Auschwitz visit becomes more than a history lesson

The Nazis tried to hide their atrocities by demolishing this crematorium at Auschwitz, but Allied Forces got there before they could finish.

We should be finished with Auschwitz by now.

After three-quarters of a century, the subject should be closed.

It shouldn’t be necessary to write about the place.

It shouldn’t be necessary to go there.

And it wouldn’t be, if “never again” were true.

But something deep and dark and evil roils beneath our facades, and new Auschwitzes erupt, time and again.

Sometimes the scale approaches that of the original, as in Rwanda, 1994, or the concentration camps currently being built by China for ethnic minorities. And sometimes it’s the work of a single warped mind – slaughter at a Pittsburgh synagogue, at a Charleston church, at a New Zealand mosque.

Too many such occurrences have been the stuff of recent headlines, too much political rhetoric is steeped in hatred to sustain any hope that this is a thing of the past.

So, you go to Auschwitz – the real one, the vast murder factory in southern Poland – on a stormy summer day because, ironically enough, it is not a dead place. It exists as a living symbol of something that still is very, very wrong.

One should not expect that an Auschwitz tour is designed to be pleasant.

For one thing, the number of visitors has soared to more than 2.2 million annually, more than 6,000 for each day of the year – meaning you have little elbow room and little time at many of the exhibits.

For another, security is super-tight, a reminder that the hatreds that spawned this place have not died. Indeed, in 1992 neo-Nazis tried to burn down a Jewish museum at the Sachsenhausen camp in Germany, seeking to erase physical evidence of their spiritual forebears’ crimes.

But then, why should a visit to Auschwitz be pleasant on any level?

If the tour guide rushes you at forced-march pace through the rain and thunder, remember those for whom every day here was a forced march to and from 11 hours of hard labor on starvation rations.

If the basement in Barracks 11 is musty and dark and crowded, remember that this is where the first successful experiment with mass gassing took place, and remember the hundreds who died in this little space before the Nazis moved on to larger venues for their depredations.

If the security seems irksome, if you’re peeved because you have to stow your backpack before your tour, remember that at the end of the day you’ll get it back – unlike those who left their suitcases beside the rail line as they were led away to death.

Auschwitz was by no means the oldest Nazi camp, but after the Germans conquered Poland in 1939, it quickly metastasized into the largest because of its excellent railroad connections. It was a staggeringly vast complex so huge that its major portions are designated Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III-Monowitz.

The latter is of note because it was built by a German corporation, IG Farben, which found the use of slave labor an excellent way to reduce payroll expenses.

A typical tour will take you only to the first two Auschwitzes. Frankly, that’s enough.

The original portion, Auschwitz I, could pass as a college campus with a little spiffing up. The Nazis found the former Polish army barracks a handy ready-made prison, but too small for their ultimate aim to rid Europe of non-Aryan undesirables.

It is here that you’ll find some of Auschwitz’s most compelling and damning exhibits.

In one room, off-limits to photography out of deference for the dead, mounds of human hair lie moldering behind glass walls.

In others, a mountain of suitcases, piles of combs and brushes, truckloads of shoes and cooking utensils. Long walls bear large portraits of victims, complete with dates of arrival and death. The Nazis did like to keep records.

One display notes the color-coded symbols used to differentiate various classes of prisoners. Yellow, of course, for the Jews. Red for political prisoners. Pink for homosexuals. Purple triangles for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The latter, by the way, presented a special problem for the Nazis. Unwilling because of their Christian beliefs to worship Hitler or the symbols of his state, and unwilling to take up the arms of warfare, the Witnesses stood alone among Germany’s religious groups as perceived enemies of the Reich.

The Witnesses could have left Auschwitz and other camps simply by renouncing their faith, but by far the majority chose martyrdom over compromise. This suggests that history might be different had Germany been suffused with believers of similar backbone.

Incredibly, despite the preservation of Auschwitz and other camps and despite irrefutable reams of documentary evidence, there exist individuals who insist on denying the Nazis were bent on genocide.

In answer, an easy-to-overlook exhibit is on display in Auschwitz I.

It’s a portion of the memoir penned in prison by Rudolf Hoess, who was the camp’s longest-serving commandant. 

Hoess recalled being summoned to Berlin in 1941, there to be told by Heinrich Himmler: “The Fuhrer has ordered that the Jewish question be solved … the existing extermination centers in the East are not in position to carry out the large actions which are anticipated. I have therefore earmarked Auschwitz for this purpose.”

Auschwitz served the purpose well.

Historians have settled on numbers to the effect that 1.3 million people – Jews, Poles, Russians and others – were sent there. Of these, 1.1 million died.

The Nazis tried to cover this up in the last days of the war by blowing up the gas chambers and crematoria in Auschwiz II, but even here their memoirs damn them.

Hoess writes that the large number of murders required a more efficient means than bullets, and that only gassing would do. Besides, he notes with no apparent sense of irony, the gassing served the purpose of sparing the tender feelings of SS troops who otherwise would have had to look women and children in the eye while shooting them.

The tour of Auschwitz I and II requires some four hours of fast-paced walking, a bus ride between the facilities and the ability to absorb a torrent of narration from a guide whose face and voice can barely conceal her anger over what went on here.

One wishes it were only history rather than a living indictment of the human capacity for blind allegiance to rulers who set themselves up as little tin gods, fanning the flames of racial and nationalistic hatred for their own selfish ends.

Never again?

Think again.

(1) comment

The Shadow

Gary Nelson has written one of the most touching and disturbing accounts of the Holocaust. He is to be commended, if not awarded, for his outstanding essay.

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