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Opinion / Analysis / Essays





PERHAPS MORE DISTURBING than knowledge of past horror, or the infamous and gruesomely cynical slogan spanning the gate, was the eerie sense of ordinariness that draped itself over me. The poplars lining the wide gravel pathways were majestic and lushly green. Their leaves flitted in the refreshing breeze of a mild summer's day.

I couldn't help but wonder if the birds cheerily twitting above had ancestors who serenaded the children, women and men remanded 45 years ago to this place, the name of which has become synonymous with cruelty and death.

Auschwitz - the Germanicized name of the Polish industrial town of Oswiecim - has become a tourist Mecca of sorts. It is also an obligatory field trip destination for just about every Polish youngster. Thousands of people a day enter between the black and white striped poles that support the wrought iron words: "Arbeit Macht Frei," which literally translated mean, "work makes free."

A brightly painted blue-green Berlin tour bus, displaying names of dozens of European cities included in its repertoire of destinations, discharged my group at the curb. It was parked in the lot along with the scores of other busses that had made the trek. The driver had brought sandwiches and a newspaper. He had been here often and was already scheduled to return a few weeks later.

Seventeen Elder Hostelers, all but one of them American Jews, and I joined the throng in the entry hall. Some broke off to buy a tour book featuring on the cover a canister of Cyclone B, the poison pellets to which millions of souls succumbed when the "death factory" was operating at full tilt. Others milled in the line for tickets to the English showing of a film on the death camp presented in a different language every half hour.

Elderhostel, a Boston-based organization that organizes traveling seminars for people over 55 to all corners of the United States and the world, was embarking on an experiment. A tour called "European Jews Past and Present."

Having learned German at the knee of my grandmother, a survivor who spoke freely about her experiences during the "Nazi zeit," I was hired to accompany the elders on the three-week trip. In my knapsack I carried tapes of my grandmother reading her memoirs - stories I had heard as a child and which I was to revisit during the course of a summer devoted seeing places of the holocaust with my own eyes.

A German adult-education specialist organized the educational content of the tour. While not a "war criminal" in the classic sense of the word, Gerd-Dieter Koeter's father was part of the machinery that had the eradication of races as a stated goal. Koeter, a 60's radical, had come to his interest in the Holocaust through the study of philosophy and psychology and a desire to come to grips with fascism.

In lectures and field trips Koeter took on the task of explaining the unexplainable. His job last summer was to take historical facts - facts that for this group would predictably trigger visceral sensations of fear, rejection, guilt and in some cases plain agitation and crankiness - and seek to shed some modicum of rational analysis on them.




BY THE TIME WE GOT TO AUSCHWITZ the hostelers and I were somewhat inured to the range of emotions that accompany the first steps on ground that carries such overwhelming historical baggage. We had visited two former concentration camps in Germany the previous week (Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen). A trip to a memorial at the site of Treblinka, the extermination camp near today's Polish-Russian border that was dismantled after the furnaces were extinguished, was to round out our trip the following week.

Though I say we were "somewhat inured" to the emotions accompanying the ride along the well-traveled road to Auschwitz, we were all aware that for one us this trip had special meaning. For one among us this was not the first trip to the concentration camp, though she assured me it would be her last. The question that inevitably occupied all our minds as we passed houses and farm yards on the approach to Auschwitz held special meaning for her: Who lives in these houses and what did they and their parents know of what was going on in their neighborhood half a century ago?

That is Just one of the myriad questions one ponders in the presence of what has become a monument to imponderable suffering. Tiny little minute things, like frail blades of grass poking through the turf between double rows of barbed wire fences that still carry original warnings of high voltage death to those that would scale them, take on enormous importance in a mind throbbing to seek a shard of meaning. The great big "what ifs" of history get washed over by a child's shoe in a glass display case bedecked with carnations and roses visitors leave piled, draped or stuck in crannies all over the camp. If you spare a tear for the shoe, what torrents would gush from your eyes at the entrance to the erstwhile gas chambers and crematoria?

What about the human hair heaped and heaped and heaped behind a room-length pane of glass? Distinctions between slightly blue hair taken from gassed corpses, and the natural colored hair shaved off the condemned seem at once so utterly meaningless and so numbingly profound. What about carpets and upholstered chairs on display that were manufactured from this hair for retail sale in German shops?

