“When you go in, there is a sign that says, there were ‘four million’. I broke down about halfway around Auschwitz, walking away from the wall against which 20,000 people were shot. It was not the stark physical evidence of the living conditions….It was not glass displays where wretchedly tattered children’s shoes lay on angled boards. It was not the room full of suitcases with the owner’s names written faithfully to mark their only belongings or heaps of human hair and the tailors lining that was made from it….It was all of these things and more cumulatively crushing you, a seeping evil from every wall and corner of the place, from every brick and block, until you reach your limit and it overwhelms you. For a short while I found myself crying, leaning against the wire. Like they tell you – the birds do not sing here. – Pete Davies, “All Played Out “
Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently hosted an international gathering in Tehran where he pronounced the Holocaust a myth and suggested if Israel could not be eliminated , perhaps it could be moved to Europe. I rarely get angry at the rhetoric and shenanigans of posturing world leaders, whether it be our own Congress or petro-authoritarian despots whose boldness and poison rise with the price of every barrel of oil. However, after hearing Ahmadinejad, I was sick with rage.
Above my desk at home, rests a picture I took of a Star of David scratched by human hands inside the only remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz, Poland. In 2002, on a business trip to Warsaw, I felt compelled to visit the ancient city of Krakow and confront some of the demons that had plagued me since college when I took a brilliant class called Holocaust taught by three educators – a psychologist, a historian and a literature professor.
Poland is a haunting country. It’s never been a sovereign nation for more than fifty years before a neighbor has conspired to invade it or eliminate it. It stretches from the great plains along the River Oder to the endless Russian Steppe to the east. To the South are the magnificent Tatra Mountains and in the North Gdansk where Lech Walesa led his fellow dockworkers to fracture the iron grip of the communism. Poland was also the scene of some the greatest crimes committed against humanity at places like Chelmno, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and Rogoznica. As The Final Solution played out across Europe, Auschwitz served as one of 49 sub-camps supporting German industry with forced labor. The largest camp , ten times the size of Auschwitz, was Birkenau which at its peak “ operating efficiency” killed 24,000 men, women and children in a single day.
Within blocks of my hotel in Krakow, across the misty Wisla River stood the silent corridor that had served as the jewish ghetto of Kazimierz. I still shudder at the scene from Schindler’s List when the SS are rounding up Kazimierz Jews – – the windows of the walled off ghetto illuminated by strobe bursts of machinegun fire and of course, the screams. Those that were transported out of the ghetto ended up at Auschwitz or Plaszow, an overflow camp run by the infamous commander , Amon Goeth
The first thing I saw when I entered the gate at Auschwitz was the forged saying at the top of the entrance – – Arbeit Macht Frei: Work Sets You Free. People walked there with linked arms as if trying to brace themselves against the unspeakable evil that still permeated the skeletal remains of hell. They sobbed quietly, speaking in hushed, reverent whispers. Visitors wore blue scarves to indicate they were “survivors” who, now returning to the camps, were facing the demons and horrors that they had endured. The barbed wire is rusted now but it tears at you as you imagine naked men, women and children stripped of any possession and dignity, being led into “ showers” before they were purportedly to be put to work. Inside the lightless, rectangular room, Zyclon B pellets were dropped into a narrow pipe set into the low ceiling. The pipes that promised a first shower in weeks were merely cosmetic – – deceptively attached to a ceiling that held only death.
In Birkenau, three kilometers down the road, Mengele would prowl the children’s playground at twilight. The inmate children called him “ uncle” because he would give them candy as he studied them to see which might be selected for his experiments. There were over 700 hundered children in barracks 16a, where I walked through haunted rooms and still, dark alcoves, staring at a mural painted on a wall showing children marching toward a red school house with a smokestack spewing ash into the sky. Flames shot out of the crematorium chimneys like something out of the Inferno. “ Let us not speak of them but look and pass on.” – – a line from Dante’s Inferno crossed my mind as I thought of my own children ages 13, 11 and 8.
As the trains arrived each day through ominous grated gates, the cattle cars purged sick and dead passengers on to a platform blinded with lights, barking dogs, SS officers and Mozart screaming from loud speakers. I remember staring at rooms of children’s shoes, human hair, lamp shades made from human skin and photographs that cause a soul to cry to the heavens for understanding as to how God could let something like this occur. The answer back is always the same – – people let this happen and people can prevent it. How was it that the Nazi propaganda machine dehumanized an entire race of people ? A vacumn of power and the slow relinquishment of human rights gave rise to fascism and totalitarianism. People seemed indifferent and relieved that they were not the ones to be persecuted or singled out….The camp seems to whisper “ Evil prevails when good men do nothing ” I remember reading that in the darkest hours of Auschwitz a Polish clergyman sacrificed himself by assuming the identity of another prisoner, so that a man he did not even know might live. I read of a woman who cared for 40 children while slowly dying of starvation. Even amid the death and dehumanization, the sheer triumph of the human spirit could not be suffocated. God was in every corner of that camp.
Armed with the knowledge of what I was witness to that harrowing spring day in May, 2002, I carry a burden and a responsibility. I read in the paper of Iran’s commitment to wipe the descendents of this tragedy off the face of the earth. I see 400,000 people dead in Darfur where genocide and dehumanizing indifference are once again playing out in a world distracted by petro-politics and a changing world order. I realize it is only through the action of individuals that God can see his plans realized on earth. That means having the guts to stand up and say we will not stand for genocide or another Holocaust. We will fight tyrants who perpetuate these horrors and we will simply say, “ never again”.