One million chattering people line up to enter Auschwitz each year. In the ten minutes we waited for the English-speaking group to form for a 9:30 a.m. tour, four groups of high school children entered. On the other side of the turnstile, conversation stops; everyone listens to his or her own audio of the amplified whisper of the tour guides as they lead the groups to the yard, looking back at the administration and processing building we have just left. We hear why this site was chosen, we learn about the chemical company, IG Farben which still owns Bayer the aspirin company, which was established here and the railroad hub and the old military barracks which formed the beginning of this most well organized killing processing plant.
We see the replica of the smug sign at the entrance. Arbeit macht frei. Work sets you free.The original which was stolen has now been found and now hangs at Yad Vashem in Israel.No one was ever freed from Auschwitz or the much larger Birkenau nearby. And the work was designed to kill the workers through starvation, deprivation and denigration of spirit and soul.
We walk in the appropriate-seeming drizzling rain along the muddy roads passing barracks where 10-15000 Russian prisoners of war were killed to the barracks where Polish political prisoners were housed where the pictures in the corridor note the entrance and exit dates of the inmates, mostly less than three months from entry until death. We learn about the difference between the Sunder commandoes and the Capos. The Sunder commandoes were prisoners whose job it was to shovel the dead bodies into the ovens from the gas chambers.They were killed after a few months to prevent witnesses; the capos were also prisoners who received better striped jackets and were the supervisors at the work sites and in the barracks who often volunteered for these positions. Those who survived the war and were caught were sentenced to death.
We hear how it is impossible to know how many people were killed here as the decision for death was often ordered by the doctor who stood at the head of the line of people who arrived from each cattle car train and by thumb sign right or left indicated who went directly to the crematoria without being registered.
We see a photo of two trains, one empty with a pile of belongings dumped in the center between the trains and the next train full of people packed eighty or more into each car.
We are shown how peaceful the people are as they have been promised they will be resettled and will begin new lives here. They have brought their pots and pans;some have purchased tickets to be on this train from places such as Hungary, a long ride away. They believe that elegant and sophisticated Germany, the land of Goethe and Schiller would be able to move people to the west and to provide better lives for them.My grandmother's sister Shaindel was on that line that led to the showers which was really a miserable painful death by carbone B gas with two of her sons; the oldest son, age nine, Shimon, ran across the line to hide behind his father Ari, who was deemed good enough for work. These two survived to tell me the story when I met them in Israel in 1980. Shimon was then married to Zvia and worked as a diamond cutter.
I recite the Kaddish for the dead silently and for my grandmother's cousins and their families who were murdered here as well, for my grandfather Wald who was shot in the courtyard at Jasanovek death camp in Zagreb, Yugoslavia and for my Uncle Wolf Wald who was murdered at Bergen-Belsen and for the more than six million ordered killed by the Wannsee Pact of January 1941.
I cannot adequately describe to you the feelings I had upon leaving, first, that 75 years is not enough to forget the atrocities committed here, that every school child needs to see what has been engineered here. And then I think---those barbarians-- but no, they were people just like you and me who fell for an Utopian kind of superman who charismatically called for superhuman sacrifice to bring about a world comprised of people who were blond and blue-eyed, white and heterosexual without any physical deformities or disabilities and who all felt as he did about the future of a Europe just for themselves.
Change the adjectives and we still have folks who preach similarly. The difference between them is the cunning shrewd abilities of the German people to invent and engineer and organize so well. They still do. I am sitting here in a lovely breakfast room at my boutique Berlin hotel where no one has inquired as to my room number. Why?
Because you need your room key to engage the elevator, so anyone coming into this room by a separate elevator from the Reception floor has to be a guest of the hotel!!
I did not want to visit Auschwitz ; it was not on my uplifting tale of survival against many odds story I am writing. But just as I cannot drive past Woodbridge New Jersey without visiting the graves where my family and friends from Millburn New Jersey lay buried, I could not conceive of visiting Krakow, Poland without paying my respects to the memory of the millions of Holocaust dead.
We all need to see it to remind ourselves not to be taken in by promises, by charismatic leaders who wish to divide people by placing any one group above the others; we are all worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness whether white, red, yellow or any shade of brown, whether gay, straight, cross-gendered, disabled or well-bodied, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, well educated or not so, workers or beggars on the street.