A trip to Auschwitz

We went to Auschwitz. On the third day of a trip to beautiful Krakow it was time to leave the colorful heritage of restored medieval glory and step back into a more recent past, plain, un-restored and chilly as ordinary as a train station, as final as it can be.

The minibus picked us up from near Krakow Central Square, a nice Mercedes van warm and comfortable, with a slight smell of a brand new car. On the way we watched a documentary about Auschwitz recorded by a Red Army cameraman upon the camp’s liberation by the Russians in January 1944. These images and the smell of the new car made me so sick that I was pleasantly relieved to arrive at the camp.

I feared the experience of Auschwitz. Wyatt had to convince me to go with the obvious statement that it is history. It is an imperative to learn about it. To learn and experience are two things I find hard to separate. The Jewish museum in Berlin, which I visited a few years ago, had such a strong emotional impression on me I thought I would not handle a real holocaust sight. The museum was especially designed to produce an experience in the visitor with its unbalanced floors, oddly shaped chambers, weird sounds, rusted metal masks of different sizes piled up in a corner. It is rather a work of art than a source of knowledge.

Auschwitz is not a museum.

It is a testimony. It is a source of evidence.

It is where you begin to understand.

Our guide was a nice round-faced Polish girl. Her yellow coat brought needed light amidst the anxiety. It was early January warmer than usual. She talked fast and kept us walking quickly through the sights. We started with Auschwitz I. It is a complex of red brick military barracks built for the Polish army and occupied by the Nazis in 1939. First used as a prison for Polish intellectuals opposing the German occupation it was eventually converted into a concentration camp for the male inmates. They were arriving by train. Photos maps and documents of the logistics were exhibited in one of the buildings. The town of Oswiecim was conveniently located in the center of Europe’s railways. From anywhere. Sofia is not on this map. It should be proud of this nonevent in its history and watch closely its present.

One floor up personal belongings – suitcases, glasses, shoes, combs and toothbrushes, shaving blades, utensils, clothes, ritual shawls, tell the story of a journey like any other. People packed their things and left for a place said to be better than the ghetto. Some people even purchased their own tickets from Greece. Nothing they brought to Auschwitz was left unused. Their clothes and belongings were sent to Germany and recycled for further use. Their jewelry and gold teeth were melted and sent to the Reichsbank, hair was processed into blankets for the army; ashes from the crematorium supplied soil fertilizers.

This striking evidence brought me back to discussions about efficiency I once had in Budapest. Having initially been trained as an economist I am used to regarding efficiency as a fundamental value. It is after all the efficient and innovative use of resources that makes one business more competitive than another. Only now was I able to understand the context in which a philosopher of the Frankfurt school encounters the concept of efficiency. In the context of Auschwitz efficiency is equivalent to making blankets out of people’s hair, to recycling every bit of their physical being. It is nothing short of the denial of humanity. The meaning of a concept is always given by the context. The change of context is where the meaning ends and with it the discussion.

Traveling in live stock wagons many died on the way. Most died as they arrived. When they stepped off the train a quick examination determined if they were fit for work or not. Those who were not were told they would take a shower and lead to immediate extermination. The rest were told “Arbeit Macht Frei”. The story is well known. What was new for me were the details. Before they entered the “shower” they were told to undress and remember where they left their clothes so they can pick them up later. They were assured everything was just a normal procedure. Violence was not exercised until the very last moment. Resistance was prevented by assuming normality.

Unlike my expectations a gas chamber involved no sophisticated technology. It is a room the height of a garage with a small opening on the roof from where the Zyklon B crystals were thrown in. A simple pesticide was used for annihilating over one and half million people. Torture involved no medieval like devices but simple hanging by the arms; clothes were stripped before execution, the legality of which was maintained from a designated courtroom next door to the execution wall. We looked at the pictures of the few registered prisoners with their date of arrival, occupation and date of death. On average men lived about a year. Women, about three months because they lived in much worse conditions. They were kept in wooden barns rather than brick barracks in the second part of Auschwitz, Birkenau.

Birkenau is where you understand the scale. Hundreds of wooden barracks were constructed in the open field to keep the increasing number of prisoners. Upon the camp’s liberation the Russians took almost all of them down for firewood to heat the seven thousand survivors they found. The famous footage of joyful faces greeting the Red Army at the camp’s gate is fake. It is staged a few days later for propaganda purposes. Birkenau was way colder, windier and vast a field where the train line ends and nothing else begins. I took a sip of vodka to warm up my shivering self and poured some over the ground for the souls of the victims.

When we reached the end of the tour the sun made it through the clouds and on our faces. It was over. The tour and the holocaust too. Around us houses, local people’s lives going on shopping, roofing, painting new homes. How could you live in such a close proximity to a concentration camp… how could you get off the train at Oswiecim. And on it. We climbed back in the Mercedes van and I felt a new awkwardness. Timothy Garton Ash has a way of explaining it in “The File” where he says that Germany is the strange mixture of the highest and the lowest in European civilization, the homeland of Goethe and of Buchenwald, the nation that reinvents humanity and annihilates it at the same time. Not that the Mercedes is a symbol of humanity but the high technology and innovation the spirit of capitalism and economic progress which it symbolizes is what makes people in Eastern Europe respect Germany and look up to it. A German camp was a more prestigious work place than a Csepel brick factory as we read in Imre Kertezs’s “Faitlessness” and it was not all so puzzling why people from Greece would buy their own train ticket to Auschwitz. How this positive reputation was abused for the purpose of the war is the topic of another dissertation. What we should never forget is that it can be done. What we value and believe can be wrong and can be used against us.

Back in Krakow the night was filled with discussion and a renewed appreciation of life as it is.

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