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Auschwitz

Thursday, 21 July 2011

I started my day today with a visit to Auschwitz. It took about an hour for my tour group to get there by bus, during which we watched a film that I found more harrowing than seeing the place itself. But that’s because the film explained the significance of the sights you were about to see, and also showed what they were like immediately after liberation, with film shot by the Soviet forces that entered the camp.

No one needs to be told that the Holocaust was a terrible thing.

I didn’t come to Krakow to see Auschwitz, but since it’s here, and it partially represents such a monumental and dark passage in human history, I felt I should see it.

It’s a grim place, and the mind rebels. I didn’t see everything I could have because, at times, I felt overwhelmed.

Inside the buildings photography is either banned, or banned if your camera uses flash. Both my cameras use flash in a way I can’t turn off, so that means I didn’t take photos of any interiors in Auschwitz I, although this was allowed in some of the reconstructed sections of the larger, second camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. So let me tell you a few of the things that I saw, briefly.

A room full of empty Zyklon B cans. A room – two rooms – full of shoes, particularly children’s shoes. A room full of luggage. And one with eyeglasses. And one with 7,000 kilograms of human hair, as well as some of the sacks and stockings that the Nazis turned such hair into.

Some of the cremated human remains – ashes – were shown. Aside from flowers and candles at the base, presumably placed there by people who passed through earlier today, someone had placed a photo of Jesus and one of Pope John Paul II, who as you can imagine is rather big here in Krakow. The intentions may have been kind but that struck a sour note with me.

And we saw the only furnaces and crematoria that hadn’t been blown up by the Nazis when they left the camp.

Now let me show you some of the photos I took.

This is the famous sign you already know about:

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Auschwitz

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Auschwitz

Some pictures of the camp itself. This is Auschwitz I:

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Auschwitz

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Auschwitz

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Auschwitz

These fences were originally electrified, obviously. And were sometimes used for suicides. Of the 1.4 million to 2 million people who were kept or killed in the Auschwitz network of complexes, only 144 escaped. When the Nazis built the next camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, they only used one line of electric fence instead of two, because they felt two were unnecessary.

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Auschwitz

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Auschwitz

The outside of the surviving gas chamber and crematorium.

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Auschwitz

Now Birkenau.

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Birkenau

Two views of the platform where trains of prisoners, mostly Jews, were offloaded and, in many cases, marched immediately off to the gas chambers.

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Birkenau

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Birkenau

Most of the barracks no longer exist – they were made of wood, which has decayed. But there are the chimneys, made of brick, which remain, like a dead forest. And some barracks have been rebuilt. This is the inside of one:

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Birkenau

We also saw the remains of the gas chambers/crematoria as the Soviets found them, blown up by the Nazis. And there was a memorial. I didn’t photograph these because every time I took a photo I felt a little bit grotesque, so I tried to do so sparingly. By the end I was very very ready for the tour to be over. We spent about four hours at the two camps.

I saw many couples holding hands. I had no one to hold hands with, but I understood.

Let me close with some thoughts.

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Auschwitz

This quote by Santayana was posted at the entrance to one of the buildings. It says “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” The message of the camps and the effort to preserve them is to remember, because without memory, we lose our best defense against a recurrence.

It’s a nice thought and may generally be true, but I don’t believe it is strictly true. If you marched the genocidal Hutus of Rwanda through the camps before the Rwandan genocide, some may have been given pause. Others may have been given inspiration, because genocide was, after all, their intent and purpose. Or the “necessary” means toward achieving their intended purpose. I tend to think that when you’re in the process of killing several hundred thousand people, you have a clear idea of what you’re in the process of doing. Fundamentalist Hindus in India – like the ones behind the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 – study Hitler as a positive role model, and there are such things as Neo-Nazis. Some people hate. Other people dehumanize. We’re all susceptible to propaganda, and some ideas – like nationalistic or ethnic or religious fervor – can blind people to our common humanity.

And I say this as a preface because the Jews, as a people, have suffered an extraordinarily long history of persecution and hatred. Of marginalization and discrimination. Of extremely creative cruelty by many other peoples around the world. It’s one of the reasons why, aside from my Jewish ancestry, I identify with the Jewish people so strongly. They have persevered against great injustices and against great odds, and I cheer for them.

But Jews are not synonymous with the state of Israel, much as some Jews would like to obfuscate this point. There are many millions of Jews who choose not to live in Israel for various reasons. Jews, like any people, are diverse in almost every respect, including their ideological and political opinions. And Jews within Israel are not united behind the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians by any means. So I limit my remarks to the state of Israel, and those people – in Israel and outside of it, Jewish or not – who support Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Your behavior is absolutely indefensible. Absolutely indefensible. And you should have the courage to know it, and see through the arguments you’ve wrapped yourself in.

Years from now, people will look back on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as people look back on the system of Apartheid, or Jim Crow. Certainly there were African Americans in the United States who advocated and committed violent acts against people during the time of Jim Crow. Nelson Mandela and some of his associates in the ANC at one time did the same. The question is not whether there is violence on either side; this and other arguments are designed to obscure the truth and perpetuate the systems of oppression that exist, just as other arguments and justifications perpetuated other systems while they existed.

My friend Hande told me that when she visited the camp she saw groups of Israeli soldiers there, presumably sent by the State of Israel. I did not see such soldiers there, and there could be another explanation for their presence. But I highly doubt that Israel is doing what it is doing to the Palestinians because it does not remember the Holocaust. Let me give you one example, from 2004. These are excerpts from the full story at the BBC:

The footage has sparked a debate in Israel, where some media compared the army’s conduct to Nazi coercion of Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.

Concentration camp prisoners were forced to perform classical music for their Nazi guards in the World War II.

The human rights group’s film of the West Bank incident shows Mr Tayem playing to an audience of border guards and waiting Palestinians as his documents are checked.

Mr Tayem has said he was humiliated at the checkpoint and the army’s accounts do not make sense.

“They asked me to open the case and show them the instrument, which was fine by me,” he told Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“But then they asked me to play. I did not offer to play,” he said.

He added that the soldiers would have asked him to step back and play his violin at a distance if they feared it might contain explosives.

This minor incident – hardly significant in real terms in the larger conflict – caused such a stir within Israel and abroad precisely because it symbolized and crystalized the fact that the oppressed have now become the oppressors.

It’s wrong.

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