“Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work will set you free”. Many crossed the infamous gate into Auschwitz. Many never left. On the Fall of 2014, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most dreadful concentration camps ever created during the Nazi regime. I, too, crossed that gate into the experience of hell created by man.
At 7 a.m. we were at the bus station in Krakow waiting for our bus to leave for the town of Oświęcim, Auschwitz in Polish. The air was moist and cold with a temperature of around 43F. A slight drizzle covered the pavement. The bus left the platform on time. It took about ten minutes winding through the streets of the busy city center, which, at this time, had just woken up and filled the streets with locals getting their coffee fix while rushing onto crowded public transportation vehicles in order to get to work. Once on the expressway, traffic moved quickly but heavily. The skies were gray and the drizzle grew thicker. It felt comfortable and cozy sitting on my seat. The PKSiS line motor coach rode smoothly for the 1.5-hour long trip to Auschwitz.
As we neared the region where the town of Oświęcim is located, other small towns along the road seemed simple, and comprised the mixed urban-rural industrial municipality of the same name. I had prepared myself for this visit by reading and studying everything related to the holocaust and the events and structure of the concentration camp. Despite all my preparations, I still couldn’t shake off the unrelenting uneasiness I felt inside me. I was anxious. As the motor coach approached the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum, I pondered the details of the many people huddled together in a convoy of cattle cars arriving at this factory of death to a fate undisclosed to them. I felt how disoriented, scared and exhausted they were at that crucial moment in their lives when the train made its final stop and the living got up and went out to face their fates, while the dead, on the floor of the cattle cars, found peace in their final sleep during the long trip to the camp.
Visiting Auschwitz is never an easy experience. It is a meditation on life and death. We are confronted with our own fears in face of the dark shadow within each one of us. It is a cathartic experience since we observe those events guarded by the distance of time, but still, it scars our hearts with the suffering of human life no different than our own. We start in Auschwitz I, the main camp. The history of this camp dates back to the 19th century when it served as the grounds for Austrian military barracks. The SS (the paramilitary squadron under the Nazi Party) built the camp in 1940. Initially that’s where POW’s and political prisoners awaited their death sentences. The hideous future of the camp was, however, under way. This part of the visit is where you will find the exhibits occupying the original barracks that served as temporary shelters to the numbers of victims who perished there under cruel circumstances.
It is important to allow one full day for a thorough visit to this memorial site encompassing Auschwitz I and II, the latter referred to as Birkenau. Monowitz-Buna (aka Birkenau III was part of a sub-camp complex that used slave labor on the site of the IG Farben industrial complex owned by the Germans. A trip to this memorial to the victims of the holocaust is not to be taken lightly. One should embark on this experience as one enrolls in a university class in the sense that will demand dedication and observation. It requires patience, study of the human soul, objectivity, and above all, a deep sense of compassion for the lives of those who perished there, as well as for those who survived. The motivation to go is not only to remember, but also to educate ourselves and others so that the generations to come won’t be at risk of seeing it all happen again in different forms. In a way, in a smaller scale, similar genocide continues to take place all over the world, and, we, to some extent, still respond with silence and distance.
The Shoah is the word in Hebrew to describe the Holocaust. Shoah (in Hebrew: השואה) means literally HaShoah “the catastrophe”. To some Jews the word “Shoah” is preferred to “holocaust” due to the religious nature attached to the word “holocaust” which refers to the ancient religious animal sacrifice being completely consumed by fire: from the Greek “holókaustos”: hólos, “whole” and kaustós, “burnt”. It is impossible, even with all evidence available today, to have a complete idea of the hideous crimes and the extent of the suffering undergone during life in the concentration camps. It is hard for the human mind to fully comprehend the reasons behind the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. The Jews were the main target but other ethnic groups and peoples, who represented a threat to the Nazi ideology, were also affected, namely the Romani and Simi people (popularly known as “gypsies”), homosexuals, Poles, Soviet POW’s, political prisoners and dissidents, as well as the mentally and physically disabled. A walloping number of people were exterminated. Eleven million people were killed during the holocaust, of which one million were Jewish children alone. These facts and figures are unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t experienced the tragedy first-hand.
