A View From the Cheap Seats

Sacred Ground – Remembering Auschwitz

Sacred Ground;

Remembering Auschwitz

by: Richard Trzupek

I.

(Oswiechim, Poland January 27, 1995 – KL Auschwitz) Everywhere there are faces. Along the corridors, between the rooms housing the displays, the walls are lined with photographs. Everywhere you see faces crying out to you, trying to move you beyond the dry mathematics, beyond addition and multiplication and subtraction – trying to preserve each story, personalize each life. It defies comprehension.

Every face you glimpse has a story to tell….

Emil Slusarczyk; head tilted back defiantly, his eyes fierce and passionate. You see a brave man, full of contempt for his captors. Arrived April 5, 1941 – murdered April 16, 1942.

Stefenia Lapornik; young and, even shorn of her hair, clearly beautiful. Her eyes are sad, yet proud. A woman of refinement and taste, slowly accepting her fate. Arrived August 20, 1942 – murdered September 3, 1943

Bronislaw Sieniawski; middle aged, perhaps a bit overweight. His eyes are serene even as they are brimming over with sorrow. A man with inner peace. Arrived January 11, 1941 – murdered February 27 1942.

Florentyna Piatkowska; in her middle 40’s, probably the mother of a few children. Pride fills her eyes, but there is acceptance there too. A woman used to dealing with sorrow and tragedy. Arrived October 23, 1942 – murdered December 2, 1942.

Edmund Downar-Zaperlski; young and strong – muscular. His eyes are unafraid. He is certain he is equal to any trial. A good man to have behind you in a fight. Arrived April 15, 1941 – murdered April 24, 1942.

Jozefa Bala; young, pretty and slight. Her eyes are sad, empty. A girl with a whole world of dreams, suddenly dashed. Arrived October 13, 1942 – murdered October 28 1942.

Baghard Ryzzard; mid-twenties, somewhat thin. His eyes hold unrestrained fear. His imagination runs wild. He can not bear what is happening. Arrived April 16, 1941 – murdered October 10, 1942.

No names accompany the pictures of the children. You can not bear to look at their faces for very long. There is no defiance. There is no pride. There is no resignation. In the eyes of the children you can see only terror.

Leaving the faces in the corridors, you tour the displays. There is little need for words here. Each of the displays stands alone, housed in a simple darkened room. The floors are bare grey concrete. The walls are empty. Except for the glass panels that replace one of the walls, the rooms are barren. There are no messages, no words of comfort. There is nothing that would explain what you see. There is nothing that could explain what you see. Behind each panel is the evidence, deafening in the wordless power of the message. No words are needed here.

Here are thousands of brushes and combs.

Here are pots and pans of every construction; enamel and copper and porcelain and tin and iron – some battered, some rusted, some looking as though they are still ready to make the family dinner.

Here are a multitude of artificial limbs. Legs of wood and arms of metal interwoven in a ghastly, ghostly dance. Some are crude – little more than pegs or claws. Some are so intricate and lifelike that you are amazed they were made 50 years ago. Some were surely painful to wear; complex networks of straps, buckles and laces.

Here are hundreds – thousands – of pieces of luggage. Valises, satchels, overnight bags and trunks. Most are of leather. Some look expensive. Most do not. Practically all of them have names written on the side in bold letters. How much hope, you wonder, did the owner feel when he wrote his name proudly on the side in anticipation of a journey?

Here are glasses. Hundreds of them; their wire frames knitting them together in a melancholy pile.

Here are shoes. Tens of thousands of shoes.

Here are more shoes, each pair much smaller than those in the last display. These shoes are too small. They are far too small.

Here, in a glass case, are a few articles of clothing. You see shoes again; a single pair of tiny white shoes, so little they would fit in the palm of your hand. A simple blue knit dress lies here. You spot a couple of imperfections in the dress, a few flaws in the weave. Certainly it was handmade. You can almost see the mother nervously watching her newborn daughter, missing a stitch here and there, as she proudly made her little girl a first dress.

