Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Auschwitz and Birkenau

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This will be a difficult post to write, and to read; it was certainly a difficult day, but one we don’t regret.  While planning our trip through central Europe with our friend Nicole, the three of us had agreed to tour Auschwitz while we were in Poland.  Nicole arranged for a private guide who would take us through the original Auschwitz I camp in the morning, and the expanded Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp in the afternoon.  The tour included a car and driver to take us from Krakow to Oświęcim, the city where the camps were formed.  The drive was 70 minutes, and our driver played a documentary video showing the interview of a Soviet army photographer who was attached to one of the units that first reached Auschwitz.  It was much more raw and devastating than what we had previously seen in American documentaries and films about Auschwitz.  Eventually, we all had to look out the windows and simply listen to him; the photographs were horrific.  We were all wondering silently whether or not we were prepared for what we were going to face.

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The original Auschwitz camp is fairly small, as it was originally intended only as a camp for Polish political prisoners.  Our guide was very knowledgeable, but seemed initially to be a little abrupt.  After seeing the extremely detailed records the SS kept of newly arrived prisoners, we asked her why there was such a detailed account; she simply replied “You would have to ask the Germans.”  She also particularly emphasized that it was not only Jewish Europeans who died at Auschwitz and Birkenau; about 75,000 non-Jewish Poles died here as well. 

We asked her if she gave tours outside of Auschwitz, and I think we all were hoping she had some less grim subject matter to be an expert on, but no—this was her single focus as a guide, and she had been giving tours there for over ten years.  We were much more understanding of her terse manner.  This was not light-hearted subject manner—not a place for jokes, despite how desperately we all wanted to use humor to dispel the heaviness of the day.  Eventually we came to understand her point of view. Her responsibility, her job, was to guide us through this place in a way that honored those who died there, and maintained a tenor that was both somber and sacred.  

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This is one of the courtyards where roll call was taken every morning, which often lasted for hours if the count came out wrong. The officers stayed warm in the small wooden guard post across the street.

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One of the exhibits at Auschwitz was the reproduction of a collection of drawings from the children in the camps.  Some could be mistaken for any child’s drawings: princesses, dragons, kings, and lions.

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There were also drawings of trains, which didn’t in and of themselves seem sinister, until you realized these were drawings which told the real stories of these children’s lives, not fantasies.

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In a day of very difficult truths, this was one of the hardest.  Parts of the tour were so overwhelming, that they became numbing.   The drawings were so simple and palpable that they cut through the incomprehensible numbers of the other exhibits (the kilograms of Zylon B, the hundreds of thousands of suits, and tons of cut hair) to what these children experienced.

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The Book of Names also managed to convey the magnitude of the Holocaust in a more tangible and visible fashion.  It contains the names of 4.2 million of the victims (from all of the concentration camps—about 1.5 million were from the Auschwitz compounds) that have been documented so far.  The book is about 3 feet tall, and 15 feet long, with double-sided pages on both the left and right sides of the wall it is mounted on.

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Each of us had our own separate moment when a tidal wave of emotion would sweep over us at the atrocities that had happened where we were walking. For Lana, it was a story about how the German commanders would “permit” a brass band comprised of prisoners to play for other prisoners. We were within sight of the crematorium and gas chambers, and all Lana could think about was the cruelty in the “kindness” of having everyone listen to beautiful music while plumes of ash and smoke belched out of the crematorium mere yards away.  For Nicole it was a display of children’s items, the cracked face of a child’s doll.  For David, it was the children’s drawings shown above, which in truth devastated all of us. 

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We had packed a picnic lunch.  It felt incongruous to sit on the grass outside the museum eating and drinking.  We’d developed a bit of tunnel vision towards the end of the morning; there was something horrible to look at, read, or hear everywhere we walked.  So it was good to take a step back, and remember that there was still joy, life, and hope in the world. 

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We had been surprised at how small Auschwitz I was.  By contrast, we were stunned by how massive Auschwitz-Birkenau was.  While Auschwitz I had been designed to house Polish political prisoners, and was gradually altered to a concentration camp, Birkenau had been designed specifically to destroy people on an industrial scale.  Only a few of the buildings either remain, or have been restored, but the remnants of the camp sprawl in either direction.  The photo below only shows the camp to the north of the rail yard; it stretched to the south as well.  The crematoria are beyond the trees in the distance.

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We found another compelling exhibit housed in a warehouse that was originally used to sort and store the possessions stripped from the prisoners before they entered the gas chambers.  The official policy had been to destroy any photographs that were found, however someone working in the warehouse managed to hide a hoard of these photographs, where they were discovered after the liberation of the camps.

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A small digression--Lana spent a couple of years teaching creative writing classes while she was in graduate school. One of the exercises she used to get her students writing was to show them a photo from the 1960 of her parents out at a dance, smiling and laughing. The students would create a backstory for these characters, lives and dreams and experiences.  It was a great way to kick-start their imaginations. 

This exhibit of family photos brought home all too well to the three of us, in a way that even piles of hair and eyeglasses and empty buildings couldn’t, that each of these people had a story. Each of them had a life that was filled with pet rabbits and swimming parties. Each photo was a glimpse into a story. Nearly all of those stories ended the same way, right here.  It was so much more devastating in the specific than in the general. It was easy to be numb when faced with numbers, but between looking at family photos of those who endured it, seeing the mountains of objects that were taken from them, and walking through the places they would have marched to their deaths, the numbness gave way to a keen sense of loss for the families and lives taken away from the millions of victims. 

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Early that morning we had wondered whether we were prepared for what we were going to see.  We were not, and we left exhausted, emotionally and physically.  As difficult as it was, it was also invaluable.  While we were all familiar with the history of the Holocaust, being there was a powerfully visceral experience that was completely unlike the abstract understanding we had previously.

In as much as our travels throughout the world gave us a series of windows into what the world looks like right now, our day at Auschwitz and Birkenau gave us some exposure to the atrocities of the past, and how it is ever possible to forget them.  There is no simple answer to the question of why and how the Holocaust could have happened, and certainly we couldn’t find the answer in one day, however full and long.  But what we could do, what we did do, was bear witness.