It is even hard for anyone to understand and accept the fact that other monstrous types of genocide have happened after Auschwitz and still happen today despite the horrors unveiled after WWII. The Rwandan Tutsi Genocide in 1994 was another mass murder on the grounds of ethnicity, the Cambodian genocide in the 1970’s, the Bosnian genocide, the Israel-Gaza conflict, to name just a few of the ongoing massacre and crimes committed on similar circumstances. The numbers of occurrences of crimes against humanity is alarming and somehow brings to light an eerie prognostics that humanity hasn’t really learned much from the horrible mistakes perpetrated in history, and that it is up to each one of us to speak up and do our part so that these crimes don’t continue to be the characteristic that will define our species on this planet for the generations to come. It is so devastatingly sad and discouraging to admit that the human mind can devise plots that aim at the complete destruction of other ethnic groups or people different from the privileged class in control. It defies logic and decency that humans can create a plan to annihilate and kill thousands or millions of people without even feeling any qualms in one’s conscience. How is the distance and indifference created?
It is intriguing to observe that the same minds that devised the concentration camps, the tortures, the executions, the use of carbon exhaust fumes and later Zyklon B cans in the gas chambers, and the horrific system of disposal of corpses, were the minds of common men who led normal and healthy lives, not only within the sphere of their own families, but also in their personal and social lives. These were men who cultivated the arts, literature and classical music, who had spouses and children and spent quality time with them in leisure, like any other person. It is on this premise that Hannah Arendt so eloquently wrote her theory on “The Banality of Evil” during the Eichmann trial. Despite the controversial implications of Arendt’s observations within the Jewish community, one cannot fail to be puzzled, if not completely intrigued by the reasoning behind this analysis. It is rather shocking to observe that the minds that created murderous plans to exterminate so many people are really not much different than our own, and that just a twisted diversion in the perspective adopted when interpreting reality is enough to make one cross the line that qualifies our inherent humanity.
From an epistemological point of view, all forms of knowledge are conditioned knowledge, and, therefore, based on our perceptions and personal experiences and resultant interpretations of a given situation, phenomenon or reality. Political ideologies come into existence out of a system of beliefs shared by the common interests of a dominant group that imparts those core beliefs to the public at large; this creates a support system that guarantees the survival and maintenance of the operative ideology and subsequent developments. It is within this scope that individuals adhere to incongruent political ideas in the beginning and later on struggle with personal opposition and dissent. The majority of the elements in a group, on the other hand, choose to follow orders without questioning or doubting, even if there’s a fiddlestick of opposition in their present views, for fear of the unforeseen consequences their actions might bring upon themselves. Others, nevertheless, don’t even bother to occupy their minds with questions or doubts, and, therefore, choose to perform their duties to the letter.
The system implemented in the concentration camps, and in Auschwitz-Birkenau in particular, was so complex that it baffles the mind of anyone who tries to understand the internal workings of the effective organism the Nazis constructed. The procedures for this complex system was postulated in the “Endlösung der Judenfrage” – the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, the euphemism used by the Nazis as they officially put into action the plan to exterminate the Jewish population through genocide in the Nazi-occupied Europe. The abominable plan had its beginning at the Wannsee Conference in 1942 resulting in the catastrophe that came to be known as the Shoah or the Holocaust. Two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe was exterminated in different forms but mainly by asphyxiation through gassing.
A lot of people wonder why the Jewish population seemed to accept their fate so passively and without revolt. However, the ideology supporting this industry of death had profound psychological implications that incapacitated the individual from inside out, extracting from each one of the victims their sacredness for life, the dignity of the human spirit. Few were the ones who were able to safeguard their spirits and survive. The annihilation of their humanity followed phases that eventually led them to meet their doomed destinies. When the segregation started, and their rights as citizens were denied, the first blow to their identity had been given.
