The Death Camp

Recounting my experience at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

On Thursday, September 19th, 2019, I visited the Auschwitz/Birkenau concentration camp outside Krakow, Poland.  The experience defied my expectations, and has been sitting in my head like an onion, waiting for me to pull back each layer and examine its flavors. I think that I am ready to begin. 

My identity and history shaped my experience of Auschwitz, as I’m sure they do for all of the millions of visitors.  The first and most important facet is that I am a descendant of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the United States in 1912.  Had they stayed, they would have likely been victims of the holocaust. I would, in all likelihood, never have been born. 

Beyond that, I have had an academic fascination with World War II since as long as I can remember.  I know great volumes of information about the rise of the Nazis, the progress of the war, the decisions that led to the holocaust, and the impact on the many victims.  My appetite for the history of that time is insatiable, and I am always reading and learning more.  

When I realized, earlier this year, that my travels would bring me within visiting distance of Auschwitz, I resolved to go.  I believe that we have a duty to go there and witness the most infamous of the death camps, to see what remains of the most horrible atrocities of modern history.  

I thought that if I turned off my phone and brought my notebook, I would be able to sit and reflect, to be present, and to let the raw experiences of that presence inform my writing.  I was confident that when the time came, I would know what thoughts I needed to record.  

In fact, the visit had the opposite effect.  The few notes I took down were too raw, too abstract, too out of place and time.  The import of having seen Auschwitz has stifled my expression, such that even now, weeks later, sitting in an air-conditioned office with limitless time to compose, I find myself at a loss for words.  

So, I’ll start with something basic, an aspect of the experience that I was not expecting, and that relates to the way the Polish government has set up Auschwitz as a historical site.  All visitors are assigned to a tour guide in their particular language, a guide who works with the facility, and all tours are guided; there is no opportunity to wander, to be by oneself, to sit and reflect.  

The guides, who are well-versed in the camps’ history, lead each group through the carefully curated confines of what was once Auschwitz I, the original camp, and through the wasteland of former structures known as Auschwitz II, or Birkenau.  Throughout, they present a running narrative of facts and stories about the camp, and they keep a brisk pace, as interest in visiting Auschwitz runs quite high: our guide told us that last year, they had over two million visitors.  

Auschwitz I was much smaller than I expected.  Its buildings are intact, and it housed the prisoners who worked in the factories.  It contained the site of the infamous Mengele experiments, the death wall where prisoners were executed, and the original “Kanada,” a building that housed the belongings stolen from the newly-arrived.  Two or three of the buildings have been converted into what is essentially a museum space, with photographs, artifacts, and informational displays.  

The most moving of these exhibitions, at least for me, was the large collection of hair, shoes, and luggage.  The hair, which was removed from each prisoner upon arrival, filled a space larger than I could have imagined.  Some was still braided. It was discovered in large boxes and sacks by the liberators, a tell-tale relic of the great swaths of humanity who passed through and perished there.  

In between the buildings of Auschwitz I was a guard hut, which was used during the tortuous roll calls that took place twice each day.  I wanted to sit on the curb, to be by myself, to imagine what it must have been like for those desperate people, at the mercy of the guards and sick with exhaustion and hunger.  I wanted to try to bring all those stories I have heard for years, and put them in their physical place, to feel how they resonated in my mind.  

But we were on a schedule, and the tour moved quickly on. 

Just outside the walls, a single gallows stands near what was once the home of the camp commander, Rudolph Hoss.  After the war, he was hanged on that site. Next to it, there had been a gas chamber and crematorium; thought it had been destroyed prior to liberation, it was reconstructed, and we were given an opportunity to walk through the macabre facsimile.  

From there, our tour suspended, and we were told to meet at Birkenau, several miles away, where we reconvened with the same group, and the same guide, for the second half of the tour.  Cafes outside Birkenau offered pizza, hot dogs, and coffee. There was a gift shop, facetiously styled as a book store, peddling postcards, literature, magnets, bags, and other souvenirs.  

While Auschwitz was small and full of stories, Birkenau was massive and full of unfathomable numbers.  The barracks that once housed hundreds of thousands of people have been almost entirely dismantled; their raw materials furnishing nearby residents with what they needed in order to rebuild after the war.  The main surviving feature is a train track that runs directly into the camp, between the barracks, and stopping just a hundred yards short of the twin gas chambers.  

