Auschwitz, June 7-8th, 2000:
It is difficult to describe the feelings that come from visiting this place.
We have see it so many times in films and books. Our imagination of it is imbued with suffering, injustice and anger.
Yet when we stand in the center of Auschwitz, it feels like a campus where the students have left on summer break. Hardwood trees line sandy lanes.
From most vantage points, two story brick buildings occlude the electrified barbed wire.
Instead of a sudden impact, the force of feeling from this place builds slowly.
We walk into rooms heaped with shoes.
The Nazis 'harvested' the hair of their victims to make rope and cloth.
Hallways are lined with portraits of victims. In the early years of W.W.II, the Nazis took the picture of all Jews and Polish Resistance prisoners sent to Auschwitz to die from working.
The prisoners in Auschwitz were fed starvation rations and used as slave labor. Every day they would return from their twelve hour work assignments. As they carried the bodies of those who had died during the day, they marched home under this sign: "Work Makes Free."
That kind of cruel sarcasm abounded. Here in the washroom were paintings of children and kittens bathing.
Auschwitz was adapted from a Polish Army barracks. In the early days it was a punitive concentration camp, used as a terror threat by the Nazis as they sought to subjugate Poland. Resistance fighters, and persecuted minorities were sent here and each was identified by a mark to distinguish between groups as varied as Jehovah Witnesses, Gypsies, Russian Prisoners of War and people placed in the camp "preventatively."
Unless a prisoner managed to get a preferred job such as a secretary, cook or lab technician, they could only expect to live 2 or 3 months.
Some died quicker, sentenced by a summary tribunal to death by firing squad against this wall.
Auschwitz had its own ovens for cremating dead prisoners. It was only as the extermination efforts began to gather speed toward the middle of the war that these ovens were seen to be grossly inadequate by Nazi commanders.
After the war, many of those executed for war crimes were hung here on this gallows.
As the Nazis made plans for the 'Final Solution,' they realized they would need a custom built facility located centrally on railway networks.
Birkenau was born.
Here it is the scope and scale that brings shivers.
The complex sprawls over 430 acres (175 hectares). Though the Nazis attempted to destroy it as they fled the victorious Russians, they still left many wooden and brick buildings behind, as well as the train tracks and all their barbed wire and guard towers.
It is easy to believe that life expectancy in Birkenau was around 3 weeks.
Seeing these conditions, we could imagine that it was better to have been part of the 70% selected for immediate death in the gas chambers.
In a 'prison within the prison' barracks, one artist had been allowed to produce this final work before he died.
So many people arrived on the trains that many had to wait their turn at the gas chambers. Photographs show smiling families, children at play, waiting in this grove, with the gas chamber billowing black smoke concealed behind a fence at the end of this road. Apparently waiting in line as they tried to believe the lies about a coming shower was better than the train where they had just been interned for up to ten days.
Here was Crematorium IV, and on October 7th, 1944 it was the site of the only known prison revolt in Birkenau. The Jewish prisoners who were running these ovens mutinied and burned it to the ground. The Nazis killed almost 500 Jews in reprisal.
In a futile attempt to conceal their crimes, the fleeing Nazis blew up the gas chambers toward the end of 1944. Until then, these were the last stairs many would have climbed down, still trying to believe when the Nazi guards told them to disrobe and remember the number of the hook where they placed their clothes.
They were then led into a chamber at right angles with rusting fake showerheads. After everyone was locked inside the hermetically sealed room, canisters of Cyclon B would be dropped into the rooms through openings in the roof.
Then the Jewish slaves of the camp would take the bodies up electric lifts to the ovens and turn the bodies into ash.
In four languages they read:
Others have come to commemorate those who died.
Both in small and personal ways...
and in massive monuments with plaques in 29 languages.
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