Friday, October 14, 2005
A wrenching visit to Auschwitz
On a warm, brilliant September day, I visited hell on earth. This was Auschwitz, the enormous concentration camp/labor camp/extermination camp in Poland, built by the Nazis during World War II to carry out Hitler's Final Solution. It became a symbol of the Holocaust, a place where an estimated 1.2 million Jews, Gypsies (now called Roma), homosexuals, dissidents and others were gassed and cremated by the Nazis, or died of starvation, torture or disease. Their ashes are buried beneath the soil in this vast, evil place. Here, somewhere, rest the ashes of my paternal grandmother (whom I called "Oma Li"), my Aunt Ruth, my Uncle Siegfried, and my cousin Renate, who was only 14 when she died.
They had been deported from Amsterdam in 1944 in a late-in-the-war sweep by the Nazis to rid Holland of all Jews. They were first sent to Terezin, a concentration camp near Prague, but were soon transported to Auschwitz by rail (i.e., cattle cars). Had my parents not emigrated to the U.S., I too might have been among them. My father, a doctor in Berlin, could not practice medicine after Hitler came to power, and in June 1933, my parents went to Amsterdam where my maternal grandmother lived. Two years later they left for the U.S.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops, but this was not my initial destination on a recent tour of eastern Europe. Two friends and I wanted to visit Prague, known as the most beautiful medieval city in the world, and chose a tour that included Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest and Vienna as well. An optional trip to Auschwitz, 90 kilometers south of Krakow, was on the itinerary and, until the day before, I was ambivalent about going. I was apprehensive and anxious. My parents never discussed the Holocaust with me. How would I react in the face of horrors I had only read about and seen in films? If I didn't go, would I always regret it? I decided to go.
When we arrived at Auschwitz, our bus tour of 40 was divided into two groups and assigned to English-speaking Polish guides. The visit to hell began. As far as the eye could see were double rows of barbed wire fences, once electrified, encircling the entire camp, a distance of 13 kilometers. We walked through those infamous gates that proclaim, mockingly, "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work makes you free") and before us lay a benign, pleasant scene — several rows of two-story red brick buildings along gravel paths lined with tall poplar trees. These were originally Polish army barracks, later rebuilt by the Nazis as administration buildings for the large Auschwitz complex. Our guide told us that a prison orchestra played music at the gate when new transports of prisoners arrived to calm them and make them feel that they were, indeed, in a work camp. But as the free world learned 60 years ago, women who were deemed unfit to work, children and the elderly were sent directly to the gas chambers. Able-bodied men and women became slave laborers at one of the more than 40 sub-camps around Auschwitz. At one time, Auschwitz held more than 100,000 prisoners.
The memorial wall at Block 11
As soon as we entered one of the buildings with our guide, however, my vision of a sanitized visit was shattered. We were in Block 11, where some Polish political prisoners were tortured and held in suffocation cells. Others were given a mock trial in the "courtroom," quickly sentenced to death, taken outside to a wall and shot by the SS. Today that stark wall, adorned with a few flower arrangements, is a memorial to all Holocaust victims. Our tour director had given each of us a red rose when we entered the camp — now, one by one, we placed our roses next to the wall. I wanted to say a silent prayer, but none came. All I could think of saying to my lost family was, "I am here with you."
Next door was Block 10 where, we were told, Dr. Josef Mengele conducted his evil experiments on women, children, twins and the disabled. Fortunately, we did not go in. Several rooms in other buildings have been made into a museum. We silently trudged past enormous displays of shoes, suitcases, human hair (all turned grey from the effects of poison gas and time), and hundreds of empty canisters of Zyklon B poison (formerly a pesticide) used in the gas chambers. We stared at large photographs of haunted faces that stared back at us. Although I never knew my aunt, uncle and cousin, I would have recognized my grandmother. I did not search for her among those lost faces. I was afraid I would see her. This was when I realized how difficult this visit would be.
