“Auschwitz.” That single word is loaded with such evocative images and horrific associations that it’s hard not to arrive with a mental picture of the place. Before leaving for Eastern Europe, the question we were most asked was, “Are you going to Auschwitz?” Our plan was to drive out from Krakow and take the Auschwitz concentration camp tour. What we found completely surprised us.
We had visited several German concentrations camps before and thought we knew what to expect. From 1994-1995, I crossed the European continent several times visiting Nazi and Holocaust sites while working on my high school honors thesis. Each and every Holocaust site is carved into my brain: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Westerbork. I also visited other important World War II sites throughout Europe. Each of those experiences was difficult, emotional and mind-numbing. We expected Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most infamous of the German concentration and death camps, to be even more emotionally powerful. But, surprisingly, that didn’t happen.
The German concentration and death camps and the collective experience known as the Holocaust would become infamous for the magnitude of the horror and the scale of the slaughter – the experiments with lethal pathogens and amputations and toxins; the collections of tattooed human skin; the torture administered by every conceivable instrument of pain; and finally the staggering numbers of dead. The scale and magnitude is nearly unfathomable: 42,500 facilities used to incarcerate, deport or exterminate over 11 million people, including over six million people of Jewish heritage. It is evil in its purest form.
The place collectively known as Auschwitz is composed of the main camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the “death camp”) and the Auschwitz III-Monowitz (the “work camp”) – plus a network of over 45 small sub-camps that supplied slave labor to industrial companies. The collective Auschwitz system was the largest concentration camp in the German system, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the largest extermination camp. Taking the Auschwitz concentration camp tour puts the scale into sharp focus.
Those who have seen Schindler’s List or other Holocaust films have a mental image of Auschwitz. Trains arrive through the brick guard building and pull up along a long concrete platform. Inside the wooden railcars, people are packed in so densely that some are trampled. The cars are stifling hot, the floors are covered in excrement, and many people die on the journey.
The doors to the railcars open. The dogs are barking. The guards are screaming in German. Many inside the railcars lack the physical strength to get out. Yet all of them carry belongings to begin their new lives in this place – this place of darkness. Because they have been lied to and given false hope.
On the platform, more German efficiency. Sorting. People are sorted from their belongings. Suitcases that were painstakingly packed and the few cherished belongings that were selected are left on the platform. The men are then sorted from women and children. Everyone was sorted into two groups. The first group is sent to the showers…actually the gas chamber. Once dead, their bodies are sorted – gold teeth are extracted and sometimes experiments are conducted. Their belongings are sorted – shoes, clothes, silver, brushes, books – with like items being stored together in vast rooms. Sorting.
The second group is sorted for a different purpose. They are sorted for work. “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Those words taunt the living. “Work Will Make You Free.” But the only freedom would be death – either actual death or a kind of living death for the rest of their lives. This is a death camp.
People who have seen movies about the Holocaust have a mental image of the sorting – and even of the horrors of the concentration and death camps. However, there is no movie that can prepare you for being confronted with the realities of Auschwitz. No amount of seeing Schindler’s List will prepare you to see the sorting platforms. No film will prepare you to see the masses of human hair, cut from the heads of the dead…and then woven into cloth.
And yet, the experience was a disappointment for us. The Auschwitz concentration camp tour was a model in efficiency. It is almost an assembly line process of cranking visitors through as quickly as possible. There is no opportunity to pause and reflect on the vastness of the Auschwitz camp or the horrors that happen here. There is no opportunity to meditate or pray. There is no opportunity to honor the victims.
At other concentration camps and museums of the Nazi era, there is a strange stillness and an eerie quiet. Visitors observing a library-like atmosphere of hushed tones or intense silence, in reverence for the unspeakable events of the past. The Auschwitz tour was the opposite – a hive of activity and masses of visitors being ushered back and forth in groups of 60, 80, or 100. The groups are so large that the guides speak into microphones and you listen to the tour on audio headphones. The groups are so large that you really can’t see anything in the museum rooms. And the constant rush to move on to the next room, the next horror, the next atrocity.
Perhaps we had unrealistic expectations of the Auschwitz concentration camp tour. Perhaps we should have known that it would be an assembly line. Perhaps we should have been prepared to see visitors draped in Israeli flags having a picnic lunch on the walls of the destroyed gas chamber. Perhaps we should have expected the masses of visitors. But we didn’t. We expected the Auschwitz concentration camp tour to be like other concentration camps. We expected a highly emotional experience. It wasn’t. Auschwitz is different.
The events collectively called the Holocaust were not an evil committed on Jews and gypsies and homosexuals and political dissidents. The Holocaust was an evil committed on all of humanity. While we are glad we visited and took the Auschwitz concentration camp tour, it wasn’t the opportunity to connect with our shared humanity that we were expecting.