Talking and traveling as we did, it didn’t seem to take an hour to get to Oswiecim (Auschwitz in German). We came to the little town as the clouds broke up and sun came out. After a few blocks, we took a left into a parking lot. There were tour buses and cars and taxies parked in neat little rows of five or six here and there on the sunlit lot. Some were close to the camp entrance and some in the shade of the trees that lined the main road outside the Polish state museum. That’s right! Museum. It’s also an International Memorial to the martyrs of Fascism. How about that!?
It was not what I expected. What appeared before me as we drove in could have been in any of our national parks. There was a sizable parking lot and, off to the right, a large institutional building made of red brick that seemed to be the entrance. People were coming and going and some were just standing around outside on the sidewalk or leaning against parked cars. We parked the Audi and headed in. As we walked, I was quiet and watchful.
My driver escorted me in and asked if I needed a guide. I said no. As we walked inside the building, I worried that I had come too late. There were too many offices and concessions in rooms lining the right side of the wide main corridor. They seemed to me to diminish the role of the building as the camp reception and processing center. It was disconcerting. The impact was much the same as it would be if you had to run a gauntlet of staff offices and snack stands before reaching the exhibition areas of any major museum.
The few photographs and descriptions of camp life that lined the left wall between the entrance and the doors opening into the camp itself did little to offset the banality of the right. My sense of dread grew with each step. Had the camp already been so thoroughly sanitized that a few buildings, photographs and that artifact, innocuous as the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, were all that were left?
When we came to a ticket booth, I had to borrow ten zlotys from the driver for a ticket. The price included a film taken shortly after the camp was liberated, but I was not interested in spending time in a theater. Contemporary films and photographs can be found in abundance in the Library of Congress repositories holding the transcripts of the Nuremberg Tribunal. I can see the many time I want to. But, on this day, time was limited and I wanted to see every square inch of the camp and make photographs of my own, if any of it was still there.
I can still see and feel what I saw and felt then. Stepping out of that first building, which had in fact been the camp reception, registration, and laundry center, was like stepping off the edge of the planet. I was in it! No matter where I turned, and I turned plenty, I was in the camp! I could see only the camp around me and the sky above me and the few early visitors who had arrived before me. And right in front of me, about fifty or sixty yards away, was that black and infamous iron gateway above which ran the arc of the Nazi covenant – Arbeit Macht Frei! Work Liberates!
I stepped out the door of the admin building into bright sunlight and onto a patio and was frozen in place. Beyond the patio was a gray walkway about fifteen or twenty feet wide. It was paved with small rough stones. To my left were two long and low, dark and utilitarian, seemingly creosote-treated wood buildings. The walkway narrowed and ran down the length of the buildings and beyond. These were workshops and the SS garage. A couple of three-foot high, grass-covered, brick and mortar hillocks that had served as individual bomb shelters for guards were between the buildings and the path.
Panning to the right across the walkway, I saw a shorter but otherwise identical building – variously known as the blochfuerhrer’s office and the cinema – which sat on a small grassy plot. Just left of the near end of the building, the gravel walk branched to the right and narrowed slightly as it passed by that building and through the camp gate. Panning right still, thereat a triangular grassy area large enough for a couple of croquet fields just outside the admin building. At the far side of that small plot, the 1,000-yard main perimeter fencing ran off to the left and right, broken only by the main gate.
Double rows of pale concrete fence posts stood out against the background of dreary, two-story, shadow-clad buildings beyond. The many strands of heavy-gauge barbed wire attached to white insulators at alternating heights up the front and the back of each post were scarcely visible. Behind that fence were many brick and wooden buildings – the blocks of Auschwitz – laid out on a tidy Hellenic grid.
All the grassy areas were green and growing. So were the tall and still leafed-out poplars lining the walkway and part of the fence line. The dry chill of autumn had not set in. Grass was mowed in some places and overgrown but obviously occasionally tended in others. The life within that greenery was misleading. It obscured the reality of that terrible place almost literally. My photograph of the slogan that arcs over the gate, for example, has little impact because it trails off into a shadowy backdrop of deep green leaves.
Standing there in the brightening and now agreeable morning, it was at first difficult to get the sense of the place. It seemed just to be a few acres of unused, but well-kept institutional brick buildings and clean grounds ringed by a high fence, now stripped of its warning signs. It struck me as simply an abandoned compound I might, as an Air Force Brat, have seen anywhere dad had been stationed. It was more enigmatically familiar than ghastly.
