On a day when the clouds cried tears, we visited Auschwitz and asked ourselves, over and over, “How?”  “How could something like this ever happen?” 

Auschwitz 056 We flew into Krakow from Vienna, and drove about an hour through simple, yet scenic, Poland to reach the town of Oswiecim, which is German is “Auschwitz.”  This area was an agricultural village in Poland, with a largely Jewish population in the 1930′s  The Germans, though, chose it as the location of their largest, and unspeakably evil, concentration camp and extermination center.

Auschwitz 064 The camp was opened by the Nazis in early 1940, and operated for five years before the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.  There were three large camps in this area, and a large number of smaller satellite camps.  No one will ever know the precise number of people killed, and estimates range from hundreds of thousands to 4 million.  When Rudolf Hoess, the supreme commandant of Auschwitz, testified, his own estimate was that some 2.5 million people were killed during this period.

Auschwitz 010-1 Auschwitz I is the starting point for seeing the Auschwitz site, and its gate is marked with the saying “Arbeit Macht Free” (or, “Work makes one free”).   From what we learned, there was no shortage of work for those who survived the initial screen and weren’t sent immediately to the gas chambers.  But the Germans did all they could to ensure that no one entering Auschwitz was ever set free. 

Auschwitz 054 The German practices were barbaric.  They rounded up people throughout Europe, some 90% of whom were Jewish.  The others were political prisoners, gypsies (other non-Aryan races), Communists, homosexuals, and disabled.  These prisoners were told they were being relocated to Poland and told to bring their most important portable possessions.  On the day of deportation, they were packed into boxcars, the door was locked, and they were transported anywhere from hours to days in horrific conditions to Auschwitz (or other camps).   Communications in the 1940′s were such that word rarely reached beyond the concentration camps that the deportation was a death sentence, not a new home.

Auschwitz 032 Upon arrival at the train drop-off at Auschwitz, prisoners were rapidly sorted into two groups.  About 75% of the prisoners were judged as not being able to do hard labor (any children, older men and women, weak or sick, etc.), and these people were told to leave their possessions, and prepare to take showers.  The “showers” of course were gas chambers, and thousands of people were immediately put to death upon arrival at Auschwitz.  Afterward, the Nazis would send the possessions back to the homeland, including cutting off all of the hair from the murdered prisoners and pulling out teeth to get any metallic fillings.

Auschwitz 053 The remaining 25% may actually have been less fortunate.  In many cases, they were separated from their other family members, issued prison clothing, assigned to a barracks, and literally worked to death over a matter of months.  A few of these prisoners (especially those of German descent) were selected to guard the prisoners, knowing that any failure to be as ruthless or despicable as a Nazi guard would result in immediate death. 

Auschwitz 024 Over the course of the five years, there were a tiny number of escapes.  But the Nazis had vicious ways to deal with an escapee.  Generally, they would find and condemn family members of any escapee to the Auschwitz camps.  And they would take several cohorts of an escapee and punish them brutally after any attempt.   Actions included death by firing squad (above), time spent crammed into a tiny standing chamber with other prisoners and starved or suffocated, or having hands tied behind one’s back and being hung up by the hands for days on end (breaking both shoulders and inflicting intense pain on the prisoner before death).

Auschwitz 041 We spent four hours at Auschwitz, which seemed like four months.  We saw the horrible barracks that housed the prisoners.  We saw the “showers” where prisoners were exterminated.  We saw the ovens used to cremate the remains of the murdered.  Most difficult to see, though, were the displays of personal belongings of these victims — eyeglasses, shoes, artificial limbs, combs, and children’s clothes and toys.  Almost all of these possessions had already been shipped back to the homeland at the time of Auschwitz’s liberation.  But the very tail-end of what remained was enough to make quite vivid the scope and scale of the horrors of Auschwitz.  I’m not one to cry, but seeing a broken child’s doll, along with pictures of the many, many families and young children being murdered at Auschwitz was emotionally devastating.

Years ago, Elizabeth and I sat spellbound through a lecture given by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, a professor of Stanford’s Psychology Department.  The topic was “How to make good people do evil things.”  Over several decades of research, he’s explored how it’s possible that good people can be led to act in hideously evil ways, and the Holocaust is perhaps civilization’s most egregious example.  Zimbardo talked about the many times in history that leaders took quite similar actions to enlist others in their evil cause — indoctrinate children at the youngest ages, emphasize repeatedly the threat posed by the enemy, de-personalize the enemy by continuously depicting them with frightening racial or ethnic stereotypes, hard again and again on the importance of patriotism to defend your homeland’s innocent, and count on the fact that few people will exercise independent judgment in the face of such propaganda. 

Auschwitz 029 We saw Auschwitz first-hand, and began to develop some understanding of the atrocities committed there.  We developed a better understanding of just what kind of forces the free world was opposing in the 1940′s.  And we could begin to imagine the horror that people are capable of inflicting on innocent others.  None of us will ever forget our visit to Auschwitz, and what remains today from civilization’s lowest point.  And we saw the gallows used to hang Commandant Hoess after he was convicted of heinous war crimes (photo above), aware that no punishment on earth could begin to atone for the evil actions of people like Hoess and his accomplices.

Click here for our Auschwitz photos.

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