Arbeit macht frei: Auschwitz and Birkenau

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Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland. 2018

What disturbs me about this place seems an obvious answer on the face of it. A million human lives were destroyed here in a time which I can only read about and imagine. I live in its continuity. But I haven’t had the misfortune of being in the time when it happened, to have witnessed it. Yet, several decades later there is something deeply unsettling about Auschwitz and Birkenau camps of the Nazi era. The sight of these camps haunt. This death factory haunts because it is a standing testimony to our capability, the possibilities and ideas that human mind holds. It is frightening.

The caretakers of the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum were blowing away fallen leaves and heaping them into a corner on the drizzling morning as I arrived from Krakow. As a high school teacher, I taught world history to students in Bangalore. We had discussed the advancements in technology that made the second world war as destructive as it turned out to be. I remember working the details of the war chronologically, on blank world maps, with the students. I remember all of us discussing the advancements in science and technology that helped the fighting armies in scoring victories against each other. We spoke of the atom bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki for us were cataclysmic. What remained far from our imagination was this slow, extremely brutal and highly planned mass murder that was carried out day after day. The specifics of it, as I read through the exhibits and letters at the Auschwitz Museum, continue to appear unbelievable. A visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau camps can be faith destroying experience. To believe that human beings are capable of making this world a better place, is repeatedly dented as one progresses through the prison blocks of Auschwitz. Besides a complete reassessment of human condition and capability, I came back with a feeling that I need another chance to teach world history to high school students.

Besides the chilling details of these concentration camps’ processing of prisoners and witnessing the technology of systematic killing, there is another thing that strikes a visitor. The minor details. Names on suitcases and trunks which prisoners left behind, pots, pans, brushes, glasses and several other items of personal use that the prisoners were asked to leave behind before they stepped into their cells or when the time came – into the gas chambers – are details that put a personhood on the numbers. Artifact based history, in this case, is an absolute necessity. I remember the looks on faces of visitors as they made their way through these displays – of heaps of personal items, kept on display. One particularly difficult display to walk through was a giant heap of human hair of prisoners. Alongside, is kept a massive roll of carpet woven from human hair.

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A room in Auschwitz -I with information on treatment of women and children in the camp
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A room in Auschwitz – I blocks
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Records kept by SS administration. This one is a lost of female prisoners gassed after the selection of August 21, 1943 conducted at Birkenau.
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Auschwitz -I

Block by block, a picture of camp life, conditions, fates of individuals and time gets constructed for a visitor. This construction itself is horrifying enough to not want to imagine the times for real. People break down. It is inevitable. Each reaching the threshold of mental distress at various places. Some have a personal connection – a family member who survived the camps or a family member who did not survive. Most often it is family members who did not survive; some at the sight of photographs that were found in possession of the prisoners and asked to be removed by prison officers; some in the gallery spaces with photographs of prisoners taken for record, and some wept looking at the wall against which prisoners were shot dead, after a quick trial in one of the blocks. The spaces inside these blocks are unsettling in a way that few other life experiences have made me until now. It was a desperate desire that someone or something at least reaffirms the faith in purpose of life, of being human and believing in humanity, as I walked alone clutching the guidebook, taking note of details and looking up to the space and what was on display. Visitors here sign up for a two-hour guided tour of Auschwitz camp, in a language of their preference. I preferred to read the guidebook as I proceeded through the prison blocks. Human misery and human hate, at display in a spectacular form that can make even the firmest believer in spirit of man turn his head down, wondering if what he believed in, all along, is after all true.

Some years back, I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It was not to understand Holocaust as experienced by a survivor. I read it because I wanted to know how does a person explain to himself the purpose of life and why must it be lived when all that gives meaning to his life and gives him a purpose to live each day, is taken away and destroyed ruthlessly. It turned out to be my first account of lived experience of these camps. I didn’t have the life experience or perspective to imagine or understand the psychological trauma of it.

Frankl describes his arrival at the Auschwitz camp. This and similar descriptions played through my mind as I walked looking at Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.

With the progressive dawn, the outlines of an immense camp became visible: long stretches of several rows of barbed wire fences; watch towers; search lights; and long columns of ragged human figures, grey in the greyness of dawn, trekking along the straight desolate roads, to what destination we did not know. There were isolated shouts and whistles of command. We did not know their meaning. My imagination led me to see gallows with people dangling on them. I was horrified, but this was just as well, because step by step we had to become accustomed to a terrible and immense horror.

