I can tell you nothing about Auschwitz because I still don’t know what it is. I haven’t found a way to understand what we saw yesterday.
In Birkenau — Auschwitz II — the Nazis turned mass murder into an industry. This is the place where trains ran night and day, delivering more than a million people to be exterminated. This is where Mengele waited for the new arrivals and decided who would be liquidated, who was fit for slavery and who would make a suitable specimen for his experiments.
There were no attack-dogs when we went there, no soldiers shouting, no crying children and no terrified old men or women, but it made little difference. The shouting, crying, pleading, barking, screaming, whiplashes, fists, rifle butts and gunshots are frozen in the air.
It’s all around you.
You don’t feel anger when you go to Birkenau. Anger is too small an emotion for the crime that was done, and anyway, there’s too much sadness in the stones and the fields and the bricks and the trees. Sadness seeps up out of the ground and fills you to overflowing when you stand on the rail-head where those terrified people arrived by the thousand in filthy cattle-wagons and were kicked off the trains by the brutes of the SS.
Seven thousand such brutes manned Auschwitz during its time in operation, and of them, only ten were ever punished.
We stood on the unloading ramp where the Nazi doctor gestured to the left for instant murder in the gas chamber or right for another month or two of degradation, starvation, torture, beatings, humiliation and dehumanisation. We tried to imagine what in the human spirit could possibly produce an obscenity such as Auschwitz, and I don’t believe any of us found an answer.
I tried to see the place as Mengele did while he waited for a train to arrive, looking down the track towards the main gate, but it was no use.
No matter how long I stood there, I couldn’t imagine myself into the moral void behind that man’s eyes. All I could see was the people arriving, having been tricked, lied to or brutalised into getting on the train. People with little children. Families. Old people. Artists, musicians, doctors, bakers, tailors, stonemasons, factory workers. Real people, huddling by this very railway track I now stand on, waiting for their fate.
Birkenau is a bleak, cold, windswept place. At the far end you can see the stand of birch trees that hid the gas chambers and the crematoriums. The Nazis blew them up before leaving, but the ruins remain as testament to the crime.
To your right, behind the electrified barbed-wire fence and the moat, you can see a forest of brick chimneys — all that’s left of the huts where a million prisoners lived, suffered and died. To your left you can see the brick-built huts that survived the looting when the local people returned to rebuild the houses demolished by the Germans.
Some of the timber huts have been recreated to give you a feeling for the way the people had to live. They’re horse stables with bunks in them, and in the sub-zero temperatures of a Polish winter, they are just one more form of torture.
Even the latrines were a means of dehumanising and humiliating people.
In Birkenau, I thought I was finally at the heart of darkness. I thought there could be no place sadder or more evil, but I was to discover later, when we went back to Auschwitz-I, that I was wrong.
Here’s the house, where the notorious Commandant, Rudolf Höss, lived, with his nice garden and his wife and his children, overlooking the extermination of an entire people. The picture is a little blurred, I’m afraid:
And here’s the gallows right beside it where they hanged him after the war.
Höss recognised the enormity of what he had done, and though he never repented, he wrote in his diary that history would record him as the worst mass murderer who ever lived.
I have never been able to find a record of anyone expressing remorse for what they did in the extermination camps, though I’d like to think that perhaps there were people who experienced guilt for what they did. Otherwise, we have no hope.
They shot 20,000 prisoners in this courtyard, sometimes at the rate of one a minute, with a single bullet in the back of the head.
If you look closely, you’ll see that the windows are blocked, so that the prisoners wouldn’t witness the murders as they took place. In some demented way, they knew they were committing a crime, and this was how they revealed their secret fear of discovery. Incidentally, this is the same building where Mengele experimented on twin children and where other German doctors conducted experiments on hundreds of Jewish women. On the other side of the courtyard is Block 11, the death block, with dungeons in the cellar, including a starvation cell and a suffocation cell. This is the building where the Germans first experimented with Zyklon B gas pellets, killing 600 Soviet prisoners of war in the cellar. Its windows are not blanked off.
People call it the Death Wall, because this was the end of the courtyard where the Nazis carried out all those murders. I don’t know why they always did it here, but it must have been an appalling sight. On the worst day, they killed 1,200 people here. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine all those people, being stripped of their clothing, their dignity and finally their lives, to satisfy some insane ideology? What must this spot have been like, with blood everywhere, and the air full of gunpowder smoke, and people screaming and bodies piling up and workers dragging them away to the furnaces? What must it have been like? Would you literally be up to your ankles in blood? When would you stop thinking about it as you shot the victims? Would you become an automaton?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions. I’m only asking.
As I said earlier, I thought I had come to the very heart of darkness when I stood at Birkenau, and I might have continued to believe so if I hadn’t visited this:
In case you’re uncertain what it is, let me tell you.
This is a combined gas chamber and crematorium where people were murdered using Zyklon B gas.
Most people who walked through that open door during the war did not walk out again. When you go in, you turn right and walk down a short corridor. You then enter the gas chamber which has three openings in its roof. This was where prison guards opened the cans of Zyklon B and poured the pellets into the room, to slowly vaporise and produce the poison gas. Killing a room full of people — perhaps a thousand crammed in together — took about 15 to 20 minutes. Beside the gas chamber, the crematorium has three ovens and trolleys on rails specially designed so that they can be brought to the door of the gas chamber, loaded with a victim, swivelled quickly to slide into the furnace, and emptied.
It was very efficient insanity.
As I said to you at the start, I do not know what Auschwitz was, or Sobibor, or Majdanek, or Mauthausen, or Treblinka or Chelmno or Belzec or Bergen-Belsen, or any of the other obscenities inflicted on Europe by a Germany gone insane. I simply do not know.
I’m afraid it defeats me.
Jacob Bronowski said it better than I can