A Place of Truth

(Writer’s note: I originally wrote this piece circa 2005, about my second visit to Auschwitz. I dig this out every time the Nazis (“white supremacists”) come out in force, to remind myself why we can NEVER let that happen again. With the events in Charlottesville, I find this relevant again. Never forget what their ultimate goal was.

Unedited from the original version, despite my natural writer’s desire to edit it. I felt it important to leave the piece original, as a testimony to feelings it contains, and not let my current mood or our current situation affect the original sentiment, which is again relevant.)

4,200.

When you first hear it, you are unable to grasp the magnitude of the number. Slowly, the realization of what you have just heard washes over you, like a ghost passing over your skin. The chill spreads slowly, starting at the back of your spine and eventually working its way to your fingertips and toes.

You try to put the number in perspective, to help your imagination come to terms with the truth of the moment. You identify tragedy with tragedy, for it is the easiest way to recall emotion. 4,200. More people than were killed in September 11. Double the people killed in Pearl Harbor. Almost 40 times the people killed in Oklahoma City. Then you associate it personally: the population of my hometown. New York Mills, NY. Every single man, woman and child I grew up with.

Obliterated, wiped off the face of the earth in just a few hours.

“There is only one way out of Auschwitz, and that is through the chimney of the crematorium.”

The famous line that SS officer Karl Fritsch used during orientation to new prisoners was not an attempt to be dramatic, or a device to instill fear in the souls of the “unpersons” who entered under the metal gate inscribed with the truthful lie of “Arbeit Mach Frei,” or Work Makes You Free. It was simple fact. Entering below that gate would make you free, but free in a way only poets and philosophers appreciate: through death.

4,200 was the number of people the crematoriums at the Nazi Concentration Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau could cremate in a single day. It is a number that most visitors to this hallowed ground simply shake their head at, for it sounds like fiction — or biblical horror. And, as loving, caring human beings, we are not equipped with a mechanism to cope with the tragedy of the event.

This was my second visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, my first being two years ago. It is not an easy place to explore from an emotional standpoint. From a logistical standpoint, it is located about an hour outside of the cultural capital of Poland, Krakow, in the small town the Polish call Oswiecim. When the Nazis took control of Poland in 1939, they renamed all towns, roads, and removed all signs that were inscribed with the Polish language.

We pass through the unremarkable town on our way from Krakow. I stare out the windows of the bus and see sights you would see in any other town in any part of the developed world. A convenience store. A couple walking down the street hand-in-hand. A quick glance down a side street reveals a group of children playing soccer in the cold November air. The image in my mind, I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to grow up in a town that is associated worldwide with mass genocide.

The camp itself is divided into 45 satellite camps, the three most relevant being the main camp at Auschwitz, the secondary, but much larger camp of Birkenau, and the factory associated camp of Monowitz.

We first arrive at Birkenau by bus, and even in the distance as we approached, we can see the telltale train gate with the solitary brick tower looming against the dreary November sky. There is a single entrance in the gate, and the now decaying train tracks run through the mouth of the tower, the demon ready to swallow you whole as you enter the gates of Hell. If you have an imagination, you can’t help but picture the transports of thousands of innocent people who lived the last moments of their lives on the other side of that gate, many perishing within minutes of their arrival in the gas chambers beyond.

Adding to the chill is the eerie silence. It is the off-season, so there are no other tourist groups with us. Our museum guide waits for us to gather on the other side of the gate — we’ve shuffled through the gate onto the hollowed ground — the only sound to be heard is the ominous cries of a few black crows. They seem fitting protectors of this mass grave.

Our tour guide starts in, and the numbers start to come in waves, for Auschwitz is a place of numbers. 4,200 in the crematorium per day. 2,000 killed in 20 minutes in the gas chamber. 10,000 killed per day. For 3 years. 1.1 million confirmed deaths. 7 tons of human hair found by Russian liberators. And last, and most horrible, experts estimating up to as many as 6 million people met their end within the walls of the Auschwitz complex, a number that has never been confirmed because so little is truly known.

But it is the stories of individuals that touch us most. We can’t identify with millions dying, but we can understand the struggle of one. My group had the honor of talking with survivor Kasimeresz Smolen, among the first to be brought to the camp, and now curator of the state-run Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

Smolen’s story is typical for a survivor — if anything about this place can be described as typical. After 3 months of being forced to lay inert in a dark prison, his initiation to Auschwitz began with a roll call that lasted 18 hours. In the heat of summer. In winter clothes, for that was when he was arrested. There was a simple rule: You fall, you die. A quick bullet to the back of the head, and you would be leaving Auschwitz in the only way you had rightfully been told was possible. He could not say if it was luck, or the will of God, but Mr. Smolen made it through that day and an astonishing five more years of days at the prison before being transferred as the Russians approached.

An amazing feat, when you consider the life span of the average prisoner was three months — another gruesome number our tour guide unleashes upon us.

On my first visit here, we were taken to the very back of the Birkenau camp, to the main crematoriums there, destroyed by the Nazis as they fled the Russian Army. A friend of mine saw curious rocks on the ground, and picked one up. The guide quickly asked her to set it back down. It was not stone, but bone, human remains, which to this day dot the site in a surreal white, almost snow-like fashion. While my good sense refuses to believe this is the case, all around me are signs that anything, no matter how horrible, is possible.

We weren’t taken to the main crematorium this time, possibly due to the walking distance from the gate and the fact that most of the passengers on my tour are elderly. I think this is probably for the best. I know at least one of them is a Veteran of the war that surrounded this place.

Perhaps there are things about Auschwitz that are best kept secret. And most people who come here want only to leave, as soon as possible.

But it is a place that every human being should see. Very real, very humbling, very chilling. The tall barbed wire posts entomb you in a way that no other place on earth could, as you stand in open air, alive and free, and yet you can smell death. (Whether that is real or a trick of the senses, I don’t know, but I know I am not the only visitor who could smell it.)

More so, you instantly sense that this place was anything but freedom for those who came before you. When you enter the barracks where the prisoners slept, and see the staggered, three-tiered poorly-constructed beds of wood, you can easily picture the cramped and unlivable situation that people endured, if only for a short time. In reality, it is not a place that requires much of the imagination.

I studied the Holocaust in college and wrote my history minor thesis on it. I spent hours reading the Nuremberg trials and prisoner accounts, and it was a mind-numbing task. But when you walk on the grounds, you don’t need to read the signs to understand.

It is a place that can destroy your faith in God.

Above all, it is a reminder. A reminder what happens when we let wicked men run rampant, free to impose their will on others. As we slowly load up and the bus pulls away, I think about this place and the mistakes of our ancestors.

Rubbing my hands in the newfound warmth of the bus, I curl up against the window and stare out while the seemingly-happy town of Oswiecim once again rolls by.

When we reach the intersection where I spied the children playing soccer, all that remains is an empty street. It mirrors my mood at the moment.

“There is only one way out of Auschwitz, and that is through the chimney of the crematorium.”

Truth is what you find at Auschwitz. It is the ash that covers the cold, black ground.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.