The Way It Used To Be - Chapter Six: Oświęcim


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July 6th 2005
Published: May 30th 2008
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Work Shall Set You Free...
I awoke this morning to what must have been the most brilliant day of the year, if not the decade. The sun shone bright; it was warm and breezy and floral perfume floated in the air. What a great day, the kind of day you remember come winter. However, with train ticket in hand for Oświęcim, is there ever a fine day to go to Auschwitz? Do you roll out of bed look outside and say, “Gee, this would be a splendid day to see the camps, so much better than yesterday?”

But, what of people who live in Oświęcim? They must travel a bit and see the world, right? The remnants of the camps must be but a minor distraction for them, as they lead normal existences; they go to work, have families, and root for their favorite teams. I envision a conversation held among three middle-aged couples touring the Norwegian fjords on a cruise ship. They are seated for dinner and getting to know each other:
“It is a lovely evening”, Madame Répeau stares out the window. “You would also love to come to Paris. It is lovely, particularly in October.” She sips her chardonnay.
“Oh, we have
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These images require little depiction...
never been. We must go, yes dear?” Signora Frucci turns to her husband to grab his attention. And then you can come to Umbria and visit us. We can show you the classic hill towns of Spoleto and Trevi.” The Italians begin to dine on their first course.
Mr. and Mrs. Wojechowski remain respectful and silent. They keep to themselves, but Madame Répaeu wants to make them part of the conversation. “And where are you from?”
Mr. Wojechowski answers, “Auschwitz. Could you pass the salt?”

In spite of its sanitized presentation and manicured grounds, the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau paralyze visitors in stunned silence. Having beaten the mid-morning onslaught of tour buses, I have spent most of the day here trying to articulate in the written word about atrocities the spoken word cannot even begin to tell. The experience is so overwhelming that I had to force myself to pull out my camera and gather photographic evidence of my time here. I internally debated this for a long time, ashamed that the act would be deemed disrespectful. I drifted among barracks, chambers for execution and starvation, and gruesome prison cells. You have heard the testimonies, seen the
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Those who entered raelt left alive...
video footage, and viewed the re-enactments. None of it can compare to actually casting your eyes upon, and then passing under, the ominous iron sign, Arbeit Macht Frei. The confounding awareness sets in that this place truly exists and 1,500,000 innocent Jews, Slavs, invalids, mentally retarded, prisoners of war, and intellectuals perished here. It is a number of which I cannot even begin to conceive.
For the next hours, I toured, but spoke to no one, not a single word. If you so desired, you could spend two days or more immersing yourself in the exhibits. But why anyone would return to such a place a second time is something with which I cannot identify. German tourists appeared in small numbers. Israeli Jews caught my attention above all. Explanations on stone plaques were in clear, but concise Polish, English, and Hebrew. Strangely, the text does not include the word “Germans” practically anywhere. Instead, it is the “Nazi’s” methods, the abuse doled out by the “SS”, and the “Gestapo”. But never the “Germans”. It leaves you with the impression that the common citizen from Düsseldorf can feel better about himself or herself when visiting. Worst of all, nowhere did I see
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Totally different when there in person. It's real...
any mention of the complicity of the ordinary Frenchman, Belgian, or Pole, who looked the other way, or pointed out Jews to German authorities. They get a pass, too. History proves that most Europeans did not care for those condemned, and did not miss them when they were gone. It is infuriating to have this fact, albeit distasteful, not come to the forefront of the experience here.

The camp at Birkenau is a massive complex; its layout wholly depicts the scale and “efficiency” at which the Germans were determined to do away with their prisoners. I walked the entire length of the railway yard, several hundred yards, through the gate and to the end where the railways cars could double back and exit to bring in more victims. These were the very same rails on which trains brought the condemned from points all over Europe. I stood in the ruins of the gas chambers. The grounds are so huge that it takes no effort to be alone, to stand silent before ponds where ashes were deposited after cremation. The wooden dwellings, dozens of them - seemingly endless - do not remain, but the brick chimneys stand as an eerie
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But you get the point...
reminder of what existed here 65 years ago. The chimneys stand erect in neat lines. Miles of rusted barbed wire connected and supported by concrete supports run forever. It does not stop. Wherever inside the camp, I paced aimlessly and while alone, only uttered the words, “Oh my God” under my breath.

The Way It Used to Be is designed to be a first-hand chronicle of my exploration of small slice of Eastern Europe. Without intentionally employing it constantly, I inject humor into my chapters in order to give anyone interested an honest and realistic interpretation of where I have set foot. But there is nothing funny about Auschwitz. I think it is the most horrible place I have ever directly known. And for as long as I inhabit this earth, I will never, ever, come back here again.



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