There is no way for me to talk about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. I would only say that if one is able, it is important to travel and be there to bear witness. Nothing can replace walking these sacred grounds, no book, no movie, no conversation.
All I can do, I feel, is try and articulate some of my personal reflections with regards to being in Auschwitz-Birkenau. First, I am not sure how anyone can be at Auschwitz-Birkenau and still hold a “God-out-there” understanding of the Divine. If this God didn’t die before the shoah, it certainly died when Meir Heller a one year old Jewish baby from Romania was murdered in Auschwitz. I couldn’t pray at Auschwitz; not to a God as traditionally understood. I tried. I simply couldn’t. The God of my understanding, the God that manifests as both the perpetrators and the victims, the God that manifests in me as the potential Nazi and the innocent human prey; this God is met in reverential silence, consequence of the awareness that there is very little, if anything, I can truly grasp or have control over. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a place that puts one face to face with the ungraspable. It is a place that tears apart what one thought they knew about how the world works. Suddenly, the overwhelming nature of the space reveals to the self its smallness, its limitedness, its irrelevance. All that is left is a silence within.
Second, it speaks in chilling ways of the dangers of psychological manipulation/warfare of the masses by the state or, in our day and age, any source of great power be it economic, political, media-based etc… Concentration and death camps where masterminded for peak productivity. Birkenau especially, was organized with great minutiae, to ensure the best output at every level of the camp. The arrival in the camp, the selection process, the walk to the registration offices for new inmates or immediately to the Gas Chamber if you weren’t fit to work, wasn’t the chaotic dog-barking, Nazis yelling experience that Hollywood often portrays for better effect. That would be counterproductive, stress the newly arrived, waste copious amounts of time and human resources. Nothing the German perfectionist mind could stomach. Instead, the whole process was done in great calm, methodically and with clinical precision to lull the disembarking into believing that the worst of the journey was now behind them (surviving days of inhumane conditions during “transport” in cattle cars,) and that they would now be assigned to work in this camp that, though it didn’t look appealing, might have just been one little step down from living in the ghetto in the first place. In other words: survivable. Just follow the orders. And so, hundreds of thousands went to their death in the gas chambers ignorant until the Ziklon B was dropped from the ceiling that anything bad was going to happen. At peak “production” times, once the Nazis truly perfected their psychological warfare technique, the life-expectancy of a newly arrived deportee selected for immediate murder was two-and-a-half hours. We stayed longer than that touring around the camp today.
The other, more insidious psychological manipulation the Nazis mastered was regarding the dynamics of hope. Because the Jewish people has survived so much over the millennia and in every continent we’ve been, we have built up great resilience, great tolerance to suffering and an indomitable sense of hope. The Nazis understood that, and used it to manipulate us into perfect inmates. One example. While, unbeknownst to you, the rest of your family was being murdered and turned into ashes a few hundred yards away; you were selected to work in the camp and walked to the inmate registration building I mentioned earlier. As you entered, you were ordered to strip naked, and as you were quickly moved from room to room, your head was shaved, your arm tattooed, your body showered, and you were given a striped uniform that more often than not didn’t fit you. People who had entered together with a cousin or another relative, often didn’t recognize each other by the time they were done was the transformation so radical and dehumanizing. But then, just as you began to mentally spiral down into shock, the Nazi officer gave you back your own belt and handkerchief if you were a man, or your head scarf if you were a woman. Just a little something for you to cling to what gave you just enough of a sense of personhood still, as tenuous as it may be. He gave you hope. Hope was critical to keep the slaves enslaved; the hope of surviving today, this afternoon, this hour, now. Why keep dangling this razor thin possibility of hope (taking it away, giving it back, taking it away…)? Because a hopeful inmate, with even one lousy dimming spark of hope in him or her, is an inmate that does not revolt. Only those who have nothing left to lose, those who know the certainty of their death, those who are beyond despair, can rise to fight their oppressor. Those who still cling to that thin thread of hope, still have something to lose. Our millennia-old hope was the cord we gave the Nazis to hang us with.
Which begs the question in our times about the manipulation of public opinion and the forces that prey on our predilections , manufacture our desires, keep us asleep, divided, distracted, and altogether apathetic. Right where they want us.
Lastly one of the points our amazing guide, Tomasz Cebulski, hinted at time and again, was the financial aspect of the camp life. Everything that was brought by anyone arriving in a concentration or death camp, every possession they managed to pack (being made to hope they were simply being “relocated,”) was stolen from them on arrival. It was cleaned up repackaged and sent to be sold again in the stores of Germany and Austria. The hair that was cut, the gold teeth that were pulled out of people’s mouths just before they entered the gas chambers, and all the cash, gold, bonds etc… people brought was immediately recycled into the Nazi economy. And then there is the exploitation of the human beings themselves as labor, or lab rats. Mengele sought to make new medical discoveries by using children for experiments. The German corporation, Siemens, had its own designated barrack in the camp of Birkenau where they tested x-ray technology on inmates. And then, of course, there is the slave labor that the inmates provided not just in running the camp but for all the factories and corporations that were more than happy to have them. Auschwitz-Birkenau is Capitalism run amok. Today, our corporations set shop in places in the world where labor is cheapest, labor laws inexistent or not enforced, and they can work their quasi-slave employees long hours while housing them in the worst conditions. We are not talking about the completely free slave labor of Auschwitz of worthless lives over which one had life-and-death power, but we might not be too far from it if we are not paying attention. And, mostly, we aren’t really paying attention, thrilled as we are to be able to save a few bucks on buying a lot of stuff we don’t even need.
Tomorrow we’ll do our best to shift gears (if that is possible) and take in the sights in Krakow where we are tonight already. We are turning our gaze toward celebrating the Jewish life that was thriving here for 1000 years, and connecting again with those who are working to revive Jewish communities in Poland. One thing for sure, we cannot let Auschwitz reduce all Jewish life in Poland to its name. To honor the memories of those who perished we must speak about their lives much more than about their death. The last week of our journey will be focused on that very purpose.