How is it that you can feel grateful for an experience that leaves you feeling seriously dispirited — depressed even — for a long while? Such was the result of my tour of the infamous Auschwitz Death Camp in southern Poland, an hour outside of the city of Krakow.
I signed up for this tour ($30 including transport) because I felt it was my human responsibility to witness and comprehend as best I could the reality of the monstrous inhumanity to man that can happen — that did happen in this place, especially since I was so nearby in Krakow. I won’t go into too many details (just a few) … Wikipedia does a great job on this.
A few things I learned that I didn’t know before: the Auschwitz complex was the largest of all the Nazi concentration camps. It was run by a special unit of the Nazi SS, which was accountable to no one other than Himmler, and thus able to descend all the way into the pits of hell without push-back or restraint.
The camp was originally Polish army barracks, which the Nazi’s converted for use as prison for their new Polish political prisoners as well as Russian prisoners of war. The first prisoners were the Poles themselves (including a few Jews) and almost 150,000 Polish perished there — and fairly quickly from a combination of starvation, overwork, freezing weather and sadistic treatment.
The camp was expanded ten-fold to add the huge Birkenau “extermination camp” (1 square mile) where, at one point, over 500,000 (mostly Hungarian) Jews — whole families who were to be “resettled” by the Nazis — were stuffed into cattle cars, along with a couple suitcases of of their most precious belongings, for a week long freezing ride to Birkenau. When they finally arrived, starving and exhausted, they were not checked in or even registered.
First, all able-bodied adults were “selected” out of the group (about 25%). All children under 14 and their clinging mothers, old people and anyone slightly unfit for work (i.e. slave labor) were told to go into a huge underground waiting room near the train’s unloading platform. Here, in a ruse to prevent panic, they were told to write their names on their suitcases for retrieval after “processing.”
Processing began quickly with the forced removal of all clothing for a “cleansing shower.” People were then herded into gigantic sealed bunkers, which were gas chambers. Two holes in the ceiling were used for dropping the poison gas. An agonizing death could take up to 20 minutes. Then the bodies were removed by prisoners whose job it was to dump them as fast as they could onto funnels going into giant furnaces in the bunker room next door, using giant pistons on rails to shove them in — after removing gold teeth and jewelry, which were melted down and sent to Germany, along with all the valuables from those suitcases. Whole families disappeared … and history’s most efficient extermination machine (up to 5000 per day) was also profitable!
The value of such a tour is the realization that such a level of monstrosity, of man’s inhumanity to man, is possible … and that it could happen again. The author Sinclair Lewis once remarked “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag carrying a cross.” We can see seeds of this here now. It’s not fun to think about, but after my tour it is a little bit easier for me to imagine right-wing Armageddon freaks and other militia being whipped up by a charismatic politician who gains power to get out their God-given guns and fight one last “holy war” for Jesus, as if he would be the type to dehumanize and smite “infidels.”