Spy first published this story after visiting Auschwitz in March 1993. It is just as timely today, with the anniversary of the Russian liberation on January 27, 1945. A new story follows.
|Infamous train gate to crematoria at Birkenau
Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945, effectively proving while ending the Holocaust. I’ve been to other concentration camps, and visited many of the most solemn places on the planet, like the Punchbowl, the cemetery at Normandy, Ground Zero, the Church of the Crucifixion in Jersualem, and Israeli’s Yad Vashem. Auschwitz grips the mind like no other – this was the penultimate killing field. Below is the story I wrote for State Department’s magazine after a 1993 trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As we confront terrorism around the world, we need to rethink the lessons of Auschwitz – created by the terrorists who swore their fealty to Adolph Hitler. RFH
A PLACE CALLED AUSCHWITZ
In 1943, when the Nazis crushed the rebellion in the Warsaw ghetto, the great mass of European Jewry that was sent to the killing camps like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Sobibor included a teenager named Emanuel Fuchs. Given his good size and strength, he was made a “kapo” and put to work shuffling bodies from the gas chambers to the crematorium. But, the rate of killing had increased so rapidly that often the bodies were buried in mass graves, and Manny became a grave digger. One day, he buried his mother and father, and was imbued with a dread resolve to see justice done. He later assisted the 0SS in tracing and identifying former SS and other camp officials. In later years, Manny Fuchs became a well—known photojournalist with whom I worked during the Kennedy and Johnson campaigns. In the dark night of November 22, 1963, when we were flying back to Washington, numbed by the events of Dallas, and speculating on what kinds of stories we should write that would convey to readers our concern about man’s inhumanity to man, Manny told us of his internment during the Holocaust. Even the best planned assassination, his thesis went, cannot compare to the systematic qenocide practiced against the Jews and others whom the Third Reich considered undesirable. To understand man’s inner depths, he concluded, one must go to a place called Auschwitz.
He’s dead now, but I promised Manny that, should I ever visit Poland, I would travel to Auschwitz, and stand where he stood on that ramp where the sweep of an arm decided who would live and who would die.
I would walk the Walk of Death from the tracks at Birkenau, the major killing camp associated with Auschwitz, where the trains rolled through the arched tunnel (the Death Gate) of the command post, to the point where selections began, those women and children who would die herded toward the south end and the “showers,” where they were gassed, and then on to the crematoriums, which the Nazis attempted to destroy at war’s end in a clumsy effort to deny their savagery, and from the crematorium to the pits where they dumped the ash of more than three million people. One sees the rooms full of shoes, of eye glasses, the incredible piles of human hair, the stacks of luggage belonging to those who were told Auschwitz would be a new beginning —— including the luggage of a frail Dutch girl named Ann Frank. There are the photographs, so familiar to all of my generation and older, but somehow they no longer shock the senses.
Indeed, Auschwitz and Birkenau are so quiet, in the early morning hours of a Sunday, partly covered by the snow earlier in the week, so quiet that one cannot hear the inner voices that had been anticipated, so abandoned that one does not conjure up the visions of the millions who walked these streets between the bungalows, who lay cramped, six to a box-like shelf while they still lived, who eventually walked down that street to their death. Perhaps the sights are so familiar they no longer send the mind reeling. But, then, one retraces his steps to Bungalow Seven at Auschwitz where prisoners were tortured in solitary confinement, or hung from hooks until their bodies separated, or put against the Black Wall between Bungalows 10-11, and shot. Bungalow 10 is where Dr. Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death, performed his macabre “scientific” studies.
And, it is there that the mind grasps the unthinkable. They simply could not shoot that many people. So, one walks a hundred yards to the right, and enters a bunker – whose door is in clear vision of the commandant’s house and his family- and enters the first gas chamber. Next door is the first crematorium, which could burn 1,500 bodies a day, far better than shooting 50 an hour, each of whom had to be buried. But, after Wannsee, even twin incinerators burning 3,000 bodies could not keep pace with the killing frenzy, and new ovens were built at Birkenau, where many of the Jews were being killed upon arrival, which could burn three to five thousand bodies a day. The madness escalated and ever-more efficient ovens were built, until Birkenau could burn 25,000 bodies a day. And, yet it wasn’t enough.
But, it is there, at the third and last set of crematoria, that the mind closes hard on the soul-piercing recognition of the diligent, systematic application of technology to eliminate the Jews of Europe. The thought then strikes, and one understands why it was so difficult upon first entering the camps to grasp the reality of the Holocaust, because the mind cannot envision murder on this scale. Yet, once consumed by that knowledge, one is almost overwhelmed trying to imagine the sheer terror that filled those hearts and minds so suddenly confronted with the stark realization that death was upon them, and you are subdued by the parallel realization that those images, once conceived, will endure.
The nightmare occasioned by that recognition is intensified by still another reality of Auschwitz and especially Birkenau . A hundred yards from the central crematorium, just beyond the double fence and guard towers, are the placid neighborhoods of Oswiecim. The guide is your age, but was “away during the war, and knew nothing about the killings” although his family lived next to the wire. Your driver is even older, and also from Oswiecim, but was also “away during the war. ” One has seen the aerial photos taken during the war, when the camps were bursting with the living and the dying, and wonders whether the Allied leaders really knew. But, these people knew. Maybe not this driver or this guide, but people knew.
I took two friends to Auschwitz.
The three of us stood there, a Catholic, an Anglican, and a Jew whose family lived in Eastern Poland and died in the camps, watching a group of young Israelis who had just arrived, bearing their blue and white flags emblazoned with the Star of David, and as we were leaving, paused to hear them recite their Kaddish. My Jewish friend wept silent tears, as we all realized that where these young people live, Jews still die because they are Jews, just as Muslims die in Bosnia because they are Muslims, and Sikhs die in India because they are Sikhs.
When ethnic cleansing becomes a national policy in any region, whether the victim is a Jew or Azerbajani, or Muslim, we have not yet learned the lessons of Auschwitz. When the talk turned to moral responsibility I told my friends about George Heisler, who escaped from a Nazi camp in Mainz. Heisler, a political victim, said, “When they came for the Gypsies, I was not a Gypsy, and I did not protest. When they came for the Communists, I was not a Communist, and I did not protest. When they came for the Jews, I was not a Jew and I did not protest. But, when they came for me, there was no one left to protest.”
The question burns at the conscience: if we know, and surely we do, about all the atrocities man continues to commit, and we do nothing, are we really any different than the residents of Oswiecim? Perhaps they were powerless against the SS, Gestapo and Wehrmacht but are we? If we do nothing, or too little, and refuse to step away from the jungle, which is seemingly never far removed from the core of civilization, no matter how technologically advanced, we condemn ourselves to membership in that long roll of “those who knew.”
Forty-eight years have passed since the last trainload of human beings passed beneath that arch, forty-eight years since men and women deprived of the last semblance of dignity marched under that cruel ironwork proclaiming Arbeit Macht Frei, forty-eight years and still part of our moral obligation to our neighbors is imprisoned at Auschwitz.
We must not forget, because a part of all that is good about mankind died at Auschwitz. We must react, and not just with sadness for the past but out of concern for the future. The killing has not stopped; only the venue has changed. If people want to understand the imperatives for stopping the atrocities of the modern world, let them come to a place called Auschwitz.
March 9, 1993