There is no need for words. There are no words that could do this justice.

The fire of 2 million lives was extinguished here. How can you begin to understand what that means? 2 million hopes, 2 million plans, 2 million pasts, 2 million examples of kindness and pride and dedication and selfishness and humor and envy and gallantry, 2 million different tastes – from garish to elegant to parochial – 2 million intellects, 2 million senses of awe and wonder about the world: everything that makes us human, everything that makes us unique, everything we treasure and revere – all of this destroyed 2 millions times over.

To say you can comprehend this is like saying you can understand the magnitude of space. It’s too much. The scope overloads your ability to give perspective. One can visualize a mile, ten miles, even a thousand miles, but trying to understand the meaning of 2 million murders is as hopeless as trying to comprehend the distance from earth to the sun.

Perhaps you can experience death and suffering on an individual level. Perhaps you can give meaning to and come to grips with the grieving for the passing of a family member, parting with a friend or the death of a beloved public figure. But how can you ever give proper meaning to this? How can you ever understand this? It is too much. It is incomprehensible. The information overloads the system. You can not understand murder times 2 million.

Even the faces, for all their power, can not convey the magnitude of the suffering. The number of individual faces displayed on the walls may approach 10,000, a small fraction of the number of lives that ended in this place. You feel the need to stop and look at each picture. You feel the need to try to understand a piece of each life. You can not. The scope of this place defies your abilities.

You can not imagine what happened here. The survivors, here for the memoriam, tell you that again and again. One survivor, Wladislaw Leftkovich, tells you that “The best writer in the world can not tell this story.” As you look in their eyes and listen to their words, you know that is true.

You meet Wladislaw Leftkovich standing alone, inertly staring through the walls in an empty, haunted barracks. He’s wearing the scarf given to all the survivors who come here today. It is made of blue and white prisoners’ stripes; meant to be a mark of disgrace and subjugation five decades ago, today it is a badge of honor. He shows you the prisoner number tattooed on his forearm.

He was in one of the first groups of prisoners brought to Auschwitz. Seized as an eighteen year old, he was brought here in 1940. He was young and strong enough to somehow survive 5 years, until the war’s end brought freedom.

He tells you about his days as a prisoner in a flat, emotionless voice. It’s as if he is relating the details of a movie. It’s as if he is telling you about someone else’s life.

Images are burned into his memory. He remembers walking through the hospital here, the floor lined with the dying. He remembers the forest of outstretched arms, reaching up, grasping at him, begging for help.

He talks about the martyred Fr. Maximillian Kolbe with passionate awe. The kindness and humility of Father Kolbe has made a lifetime impression. He can’t tell you enough about the goodness you could see in Father Kolbe’s eyes. He watched as Father Kolbe was repeatedly beaten and humiliated – even whipped and choked with his own rosary. In spite of it, he tells you that Father Kolbe never lost the courage to forgive and the selflessness to look after the suffering. He witnessed the moment when Maximillian Kolbe, after volunteering to take the place of another doomed prisoner, was taken away to be murdered.

Here he lived through five years of unimaginable horror. You wonder how often he has come back to this place. “Never” he tells you, “I never came back until today. I couldn’t bear to come back.” This is the first time, in the fifty years since liberation, that Wladislaw Leftkovich has been in these barracks. This is the first time in fifty years he has walked through these haunted grounds.

Another survivor – you never find out his name – tells much the same story. Returning for the first time in 50 years, he finds the barracks where he was held. Overcome, he lies down and curls up, weeping, on the same cold concrete floor on which he once slept.

The daughter of Stanislaw Wysocki, murdered March 23, 1942, is here. She carries a sign bearing only her father’s name and prisoner number, hoping to find someone who remembers him. A crowd gathers around her, listening.

