The surrounding woods are too green and peaceful to hold these dismal secrets. How must it have been sixty years ago when a division of the Soviet army penetrated this forest and came upon the unexpected horrors of Auschwitz? “Combat-hardened soldiers were unprepared for what they found in the camps: stacks of dead bodies lying around, and barracks filled with dead and dying prisoners. The stench of death was everywhere. Although the Germans had attempted to evacuate them, the camps still housed thousands of emaciated and diseased prisoners, a sight that shocked the liberating soldiers. “Those prisoners who survived resembled skeletons because of forced labor and lack of food. Many were so weak that they could hardly move. Disease remained an ever present danger and the liberators had to burn down many of the camps to prevent the spread of epidemics,” according to the United States Holocaust Museum web site.
Auschwitz, in Poland’s lovely countryside, 37 miles west of Krakow near the prewar German-Polish border, was the deadliest of the concentration camps, a sprawl of complexes, that killed Jews with industrial precision, cremated them on the spot, and bagged their hair to be woven into tailor’s lining. These are aerial pictures taken by the Allied forces showing the extent of the camp that was the original Auschwitz and then the deadly extension called Birkenau.
“The same day I saw my first horror camp, I visited every nook and cranny. I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda,” said General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another eyewitness, Stuart C. Nichols said, “On every day since I first saw Auschwitz, I have wept.”
Prisoners of Auschwitz entered through a gate famous for its irony. Here is a detail of the entrance gate.
Major Rudolf Hoss erected the gate which carried the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Brings Freedom), which was, of course, a mocking lie. In Auschwitz, the goal was for work, combined with starvation, systematic cruelty, and sickness, to bring death.
They say that Hoss seems not to have intended the sign as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom—a sick philosophy.
In 1941 S.S. Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler singled out the camp in Auschwitz as the site for the proposed total eradication of the Jewish population, the so-called ‘final solution.’
Ironically, most of the Jews condemned to extinction in Auschwitz arrived believing that they had been deported for “resettlement.” What was actually happening in the camps, where humans were gassed like insects, was beyond the comprehension of the outside world, too much to take in or believe. As Vice-President Richard Cheney noted, the Holocaust did not happen in some far-off place but “in the heart of the civilized world.”
Elie Wiesel in his classic book, Night, captures the disbelief. He grew up in a village in Transylvania, knowing a man called “Moshe the Beadle, as though he had never had a surname in his life…Then one day they expelled all the foreign Jews from Sighet. And Moshe the Beadle was a foreigner.” Several weeks passed and then months. Moshe was forgotten, until one day he appeared again in the village.“He told his story and that of his companions. The train full of deportees had crossed the Hungarian frontier and on Polish territory had been taken in charge by the Gestapo. There it had stopped. The Jews had to get out and climb into lorries. The lorries drove toward a forest. The Jews were made to get out. They were made to dig huge graves. And when they had finished their work, the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion, without haste, they slaughtered their prisoners.“Each one had to go up to the hold and present his neck. Babies were thrown into the air and the machine gunners used them as targets. This was in the forest of Galicia, near Kolomaye. How had Moshe the Beadle escaped? Miraculously. He was wounded in the leg and taken for dead…
“Through long days and nights, he went from one Jewish house to another, telling the story of Malka, the young girl who had taken three days to die, and of Tobias, the tailor, who had begged to be killed before his sons…“Moshe had changed. There was no longer any joy in his eyes. He no longer sang. He no longer talked to me of God or of the cabbala, but only of what he had seen. People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to them.
“‘He’s just trying to make us pity him. What an imagination he has!’ they said. Or even: ‘Poor fellow. He’s gone mad.’“And as for Moshe, he wept.“‘Jews, listen to me. It’s all I ask of you. I don’t want money or pity. Only listen to me,’ he would cry between prayers at dusk and the evening prayers.“I did not believe him myself. I would often sit with him in the evening after the service, listening to his stories and trying my hardest to understand his grief. I felt only pity for him.
