Sunday, August 31, 2008


This is a hard post to write. I've been putting it off for several days because it seems both an impossible task and a necessary one. (Full set of Auschwitz photos).

We spent a full day at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The tour is 3.5 hours and covers both sites. Auschwitz was the original site with one gas chamber and crematorium. Hitler decided that shooting at point blank range was too traumatic for his soldiers and that gas chambers would be much more humane for them. The workers imprisoned at Auschwitz were ordered to build a second camp just a few kilometers down the road with 4 gas chambers and crematoria, vastly increasing the available "output" each day. At Birkenau they could cremate up to 5500 people each day. Sometimes Birkenau is also called Auschwitz II.

The tour started at Auschwitz I and we saw much of the evidence of the crimes. In addition to all the things you probably have heard of (mountains of suitcases and shoes from prisoners who were executed) there were several visceral exhibits that I still can hardly stand to remember.

One room contained 2 tons of human hair (7 tons were on hand when the camp was liberated) that were shaved from the heads of the dead females and sold to textile factories who used it to make fabric. A pile of intact braids makes it hard to forget that this was somebody's hair. Gold teeth were pulled from corpses and melted down to be sold.

Human hair.

Those who were "fortunate" enough to be sent to the "work" camp were told upon entrance that the only way out was through the crematorium. They were given a cup of weak coffee for breakfast a thin soup made from (often rotten) vegetables for lunch and one piece of bread for dinner. Not only were they starved, beaten and often tortured but they had to live with the knowledge of their family's probable death and their imminent death. Many threw themselves against the double electrified fence upon realizing these truths.

If you were lucky enough to get a job indoors (prisoners were given only a thin jumpsuit for all temperatures) you may be tasked with loading corpses from the gas chamber into the crematorium. Or, if you were trained in the sciences you may be "recruited" to do medical experiments on children. Things like testing how much pain can a child tolerate when sawing off a limb without anesthetic...or putting toxic chemicals in the eyes of brown-eyed children in an attempt to "purify" them and turn them blue.

If someone attempted escape, 10 people were randomly selected to be tortured and/or die. This might happen by being locked in a small room with 10 other men for 10 days with no food or water, or in a dark room with two small sets of airholes that often were covered by dirt/snow and thus you and your 9 cell mates suffocated to death.

Small holes for the suffocation chamber.

There was some mercy for those who were sent straight to the gas chambers...they often didn't know what was happening until the very end. It made it easier on the soldiers if there was no panic, so people were told elaborate lies. "You are being relocated, bring one suitcase with your most precious possessions. We need to decontaminate everyone to ensure no disease outbreaks in this new community. Please take off your clothes and shoes and remember where you left them so you can efficiently claim them after your shower." Mothers weren't separated from their babies...but usually people began to get panicky when the "shower room" got so crammed full. The last 20 people or so were shoved in the room as the soldiers slammed the iron door shut. By this time, panic began to set in. Holes in the ceiling opened and hydrogen cyanide gas pellets were dropped into the room. The next two minutes or half hour (depending on how strong your system was) were an eternity of struggling to breathe, watching your baby and child die and eventually giving up yourself and passing out and dying.

Electric fence.

Train entrance to Birkenau. Dividing platform is just through the archway.

What do you do with this? It is utterly horrifying. There are really no words. I tried to record the feelings that I was left with at the end of the day...

I was overwhelmed with hopelessness. Not a "the world is a horrible place" hopelessness...but a more personal, wrung-out, apathetic, I-want-to-give-up kind of hopelessness. Imagining being in the camp I identified so much with the men who threw themselves at the electric fence. It made me wonder how you try to sort out right from wrong in that kind of context...are you brave for trying to survive...or stupid for putting yourself through more torture?

What would you do if you were given the job of assisting a Nazi doctor? If you refused to help you would be instantly killed. If you went along with it you could potentially alleviate some suffering of the patients, but in so doing you probably put both them and yourself at risk of death. At that point is it more merciful to try and kill them quickly so they cannot be subjected to more torture? Is it "better" (whatever that means) to stand on principle and die right away or to try to stay alive to alleviate suffering if it means doing many compromising things along the way?

The Allies knew about Auschwitz in 1942 and the camp wasn't liberated until 1945. Several people did escape (141 total during six years) and four went to the Allies and told them what was happening at Auschwitz. Most had a response of, "there's no way it could be that bad." Who knows in retrospect what could have been done to intervene (they were fighting a war with Germany)...but it felt really really hard to know that "someone" did know and "nothing" was done about it.

I felt guilty. I felt like I was so hurt and upset and I couldn't cry. Crying seemed so small compared to what happened there.

I felt like it was important and "good" to have gone. I still think that is kind of a strange emotion.

1 comment:

Christie said...

Darr and I toured Anne Frank's house while in Amsterdam and my reaction, on a much smaller scale, was similar to yours. I also felt this overwhelming sadness. How horrific of a people we can be. It boggles the mind. It's good that these things are kept open to viewing. The more we can remember about the atrocities of the past, the better we can fight to ensure they don't happen again.

Also, if you're still in Prague and you happen to be traveling near the Brevnov Monastery, there is a restaurant near the hotel that serves warm, homemade chips with this fantastic dark beer. And we ate dinner there at least twice. I recommend the skewers of meat and vegetables and the green beans with bacon. Mmmmm...

Oh, and I think the word for beer is "pivo".