The gates of Hell.
We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can also play Bach and Schubert. And go and do his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning
– George Steiner
At Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated.
– Rudolph Hoess, Auschwitz Kommandandt
Technically [it] wasn’t so hard—it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers…. The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 head in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time. The killing was easy; you didn’t even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly.
– Hoess, explaining how the camp gassed 10,000 people in one day
TO write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, observed the German radical philosopher Theodor Adorno.
Like so many Germans who came of age in the post war years, the era when that nation was attempting to come to terms with the legacy of the Final Solution, Adorno wrestled with perceptions of art and beauty.
How, he asked, can we have any appreciation of beauty in the world, visual, written, audio or otherwise, after the de facto horrors of the death camps?
It is a question that perhaps has no answers. And it is has long perplexed me.
Which is how I find myself in a Soviet era, bright yellow tour bus headed out of downtown Krakow bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp situated around an hour and a half’s drive due east from the old city.
There’s no seatbelts, and as I doze fitfully, I wonder abstractedly about my chances of survival should we lurch off the pock-marked E40 highway winding between Krakow and Oswiecim.
The coach judders and groans its way towards the camps on an uncharacteristically warm Polish March day. The dangerously obese man slumped in the seat in front of me doesn’t smell too good, and there is a barely discernible aura of apprehension among my fellow travellers. This is after all not any old coach outing.
It’s an uncomfortable journey, but then I’m not racked into a cattle truck with no food or water for days on end, as was the case for the majority of the 1.1 million Jews who were gassed in the camps between 1942 and 1945 after being shuttled from varying locations throughout war-torn Europe.
Drawing up its meticulous plans for a Final Solution, the Nazi hierarchy needed a location both remote yet with good transport links in order to execute their ambitions to wipe out the Jewish race in Europe.
With around 11 million Jews to murder, their plans were ambitious, but workable in that robust can do German way, which had seen the country recover so spectacularly well following its collapse in the aftermath of the WW1 defeat.
Pragmatic Nazi planners and architects must have been delighted to identify the drab town of Oswiecim, with its excellent railway system. The middle of nowhere but easily accessible for locomotives and their doomed human cargoes.
As we approach the town and its principle attractions, a deafeningly loud, Soviet era television perched precariously above the driver’s head booms into life.
The black and white screen flickers and crackles. Haunted faces – we don’t know them, but know them so well in that silent argot of the Holocaust – unravel in front of us. Rare footage shot by a Soviet cameraman in the first wave of the camp’s liberators show the dead and the nearly dead.
Their faces…we know them…
We know those sunken, bewildered eyes, the shredded striped uniforms, the shaved heads, the skeletal frames.
And while the ubiquitous images, documentaries and movies which accompany reams of Holocaust-related literature are intrinsic to our latent 20th century Western experience, the suffering which projects from the tiny coach screen into the consciousness of its captive audience nonetheless draws gasps and cries, as we are taken from one grainy chamber of horrors to another.
The coach finally sighs to a stop in an inauspicious coach park corralled by a couple of shabby fast food joints. My fellow travellers look apprehensive, some appear distressed. The film was harrowing, and along with the airless coach and the sudden warmth of this late March morning, the grim intent of the day finally registers. Auschwitz has been there, buried, recessed in our collective consciousness. Now it is here, looming in front of us.
On this bright spring day it looks innocuous. Ordinary. We could be outside an Asda superstore. The ‘banality of evil’ phrase coined by Hannah Arendt, in her reporting on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem resonates.
On arriving at Sobibor, that other terrible place of industrialised death, the investigative writer Gitta Sereny observed that the main impression she had was “one of beauty.
“The quiet, the loneliness, above all he vastness of the place, which left everything to the imagination.”
At first glance, there was nothing beautiful about Auschwitz.
Outside the camp entrance, there are several high-spirited groups of German schoolchildren fulfilling their curricular obligations. The Germans are obsessed that contemporary and successive generations know every ghastly detail about the plans of their forebears to wipe out a race of people.
In their designer clothes, equipped with the innocence of their teenage years and the benefits of enlightened diets and affluent homes, the kids look like they could be off to a beach party in Ibiza.
Not so the older visitors, the Saga-style tourists here perhaps to tick off another must see landmark, or maybe to witness what their mothers and fathers and relatives fought for.
Among the grey hairs there is a good deal of hardcore smoking, steeling themselves for the journey that lies beyond the gates – the gates of Hell, as they are known.
One couple who look to be in their late 70s, silently puffing away with a familiarity of those who have spent a lifetime together, exhibit the grey, heavily tracked skin of the two-pack a day smokers.