Then there is an old man stooped in an empty field under the cold, grey sky, swaying against a bitter wind, a light snow falling on his bare head. He stands unmoving, reverent, unaware of anything but his memories. You see him behind the ruins of a crematorium. He stands alone, away from all of the speeches and flowers and memorials, paying homage to the memories of the dead. Hands clasped, he is wearing his scarf of blue and white. He stares toward the rusting barbed wire that he had surely stared at a thousand times a day, so long ago, wondering if the horror would ever end. Remembering.


II.

What we call Auschwitz really consists of two extermination camps located in the Polish town of Oswiechim about 40 miles west of Krakow. The first camp, Auschwitz I, is the smaller of the two and is located near the middle of the town. This layout of the camp is deceptively benign, almost campus-like in feel. Strong two story brick buildings are arranged in neat rows, divided by tree lined streets. Without knowing better, it would be easy to imagine a university being located here.

Looking at the remnants of the horror, one becomes almost numbed to it. There is a steel I-beam, about twenty feet long, held up in the air by ten foot wooden beams. It is here that 12 Polish prisoners were hung for assisting in the escape of three others, in a mass execution. There is a “portable gallows” which could be moved from place to place in the camp for the convenience of the SS guards who would hang prisoners selected for execution during roll call.

There is the punishment stake, another large gallows like structure, from which prisoners were hung by their arms bent backward behind them.

There is a simple curved bench, the “whipping stool”, on which prisoners were flogged.

There are the “standing cells”, dark concrete cubicles with a single two foot square entrance at the bottom. Six feet tall and only three feet by three feet in depth, the Nazis would crowd four doomed prisoners inside each of these. There, locked in the black cell, unable to sit or to lie down, they would slowly be allowed to starve to death.

There is the “Killing Wall” where prisoners were lined up and shot. Fresh flowers are placed at the foot of the wall each day.

One can still tour crematoria and a gas chamber at Auschwitz I. Entering the gas chamber is much like entering a tomb. Descending a short flight of stairs, a narrow door enters into a large, poorly lit room with cold, bare concrete walls.

Inside the gas chamber there is no life at all, only a solemn sense of despair. Naked prisoners were herded into these rooms, told that they would be allowed to shower. (The Nazis did, in fact install shower heads, but no plumbing was ever connected). Cyanide gas soon filled the air and, as the trapped prisoners began to die, the living would rush toward the door in an effort to escape. After 30 minutes, when the last of the screaming and crying had stopped, the air in the chamber would be evacuated and doors opened.

Specially selected Jewish prisoners were used to remove the corpses; the Nazis considering the task unworthy of a master race. Nazi doctors were stationed nearby during each of the mass executions. Not, of course, for the sake of the prisoners, but in case one of the guards should accidentally inhale some cyanide.

Upon opening the doors to the gas chambers, inevitably the majority of bodies would be found in a huge, ghastly pyramid of flesh, pressing ever higher into the side of the room. It took some time to realize why this was so. Finally, someone understood. As the deadly gas slowly filled the chamber, those living struggled to climb atop each other to the highest point in the room, trying to escape the fumes; desperately seeking a last breath of air.

The sign in German at the entrance of Auschwitz I, mocked the prisoners who passed beneath it more than fifty years ago. It reads “Arbei Macht Frei” – “Work will make you free”. Inside, a museum is built on the remains of the camp, preserving the memories of what took place here and at Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II).

Birkenau is by far the larger of the two camps, constructed when the scale of the murders exceeded the capacity of the first camp. It lies alone on the outskirts of town. Barbed wire fences pay mute homage to the brutality of Nazi order and efficiency, dividing the camp into neat rectangles. The fences are stark, still menacing. Beyond the wire, perhaps once the doomed gazed out with remnants of hope. Inside it, there was only sorrow. Inside it, there are ghosts. Inside it, there is sacred ground.

