Monday, July 19, 2010
Auschwitz Birkeneau- pictures are the latrine, bunks. entrance to Birkeneau, entrance to Auschwitz
It’s a rainy night in Krakow. This has by far been the most exhausting day of the entire trip. I don’t mean this in a bad way, it was just a long day. We spent the day at Auschwitz. I never doubted the accounts I read, but I always felt I had to visit Auschwitz in order to better understand the place. We arrived at the camp around 9:15 this morning and we didn’t leave Birkenau until after 5pm this evening. The hardest thing to comprehend and what I think will be the most difficult concept to present in my lessons is how large Auschwitz I and II are in terms of its sheer size. We were on the grounds for about 8 hours, and we saw but a small fraction of the entire place. We spent the morning in Auschwitz 1 and the afternoon in Birkenau.
Auschwitz 1 was the first place we visited in the morning. The solemn tone was set for me as we passed underneath the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the camp’s entrance. This saying, which translates to “work makes you free” is one of many examples of the Nazis manipulating language to have an otherwise morbid and disturbing content. Auschwitz 1 is much smaller compared to Birkenau. We spent most of the morning walking throughout the camp’s buildings. The buildings which were open now house museum exhibits. Many people in our group found the buildings’ contents difficult to comprehend. One of the displays houses 2 tons of human hair. The display filled up the majority of the room. 2 tons of human hair was harvested from 40,000 victims. The hair was cut after the people were gassed. Even though this practice was a blatant defilement of Jewish burial customs, the Nazis preferred this order of operations so that people wouldn’t be alarmed and panic before being gassed.The hair is NOT preserved, as that would go against Jewish law, as a result the hair has turned a grayish color and there is a distinct smell permeating in the room. Many people upon first arriving in Auschwitz thought they were being led to the showers and to resettle in their new homes. It wasn’t until right before they were gassed that the victims realized what was happening to them. One display housed a large pile of eyeglasses collected. Another display housed luggage the newly arrived occupants surrendered to the camp officials. The victims’ contact information was still legible on the side of each individual piece of luggage. In the basement of the block used as a prison was a series of rooms devoted to different methods of torture. One room was completely dark without any ventilation that caused its inhabitants to suffocate. Another room was referred to as the standing room where inmates were forced to stand for long periods of time- four people that had to often stand on one leg because there was no room. Another room was used to house and starve inmates. The entire area was very claustrophobic. This, combined with the contents of the basement made it hard for me to breathe.
We arrived at Birkenau around 2 pm. Birkenau is the second, significantly larger section of the entire camp. To give you a better idea about Birkenau, it’s one square mile in area. Birkenau is 11 times bigger than Auschwitz 1. The majority of Jews were sent to Birkenau. 70,000 Jews died at Auschwitz 1. An estimated 900,000 Jews died at Birkenau. If you’ve ever seen the movie Schindler’s List or the picture with the large tower and the railroad tracks leading into camp then you’ve seen images of Birkenau. The first place we stopped was in this guard tower. From this viewpoint Birkenau’s area seems to infinitely continue. The railroad tracks went down the middle of Birkenau and split it into two major sections: the female section and the male section. Many barracks still survive today, but not all the barracks are still standing. One of the first places we visited in the camp was the building devoted to the latrine. This was perhaps one of the most disturbing places we visited, and I wasn’t initially expecting this reaction. To give you an idea what the latrines looked like, 3 columns of multiple holes in the ground served as the toilets. Prisoners had 5 minutes in the bathroom to get ready in the morning and 5 minutes in the evening to use the bathroom before being locked in their sleeping quarters for the evening. To break this down even more, when thousands of inmates had to use the bathroom during a small window of time each inmate had about 15 seconds on the latrine before guards would beat them and force them to move so someone else could use the toilet. In this scene privacy wasn’t granted to any individual and a lack of decency pervaded the entire camp. I mention this area because the dehumanization of inmates was forced upon them as soon as they entered the camp and one of the first things they experienced each morning. Scholars call this the “excremental assault,” the idea that the subhuman treatment started with such basic, everyday activities like using the bathroom. Ironically, the work duty that gave inmates one of the best opportunities for survival was the sheizkommand, or the job of emptying the latrines. Inmates who worked on this duty were mostly inside, they could use the bathroom whenever they wished, they were left alone due to the unsanitary nature of the job and they had access to leave the camp to empty the latrines.
As we walked deeper into the camp we walked alongside the train tracks where the selections took place. I couldn’t help but keep quiet and try to make sense of my thoughts as we passed such a gruesome part of the camp. At this part of the camp doctors and SS personnel would be waiting for the trains to determine who was fit enough for work and who was too weak for work. The people deemed too weak were sent along a long path leading to the gas chambers. At Birkenau roughly 75 percent of all the arrived inmates were immediately sent to the gas chambers. When I traditionally think of a doctor I think of someone who took the Hippocratic oath to save and care for people. In Auschwitz, the doctor’s role was to determine who lived and who died. The location of Dr Mengele's experiments was pointed out. This is but another example of how the inverted world at Auschwitz functioned. All of the gas chambers and crematoriums at Birkenau were destroyed. In their place today are the ruins from this destruction. These ruins were intentionally left this way because they’re burial sites; ashes and remains of inmates are located at these sites, and it would defy Jewish burial customs to rebuild on a cemetery site.
One of the things that made this visit so memorable was our guide from Auschwitz, Agnes. She was a remarkable, very intelligent guide. She was in her twenties, and when I asked her ( as I have done for all our guides) what drew her to this occupation she told me that she is not Jewish and her grandfather was sent to a labor camp here at Auschwitz, although her family did not suffer too much during the war, she decided to major in Jewish Studies because Jews played a major part in the history of Poland. Her grandmother asked her why not work at Auschwitz- and she decided it was her calling to do so., she was so passionate in her words and opinions. If it weren’t for Agnes many of us wouldn’t have had such a worthwhile and meaningful experience. Agnes said a few things today that I felt were very poignant. Auschwitz is one of the world’s largest graveyards. Ashes of victims can literally be found throughout the camp, in the grass, in the ponds, underneath the ruins of killing centers and so forth. Today the camp looks lush and tranquil with all of the vegetation growing on the camp grounds and around the camp. 67 years ago the paths throughout the camp were barren from all of the inmate traffic.Any grass or flowers would have been eaten by the inmates.
. The most difficult thing for me to comprehend, but one of the most important things to remember is that Auschwitz and everything affiliated with it was man-made. Supernatural powers didn’t come to Earth and create Auschwitz. This place was the result of systematic and bureaucratic human actions. It’s very disturbing to think just how evil and sadistic people can knowingly be to each other on such a grand scale. By grand I mean the size of Birkenau and the scope of the operation. This was something that was instilled and developed over many years. Many people knew what was happening to the Jews, from the engineer who operated the trains that took the people to the camps, to the companies who paid for and received the bundles of human hair, to the officials working at the Allianz Insurance company who insured Auschwitz to the people a few train stops away from the Grunewald stop.
Elaine's mother and aunt were in Block 9. Her aunt did not survive there work at the rock quarry. Her mother did. Dora's number was 396300.
I have given a lot of information here, but again we must remember that each number was a person.
Agnes asked: What is the best punishment for the perpetrators? We discussed how Dr Mengele was able to live a normal life in South America before he drowned in the ocean. The best punishment for these people I believe is US! To never forget, to have a multitude of people who recognize what happened. For Jews to walk freely, and have many generations to have been created since this blot on humanity- that is punishment they did not win.