Words delusion and reprieve are familiar to me. It was alleged that I tend to get delusional about prospects in life. I read Frankl use these words. It felt recognizable, the feeling embodied in those words. Although, the situation in which he uses it was of an intensity and magnitude that I hopefully wouldn’t experience in my life time. Arriving at the camp, Frankl wrote:

In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as “delusion of reprieve.” The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.

I had made the journey to Poland only to see these camps. They signified a lot more than just a site of mass human extermination. This was where I knew one could find an insight into what might make a man still be hopeful of his own life and of his lot. Frankl recollects a few incidents from his days in Auschwitz camp and writes this:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become moulded into the form of the typical inmate.

If there are a few individuals who can think with this clarity having lived and subjected to an experience that words can barely describe, in its cruelty and intent, then I felt, surely, there is some worth in moving through life irrespective of situations and incidents that happen in the course. Perhaps, from the want of having read anything else, during the time spent looking at Auschwitz and Birkenau camps all I could think of were Frankl’s words. They were the reel and lens through which I processed what I saw besides facts that I knew about the place and its location in world history.

The other information I had prior exposure to was Hannah Arendt’s writings – on evil, on holocaust and on trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1963. These writings show a different and a stunning view of the SS officers who were responsible for what happened to Jews in the years of the holocaust. This issue becomes much more complicated by the time Israel is formed and the new state mobilizes its best efforts to bring the perpetrators of holocaust to justice in the Israel. In a devastating reportage from the Eichmann trial, Arendt destroys the appeal, reasoning and the very words of Eichmann in the following lines:

Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown. And since this suspicion would have been fatal to the whole enterprise, and was also rather hard to sustain, in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused so many millions of people, his worst clowneries were hardly noticed.

The progression of events from the formation of the anti-Semitic feeling to construction of concentration camps and the ‘final solution’ to the trials of perpetrators in the following decades, this is an enormously disturbing event which speaks of nature of human condition as being capable of not just realizing but going all out to maintain their view of the world as the only reality.

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Birkenau Camp, Poland. 2018
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Image on the information panel shows an archive photo of women and children walking into this camp from a train that had arrived inside. Birkenau.
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Remains of Birkenau Camp

Birkenau stands in the contrast of present reality of the world and of the past when this was made. Each day of its operation, thousands of people were killed in its gas chambers and turned into ashes. It was hard to fathom this almost industrial complex for large scale killing. It was not a thoughtless firing or hacking of people at random, but a highly detailed plan and process monitored with concerns of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. As though an important, much needed product was being manufactured here which must be done at lowest possible cost and highest possible rate of production.

What stands there now are remains of damaged chambers, barbed wires and a replica wagon on the defunct rail track that entered as a loop line from Auschwitz railway station. This has been staged in several films about the issue. The birdsong, as I walked along the barbed wire fences looking at the space, reminded me of Frankl’s writing towards the end of his account. I remembered vaguely that he write about the sight of flowers and birds taking time for them to register and feel moved by it. I returned home to look up the exact lines. He wrote,

We came to meadows full of flowers. We saw and realized that they were there, but we had no feelings about them. The first spark of joy came when we saw a rooster with a tail of multicoloured feathers. But it remained only a spark; we did not yet belong to this world.

In the evening when we all met again in our hut, one said secretly to the other, “Tell me, were you pleased today?”

And the other replied, feeling ashamed as he did not know that we all felt similarly, “Truthfully, no!” We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.

I recognized that I was seeing the place through a survivor’s account and facts presented to me. These are a minuscule. Thousands of other people died. Perhaps, breaking down and resigning to the fate was a universal feeling. Amidst this, some survived with a sheer mental strength. The system, the place and its specifics that made a group of people live through an absolute abyss of human experience was necessary for my education. This is what I flew out of Krakow with – the experience of walking through a gallery of possibilities which human mind is capable of giving shape to.

3 thoughts on “Arbeit macht frei: Auschwitz and Birkenau

  1. Thank you for writing this. It adds to the world a view of something I’d have otherwise discovered in a different light. Really good writing.

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