Originally posted Feb. 2, 2013, at Hungaryforayear. Republished with permission of the author.
Editor’s note: Dave Long is living and working in Szombathely, Hungary, this year through the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program.
1/18/13 — Auschwitz and Birkenau. I really don’t know how to put words to what I saw and experienced. It was powerful, heart breaking, intense and just plain mind boggling how something like that happened and continues to happen around the world. Auschwitz is about an hour drive from Krakow, so I was put in a van with six other people (a couple from Northern Ireland, girls studying in Ireland and a Japanese couple). Even though we got along well before, during and after the tour, it didn’t lessen the impact of what we saw. I definitely think it’s worth seeing, but there really is no fun way to describe anything that happened in these places. Proceed with caution.
The cold breeze cutting through my warm jacket, the snow cooling the bottom of my feet through my boots, and grey skies eliciting a grey mood, I started to think what the conditions must have been like in the extermination camps from 1940-1944, especially in the winter. Not sufficient clothing, food and shelter, and in the summer, no easy way to keep cool or hydrated. Many victims suffered and eventually died from frostbite, hypothermia and starvation due to these harsh realities.
During the day, the victims/workers were allowed two bathroom breaks with limited water and endured long, harsh, demanding workdays, often not sleeping much because of cruel punishments. Cleaning the latrines was considered the best job for a couple of reasons. It was the only place the victims could talk to other victims, trade items and plan guerilla warfare. Latrine workers also avoided getting flogged by Nazis because of their smell. The sign over the entrance, which reads “Arbeit Machht Frei,” translates as “Labor makes you free.” I’m not sure if another sign could read as a more untrue statement as to what happened here.
Countless numbers of victims were subject to suffocation rooms, standing rooms, hanging, being shot in the back of the head and, the most common method, led into the gas chambers (some disguised as big shower rooms). The gas used, called Zyklon-B, was invented by several people, but the main chemists who are credited are Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Fritz Haber and Walter Heerdt. Strangely enough, Haber was a Jew and contributed a lot to the progress of chemical warfare. The gas was originally intended to combat insect and rodent pests in several countries, but the method was switched by the Nazis 20 years later, when they used it against the Jews, Russians, Poles, Roma and others. The Nazis filled up the chambers with hundreds to thousands of people, dropped the pellets into the chambers through pipes in the sides of the walls, which then released the cyanide gas when the pellets got wet. The victims inside the full gas chambers were then dead within 20 minutes.
Before we go further, I’d like to break down how this all started and why this location was used. Poland was considered the Jewish capital of the world before World War II with roughly 3 million people, more than any other country in the world at the time (now it’s home to about 10,000 Jews). Since it was already geographically located in central Europe, it became an ideal place for the Nazis to send Jews, Roma, Poles, Russians, homosexuals and others. Hitler’s plan was to “purify” Germany, wanting just the Aryan race to rule the world. This couldn’t be done until all the undesirables were “gone.” Other reasons such as robbery, fear of Communism, and earlier ”religious” prejudices should also not be ignored. The ploy continued and Hitler and the Nazis told these people that they would be “resettled” in Eastern Europe.
Sadly, those going to the extermination camps often bought, yes bought, their ticket to Auschwitz. They thought they were going to live normal lives, work and resettle themselves and their families in a safe place. Some trips lasted as long as six weeks on crowded trains, coming from places as far away as Greece and Norway. When they arrived, their suitcases, household belongings, shoes, eyeglasses, clothes, hair and essentially everything they owned was stripped away.
After getting off the trains, the doctor pointed them either to the left (death) (the elderly, weak and diseased) or to the right (to work), which in many cases led to death eventually. Apparently during an Auschwitz tour a few years ago, one visitor recognized a Nazi soldier helping the doctor as his own father. Since the Nazis were organized with documents and records, it was possible to confirm that it, indeed, was his dad. This man knew his dad was in the army but didn’t know he was involved with the Nazis. Crazy.
Since Auschwitz had already been used as a Polish army artillery barracks before the Nazis occupied it, they weren’t able to make it any bigger, which led the Nazis to build Birkenau just a few kilometers away. Birkenau was roughly 20 times bigger than Auschwitz and it’s where most of the killings took place. There is a memorial sign in Hungarian saying, “Forever 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.”
Coming from Hungary, I was shocked to hear that about 400,000 Hungarian Jews were killed within two months in the summer of 1944. This was the largest percentage of Jews killed in that short of a time, which, if broken down, ends up being 6,666 people murdered each day for two months. Unfathomable. Also, as I work with people who are Roma, I was surprised to hear that about 23,000 Roma were killed during this four-year period. So many times I associate the Holocaust with just the Jews, which is not true at all. Our tour guide, who did a great job, said that within another five to 10 years, there will be no survivors from Auschwitz still alive.
Taking a German film class in college and learning a lot about the Third Reich through documentaries and propaganda films, I remember thinking it was hard to imagine how something like this could happen. Having a chance to be in the actual location where the murders took place makes me even more confused as to why the Nazis or anyone could think of killing fellow human beings — human beings who have souls, who can make informed decisions between right and wrong, who have opinions, thoughts, and are capable of changing the world for the better. What makes this whole thing more scary and confusing is that the Nazis thought they were doing the right thing.
As a Christ-follower, I’ve been thinking, “Where is God’s place in all of this?” This is certainly not an easy question. My first thought comes from what the memorial says. “Forever let this be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity ” We must learn from our mistakes, whether they are small mistakes or big mistakes. We must forgive. We must take steps to look out for our brothers and sisters, whether they are black, white, purple, Jew, non-Jew, Christian, non-Christian, gay, fat, skinny or whatever society decides to label others. We must learn that the human condition of sin can be a deep, deceiving and powerful thing.
We must also learn we have the power to do as much good as bad. I think we should be crying out a lot more. Just like the memorial, we should let this be a cry out from our souls to something bigger than ourselves. Let this be a cry that we don’t know why bad things happen all of the time. Let this be a cry that we can rise up, toss aside bitterness and judgment and start embracing forgiveness, love and standing up for what’s right. And finally, let this be a cry and a prayer for those who suffer from injustice. That world leaders, as well as our own voices, would speak up for those in lower places. Amen.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Find a link to Dave Long’s blog hungaryforever at Lutheran Blogs.