I’m not sure where to begin. It started on Monday and continued on Wednesday, my visit. I went twice. The first time I went with an organized group. They picked us up at the hostel, drove us directly to the camp, and had us planned out so we met with a tour guide, got our audio systems and headed out.(the audio systems are actually rather interesting in that you are wired into your guide so they don’t have to shout and you can still hear them. And our guide was great. An older woman, who we found out was the daughter in law of a survivor who used to lead tours himself. She promised him she would do tours and has been for 35 years and she still got choked up when she saw the things she was showing us. But that’s the point. She wasn’t showing us everything, the important stuff, sure, but we were passing by exhibits with no mention. This is fine, I understand tours like this have a limited time (and you can take one, even if you don’t come with an organized group, you just randomly join in with a group of people). Thing is, though, you have no time to absorb it, to get your head around it, to just sit and reflect.
So I went back.
I wanted to sit in front of a display window showing 14,000 pounds of human hair and try to contemplate the number of people represented. I needed to stare at the suitcases of people who were told they were going to a better life and had brought all of their valuables with them (some had even PAID for their own passage on the train cars) – and read the word “kind,” German for “child,” and wonder when it had shown up to try and figure out if the ‘kind’ in question even had a chance of survival or if they had been immediately sent to the gas chambers. I was obsessed looking at pictures of more than 1000 children (only a small fraction of those who passed through the camp’s gates) who were killed.
And that’s just in Auschwitz I. Auschwitz III was destroyed after the war, but Auschwitz II – Birkenau, is still there. At least parts of it are. In its entirety, Auschwitz II was 25 times the size of the original. In fact, the reason there is still a gas chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz I is because it was taken out of service before the war was over and turned into a munitions bunker – it wasn’t efficient enough and couldn’t keep up with demand. Over at II, they had oven which could handle more than 12,000 bodies in a 24 hour period and at times, they couldn’t keep up – which is why the camps had to resort to open air pits. The chambers at II could handle up to 2000 people at a time and it only took 15-20 minutes and slightly less than 7 kilos (14 pounds) of Zyklon B.
Those ovens are long since gone. But in Birkenau they haven’t memorialized anything. They have barracks in as close to their original state as they could make them. They have the train tracks leading to the disembarkation point where the selection was made, where a German doctor (not always Mengele) used a single finger to point to the right (death) or left (work). I’m getting chills just sitting on a train typing this up. The numbers are so staggering when you think that something like 1.3 million Jews (and another 130,000 gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, etc) were killed over the course of almost five years. And yet here we are today, walking through with our cameras and teenagers who are required to be there for school and infants or toddlers running around and screaming. I don’t know if it’s disrespect or the ultimate in honoring the dead – that life goes on and we can commemorate the huge loss, but we are here, and we are learning and remembering and I can only imagine what the sound of a laughing child would have been like to the thousands of men and women who were being forced to stand at attention for roll call in the frozen winter for up to twelve hours at a time.
So yeah, I went back, and I took pictures of gates and barbed wire and Jewish children proudly wearing the Israeli flag draped around their shoulders. I read and I thought and I contemplated and I cried and I got angry and I said my own prayers. I looked into the eyes of photographs and ran my fingers over lists of names. I made silent promises and I smiled at children.
But mostly, I remembered.