In March of 1942 Birkenau opened its gate as the largest extermination camp in history. It initiated killing on an industrial scale. The transportation to the camp in those cattle cars, where people were huddled together during a trip that lasted days, was a lethal blow to their already feeble remnants of dignity. Many died of starvation, thirst and cold during the long journey. The ones who survived the trip would soon go through the process of selection upon arrival. This phase was also psychologically disturbing. Families were split apart when the women were separated from the men, while the weak, the sick and the children were exterminated right away. The physically demanding reality of the life in the camp forced these individual to abandon any bit of hope left in them. Faith somehow seemed pointless to some of them. They felt that even God had left them alone in their darkest hour.
It was hard to find a higher meaning in the midst of the chaos and tragedy. Only those strong enough to enter that sacred space were able to access the kind of power that kept them going forward and not giving up. The signs that one had given up were easily noticeable. In a given day, that one individual would just not get up, and lie, in their soiled straw-covered wooden bunks, in a unwavering state of torpor and apathy that proceeds that type of agonizing death. Torture, exhaustion, humiliation, illness, constant beatings and extreme weather conditions took its toll in a steadfast but rapid fashion. The organized system of the concentration camps, and in particular Auschwitz-Birkenau, was designed to destroy the individual from inside out, leaving no trace of dignity and humanity to serve as a stronghold or refuge for the human spirit. Still movements of organized resistance within the prisoners took shape internally in a secretive network of informants. That serves to illustrate that the Shoah was not passively accepted as many might think.
The philosophical axiom that “nations and governments never learned anything from history” is an intriguing starting point of reasoning of the conditions we bring upon ourselves in the scheme of an absolute design of evolution. We seem to be intrinsically bound together by astringent universal laws that go beyond our seemingly disposition to attempt to control anything. It seems to me that it is in our attempt to understand that we give meaning to the chaos and embrace all phenomena for what they are.
On this day, February 27th 2015, the United Nations invite everyone to remember the victims of the Shoah. It is the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. We remember always, but it is our duty to educate everyone so that that they, too, may be touched by the experience of this dark moment in the history of mankind, and how it has impacted our lives as we struggle with hatred, injustice, strife and genocide today, and make a commitment to free each other’s mental shackles of prejudice and opposition; that we may be able to accept one another in all our differences, without threat, but with the understanding that there’s not one single truth, and that reality comes about when embrace it in its limitless manifestations, making it whole within ourselves.
As I walked the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau I walked with them all. I communed with their pain. I carried the burden of their fragile bodies and listened to their voices echoing in my heart. I felt the cold breeze on my face. I heard the trees and the leaves whispering their names. I covered their corpses with flowers and love, and I assured them it was not in vain. I felt the Isolation, the longing. Lost and disoriented I succumbed to sadness, fear and anguish. I also felt peace in my heart and felt their warming smiles receiving my prayers. There’s beauty even in places we don’t expect to see. I have a feeling that they saw that as well. They felt the beauty and they cried and felt free.
I felt as if walking on well-known territory. I felt the heavy weight on my shoulders of my own pain. My tears welled up in my eyes. I had a knot in my stomach and a deep longing in my heart I cannot explain. I couldn’t grasp the multitude of emotions taking over me. I am there. I have always been there. It has always been in me. It whispered in my soul and I heard the cries for help in agonizing numbers, the cries for prayer and absolution. I thought about their pain and hope and lost memories.
I was there for a moment. I was there for eternity. I am there now. I will be there for all eternity. They sleep with me and I am with them in my waking hours. Never will I close my eyes again. Never will I dismiss the signs of the dark clouds that scarred our souls. The trees, the sky, they speak. They call their names. They call every name. They will call forever.
The confinement – the darkness – the cold – the wind freezing our hearts forever. The pages burned, the wings cut. The memories, the pain. The faces, the hope, the eyes. I heard the screeching sound of the architecture of the railway tracks echoing in the landscape. It spoke of dreams lost forever. It spoke of our silence. It spoke our names. The flames pulverizing our lives, burning our dreams. The trees confessed to the sky. It cried. It will cry forever. I’m lost and I’m found in them. Their presence welcome me and rejoice. I remember. I let them live. I let them know they are here.