Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Arbeit Macht Frei

"We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day's work at Auschwitz in the morning."
George Steiner

The sun should never shine on a place like Auschwitz. There is simply no call for it; it would be insulting to the memory of the 1.1 million people who were murdered there. It is fitting then that last Tuesday, when Katie and I ventured to the Polish town of Oświęcim in search of the Nazi concentration camp, that the day was gray, rainy, and miserable in all regards.

The journey to Auschwitz was long and taxing, involving many linguistic missteps and rude Polish citizens who refused to help out a couple of confused foreigners. The fact that it started raining as soon as we began our journey didn't help matters or my mood. But eventually, we found the right combination of trains and buses, and were dropped off at the entrance to the camp/museum.

Walking up the long driveway towards the visitor's center, before actually entering the camp, you feel a solemnity overtake you. This is no place for joking or kidding around. It was a bit of a jolt, then, to see teenagers running around and posing for pictures outside near a random food stand. But, I guess everyone is an asshole when they're a teenager.

Once inside, we checked the map to see which direction to head off in. We were running late thanks to the public transport shennanigans, so our time there was limited, eventually prohibiting us from going to the nearby Birkenau camp.

The first thing you see upon leaving the visitor's center is the entrance to the camp. It's a wrought iron gate, with the motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" inscribed above. "Work Makes One Free". You cannot look at it without shuddering and wishing you could be doing anything else other than standing there at that moment. It is impossible to not to put yourself in the shoes of those who didn't stand in front of the gate of their own volition, who had very little chance of ever walking back out the gate as a free person. It's humbling. It's appalling. And you haven't even walked through it yet. Once inside, there's a sign stating that an orchestra of prisoners was made to play just inside the gate as other prisoners walked through it after a day of working outside the camp. Disgusting.

I was surprised to see that the bunkhouses where prisoners were kept were actually solid brick buildings. I'm not sure what I imagined, but something more ramshackle and less well-preserved, I suppose. The buildings are now all two stories, but they weren't all so originally. The prisoners were used to build them by hand, of course, and there are photographs showing the torturous work.

For the beginning of our visit, we went into one of the bunkhouses which featured an exhibition on the involvement of Poland in World War II, and the treatment of the Poles by the Germans. I honestly had no idea that Germany was so intent on simply exterminating the Polish people at large. They systematically destroyed their cities, their education system, their culture, their food sources, their morale, and their way of life. Still, the Polish people persevered and very few ever collaborated with the enemy. The Germans marched off groups of teachers and students to concentration camps; underground schools at every level of education popped up. People were killed in mass public executions, advertised afterward on posters as a warning; citizens still fought and rebelled in cities all across the nation. Warsaw was absolutely leveled, something not done to any other major city during the war; citizens used trams as blockades to attempt to protect themselves and the city. From start to finish, the Germans attempted to destroy the Polish state and the Polish people. Thankfully, they did not succeed.

The pictures in this exhibit were shocking. A German soldier casually holding a gun to a woman's head, ready to shoot her as she clung to her baby. Men lined up against street walls, waiting their turn to be executed like the men laying beside them on the ground. Children starved into skeletons and then murdered in the streets. Everywhere the most disgusting examples of inhumanity, and all of it so well-recorded by the efficient Germans that it's amazing to me how some lunatics claim it never happened. One thing is clear after looking at all of the German documentation of their own atrocities: they were proud of what they did and never doubted for a moment that they would be victorious.

Thanks, perhaps, to the time of year and the day of the week, Katie and I had this enormous exhibit almost entirely to ourselves. It was so quiet, we could hear the constant thrumming of electricity through the lights as we walked along the hallways, looking at pictures and reading all of the signs. Eyes welling up at the worst pictures and descriptions. Hummm-hummm-hummm. It was unnerving. The only room in which there was a total absence of sound was the one in which prisoner uniforms were displayed, hung up on headless dummies, in rows as though they were walking together as a troop of soldiers. The pictures in the room showed some of the resistance fighters and detailed how they were all killed. It was freezing cold, even though we were both wearing heavy coats.

In fact, the whole of the Auschwitz camp was absolutely freezing. Every building gave me shivers...I couldn't stop the hairs going up on the back of my neck. The worst building, other than the gas chamber/crematorium, was the prison within the prison. We went down into the basement, where the special torture cells were kept. In this area, there were several types of cells used to punish misbehaving prisoners. Standing cells, tiny squares where four men were put at once, overnight, so that none of them could sit down. Starvation cells, where prisoners were given no food or water until they eventually died. Dark cells, where there was only one tiny window and a solid door; prisoners there would eventually use up all the oxygen in the room and suffocate to death. I walked up to one of the doors to look through the peephole, and I instantly jumped back as my nose touched the wood and I could smell it, rotten and musty. I imagined an SS officer looking through that same peephole with a sense of satisfaction, and I wanted to vomit.

Back outside, we walked around for a bit, seeing the execution yard/wall, where prisoners were executed en masse. We stopped in the exhibit for French victims, which had a recording playing of a train arriving at the camp that echoed through the whole building and made my skin crawl. There was a room there that had every wall lined with pictures of children who were shipped off to Auschwitz. It even had each child's address and everything, right down to the arrondissement.

Eventually, as closing time was near, we made our way towards the gas chamber and crematorium. At first, we didn't see it, as it's built into the side of a small hill. But, as we came around the side, we saw the entrance. Again, we had it entirely to ourselves, which was good because I started crying almost as soon as we went in. The sense of dread and death and desperation is almost palpable...you can feel the terror just hanging in the air. It is one thing to have seen this place represented in movies and documentaries; it is another thing entirely to be standing where so many people were purposely gassed and burned. Generally such a thing is unimaginable, but there is nothing unimaginable about it when you're standing right there where it happened, looking directly into the ovens.

Why go to Auschwitz? Why put oneself through the nauseating experience of accepting the reality of this place and what happened here?

To bear witness to history. To say, this happened, and I'm here to add my voice to the millions who are outraged. To make sure it never happens again.

I'm not sorry I went to Auschwitz; I wish I had been able to see all of the exhibits there and at Birkenau. I'm sure I'll go back at some point...but not anytime soon. I don't think I could bear it.

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