I heard the name Auschwitz not long after arriving by train in Krakow. A man touting a local ˝Jewish tour˝ approached me outside the station and said: ˝Come. We see Auschwitz. Birkenau. See the Jewish Quarter. Schindler´s factory. Just 150 zlotyś˝
Schindler was a reference to Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazi death camps, and whose story formed the basis of Steven Spielberg's movie ˝Schindler´s List.˝ Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish) was, of course, the headquarters of the Nazi extermination camps during World War II, where at least 1 million of the 6 million Jews, most of them from Hungary and Poland, but some from as far away as Norway and Greece, perished from 1942 to 1945.
And here, very soon after setting foot in Krakow, I was confronted with the problem of visiting this terrible place: Like the nearly empty Jewish quarter in Prague with its synagogues turned into museums, or the synagogue Laura and I saw in Pest (also devoid of congregants, also a museum), or the Klezmer music concerts played in Krakow (by musicians who are almost entirely non-Jewish), it felt Auschwitz had the potential to be just another stop in some kind of antiseptic tour of long-forgotten relics, like a macabre Jewish Disneyland where you toured the barracks and the ruins of the crematoria before returning to your hotel and talked of plans for dinner.
I talked a little about this with my new friend Rudoplh, the Hungarian accountant, on the long train ride from Budapest. I had told him about the House of Terror, the former Gestapo and Soviet interrorgation center turned into a museum that Laura and I had visited the previous day.
˝I've seen this building,˝ he says. ˝But I can´t go in there. It is too painful.˝
It suddenly occured to me that I would be visiting Auschwitz the very next day, and wondered whether the cummulative effect of seeing all this horrible history all at once would be desensitizing. It is a problem, really, with the ambitious nature of my whole trip. Unlike Europeans, who typically get 5 weeks of vacation a year, or the crazy Aussies or Kiwis one meets travelling, who sometimes have been on the road for years, the typical American who visits Europe, if he or she goes at all, goes for two weeks. There was so much I wanted to do and see. But it occured to me that maybe it was all a little too much. There were people I knew, many of them Europeans, who told me my intinerary was crazy (˝This trip is crazy,˝ said Michal, a Slovakian who lives in my house, who nonethless urged me to add his home country to my travels.) Even now, as I look at my passport, which was blank last month, and now has close to a dozen stamps from 5 countries, I think its kind of dizzying.
˝I´m going to Auschwitz tomorrow,˝ I told Rudolph.
He seemed thoughtful for a second, and then said, ˝Well, I won´t be going.˝ He told me that he had a lot of ˝sympathy˝ for the Jews, and that such a visit would, once again, be ˝too painful.˝
So, why visit Auschitz? Why visit a concentration camp on your vacation? This wonderful book I´m now reading, and was reading on the bus on the way to Oswiecim, provided an answer. The book, ˝The Lost: A Search for Six of the Six Million,˝ is something I picked up on a lark in the weeks before leaving for Europe. By Daniel Mendelsohn, ˝The Lost˝ is about the family of his great uncle Schmiel (Samuel), his wife, and their four daughters, who he heard about growing up, but never met, because they perished in and around Belechow, Poland during the Holocaust. Using archival records, and interviews with survivors from as far away as Australia and Sweden, Mendelsohn tells the story of the Holocaust by trying to reconstruct, as best as possible, the lives and final days of these 6 members of his extended family. It was just an intuition, but I thought that reading it would add something to the trip. The book, which I can´t recommend highly enough, is one of the best works of non-fiction I´ve ever read: exceptionally well-written, extremely moving, and more than occassionally profound, it's a great book, and not just if you happen to have an interest in the Holocaust, per se, or Jewish history in general. The book, more than anything, is about families, and the secrets they keep. It is also, at its root, a detective story, one that I´m eagerly paging through now, even though, of course, the ending is never in doubt.
Anyhow, Mendelsohn asks this same question early in his book: Why visit Auschwitz? His answer is twofold: First, to pay respects to the dead, and second, because the whole place amounts to one giant piece of evidence, an answer to all those who have said, and who continue to say, that the Holocaust was not as bad as reported or, even worse, never happened at all.
And, certainly, those motives were among mine as well. But why did I, particularly, want to visit? I have no known relatives who perished there, or anyplace during the Holocaust, as most of my extended family on both sides, from the Ukraine and Macedonia, Greece and Poland, had left those places not long after the onset of World War I. Moreover, I am an atheist, having not practiced the religion I was born into since shortly after my Bar Mitzvah on May 28, 1983.
