I did a piece on Auschwitz and my goal was to tell you about the place, advice on how to get there and reasons why it is important. It was typical blog article for public consumption. The point of this piece is to allow you to understand what I felt as a visitor, as a Jew, as a human, as I toured one of the most infamous places in the world. And this time, I’m going to be graphic.
Something I don’t think textbooks touch on are pogroms. I didn’t know this word until I took Jewish history and Jewish literature classes. The reason it was so easy for the world to accept the extinction of a race is because Jews were killed for fun. We see so many images, in America, of the KKK hanging black men, raping women and burning their houses to the ground. That is exactly what was happening all through Europe and especially in Russia before World War One. I need you to conceptualize that everyone assumed Jews were trying to take over the world and bled baptized babies to make Matzah.
I also want to clarify these are not true. Judaism is very strict about not consuming any blood and being very compassionate to everyone including animals. I also want to clarify, Jews cannot shapeshift because if I could I would not use planes ever again. I would just shapeshift into a bird. And if we wanted to take over the world, we would have had a Jewish president by now.
A Ticket to Hell
The Holocaust was an elaborate prank the Nazis conceived. The victims had to buy their own tickets to the train and label their suitcases. At the beginning, they were promised to be relocated into communities. When the Nazis posed the idea of relocation to the Jews, at the time it might have sounded great. If someone said, “we are going to put you somewhere they’ll stop raping your wife and stop burning down your house,” you would probably feel pretty motivated to go. The reality was far more sinister than anyone could have conceived.
I’m sure some were cautious of the Nazis’ promises but the process of getting to Auschwitz was filled with hope. They said you would get your own house, you would be with your family and then you would live safely in a community. Then once they got there, hope was drained and humanity was stripped away in a systematic fashion. Like a machine taking dignity from humans simply because a world, once again, needed a scape goat.
As the war progressed, people knew about the camps, about the smell of burning bodies and about the promise to not just remove Jews but to eradicate them.
Families are packed into tiny train cars. These people barely have room to sit or turn around. The journeys were long, the longest journey was 10 days, I believe without food or water. People urinate and defecate in their own clothes and the train air is suffocating. People die of starvation. There are stories of people knowing it was end so their last action was to have sex with whomever was available; to grasp a feeling of satisfaction one last time, brothers and sisters, and anyone available sought to have one last moment of feeling human.
The first thing they saw when they got to Auschwitz is the sun for the first time in days and air free of human waste. They are asked to get in a line. 2/3 go left and 1/3 goes right with the nonchalant wave of a doctor’s hand.
2/3 were stripped down and shuffled into a “shower room.” The guards told them, “Remember where your clothes are because you will need to put them back on when we are done.” A shower must have sounded great because they’d been in their own feces and urine for days. Dead bodies were nestled next to you during the ride. So of course, a shower sounded great until there wasn’t water raining down but a blue gas called Zyklon B.
It coats their lungs so they suffocate in 20 minutes. The cloud settles. Then their fellow prisoners quickly throw the lifeless corpses into an incinerator. (I got to walk into one of the gas chambers and see the incinerators. It was probably the most heartbreaking room in Auschwitz. You can visualize the thousands of scared, naked people. You can still see scrape marks from people clawing at the walls. They were confused and dirty. All they wanted was to feel clean, to feel human and to feel safe. But they were added to the number of victims).
Roughly, one million people died in Auschwitz and there are roughly 9 million victims of the Holocaust. For many, we will never know their names. They don’t have the luxury of a grave or pictures to memorialize them. They died along with their entire family of children, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins etc… The Auschwitz museum had a series of rooms with everyday items that were taken from Auschwitz prisoners. The rooms of random items were meant to depict how many people were lost.
The most jarring was the baby items. There was a case of items with binkies, bibs, baby bottles and more. These children were dead from the train ride, gassed immediately, or had their heads smashed against a brick wall.
The room of human hair was eerie because it was sold as a textile. People around the world have rugs, blankets and clothes made of victims. There was a rug in the museum that tested positive for Zyklon B. It was a combination of wool and human hair. Did people know they were having a dinner party over the hair of a death mother? Or sleeping under the hair of someone’s daughter? Of course not, but now knowing you could have an heirloom in your home with a film of Zyklon B in the fibers, you might look at that antique rug differently.
There was room of kitchen items. The families were told they were going to have their house. They had prepared to make a family dinner together upon arrival. There are hundreds of pots and pans. And I just imagined that these people had no clue the horror they were about to endure.
Beds of the Forsaken
The tour of the grounds is so unreal. It’s so hard to imagine this place grey filled with dying people and power crazed guards. It looks like an apartment complex with a large field.
The starving rooms were very emotional for me. These rooms were created specifically for people to either suffocate or starve or both. There were standing rooms were people were forced to stand in a cramped dark room for hours and then sent to work until they died of exhaustion. The great care Nazis put into the torture of innocent beings was almost inconceivable to me. Most of the people sent to these rooms to die cried in public, tried to escape or just were the unlucky ones chosen to make an example of. There was little discretion used when deciding who could live another day. Guards were given freedom to torture, murder and rape as they deemed necessary.
What really solidified the extremely terrible conditions to me was seeing the Berkinau living quarters. They were shacks. The icy cold polish air blew through the roof. Each hard wood bed fit 5-7 people at a time. They might have had a little straw to sleep on, if they were lucky.
One thing that I never thought of was when you are starving, your intestines begin to shrink and this causes your body to not even be able to digest food properly. So the meager slop they were given to survive on would simply pass through them.
So these people slept cramped, cold and with shit and piss leaking on to them from each other. Then they weren’t even given a moment to shower in the morning. You had 30 seconds every day to shower or use the bathroom. The rest of the time you were forced to just go in your only clothes as you worked all day.
I cannot even fathom the hopelessness they must have felt every day being covered in a thick film of human waste, waking up to another dead from starvation then seeing others dragged off screaming to be gassed or shot. How does one remain optimistic? They must have felt forsaken and that the world was passing by them and forgetting that they exist simply because of the some economic issues of a country, a madman that wanted to go art school and the fact they lit candles on Friday nights. They did nothing to deserve such hell.
You hear them say, Holocaust. We hear about it all the time. We watch the movies. We read the books. Then we go on with our lives. We don’t take the time to understand what actually happened. How bad was it? What was the actual process they went through? How much devastation did they endure?
And we let these atrocities happen over and over and over again. Gaza, Darfur, the Ebola epidemic, we sit in front of our computers commenting on youtube videos, listen to shitty pop music and pretend we are informed because we regularly check our social media. We simply skim the surface the reality because it’s too hard. I hate when people say, “It’s too hard,” or “It’s too sad.” Being aware of the world is preventative medicine to destroying it. The news is sad but shouldn’t make you reflect on yourself and your struggles and see it’s not that bad, shouldn’t it motivate you to make an impact and shouldn’t it make you more aware of how you treat others?
Don’t Tell Me You Can’t Go to a Concentration Camp
Do not tell me you CAN’T go to Auschwitz because you couldn’t handle it. You’re afraid to look death in the face and envelope yourself in the true horrors the world is capable of doing? Do you think the Jews, Romas, Gays, Polish etc… could handle it? No, they died with zero hope in their hearts and with the humanity stripped from their being. So do not tell me you just can’t go to a concentration camp for the tour. Don’t tell me this blog is enough. If are in Europe take a tour and make yourself a more aware person. If you aren’t in Europe, watch a holocaust documentary. Knowledge is power. Understanding is the key to compassion.