Reflections on Auschwitz

On a recent overcast and muggy summer day, I made a pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp in Poland where an estimated 1.1 million Jews were exterminated, along with 200,000 others, including Russian POWs, gypsies, and homosexuals.  I anticipated being greatly moved by the experience, awed by the camp’s stunning scope and grotesque grandeur, yet I wasn’t. 

The gas chambers in which men, women, and children were suffocated indiscriminately; the brick wall where condemned prisoners were lined up and shot; and the wood and brick structures housing the damned were historical artifacts comfortably removed from the present.  The unthinkable may have happened within living memory in the surprisingly bucolic Polish setting, but not within my living memory.  I might have as well have been walking the grounds of a former slave plantation, or visiting a museum dedicated to the Irish potato famine. 

Personal narratives of the Holocaust more readily tug my heartstrings.  Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz or Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning are horrifyingly transporting in ways that macabre memorabilia—bails of human hair, mounds of leather shoes, cans of Zyklon B cyanide pellets—are not.  Memoir has that power.  But visiting Auschwitz, while not emotionally resonant, did raise two questions in my mind. 

The first relates to the camp’s massive catchment area stretching across continental Europe, as Jews from as far away as the British Channel Islands and Greece were transported by rail to Auschwitz.  Why wrestle with that logistical challenge when Jews could be liquidated locally?

Could it be that Auschwitz’s location in Poland, a place nearly as anti-Semitic as Nazi Germany, was particularly suitable to carry out the Final Solution?  Word of the industrial slaughter would be less likely to generate backlash from the locals—they might even enthusiastically endorse the genocide!—while the rare camp escapee would be less likely to find a Good Samaritan offering refuge.  I was fearful of asking for elaboration from my Polish tour guide.

Second, why did the Nazis destroy the camp’s crematoria just ahead of its liberation by the Red Army in January 1945 given that exterminating Jews, or what historian Daniel Goldhagen termed “eliminationist anti-Semitism,” was not an odd aberration of Nazi ideology, but rather its logical culmination?  As Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss wrote in his diary, “I looked upon [Jews] as enemies of our people.  The reasons behind the extermination program to me seemed right.”  Why, then, hide what was to Nazis so righteous and important that, even as the war wound down, precious resources were expended annihilating Jews to the detriment of Germany’s war-making ability?

One possible explanation is that the Nazis, anticipating their defeat, were seeking to avoid future legal responsibility for their most heinous deeds and/or to enhance their chances of having some role in an Allied-administered Germany.  This was certainly the case with SS leader Heinrich Himmler, who surreptitiously attempted to negotiate an armistice with the western Allies with a post-war job for himself in mind.  (Himmler ordered the destruction of Auschwitz’s crematoria).  But many of the Third Reich’s leaders were fanatical believers who fought to the bitter end, thus negating any reason for them to cover their tracks.

Perhaps the destruction of evidence, which dated to a 1942 order called Aktion 1005, points to another possibility.  The testimony at post-war Nuremberg trials of a deputy to Final Solution architect Adolf Eichmann hints at what it might be: “[Aktion 1005] was constituted…to remove all traces of the criminal executions [my emphasis] that had been committed.”  At some level, did the Nazis, committed anti-Semites to the core, also comprehend that what they were doing was wrong, i.e., “criminal,” and therefore were ashamed of it?

These questions and others can be asked by the 1.3 million visitors from around the world who visit Auschwitz each year, or the very number that perished in the death camp.  In this respect, Auschwitz, while perhaps not moving, is a towering monument to man’s capacity to objectify man.  By warning against our darker instincts, the camp helps guard against them, which is profoundly heartening.

Kraków, Poland’s second largest city located just east of Auschwitz, inspires the same sense of hope.  There the city’s Jewish history is proudly embraced.  The Jewish Quarter, or Kazimierz, is prominently marked and tours are offered of Oskar Schindler’s Factory, which has been turned into a museum, and, of course, of Auschwitz. 

A cynic might say that this merely demonstrates Poles’ savvy about where tourist dollars can be made rather than a newfound ecumenism, but the country’s historical reckoning, while perhaps not on par with that done by Germans, has been considerable nevertheless.  Poland, a modern member of the European Union, is not what it was, or so one hopes.

In Kraków’s charming Main Square is a market selling all manner of kitschy knick-knacks for tourists.  Among the many stalls where t-shirts, toys, and jewelry are on display can be found a small figurine just several inches tall.  It is of an orthodox Jew.  The jovial fellow has a beard, payos (long side burns), and long overcoat.  For the equivalent of a few dollars, just miles from a monument to the perils of objectification, you can purchase the figure, who greedily clutches a Polish penny.

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