My pace was deliberate when I finally adjusted to those first views and moved on. With camera in hand, I stopped often, trying to frame pictures first in my mind and then through my lens. I would walk up to a point like the corner of the camp kitchen, pass it, and then back up, trying at every step to see the essence of each place, each view. I would check this angle and that, one line and another. Except for my shot of the gate and one other, I waited for visitors to clear a scene. And I watched the play of light and shadow caused by scattered clouds passing overhead. As I watched and looked and searched and peered and pried and critiqued, the pictures came and I began to merge the images I had brought with me and the reality before me.
A glance down the fence at the gate gave me lines into nowhere overseen by an empty, tile-roofed and creosote-colored guard tower. The shadow of a passing cloud brought out the imposing dreariness of the camp kitchen, one of the first of the buildings just inside the fence line. Checking my own reactions, I validated my decision that pictures without people would be best, because modern street clothes were too great a contrast. But the key to really seeing it all, I decided, was going to be in not going where other people went. By staying off the beaten path and ignoring the walking tour markers, I thought I might find many things.
It wasn’t hard to take my own route and time. There were no impassable barriers or officious museum guards to block me. The normal route along the markers had neater borders and fewer weeds and could be avoided. Going left when the sign said right helped, as did just going wherever the Hell I wanted to go to get a better look at something and compose a photograph. In doing that, I did find things most visitors would not find and saw what they would never see.
After passing through the main gate, I took a picture of a blown-up picture of the camp band taken in 1941. Other tourists flowed around and past me as I felt my way along, soaking up everything, moving from the present to the past and back. The others went straight. I turned left and walked among the buildings on either side of the road in one corner of the camp. Every few yards, I stopped to take pictures. Down the road ahead of me and under the dead glass eyes of a guard tower was another break in the main perimeter fence. I headed that way.
Moving in and out among the buildings, I learned that most were not unused, as it seemed and as I both expected and first thought. There were storage rooms and offices in some, such as block 12, and others may have been sources of materials for repair, judging by the condition and contents of their interiors. Many blocks, if not all, had double sets of frames and panes in the windows – a common strategy for weatherproofing in the days before double glazing. But, for whom? The present occupants or those of WWII? Or was it done when the camp was a WWI artillery barrack? A few blocks had been turned into apartments for people whose connection to the museum I may never know. I learned that by accident.
The gap in the fence, toward which I walked, was the exit leading to Crematorium I. While roaming the grounds near Crematorium, I outside the perimeter fence, I suddenly came upon a blonde girl about seven playing next to one block. At first, I took her for the daughter of a tourist. But, no-one else was around. As I was looking around to see where her parents were, I noticed toys that lay here and there on the ground and on a stoop.
Within a minute or two, the girl stopped playing and began to move away like a child should when approached by a stranger, even though I did not approach. She could not have known my presence was accidental. I caught the change in her behavior and I caught a glimpse of a woman looking out a window at us. Then it dawned on me. I was in somebody’s yard!
That discovery was not welcome and I scarcely believed it. But I confirmed it when I was on the other side of that same block walking up the camp guards’ route between the two outer fences. There were potted spider plants on some window ledges and lacy curtains inside the windows. People moved about inside. It was true! People were living in some blocks! In this case, it was the former quarters of the SS. Does that qualify as sacrilege or is it merely irreverent? That the prisoners’ blocks were treated equally casually seems certain in hindsight and I have deep concerns about the stewardship of the State Museum.
Most difficult of all that I saw and the sight to which I reacted most violently was Crematorium I, which had originally been a storeroom for the artillery camp. It was largely intact when liberated by the Red Army and lay just beyond the primary perimeter fences. At first glance, it resembled the earth-covered concrete bomb shelters I once explored as a boy amidst Japanese rice paddies, except that its roof was flat and not covered by earth.
I knew it for what it was instantly. There was no mistaking the stout brick chimney that jutted up behind it. But I was confused by its park-like setting – It was just left of a built-up open area set in a small grove. My subconscious was prepped for desolation and I couldn’t figure out why or when that small, raised gardenette of a clearing came about. There wasn’t any obvious reason for its elevation. The grounds all around were on the same lower grade.
I took some pictures of the little clearing, which held a replica of the gallows on which camp commandant Rudolph Hoess was summarily and deservedly hanged for his crimes. And I could not resist clambering up the earthen embankment of the crematorium to see the roof and to confirm that there were indeed drop holes for Zyklon B. To my surprise, the portable ventilation stacks and drop hole covers were in place. Check!