Why should the hair be more moving than the eyeglasses, or the prostheses, or the gold teeth, or the hair brushes, or the tin cups and plates, or the suitcases with Jewish and Slavic names painted on the sides, which are all on display? There is no reason. It is all equally hard - and in some ways hauntingly easy - to view them all as one walks through the galleries of evil.

What does one say to oneself about "tourists" who smilingly photograph each other in front of the Black Wall at the end of a courtyard where upwards of 20,000 people faced the firing squad? Along one side are black hole cells and the "courtroom" where the paper work was duly processed on those "convicted" - sometimes 50 at a time - and sentenced to die.

The windows on the other side of the courtyard were shuttered with weathered planks. Through the cracks women, who were being held as subjects of Joseph Mengele's diabolical experiments aimed at mass sterilization, could hear and see the firing squads. The buildings, like most others in the complex, are two-story red brick rectangles arranged neatly in a grid.

Most of the structures now serve as exhibit halls. Aside from buildings devoted to depicting various aspects of camp life, there are those that have been turned over to various nations for displays depicting the plight of their people. One building is devoted to the plight of the Jews. It is near that building, the wrought iron gate of which is identified with a Star of David, that a large wooden cross looms just to the other side of the brick and barbed wire walls. Members of the Carmelite convent that has aroused so much passion and acrimony in the last year erected the cross. Inside the Jewish pavilion, if one can call it that, the exhibition makes surprisingly little mention of the systematic genocide of one of the peoples targeted by the Nazis. The focus is more on the rise of fascism in Germany and the creeping marginalization of assimilated Jews through laws forbidding them to fully participate in society. The image of Adolf Hitler is more prominent than those of his victims. There is also a video compiled of footage and stills from the Warsaw uprising.

The last room of the Jewish block is devoted to a memorial. In the center is a Star of David under glass. Surrounding it are flowers and little candles that visitors leave behind. Over a crackly speaker a tape of what would seem to be a cantor reciting the Kaddish is played on a continuous loop.




WHAT I HAD NOT KNOWN before making this pilgrimage is that the Auschwitz death mill was actually spread out over three distinct sites. While the cellblocks of Auschwitz I provide plenty of gruesome images to anyone feeling the need to confront landmarks of sinister history, Auschwitz Birkenau leaves more to the imagination and burns itself indelibly onto the conscience.

Auschwitz I was the concentration camp. Those housed there were often on work details. They were often sentenced to be there because it was deemed necessary to separate them and their ideas from society at large. They were often the most able- bodied. They were also the most likely to survive.

Tens of thousands died there of disease, facing the firing squad or on the utilitarian gallows (which could just as easily have been used to dry laundry) standing outside the kitchen. In the "make-shift" gas chamber 300 Russian P.O.W.s were disposed of at a time - often under the extraordinarily gruesome circumstances of being human guinea pigs for testing the efficiency of various methods of extermination. Their sufferings were used to determine the necessary dosage of the Cyclone B pellets which, when exposed to air, produced a deadly gas.

Near that murder chamber, which from the inside looks like an ordinary room in an ordinary basement, is the scaffold from which the camp commandant was hanged at war's end. Just beyond the perimeter at that point still stands the commandant's house where he and his family tended flowers as part of their "genteel" existence during the war.

But Birkenau, a few miles away, is where millions upon millions of people perished. Four million, according to a plaque erected quite literally at the "end of the line" where the railroad tracks stop. But that number, which itself defies comprehension, is the subject of dispute.

Birkenau is not the busy tour bus destination that Auschwitz I is. It is vast by comparison. It is logically laid out. It is symmetrical. This is the place that was designed as a death factory. This is the place where day in and day out freight trains crammed with vestiges of entire communities offloaded children, women and men broken by days and weeks of transport.

Not having the same priority as trains bringing supplies to the front, the human cargo being shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau was often shunted off to sidings for hours and days at a time.

One is struck by the fact that the place is laid out to efficiently carry out a grim routine - the mechanized extermination of peoples. The assembly line is evident. The industrial age quality of the Second World War is there to see. The thousands of executive decisions that went into siting, constructing, equipping and operating this place - the one and only purpose of which was to systematically snuff out life - are painfully obvious.

It would be more comfortable to believe that Adolf Hitler all by himself killed the millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, leftists and assorted other peoples - than to confront the reality that this death factory was woven into the fabric of a complex society.

