I have really been struggling to figure out how to write about our second day in Poland, which started with a trip to the ghetto established by the Nazis in Podgorze, across the river from Krakow, and ended with a trip to Auschwitz. We had an incredible guide, Tomasz Cebulski from Polin Travel. He is a scholar in the field of the history of Polish Jewry and the Holocaust as well as an articulate, thoughtful, and sensitive person, and he wanted us to understand on a deeper level the methodology used by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Without Tomasz and his way of preparing us for Auschwitz, I do not think we would have fully appreciated the horror of what we were seeing.
Having said that, there is just no way that I can do the same for anyone reading this post. Most of us have seen photographs; we’ve seen movies and read books about Auschwitz. Many of us have been to Yad Vashem and/or the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We think we understand what happened there. But we don’t. Even being there, I still don’t. The more you learn about it, the less you understand.
What we learned from Tomasz was how ingenious the Nazis were in using psychology and technology and the instinct for greed to enlist not only Germans but citizens of other countries including France, Austria, Hungary, and Poland into their program for annihilating the Jewish population of the world. And Jews weren’t helpless sheep being led to the slaughter; they also were the victims of the Nazi propaganda machine and its use of psychology to create the impression that somehow all would be fine in the end. Corporations like IBM and many others saw the opportunities for making fortunes in developing the technology and equipment needed to facilitate the operation of the Nazi death machine. Jews were also used as slave labor in the companies of many industrialists; Oskar Schindler was the exception, doing something to protect these people who were being forced to work in his factory across the river from Krakow and close to the concentration camp at Plaszow, which we also visited.
And the world sat back and let it happen, pretending that things could not be that bad, that focusing on the war effort itself was sufficient, and that there really could not be such things as death camps. That a place like Auschwitz could not exist. Are we any better today? Just as the Jews could not believe that they would be slaughtered like animals but that things would be okay in the end, so do we all. We delude ourselves over and over again into believing that we can’t do anything to stop genocide, just as the world did during World War II. We bend to the profit motive, and we buy into propaganda. We forget, and we move on.
But Auschwitz is still there. Although the other death camps were destroyed by the Nazis when they realized that they were losing the war (see Note below), Auschwitz survived more or less intact. The Nazis did bomb the gas chambers and the crematoria, but there was enough evidence left to show the world what happened there. And the fact that the Nazis made one serious error—placing the gas chambers and crematoria adjacent to barracks for concentration camp prisoners who could witness how they were being used—also ensured that history would not allow the Nazis to cover up their satanic ways completely.
Auschwitz is still there. You can stand on the watchtower, and you can see the foundations of hundreds of barracks almost as far as the eye can see. You can see the crematoria, the remains of the gas chambers, the barracks, the train tracks. You can see the confiscated property of the people who were killed there—glasses, suitcases, clothing, ritual objects. Their hair and their prosthetic devices. The glass case exhibiting baby clothes made me weep. The clothes of children younger than my grandsons—evidence of the complete evil of these animals who watched babies get carried to their deaths with their mothers. More than anything else, that devastated me.
How do you walk away from this and still have faith in humanity? How can you have hope that good and beauty and love will prevail when there is so much capacity for evil? How can you ever trust anyone to be compassionate, fair, understanding?
You just have to. Because it is just too painful to think that people can be so evil. Because in fact most of us are good and loving and compassionate and fair. Because we have no choice but to see the beauty and the love and the hope or we would all just give up and fall into the darkness. We have to walk away, and we have to get up the next day and embrace life. Otherwise, the Nazis and all the other evildoers in the world defeat us. Yes, we need to stand up to evil. Yes, we cannot close our eyes and hide. But we also have to go on seeing the good in each other and loving each other as best we can.
Important Note: Although the other death camps were substantially destroyed by the Nazis to hide their genocidal activities, there is a movement to preserve the limited remains of the Belzec death camp in eastern Poland. You can read about that project here. It’s in German, but you can use Google Translate to read it in English. There is some urgency as the property is to be sold at a public auction on June 22. Please help preserve this place as another reminder us of our potential for evil and our need to fight against it.
UPDATE: Due to public pressure, the auction has been cancelled, and the money already collected will be used for preservation. The organization is no longer collecting donations.