05 Oct My Day at Auschwitz
Elie Wiesel the great Jewish writer wrote about the struggle he had to find words to describe his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz but went on to say that he felt his witnessing to what happened there was so important that he had to try. Having spent a full day at the camp on a recent speaking trip to Warsaw, in some small way I now understand.
Auschwitz is not only the most famous of the Nazi concentration camps but also a place where over 1.1 million people lost their lives, the vast majority Jewish people systematically exterminated in gas chambers. The choice to even go there involves a decision to encounter the depth of emotion it is certain to conjure up.
In the hours that I spent both at Auschwitz 1 and 2 (also known as Birkenau), my emotions ranged from deep sadness, numbness, rage, despair and in the end, hope. At this death camp, all that is evil about humanity and all that is dignified can be found in the memory of what went on within those barbed wire fences.
Walking through the so called living quarters where up to 1,000 people lived in quarters made for a few hundred, sleeping nine across with one small blanket in sweltering heat and freezing winter without even latrines, it wasn’t hard to imagine the hell they endured. With little food, they worked from sunrise to sunset often enduring random brutal beatings. Yet I was inspired by the stories of men and women who maintained a deep sense of dignity and kindness amidst this brutality. As Victor Frankl wrote when discussing his own experiences at Auschwitz in Man’s Search for Meaning, the fact that even one person endured such suffering finding meaning and living with dignity is witness to what we are all capable of. He witnessed many who did so.
Dignity Amidst Cruelty
There was a hall filled with pictures of prisoners from Auschwitz that included their name, their date of birth, date of deportation to Auschwitz and often their profession. Many looked frightened, quite a few defeated, but one man’s photo reached out to me. There was something about the goodness and resolve in his face that made you realize that this was something not even this cruelty could take away. The pictures themselves had been saved by prisoners who had been directed to burn all the photos as the camps were being evacuated to hide the truth of what had happened there. But they risked their lives by wrapping photos in a wet blanket and hiding in in a chimney. They may have died but they wanted the world to remember.
Barracks ten was a place of great cruelty. Not only were thousands shot dead in the courtyard there but also held prison cells made for torture including one where groups were placed and held there until they starved to death. It was outside that building that Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish priest who had lead anti-Nazi activities before being sent to the camp, had volunteered to take the place of a fellow prisoner being sent to the starvation cell who had cried out “my wife, my children.” Not only did Kolbe outlast everyone in the starvation cell where he led prayers until the end, but when the Nazis finally killed him with a needle to the heart he is said to have raised his left hand in defiance and final surrender.
There was a room filled with locks of hair from perhaps forty thousand people. The hair was sent back to Germany to be used in textile factories. This was the only time I wept at Auschwitz. Each strand of hair was a flesh and blood human being with hopes, dreams and family, taken without care from the world. It was shortly after that when I asked my guide how long he had been doing tours at the camp. “Three years,” he answered “though I stopped for a short because it is difficult to spend every day telling of these things. But I came back because it is my mission that this story is never forgotten.”
Perhaps the most difficult place is the railroad landing where almost one million people arrived and to stand near where an SS doctor with the simple pointing of a finger left or right sent a person to work or to be immediately to the gas chamber. There are pictures of women and young children confused and frightened waiting in line. That any human being could be the person pointing that finger frightens me to the core or even more that thousands of guards carried out those orders. Yet I remembered how, even here, experienced prisoners assigned to unload the belongings would risk life to whisper to those arriving to tell them how old to say they were, knowing it would increase their chance to survive.
There is a story told by Elie Wiesel in his book Night about three people hung at the camp including a young boy who was well liked. Before they hung him, he spoke out in calm defiance. When the noose did not kill him quickly, one man said to Wiesel “where is God.” From inside himself Wiesel heard himself say “there is God hanging from the gallows.”
The Question I Left With—What Am I Not Standing Up To?
There are no clean and easy to digest lessons from a day at this place. But there are two things that stand out for me. Though over one million human beings were killed in that camp, human goodness could not be killed. Even amidst the cruelest of all conditions, people rose above to demonstrate courage, kindness and sacrifice. The Nazis tried to kill the goodness that exists in the world but they failed. And as Frankl noted if we can find humanity here then we know it exists.
Finally, I left with a question: What is happening in the world that I am not standing up to? When I arrived back in Warsaw, BBC was doing a story about Muslims in Syria who are trying to defy ISIS and the terrible torture many are now enduring. My friend Tom had written about an ethnic group in Burma being denied health care and basic rights (often the precursor to genocide) and new studies suggested the warming of the Earth is accelerating. Auschwitz is a reminder of the hope of humanity for a better world. The world finally did stand up to the Nazi’s but too late to spare the incredible pain and hardship endured in this place. But there is a chance for each of us to stand up right now to be counted in the noble quest for a world we know is possible.
Elie Wiesel wrote of his own witness to Auschwitz “the witness has forced himself to testify, he does not want his past to become their future.”