"Why?" It was a simple question, yes, but one from a place of incomprehension rather than of curiosity. A co-worker wanted to know what could possibly be of such interest as to use valuable vacation days in going to Auschwitz. And in February, no less. Time off was not to be “wasted” (her word) visiting a WW-II concentration camp.
Auschwitz compels. It demands attention as if witnessing a horrific tragedy in real time. Time away from the daily grind relaxing is good, of course but I wanted to see the camp at its worst, to reaffirm the value of life in as fulfilling a way as any sun-drenched vacation is regenerating.
It was cold the day we toured two of the three main camps, the original Auschwitz and the larger Birkenau barely a mile to the west and made famous in such films as “Schindler’s List” and “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.” The sun shone brightly, however, here in southern Poland, not far from the Czech and Slovakian borders. The sharp winter air seemed quite still as if afraid to stir up harsh memories and scattered ashes.
Easily the most sinister building on Earth stood before us, its central train access port yawning wide as if it were the very mouth of Hell. Inside, where Auschwitz was largely intact the Birkenau camp was indeed stripped of the majority of its buildings. A few bunkhouses remained while the four crematoriums were mere piles of rubble, left as they were the day the camp was abandoned.
The affect was stupefying. Slack-jawed at the expansive visage of a partially destroyed camp the mind begs to know what it was like in full operation. Vintage, grainy black and white photos only imply the true scale of horrors when viewed and imagined in living color. Chilly winds whistled through the rickety barracks and also the barbed wire still surrounding the grounds. The cold concrete of the train platform and the tracks themselves echoed in our steps the cries of the victims gone before while the watchtowers leaned menacingly inward, still daring one and all to put a single toe out of line.
Nine days before the Soviet Army arrived in the area the camp was evacuated in January of 1945 and attempts made to destroy the evidence. Some 60,000 prisoners were forcibly marched 35 miles in mid-Winter at least partly along what is today Route #933 to Wodzislaw Slaski (Loslau), there to be boarded on trains to other camps. In three days roughly 15,000 died on the way from abuse, exhaustion, exposure, murder and starvation, blood marking the death of those eliminated for being unable to keep pace, their essence absorbed into the snowy winter soil.
A satellite image of Oswiecim today shows an unnatural square, a symmetrical scar between the villages of Plawy and Brzezinka, the original Polish for “Birkenau.” If viewed in "Map" mode a single railhead peels off to the west jus above Plawy from the main line, as if serving no purpose but in actuality the end of the line like no other on Earth. It marks the failure to obscure the truth as indelibly as the atrocities here and elsewhere are etched in memory. And it begs the question: What path will others walk? I know what I have gained.
I have sacrificed a few days in the sun to be touched by the souls of the blood red snow.