I went to Auschwitz, about ten years ago, with my late father. There is something about seeing Konzentrationlager Auschwitz that makes you want to give witness. I wrote a long description of the visit, which I’ve never published until now.
Note that the following contains disturbing descriptions.
February 19, 2001
You go through the visitors center and there it is. You’ve seen it in photographs a hundred times, the famous gate: “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work will set you free. The idea was to be reassuring, unlike the slogan Dante hung over the entrance to his hell, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” Put in an honest day and everything will be all right. Counterproductive to panic the arrivals. Here, and up the road, in Birkenau, they thought through all the details, down to the numbered hooks in the dressing rooms outside the gas chambers. The SS jollied you along. Remember which hook you hang your clothes on so you’ll be able to get find them after the shower. And don’t forget to put your shoes underneath so you’ll be able to get them, too. You’re a shoemaker? Great, we need shoemakers. At Auschwitz, they even had a prisoner orchestra playing inside the gate. It helped keep order. Good for morale, too. How bad could it be, if they greeted you with music?
It’s February and gray. The poplar trees that line the avenues between the cellblocks are bare. The swimming pool—See? We even have a swimming pool!—that was to impress the Red Cross is covered with dirty ice. Crows, gallows. It’s hands-in-the-pockets cold, but would you want to see this in springtime, with blossoms and sweet earth smells?
Our guide is Jarek. Mid-forties, fluent English, dark mustache, knit cap. He grew up in Oswiecim. He speaks precisely, in a low, clear voice without emotion for nearly six hours, except for twice, once outside Block 10 and inside Block 11. We pass under Arbeit Macht Frei. He indicates a grassy strip. “Here is where they gave the welcome speech. They said, ‘You dirty Poles, this isn’t a sanitorium. There’s only one way out—through the chimney of crematorium. Jews, you have three weeks. Priests, one month. Three months for the rest of you.”
Sixty thousand, out of about 1.5 million, survived Auschwitz. If you made it through the first weeks, you stood a chance of making it. Some managed to survive five years, from 1940 to 1945. By contrast, out of 600,000 at Belzec, three people survived.
It feels colder inside the cell blocks, where the exhibits are. There is a blown-up photograph of Himmler viewing Auschwitz’s first inmates, Soviet POWs. Polish political prisoners, the intelligentsia, priests followed. Two years later, with the construction of the much larger Birkenau three kilometers away, the camp became ground zero for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
Between October 1941 and March 1942, some 10,000 Soviet prisoners died here. Jarek as well as the exhibits use the word “murder” instead of die, or kill, or exterminate. It takes some time before the ear gets used to it, modern speech being less direct.
“The method for murdering the Soviets was in many cases simple,” Jarek says. “Put them in a field, surround them with barbed wire and leave them.” Some became so resigned from hunger that they would climb themselves onto the wagons of corpses. There was cannibalism. In Thadeusz Borowski’s short story, “The Supper,” a group of Russians who have tried to escape are lined up, arms tied behind them with barbed wire, and shot point-blank through the back of the head in front of a crowd of starving prisoners. The prisoners clamor and rush forward and must be dispersed with clubs. “The following day … a Jew from Estonia who was helping me haul steel bars tried to convince me all day that human brains are, in fact, so tender you can eat them raw.” Borowski was at Auschwitz. He survived and later put his head in a gas stove at the age of 29.
More exhibits. The Nazis kept such meticulous records, which in the end only meant that there was a vast amount to destroy as the Red Army approached in January 1945. Every death—murder—was written down. Jarek points to a photocopy of a ledger that survived. “The reason given was never ‘bullet’ or ‘gas,’ but instead ‘heart attack’ or ‘kidney function’.” Deaths are listed in intervals of minutes.
In the next case are photocopies of transit passes for the trucks that brought the cannisters of Zyklon B pellets. The contents are listed as “material for the displacement of Jews.” Here are the minutes from the Wannsee Conference outside Berlin on January 20, 1942, the meeting of the board of directors of the corporation in charge of the Final Solution. These are free of euphemism. One page shows the goal: a column of numbers, country-by-country tallies, with a bottom line of 11 million.
