It was not easy to go to Auschwitz, emotionally. We knew of holocaust, knew of the scale of the killing, and the method, and even of the entrance gate marked with the slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free). But to brave it all, and to be reminded of the depth of human bestiality where it happened, was an emotional journey of a completely different level.
Coming to pick us up from a hostel near where we lived was Conrad, a friendly young man with a Western History degree, and a superb command of English. He drove a small van that can sit about eight passengers, and we made two more stops in Krakow to pick up others. It turned out that Conrad was going to be our guide for the day as well.
When we arrived at Auschwitz, we met the other people of our guided tour. They came from the UK, probably as a part of a multi-day tour—in contrast, the few of us who came with Conrad only booked this day-trip from Krakow. Now we had a group of about 30 in total. Fortunately for the Auschwitz I part, which is run as a museum, we each got a radio receiver which could be dialed into Conrad’s channel, and as such we could hear him clearly without having to be close to him, or for him to raise his voice in order to be heard. This is a good thing. His voice was subdued, due to the solemn nature of the topic, and the place, even with hundreds of people, was quite silent. This is where tens of thousands of people died.
We saw stats. We saw pictures, of the camp, the people, and the running of the camp. We saw where people were housed (crammed), treated medically (not for cure but for medical experiments), and imprisoned (this even inside a concentration camp!), and killed, either in small groups in front of an execution wall, or en masse in a gas chamber. We saw piles and piles of shoes, glasses, and suitcases left by the killed, but the most heart-wrenching sight was the pile of human hair. When the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, they found seven tons of human hair. Apparently they were shaved from people who had just been gassed to death, for the purpose of making some kind of cloth. It’s such a despicable act, people don’t even kill the sheep in order to harvest their wool! Then I realized that I was totally wrong. Nazis didn’t kill for financial gain; that was only a byproduct. Killing was the goal. It was the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question”.
The museum tour at Auschwitz took about an hour and a half. After a quick break, we rode the vans to Auschwitz II/Birkenau. We could use the time to grab a bite, but Conrad apparently didn’t eat anything, and I decided to abstain as well.
The Auschwitz II/Birkenau concentration camp is massive. And in this part of the tour we didn’t have radio communications any more. Unfortunately the place was huge, and we were often stragglers of the group, due to my wife’s health condition, and struggled much to try to catch up with the group.
Auschwitz II/Birkenau is a purposefully designed place to kill people in larger quantities and efficiently. People freshly off the trains were sorted by the SS, where children, women, the old, and the sick, were marched to the gas chambers at the end of the rail line, and gassed in large gas chambers, up to 15,000 a day. It’s truly unfathomable that people can repeatedly commit mass murders, using a cheap and streamlined method, day in and day out. And they did this mostly not for what the victims had done, but for what they were. Jews. Gypsies. Homosexuals. Jehovah’s witnesses.
How can some human beings be so evil? How can we tell that some living among us are not just like them, waiting for the right moment to jump out and do the evil deeds? How can we be sure that enough people have learned this lesson, and will come forward to stop the next Hitler? It’s scary to reflect that we do not have clear answers to any of these questions.
Coming to Auschwitz and reflecting upon these questions made me more humble. Humans can be noble, yet when they are villainous, they can be worse than any other animal!