There must be a great many blog posts out there about visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Not that it’s a trendy topic: the truth is, I suspect, that everybody who visits Auschwitz needs to talk about it afterward. I do. The trouble is we’re left speechless, not quite sure what can be said. Everything has been said already, and yet nothing has been said already. You can read all the blog posts you like about it, and believe those words to be true, and then when you’re actually there, you know, you know what it means to say that the words are true. Not before that.
Maybe I should talk about what surprised me about Auschwitz-Birkenau.
1. The first surprise was that Oswiecim, the Polish town which was translated in German as “Auschwitz,” is a regular, functioning mid-size town. The train does not pull up right into the camps, as I had somewhat naively feared. Opposite the station is a convenience store whose mascot is a happy frog; down the street, a large iron box has become some sort of “nightclub.” Right around the corner from the actual concentration camp is a home-improvement store, wooden playsets for children lining its front.
2. The second surprise is that the camp designated as Auschwitz looks–almost–nice. Whatever your imagination was suggesting, it was actually originally built as a Polish army garrison, and therefore is a neat series of modest multi-level brick buildings. Nothing about them suggests that they were at or near the lowest point in human history. Nothing about building 10, for example, would betray to you the fact that a German gynecologist practiced often-lethal sterilization methods on Jewish women upstairs. No, Auschwitz looks like the kind of place where they might film Hogan’s Heroes, not a tortureland for anyone who met the Nazis’ disfavor.
(Incidentally, pro tip: maybe the best building to go inside is the Czech Republic’s superb museum for Czech victims. Aside from dozens of biographical sketches of victims and their crimes [like buying an illegal newspaper], there is some superb artwork, including the haunting Lidice wall, named for a village literally destroyed by the Germans. And a well-placed mirror, no tricks or gimmicks, just a mirror, will make you recoil.)
3. I only felt physically sick once. It was in a small, underground bunker in Auschwitz, where postwar curators of the site painstakingly rebuilt the ovens. I’m not going to say anything else about that or post a photo. You know what the ovens were for.
4. Earlier, I said the Auschwitz buildings were “at or near the lowest point in human history.” It’s quibbling, to be sure, but “near” is the correct answer, for it is 2.2 kilometres to Birkenau. Birkenau is the extension (“Auschwitz II”) built by the Germans because the original Polish garrison simply was not designed for the mass extermination of thousands of people. The first death-traps did not have enough capacity.
When you think of Auschwitz, you are actually thinking of Birkenau. Auschwitz was a “concentration camp,” but Birkenau was, explicitly and urgently, a “death camp.” Birkenau is where the trains pulled directly into the camp, where the men and women were on opposite sides of the tracks, where four purpose-built gas chambers with attached incinerators worked around the clock, where (“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”) groups were herded into ramshackle wooden barracks with wooden shelves as bunks, where Josef Mengele carried out his experiments on twins and the deformed, where the prisoners dug their own sewage ditches, where expansions were still being planned when the Russians arrived. Even the name “Birkenau” fits the horror of the place: like Oswiecim, Brzezinka was a Polish village whose name was Germanicized and appropriated for the camp. But there was a twist: to create more space for their monster, the Germans bulldozed Brzezinka.
5. Somehow it was surprising to me that the sheer emptiness of Birkenau could be so powerful.
The emptiness, the void of the whole place, lets your eye scan the horizon and see just how huge the scope of Birkenau is. On the left-hand side as you enter is the camp for women, which by itself holds 27 different barracks, most of which are still standing and a few of which you can enter. To the right is the wasteland photographed above, the long-ago burn-down wooden barracks for men. At the end of the site, looking rather powerless, are the sunken piles of underground rubble which were once gas chambers and extermination rooms. Now they’re nothing more than heaps of brick.
It takes a few hours to walk around Auschwitz-Birkenau. It also takes imagination, because the sites have been almost totally kept as they were when the Russians arrived–no grotesque reconstructions, no visitor’s center with gigantic models, no video shows, no fake gas chambers, no audio guides. All this demonstrates great respect for the site, and demands great empathy from the visitor. It’s harder than you think, in light of the sixth surprise.
6. Auschwitz is strangely peaceful. Around the fringes of Birkenau, trees grow high; at the ruined gas chambers, one can hear a nearby stream. And the great surprise, for a city-dweller and someone with preconceived ideas of how gloomy a place this must be, is that everywhere, everywhere, birds are singing. They sing from the trees; they sing from the barbed-wire fences; they nest in the ruined buildings. Even standing inside the womens’ barracks, I was never alone, for birds were there, too, at home, singing. That, surely, will be what I remember most about Auschwitz: looking upon bunks which were little more than bowed planks, trying to imagine how many people would cram into each one, and hearing over my shoulder the call of the birds.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Maybe the lesson is that no matter what horrors humans may inflict on each other, nature will always find a way to heal. If only we were worthy of it.