The walk through Auschwitz
OSWIECEIM, Poland — Germans called this town Auschwitz. What follows is a walk through the place where the greatest systematic mass murder in human history was orchestrated. At Auschwitz’s three main camps and 40-plus satellite camps, the Nazis carried out their “Final Solution” to the “Jewish problem” during World War II.
I arrive in Frankfurt with my wife on Dec. 29. We are embarking on a group bus tour of Eastern Europe. It is unusually balmy, almost like spring. Auschwitz parking lots are jammed with buses bringing in tourists by the thousands daily. Upon leaving the parking lots, the first thing that hits your senses is the utter starkness of the place. The next is the present-day camp guides ushering visitors between sites. They are immaculate in their drab, dark, button-down uniforms and emit a sort of dour afterglow that lingers over the premises. They are sullen, somber, ever-mindful of the monstrosities that unfolded here 70-plus years ago. It’s almost as though they’re trying to placate the spirits of the approximate 1 million Jews slaughtered here, along with tens of thousands of Poles, Soviet POWs, Gypsies, homosexuals and anti-Nazi activists — the whole panoply of people who were euphemistically called “undesirables.” Gassed, starved, shot, beaten to death. The screaming and the shrieking echo throughout eternity. In the annals of modern history, Auschwitz is mankind’s living monument to mechanistic murder. It is a walk through hell.
Contrary to what many may think, the first inmates to be murdered here in September 1941 were not Jews but Poles. Russian POWs, Gypsies and thousands of others from various European countries soon followed. Then Jews. In 1942, the Nazis orchestrated their strategy to eliminate all European Jewry. The consensus is 6 million Jews were in fact murdered — until the Soviet Army finally liberated the camps and freed the few remaining prisoners on Jan. 27, 1945.
A walk-through should take about an hour and a half, and considerably longer if you care to stop and study the many historical placards. Next to the parking lot is a signboard in Polish, English and Hebrew giving a historical overview of the complex, along with a large aerial map.
Upon admission to the camp, as was the case for more than a million murdered prisoners, you are “welcomed” as you make your way under the infamous wrought-iron gateway cynically stating “Arbeit macht frei” (Work will make you free). From that point, you walk down the camp’s spotless dirt-paved roads all neatly laid out. You look out upon row after row of dull, redbrick buildings lining both sides of the pavement, as well as the ever-present electrified barbed-wire fences and occasional watchtower. The entirety of Auschwitz’s architecture exudes an eerie simplicity in its striking Spartanism. The bleakness is overwhelming. It’s as if every building, every structure had been designed with an implicit potential for murder. Nothing was to be wasted in the Nazis’ grand scheme of death.
Signboards with narrative histories, maps and photos dot the landscape. You soon come to several exhibition halls. One in particular is described as the General Exhibition Building by its signboard overhanging the entrance. Inside the halls the rooms are dimly lit, almost spooky. And quiet. Deathly quiet. Even the local Polish camp guides are silent. Weird. Signs tell visitors not to take pictures with flashbulbs or tripods, or in the “hair” room. Few pay any attention. (I see one gentleman, camera on tripod, filming pages of a historical Nazi document almost as soon as I enter.) You snake your way through the aisles between rooms. Narratives, maps, Nazi documents and camp photos from the early 1940s hang on the walls. There is a picture of naked Jewish women on their way to the gas chambers and various panoramas. Adjacent are miniature three-dimensional replicas of prisoner cells.
Upon entering the “Material Proofs (sic) of Crimes” building you bear witness to unimaginable human horror: ghastly displays of everyday artifacts of families torn asunder, the personal belongings of thousands of exterminated men, women, children ... thousands of suitcases, shoes, eyeglasses, pots and pans, artificial limbs, combs, hair brushes, even clumps of human hair — an estimated 7.7 metric tons. Empty canisters that once contained the poisonous Cyclon B gas are stacked atop one another. Scores of them. Their pellets lay scattered inside glass displays. People silently trudge on by the macabre scenes, too stupefied to audibly articulate their thoughts. It is time to go outdoors and into the sunlight again.
