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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Teach them that evil dwells

Sometimes you visit places that are really important. Not enjoyable, but important. That was what I found about the (strangely beautiful) D-day beaches in Normandy in 2000. But I will never visit anywhere as important as where we were today.

Oświęcim and nearby Brzezinka are towns in Poland, better known to the world by their German names. The Nazis originally built a camp at Oświęcim to kill Polish political prisoners, which they did, along with tens of thousands of Roma (people once called Gypsies). When the Auschwitz camp was expanded to Brzezinka (Birkenau), however, the world got its most infamous atrocity: the murder of Jews on a ghoulishly industrial scale. Auschwitz II was not the only death camp the Nazis built in Europe, but what is hard to grasp about it, even today, is the cold-blooded calculation and sheer numbers. It was built like a factory, for the efficient killing of human beings. More than a million Jews were murdered here.

I know we've all heard about Auschwitz, but let that sink in for a minute: More than a million Jews murdered. Here.

Here is important because it is a physical place, on this earth, and you can go there. For free, although  we paid for a guided tour in English, and it was the best tour I've ever had anywhere. It started with someone giving the direction "This bus is going to Auschwitz." There was something chilling even about hearing the words. As soon as we were on the bus (about an hour's journey southwest of Kraków), it started to rain. 
Somehow it seemed appropriate that it was raining, gray, and chilly the rest of the day. All those black and white pictures give the impression that it was forever winter at Auschwitz. You get there by a road that goes through miles of woods. The Poles who lived in Brzezinka before the war were forced out, in many cases to concentration camps in Germany, and the bricks from their buildings were used to construct Auschwitz II--Birkenau, the death camp. 

Birkenau, where the trains arrived straight for death. You have to pace it out on foot to grasp the scale of this place.

“One person’s death is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic.” This quote has been attributed to Josef Stalin, and while it cannot be verified, Stalin would know. Not only because of his own murderous regime, but because the USSR lost more millions during the Second World War than any other country. Thousands of these were Soviet prisoners of war killed here. In one of the great, grim twists of history, it was the Soviet army that finally liberated the camps in 1945.
Cattle car. The train journey from Greece (Poland has hot summers too) took 11 days, so most Greek Jews did not even make it to the camps to die.
Auschwitz I was only partially destroyed by the Nazis as they fled, leaving us this evidence of their crimes. I am trying to give the impression that I got, because "millions" does not tell a story. If you are lucky enough to have a guide like Agniewska, she will tell you that she is not a guide, but a storyteller. The only people who truly know what went on in the death camps, she said, are the survivors. And there are fewer and fewer of them left.

But what has made the strongest impression on me has been meeting survivors, and what most moved me today were photographs of inmates, and records of their names. For each one was a person. If you had glasses, if you were a professor, etc., among the Poles, you were the first to go to the camps, because the Nazis regarded Poles as a slave race, and didn't need any intelligentsia.
Rows of barracks at Auschwitz I

Today, there is a giant pile of glasses on display at Auschwitz. Each pair belonged to someone. There are prayer shawls, and room upon roomful of shoes. I saw the match of one pair flung on the other side of the room, in a different pile. "This is the only place on earth we find shoes without people." 

One woman whose picture hangs on the wall was named Amelia Biezker. I hope I have written her name down right. What struck me about her picture was that she has a lopsided smile--despite the cropped hair and the prison uniform. She was a unique person, who lived from 1912 to 1942. Perhaps hers was one of the everyday stories of people trying to make life better for others, even as they faced their own deaths.
The Germans recorded details of their prisoners--giving every Jewish man the name "Israel" and every woman Sarah.

After a while the Nazis stopped photographing prisoners. They learned that after a few weeks of emaciation, the people were unidentifiable anyway. That is when the tattooing with numbers began. And it only happened here. For the rest of their lives, anywhere in the world, if you saw someone with that tattooed number, it meant that they were at Auschwitz.
Used gas canisters. Zyklon B was a pesticide until the Nazis realized it could kill more than lice.

There is a room in one of the barracks where no pictures are permitted to be taken. When the women were gassed with Zyklon B, all their hair was removed. You have heard these stories of it being braided into rope. These were cheap supplies and, as any businessman knows, that's the way to make money. Companies profited from this place; it was a production line. At the time of the liberation of Auschwitz there was still a pileup of women's hair from the most recent trip to the gas chambers. The Soviets preserved this roomful, wall to wall on both sides. It represents the remains of 40,000 women.

It has to be emphasized: no one ever survived the gas chambers. We know what happened there from the few who survived of one group--the Sonderkommandos, inmates (usually Jewish) who were forced to remove the bodies of the dead. It is because a few of them gave evidence that we have eyewitness accounts. 

Gas chamber 1 at Auschwitz. The Germans did not dynamite it only because they used it as an air raid shelter. You can go in.

After Agniewska told us her father-in-law survived Auschwitz, and after we thanked her for the tour, only then did I think of the word for what she is doing. It's a mitzvah. A good deed ("commandment" in Hebrew). Yes, she is paid to tell the story but it's personal for her; it can't be easy to see and talk about these things every day, that affected someone close to her. It is a mitzvah to tell these stories and to keep the memories of survivors alive.

Today, we live in a world where free people are told to deny evidence, even things their own eyes have seen. Where facts are dismissed and the very pursuit of truth questioned. I am not just talking about the obvious: Holocaust deniers, who are in the curious position of denying Nazi atrocities ever happened while simultaneously applauding Nazi ideology. I am talking about the subtle. 

A Holocaust remembrance that somehow never mentions the Jews. A massacre in Orlando that some were quick to link to Islamism, while omitting that it was the largest single mass killing of homosexuals since the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered queer people too. I've been to the Homomonument in Amsterdam, which stands right next to the Anne Frank House. These are real places you can go and see.
Ruins of gas chamber 2 of 5 at Birkenau. Each killed 2,000 people at one time. Electric elevators then raised bodies to the crematoria.
Few people would dispute the particular evil of the Nazis, unsurpassed by any other evil in the history of the world. But with time and distance, it is too easy to feel far removed from the butchery that happened here, in Europe, in the lifetime of people who are still alive today. Cree songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie sang:

“Teach them that evil dwells across the sea
Lives in a mountain
Like they see on TV"

What Auschwitz teaches us is that evil is not just bin Laden in a cave or something on television. Evil is a human thing, ever present, part of our world. Evil can be routine, mechanical, someone's everyday work. It doesn’t dwell across the sea but in the heart of every human being—which makes it everyone’s responsibility to fight. It lives in the vandal attacks on American Jewish cemeteries--twice in one week in February. It lives in the dozens of bomb threats against Jewish schools and community centers across the US (eleven states on one day). 

Block 25, where women destined for the gas chambers waited for death.
Yes, this is a travel blog, but how can I go to Auschwitz and not talk about the anti-Semitism happening every day? No one--leader or private citizen--should hesitate, or not know how to answer, when asked "What do you say about hate crimes against Jews?"

“School bell go ‘Ding! Dong! Ding!’
The children all line up
They do what they are told
Take a little drink from the liar's cup"
--“Suffer The Little Children” 


Unknown said...

Deeply sobering and powerfully persuasive. The death camps make clear that evil is real, evil is dangerously destructive, evil is in the past, and evil is in the present. It is close by and it is far away. As you say, each of us must fight it within ourselves and wherever we meet it in our daily life.

J. E. Knowles said...

Thank you for these thoughtful comments.