Friday, September 5, 2008

Day 5 - Auschwitz

May 29, 2008
כ"ד אייר תשס"ח

Of all the days in our itinerary, this is the one that I dread the most: Auschwitz. I arrive not knowing what to expect of my emotions. What will I feel? Will I cry? Scream? Stand silently? And why the dread? Isn’t my visit a living testimony to the failure of Hitler, his accomplices, his “students,” and his bystanders?

The visit to Auschwitz is divided into four parts:

A tour of Auschwitz I – the forced labor camp initially used for political prisoners. This portion of the tour must be led by a Polish tour guide certified by the Auschwitz governing body.


A tour of Auschwitz II – Birkenau – the death camp where over 1,000,000 Jews were ruthlessly and methodically exterminated.

A Memorial Ceremony – put together by members of our group.

As our bus pulls up to the “Visitor’s Center,” I am stunned by the number of tour buses and cars that fill the lot. While it just sounds wrong, the fact is that Auschwitz is filled today. There are a few “tour” groups, a Jewish youth group from South America, and a lot of Catholic Poles. On this day, a prominent Catholic Cleric, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr, is being sainted. Kolbe was first brought to Auschwitz because he helped hide and clothe 2,000 Jews in his friary. When another man was selected to be shot, along with nine others, as reprisal for one man trying to escape, Father Kolbe volunteered himself in place of the man and was promptly murdered by the Nazis. As a Jew and as a Jewish educator, I struggled, and will continue to struggle with the question of the differing narratives of the Shoah. There were, I am told, many clerics within the Church who acted like Kolbe and many who hid and saved Jews. We don’t hear those narratives often enough. And yet, I cannot help but also ask about the narrative of the silence, complicity and in many cases the outright anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church during the Shoah.

Just outside the main entrance to the visitor’s center at Auschwitz I, there are several small “fast food” stands or huts. You can buy hamburgers, pizza, ice cream, and flowers. There are the equivalent of “souvenir stands” selling books and photos and God only knows what else. There are those in the world who accuse the Jews, us, of exploiting the Shoah, of creating a Holocaust Industry. I can tell you that there is a THRIVING Holocaust industry in Poland, but it is not the Jews that are involved.

From the women who gets her 60 zloty for “protecting” the Jewish cemetery, to the guy with the “Ghetto Souvenir” stand at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (I am not making this up and the photo that will be posted on the blog is entirely authentic) to our guide, “Tomasz,” who gets paid for what I have no idea, to the “fast food” stands, and the tour bus companies, and the hotels that host the March of the Living groups all the while Poles complain that we see only the Shoah sites and nothing else, to the hotels that proudly advertise “Auschwitz” tours, everyone is making a personal Zloty from the mass murder and attempted eradication of European Jewry.

I am bothered by the way life just goes on here in Poland. As Warsaw was rebuilt from its ashes, monuments, small and large, were erected to leave some historical record of the events surrounding the ghetto-ization, deportation, and destruction of Polish Jewry. And around these monuments, a city was rebuilt, buildings added, parks established. How long did it take, I wonder, for the citizens of Warsaw to become desensitized to everything, the plaques, the monuments, the memorials, enough that they would walk their dogs past and not notice, or sit and talk with friends, or picnic in Treblinka, or to nap in the grass next to one of the mass latrines at

Auschwitz – Birkenau, where the “lucky few “ who were not sent directly to extermination and cremation, were worked to death through forced labor, disease and starvation? How does such a thing happen? Is it callousness? Anti-Semitism? Hatred? Or the defense mechanism needed to get by when you choose to live in the traffic pattern or Auschwitz or Warsaw or Krakow or Kielce or Tykocin or…or…or…or?

Robert points out that there is something oddly disturbing about the speech pattern of our guide. It is clipped, precise, cold, and lacks any use of the work “the.” It sounds something like this: “Prisoners arrive, are taken to register, are given uniforms. Zey are zen taken to barrack. Zey sleep on floor, on straw, have five toilets for hundredz of people.” This is just a small sample. The Polish-English sounds frighteningly German. It is even more disconcerting when she deals with numbers. She is a somewhat sympathetic figure who shares with us her personal family story which included a family member, an uncle I believe, who was killed at Auschwitz I. As is often the case in our classes and on this trip there is too much to do and not enough time. We rush through Auschwitz I, through the barracks, the “medical ward,” to the death wall where the Polish clerics are just finishing celebrating their service.

Our next stop is personally the most difficult of all: the original, experimental Gas Chamber and crematorium at Auschwitz I. Our Polish guide invites us to enter. That’s right – she invites us to voluntarily enter the prototype Gas Chamber. My feet are suddenly leaden. I DO NOT want to enter. Seeing it from the outside is enough. The limitations of human understanding are such that I cannot comprehend the terror a person would surely have experienced at the moment they realized that rather than a shower, they were to be gassed to death. And since I know that I cannot comprehend that terror, standing inside will not add to my understanding. I will not feel what they felt. I want to make a small protest, to refrain from entering. But in the end, I am a good boy and I force myself to acquiesce to the request.

