Auschwitz & Birkenau

Trip Start Jul 15, 2007
Trip End Jul 16, 2008

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Flag of Poland  ,
Tuesday, August 28, 2007


It has taken me two weeks to write the entry for this day's visit.  In the interest of consistency, I am writing in the same immediate-past-tense voice as our other entries:

Today we visited the Nazi concentration and death camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau, which are about one hour outside of Krakow.  We hired a car and driver named xxxxx.  With five going, the car was cheaper than the bus tour, and gave us the option of returning earlier if the children were overwhelmed.  The visit is not recommended for children under 14.  We agonized over whether to take the kids, and finally decided to do so, while being selective about what we allowed them to see.

It is hard to describe my feelings on first seeing the iron gate with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" above.  "Work creates freedom."  Has there in human history been a use of language more brutally dishonest?  The only example that I can bring to mind was the Romans putting the sign INRI above the crucified Christ.

The day we were there was sunny and clear.  An active silence hangs over Auschwitz.  It is more than the absence of sound, the hush of lowered voices speaking in respectful tones.  It is perhaps a consequence of the stilled voices of the numberless dead.

Although I received a college degree with High Honors in History, with a focus on Europe between the wars, I found that Auschwitz was different than I expected.  In particular, I did not understand the size and diversity of the camp structure.  There were over forty related camps in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.  Most provided workers for German industries located nearby, the factories like the death camp sited to take advantage of the existing rail nexus. 

The original Auschwitz camp was based in a former Polish army base taken over by the S. S. to use to house prisoners-of-war and political prisoners.  It was here that the first experiments with Zyklon-B were performed, the first "showers" installed, here that the first ovens were installed to burn the human victims of the gas.  The very first murdered were 250 Soviet prisoners-of-war and Polish political prisoners.  The death room was small, and would have been terribly crowded with more than two hundred victims.  The gas was introduced in the form of pellets of Zyklon-B, which were simply emptied into grates in the ceiling by the S. S.  The bodies were not burned in large rooms as I had believed, but in ovens built to take three bodies at a time.  Other prisoners placed the bodies in the ovens and removed the ashes afterward.  The ovens ran night and day.

The larger camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was built later, constructed from the ground up by slave labor.  Here were four killing stations and adjacent ovens.  The death trains would unload, with most men and almost all women and children sent at once to the death chambers.  You cannot understand Birkenau without seeing it.  The camp was huge, with hundreds of crude, unheated huts.  The killing stations were at the back.  The S. S. exploited the dead for profit.  When the Soviets liberated the camps, they found seven tons of human hair neatly baled for shipping.  For years the hair cut off the corpses (mostly women's hair) was shipped to Germany and turned into cloth to line men's suits.

The very existence of these camps was a war crime, even before the construction of the main death camp at Birkenau.  The Germans fully understood what they were doing.  In 1944, realizing the war was lost, the main gas chambers and ovens at Birkenau were blown up by the S. S. troops, hoping to destroy evidence of their crimes.  This act in itself proves the knowledge of wrongdoing. 

I've just added a photo of a Joseph Goebbels quote from a display in Berlin.  Here it is:

"World history sometimes seems unjust, but in the end it reveals a superior justice.  We have done our duty, and more than that, in this war.  No other nation has sacrificed as much as we have for this war, and no other nation has defended such high ideals of humanity and civilization as we have done.  Consequently, no other nation deserves victory as we do."

Think about that quote in relation to the horror of Auschwitz.  Can there be a better example of Scott Peck's belief that evil people are People of the Lie (the title of his book).

What do we conclude about those who deny the reality of the Holocaust?  The British historian David Irving, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad?

Is one of the lessons of the Second World War and the events that led up to it is that there are certain individuals with whom you can't engage in useful dialogue, certain systems that can't be appeased and must simply be resisted, regardless of anticipated consequence?

As we drove back, the car was silent.  After some time, I asked our driver whether the silence was unusual.  "Always they are silent coming back," he said.  After some more minutes of silence, I asked, "What was wrong with them, the Germans?  Why did they do this?"

I don't think there is a definitive answer to this question.  Was the Holocaust a result of the particular patterns and events of German history?  Do men like the S. S. soldiers, officers, even doctors who ran the death camps exist in every society?  Is such evil ubiquitous, but usually restrained by the structures of law and the restraints of civilized society?  Were the S. S. uniquely bad men, or ordinarily bad men placed in an unaccustomed position of unlimited power by the criminal Nazi state?

I am reminded of a commentary written by Ben Stein several years ago, on the occasion of the death of his father-in-law, a much-decorated retired Army officer who had fought in Europe during the Second World War.  I'll paraphrase Colonel Denham's words to his son-in-law as I recall reading them:  "The Germans fought hard and well.  The ordinary German divisions obeyed the laws of war.  They were professionals.  They treated our prisoners as well as we treated theirs.  You could surrender to them, and they would surrender to you when their situation was hopeless.  But not the S. S.  They were monsters.  You could not surrender to them or expect them to surrender.  You simply had to kill them."

Perhaps one lesson is that ordinary decent men and women cannot truly understand the motivations or the intentions of a Hitler, a Himmler, Stalin, Milosevic, Bin-Laden or Ahmedinijad.  Certainly the words spoken after 1945 have not been honored:  "Never again."  In Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Kampuchea and the Sudan, mass murders have proceeded without restraint.

I am out of worthwhile thoughts here.  I will say that, if you can do so, you should go to see Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Entry is free.  The nearby city of Krakow is beautiful and fascinating.
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