Auschwitz-Birkenau, July 5, 2002
We took a local train from Krakow to the small town of Oswiecim, whose German name, Auschwitz, evokes such horror. The first camp is only a short walk away from the modern train station. As we walked through the streets of this ordinary-looking town, it was almost impossible to believe what happened here. Perhaps even harder to believe is that there are people who deny it.
We spent the morning at Auschwitz I as it is called with many of the buildings just as they were when the Jews arrived from all over Europe. The infamous gate is there, rather small and eerie. The block houses, filled with the booty extracted from the human cargo that passed through, are here. So, too are the supports for the electric fence and the signs warning of the dire consequences of trying to cross it.
Two kilometers further away, is the ultimate death camp: Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a cruelly-efficient machine for the systematic extermination of Jews. Millions of men, women, and children were gassed and burned here. What remains is too little for us to really know or feel the horror that living here must have been. The air today is clean and pure not full of the smoke and stench of burning bodies. First-person accounts can help, of course, like the one we read recently written by a friend's mother, one of the few who survived not only Auschwitz but also the death march. But they bring us only a little closer not close enough to really understand.
Some of the Jews did revolt and the results of that effort, the twisted metal and rubble of a destroyed gas chamber are here to see. The individuals who destroyed it were of course themselves destroyed.
We spent a full day, spending our last hour back at Auschwitz I in the musuem that tells some of the tragic stories of all of the hundreds of thousands of tragic stories that ended here so cruelly. Lest we forget.