In Poland for the Eurocup, I had a day off from soccer yesterday. Up at 6 am after a crazy night (full story on that tomorrow…) and catching the end of Heat-Thunder, I decided that since I didn’t know when the next time I’d have the opportunity to see it again, I had to go see Auschwitz on what was really my only free day on this trip. Even though the trip was five hours each way by train, I’d do it again a thousand times over.
Once every year or two, it’s important to see direct evidence of wholesale human suffering–this can either be past or present. Ironically, there is no better cure for my own first world problems. Break-ups, career struggles, writer’s block, fatigue, clogged shower drains, and other things that seem so devastating to me are put into their proper perspective when just 70 years ago I could have been forced on a 10-day train ride cramped shoulder-to-shoulder in cabins with no food or water and arrived in Auschwitz to be sentenced to execution via gas chamber. Only pure luck dictates that my life and those of Holocaust victims are not reversed–you can’t control when, where, or to whom you’re born and the Auschwitz victims’ only crimes were existing at the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’ve done a fair deal of reading about Auschwitz and the Holocaust but words only go so far. When confronted with the visual evidence and preservation, it’s exponentially more powerful. And it was relentless. My tour was three hours but it felt like it took two weeks. Everybody–a vast majority of whom were not Jewish–looked like they wanted to throw up. Our legs became weak about five minutes in and stayed that way.
The faces of many of the victims looked a lot like mine and I recognized several last names: Gutman, Glaser, Berger, etc.
Here are some specific details:
- 1.1 million people were transported to Auschwitz; one million died. There were some Polish, Russians, gypsies, and homosexuals but a vast majority of these victims were Jews.
- Of the 11 million Jews in Europe before the Nazis, six million died. To put this in perspective, in the US, only New York City has a population greater than 3.8 million. (Only NYC, LA, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston have metropolitan areas over six million.) The only reason that more were not killed is that the Germans literally could not round up and execute them any more quickly and efficiently.
- 70-80% of people were sent immediately to the gas chamber upon arrival. The “lucky” 20-30%–usually able-bodied men–were sentenced to slave labor and survived for an average of three months before succombing to disease or being executed. There was a long hallway full of their arrival pictures, names, prior occupations, nationalities, date of arrival, and date of death. For awhile, three months sounded like a liberal estimate because it looked like nobody lasted much over a month but then we started to see some people who lived for a year. Unsurprisingly, men who had past careers in manual labor like blacksmiths and carpenters seemed to survive longer.
- Before going to the gas chamber, people thought they were going to be taking showers. Instead, the doors were sealed and potassium cyanide was released into the air. This method could execute 2,000 people in 20 minutes. Interesting to me: the gas was released through the ceiling; I had always imagined it coming through shower heads. Corpses were looted for their valuables–rings, gold teeth, earrings, etc. After this, they were cremated.
- Thorough records were actually kept of the deceased. At the beginning, their pictures were taken. But, as World War II dragged on and resources became scarce, they were then given those number tattoos.
- Victims’ suitcases were confiscated upon their arrival. The Germans sorted their contents meticulously and sought to recycle them. We saw rooms full of combs, toothbrushes, glasses, and even children’s shoes. At this point, I asked the tour guide how Germany had enough manpower to carry out a war on multiple fronts and the attempted genocide of the Jews simultaneously. She misunderstood my question; I was asking how, not why. “They were brainwashed,” she said. There were 8,000 guards at Auschwitz alone; you have to wonder what may have happened if Hitler had been more patient on the Jewish front and devoted his resources solely to the war.
- We saw a firing wall and it could not have been mistaken for anything else. Like the rest of the tour, it left little up to the imagination.
- While children looked sad and confused upon arrival, the men appeared aware of their fates and were pissed. Anybody photographed after even a few weeks at the camp appeared emaciated and resigned.
- In addition to the 8,000 men, the camp was guarded by two layers of electric barbed wire to prevent escapes.
- People were given one uniform which they could essentially never take off for any reason because it would be stolen immediately. Wet, dirty, soiled, or tattered, it was staying on. They had to wear wooden clogs which were not ideal for Poland’s harsh winters or hot summers.
Altogether, the day was both harrowing and humbling. Exhausted, I headed back first to Krakow, then to Warsaw; I left Warsaw at 6:50 am and returned shortly after 10 pm. It was not a day I will soon be forgetting.