“Once, I asked him this question:“‘Why are you so anxious that people should believe what you say? In your place, I shouldn’t care whether they believed me or not…’“He closed his eyes, as though to escape time.“‘You don’t understand,’ he said in despair. ‘You can’t understand. I have been saved miraculously. I managed to get back here. Where did I get the strength from? I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death. So that you could prepare yourselves while there is still time. To live? I don’t attach any importance to my life any more. I’m alone. No I wanted to come back, and to warn you. And see how it is, no one will listen to me…”
Such evil as Hitler was about, such evil as he had enlisted millions to follow, was incomprehensible. Wiesel said that people in his village went on living—accommodating themselves to each new restriction. “People said: ‘The Russian army’s making gigantic strides forward…Hitler won’t be able to do us any harm, even if he wants to.’“Yes, we even doubted that he wanted to exterminate us.“Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century!
“…Here and there, anxiety was aroused. One of our friends, Berkovitz, who had just returned from the capital told us:‘The Jews in Budapest are living in an atmosphere of fear and terror. There are anti-Semitic incidents every day in the streets, in the trains. The Fascists are attacking Jewish shops and synagogues. The situation is getting very serious.’“This news spread like wildfire through Sighet. Soon it was on everyone’s lips. But not for long. Optimism soon revived.“The Germans won’t get as far as this. They’ll stay in Budapest. There are strategic and political reasons…”“Before three days had passed, German army cars had appeared in our streets.”
Wiesel writes, “The barracks we had been made to go into was long. In the roof were some blue-tinged skylights. The antechamber of Hell must look like this. So many crazed men, so many cries, so much bestial brutality!“There were dozens of prisoners to receive us, truncheons in their hands, striking out anywhere, at anyone, without reason. Orders:“‘Strip! Fast! Los! Keep only your belts and shoes in your hands…“We had to throw our clothes at one end of the barracks. There was already a great heap there. New suits and old, torn coats, rags. For us, this was the true equality: nakedness. Shivering with the cold.
“Some SS officers moved about in the room, looking for the strong men. If they were so keen on strength, perhaps one should try and pass oneself off as sturdy?…“Later we were to learn that…those who were selected that day were enlisted in the Sonder-Kommando, the unit which worked in the crematories. Bela Katz—son of a big tradesman from our town—had arrived at Birkenau with the first transport a week before us. When he heard of our arrival, he managed to get word to us that, having been chosen for his strength, he had himself put his father’s body in the crematory oven.)
“Blows continued to rain down.“‘To the barber!’“Belt and shoes in hand, I let myself be dragged off to the barbers. They took our hair off with clippers, and shaved off all the hair on our bodies. The same thought buzzed all the time in my head—not to be separated from my father.“Freed from the hands of our barbers, we began to wander in the crowd, meeting friends and acquaintances. These meetings filled us with joy—yes, joy—’Thank God! You’re still alive!’“But others were crying. They used all their remaining strength in weeping. Why had they let themselves be brought here? Why couldn’t they have died in their beds? Sobs choked their voices.”
For those who made it past the sorting on the first day in camp, a supervisor would announce that they had “come to a concentration camp, from which the only way to escape is through the crematorium chimney.” Clothes and personal possessions were confiscated. In an effort to strip them of their identity, their humanity, their hair was cut short, they were sprayed with disinfectant, then finally given a number and registered. Their names were lost. To the world they were only a number tattooed on their arm.
Terror, threat and humiliation kept the people in submission at Auschwitz. Some were kept alive, like rats or mice, to be the objects of medical experimentation.Block 10 was a balance of horrors. Being an experimental subject could prolong life, or end it immediately. An inmate assigned here might undergo skin testing for reaction to relatively benign substances, or receive a phenol injection to the heart for immediate dissection. Doctor Mengele, the most evil man in Auschwitz, reigned here.
