A Few Small Stones
Bearing witness to the evil men become.
It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. — Jacob Bronowski
You walk along a charcoal-grey gravel path. Vast expanses stretch in all directions. To your right, two railroad tracks parallel your journey. Grass borders your left. There is a lone boxcar, waiting for you, which contains sacred items. The grass is golden from the evening sun and a late summer breeze carries the faint smell of wood smoke from traditional Polish pork roasts. The September afternoon sun drops quickly below the line of graceful birch trees that surround the perimeter. You almost think it’s beautiful. But you catch yourself. This could never be beautiful. Behind you is the iconic brick entrance. And beyond that, the current world. But not in here. Here, inside the barbed wire fence, you are forever present in 1945.
The images before you meld with the images in your mind from the history books of your youth. But it is nothing like you remember. Those images are flat. Black and white. Two-dimensional. Here, you are presented with reality. It is overpowering and almost debilitating. You want to drop to your knees. You realize some very ugly facts very quickly. The scope. The scale. The precision. But what strikes you most is the forethought. And it sickens you. You force the bile back down. This is Birkenau.
This wasn’t your first stop, and for a reason. First there was Auschwitz a few miles away. The museum knows to show you the smaller first, so that you can properly be impacted by the large. At Auschwitz, you get the narrative. You get the facts. You get the horror. At Birkenau you are allowed to be alone. Allowed to process everything you learned earlier against the vastness that is this camp. It hits you with the power that only truth can. The Nazis tested and perfected their methods at Auschwitz, but it was Birkenau where they exploded their methods into the absurd. And you face, for probably the first time in your life, evil.
In the United States we learned how to take Henry Ford’s ideas of the assembly line and apply it to the war effort. We mass-produced planes and tanks and bullets. The Nazi’s took those ideas and mass-produced murder, eradication, and annihilation. They made an assembly line to disassemble. They automated genocide.
There are moments, admittedly rare, that remind you of the best of human nature. Remind you of the spirit that kept those who survived alive. The one that remains foremost in my mind’s eye is the upside down letter B in the Auschwitz entrance gate. You don’t see it until you do, and once you do can’t help but notice and say a silent prayer of thanks to the person who made it. A thank you for the reminder that the human spirit never dies. At the risk of death, a prisoner who worked as an iron forger placed a symbol to those entering for the first time, that up is down and truth is false and therefore the common Nazi message on the gate, Work Makes Free, is a lie.
At Birkenau, I walked the gravel path to the far end of the compound and looked at the evil that we became. There, in front of a pond that contains the ashes dumped from the crematorium, I placed a few small stones on the memorial written in English and prayed for peace. An insignificant gesture given the enormity of the wrong. I grabbed my wife’s hand as we made the long walk back towards our transport to Krakow. A tear formed in my eye. In my experience, I thought I had seen what man could be at his worst. I was wrong. As I walked I understood, maybe for the first time, that as beautiful as I believed we were as a species, and as bad as I thought that we could become, we were capable of so much more. And I was walking across the field of proof.
The bus back was understandably quiet. It’s taken me a long time to process what I experienced. Before I went I had heard how important it was to bear witness. After coming home I agree. I can’t write anything new on this subject that hasn’t already been written, I can only write this so that I stand as some form of witness. Maybe sometime, somewhere, someone will find my digital witness to this truth and change the course of their history. I regret that I can not change ours.
I honestly believe that humans are generally good. That at our deepest depth there is a small spark of altruism. But there are times when we are not. And I think that it might be a zero-sum game. That when we are evil, it must equal the good that is embedded within each of us. So that the truly evil things balance the day-to-day goodness with which we are capable.
After seeing Auschwitz and Birkenau, I fear that there is a lot of good that we must do to balance the scales.