FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2010
Auschwitz-Birkenau: Beyond Twisted
A large encased exhibit is filled with human hair, 700 tons of it discovered after the camp was liberated in 1945. The hair of thousands of victims, mostly women, mostly infested with Zyklon B and other lethal poisons. The hair of stunned prisoners brought like cattle to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp outside of Krakow, Poland.
Another large window exhibit contains a mountain of suitcases, the last remnants of the precious possessions of Jewish victims who couldn't begin to imagine the horrors awaiting them. The suitcases bear the names of their owners. I feel compelled to say the names to myself, like a prayer list, but the tour Jud and I are on moves ahead and I have to push on; I cannot get them all. I feel guilty. One suitcase is marked simply "M. Frank." Did this suitcase, perhaps, belong to a relative of the young Anne Frank? Did the suitcase of "I. Meyer" belong to a father and mother separated from their young children, sent to the right or to the left, never to be seen again?
Room 6 in Block 6 contains the sad and forlorn remains of these traumatized children: an exhibit of their shoes, so small and worn out; of their clothes, little cotton dresses and hand-knit caps and sweaters; a few books, some toys, a once-lovely doll whose head is severed from its body, its face smashed in. Or is that a real child?
We walk through the gas chambers. We see the extant evidence of mass murder. We see, but we do not comprehend. An exhibit contains thousands of empty Zyklon B containers, testimony to its extensive use and effectiveness in killing hundreds and thousands of innocent and captured people at a time. Terrified people in the throes of evil, stripped naked, packed like sardines in a small room, the door closed firmly, the gas turned on, hundreds dead within 15-20 minutes. The makers of the gas made a killing, too. Better than guns. So cost-effective. So profitable. I feel sick to my stomach.
Then there are the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which worked round the clock, scattering human ashes like snow over the ground of the camp and beyond, into Krakow itself. Oscar Schindler, in one scene in the Stephen Spielberg movie, filmed mostly in Krakow, wipes ashes off a car in disbelief and a growing moral outrage that was in short-supply at the time, anywhere.
We walk on in a daze. Here, our guide says, pointing to blocks 14 and 15, are the medical buildings, places that prisoners tried to avoid at all costs, where medical experimentation took place on human subjects, where women were steralized, where the sick, diseased, and over-worked were sent to die by lethal injection.
And that small square by a kitchen? That's where the Jewish orchestra played marches to muster prisoners to the yard so that they could be counted accurately by the SS, then sent to back-breaking work to die. The musicians played their instruments, but had no voice; they were used to play death marches for their fellow prisoners. I cannot grasp this reality, this torment. It seems so demonic, pitting victims against victims struggling to survive this nightmare in any way they could.
"The devouring of human life," the brochure says. But language seems inadequate. First Poles, some 728 "political prisoners," when Auschwitz was established in 1940, then Jews, along with gypsies and others, who met a fate unimaginable, on a scale beyond belief. Over 1.5 million murdered. Hitler's "Final Solution to the Jewish Question." The pre-meditated, meticulously planned annihilation of human beings.
Primo Levi, an Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor, calls it "the gray zone," a realm beyond good and evil, beyond morality, beyond any language we know. How anyone survived is a miracle.
"The Holocaust left us with a basic vacuum in terms of human meaning," says a priest-scholar, "which, if it remains unfilled, can open the door to other ideologies equally destructive of human life at all levels."
The physical remains and documentation of the horrors of the Holocaust hit you in the pit of your stomach. Photo after haunting photo of victims, in striped prison garb, peer at us through sunken eyes filled with fear, disbelief, dread, deadness. Condemned to extinction. "You are witnesses," they say. "You are witnesses to this gigantic factory of death. Do not forget us. We are real. What happened to us is real. Do not forget us." Time cannot erase these memories. Nor explain them. Beyond language. Beyond twisted.
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