The ruins of four crematoria litter the site. They were blown up by the Nazis as the Russian armies neared the camp, in a futile effort to hide the crimes committed here. The hulking ruins were left untouched after the war. Overgrown with weeds, the rubble is a potent visual reminder of what happened.

Three sets of train tracks run through the middle of the camp. Looking down an ordinary line of train tracks usually fills one with a feeling of being in touch with some part of forever; seeing the ever-converging parallel lines stretching away into the distance. They appear to go on to infinity, a beginning of a journey to some unknown future, of travel to distant and exciting lands.

These train tracks are completely different. Here, in the distance, lies only the hulking brick gate of the camp. These tracks do not signify a journey’s beginning, these tracks are a hopeless end, leading only to despair and sorrow. They are a powerful image, as if the ghosts all gather alongside these tracks, remembering the moments of their arrival at this place.

It is almost possible to see the thousands of shivering, huddled prisoners arriving, exhausted from the journey in overloaded boxcars. Every possession is taken away and the process of selection begins. The fit are taken to the camps where they will be put to work, like livestock, until they succumb to brutality, exposure, disease or starvation. The very young, the very old and the very weak are culled out – unfit to work – and led to the gas chambers to face what the Nazis referred to as “special action”; mass murder.

Everyone is drawn to the tracks. Many of the people here today walk along them, passing among the ghosts. They walk in slow, thoughtful steps. Their heads are often bowed. Most walk in silence, alone with their thoughts and memories – alone with the dead.

Walking down these tracks, one occasionally catches the odor of something burning. This should be a scientific impossibility. The town is too far away to be the source and surely the camp is far too old to be the cause. It makes no sense, but the odor is unmistakable. More than one person comments on it. It makes this place seem even colder.

On either side of the tracks, rows and rows of red brick chimneys standing on empty foundations stretch into the distance. These are the skeletal remains of the wooden barracks that stood here fifty years ago. They look like the tombstones they are, fading ever smaller in the distance. The scope of this place, the magnitude of the barbarity is unimaginable.

A few brick barracks remain inside one part of the wire. Inside the barren rooms are the tiny stoves that served as the only source of heat during the winters. Three levels of what look to be rough wooden shelving runs the length of each wall. They are the crude storage shelves you might find in an old warehouse. They’re bare wood, divided by walls into six foot by six foot sections. It is on these shelves that the prisoners slept, side by side, six to each section, with no mattress and only a thin blanket to protect them from the weather.

One elderly man walks these grounds between the barracks with a boy of about twelve – likely his grandson. His stride is quick and strong. His gestures are forceful as he explains what this place is and what this place means.

I remember when I was twelve years old, the first time I visited these grounds. Most of the memories of that trip to Poland have long since faded, but the memory of Auschwitz has remained etched in my mind. I remember the rain falling during that visit twenty three years ago, beading up and dripping down off of the barbed wire on a cold, dark day as if heaven was crying for this place. I still can not imagine a sunny day at Auschwitz.

The day is grey and gloomy again as the people pour in for the ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. A frigid wind blows hard against those coming to pay tribute. Fifty years ago, the prisoners of Auschwitz were forced to run miles every day in such weather, clad only in their thin prison garb. Many would die of exposure and exhaustion. To now shiver in the wind, while bundled up in Gortex, feels sacrilegious.

People from all over, of all ages, have come to this place. The old are here to preserve the memory. The young are here to discover it. There are a surprising number of children here. They come in groups and alone. Most quickly tire of the speeches and ceremony. Some leave and some roam the grounds. A few seem disinterested, yet they are here. That is much to say. You can not help but be affected by this place.

There are candles everywhere here today. Everyone is issued a small votive candle in glass as they enter. The candles are lit and left throughout the camp. Along the railroad tracks, scores of candles burn in rows on wooden ties. You find candles in the ruins of the crematoria, candles by the posts of the barbed wire, candles in front of the memorial sculpture, candles in the cells, candles in barracks, candles standing alone in empty fields. And, in a decaying wooden barracks, atop one of the bare and rotting planks that served as the prisoners’ bunks, someone has left a single rose.

