6 July – Auschwitz. The name brings up images that many of us are familiar with from movies like Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List to name a few. But what does it meant to visit Auschwitz? After all there are no more victims living there; no guards perpetrating evil; very few barracks to bear witness.
We begin at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We drive past the now famous platform, which was built for the Hungarian Jews, and enter the facility. Victims would not have entered through these gates upon arrival. That was left for the privileged few who left for their labor assignment.
What struck me was its size. Birkenau is immense. Sixteen square kilometers. This is what we think of when we hear the word Auschwitz. The death center Birkenau with four integrated gas chambers and crematoria. A small city with 100,000 inmates. I will not inundate you with facts. Facts do not express the emotion that one feels when walking through this place.
We were accompanied by Manny Kolski and his memories on our trip. Manny had the pleasure of spending three weeks at Auschwitz II and I before being shipped out to another concentration camp.
We begin our formal walk through the camp from the platform. Most of the prisoners that were brought to the camp were sent to the gas chambers. Manny described the process that he remembered. It was dark. There was a lot of yelling. This was done to disorient the prisoners. They quickly lined up; men to one side, women and children to the other. Manny was separated from his mother, who was ill. That was the last he saw of her. I will return to Manny’s story in a bit. For now we follow the path of the condemned.
Most of the Jewish prisoners were then marched to one of the four gas chambers. Again, it is the scale of these structures that overwhelm. These are not small buildings. I remember in a class that the professor discussed the prisoners blowing up Crematoria 4. I did not understand at the time why or how that might prevent the killing of innocents. Standing in front of the wreckage, I understand that this was not an act of desperation but an act of rebellion. That it was not just the crematorium that was destroyed rather the entire complex of Crematoria 4, including the death chambers. This was a vertically integrated complex of death. As the Soviet army came near, the Nazis completed what the Jewish prisoners did not get to do; destroy the remaining gas chamber/crematoria complexes.
Manny was fortunate. He was relatively healthy and deemed well enough for forced labor. He was sent to the real showers. That complex was in a different area of the Birkenau. It is a non-descript brick building with a lot of windows. As we stood in the room where prisoners were told to undress Manny related another story of kindness and a minor miracle. Before Manny and the others arrived at the showers, an inmate who knew Manny told him to destroy the upper part of his shoes. If he did so the Germans would not take them away. This was very important because the alternative were rough wooden shoes, Manny said they called them “Dutch shoes,” which were ill fitting and caused blisters. He followed his friend’s advice and was reprimanded by a German for ruining his shoes but they were not taken away. The small miracle was that when he emerged from the shower and was given his striped uniform, his friend managed to return to Manny the ruined shoes. Manny had those shoes for the remainder of the war and they may have been partly responsible for his surviving the ordeal.
Finally, the last impression of Birkenau was a room of family photographs. Photographs from when time was normal and people lived everyday lives. It is very difficult to look at these photos of people whose lives were ended in this place.
The second part of our visit to Auschwitz was at the first camp. The one with the familiar iron gate that says “Arbeit Macht Frie.” This facility is set up more as a museum but it still has that creepy feeling of being a small village of evil, even though its original purpose was a military barracks. And it is small, particularly when compared to the more monstrously efficient Birkenau.
I was struck by the close proximity of all the buildings, particularly what it would take to be free from this nightmare. The distance from the inside of the camp to the outside of the camp was only two or three meters. There was grass on the free side; only grey inside.