Next, I got pictures of the so-called prisoners’ entrance, which was actually not there until after the building was no longer a killing site and had been turned into an SS bomb shelter. The designation, however, while known to be incorrect, has been perpetuated by careless researchers, by visitors, and by the State Museum. A narrow, downward-leading rock and concrete corridor cut into the mounded, sound-deadening earth led to the doorway. Inadvertently, I first got one photograph of a man wearing a yarmulka as he entered the bunker. We would later meet and talk briefly about the exhibits at Birkenau.
At the end of the corridor was a door several inches thick with a hole in it at eye-level which probably once held a thick piece of glass. It gave the impression that it was there that guards would peek through to see when a gassing was over. But, there’s no telling where the door came from. The Nazis had put the building to several uses and had nearly completely dismantled it before abandoning the camp. After the war, there were also several restorations using parts from all over the place. Still, I don’t doubt that it had been killing room door somewhere. In the event, however, overseers had there relied more on rough timing adjusted for weather conditions. Only a few minutes were needed for a couple of hundred people on a humid day. A little longer if it was dry.
Gruesome no matter where it came from, the door opened inward and swung on right-hand mounted hinges. Its swing space was accommodated as a small foyer that once formed an air lock and had a second door, which was in place. I had to go immediately to the left into a lighted, well-poured and hardened, concrete chamber opening up to about 60 by 30 and running off to the right. Originally a mortuary, the room had been converted to a gas chamber. As I entered and turned, I took a photograph as though looking back over my left shoulder. It was a chilling sight for any who, like me, assumed that it had been the actual gas chamber entrance. A sense of dread went with me into the dark, high-roofed chamber.
At the opposite end of the chamber, I could see a windowed door off to the left. Behind that door an oil-fired furnace once stood. It was through that door that prisoners had entered the gas chamber. Between that door and the place where I stood was evidence of the alterations that were done at different times. Several rooms had been partitioned off during the bomb shelter days and I could see where the interior walls had met the flooring walls of the chamber.
I wandered on in and my mood changed dramatically. What I saw and what I smelled made me furious! What I saw was that the crematorium, which had been restored by the Soviets after liberation, had been doctored since! Drop holes and all the other openings in the ceiling had been cemented over. There was no evidence from inside that canisters of pellets could be poured over the people trapped in there when the doors were shut. I felt and still feel it inexcusable. How could they (the curators)perpetrate such a fraud? Or not correct it if done by someone else?
Even more infuriating was the smell. Blending with the familiar dusty smell of a clean, dry cement bunker was the unmistakable smell of burnt people! After fifty years I could still get the sweet, oily stink of death!!! (And, yes, my sense of smell is that acute and, yes, I’ve smelled that smell before, when I worked as an ambulance side-rider in a south Fort Worth funeral home in the early sixties. Other recent visitors to Auschwitz have confirmed it to me.) That stench blended with the smell of damp char as I moved into the room. Both got stronger the farther in I went.
About two-thirds of the way in and on the right were more doors that opened into an equivalent but a subdivided chamber where stood two double-muffled retorts in which bodies were burned. There had once been three — two side-by-side in the right central area and one in the far corner opposite the others. The two that I saw were unimposing and, in fact, seemed to me too small for Auschwitz. No more than five or six corpses could have been taken at once by each. They could not have done all the work for which Auschwitz is so reviled.
Pieces of equipment lay here and there in front of the ovens. There were tracks in the floor over which counter-weighted steel or iron trolleys were pushed back and forth from the gassing room to the ovens. One complete and one incomplete trolley stood at rest in front of the most distant oven on the right. Each had a burned and rusted corpse caddy some eight feet or more in length directly into the doors. The caddies were essentially concave sheet metal trays. Just in front of the nearest oven was a set of trolley wheels sitting on the gas room to oven tracks. Part of another trolley stood off left near where the third oven had been.
When in use, the trolleys would be pushed back and forth over rails between the gassing room and the ovens. Turntables in the floor allowed them to make the ninety degree turns needed to shove the loaded caddies into the waiting furnaces. The trolleys would then be pulled back and the load of corpses slid off inside the oven like loaves from a baker’s paddle. Beneath the charging doors of each oven were the doors from which ashes and bits of unconsumed banner removed.
Since I had never considered the mechanics of holocaust, I could not fully comprehend what I saw. The crematory area was to me a confusing tangle and I wondered where were the banks of furnaces which were at the heart of the dark history of that place. What was before me seemed common. That those rooms were far from common was attested to by fresh flowers placed on and before the ovens atop the trolleys. The bright flowers were in stark contrast with the sooty room and equipment and with the purpose of the place. The blossoms were reminders to all visitors that the furnaces were also graves.