The woman is wheezing painfully in between nicotine draws. I wonder if she is about to go into cardiac arrest, let alone make it around the camps. I can’t see any mobility scooters to hand.
Auschwitz, the original camp – formerly a Polish army barracks – has significantly smaller land mass than nearby Birkenau, which my guide advises is the size of around 197 football pitches laid side by side. That sounds like a lot of walking.
The first encounter is with the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, which was bizarrely stolen a couple of years back. What do you do with a sign like this? Sell it on the black market to a fanatical Holocaust denier? Try to off it to an unscrupulous dealer? For one thing the sign is huge – far bigger than it looks in pictures. So familiar is this symbol of Nazi repression that its familiarity comes almost as a relief. I’m in the right place, kind of relief.
Dozens of people are standing under and around the gently swaying sign, clicking away with mobile phone cameras, chattering excitedly. There are no black people here, I think. Not a single black face have I seen on this entire trip.
Curiously, there are no Japanese people either. Not that I can see, at least.
The camp is not a high point of a European cultural tour, I guess.
I am more interested in the spot a few metres inside the camp entrance. A sign – there are lots of signs in Auschwitz – explains that this is the spot where guards would carefully position corpses, several at a time, which inmates would be obliged to shuffle past to and from their daily work details.
A few metres along again from that sign is another sign. This time its muted matter of fact everyday English explaining that here is a replica of the gallows erected for multiple hangings of prisoners.
I tried to imagine dragging my exhausted body along that pedestrian highway to Hell at the crack of dawn, everyday, somehow completing a 12 hour shift of numbingly hard labour on starvation rations in extreme temperatures. It gets down to minus twenty in the harsh eastern Polish winters, and up to 40 plus in the summers.
THE SS, said my guide Szymon Fliapek, squinting against the watery sunlight, were endlessly inventive when it came to devising ways of killing Jews and other inmates in Auschwitz. ‘The ones, that is, who were not sent immediately to the gas chambers,’ he qualifies in impeccable English.
Szymon has encyclopedic knowledge of the labour and death camps, which opened fully for business, as it were, in March 1942. Several of his relatives were detained in the labour camp, somehow surviving to tell the tale. He peppers the more formal structure of the tour with personalized anecdotes handed down through generations of Poles. There is no love of Germans, even now, you sense.
As we tentatively step, blinking in the half darkness, into the innocuous looking Block 11 of the former Polish army barracks, Szymon explains that they were once doubly feared.
They housed the nightmarish starvation and suffocation cells, specially reserved for those who the SS guards preferred to suffer in the extreme, rather than administer the usual bullet in the back of the head.
“There’s been a lot written about Auschwitz-Birkenau – but you won’t find much on these cells. Remember, the SS didn’t have a lot to do out here – working out ways to guarantee appalling suffering appealed to the more creative among them,” said Szymon, pausing to examine some graffiti on the walls, dating back to 1942.
There were, as we know, innumerable daily horrors visited on the prisoners here, or in the ‘sister’ camp Birkenau, a few short kilometres away. But Block 11 goes directly in to the darkness, to embrace the worst of all our dreads and fears. It’s a horrible place and even today you can feel the dank, penetrating cold emanating from the bowels of the building.
It’s a relief to get outside.
‘It was a badge of honour for the SS to exercise the maximum humiliation on Jewish prisoners while busy working and starving them to death,’ said Szymon, as we shuffle in muted silence to the next block, wondering what new extremes of suffering we were going to encounter.
Being so organized meant the Nazis went to fastidious lengths to photograph all new inmates coming into the work camp. I gaze at row after row of pictures of inmates ‘processed’ through the camp between 1942 and 1945. The clarity of the images is startlingly good. Zeiss lenses, I wondered, thinking of the photographer painstakingly positioning his tripod and ordering the traumatised subject to stand upright and look at the camera. He would not have asked them to smile.
‘Labour’ camp,’ snapped Syzmon, his eyes roving along the hundreds of gaunt images, ‘is meaningless.
‘They were not here to work – that was of course a pretense. They were here to be humiliated – it was a Humiliation camp.
Concentration camp is the polite term. I prefer not to use it,’ he said, his voice trailing off to a whisper.
I pause to look at the image of a strikingly handsome young man. In the now familiar striped garb of the camp uniform, Stanislaw Milobedzki look to be almost breaking into a smile – presumably to the consternation of the official camp photographer.
Stanislaw, I note, was born on 7 July 1922. He died, according to the caption beneath his picture, on 7 September 1942. He would have been in the camp for a matter of weeks. It occurred to me that Stanislaw was more or less exactly the same age as my son, when he either succumbed to disease – typhus and dysentery were the big killers – or was executed.