Up a flight of stairs, around a corner. No more paperwork. Now it gets personal: two tons of human hair behind glass. Mounds on mounds, amorphous and hard to take in at first, until you focus and see the pigtails and braids. Jarek remarks that they were going to send some of this to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, but in the end it was declined as “too much.” The hair was shorn after the gassings, then efficiently dried in the crematoria so it could be industrially spun into carpeting.
Here is a large pile of spectacles, a spidery mass of rusted wire-frames and dusty lenses. These were left with the clothing in the dressing rooms, so the last things seen through these glasses would have been nervous kapos and Death’s-Head guards.
Behind another wall of glass is a jumble of rusted artificial limbs, canes, crutches, braces. Like the hair, it blurs into abstraction until the eye settles on a child’s fake leg. Now it’s into another room and the suitcases, piles and piles of shriveled leather suitcases. They wrote their names on them in large white letters. Jarek points out the word “orphan” in Dutch. Hundreds of names. I write down one: PETR EISLER 1942 KIND. The year of his birth and his child— kinder—status. In the next room comes the display of children’s clothing, pacifiers, rattles, hairbrushes. Then the shoes, a mountain. Finally the empty canisters of Zyklon B, perhaps a hundred or more, in a pile. By to the calculations of Rudolph Hoss, Auschwitz’s first commandant, it required seven kilos of Zyklon to murder—not the word he used—1,500 people, so this pile here might have sufficed for perhaps 75,000 or 100,000 human beings. It appears from the tops that they refined the process of opening the cans. Some are jagged, others have been smoothly cut, as if in one motion by a machine. Across from this display is a clay diorama of a gas chamber in action. Once everyone was inside, between 700 and 1,500, depending on which of the five gas chambers it was, the doors and windows were sealed tight. The bluish pellets of diatomite soaked in hydrocyanic acid were poured through chutes. Exposed to oxygen, the pellets gave off prussic acid, blocking the exchange of oxygen in the blood. Those close to the chutes died instantly, the ones farther away took longer. Hoss watched one gassing through a peephole. In his Reminiscences before he was hanged in 1947, he describes clinically that it took two or more minutes before the screams turned to moans. Still they didn’t open the doors for half an hour, just in case. After that it was safe for the Sonderkommando, the prisoner work crews, to wade into the tangle of bodies, vomit, and excrement to get the hair and the gold teeth and drag the bodies next door to the crematorium. The work paid well and was competed for: one-fifth liter of vodka, five cigarettes, 100 grams of sausage for each job.
It’s gotten colder outside. We’re approaching Block 10 now, where Professor Doctor Carl Clauberg, a university professor of gynecology described by Borowitz as “a man in a green hunting outfit and a gay little Tyrolian hat decorated with many brightly shining sports emblems, a man with the face of a kindly satyr,” sterilized women and men with chemicals and roentgens and infected children with disease, for science. He was released from prison by the Soviets in 1956. Jarek says, “He went back to Germany and took out an advertisement in the newspaper saying, ‘Dr. Clauberg is seeking an assistant.’ He did not even change his name.” A trace of a smile. “He was arrested and died the same year, of poor health.” Elsewhere at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dr. Josef Mengele performed his experiments on twins and dwarves.
In the courtyard between Block 10 and Block 11 is the Wall of Death. There is a sign urging quiet, so you approach slowly and reverently, as you might an important tomb. Visitors have placed six bouquets of flowers at its base. A woman is crouching, trying to get a red votive candle lit. People have left pebbles in every inch of the creases in the wall, in the Jewish manner of mourning. Jarek tells what happened here. Prisoners who had been tried by the SS, for trying to escape, taking food, for whatever reason, were taken out into the courtyard naked, in twos. A strong kapo who, before he came here, had worked in the circus, held them face to the wall. An SS man shot them at the base of the skull, with a short air pistol if there were a lot of executions to be done, so that the camp would not ring with incessant gunshots.
