MAXWELL:  Humanity’s evil haunts grounds at Auschwitz

10/1/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


OSWIECIM, Poland, Sept. 18

When I told colleagues, relatives and friends that I was going to Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe for vacation, the reaction was always one of incredulity.

Why Eastern Europe? And, especially, why Poland?

I came here to see for myself (not on television or in books or magazines) the sites of man’s greatest acts of evil. I have believed for a long time that, as a writer concerned about the human condition, my career would be incomplete if I did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau.

These two death camps operated for five years and were the major centers of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” _ the elimination of European Jewry. He managed to murder at least 1.5-million Jews and others here before Soviet troops arrived.

(Oswiecim in the dateline was and remains the Polish name of the small industrial town the Third Reich renamed Auschwitz after invading Poland in September 1939.)

The first sign that greets visitors sets the tone of the experience: “You are entering a place of exceptional horror and tragedy. Please show your respect for those who suffered and died here, behaving in a manner suitable to the dignity of their memory.”

Ignoring official tours, I bought a guidebook and walked the grounds alone. Above the main gate at Auschwitz _ through which prisoners walked each day to and from 12-hour-a-day jobs _ is the mocking inscription: Arbeit macht frei (Work brings freedom).

Everything at Auschwitz-Birkenau mocks civilized life. The rusting barbed wire and unused railway encapsulate Germany’s folly.

Some of the red-brick buildings (called blocks) at Auschwitz resemble college dormitories. The camp was an abandoned Polish army base, and the Nazis turned the structures into death houses, torture chambers and labs that conducted some of the most horrific medical experiments ever recorded.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was not the first concentration camp. The first ones were established in Germany years earlier. In 1941, SS henchman Heinrich Himmler realized that, given the physical limitations of the German camps, he could not carry out the Fuehrer’s mandate to exterminate Europe’s Jews.

Listen to Himmler’s warped pragmatism for choosing Auschwitz, as quoted by Rudolf Hess in his memoirs: “The existing extermination centres in the East are not sufficient to cope with an operation on such a scale. Therefore I have designated Auschwitz for this purpose, both because of its convenient location as regards communication, and because the area can be easily isolated and camouflaged.”

The words “easily isolated and camouflaged” are ironic when we remember that Auschwitz is a mere 47 miles west of Krakow, Poland’s most beautiful city and the nation’s cultural and intellectual center. How many Krakow residents, I wondered, knew what was going on in the nearby countryside?

Most Jews and Gypsies deported to Auschwitz were killed in gas chambers as soon as they stepped off the train. In Block 4, Room 1, I saw the urn _ a simple vessel _ holding the ashes of many victims. I stood in rooms where women, thinking they were about to shower, undressed and waited for streams of cool water to soothe their skin only to begin choking to death on Cyclon B gas that SS men poured into the chamber from above.

The women died in less than 20 minutes. I could hear their screams and gasps.

After the Nazis removed the women’s earrings, gold tooth fillings, rings and hair, they took the bodies to incinerators. Or, if the incinerators overflowed with human flesh, the bodies were dumped onto crude funeral pyres.

Most informed Americans are familiar with much of what happened at Auschwitz, but a few things should be highlighted.

Many prisoners died from hard work, starvation, malaria, appalling living quarters, filthy clothes too thin to keep out the cold and rats and insects that spawned disease.

Most of the sick reporting to the camp hospital went untreated because of overcrowding. Therefore, SS doctors decided who would live or die. The weak were immediately gassed or were given a shot of phenol in the heart. Those who could work were treated.

Prisoners feared the hospital. They called it the “anteroom of the crematorium.”

Approaching Blocks 10 and 11, I could not hold back the tears. According to my guidebook, these blocks, especially 11, were a prison within a prison, separated from the rest of the camp. The courtyard between 10 and 11 is enclosed on two sides by a high wall called the “Wall of Death.”

Here is where the SS shot thousands of prisoners, mostly Poles. In front of Block 11, according to the guidebook, the SS flogged prisoners and draped them on a special stake by their arms, which were bent behind their backs.

When I was there, a group of American Jewish girls placed flowers at the wall.

If Auschwitz was a place of evil, Birkenau _ where the majority of the prisoners were killed and burned _ was a site of ultimate evil and insanity. Less than a mile from Auschwitz, Birkenau had more than 300 wooden and brick buildings on 425 acres. Sixty-seven of the buildings remain. The Nazis destroyed the others as the Soviets approached.

Birkenau, housing as many as 100,000 prisoners by 1944, was divided into several camps. Inmates suffered and died from overwork, thirst, foul living conditions and epidemics spread by countless rats. While SS officers at Auschwitz regularly killed hundreds a day, the butchers at Birkenau often murdered and burned thousands.

At Birkenau, I saw the four crematoria with gas chambers, two makeshift gas chambers in renovated farmhouses and cremation pyres and pits. Ghostly chimney flues stand like sentinels of evil against the gray skies of Oswiecim. They are all that remain of the wooden horse stables that became efficient human death chambers.

In addition to removing the smoke of burned flesh from the units, the flues served another grim purpose: The burning bodies inside the chutes kept the buildings warm in the winter. Outside the buildings are the open ash pits holding the remains of thousands of people.

My life is enriched because I came to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where man engaged in acts of premeditated annihilation on a scale unrivaled in history.

Indeed, the Holocaust is real. What moral, intelligent person can deny this fact?

As for Jews, I admire their ability to survive and prosper. As for the people _ especially leaders _ who knew of or suspected Hitler’s deeds and refused to act, I have the deepest contempt.

Current acts of iniquity in various nations and regions _ Africa, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Germany, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and several parts of the United States _ convince me that we are capable of another Auschwitz-Birkenau.