Have you ever been to Auschwitz?
I have. Multiple times. Next time I’m back in Poland, I’m going again, Lord willing, to remember and imagine and pray again.
I like to think I’m an OK writer, at least in terms of telling a story & capturing a slice of history. But I’ve tried for more than 10 years to capture my thoughts about Auschwitz. But the magnitude & horror of the place and of what happened there just absolutely buries me. Sometimes there just aren’t enough words.
Imagine with me a place developed for one purpose: to kill a large number of people in a very cost efficient manner. It’s very hard to imagine until one actually walks into the place.
One estimate is that roughly half of the Jews who died during the Holocaust died at Auschwitz.
Another estimate is that approximately 80% of those who got off of the box cars @ Auschwitz died in the gas chambers. Most of those got off the train and walked directly to the “dressing rooms” where they surrendered their clothes & valuables, and then walked into the “showers” in the basement from which they never walked out.
To be sure, it wasn’t only Jews who died at in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. But it was, by a long way, mostly Jews.
Auschwitz (“Osweciem” in Polish) is a small town out in the *beautiful* countryside of southern Poland, not far from Krakow. The train tracks just outside the big camp (Birkenau) merge from multiple directions. They keep merging until there’s just the one going in under the infamous gate. (There’s a very chilling depiction of a train’s arrival in Auschwitz in the movie Schindler’s List; that scene was filmed on location there at the Birkenau camp.)
There are no tracks coming out the other end of Auschwitz.
It was not on the way to anywhere. The deadly phrase “The Final Solution” comes VIVIDLY to mind there.
One is struck by how very little conversation there is when standing there on the sandy area where the trains unloaded. The same is true back by the ruins of the showers & ovens.
The museum has a huge pile of suitcases…and another huge pile of canes & prosthetic limbs…and another pile of human hair…and another pile of shoes. The elderly & the handicapped didn't last very long there. In the middle of the pile of shoes is a pair of pink little girls’ shoes that sort of stand out. Little girls didn’t last very long there either.
Over behind where the fields of barracks were is a meadow where groups would sit waiting their turn down in the gas chambers. Nearby is a lake where many of the ashes were dumped after the ovens did their work. It is said that one can run one’s hand through the lake today and the hand will come up with ash & bone fragments.
One cannot fathom the size of the place. Nor the size of the ruins of the ovens & gas chambers. Picture a towering industrial factory. There were three of those, with other smaller ones around. We walked down into one of the “overflow” shower facilities. Talk about not enough words!
There are small candles & flowers left there by survivors & relatives & those just seeking to honor the memory of the dead.
I fear that one day the flowers & candles will not be placed there any more. And I fear that day will come sooner than we might think.
Despite how we think of it (or don’t), it's not ancient history. Just 15 short years before I was born, the showers & ovens of Auschwitz were in full operation. I’ll come back to the “not-ancient-history” part of the Holocaust.
Once again: the Birkenau camp at Auschwitz was developed solely for the purpose of killing large numbers of people in a timely cost-efficient manner.
And yet, as overwhelmingly vivid & horrifying as Auschwitz is to me, and as deeply as it cuts me & challenges me to the depths of my soul…I went there for the first time in 1998, more than 50 years after Birkenau was emptied & the ovens & chimneys went silent.
There are still some alive today who didn’t drive up to the front gate, nor did they casually walk in & look around. They rolled into Birkenau in crowded boxcars & were met by shouts & whips & dogs & shoves. They went to the barber & to the shower where their valuables were stolen by the guards & trustees. Then they went to barracks as their parents, spouses, children, & friends went down into the deadly basements.
Thursday was Holocaust Remembrance Day. To those I’ve just mentioned, every day is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Is there ever a day on which they don’t remember?
To the rest of us, every day should be Holocaust Day. Even those of us who were not yet born then when the showers & ovens were operational. Perhaps especially those of us who were not yet born then.
You see, there are other similarly voices today calling for the end of the Jewish people and of the nation of Israel. Right now. Today.
There are still other voices today calling for the end of the American people and of the nation of the United States of America. Right now. Today.
Both sets of voices are from political leaders with large followings who have demonstrated the ability and willingness to kill large numbers of people efficiently.
Have you ever been to Auschwitz?
You should go.
May we never go.
Holocaust Remembrance Day. Do you remember?