A former prisoner, a Dr. Boleslaw Zbozien, described what he witnessed here one day:
“Sometime, I cannot remember the exact date, we encountered [SS sergeant-major Gerhard] Palitzsch on the streets of the camp at Auschwitz. Before him, he was driving a man and a woman. The woman was carrying a small child in her arms, and two larger children, around four and seven years old, walked next to her. The entire group was walking in the direction of Block 11. I made it with some colleagues to Block 21 in time. From a window in a room on the ground floor, we gazed out at the courtyard to Block 11, standing on a table in the room. As long as I live, the scene that played out before my eyes will be engraved in my memory. The man and woman did not resist when Palitzch stood them before the Wall of Death. It all took place in the greatest calm. The man held the hand of the child who stood on his left side. The second child stood between them; they both held his hand. The mother clasped the youngest to her breast. Palitzsch first shot the baby through the head. The shot to the back of the head exploded its skull … and induced massive bleeding. The baby struggled like a fish, but the mother only held him more firmly to herself. Palitzsch next shot the child standing in the middle. The man and woman … continued to stand without moving, like statues. Later, Palitzch struggled with the oldest child, who would not allow himself to be shot. He threw him to the ground and shot him at the base of the head while standing on his shoulders. He then shot the woman, and at the very last, the man. This was the greatest monstrosity… After that, although many executions were carried out, I did not watch them.”
We place our pebbles. Jarek says, “Between 5,000 and 20,000 people were shot here.”
We go into Block 11. The faded sign above the door reads,
Block of Death. Just inside the door on the left is the room where they held the proceedings. Jarek remarks that the SS officer who sentenced 5,000 Poles here to die was still alive last year, living in Germany, age 92. We ask why. He shrugs. At the far end on the corridor, on the left, looking out into the courtyard, is the room where the condemned where stripped and held. An illustration depicts a naked girl holding onto her mother’s legs as the SS guard comes for them. High on the wall, a prisoner scratched graffiti, a name and the date and the words, “Sentenced to die.” Beneath that is the date of the next day and the words, “I’m still here.”
In the basement of Block 11, the first gassing with Zyklon B took place. Six hundred Soviet POWs and 250 Poles were locked in. They poured in the pellets. It took 20 hours to kill—murder—them all. This is how they learned the correct dosage.
Cell 18 was the “Starvation Cell.” If a prisoner escaped, the Lagerfuhrer, or commandant, would select ten prisoners from the escapee’s block. They would be shut in this cell without food or water and left to die. Generally this took a week.
In August of 1941 there was an escape. One of the prisoners, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan missionary, asked the commandant to let him take the place of one of the ten men selected to starve. Father Kolbe was still alive in the cell two weeks later, after the others had all died. They finished him off with an injection of carbolic acid. He was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint by Pope John Paul II in 1981. Candles burn in the cell to him and the others who were murdered here.
In another room in the basement of Block 11 are the four “Standing Cells.” Each measures about a yard square, with a small hole for ventilation. Four prisoners were crammed in at a time and left all night, sent out to work in the morning and returned here at night. This punishment might last three days, or two weeks. The sign says that it produced “extreme emaciation and a slow, agonising death.”
In the hall as we leave the basement I ask what the pipes are. Jarek explains that it’s the only cell block in Auschwitz with central heating. “Because it was officially a Gestapo prison, it had to be heated.” The second and last smile of the day. “Rules.”
We walk past Cell Block 21, where the Doctor Zbozien witnessed the murder of the Polish family, past a memorial stone left by Israeli President Chaim Herzog with a quote from Psalms 38:18, “My sorrow is continually before me.” We walk past the gallows where they hanged prisoners 12 at a time, past the cell block where the whorehouse was on the second floor. “It was Himmler’s idea, to give incentive to the non-Jewish prisoners.” Borowitz wrote about this in one of his stories. The prisoners’ name for it was “Puff.”
Outside the barbed wire you come to Gas Chamber and Crematorium Number I, Auschwitz’s first functional one after the initial experiment in the basement of Block 11. Seventy thousand were murdered here. It’s the only intact crematorium out of five at Auschwitz. The SS dynamited the other four at Birkenau as the Red Army was closing in.
