Auschwitz-Birkenau: A Personal Walk Back in Time
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I wonder if we’ve learned anything.
In November 1986, Hearst News Service — I was a religion reporter for the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise — sent me to Poland to report on the fifth anniversary of the crushing of the Solidarity movement. Among the things I learned was that many Protestants, who were in no way friends of communism, were somewhat pleased that the government stopped the movement led by Lech Walesa. While they had no love for the regime of Wojciech Jaruzelski, they were more concerned that Solidarity, with its Catholic grounding, would lead to a Catholic-dominated government. Before World War II, a transition such as the death of a leader would result in the church taking over the government, and Catholics didn’t much like Protestants, especially evangelicals.
I stayed in a nondescript apartment building in Warsaw.
Among my travels, I went to Krakow and made a connection with a guy who hung around the consulate. With a few American dollars, I got his attention and a taxi ride in a for-real Italian-made Fiat instead of the flatulent Polish-made Fiats that required Schwarseneggeraian forearms to shift the manual transmission.
Early one morning, we headed to Oswiecim, which became infamous for the German word for it — Auschwitz.
The driver was well-tailored, sported a sharp tan cashmere overcoat, lit his cigarettes with a rather stylist lighter and spoke German, the latter of which I figured was off-limits because of the geopolitical difficulties a half-century before. But German was the business language of Europe, so I fell back on my feeble high school and university knowledge to get along.
It was foggy, really foggy during that roughly 40-mile trip.
It was cold. I was intrigued by the frost on the passenger-side mirror, which devolved increasingly black as the coal-polluted atmosphere tinged everything around us.
Half the traffic was horse-drawn carriages hauling whatever was going to market.
I couldn’t process how people could live in a region that had a lot of earth fertilized by the ashes generated by the Final Solution that floated above the chimneys and drifted across the land.
At Auschwitz, the driver and I were among the first visitors that day. We had to turn on the lights in some of the buildings we entered.
We wandered through what had been the sturdy barracks for the Polish army a long time before the war. The Nazi paramilitary Schutzstaffel Totenkopfverande [SS-TV] and camp staff lived in there. They also started the local version of the Holocaust there until they realized they needed a separate and much larger death camp.
Auschwitz was set up like a museum — although unlike any other museum imaginable — with exhibits, a bookstore and guides.
Some of the rooms featured exhibits: piles of shoes in one room, piles of prosthetic limbs in another, other rooms with eyeglasses, hair, clothing and whatever was confiscated by those who were gassed in the showers. [An excellent new History Channel documentary about Auschwitz said the camp was able to pay for itself with the confiscated possessions.]
One room was filled with empty cans of Zyklon-B, the hydrogen-cyanide fumigant the Nazis used as the primary killer of about 1.1 million people in the gas chambers.
The driver and I wandered through some of the buildings, including the one where Dr. Joseph Mengele conducted his experiments, another was Block 11 used for executions, another held the crematoria.
Visitors left flowers next to some of the buildings.
We then drove a couple miles to the Auschwitz satellite camp of Birkenau [the German word for the nearby town of Brzezinka]. Auschwitz had about 30 sub-camps, including the one operated by I.G. Farben that used slave labor to make synthetic oil and rubber.
Unlike the main camp or most of the forced-labor sub-camps, Birkenau was built in 1941-1942 as an extermination camp with groups of barracks for men, women, Roma, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, quarantined prisoners, and different nationalities.
And unlike the museum-like quality of Auschwitz, Birkenau was stark.
Repairs at the gatehouse were unfinished.
The barracks had been swept out and left without any rehabilitation. Some ceilings still had the drawings made by the prisoners. Up to eight prisoners would sleep on each bunk.
The driver and I were the first visitors that day.
A caretaker sat by a wood stove at the corner of one of the barracks and told us we could roam wherever we wanted.
It was quiet, windless and cold.
The driver returned to the warmth of his Fiat.
I just wandered, but only so far.
The Nazis blew up the crematoria before the Soviet Army arrived, and I was not able to see that.
I couldn’t see much of anything because the fog was so thick.
But I could see the maze of rows of formerly electrified barbed wire that would disorient and trap anyone who ran. Some prisoners would end their misery by running directly into it.
After an hour, I left.
The experience was numbing but not shocking until I returned to Beaumont.
A rabbi friend loaned me book about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. The book came with a fold-out map and I recognized the street names. The apartment where I stayed was built on the rubble of the ghetto where about 13,000 Jews died during the uprising. The remaining 50,000 were sent to death camps.
Since then, I’ve interviewed Holocaust survivors including a neighbor in Colorado Springs who was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When we met, I showed him some of the photographs I took. He showed me the tattoo of the number he received when he arrived at the camp.
Today, about 200 of the camp’s survivors returned for the 75th anniversary of the liberation to speak about their experiences and warn of the worldwide rise of anti-Semitism and hatred.
I’ve been reading William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” No spoilers. Read it yourself.
Can likes of the Holocaust and Auschwitz-Birkenau happen again in some form or another despite the testimony of my neighbor and those in Poland today, the billions of words written about World War II, and the silent witness of rooms of clothes and Zyklon-B cans and the swept out barracks of death camps?
You’re damned straight it can.