Friday, November 5, 2010


We spent a very sobering day at Auschwitz. We decided to take a tour instead of attempting to do it on our own. Rhys wanted to come with us so Julia wound up coming along as well. She sat in the cafeteria reading her novel about WWII while we toured the facility. On the bus ride in we watched a one hour movie about the liberation of the camp. It was taken by a Soviet soldier and he talked about what he had seen in those first days while we watched the footage. It was overwhelming. I found my mind drifting during the movie. It was just too much horror to take in all at once. Once we arrived, we each got a headset so we could hear the guide. This was nice. It meant the guides could take large groups and didn’t have to yell. It just wasn’t a place for yelling.

We started the tour taking pictures but by the time we reached the crematorium both Tom and I just couldn’t take them any more. It was overwhelmingly sad. We saw the buildings where the prisoners had stayed. They were large brick buildings with rooms that would house 80 to 200 people at one time. Auschwitz was a male facility and women only stayed there at the very beginning and near the end. Their buildings were sectioned off from the others. Inside the tour buildings were pictures taken by guards. It gave an idea of what happened as the Jews arrived. We saw a picture of a doctor pointing to the right indicating a new arrival was unfit and would be gassed.

We saw the piles of glasses, shoes, luggage and most horribly, hair. The hair has been preserved for display. This was the first time I cried. The heads of the Jews were shaved and the hair was reused to make socks and other items for the German soldiers and citizens to use. I wonder if they knew? There was soooo much hair.

We walked through the prison where the Soviet POW’s were housed and other political prisoners were kept. I couldn’t quite comprehend WHY they needed a prison within the prison. When you are shooting people, starving people, and gassing people do you need punishment cells? Out of 15,000 Soviet soldiers sent to the camp only 90 survived. Ninety.

There were pictures of the prisoners with dates of their arrival and death. It gave a sense of how long people survived there. Most people were dead within three months. The pictures were only of the German political prisoners. There were no pictures of the Jews or the Soviet soldiers or the gypsies or homosexuals or any of the others.

We walked past the medical facility where Joseph Mengele conducted his torturous experiments on people. The guide explained some of these but they were so horrific I’m not sure I can remember the details even now. Joseph escaped at the end of the war and lived out the rest of his days somewhere in South America. I wonder how that went for him. Was he haunted by images of his past? Did he find happiness with a new wife and family? Did he continue to torture and mutilate people in South America? He must have had sadistic and psychotic tendencies so do you outgrow that?

Of the thousands of guards brutalizing the captives, only 800 were brought to justice. What happened to the rest? Where did they go? Some of them could still be alive today. The world has changed so much and prevailing sentiments and attitudes have shifted so. I wonder how you continue on with your life after having been a part of such violent brutality. Do you need therapy just like the victims? One of those brought to justice was one of the commandants of the camp. He was hung at the scaffolding within the camp where he had hung so many others. He had lived at Auschwitz with his family for three and a half years. He had a wife and five children. They lived just outside the walls in an area he called, “paradise”. His yard was beautifully manicured and his family had the best of everything.

You see, when the Jews arrived with their treasures, they had to leave their bags behind. They were told to label the bags so they could get them later but this was mainly just to keep the people calm as they were led off to die. The contents of the bags were then taken to warehouses and sorted. It really disturbed me that the warehouses were known as “Canada”. To the Poles during the second world war, Canada was seen as the land of plenty, the richest country in the world. To know that at Auschwitz, there was a place with the name of my country offended me. I don’t want anything remotely close to my life to be associated with the horror and ugliness of that world. This land of plenty was fair pickings for the Germans. If the commandant’s wife wanted something in particular, she would simply get it from the warehouse. When the commandant and his family were relocated later, it took four train cars to ship all of “their” belongings.

By the time we got to the crematorium, we were all just trudging along in a state of semi-shock. I couldn’t take any more pictures. It just seemed wrong. Although we didn’t share this, Tom felt the same and so our pictures just stopped. How could I take a picture of the horror and cruelty? Why would we want to remember that? I don’t know how the Jewish survivors can return. Tom and I don’t want to remember. Why would they?

The crematorium was awful. We stood where the people marked for death stood. We walked into the room they had spent the last miserable minutes of their lives. The guide told us it would take a minimum of ten minutes to die. The guards waited half an hour for the air to clear before entering. The gold teeth were pulled from the dead bodies before they were cremated. The gold was melted down and sent back to Germany. How can anyone want to buy anything gold? It makes my skin crawl. They kept the people calm by telling them they were having a shower. They kept the women together with their children. Women with young children were always killed immediately. They asked the people to get undressed and keep their belongings in a neat, tidy pile. They kept the engines of the trucks running while they filled the crematorium with poisonous gas so that it would drown out the screams of the dying. We looked at the walls marked with scratches. We walked by the ovens where other prisoners were asked to shove the bodies. Those prisoners would be killed after a few weeks and new prisoners assigned the task; probably to prevent uprising. How do you do that to people day after day after day? Who were those sick, sadistic people?

On leaving the memorial, I realized all I wanted to do was have a good cry and hug the people I love. Tom said he didn’t want to talk about it. We stood holding each other until Julia and Rhys came out of the cafeteria. They joined us in a family hug. It was reassuring to touch them and feel their warmth and love.

Unfortunately, there was more. We returned to the bus and went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is a much larger death camp about 3 km away. Auschwitz wasn’t large enough towards the end of the war to accommodate so many Jews arriving. Auschwitz-Birkenau had five crematoriums to Auschwitz’s one. We didn’t spend as long there. We saw the restored stables where up to 1000 people could be housed. This had originally been designed for 50-some horses. We heard about the deplorable conditions but really, it was all just more of the same. How many more ways can you torment and degrade people?

I sat on the railroad tracks just outside the camp after walking down the road so many had walked to their death in the crematoriums. A stiff cold wind was blowing and the grey sky was spitting droplets. It seemed fitting. I wondered how the people at the camp had felt in that weather dressed in thin pajamas. There were many people about but somehow the distance I had put between them and myself was enough. I stared through the death gate, the entrance to Birkenau and thought about nothing. I felt I could have sat there a long time. It was different from the need to touch and feel the love of my family earlier. Now, I felt the need to be alone.

I didn’t feel particularly sad or angry. I wanted to feel the spirits of the people who had passed through. I wanted to be a part of them and to let them know I cared and I understood. Perhaps I don’t understand completely. How can anyone ever completely understand this? I wanted to heal that pain and suffering knowing that it was so long ago. I don’t know why I thought I could do that but I felt a need to sit alone and send out that thought to the world.

In talking to my family later, it was interesting to note that Rhys had felt a consuming rage growing as he walked through the memorial. Rhys felt the sadness, pain and suffering was overwhelming. His face took on such a deeply sad look as he thought of it. Tom had felt a need to escape. He was glad he had come but now he wanted to never speak of it again. His main question was how those thousands of guards could have done that day after day. He couldn’t understand how so many people could agree to participate in such horror. Getting carried away in the moment is one thing, but for four years? Julia asked careful questions and wondered how you visit Auschwitz and not internalize the pain you witnessed there. For my family, the memorial has served its purpose.


maryanncart said...

Tears are streaming down my face and I am sobbing, alone, as I write this. I truly ache for the overwhelming emotions you all felt, with one another and alone, as human beings, caring and loving and living your lives. It was so good seeing and talking to you this morning before I read this. Joyce Ternes said that Berlin is a great city...old and new...LOVE to all of you...Mom

Steve said...

Ouch. Truly and deeply saddening. I think I will chalk this up as a vicarious moment.