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A Vision of Hell: Recollections of a Visit to Auschwitz

by Judge Gary S. Glazer

Summer 2001, Vol. 64, No. 2

As a student of history, I have always been mesmerized by the events of World War II, a conflict with precisely defined forces of good and evil. I recently had the opportunity to confront the ultimate symbol of evil on a recent trip to Poland where I traveled with a former colleague, Samuel M. Lehrer, to visit the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was a shocking, solemn and depressing journey back to a time of madness and depravity.

The occasion for the visit was a trip to the Central European town of Krakow, Poland. Krakow was untouched by the destruction of WWII and retains its ancient, old-world charm. A bustling and vibrant town, Krakow presents itself as a Mitteleuropa village in the twenty-first century. It is a charming city in southeastern Poland, drunk with capitalism and freedom. It is also the home of Oskar Schindler's factory, as seen in "Schindler's List," which stands unchanged from WWII and today contains an electronics business.

My images of Auschwitz have always been drawn from black and white photographs or grainy movies from the 1940s. It was, therefore, unusual to begin the trip to Auschwitz on a sunny and beautiful October morning. Traveling via modern highway, we passed through rolling Polish countryside, heading west from Krakow to Oswiecim, the town immediately adjacent to the death camps. The town itself resembles any small town, with a town square, several churches and shops. There is a recently renovated synagogue that serves principally as a museum. There are large apartment complexes, a Daewoo dealership and, of course, a train station.

Nevertheless, there are constant reminders of Oswiecim's ghastly place in history. There is a huge chemical plant in town that, during WWII, depended upon slave labor from the camps for production. The current controversy raging in Oswiecim involves the operation of a discotheque in a former tannery about one mile from the Auschwitz entrance. The tannery depended upon slave labor from the death camp and was the site of the deaths of numerous inmates from the Auschwitz camps. The existence of the discotheque at this location has generated great international controversy, with locals supporting its operation and human rights groups opposing the use of the site for such a purpose.

There have been other such controversies at Oswiecim over the years. A convent was built directly adjacent to the camps. Although the building remains, its occupants were moved after protests and objections. Similarly, developers sought to build a grocery store directly opposite the camp entrance, but protests have momentarily stopped construction.

The town of Oswiecim is a victim of its own history. The residents are trying to move on, but the international community is ever vigilant to prevent the slightest encroachment upon the memories of martyrs of Auschwitz. It is a struggle that is likely to continue through the years without a resolution that is satisfactory to anyone, given the scope of horrors that were perpetrated and the exigencies of modern life.

The term "Auschwitz" is actually a misnomer because Auschwitz was actually several camps. Auschwitz I was originally built in April 1940 for Polish political prisoners, but was subsequently used as a death camp for Jews and non-Jews as well. Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, became the major center for killing of European Jewry after its completion in 1942. Numerous other satellite camps were scattered throughout the area.

My arrival at Auschwitz I was rendered somewhat surreal due to the presence of a large number of tour buses and souvenir stands near the camp entrance. Although such sights are necessary reminders of the tourism industry, I found the sale of postcards at Auschwitz depicting sights of the camp and wooden carved dolls of figures, appearing to be Orthodox Jews, highly inappropriate and insulting.

Entry to Auschwitz I is through a gate with the infamous slogan, "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "work makes free." Many brick barracks survived the war and contain memorials to the numerous nationality and religious groups, in addition to the Jews, who were killed there. Some barracks have exhibits of tons of human hair, shoes, eyeglasses and suitcases of the victims. There is an exhibit that contains the discarded baby clothing of infant victims.

Perhaps the most compelling exhibit is the Gestapo punishment barracks. The initial room is the commandant's office, which is adjacent to the "court" where "trials" were held and condemned prisoners were sentenced to death for assorted infractions, including escape attempts or even knowledge of escape attempts. The rooms are unchanged from WWII. I walked through various detention cells, where prisoners suffered death by starvation or asphyxiation. There is a memorial in the cell in which a Polish priest gave his life to spare a child who had been randomly condemned to death because a prisoner count one morning revealed that several prisoners had tried to escape. I also observed "standing cells," which were small, cramped cells designed as punishment for four prisoners. The prisoners were forced to work all day and then placed in these cells without food or water and were required to stand throughout the night. Many martyrs died from asphyxiation or sheer exhaustion in a very slow and painful death.

Outside of the Gestapo barracks is the alley of death. On the opposite side of the alley is a wall of the hospital unit. Its windows were boarded up to prevent the patients from seeing inmates who were summarily executed by the Gestapo. To this day, the windows are still boarded up. The actual killing "wall," where the murders were carried out, has been realistically re-created. It was chilling to walk the path trod by so many innocent victims of madness.

The final stop at Auschwitz I was the gas chamber and crematorium. Words are inadequate to describe the sensation of walking into the gas chamber and looking up to see where the Zyklon-B gas pellets were dropped. Immediately adjacent to the gas chamber is the crematorium with the ovens still intact. Emerging from this complex, I frankly felt emotionally drained and very angry. I finally understood, in a way that is possible only through physical presence and observation, the monstrous and overwhelming mechanization of the Final Solution. Quite simply, the business of Auschwitz was efficient extermination. Outside the gas chamber there is a gallows where the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolph Hoess, was hanged after his conviction for WWII war crimes.

Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, is a short distance from Auschwitz I. The camp is vast but sparse; the only purpose of Birkenau was the mass extermination of Jews. Upon entering the camp, wooden barracks stretch as far as the eye can see. Many barracks were destroyed, but it is clear that the scope of this camp was immense. One is able to walk along the train tracks where thousands of martyrs underwent selection, usually for rapid death. At the end of the tracks are the remains of gas chambers and crematoria that were destroyed by Nazis and during an uprising of female inmates in 1943. There is, finally, a large memorial to the almost two million souls who perished at this place.

As I left Birkenau, I found it impossible to imagine the type of mind that could conceive of such a hellish place.

While the trip to Auschwitz was exhausting, both mentally and spiritually, it was also profoundly moving. The spirit of all who died at Auschwitz will remain with me forever.