We emerged from the dark buildings with their ghastly displays into bright sunlight, and walked in silence out through those terrifying gates; we boarded our bus and traveled a few kilometers down the road to Birkenau, the women's camp, also known as Auschwitz II. This would be the most harrowing part of our visit.
"The Death Gate"
An enormous gateway leads into Birkenau, large enough for trains to enter. It is the "Death Gate" railroad tracks enter the camp, where cattle cars from all over Europe delivered their human cargoes. One spur of the track leads to a siding, where SS doctors decided who was fit to work and who would be sent to their deaths. Eighty percent of the prisoners went directly to the gas chambers. The films Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List depict the terror of families being separated forever.
I looked across a wide field and saw rows and rows of chimneys, along with several dark brown buildings that looked like stables for farm animals. These are all that remain of the 300 wooden barracks that housed women and children. Some have been left standing as part of the Auschwitz museum complex. Our guide unlatched the door to one of these buildings — it was the latrine, where we saw perhaps 60 holes on a wooden platform in the center of a long, dark hallway. When she opened the door of the next building, a strange smell filled my nostrils, a rank odor of decay and mustiness. Several hundred women in various stages of disease and starvation slept here, in crude wooden bunks three tiers high, often two to a bed. A brick fireplace and straw did not keep the prisoners warm in winter. Here, in one of these bunks, Anne Frank's mother Edith died of starvation in January 1945, days before the camp was liberated. She and her daughters had been sent to Auschwitz in September 1944; in October Anne and her sister were transferred to Bergen-Belsen where they both died of typhus in March 1945.
Our final stop was the partially rebuilt crematorium, rebuilt because the Nazis, in retreat as the Russian army advanced, tried to destroy all evidence of the killing camp. A tall red chimney stands atop an underground structure with a flat roof. We descended into the building and into the gas chamber, noting the holes in the ceiling where the gas poured in. With Nazi efficiency, the crematorium was located across a hallway. Here trolleys on a small track conveyed the corpses into two ovens, which burned 24 hours a day. There were five gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz at the height of the killing.
This was the most harrowing experience of all. Two women in our group had brought votive candles to honor their relatives who were killed here. With trembling hands, they lit their candles and left them on the low wall of the crematorium. There were no dry eyes around me. I tried to push away the image of my grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousin in a tangled mass of corpses, but could not. I still cannot.
Two stones and a purple clover
We rode back to Krakow in silence. Auschwitz left me with indelible memories and three tangible souvenirs — just outside the women's barracks I picked up two stones and from a grassy field I plucked the only growing flower in this place of death — a purple clover.
The owner of a photo gallery in Krakow told our group that Auschwitz is the world's largest Jewish cemetery. "Do not call it a burial ground," he cautioned. "A burial suggests a religious service that honors the dead. These victims were not given that dignity." According to the records in the Yad Vashem data base in Israel, my aunt's family were killed on October 3, 1944. My grandmother died on May 28, 1943; she was 72. Although I am not a religious person, I lit four candles on October 3 to honor the dead. They flickered into the night with my message, "I will never forget."
So that the living will "Never Forget," major cities in Europe have built Holocaust memorials. The most significant memorial on our trip was the smallest and the newest. A week after Auschwitz, I walked alone in Budapest along the embankment above the Danube River. Sixty pairs of shoes — men's, women's, small children's — are placed here, quite haphazardly, as though families had left their shoes on the shore before a swim. A Hungarian sculptor, Gyula Pauer, covered the shoes with an iron coating and bolted them to the embankment. Small plaques, in Hungarian and English, explain that the shoes commemorate the many hundreds of Jews who were rounded up from the nearby ghetto by Hungarian Nazis in the winter of 1944-45. They were forced to remove their shoes and coats, and were shot, their bodies falling into the river. As I stared down at the shoes, my mind raced back to the thousands of shoes displayed at Auschwitz. The shoes on the Danube were every bit as powerful as the overwhelming images at the death camp.
My visit to Auschwitz is seared into my memory. As painful as it was, I am grateful that I could bear witness, that I could walk on the ground where my family walked, all too briefly, all too tragically.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito