writing craft to the level that earned me the Nobel Prize for Literature I would never be able to describe the room of shoes. Not a small room, a hallway lined on both sides with an unimaginable pile of shoes. Except for one detail. It was imaginable because it exists. It sits there behind glass paned windows for all to see.
At the tender age of 14 I read Poland by James Michener. In it he describes an event based on a true story of a room in the basement of Auschwitz where the guards crammed more people than could fit. One small window provided all the air the room would receive yet the cruel men in charge locked the door and left. In the story a priest told a man the fool’s move was to fight for a spot at the window to breath, better to hang back by the door. There would be room, not much air but room. At the end of the night, the man survived along with the priest. There were not many more that walked out alive.
I saw that room.
I cannot recall if the room was accessible, but I know I came nowhere near that window. I stood at the door and could not imagine a more poignant moment to bring home the power of what this place was. I was wrong.
Near the end of our tour we came to the gallows beside the cremation chamber where Hoess had hung. He was hung within sight of the barracks, beside the cremation chamber, while being able to see the very location he and his family, his wife, his children had spent their lives, cheerily. That fucker hung until he ceased to breathe and he got off easy. While I enjoyed reading about and seeing where he had lived his last second something else happened. As I finished taking a picture I looked for my daughter. She was nowhere to be seen.
I had lost my child in Auschwitz. At the crematorium.
Full on panic set in. Hurriedly scanning the crowds. Running to the other end of the line of people walking somberly, soulfully, and mournfully from barracks to gallows to crematorium entrance. No sight of her.
Backtracking I stood on a small hill and looked in every direction. Nothing. Ran to the other end of the sidewalk and another hill. Nothing. The hill was the crematorium but not the point. She was not there.
As she emerged from the exit of the crematorium my heart began to beat again. She told me she went on through, so I asked if she wanted to wait while I did. Without hesitating she said no. Arm in arm we walked into the crematorium.
In the face of the advancing Soviets this crematorium had been destroyed. The callous cretins knew they were doing things they should not have done because no one hides if what they’re doing is right. They were unsuccessful. As a part of the memorial it was restored to safe conditions. Safe. A truly relative term. The rooms were there. The ovens. The rails and carts that made the task easier. After we came out Lizi told me that there was one place in particular that gave her the shivers. It did so both times.
So we walked out. Like a mere 0.25% of the former occupants had.
The tour guides online all said to allow 90 minutes each for Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We spent four hours in just Auschwitz. On the way out I commented to Lizi who said it didn’t seem that long. When asked how long it had been she said no more than three and a half tops. But it was four, long, surreal hours.
Next door to Auschwitz is an apartment complex. And I don’t mean a few hundred meters away. I mean right there at the wall, a parking lot or less away is an apartment complex. Several stories high, which means that there is someone who looks out their window and can see over the top of the wall, over the barbed wire, and into the heart of the barracks of this former extermination camp. I think I would rather live in a cemetery homeless.
Over the course of my life I have experienced prejudice, sexual harassment, and discrimination. I have been racially profiled and even pulled over for driving while white. I have not complained or pushed these incidents because I know that the intensity of them is nothing compared to what others feel. It is just as wrong, but not on an equal level. I know my experiences at this camp of death does not rise to the level of any given Tuesday when it was in operation. But they are no less powerful for having happened to me. If anything it has strengthened my resolve to meet someone who has experienced this nightmare firsthand.
There is so much to hate about what is and what was done in this place but one thing that struck me was at the entrance. That powerful, symbolic entrance gate, in harsh black letters, Arbeit Macht Frei, has a crowd control black and white barrier similar to many roads, sidewalks, and paths around the country. One that means do not enter, or when up to come on in. There is such a pole at the iconic gate. There is no way to photograph the gate without the pole. This got me to thinking and in the time since our visit I have gone back to see and notice this pole. It is always there. In every shot. Every video, every photograph, omnipresent. And always up. Presumably they close the arm, why else have it? But they do not allow anyone into the grounds without opening it. Even the private photographers that come before or after visitors. It. Is. Always. There. It is a giant middle finger sticking straight in the air to say youu made this a place of death and despair now fuck you we have gained our freedom.