Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Yesterday I Visited the Nazi Death Camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Not Kidding.

I’m in Poland visiting an old friend who lives in Brodla, which is 40 minutes from the concentration camps that murdered 1.1 million people during World War II. In case you’ve never picked up a history book, the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau murdered more people than any other single concentration camp during the war.

How can I say anything about my experience yesterday without sounding trite and cliché? Below, I’ll try my best not to.

My Polish friends did not want to join me, so I took a solo bus trip from Brodla to Auschwitz. My friend Kashka said she’ll never go; her husband Szymon went once with one of his sailor buddies and isn’t going back. Once is enough. I did not come to Poland with a plan to visit, but being so close, I felt something drawing me there --- perhaps to further my understanding of the Holocaust.

Below are my thoughts and pictures.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is HUGE --- like a city --- and built in an attempt to murder people by the multiple millions, nearly succeeding. I took a History of the Holocaust class in college and it did not prepare me for the sheer size of this mass-murder city. You can stand at the barb-wire fence on one side of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the people standing on the other side appear as distant specks on the horizon --- barely recognizable as people. It took me nearly 15 minutes to walk from one side to the other.

Imagine yourself what that’s like, walking for 15 minutes. If you live in DC, begin your journey walking from the intersection of U Street and 16th until you almost reach the White House. Then square that distance and fill it with prisoner barracks and two underground gas chambers and crematoria, surrounded by barbed wire with a train station going through the middle. That’s Auschwitz-Birkenau --- one part of three far-flung concentration camps --- including a complex of 40 other sub-camps --- taking up something the size of a DC suburb. A city built to kill people.

Despite that college class back in the 90s, and my corresponding trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, I realize that I had not truly understood the scale of the Nazi production of death until now. When you see it, it hits hard, and gave me terrible nightmares last night of smokestakes billowing out human ash-flesh.

And I’d like to give my personal FUCK YOU to those who commonly say, “it’s happened again after World War II”. It has not --- not like this, for certain. Mao's Great Leap Forward, the post-WWII Gulag, Srebrenica --- very different phenomena.

I’m not suggesting we stack the human corpses from all of history’s blood-and-guts piles onto a figurative scale and examine which one hangs lower, but when you see Auschwitz-Birkenau with your own eyes, you’ll never utter such verbal diarrhea again.

And FUCK people who make cursory, lazy comparisons nowadays to any right-wing government to the Nazis. Visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and you’ll be offended by yourself, you worthless piece of uninformed garbage. I went to the “Killing Fields” in Cambodia back in 2004 --- not to downplay Pol Pot’s regime --- and despite what the movies tell you, it’s a fraction of Auschwitz-Birkenau --- especially taking into account the calculated industrial production of murder, and the collective human effort it took to accomplish.

I'm feeling emotional right now.

I had not prepared myself for standing in a former gas chamber. Walking around the grounds of Auschwitz I, you become a bit numb to its meaning, and the depth of it creeps up on you. Tour groups of giggling British teenagers add annoying levity to the gravity. The only gas chamber you can walk inside is in “Auschwitz I” --- much smaller than Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was abandoned by the Nazis early on because it could only murder 350 Jews per day; then they moved their operations to the massive murder city I described above.

When I stepped into the concrete room --- no bigger than your basement --- my eyes welled and I pushed to breathe outward. I hadn’t expected that would happen, the literal physical change that came over me. Rather than breathe, I tried to swallow. It was hard to look forward around at the concrete walls, and then I just left --- back into the cold, gray Polish winter afternoon, my eyes full of liquid.

Below are my pictures. I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures of the ruins of the main gas chambers.

This is the fence at Auschwitz I. This was once electrified barb-wire:

This is the space between the fences at Auschwitz I where guards and dogs can patrol:

This is Auschwitz-Birkenau ("II"). Those ruins are the chimneys from the barracks which the Nazis burned in 1944. This pictures doesn't really do justice to how big it really is:

This if the first gas chamber/crematorium at Auschwitz I --- the one that proved insufficient for Nazi standards of processing. It's eerie when you walk in: a sign says not to take pictures and to keep silent because "you are entering a room where thousands of people were murdered.":

This is the spookiest one. The Nazis built the railroad to run right up and end at the main two gas chambers/crematoria. This view is with my back to the gas chambers facing the front gates there in the distance:


Looking at that I have to admit it is no small kudos to the Germans to keep that place and others as a museum/memorial. Talk about a shmear on national pride. My shame would want it down.

You MUST rent Conspiracy, with Kenneth Brannaugh. It's not your typical disgusting holocaust movie. It's spookier.
All Rounder,

Dude, Auschwitz is not in Germany nor maintained by Germans, as far as I know. It's in Poland, about 1.5 hours west of Krakow.
You forgot to say FUCK YOU to anyone who said that the Holocaust didn't happen!
I visited Dachau and have never even tried to explain its impact publicly. It's repulsive and there is no way I could even come close to illustrating its emotional impact on me.

To All rounder's point, Dachau is in Germany and they do have it open to the public. The Germans do seem to realize what it was and what they did.
Jesus what a post. As soon as you mentioned walking inside a former gas chamber, I got tight-chested. No matter how much you intellectually process the fact of killing on a mass scale, I don't think it impacts you wholly until you stand where it happened and surround yourself. I can see why your friends don't want to go back.
i just kinda stumbled upon your blog as it's linked from a sailing site which i also stumbled upon. after reading this post i feel compelled to thank you for writing it. it's so en vogue these days to throw around the "hitler" tag, but regardless of one's political persuasion or possible disdain for things "right wing," the level of denial and dishonesty such name calling requires is baffling.

your description was very well-written and honest. as worthless as words may be to describe such a place, your account was simple yet poignant and moving.

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