You expect to be emotional after a day at Auschwitz, but I’m challenged to describe the history, to which I am now a witness.
There’s always a difference in experience between the dryly written paragraphs of a high school text book, and then staring through the glass at the piles of human hair that were shaved off the victims before they entered the gas chamber. Shaved off, because they could be used in making rope, or other useful products.
You’re staring at a set of railroad tracks, where over a million people once stood, to be separated into those who were healthy enough for cruel living conditions and forced labor, and those who would be sent immediately to their deaths.
Auschwitz (I) is big. The size of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) is shocking. The building footprints and chimneys go on and on and on. A factory of slavery and murder.
You hear the numbers. 6 million murdered across Europe. 1.3 million murdered in Auschwitz alone. You notice that the total number of Jews in Hungary before WWII is very close to the same number that were murdered in WWII. The Nazis exterminated almost every jewish person in the entire country, over 400,000, with the help of the Hungarian government.
You become numb for a moment, unable to comprehend.
Then you see the drawings of children, copied from the walls of their imprisonment.
The presentation of evidence
The guide was constantly adding details about how photographs, records, eyewitness accounts all corroborate the history that we were being presented.
The first few times, my eyebrows furrowed, not understanding why she would say this sort of thing again and again. Yes, we needed evidence for things like the Nuremberg trials, but now?
Then you remember that there are people on this planet who do not believe this happened, who deny it. Another wave of nausea strikes you.
This was not a crime of passion
Every step was calculated.
The Nazis pioneered a new frontier of social engineering. They told families to stick together to make sure they got places into the same new house that they were relocating to. They told them to bring their valuables as they relocated to a new home.
They told men, women, and children, that they were going to get a shower.
“It was most important that the whole business of arriving and undressing should take place in an atmosphere of the greatest possible calm. Small children usually cried because of the strangeness of being undressed in this way, but when their mothers or members of the Jewish Sonderkommando comforted them they became calm, and entered the gas chambers playing or joking with each other and carrying their toys.” — Rudolf Höss, Nazi Commander of Auschwitz
They arrived at their methods through experiments — not just how to kill, but how to kill efficiently, economically. Containers of gas were simply too expensive for mass murder.
This all had public support. We’ve all seen the films of Hitler’s rallies, we’ve heard the speeches. They are not subtle. They talk openly about the Jewish race being evil. The interviews with former SS members declare that they were 100% convinced that the Jewish race needed to be eliminated.
You still can’t grasp it
We were there on a warm sunny day. Dan, who I met on the tour, breathed out and said, “Imagine what it’s like in Winter.” It’s easy to lose where you are for a moment, and walk the grounds in the warm sun, and forget there was not grass or trees — but a small city filled with mud and suffering, while human ashes were transported and sold to local companies for use in farming fertilizer.
With each step, you alternately fall into the horror you are witnessing, and then retreat to shake away the suffocating enclosure of it all.
How can you make sense of this?
At the end, I overheard the closing remarks of another tour guide. He spoke beautifully about how each person here had probably never experienced hunger. That his parents in Poland had experienced in during communist rule, and that of course the prisoners in Auschwitz had faced not hunger, but starvation. That we are in a better place.
There is no question that many of us are in a better place than people who experienced the Nazi and Soviet oppression and genocides of the 20th century.
Yet, the world is not a better place. The world is the world.
Hezbollah still denies the Holocaust. Radicalized groups are open about their wish to exterminate the Jewish people. The 21st century did not leave genocide behind, with Darfur estimated between 100,000 and 400,000 dead. The history of modern humanity is littered with genocide.
While Viktor Frankl miraculously emerged from Auschwitz and with an answer to Man’s Search for Meaning, I do not possess his strength of character, intellect, or faith. I did not leave even as a simple tourist of Auschwitz with any belief in purpose or meaning, or any belief that there is a bright future for humanity.
I awoke in the shower that night, not knowing how long I had been there, holding my head in my hands as the water ran over me, sobbing. How can there be meaning in this?
The vicious battle continues to play out: the brutality of the world versus the hope that fuels the struggle of human existence. The human psyche can create purpose to continue in the worst possible situations, even when there is no actual meaning behind it. We do this to survive. We have done this since we first appeared on the earth.
Religion was (and for many, still is) effective in creating purpose. As some escape from the haze of dogmatic faith they scramble to find new meaning, new purpose, new “connectedness”. Yoga, meditation, and every other new age technique can be just as effective in creating a false sense of purpose as believing in rosary beads, divine inspiration, or ancestor worship.
In the end, we are biting down on our spiritual dummies, our transcendental pacifiers, and believing in an abstract creation of our collective or independent minds. We do not want to face the bitter truth of the emptiness that surrounds us.
At the same time, we have been bred for survival over tens of thousands of years.
We see the scale of the evil that was done.
We bear witness to the evidence in front of us.
We stagger from the calculated engineering of it all.
We see humanity for what it is. Both sides, both authentic, undeniable elements of humanity.
There are no answers.
We put one foot in front of the next, hoping to forget the taste of emptiness, to enjoy our friendships, to admire those who survived when no hope was visible, to do what we can to stop the next one.
And still, there are no answers.