Auschwitz Birkenau

Sunny Day In Auschwitz

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.

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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 we have been one of the only nations who really dealt with this kind of guilt. And this psychological work, makes Germany, not entirely but more than other countries, immune 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.

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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 the extermination of all 11 Million Jews in Europe over the coming years.

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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.

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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.

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21 thoughts on “Sunny Day In Auschwitz

  1. Hi
    Very emotional portrait of this place. I´ve never been there… and I´m not sure if should put it on my bucket list. I´ve seen the austrian concentration camp Mauthausen when I was a teenager with my school class. It´s more than twenty years ago, but it feels still terrifying when I think that I stood in the middle of a gas chamber (now, I think, it´s not part of the tour anymore to go inside this rooms). And at the exit of the chamber there was a photography that showed the room filled with corpses, goosebumbs. And I remember that on this excursion one class mate didn´t join us, he went for a sick note. He was in the neo-nazi scene.
    As you wrote, places like those are good to never forget… but I´m afraid that a lot of people have a bloody bad long-term memory. There are elections in Austria too, and it looks like populism is making the race… well we will see it in six weeks.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Greets from Austria

    Like

    • Thank you Zeitlauf for your comment. It shook me and made me cry at two occassions during the tour but it’s now, in the more quiet moments that I really have to deal with it.
      And yes. There are always some of them. Everywhere. Sometimes a lot. I hope they won’t grow.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an excellent and very emotional post. I think it is also an important and timely post, as we need to not forget the history here. I’m sure you know of the upswing of hatred and radicalism here in the US. It’s unsettling to think of what has come to pass. I appreciate your pictures. I’m struggling with words to convey my feelings, but I thank you for writing about your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m well aware of what happens in the US. And it happens all over the rest of the world. Not only racism but also the raise of populism and populists are a problem. Seams like everybody forgot where this could lead to.

      Like

  3. This is a powerful post. Brought tears to me. I remember visiting Bergen Belsen and finding wild strawberries growing everywhere. The symbolism of that…. for another day. I find it hard to comment, because of the emotions. This is presented so eloquently and I am certain there were tears when you wrote it. The photos tell a story by themselves. I might encourage you to submit it to the holocaust museum in Washington DC. Well done, my friend. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Wind Kisses, I really appreciate your comment. As I tried to express my feelings, it’s beautiful to see that someone can understand and relate. Thank you so much.
      There weren’t tears during writing, but sometimes suddenly during the day, because this visit is still in my bones. I don’t even know if this is an english expression. What I want to say is that it still haunts me, in the meaning of grief, but still more of terror.
      I guess you cannot prepare and I recommend everyone to have some time to deal with those demons afterwards.

      Like

  4. This is an exceptionally insightful post. I was particularly struck by “Guilt Comes in Many Forms” as I am a first generation Canadian with two German parents. I remember trying to hide my German background as a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s. I don’t do this anymore but I certainly still feel pangs of guilt at times. From what I’ve seen and read Germany has really dealt with its horrific history and this is something to be recognized. This is a timely piece in light of the unfortunate evil that is currently brewing in our neighbour to the south and other countries. It dismays me that we don’t always learn from our mistakes. Thank you for writing/posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I saw a lot of videos comparing the actual US government to the Nazi Regime. It’s easy because the personality of the US president is so striking. But it’s not only the US. Some parallels can be drawn to a lot of other populist leaders in Europe and all over the world. They all have in common that they don’t care about history.
      Thank you for your comment, Caroline.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m from Britain, a country that’s famous for inventing things that other nations then do more efficiently. We pretty much invented genocide, for example at the siege of Acre in 1191 Richard I of England ordered the beheading of 2700 Muslim prisoners. We pretty much invented the concentration camp, in the Boer War (1899-902). If you think countries with lots of cheese are so civilised, check out the history of the religious wars in France. At least one million Americans were slaughtered by other Americans in the US Civil War (1861-65). Then check out the history of the Warring States period in China – the numbers killed are beyond belief. The partition of India (another great British success). So it goes on, tragically and crazily.
    I’m not saying feel less guilty, what I’m saying is that we’re all guilty as humans together. We can only make progress by understanding that we’re all the same. All nations, races, religions have been guilty of hating each other. It has to stop, which is why both places like Auschwitz and thoughtful, civilised blog posts like yours in response to those places are so important.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Andrew, thank you for your comment and thank you for the facts added. And that’s just what I wanted to say: Evil is in everyone of us. It’s not “THEM” and “WE”. As long as we are looking for the guilt in someone else, we don’t ask ourselves what we have to do with it.
      The both essential questions of the holocaust are “Why did they do that?” and “Why didn’t anybody step in?” The last question is what we can ask ourselves in numerous occasions.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This was wonderfully and thoughtfully written. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m Canadian, but my parents were German and rarely spoke of life during and after the war. But, they shared enough to get me questioning how things got to where they did. I’ve recently read several books describing life before, during, and after this period in time. It’s becoming even more relevant, given the rise of populism in several countries, the US in particular. Lessons can and need to be learned from the past and through the images and words of people, like yourself, who are trying to understand such complex emotions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ed. It’s so important to know something about your ancestors life. With my ancestors being Austrian, my grandparents lived in Czechoslovakia near to the Austrian Border and – as a part of the German speaking community – they have been violently expulsed after WW2. From a historical perspective I completely understand the act, but from a individual perspective I know, that they have suffered the loss of their homeland all their lives.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This was a beautifully written piece, really captures the emotion of the place. It was also very hot when I visited I few years ago, really made me think about the conditions they suffered there in all types of weather. I agree with you it was an odd place to visit there, being such a tourist attraction, it was difficult to see people acting like it was a normal day out

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It makes my mind numb every time I read about Auschwitz and the tragedy that took place in history. Not everyone can express their views like you have in this post. We are humans and we must act like ones. Thanks for sharing such a powerful post.

    Liked by 1 person

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