Impressions from Visiting a Nazi Death Camp in 2017
Originally published at “A Notebook from Auschwitz,” a website created as part of the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
BRZEZINKA, Poland — Some 7,500 people were clinging to life at the Auschwitz concentration camps when liberation day came in 1945. Many died only days later — of starvation, winter, disease. Today, only 300 are alive.
Their stories still haunt the southern Polish towns of Brzezinka and Oswiecim, about 40 miles west of Krakow, where the Nazis erected three camps between 1940 and 1942 designed to ensure total destruction of the Jewish, Sinti, and Roma people, among other “undesirables.”
By now, 72 years after SS guards sent a final horde of prisoners into the gas chambers, stories from Auschwitz have filled textbooks, novels, films, newspapers, and websites. They began accumulating decades ago, as New York Times reporter A.M. Rosenthal noted when he visited Auschwitz in 1958. Yet, even then, just 14 years after the war, he feared that the memories and retellings were fading from the public eye. With subtle irony and piercing details, he put Auschwitz back in the newspaper.
“And so,” he wrote, “there is no news to report about Auschwitz. There is merely the compulsion to write something about it, a compulsion that grows out of a restless feeling that to have visited Auschwitz and then turned away without having said or written anything would somehow be a most grievous act of discourtesy to those who died here.”
Today, still, there is no news. There is simply the need to sit in the grasses and dandelions between the ruins of Crematoriums II and III at Birkenau, the 170-acre extermination camp also known as Auschwitz II, staring down the train tracks that carted prisoners to their deaths. There is the compulsion to say to the world, to those who could not come: I am here. We are here. And even if we still cannot understand, we try to remember.
At Birkenau, the rows of brick barracks are witnesses to history, but silent. And so our guide tells us stories that she, a Polish woman with no direct link to the Holocaust, has collected over 20 years of leading visitors through the camps of Auschwitz, where 1.1 million people were killed.
There was once a woman, Kitty Hart-Moxon, who, after surviving “selection” at the train tracks, went from bunk to bunk looking for a place to sleep. The problem was not the lack of room, although several women were crammed into each bunk. The problem was the unbearable stench. Finally, an inmate pulled the newcomer aside.
“When we first came, we were like you. We were clean,” the inmate said. “Tonight will be a nightmare, the worst night in your life. But tomorrow, you will smell like all of us.”
She then invited the woman to share her bunk for the night, a simple act of kindness and humanity.
We, the visitors, also invent stories in our heads as we pass through the dark rooms that housed Jewish women and Polish children, fearful of touching the walls that witnessed so much pain and cruelty. Could we have endured that first night, breathing air tainted by filth and illness? Would we have survived?
The stories of existence at Auschwitz are the ones passed on by survivors. But most people were forced directly into the gas chambers, their dreams and experiences burned in industrial-grade furnaces. We are fooling ourselves to imagine that we could have had any real chance to live.
Some of the prisoners at Birkenau stowed photographs in their luggage, undeniable evidence of former lives, and many of these images survived Nazi destruction. Today, several hundred black-and-white portraits line a few walls inside the so-called “Sauna” building where Nazis stripped inmates of their clothes and belongings. The images prompt onlookers to gasp and stare, wide-eyed, at the glimpses of happier times — of real people with names and friends and families, birthdays and graduations and weddings.
Outside, in the zone where Nazis sorted prisoner possessions, a heap of spoons, knives, forks, pans, kettles sits in the foundation of a warehouse that was long ago destroyed. The items were discovered in the surrounding land and ruins, and will be allowed to rust into blackness right where they were found. The guide calls the area by its Auschwitz nickname, “Canada,” a nod to that country’s gold mines. Other heaps of cookware, collected years earlier, are preserved in the museum exhibitions at Auschwitz I — the most frequently visited of the Auschwitz camps.
By the time we reach the forest, studded with birch trees, our guide must shout over the roar of a large lawn mower that zigzags over the bright green grass, keeping pathways open for tourists like us. More than 2 million people last year visited the camps of Auschwitz. As we come to a neatly mowed field where the Nazis deposited the ashes of their victims, four slabs of black marble stick up from the ground like tombstones, inscribed in English, Polish, Hebrew, and Romani with the words: “To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.”
A few of us place pebbles atop the slabs in the Jewish tradition of honoring the dead. I murmur the Sh’ema, one of Judaism’s most important prayers for its assertion of belief in only one God, and thus, a symbol of solidarity for the Jewish people. Jews traditionally utter the six words of the Sh’ema not only in daily prayers, but also just before dying.
We breathe sighs of relief that the gas chamber and crematorium in the clearing have been reduced to rubble. The day before we had been marched through a small — but intact — gas chamber at Auschwitz I. That fleeting horror was enough. Here, all that is left is a pile of bricks and a sign pointing out a bizarre design flaw: The room for undressing was placed between the gas chamber and the crematorium, perhaps evidence of a weak link in the Nazi chain of communication.
As we stroll on through the forest, it is impossible to ignore the loveliness of the Polish countryside. Birds chirp in lively conversation; dainty flowers poke up their heads in yellow, purple, and blue; butterflies dance among the slender birches and leafy poplars. For a moment, it becomes easier to understand why families keep houses and farms on the immediate outskirts of Birkenau; the delightful rural areas surrounding Brzezinka and Oświęcim do not necessarily betray their violent past.
Our guide concludes our tour at the wreckage of Crematorium II. All that remains are twisted walls of brick and concrete with steel bars jutting at odd angles into the sky, reminders that the Nazis tried to bomb and destroy the most obvious evidence of their crimes. Grass grows through the cracks and yellow flowers sway in the breeze over the pit where Nazis buried the ashes of the dead, nearly 75 years after liberation. There is no news from Auschwitz. And yet, we will continue to return.