So, what are my personal reasons? Aside from what Mendelsohn said, the biggest reason I can think of is that Auschwitz, and the Holocaust, seemed unreal to me. I don´t mean that in the same sense that the Holocaust revisionists do: I´ve never doubted the historical truth of what happened there, or that it was as unimaginable as people say it was -- the record is thorough and incontrovertible. But it's because of that word: unimaginable. If you're an American-raised Jew, like me, you've seen Auschwitz in films in civics class (three different times that I can remember), in Sunday school (twice), in countless documentaries like ˝The World at War,˝ narrated by Lawrence Olivier, which I remember my father watching a lot when I was very young, and numerous movies from ˝Sophie's Choice˝ to ˝Schindler´s List.˝ It was simply too big, to removed from my experience, too far away to comprehend. Now that I was in Eastern Europe, I wanted to go and experience this place as something real.
Of course, my thinking was naive. How can I, who considers deprivation not having a hot shower in the morning or not getting e-mails returned in a timely fashion, possibly relate to the unspeakable and unprecedented horrors of the people who were sent here and, with very few exceptions, died here? There was no way.
But I wanted to at least try to bridge that gap between my experience and imagination. I needed to see it. I wanted to get a sense of the scale of the place and hopefully, leave there with a more visceral awareness than I had previously.
When you enter the town of Oswiecim, past farms, and pubs, auto-dealerships and old, run-down Communist-era apartment blocks, there is almost no visual reminder of that town´s place in history. In fact, eveything looks quite normal, if not altogether modern, until you pass through the parking lot, across the carefully manicured lawns, into the museum and out the back door. There, in front of you, set against guard towers and barbed wire, are the cruel words you have seen so many times before: ˝Arbeit Macht Frei,˝ German for ˝Work brings freedom.˝ As our earnest young guide soon told us: ˝Soon after their arrival here, inmates of the camp learned that the only way out was through the chimneys.˝
The Polish guardians of Auschwitz have taken great pains to preserve the site as it was when it was liberated by the Ukranian First Army in 1945, or more appropriately, what it might have looked like months before the Nazis knew the end was inevitable. The crematoria, where the bodies of the gassed were burned after their gold teeth and hair were extracted, were largely destroyed by the Nazis, who feared the reaction of the international community if the full extent of their crimes were exposed. The crematoria lay in rubble, but most of the barracks, privies, guard halls, the house of the commandant, the prisons and most of one of the gas chambers remain intact, with their original German inscriptions on the outside.
But aside from the upkeep, and the inevitable warehousing of certain items of evidence (the hair, the luggage, the artificial limbs, that heartbreaking mountain of shoes, including the tiny shoes of small children), the place is appropriately solemn and unembellished, fitting for what is, in the end, a gigantic cemetary, albeit one without any graves or headstones.
Once again, you are faced with numbers of dead that are too large for the mind to grasp. Just to offer a sense of scale, there are 55,000 names of American soldiers on the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC. There are more than 77,000 names of Czech Jews in Pinkhas Synagogue in Prague. At Auschwitz, as its former commandant, Rudolph Hoess testfied in Nuremburg, 9,000 Jews, almost entirely from Hungary, were gassed in a single day during a period of peak activity in 1944.
Auschwitz is actually composed of two camps, Auschwitz I, which housed 20,000 prisoners and the camp´s first experimental gas chamber, and Birkenau, which had room for 100,000 prisoners and many more gas chambers and crematoria. The Nazis turned to the use of Zyklon B gas to kill the Jews when it became evident that the mass shootings and burials that were occuring in places like the Ukraine, Poland and Latvia were hurting troop morale and causing many to have nervous breakdowns.
Auschwitz I is smaller than you think, and the compactness raises questions. For example, the early experimental gas chamber, which we were asked to pass through silently, out of respect for the dead, is just a narrow road across the street from the SS officer´s mess. Those officers were close enough to hear the screams of the dying. The house of Commandant Hoess, where he and his wife lived and outside of which his children played, is less than a football field away. After the war, and according to the wishes of the survivors, Hoess was hanged just outside the building that housed the first gas chamber and crematoria. The gallows remains.
There was the alley where countless summary executions were held, and where, according to survivors, the courtyard filled with blood, and the prisons, from which no one left alive. Some of the barracks have been devoted to exhibits showing the remains of Nazi plunder. Something I had never realized before was the extent to which the extermination of the Jews served two functions: the first, and more well known, was Hitler´s twisted vision of racial purity; but the second was the use of the valuables, jewelry and money -- not to mention hair and gold and silver teeth -- to finance the war effort. If nothing else, my visit to Auschwitz brought home to me how different the Holocaust was from other genocides, which have occured throughout history and continue today. Typically, such incidents are spontaneous acts of savagery and brutality. The Nazis, while doubtless savage and brutal, married their bloodlust to a cruel intelligence that encompassed high-technology, tremendous efficiency and an intricate bureaucracy to keep the machinery of death moving. Learning from past mistakes, the Nazis avoided mass panic by telling people as they entered the cattle cars that they were headed for resettlement in the East. Men going into the first gas chambers were mollified with false promises of work that awaited them when they were done, as they were told, disinfecting in the showers.
