Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

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We decided not to bring the camera. We had carried it with us to every place we had visited so far. But for some reason, it did not seem right to us to bring it to where we were going tomorrow. It would feel strange, we thought, to stop and take time to frame a picture or to ask someone if they could photograph us together. It did not feel right to bring a camera with us to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to what has been rightly called “the residence of death.”¹ 

October 17, 2018

Today, Beth and I visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial.

We walk a short distance from our hotel in Kraków to join others on a bus that will take us to the Memorial. Our group is made up of English speakers. We start. Our driver puts on a film about Auschwitz-Birkenau. But I prefer to look out the window of the bus. It’s autumn in Poland. I see fields, and trees, and flowers, and small towns. It’s beautiful.

At the Memorial, a person meets us, collects English speakers from other buses, and walks us to the entry of the Memorial. Our guide, a young Polish woman, meets us there. We are given audio devices with headphones to hear our guide easily. We begin.

At one of our first stops, our guide draws our attention to a quotation from the Spanish philosopher and poet George Santayana. It is a well-known quote from his book The Life of Reason: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As we move through the camp, there are times, before we go into a barrack, a hallway, a room, or a courtyard, when our guide will turn to us and ask us to be silent in the place we are about to enter. Even here, in a site devoted to death, some areas have special meaning.

We get back on our bus for the short ride to Birkenau. Our first destination is the spot where trains deposited new arrivals. Earlier, our guide had shown us a photograph of a “selection,” taken in the very place where we are now standing. First, the arrivals would be separated into two lines, one for males, one for females. Then SS doctors, with the pointing of a finger, would send the healthy men, and healthy women without children, to one side of the ramp; mothers with children, and the sick, and the aged, were immediately put into a line that leads to the gas chambers. Our guide walks us on the path that the mothers, children, sick, and aged took. It’s not a long walk. It runs alongside the train tracks in the direction of a group of trees, masking what lay there.

At the end of the path, the arrivals would enter a room where they were told to disrobe. Then they were ushered into another room, and the door locked behind them. This room is one of the places where our guide asked us to maintain silence. We entered this dark place. Light comes from a few small openings in the roof. Zyklon-B in the form of pellets of diatomaceous earth saturated with hydrogen cyanide would be dropped into the room through these openings. Within twenty minutes, everyone in the room would be dead.

Prisoners, tasked with removing gold teeth and shaving the heads of the dead, would enter the room. Even human hair was considered a resource. The bodies would be taken to the furnaces and cremated. The cremation remains would be disposed of in different ways, one of them was to be sold as fertilizer.

At the end of our tour of Birkenau, our guide gathered us together one last time, and asked us, why do this, why come to this place. It’s a good question. She reminded us of the quote from Santayana that we had seen at the beginning of the visit to Auschwitz. The idea, of course, is that perhaps if we remember history, make an effort to do so, we won’t make the same mistakes. What happened here won’t happen again.

I don’t know; I would like to think so. I hope so. But I’m not confident.

In his book, Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish chemist, writer, and a survivor of Auschwitz writes:

Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that ‘every stranger is an enemy’. For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premiss in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, there is a Lager.²

Ben-Zion Gold, the rabbi at Harvard-Radcliff Hillel for over forty years, writes in his memoir The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust:

The knowledge that in the Holocaust human beings murdered other human beings who they had never met before has never left me. Its frightening implication that “we” are potentially “they” is always with me.³

Rabbi Gold lost every member of his family in the Holocaust. In 1944, his mother was murdered and burned in Auschwitz.

You don’t have to read far in the Bible before you come upon a murder, a fratricide, a brother killing a brother. The story appears in Chapter 4 of Genesis: “…it came to pass when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” And it doesn’t take much longer for the Creator to regret creating man, to understand “that every imagination of his heart was only evil.” So God destroyed all of his creation. Well, almost all of it. One family and a restarter set of animals are spared. In the Biblical tradition, everyone is a descendant of this one family. In this sense, we are all brothers and sisters, all murder is fratricide.

It is the Chabad custom to say the Morning Blessings at home. Then at the shul, after putting on our tallis and, if it’s a weekday, our tefillin, we can begin the Morning Prayer. The first words of the Morning Prayer in Chabad’s prayerbook are: “I hereby take upon myself to fulfill the commandment, ‘Love your fellow man as yourself.'”

May it be so.

Next time, Beth and I visit towns and villages related to Beth’s family’s history in Poland.


¹Zalmen Gradowski, quoted in Auschwitz: The Residence of Death, trans. William Brand (Krakow–Oświęcim, Biały Kruk, 6th ed., 2016), 5.

²Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. by Stuart Woolf (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 9.

³Ben-Zion Gold, The Life of Jews in Poland before the Holocaust: a memoir (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 152.

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