Prisoners would “march before him with their arms in the air,” Dr. Lengyel tells us, ” while he continued to whistle his Wagner”–or it might be Verdi or Johann Strauss. It was a mannered detachment…This hall is lined with the portraits of those who died at Auschwitz.
Wiesel:“‘Don’t cry, Yechiel,’ I said. ‘Don’t waste your tears…’“‘Not cry? We’re on the threshold of death…Soon we shall have crossed over…Don’t you understand? How could I not cry?’“Through the blue-tinged skylights I could see the darkness gradually fading. I had ceased to feel fear. And then I was overcome by an inhuman weariness.
“Those absent no longer touched even the surface of our memories. We still spoke of them—’Who knows what may have become of them?’—but we had little concern for their fate. We were incapable of thinking of anything at all. Our senses sere blunted; everything was blurred as in a fog. It was no longer possible to grasp anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had all deserted us. In one ultimate moment of lucidity it seemed to me that we were damned souls wandering in the half-world, souls condemned to wander through space till the generations of man came to an end, seeking their redemption, seeking oblivion—without hope of finding it.”In these halls at Auschwitz lined with portraits of the dead, someone remembered a lost one with a flower.We were taken by this picture because Scot thought it looked like his mother. She was like so many on this wall of the condemned—once a vibrant, breathing human being, probably a mother who made cookies for her children in the afternoon after school and looked forward to gatherings with friends, whose life was settled and ordered with books and paintings on the wall, a house full of memories. Then her life was reduced to a trash heap by the hands of monsters thinking they worked in the name of virtue.
At the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in January, 30 world leaders gathered to remember. Vice President Dick Cheney noted there “the story of the camps shows that evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted.”
Yet, today, it is intellectually unpopular to believe in evil, that it is a reality, tangible as Auschwitz. To discern something as evil, to acknowledge its existence, is to be labeled as a religious fanatic. “Can’t we all just get along?” is the mantra of the day. Tolerance is a mighty virtue, a Christian imperative—in the right time and manner. Yet to close your eyes to darkness in the name of tolerance is to permit it—even to support it.One teacher of a philosophy class at a university was discussing the tragedy of 9/11 with her students the day after the attack. Not one of them could say that the act was evil. The idea stymied their minds, choked in their throats
Some would say visiting Auschwitz—in person or only in a photo essay—is depressing and unnecessary. Elie Wiesel had trouble finding a publisher for Night. Such dark subject matter.Yet Robert McAfee Brown makes this important observation: In Night, “we learn the geography of ‘the valley of the shadow of death,’ about which the psalmist wrote—save that this was a valley in which people ‘fear [ed] evil,’ for it was a valley in which ‘the shadow of death’ took on substance…six million times. Among the few who survived the onslaught of that formidable shadow turned substance, was Elie Wiesel, whose deliverance condemned him to tell the story to an unbelieving and uncaring world. But because of his telling, many who did not believe have come to believe, and some, who did not care have come to care. He tells the story; out of infinite pain, partly to honor the dead, but also to warn the living—to warn the living that it could happen again and that it must never happen again. Better than one heart be broken a thousand times in the retelling, he has decided, if it means that a thousand other hearts need not be broken at all.
“At the end of Night, the immediate devastation has ended: the war is over, the camps are liberated, the author is alive. But the ongoing devastation has only begun, the devastation that will never end; the devastation imposed by memory that makes the line between life and death a thin line indeed…
“Those who hope for hope—after an eternity—are entitled to do so only if they have measured that which ahs the power to obscure hope, only if they have lived in the shadow of utter denial. The rest of us, who have not inhabited the innermost circle of hell, can never know what it was like to be there. But between us and the fiery furnaces where they burned babies alive stands the presence of Elie Wiesel; his presence cast a shadow from within which we can see, in dimmest outline, the reality he saw and touched and tasted directly.
“It must be the prayer of our generation that with his help we can recapture enough of that reality so that it will never be repeated.”