There were the suitcases with familiar Jewish names chalked on, last names shared by friends and people I went to school with. There were names like ˝Kafka, Prague˝ and ˝Frank, Amsterdam˝ (neither of them who we think they are) that also rang a familiar bell. One of two times I broke down during my visit -- and this has happened to me at the Holocaust Museum in DC as well -- was seeing the endless array of victim´s shoes. I don´t know why the shoes get to me that way, why they have the power to tug at my emotions after seeing and hearing so many examples of human cruelty and deprivation, but they get to me every time.
The reason that Auschwitz I seems small is that most of the represenations of the camps we have are really of Birkenau, the much larger camp, just a short bus ride away. Birkenau is the camp with the huge guard tower and the dual rail tracks that trail off into the horizon, the end point in a trip to nowhere. Here are the remains of the crematoria and barracks that stretch as far as the eye can see. The barracks we saw was the other time I broke down. The place had a musty, sawdust odor and as I saw the cramped, wooden bunks, where people slept three in a row, often on their sides to make room, I listened as our guide described how those on the bottom bunks, starved and subject to a host of diseases, were food for rats that scurried the floors below. No one wanted the bottom bunks. It was too much to comprehend.
Interestingly, just as we entered Birkenau, there was a huge and moving Catholic procession in honor of the anniversay of the death of St. Maksymillian Kolbe, whose story I knew little of before going to Auschwitz. Kolbe was a political prisoner at Auschwitz, rounded up in the early arrests of priests and the intelligensia who the Nazis thought might be a threat to their rule. Kolbe was a priest at a church in Krakow, the same church, incidentally, where decades later Karl Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, served as archbishop (I would visit that Church, and sit in Wojtyla's favorite pew the next day.) Kolbe, who had expressed some anti-Semitic sentiment in newspaper columns before the war, experienced a profound redemption during his interment in the camp.
When a prisoner tried to escape from Kolbe´s block, the Nazis punished the remaining inmates by selecting 10 of them to put in the Starvation Cell until they died. After the selection, Kolbe offered to replace a man who expressed concern about who would care for his family. The Nazis agreed.
The men were placed in Starvation Cell 18, which I saw. Two weeks later, when the door was opened, only Kolbe had survived. The story spread throughout the camp, and Kolbe became an inspiration. To squelch the hope he had given to other inmates, Kolbe was executed by lethal injection. However, the man Kolbe saved is said to have survived the Holocaust.
The unexpected procession in honor of Kolbe, with prayer and chanting, added poignancy to the occasion and was, for me, a reminder that Auschwitz was not merely a Jewish story.
At the end of our tour, our guide, a young Pole who is studying at the university in Krakow and clearly took his job very seriously, said that we should honor the dead by remembering what we saw and that ˝human life is precious.˝
The next day, my final one in Krakow, I spent in the Old Town. I could have gone to the Jewish Quarter or to a Klezmer concert, but I just didn´t feel right about it. I needed time to process what I had seen and heard, and wanted to get away from the terrible history of that period for a spell.
But it was hard to escape. As I climbed Wawel Hill, I saw the old castle of Kazimierz the Great. Kazimierz, whose name was also given to the Jewish ghetto here, was, according to my guidebook, an enlightened ruler in the 14th century who encouraged Jews to come to Poland and granted them special priveleges -- often related to banking and trade -- at a time when other countries were deporting and scapegoating their Jews.
Something about the story sounded familiar. And when I went on the Internet later that day, I discovered the source, once again a Hollywood movie, ˝Schindler´s List.˝ If you´ve seen the movie, you won´t have forgotten this chilling monologue by SS Kommandant Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes, before the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto:
Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Kazimerz the Great, so called, told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled. They took hold. They prospered in business, science, education, the arts. With nothing they came and with nothing they flourished. For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow. Think about it....By this evening those six centuries will be a rumour. They never happened. Today is history.
A rumour. At least in terms of Krakow, and most other major European cities that once had thriving Jewish populations, his words were prescient. So, I didn´t want to go to another empty Jewish quarter, with its synagogues turned into museums for tourists, or to a Klezmer concert with non-Jewish musicians because the Jews are largely vanished from this city, or to anything that is a cold reminder of the impossible abstraction of the Six Million. I tried to cling to what I had seen the day before on an overcast day with chilling rain. I tried to remember that each one of those six million is a story, rich and complex and vital, and that during a horrible decade in the middle of the last century, those stories were lost.