As I moved around, between and the ovens and in and out of the bunker to line up my shots, other tourists came and went both singly and in groups. Few besides tour guides spoke and few used their cameras. Some left flowers. I kept quiet and I kept my distance throughout, using my camera only when alone in that room. Insofar as it was possible, I stayed out of sight by standing behind the others or off to one side. At one point, I even went back into the gas chamber and waited for a large group to move on. I didn’t want to disturb the other visitors or to distract them inanely way.
My curiosity drove me hither, thither and yon in search of clues to what happened during the war and I found them. But it was impossible to get a handle on how things had worked until I got back home. The disposal infrastructure, for example, was long gone as were the grizzly accessories. Apart from the tracks, the trolleys, and the wheeled axles there was just nondescript metal junk lying here and there. I found the coke stoking doors and work pits behind the ovens, but there were no shovels or other tools. In one of the smaller rooms there was a crematory furnace of another design from some other camp.
Curiosity and confusion remained and mingled with my anger after I left Crematorium I behind. Where was the production line on which so many were killed? What had they done with what was left? Where were the tools of that awful trade? How far did the disposal apparatus extend beyond Crematorium I? What form had the supporting structure taken? I had those questions and more. And I was nearly apoplectic! In the middle of my confusion and anger I could not see my emotional forest for what it was. At the time, I was just irritated by it all.
It took six months for me to realize that what was wrong was that my subconscious sense of scale had been violated. The enormity and the site didn’t match up. I knew that Auschwitz was a small camp, a labor camp first and foremost. I knew that it fed the I.G. Farben plant just down the road and the nearby munitions plant, as well as coal mines and construction projects throughout the region. And I knew the SS had tried to remove the evidence and that the camp had been open to pilferage, souvenir-hunting, and reconstruction for five decades. Much of what was there had been recreated in accordance with any number of divergent political agendas using both what little was left and parts from other camps. Clearly, Auschwitz could not be as discovered. But, still, it seemed to me to have been a too small place for Hell.
What I walked away from in such a state was actually the third stop on my self-directed tour. The gate was first and the next was the main fence line outside which were the crematorium, Gestapo building, camp commandant’s office, the SS hospital, and other buildings, all reached by turning left a few yards beyond the main gate. I walked quite a ways up the gravel path between the two fences that made up the outer security perimeter.
As I walked upon the gravel, the two fences formed parallel lines to my line of sight. One of my best pictures is sighted down those two runs of barbed wire, between which SS guards once walked with dog and rifle at the ready twenty-four hours a day. Views of that walk have graced every Auschwitz film ever made, but the most compelling I’ve ever seen is a short documentary sequence of young and newly-rescued children in camp clothing moving through the wire-bound corridor in a tight little group to freedom.
As with the buildings, the fencing was well-done – sturdy and enduring – with little slack in the wire. Outdoor lamps under inverted-saucer reflectors arched over the path on symbiotic, curved metal posts of their own. If nothing else, the quality of those fences, with their formed cement posts studded with heavy-duty white ceramic insulators secured by half-inch steel rods, showed that the place was intended for long-term use.
After fifty some-odd years, nearly all the fence posts were still ramrod straight and showed few signs of decay. The barbed wire, which musts need to be mended now and again, could still have been pulled as tautly as a bowstring across the glazed insulators. The whole thing wasps imposing as the walls of Huntsville, and, seemingly, just as solid. Most of the blocks were in also good repair. Only a few inside the prisoners’ area were unlocked and most of those were on the tour path. Exhibition blocks held various country-specific displays which included photographs and inmate art.
One of the most dreadful aspects of Auschwitz was that people had been turned into raw materials. Hair, teeth, tattooed skin, artificial limbs, and more had been stripped from their bodies, cleaned, repaired, packaged, and shipped back to the fatherland. Along with the salvaged body parts had gone worldly possessions. Family treasure, mementos, luggage, shoes, toothbrushes, combs, eyeglasses, clothes, jewelry, plates, bowls, cups, flatware, prams, cradles, blankets, bedding – everything the dead had carried – was collected, sorted, counted, cataloged and sent back home literally by the trainload.
Some of what was so brutally stolen remained to be seen in the exhibition blocks and the sight was devastating. Human hair, braided or tied or wrapped or pig-tailed or loose as the day it was shorn filled a huge sealed bin. Thousands of shoes of hundreds of styles and colors filled another. Luggage was stacked to the ceiling. Tableware filled an entire room. And I repeat. It was devastating. All I could do was cry. All anybody who saw it could do was cry. And we did.