Our guide pointed out the place at the tracks where the selection took place.  For most of the war, the selections took place outside the camp, at what was known as the Jewish platform; it no longer exists.  This last, later platform was primarily used for Hungarian Jews, who were brought here near the end of the war. Popular media gives the impression that only the weak, sick, very young, or very old were sent directly to the gas chamber, but that is incorrect: of these later arrivals, 80% were sent directly to their deaths, and only 20% were sent to be used as slave labor.  

The gas chambers, which were destroyed but whose ruins still remain, flank either side of the extreme edge of the train track, and the camp.  They were once combined facilities, both designed to kill, and to cremate.  

Imagine the experience of stepping off those train cars, and seeing large plumes of smoke on either side.  By then, it was late in the war, and information about the extermination camps had already spread within the Jewish population of occupied Europe.  After an excruciating journey in cattle cars without food or water, prisoners would be forced to line up, abused by armed guards, and made to run past a doctor, who would with a wave of the arm determine whether they would live or die.  Most died. 

The extreme edge of the camp, between the two fossilized gas chambers, houses a memorial, in which words of commemoration are written in many languages.  It is large but simple. It does not, nor can it, do justice to the atrocities it seeks to memorialize. 

The final stop on the tour was a barracks, one of the first constructed and one of the only buildings still standing.  I saw the small spaces in which bodies were overcrowded for sleep. It is hard to imagine that human beings lived there for years, on starvation rations and subjected to hard labor, abuse, and disease.  It is a wonder any of them survived to liberation.  

As the tour ended, our guide- a non-Jewish Pole- said something important.  She said that while it is tempting to only think of the victims, we have a duty to think of the perpetrators: they were not aliens, they were people, and if they were capable of doing these things, so, too, are we.  That is why, she added, it is important that people come to this place, and see what happened here.  

Elsewhere on my travels, I learned the extent of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe before the war.  Jewish cities, town, and villages dotted Polish and Ukrainian maps by the thousands. Wooden synagogues sprung up all over the country.  In Warsaw, the Jewish population topped out at 40% of the city’s inhabitants.  

The systematic persecution, the ghettos, and the forced deportations thinned that population out, and concentrated it, cutting it off from the rest of the populace.  Had the Nazis stopped there, the Jewish population would have been severely reduced and disrupted over the 5-6 years of Nazi control.  

Instead, their decision to conduct mass extermination wiped out all but a small fraction of the Jews living in Eastern Europe before the war.  Auschwitz/Birkenau was the crown jewel in that effort. More than any other place, Auschwitz exemplifies the genocide of the Nazis, and the complicicy of the Poles.  After seeing the camp, I cannot believe any accounts from the locals that they did not know what was happening there; the scale was too large, the surrounding villages too close.  I believe they turned a blind eye, motivated by self-preservation.  

In Warsaw, before the war, the Jewish community was thriving.  They wrote music, published Yiddish newspapers, and had a burgeoning culture that reminds me of America’s own roaring 20s.  The destruction wrought by the Nazis ended that community, and it has never recovered.  

The major takeaway I feel is anger.  Anger at the people who did it, and those who allowed it to happen.  The excuses of the camp guards- who were just following orders- ring hollow.  There is a great wrong that took place at Auschwitz, and it has never been rectified.  I’m not sure that it ever can be.  

I still believe that everyone who can, should visit Auschwitz once in their life.  I think it is important to pay witness, and to be moved beyond articulation. I certainly have been. 

-AG

 

 

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Published in: on October 1, 2019 at 9:34 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi there, Thx for sharing your experiences in Poland. We’ve never been but you made it so real, I feel that I could see & feel more than I ever had. Life altering? You had such a wonderful trip eating & drinking well with your dad and enjoying other things besides the heart wrenching ones. Stay in touch and send me your next review. Missing you, time for a visit? Xoxo Mikki

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  2. What can be said to such evil? No words can do it justice, as you now know. One can read, see and understand the history as I have as far back as I can remember. But seeing something like the hair on the TV and actually being there has a gut punch that cannot be understood by someone like me who had not made that trip.

    When you look at those to blame, consider the US and the refusal to take in Jews and give them refuge before the war. Look at the ship of Jews that were rejected and denied entry. Those came so close only to end up back in the hands of the NAZIs and sent to their deaths. There is plenty of blame that can be laid at the doorstep of us civilized, self righteous Americans.

    I have done the DNA tests and learned about my biological mother’s history. I too find that my DNA takes my progenitors into the Eastern European Jewish community. It makes me wonder what my fate would have been if her mother had not made that voyage to the US in the early 1900s.


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