I am cold. Standing inside the Gas Chamber, our Polish Guide, with her clipped, German accented English, describes the process of what happened here, again never using the word “the.” From the cold room of the gassing we move to the reconstructed crematorium where we are once again given a precise description of how things worked. And with each passing moment, the inner cold is balanced by burning hot anger. I remind myself that each Jewish step I take here is witness to the Nazi failure. But all I really want is…out.

Fortunately, we finish our time at Auschwitz I. We walk past the “book store” and the “coffee shop” and out of the gates of the camp. Lunch Time. It is a little bizarre to move so quickly from forced labor and starvation to LUNCH but that is exactly what we do. There are lots of groups picnicking just outside the fences of Auschwitz I: Polish families with children about Amalya’s age (6), a Jewish youth group from Uruguay, where the boys, when they aren’t’ focusing on the girls, are running around with Israeli flags on their backs like capes, etc. Most members of our group choose to sit outside. I cannot. I go back to the bus…

The bus. It is hot inside and I shvitz up a storm, but I cannot picnic here. In my mind, I decide that the bus is like a mikvah – a ritual bath. It is a sealed space of purity in this place that is inherently impure. And I start to wonder: “If I am this angry now, how will I feel at Birkenau?” It doesn’t take long to find out as we quickly end lunch and drive the three kilometers from the “Political Prisoner Camp” of Auschwitz I to the Death Camp of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We pull up to the entrance, exactly as it stood some sixty years ago, right where the trains would pull in and the selection would happen. Once again, my body turns cold, freezing cold. Any happiness left in my body is gone. I wonder if J.K. Rowling visited here, experienced this feeling, and then create the Dementor characters, the guardians of Azkhaban prison, for this is a soul-less, joy-less place.

We walk through the gates and stand on the tracks that brought hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths and then quickly make our way to the few remaining dormitory shacks left standing. Barns really, they are, in and of themselves, terrifying places. As we walk, I hear a train in the distance. At first, I think I am imagining the sound, that perhaps my mind is just playing tricks on me. But it is not and my heart skips a beat. My eyes meet those of one of my classmates. Her look asks, “Am I really hearing trains?” And my look back says yes. Her eyes well up with tears. I give a reassuring look as if to say “Remember, we are still here. We won.”

It is simply impossible to grasp the enormity of the Death Camp that is Birkenau. Since at any given time there were 100,000 people kept alive to keep the camp running, there were huge numbers of these barn-like dormitories where, on both the men’s and women’s sides, there were triple bunk beds. The men’s buildings were board-and-batten construction while the women’s buildings were made of brick, which gave no more protection from the elements than did the board-and-batten. Here we see a group of smiling German tourists looking for someone to take a smiling photo and the guy in my photo, “Napping at Auschwitz”. Only a few of the male barns remain intact. Of all the rest of the buildings, only the chimney stacks remain, standing in silence, the last remnants of the huge machine that was the “living section” of Birkenau. We walk down the tracks from the “live” section to the area of the Gas Chambers and crematoria, where most arrivals were immediately sent. It is eerily silent. Only the ruins of the crematoria remain along with a massive memorial to the victims of Birkenau. We conclude our visit with stops at two euphemistically named areas: Canada and the Sauna.

Canada, as it was called, was the area where property looted from the Jews was kept and sorted. There is virtually nothing left of the storehouses. The Sauna, however, was entirely reconstructed. At this complex, these who were to live for at least a little while were registered, tattooed, de-loused, showered off and uniformed. One of our classmates notes that when we entered, we walked on a raised plexi-glass surface rather than on the concrete floor as if to say “You do not tread on the place where the victims walked.” It reinforced, as she noted, the fact that we could walk through the same Sauna, but we could never fully fathom the experience, which is the case, of course. We conduct our ceremony in the Sauna in front of a wall of photographs taken from the pockets of victims and then we make our way out of Birkenau.

Waiting to board the bus, I watch an old woman, ninety years old at minimum, ride by us, by Auschwitz II – Birkenau, on her bicycle either oblivious to the death camp to her right or simply desensitized to it. Many say we cannot judge people who lived in this area at this time, that we cannot understand what the war was like, and, thus, the choices they faced. And yet, I wondered what this woman did sixty plus years ago:

Did she go for a daily bike ride past the “Ir ha-Harega” - "The City of Death" as Bialik once wrote about Kishinev after the Pogrom – during the Shoah?

And if she did, did she notice the stench of death emanating from the typhus-filled mass latrines or the smell of roasting flesh coming from the crematoria?

Is it really possible that she could not have noticed?

And if she did notice, what did she think:

Better them than me?

Good bye and good riddance?

What a shame but what can I do?

I will never know, but the image of the oblivious old woman riding her bike past Birkenau will forever be seared into my memory as will the stark, standing chimneys, silent testimonials to evil incarnate, to negligent disregard for life, for humanity, to the silent bystander and to the Jewish worlds destroyed by Hitler, the Nazis, and their sympathizers.