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August 02, 2005

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Krakow and Auschwitz, Poland:

ARBEIT MACHT FREI reads the sign over the gate: "Work Brings Freedom." The gate is the same gate. The buildings are the same buildings. The barbed wire electric fences, paths, watchtowers, rusting train tracks --- the same. Three kilometers away, at Birkenau (Auschwitz II), where the majority of the executions took place, one can stand at the exact juncture at which Joseph Mengele and other Nazi doctors chose which passengers, just off their trains, would die immediately or die through labor at Auschwitz I. Apart from a few partial reconstructions, perhaps only the neat rows of trees, of even height and near-equal age, are new, having been planted by some of the camp's prisoners sometime between 1940 and 1945.

It is difficult to visit this place and actually comprehend that it was the physical, tangible focal point of Nazi Germany's efforts to wipe out all of Europe's Jews, as well as Roma, cripples, homosexuals and other groups deemed undesirable. No matter how many stories one hears or reads, it is hard to believe the location still exists and can be seen and shows so little wear, apart from some superficial damage (notwithstanding those areas that were destroyed by the Nazis as they fled). I had to stop at times to comprehend that the things my guide was talking about actually took place on and around the ground I was standing on. The experience of being there still cannot completely prevent you from dissociating the past from reality.

There are, of course, many things at Auschwitz to drive home its reality and significance. Dozens of cannisters of the poison, Cyclone B, are on display. There is a room in wich 40,000 pairs of shoes lie heaped in a sea behind a glass partition; another room contains mountains of thousands of pots and pans; a third chamber holds piles of thousands of discarded suitcases, many with the names and addresses of their owners written upon them ("Marie Kafka, Prag XIII-833"). There is more and worse, but it isn't news if you've already read anything about the Holocaust before.

For all of this macabre detail, there was a positive side to visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau: It was reassuring to see that the museum succeeds in doing the extremely difficult, sensitive job it is meant to do, a job of educating, memorializing and preserving. The guides know their facts and give professional, respectful tours. The numerous informative exhibits eschew unnecessary emotionalism in favor of a direct, matter-of-fact approach, letting each display speak for itself. The diverse crowds treat the site with quiet, serious respect. It was encouraging to note that my group of 45-55 people consisted of Poles, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Russians, English, Irish, Australians, Japanese, Koreans and several Polish-Catholic nuns, among others. Despite the size of the group, there was little noise and everybody followed the guide and listened strictly to instructions.

The tour ended in front of a memorial built at the former site of the gas chambers at Birkenau. Carved into tomb-like plaques displayed in approximately 20 different laguages (the languages spoken by the camp's victims) was the following phrase (this is only the first portion of it):

"For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity..."

I think that the warning aspect of Auschwitz is the one that gets most over-looked.

Posted by Joshua on August 2, 2005 02:44 PM
Category: Poland
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