I took it hard and I took it personal. What remained could have been all that was left of my daughter or N____ or my father or you or me. Any of us could vanish as quickly and completely as any who had. All the mourning I had ever done or never finished overwhelmed me then and there and mixed with a stark, cold feeling of sheer helplessness. I could not change any of it in my life or theirs, and standing there all I wanted was to undo it all. The abandonment and the despair that I had felt on the train came back to me a thousandfold.
Exhibits, fences, guardhouse towers, gas chamber, and ovens weren’t all there was to see, however. In the out-of-the-way places I found buildings like block 3 that showed their age and, I felt, were more eloquent as testimonials to what happened here. In their depreciated state, they seemed as gaunt and hollow-eyed as the living and the dead they once contained. For me, those blocks lay in state. I did not dare even to consider whether I might enter for fear of offending not the memory of the dead but the dead themselves.
Elsewhere, there were other and puzzling elements. For example, I found a swimming pool with its diving boards gone, full of stinking water and algae. The pool has been drawn in but not labeled on few of the many maps of the compound that I have seen. No markers explained its presence or use. I also found park benches along the broad, tree-lined and incongruous walk known by some as Birch Lane and by others as the parade alley. I wondered then and I wonder now if it had once served as a promenade for the SS or the odd visiting official. Can you imagine people swimming and diving or people sitting unconcerned on benches in the middle of such misery? Oddly enough, it’s likely to have happened. Everything about the place was irrational!
I realized I’d have to do some research to make sense of it all. I had so many questions. Why, for example was Auschwitz walled in on two sides? Wasn’t the electrified barbed wire enough? And what about the huge storehouse in which the worldly possessions of the condemned were sorted and processed and packaged for reuse? Why did it lie not just outside the fence but outside one of the forbidding walls? What happened to its contents? And how had it come later to be a convent and then be abandoned by controversy and now unused?
One question, that of size versus reputation, has already been answered. Part of the answer is that the main camp at Auschwitz was never a full-fledged killing center. It started out as a detention center for political prisoners and other sorts of undesirables and remained so throughout the war. The artillery depot had been converted to a crematorium I when experiments with Zyklon B showed that the basements of the detention blocks would be too clumsy and inefficient to be production gas chambers. Too few could be killed and it took too long to clear the cells of vapors and bodies. Larger facilities intended for Auschwitz were planned but built elsewhere. The murders and cremations at KL I numbered in the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands.
A second part of the answer lies in the recollections of survivors. For them, the word Auschwitz was all-inclusive. They neither had reason nor need to differentiate one named place from the other. Auschwitz was the word of foreboding whispered in the ghettos. It was Auschwitz to which the condemned had been told they were going. Those who could get a glimpse of highway and railroad signs during their transport reported having seen the word Auschwitz. And what happened in one part happened in all.
By modern convention, Auschwitz means the main camp, which, like the Brown Recluse spider, was small but very, very deadly. Anyone consigned there faced a thousand forms of death in an untold number of places, not just inside that one compound. While there, people were stacked and packed in tighter than cordwood and died in many ways. Others were consigned from there and further transported only to be used up and die in places distant or near like Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Auschwitz I(Monowitz, also called Buna), and scores of other named and unnamed sub-camps and work sites. Exhaustion, disease, burial or burning alive, beatings, execution by gun or rope or gas, starvation, sport, dehydration, medical experiments, suicide, exposure, infection, dogs, inmate murder, and despair each took their toll and then some. And it went on twenty-four hours a day. For years!!
For me, Auschwitz lasted only about two or three hours, with most of the time spent looking for the hidden places, although it seems I was there for much, much longer. And while I didn’t see every exhibit, I saw many, and I saw all four corners of it. But, Birkenau (Birch Wood) or Auschwitz I was the place I needed most to see. It’s about three clicks from Auschwitz and it was both a labor camp and, eventually, a death camp. The legendary trains and convoys stopped at Birkenau, not Auschwitz. What you most often see in documentary footage of the time and the site most closely identified with the most outrageous crimes of the war is Birkenau.
Dazed and confused by what I’d seen and felt at KL I, I wandered out through the main building to the parking lot. My driver had moved his car across the lot under the shade of a tree. He was talking to other drivers, but kept an eye out for me. When he saw me, he brought the car around. I dropped my camera stuff in the back seat and got in up front. Then we took off for Birkenau, which was a short trip. First a right turn out of the parking lot and a left over some railroad tracks. Three or four minutes more driving in the farmland just outside Osweicim and we were there. It was around 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon.
End of Part IV