The speakers and dignitaries at the ceremonies struggle to frame this place. Ex-prisoner and Nobel Prize winner Elle Wiesel talks about the “fall of night” when Auschwitz opened. This is, he says, “a place of darkness … there is always night here”. “Close your eyes and open your hearts” he begs us. “Listen to the silent screams of terrified mothers. Listen to the tears of the children…”

Another ex-prisoner, “one of 700 doomed souls” who came here in the first shipment of victims, speaks of “the tortured soil” of Auschwitz. He remembers the words of the Kommandant as he first stepped off that train into the camp. He was told, with a chilling dispassion, that he “had no right to live more than three months”.

Perhaps the most frightening thing here is the cool, impassive reasoning of those who created this monster. These were not murders of emotion. A speaker frames this aspect clearly. Since the time of Cain and Abel people have been killing each other. People have killed each other for many reasons. People have committed murder in moments of passion. People have killed each other in hundreds of wars. People have killed in defense of their property and their loved ones. Here, for the first time, death became an industry. People were killed for the sake of mathematics. People were slaughtered to balance a spreadsheet. A new type of criminal emerged: one who murdered from behind a desk.

Wars, we are told, are indifferent to human life. Death is the soldier’s constant companion. They often relate the frightening suddenness and randomness with which it occurs. But if war, for all its terror, is indifference to human life, what happened here is something beyond even that. This was contempt for life. As all warring nations do, the Nazis told the world that the revered lives of their soldiers would be risked in the pursuit of some national ideal. But, beyond that, they told us that the despised lives of their perceived enemies would be ended “en masse” as well. They tried to tell us that there are some lives – lives defined by their race alone – are so without value as to deserve cold -blooded extermination.

For the six million Jews who died, here and throughout Hitler’s Reich, as well as of the millions of others who were murdered, this place tells us something else today. If it stirs up fears of the worst that man can do, it also is a memorial to the best that man can be.

So many times are the words “Never Again” spoken here. Well that they should be, for the generations must be made to remember. If there are those among them who would doubt that this happened, let them come here. Let them walk along the rails. Let them pass through the tombstones of chimneys. Let them touch the wire. Let them walk among the ghosts and stand on the ruins of the crematoria and face the January wind and try to tell the millions who perished here that they are a hoax. If man has any sort of heart at all, he will know the truth of this place. This memory will ever be preserved.

Yet this place has to be about more than simply “Never Again”. If the only lesson a person learns here is that the beast unleashed by the Nazis must be a sterile one, he is missing something vital. At this holy place, among the emptiness and the ghosts, there is life. There is glory here, for all people. That men and women and children could endure such horror and could still remain human tells us something important about ourselves. That people brutalized in this way could still look beyond themselves and, even here, could still care about life is beyond uplifting. It is sacred.

In his book, Fighting Auschwitz, Jozef Garlinski (prisoner number 121421) defines what happened here, what we must take from here, as well as can be said. Writing about the pain and the abuse, the horror, and the final realization that they were helpless in the grasp of ruthless criminals, without any weapons, with little strength left – seemingly at the end of all hope, they came to know that they were no less human, no less strong – for, Garlinski says, they realized that “unlimited … are the moral and physical powers which man has within him.”

Clearly what the Nazis did here serves as a warning to us all about what is held in the darker recesses of man’s soul. But there is, among all the suffering, hope here as well. It is an easy thing to be noble and selfless when one is blessed with freedom and plenty. To be denied the most basic human dignity, to exist in the agony and despair of the death camps and to still find humanity within you – the humanity of a Maximillian Kolbe, of a Wladislaw Leftkovich or of an Elle Wiesel – says much about what we are capable of. It is evidence of a nobility and a selflessness that can conquer any evil. It is a single ray of bright light in this place of so much darkness.

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