BIRKENAU: So outrageously beautiful here in early summer. Dana Schwartz, a child survivor of the ghetto and forest, now in her seventies, once told me what a friend, a former prisoner at Auschwitz, said in response to the common observation of first-time visitors to Auschwitz in the spring: it’s so green here: “That grass would not have been there with us. We would have eaten it immediately.”
The meadow by Crematorium 5 is a still and lovely place. Clover and wildflowers, pink, yellow and deep purple, thrive where the ashes of women and children nourished the soil. Our guide explains that when the crematoria attached to the gas chambers could not handle the volume of corpses, they were burned in the open where the grass now grows lush and strong. Here, people died in terror, wheezing for up to 20 minutes, trying to breathe gas and vomit and sweat. Next to the gas chamber is a stand of trees; tall thin trunks, white and black, trailing delicate leaves. This is where women and children were forced to undress before the end. Did that beauty offer any comfort or did it make the sorrow and rage more acute? Did they tell themselves it was just an inconvenience, that soon they would be clean and housed and fed? Were the grown-ups gratefully preoccupied with soothing their children? Did they whisper a final vidui or a final expletive to God?
I wrote earlier about Track 17. This is where it led. In the first chaotic minutes of disembarking, sometimes from trains packed pull of people who had stood for days without food or drink, with nowhere to sleep or relieve themselves, the young and strong who could work—and those whose physiognomy interested Dr. Mengele—were separated from the majority who were sent to die.
Primo Levi writes that, if you survived that first selection, all you had to do in order to die at Auschwitz within three months is obey orders. Eat only what you were given, wear what you were given, do the work you were ordered to do. The ratio of calories to energy expended killed most people off. Unless you were blessed with a constitution of iron or could learn to steal or bargain with prisoners or civilians in the greater complex, you had almost no chance.
And there were people with whom to barter. Auschwitz was a small town. IG Farben and other private companies had factories there, profiting from the forced labor of prisoners. Here were “German” prisoners, that is Germans who were not members of religious or ethnic minorities, German workers who had been moved into the town Oswiecim, from which Poles had been evicted, Soviet prisoners of war, who were worked as hard as the Jews and died in great numbers, Roma and Sinti prisoners, who were also subject to medical experiments and extermination, political prisoners, gay people and a few actual criminals, who were often made kapos. Birkenau, the extermination center, was a separate section of the larger camp. Some of the Poles who remained in Oswiecim did what they could to help. Our guide shared that her grandmother cut holes in her pockets through which she dropped bits of bread, hoping that people on work detail could succeed in retrieving it. (If she had given the bread openly, she would have been killed.)
The camps were a national project, involving every institution. The great corporate machine of Germany—Mercedes-Benz, Farben—grew strong on slave labor and war manufacture. Physicians and engineers designed the technology of the gas chambers, originally for the murder of disabled Germans who, like Jews and ‘Gypsies’ were considered impediments to the racist Utopia of Nazi imagination. One evil man did not ‘brainwash’ an entire country. A web of human decision made this place possible, an embrace or acceptance of a nakedly aggressive war effort by people who, out of nationalism or “racial pride”, acceded to the dehumanization of others.
I’m very glad that we attended Shabbat services in Krakow, a large city near Oswiecim, before seeing the camp. Of the five synagogues that had flourished in Krakow before the war, only one remains active. Still, there is Jewish life here.
Because the community is now so small, everyone worships together. Members of several Hasidic communities, Modern Orthodox and liberal Jews, and anyone from out of town, congregate in a motel to daven while their synagogue is being rebuilt.
Upon learning that we were travelers from the US, the rabbi invited us to Shabbos dinner at the local JCC. It was packed when we arrived, and we had not reserved places. Of course, the JCC people were used to the rabbi’s exuberant hospitality, and more tables and dinnerware and endless platters of food appeared, enough for everyone who showed up, more than 100 people. No matter where you are on Shabbos, there’s always room for one more.
We ate with Jonathan Ornstein, the Director of the JCC. He said that if we reported one thing from Krakow, let it be this: we are alive. The Nazis did not win. Rather than basing our identity on the catastrophe of the Holocaust, he suggested, we might base it on renewal, on the deep roots of Torah and culture that are sprouting new growth. Choose life that you and yours might live.
He’s right. The Nazis could and did murder millions of irreplaceable human beings. They destroyed synagogues and uprooted small towns; they smashed the great Jewish labor organizations and the Jewish entrepreneurs, the Bohemian artists and devout Beis Yakov girls, the capitalists and the Communists, the Zionists and those who preferred to die with tfilin on their arms rather than guns in their hands. But they couldn’t kill Judaism.
As in Krakow, only one synagogue still stands in Oswiecim. It has no regular congregation, but there is a Torah there, and siddurim, waiting. After seeing Auschwitz, our group: Jewish, Christian and Muslim made the place a house of worship once again. We prayed together silently, from our diverse traditions and offered blessings out loud. Kerry Chaplain, a rabbinic student at AJU, who had organized our service, led us in a nigun. I felt that, after where we’d been, it was a positive good—not just acceptable—to pray in that place with Jews, Protestants, Catholics and one observant Muslim, all of whom I find lovable. In prayer with people secure enough in their tradition to respect others, and in prayer with the Jews of Krakov, I am sure: Amelek can do dreadful damage; but he hasn’t won yet.
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