I recently made a trip to Poland to visit three concentration camps: Auschwitz, Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and Majdanek. I wanted to see the depths to which humanity has descended. I did not ask “How could they do this?” because I knew what Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenit︠syn had made so clear in The Gulag Archipelago that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being (Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenit︠s︡yn, The Gulag Archipelago, 75.)” We are all capable of the greatest good and the most egregious evil. We are all potential murderers. We are all guilty of what occurred in these camps. We cannot escape the responsibility by denying what happened, nor can we relinquish the responsibility by blaming others for what happened. The Shoah cannot be resolved. It can only be shouldered.
I took a train from Krakow to the town of Oswiecim. I walked from the Oswiecim train station (about 1km) to Auschwitz. On the way, I came across a mass grave where 700 prisoners from Auschwitz were executed in the final days of the camp’s existence. I paused to reflect on the individual lives that were starved, beaten, humiliated, murdered, and buried on the ground where I stood. It was a sobering moment. If I had known their names I would have recited them. A few blocks from the mass grave lay Auschwitz. Here the first experiments with gassing occurred. In this camp, prisoners were starved, beaten, shot, hanged, and gassed. Often, the corpses of murdered prisoners who had tried to escape were displayed in the center of the camp as a warning to other prisoners.
The local citizens did try to assist the prisoners in this camp by sending food, passing along messages to their families and hiding escaped prisoners. I was often reminded by Polish people that I met during my trip that “the Germans built the camps.” I took this comment to mean that the Polish people should not be held responsible for what had occurred in these camps. However, it is clear from several memoirs of survivors, that the Polish people who helped the prisoners of these camps were the exception rather than the rule. In fact, in Jedwabne, Poland the non-Jewish inhabitants murdered all of the towns Jewish inhabitants (1,600 people) except for 7 who were saved by a Polish family named Wyrzykowski. Even the local Catholic priest condoned the pogrom. The Germans did not initiate or participate in this pogrom. It was a strictly Polish campaign.
After walking through Auschwitz, I walked 3 km to Birkenau. It was here that the immensity and scale of the Shoah hit me. This camp was a gigantic death factory with four functioning gas chambers and crematoriums where 1.5 million people were murdered. While the red brick two-story buildings of Auschwitz had dwarfed me and confined me in in its corridors, Birkenau was massive and open. Auschwitz had been crowded with people, but Birkenau gave me space to walk and reflect. As I walked through the barracks and I prayed the Morning Office. Appropriately, the opening hymn dealt with shame, repentance, and mercy:
O God of mercy, hear our prayer,
for we are bowed in shame
To own our sin before your love
And beg in Jesus’ name
That you would heal what sin has pierced
With sword of bitter grief -
Our shriveled hearts, our darkened souls:
Send us, O God relief
After the barracks I walked up a long gravel road on the side of a camp and I came into a grove of Birch trees. Birkenau is named for these trees (Birkenau is German for birch tree). I recognized them immediately and my heart broke. I had read about these trees in several memoirs written by survivors. Here victims were made to wait their turn to enter the gas chambers. The trees had a calming effect on the waiting victims. Women calmed their children here, and hope, which always serves to anesthetize the sting of oppression and postpone resistance, was stillborn.
From there I walked through the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoriums. A Jewish man I met in a bookstore in Kasimierz challenged me to consider all of the knowledge that perished with the victims of the Shoah. “How many books will never be written? How many discoveries were indefinitely postponed?” I had never considered these far reaching consequences.
I will never forget a statement that I read inscribed on a plaque there: “The first to perish were the children… ” The horror of exterminating children reminded me of a passage from Elie Wiesel’s Night:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.
(Elie Wiesel, Night, 34)
I took a train to Lublin, Poland where the Majdanek concentration camp is located. Approximately 78,000 people were murdered at this camp. 59,000 were Jews. This camp more than any other left me speechless. It was not the immensity of the camp or the number of lives lost but the overall aesthetics that impacted me.
There is a mausoleum commemorating the lives that were lost at the end of a long road, called the Road of Homage, that runs from the ominous Monument of Struggle and Martyrdom at the the gates of the camp. The inscription on the mausoleum reads “Let our fate be a warning to you.”
As I walked up the steps I saw that the dome covers what appeared to be a mound of dirt. I later learned from a plaque that it was not dirt at all. To my horror, it was ashes of the victims recovered from a compost pile in the camp. It was the most sobering moment of my trip. I was staring into the remains of the Shoah. I was now face-to-face with victims of the most unspeakable crime of the Twentieth Century.
The gas chambers and crematorium are adjacent to the mausoleum. I walked into the room where prisoners were gassed, search for valuables and shoved into ovens to be cremated. I thought of the prisoners that worked here and I wondered how they were able to carry out there duties. To refuse to participate would have meant death by the same means. What is ethics in a place like this. Not just in the camps as a whole, but in the gas chambers where living human beings are asked to create dead human beings and reduce them to ash as if they had never existed. It is no wonder so many lost their faith afterwards.
I will never forget this trip. It will, no doubt, influence my work philosophically for the rest of my life. I came away from this trip, and the reading I did, with the following reflections:
First, the correct term to describe what happened to the Jewish people during World War II is the Hebrew term Ha Shoah (the catastrophe), not the Holocaust (the sacrifice). The Jewish people were not sacrificed. They were murdered. It is a catastrophe, not a sacrifice. Often, the horror of the Shoah is too much for people to bear and they take one of two paths to escape it. Either they outright deny that it ever occurred and develop elaborate revisions of history to bolster their argument. Or, they try to draw some meaning from what happened by highlighting seemingly good things that occurred as a result of the Shoah. Both of these paths are attempts to resolve the Shoah and relinquish the burden it imposes. The fact is, the Shoah happened and it was a senseless and meaningless act of genocide. Human beings were murdered by other human beings. It cannot be resolved. It can only be shouldered.
Secondly, the Shoah is the end game of a three step process, in my view: disenfranchisement, expulsion, and extermination. First, people were disenfranchised through interpersonal prejudices and resentments. Polish people resented the Jewish people because they felt they had cooperated with the Russians in the invasion of Poland and the subsequent oppression that ensued. The Germans only needed to exacerbate these prejudices through a well orchestrated propaganda campaign where Jewish people were depicted ritually murdering children, stealing money and spreading Typhus. Next, people were expelled; that is people were removed from the normal order of things. Jewish people were no longer citizens and were moved into ghettos and then concentration camps. Finally, people were exterminated. This three step process accelerates as it develops. Resistance must always start at the level of disenfranchisement. The rate of success for resistance diminishes as the stages progress. I learned on this trip how important it is to remain vigilant when it comes to the seemingly innocent bigotries that creep into our lives. It only takes the right conditions and political apparatuses to be in place for genocide to occur.
Thirdly, as an American, I realized that we are no different than the German or Polish people. We have committed our own pogroms and mass executions. We have slaughtered Native Americans, seized their property and placed them on reservations. We have enslaved African-Americans and developed religious and economic justifications for their enslavement and oppression. We demonize gay and lesbian people and deny them basic rights afforded to other citizens, and have only recently decriminalized their lives. We paradoxically employ Mexican immigrants at reduced wages without the basic rights or privileges of American workers and expel them from our borders on a daily basis because we view them as a threat to our economy. We have created our own prison camps at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Grahib and what happened in those camps is slowly beginning to emerge. Will we bear the responsibility for these offenses in the same way we expect the Germans and Poles to bear theirs? Where do we normalize prejudice and oppression? Where are the tracks of genocide being laid today?