They appear relieved to get outside and see the sun now starting to set, earlier than usual because we’re in the thick of Polish winter. The late-afternoon air is vibrant, or at least feels so in the lungs after the shock to the senses. An ebony-hued watchtower, not accessible to the public, looms in the distance next to the “Barbed Wires of Death.” A danger sign hanging on the wires warns visitors not to touch. Except for a few grassy areas, the grounds are barren at this time of year. Auschwitz resembles a ghost town and is best described as sterile; walking the grounds is suggestive of meandering through a cemetery absent any tombstones. On the horizon behind the watchtower a chimney appears; it is time to experience the crematoria.
As I approach the low-level, one-story building, what stands out is the sheer dinginess of the exterior. The entrance is low-hanging. You go inside. Immediately, you are struck by the mottled concrete walls; blotches of mismatched colors stain the surface of the walls everywhere. In fact, in the dim light it’s hard to ascertain what the colors are. A sign greets you, telling of the horrors that occurred here and asking for your requisite respect in memory of the slaughtered. Some sections of rooms remain barely lit, giving off the impression of walking through a huge, ghoulish tomb. Filming is prohibited. Overall, the building is not all that big; it takes only a few minutes to complete a walk-through. Then you come upon the ovens.
You see two. Surprisingly, at least for me, they appear somewhat small. (The Nazis soon made much bigger and far more efficient infrastructures of assembly-line mass murder.) A strangely shaped, black-iron mechanism sits on metal rails. It was designed to ram the bodies of the gassed prisoners into the ovens for incineration. Male prisoners labeled “sonderkommando” or “special workers” were tasked under the threat of death to lug the bodies to rail carts that carried corpses into the ovens for cremation. Hundreds of them were reduced to powder here daily. Many sonderkommando committed suicide.
We walk outside. Clouds are forming overhead. It’s getting dark. I ask our tour guide, Mr. Hong Suk-hwa, a diminutive man of about 35, how he feels about leading tours here. In near-perfect English he says, “Depressing.”
Less than two hours have passed. Only when I get back to the bus and it starts rolling out of the camp complex, past the gentle-sloping, brown-tinged fields of the Polish landscape, does the experience worm its way into my core. Throughout the tour I was numb. Perhaps it was a survival reflex of sorts. During the ride out of town, numbness transmogrifies into disbelief, then a sort of denial: How could it have happened?
I think of my colleague at the University of Maryland University College, professor Jon Huer, and his book, “Auschwitz, USA.” In it, he writes, “The existence of Auschwitz is so amazing, so incomprehensible, that we are almost inclined to attribute it to some supernatural force to test humanity, as many Jews themselves did.” I think of George Santayana’s trenchant quotation overhanging the entrance to the General Exhibition hall: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” I think of one of my university students who not that long ago asked, “Professor Roman, I heard that guy Hitler was a bad guy, but what exactly did he do?” And I try not to laugh.
Does anybody really have an answer? Perhaps not. Yet if somebody does, I don’t know who it is. Perhaps there is no answer after all.
My bus rolls through the Polish countryside, whirring past clumps of birch trees reminiscent of my native New England. I reflect on a workshop I took with Paul Selig at the Omega Institute in New York last summer. In his book “I Am the Word,” he describes finding — discovering — what he calls the divine Christ Consciousness in the core of every human being. My mind wanders back to the Nazi SS guards of the concentration camps.
Is it true, after all, that man is human?
Tours from Korea to Auschwitz
ROK-based tours to Poland will probably include Auschwitz in their itinerary. Visitors can take the tours departing from Incheon. A 12-day, 10-night tour (you sleep going over and coming back) was about 3 million won per person, all expenses included. Contact the Korea Tourism Organization or Google travel agencies and further details.
Phone: (+48) 33-844-8100/8099
Tours operate daily from 8 a.m., except on Jan. 1, Dec. 25 and Easter. Contact the site for closing times; they vary according to season.
Tours are given in Polish, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and occasionally Russian and Japanese. (Korean is currently not available.)
Photos are not permitted of victims’ hair or of the basement of Block 11. Children aged 13 or younger are discouraged from entering. Admission is free. If joining a guided tour (at the site) in a language other than Polish, there is an extra charge.
Pros of a Korean-guided tour
- Having helpful guides for the entire trip
- Riding the bus and not having to worry about transportation
- Getting an all-inclusive tour package price
Cons of a Korean-guided tour
- Only eating Korean meals daily
- Tour guide speaking almost all day/night during the bus ride
- Often returning to the hotel as late as 11 p.m. and getting up the next dawn