Walking along the railroad tracks up to the main building at Birkenau was chilling. I was about to enter the largest of the 40 Nazi extermination camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex, and its reputation preceded it.
At first, it doesn’t look like much. Twenty or thirty barracks, some brick, some wood, an electric fence and a few guard towers. Then, as you walk down towards the “selection platform,” a strategically placed area in the middle of the camp where the camp doctor decided who was going directly to the gas chambers and who would be admitted to the camp, it hits you: every two chimneys was a barracks, 400 people in each. When it was fully operational, 175,000 to 250,000 people were imprisoned here each with a life expectancy that could be measured in minutes to months.
I was not prepared for the size of Birkenau or the scale of the industry required to kill this many people in a demoralizing, hopeless way. I was not prepared for the organizational skill required to profit from the plunder, nor was I prepared for the economics of selling human hair and smelting gold and silver from dental fillings. This death factory used every available technology to maximize results, and the efficiency sickened me.
Tattoo vs. Picture
According to our guide, in the beginning each prisoner was photographed. There is a room at Auschwitz I now filled with uniforms and pictures and lists of prisoners. But the SS officers had a problem; when prisoners died of starvation or exposure (even within a few weeks), it was difficult to identify the bodies from the pictures. The solution was to tattoo prisoners with identification numbers. This made counting bodies much more efficient.
In camp center, the selection platform (pictured above) was a place that should never have existed anywhere in the universe. Here, a man (the camp “doctor”) stood and – within seconds – decided who would be admitted to the camp and who would go for immediate “disinfection” – the euphemism for the gas chamber. Approximately 70 percent of deportees were killed within a day of arriving at Birkenau. If you were old, infirm, sick, pregnant or under the age of 14, you were killed the day you arrived. If you were able-bodied and could work, you were admitted to the camp. After learning how the prisoners lived, I’m not sure who got the better end of the deal — those who were instantly killed or those who were worked and slowly starved to death.
The wooden barracks were the first thing I got to see here, and the description set the tone for the rest of the day. Up to 400 people were forced to live here. The floor was dirt (not concrete as it is today). The walls did not go all the way to the roof, so there was almost no protection from the weather. The heat would be unlivable in the summer and the cold was almost unsurvivable in winter. There were two stoves in each barracks for heating, but they were never used. It was too complicated to organize the distribution of wood or other suitable fuel.
Prisoners were not allowed to leave the barracks once they were inside, and there were no sanitary facilities. If you had to relieve yourself, you did it in your clothes or in your bed or wherever you were. There were two trips each day to the latrine. Think about the smell, the disease, the discomfort, the lack of dignity — the level of dehumanization is almost past the point of belief, but the proof is here. It happened, right where I was standing just 72 years ago — inside the length of one human lifetime.
The Nazis destroyed the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau about 10 days before the liberation of the camp. The ruins are still gut-wrenching. Each gas chamber could kill 2,000 people in about 25 minutes. This task was done with a remarkable amount of stagecraft and technique. People were assured that they were being taken to be disinfected before admission to the camp. They were told to remember the number of the hook upon which they hung their clothes. Then, naked, they were herded into the chamber. SS officers used cans of Zyklon B mixed with diatomaceous earth crystals. When the cans were opened, the crystals saturated with hydrocyanide released the poisonous gas. We were told that the lucky ones were the people who were standing close to the openings where the canisters fell. They died in seconds. It took those at the far end of the chamber up to 25 minutes to die.
Then, the bodies had to be removed to the crematorium, where the Nazis could burn about 1,500 bodies per hour. Birkenau was built with the knowledge the Nazis accumulated from Auschwitz Crematorium #1 (pictured above), which had a capacity of only 700 people and far fewer ovens. Even at the capacity of Birkenau, the crematoria were overloaded and the Nazis had to resort to burning bodies in open pits. To this day, when it rains, small bits of bone still occasionally surface in the fields surrounding the camp. It’s hard to find adequate words to describe this.
What I Learned
What motivated men to do this? This is worse than hate, worse than fear, worse than greed or jealousy or anything else I have ever felt. I don’t know how you could justify killing anyone, so I cannot even imagine what inspires a nation to conceive of, fabricate, operationalize and use a killing factory. And Birkenau was only one of many.
The technological efficiency on display here makes this the most organized crime in history. It was sociologically skillful; the Nazis started dismantling the Jews in a methodical way, first by disrupting their businesses, then by disrupting their lives, then by taking their possessions, their dignity and ultimately their lives. But it was also technologically skillful in a way that hit me harder here at Birkenau than even at Auschwitz I. For some, at a death camp where even hope was dead, it was just another day at the office. The SS officers went about their business of killing as many people as they could, as quickly and efficiently as they could.
One day, I will take my children and grandchildren to see this place. And when we turn to leave Birkenau, we will be turning our backs on the Nazis and all they stood for. We will still be here — a living memorial to countless, nameless millions. I will teach them that this kind of evil is never defeated; it just goes into hiding. And at that moment, they will know in a primal, visceral way why we must never forget!