Syzmon our guide notices me studying the rows of the doomed – ‘remember, it was not a work camp. It suited the Germans to say it was a work camp. But we all know it was a death camp as well as a humiliation camp. Very few came out alive.’
One man who did come out alive was the commandant, Rudolph Hoess. But when he was arrested shortly after the war ended, Hoess, found guilty for the mass murder of a million plus Jews, was taken back to the camp he formerly ran and executed in the grounds.
A replica of the scaffold from which he dangled stands more or less equidistant between the house the Nazi once occupied with Frau Hoess and their five children, and a gas chamber.
Like the gas chamber, the gallows looks unthreatening today. More unnerving is the extended scaffold which was the site of group hangings. The latter is adjacent to the area where the camp orchestra would play as the prisoner work details filed in and out.
It is bizarre to think that lovely orchestral music was played with gusto in this place. But it was. If there is a soundtrack for Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is not that of Bach or Wagner, but the reverberative roar of the locomotives chugging the final metres through to the selection ramps.
Or the guttural shouting of the SS guards, the cracking and stinging whips of the kapos, the frenzied barking of ferocious dogs, the screams of thousands of half starved, confused and terrified prisoners as they are jostled and separated from loved ones.
On the day I visited, more or less 70 years to the day that the first transports packed full of Jewish families wondering if the promises of ‘resettlement’ were to be a reality, I stand on the spot where the selections took place.
In the movie versions of Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List, the ramp area is perpetually packed with terrified people, jostled and shoved and ordered to their deaths.
No more the wind
But standing there in the silence of that March day, where the birds do not sing, and the trees seemed bent under the horrors that have been perpetrated before them all those decades ago, there is no screaming carried on the wind by the ghosts that have passed through on their final, desperate journeys.
It is the silence which resonates. It is eerie, partly because we are in the middle of nowhere with not a building in sight out of the camp complex, and partly because of our knowledge now, that 70 years ago this was the spot where SS doctors would choose who was to live and who was to die within hours of arriving at the ramps.
I am reminded of Samuel Beckett’s, “Silence, yes, but what silence! For it is all very fine to keep silence, but one has also to consider the kind of silence one keeps.”
We are also a very short distance from the main, gigantic crematoria where up to 10,000 people a day were being gassed in the two vast crematoria complexes in Birkenau. The numbers are hard to compute. Ten thousand people a day.
That’s more than the entire population of Guernsey, murdered in a single week. A process methodically and exactingly carried out, week in, week out for the best part of three years, before the Red Army eventually liberated the camp in January 1945.
Now, walking back towards the dread Gates of Death, flanked by the infamous twin command towers, the experience is numbing, like an anaesthetic that is in the system and has muted all nerve sensors. There is a blank bewilderment at the sheer scale of the mechanics of human endeavor which was channeled not so long ago into creating this killing factory.
A brief detour through the ‘hygiene huts’, where hundreds and hundreds of prisoners would have to go through their morning ablutions squatting side by side with one another leaves one nonplussed.
After bearing witness to the crematoria and the huge so called ‘shower’ areas, where 3,000 Jews were gassed at a time, there is almost a sliding scale of horror-ometer, where it is impossible to comprehend how the process could have not just been allowed to happen, but so meticulously planned.
I felt the need to go to the toilet when walking through one of the communal wash huts. It would not have been easy for inmates back then to simply relieve themselves, said our guide. They were only allowed to go twice a day, once in the morning, once in the evening, that was it. Being caught performing a bodily function outside of those times was invariably punishable by death. But most of the inmates were racked with disease, and diarrhoea was a constant. What do you do if you are suffering from diarrhoea and you are forbidden to use the toilet, asked Szymon?
‘I’ll tell you what you do. You go in your pants. And that is what they did. And then, after 12 hour work details on little or no food, they would have to lie in a bunk in their own filth shared with many others.
‘And they called these the lucky ones.’
As I walked out of the gates for the first and last time – for I will not be returning – I felt relieved. Relieved I had seen it for myself, with my own eyes, and not just relied on the testimony of others. Relieved that I could now, finally, attempt to process how this epic, concerted attempt to wipe out an entire race of people had taken shape, how it physically manifested itself within a supposedly civilized universe. And how it had very nearly succeeded.
And I felt relieved that I had walked in the steps of the doomed. Because it is there and it exists and, while we wish it hadn’t and many people now and after us will attempt to persuade us that it did not exist in the way we know it existed, we know. And we can only know by being there. So you should go. You’ll find that once is enough.