We stand inside and look up through the opening where SS men in gas masks poured the pellets. Through the door at the end are the ovens. These could incinerate 340 bodies a day. Jarek shows how the slide worked. It still does. A bouquet of roses has been left on one. The German company that made these, he says, finally went bankrupt in the 1960s.
A short lunch in the cafeteria, borscht and croquettes and nonalcoholic beer, since they don’t serve alcohol at Auschwitz, no matter that you could use a drink. Soup for the prisoners consisted of nettles and water. Morning tea was brewed from oak leaves. For dinner, wormy bread, perhaps with a smear of lard. Some of the survivors weighed 60 pounds.
Birkenau is a five-minute car ride. This is Konzentrationlager Auschwitz II, Auschwitz concentration camp number two, built in 1942 in pursuance of the Wannsee Conference goals. “Compared to Birkenau,” Jarek remarks, “Auschwitz was a Hilton.” Birkenau is how the Germans said Brezinzka, which means Birch Wood, the name of the Polish village that was here. Auschwitz was how they said Oswiecim. Oz-vee-chim. The town once had a sizeable Jewish population of its own.
The rail line that approaches Birkenau runs through a red brick guard tower and this too is familiar from photographs and documentaries. The prisoners called it The Gate of Death. From May to October 1944, 600,000 Hungarian Jews—a line of numbers in the Wannsee document—came through here. In the spring of 1944, at the height of Auschwitz’s efficiency, 10,000 arrived here each day.
We go up into the tower. Jarek opens a window and stands back and says quietly, “Birkenau.” It’s here, rather than at the Wall of Death or Cell Block 11, that many visitors break down and weep. Perhaps it’s because of vastness that confronts them. You’re looking out on an area 3,000 feet wide by 2,100 feet deep: 174 barracks, four crematoria, surrounded by double fences of barbed wire and guard towers. The crematoria could only handle about 5,000 bodies a day, so at times to keep up they had to burn bodies in the fields by the woods in the distance. The stench from that, and from the early mass graves of Soviet POWs, is described in the literature.
Jarek gets a key to the gate and we drive to the rail platform where the arrivals got off Eichmann’s transports after journeys of sometimes three or more days, no food or water, packed in so tightly that in summers water from the humidity ran off the ceilings. About 80 percent of the arrivals, those unfit for work, the older men and women, women with babies, children under 14 were immediately murdered in the gas chambers. Borowski’s book of stories is titled, This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
We stand where the families were separated. Jarek points. We look and see a dozen deer on the other side of the barbed wire, running down an alley between barracks, white tails going up and down in the ruins as they leap.
On one side of the rail platform was the women’s camp. “When the trains came,” Jarek says, “women would shout to the women arriving, ‘Give the baby to the granny.’ That way you might not be selected for the gas chamber. This was the choice.”
We drive past a small pond of foamy water where they dumped the ashes, to Gas Chamber and Crematorium II. On the maps, these are designated KI, KII, KIII and so on. KII is larger that the one at Auschwitz. Jarek’s uncle lived six kilometers away and told him about the smell. We stand on the ruins of KII, which is more or less as it was after the dynamiting, collapsed onto itself, but the foundations still clear. Jarek points, “Mengele’s laboratory.”
Between KII and KIII is the memorial, a raised terrace of moss-lined granite bricks, a low stone sculpture and nineteen plaques, one for each language of the people murdered here, French, Greek, Norwegian, Italian and all the rest. The one in English says,
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN, MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1945
Jarek explains that they changed the wording after communist rule ended in Poland. Originally, the plaques made no specific mention of Jews. “In Poland then, the idea was officially that you didn’t point out one group above the other.” After communism, it was no longer politically incorrect. Ninety percent of Auschwitz’s victims were Jews. Next came Poles, 70,000, then Gypsies, 23,000.
On the drive back to Cracow we don’t say much, my father and I. It leaves you quiet, Auschwitz, even as it impels you not to be quiet about it, to tell what you saw, no matter that it is all by now so well-known and documented and familiar. At the airport in Zurich, the local Sunday paper shows a photo from a recent rally in Switzerland, hundreds of shaved-head neo-Nazis giving the salute.
Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.