We went there on a Saturday in August. When we hit the road to do the 100km from Kraków it started to rain heavily and the photographer in me thought – all while thinking this thought is completely inappropriate – that this would be the adequate weather to take some classical shots from this dark site, showing the essence of its sad history.
But when we arrived there the rain stopped and the hot August sun came out and stood out for our entire visit.
The severe significance – for me and probably for everybody else knowing history – was in me until I heard from Auschwitz for the first time at young age. Already the name “Auschwitz”, more than everything else, evoked this darkness inside of me. What humans are able to do to other humans. The pure evil. The dark side of humanity.
We arrived there and the emotions I have expected to come up were buried under a thick layer of tourism, noise, fancy colored clothes, bad organization and millions of people. Our Polish 3,5h-tour-guide spoke German with a strong accent and she told history and stories aggressively and without any shown feelings. I’m still not sure about my feelings towards this kind of rhetoric in this special place.
Guilt Comes In Many Forms
As a German I surely have a special connection to the subject. I was raised, as every western German child, in a country that – at least from the early 70s – was highly aware of the guilt of their grandparents generation. When I went abroad later, it was always on my mind because the first associations made by fellow travelers from other countries towards Germany, were football, Mercedes and Hitler. And even the characteristics related to Germans – like being punctual, being well organized and effective – were those which make people able to run concentration camps.
Sometimes I really wished to come from a country which is known in the world for its large variety of cheeses instead of its ability to cruelly kill people at large scale. I have never been proud of my country and I never had a clue of the meaning of patriotism.
When I look at history today I have a swift impression of what being proud on your country means, because Germany has been one of the only nations who really dealt with this kind of guilt. And this psychological work, makes a lot of Germans—not everyone of course—more resilient to populism and demagoguery. But maybe just in my hopes and maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
We’ll see. Elections are coming up.
Imagination vs. Reality
There are some pictures which are burned in the collective mind of everyone of us. The portal of the main camp with its inscription Arbeit macht frei made by Jewish blacksmiths. The thousands of glasses collected from the victims. And above all the gateway of the train entry to Auschwitz-Birkenau which was the last thing many victims saw before being sent to the gas chambers.
I was used to see this pictures in black and white and I saw a lot of documentations and fictional movies in which everything was dusty, dirty an grey.
But Auschwitz is green and clean. Well managed lawns, some wildflowers, thoroughly renovated buildings. People taking photos of each other, sometimes even in sexy poses, in front of the small train wagon which transported up to one hundred people into death.
Human dignity is inviolable
I was well informed before going there, but I only became aware of the dimension of terror when I saw it. Auschwitz was the biggest place of engineered annihilation and strategic killing. Other than the inscription Arbeit mach frei on the entry portal suggested – prisoners didn’t come here to work but to die. That meant for example that they weren’t fed properly, with only about 500 calories per day but with a severe workload. If they wanted to survive, they had to steal food, for which they could be punished to death at any time.
Strategic hunger, abuse, deprivation of family members and deprivation every kind of human dignity: They have been tortured and humiliated in every possible kind of way. I imagine that the most horrifying element of Nazi torture were the psychological effects of the permanent face-to-face with the knowledge of a coming certain and violent death. One of the SS officers told prisoners on arrival: The only way to get out of here is through the chimney.
Human dignity is inviolable.
The Endlösung, the Nazi regime resolution of 1941, specified in January 1942 at the House Of The Wannsee Conference in Berlin, planned the extermination of all 11 Million Jews in Europe over the coming years.
Somehow – I thought, while walking down the infinite pathes of Birkenau Camp in the burning sun – somehow this could be only ruins of old buildings standing in a green field in the south of Poland.
But we saw the ramp where the selections of worthy and unworthy life took place, we saw the places of execution, the ruins of the gas chambers of Birkenau which were blasted by the Nazis shortly before leaving the camp, which proves that they have been well aware of committing a crime. We saw the 80.000 pairs of shoes, the thousands of glasses, the barracks, where thousands of people slept without heating during wintertime and under very critical hygienic circumstances, we saw the gas chambers and we saw the ovens where 1200 bodies a day were burned.
I myself am not ready. I had to write down this words to clear my thoughts, to get rid of them, in a way to be able to go on with my life. But I’m not ready. I’ll never be.
Auschwitz confused me. On the one hand the numbers, the rational and visible part. The hectars, the size, the green lawns. It’s there, it’s real and it’s graspable under the bright sunshine. But it’s just objects. On the other hand the suffering, the torture, the mind sickness, the stains of blood under today’s green lawn, the extinction of so many families, which could have been on our planet today. It’s beyond comprehension. At least it is for me.
Even if it would be only a crowded touristic place today with a green, fresh lawn where people in bright colored cloths pose for photos in front of a train wagon, you cannot close your eyes in front of your knowledge. You cannot not cry inside.
This is one of the places where we can have the uneasy sense of the fact that the evil is a part of everyone of us. Our duty is to be aware of that and fight it at all cost. We have to decide against evil in every moment of our lives.
Because we are humans. And we have to act as such.