Many of the wooden barracks have burned to the ground but the chimneys are left behind creating a field of monuments jutting above rubble and grass. Some wooden barracks are preserved as museum pieces. Stone buildings also stand in which inmates' artwork remains on the walls. The elaborate image of Columbus's vessel navigating rough seas on its way to the New World stands out as the expression of one person's comforting daydream five decades ago.

To either side of an "eternal flame" (now extinguished) where the tracks end are the erstwhile gas chambers and crematoria. Having viewed scale models in the museum a few hours earlier we could see exactly how they functioned even though all that remains are open pits and slabs of reinforced concrete left after the retreating Nazis dynamited the structures.

Less than 100 yards off to one side is an algae-covered pond like any one might encounter on a walk in the woods. This pond, perhaps more than anything else, underlined how ordinary the landmarks of horror can be. It was here that the ashes were dumped.

The tour bus awaited us at the gates.




THE NEXT DAY SOME OF US RETURNED to Auschwitz for a second time. I no longer felt like a tourist. The gates were familiar, as was the cafeteria where school children waited for snacks. I had the chance to observe the expressions on those emerging from the tour busses as they beheld Auschwitz for the first time. "Auschwitz," the name carries within it more images and connotations that this patch of ground could ever convey. The impact could only be fully felt by letting the imagination use the props all around to conjure the human beings that at one time tread here.

On this day I visited the archives. It is estimated that the names of approximately a quarter of the people passing through Auschwitz were recorded in one form or another – usually on transport lists. A card catalogue that is in the process of being computerized lists the names alphabetically. Scholars are to this day sifting through papers and adding to the list.

I asked for the names of Goldscheiders they had on file. There were 31 of them - in many cases children who would today be nearing retirement. I could tell by the names of the towns that the point of departure for most, if not all of them, was the same part of Czechoslovakia from which my grandfather emigrated to New York City at the beginning of the century. I recognized one of the names - Frantecek - as that of a man I spoke with on the telephone during a trip to Prague in 1978. 1 had not realized that he was "a survivor."

I looked up other names - people I had known or of whom I had heard my grandmother speak. As the day wore on our bus was ready to leave but I could have easily stayed several hours longer. It was through the names that my mind could order some of the images and impressions it had been flooded with.


But throughout my visit I remained strangely unmoved.


I only sobbed weeks later when I listened to my grandmother's tapes in which she told of her best friends - a family of three - who ended their lives in Auschwitz. The child's name was Annette. My parents tell me that it would have been my middle name had I been born a girl.

When the war ended, recounted my grandmother, Russian propagandists in Prague showed footage in local movie theaters of the Auschwitz their troops had encountered. This was to drive home to those who may have remained skeptical the magnitude of the crimes perpetrated there. Among the images shown were lines of children that had been rescued. My grandmother said she revisited the movie theater several times, uncovering her eyes just long enough to see if Annette was among the children who had been rescued and photographed by the Russians. She was not.

It occurred to me that the film I and other tourists who visit Auschwitz today see might very well have been the same film my grandmother had forced herself to sit through so many times.




SOMEONE ASKED ME RECENTLY what it was like to visit Auschwitz. It was monumentally "interesting." Any more evocative words I could choose to describe the visit would fall so far short of the mystique attached to Auschwitz that they would somehow be dishonest. There was so much light to be shed there on historical events as well as the human psyche that even a short stay provided grist for many hours of pondering.

Legacies of the Second World War, such as the Berlin Wall and the Russian domination of its buffer zone, are being discarded. As the generations that participated in one of the most wrenching and far-reaching events of modern history pass from the scene it seems like an apt time to reexamine some of the roots of the European order of the last half-century.

Unfortunately, along with the fresh winds of hope blowing across Europe today there are also signs that we may have yet to see the last of virulent nationalism and extremist politics.

Young historians are taking on the task of preserving some of the monuments that atrocious regimes of the twentieth century unwittingly left us to remember them by. Auschwitz is one of those places that we would obliterate at our peril. But the baldness of the evil that is exposed there is tempered by the fact that it is also a monument to the resilience of the human spirit. The fact that we go there today to see, touch, learn and condemn shows that try as they might totalitarian regimes have yet to achieve the totality they may dream of.

Even though I was there, the reality of having been at Auschwitz is still sinking in. From the moment I got off the bus and mingled with my fellow tourists my attention was fixed on the sights, smells and sounds. The birds twitting overhead made, for me, the most immediate and tangible connection to the past. May they sing always.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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