Part IV: KL I -Auschwitz
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Part IV of the Journal
KL I -Auschwitz
Talking and traveling as we did, it didn’t seem to takean hour to get to Oswiecim. We came to the little town as the clouds broke upand sun came out. After a few blocks, we took a left into a parking lot. Therewere tour buses and cars and taxies parked in neat little rows of five or sixhere and there on the sunlit lot. Some were close to the camp entrance and somein the shade of the trees that lined the main road outside the Polish StateMuseum. That’s right! Museum. It’s also an International Memorial to theMartyrs of Fascism. How about that!?
It was not what I expected. Whatappeared 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 ofred brick that seemed to be the entrance. People were coming and going and somewere 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 andwatchful.
My driver escorted me in and asked if I needed a guide. I saidno. As we walked inside the building, I worried that I had come too late. Therewere too many offices and concessions in rooms lining the right side of the widemain corridor. They seemed to me to diminish the role of the building as thecamp reception and processing center. It was disconcerting. The impact was muchthe same as it would be if you had to run a gauntlet of staff offices and snackstands before reaching the exhibition areas of any major museum.
The fewphotographs and descriptions of camp life that lined the left wall between theentrance and the doors opening into the camp itself did little to offset thebanality of the right. My sense of dread grew with each step. Had the campalready been so thoroughly sanitized that a few buildings, photographs and theodd artifact, innocuous as the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, were all that wereleft?
When we came to a ticket booth, I had to borrow ten zlotys from thedriver for a ticket. The price included a film taken shortly after the camp wasliberated, but I was not interested in spending time in a theater. Contemporaryfilms and photographs can be found in abundance in the Library of Congressrepositories holding the transcripts of the Nuremberg Tribunal. I can see themany time I want to. But, on this day, time was limited and I wanted to see everysquare inch of the camp and make photographs of my own, if any of it was stillthere.
I can still see and feel what I saw and felt then. Stepping out ofthat first building, which had in fact been the camp reception, registration, andlaundry center, was like stepping off the edge of the planet. I was in it! Nomatter where I turned, and I turned plenty, I was in the camp! I could see onlythe camp around me and the sky above me and the few early visitors who hadarrived 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 Nazicovenant – Arbeit Macht Frei! Work Liberates!
I stepped out the door ofthe 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 waspaved with small rough stones. To my left were two long and low, dark andutilitarian, seemingly creosote-treated wood buildings. The walkway narrowed andran down the length of the buildings and beyond. These were workshops and the SSgarage. A couple of three-foot high, grass-covered, brick and mortar hillocksthat had served as individual bomb shelters for guards were between the buildingsand the path.
Panning to the right across the walkway, I saw a shorter butotherwise identical building – variously known as the blochfuerhrer’s office andthe cinema – which sat on a small grassy plot. Just left of the near end of thebuilding, the gravel walk branched to the right and narrowed slightly as itpassed by that building and through the camp gate. Panning right still, therewas a triangular grassy area large enough for a couple of croquet fields justoutside the admin building. At the far side of that small plot, the 1,000-yearmain perimeter fencing ran off to the left and right, broken only by the maingate.
Double rows of pale concretefenceposts stood out against the background of dreary, two-story, shadow-cladbuildings beyond. The many strands of heavy-gauge barbed wire attached to whiteinsulators at alternating heights up the front and the back of each post werescarcely visible. Behind that fence were many brick and wooden buildings – theblocks of Auschwitz – laid out on a tidy Hellenic grid.
All the grassyareas were green and growing. So were the tall and still leafed-out poplarslining the walkway and part of the fence line. The dry chill of autumn had notset in. Grass was mowed in some places and overgrown but obviously occasionallytended in others. The life within that greenery was misleading. It obscured thereality of that terrible place almost literally. My photograph of the slogan that arcs over the gate, forexample, has little impact because it trails off into a shadowy backdrop of deepgreen 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 afew acres of unused, but well-kept institutional brick buildings and cleangrounds ringed by a high fence, now stripped of its warning signs. It struck meas simply an abandoned compound I might, as an Air Force Brat, have seen anywhereDad had been stationed. It was more enigmatically familiar thanghastly.
My pace was deliberate when I finally adjusted to those firstviews and moved on. With camera in hand, I stopped often, trying to framepictures first in my mind and then through my lens. I would walk up to a pointlike the corner of the camp kitchen, pass it, and then back up, trying at everystep to see the essence of each place, each view. I would check this angle andthat, one line and another. Except for my shot of the gate and one other, Iwaited for visitors to clear a scene. And I watched the play of light and shadowcaused by scattered clouds passing overhead. As I watched and looked andsearched and peered and pried and critiqued, the pictures came and I began tomerge the images I had brought with me and the reality before me.
A glancedown 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 cloudbrought out the imposing dreariness ofthe camp kitchen, one of the first of the buildings just inside the fenceline. Checking my own reactions, I validated my decision that pictures withoutpeople 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 goingwhere other people went. By staying off the beaten path and ignoring the walkingtour markers, I thought I might find many things.
It wasn’t hard to take myown route and time. There were no impassable barriers or officious museum guardsto block me. The normal route along the markers had neater borders and fewerweeds and could be avoided. Going left when the sign said right helped, as didjust going wherever the Hell I wanted to go to get a better look at something andcompose a photograph. In doing that, I did find things most visitors would notfind and saw what they would never see.
After passing through the maingate, 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 upeverything, moving from the present to the past and back. The others wentstraight. I turned left and walkedamong 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 underthe dead glass eyes of a guard tower was another break in the main perimeterfence. I headed that way.
Moving in and out among the buildings, I learnedthat 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 havebeen sources of materials for repair, judging by the condition and contents oftheir interiors. Many blocks, if not all, had double sets of frames and panes inthe windows – a common strategy for weatherproofing in the days before doubleglazing. But, for whom? The present occupants or those of WWII? Or was it donewhen the camp was a WWI artillery barrack? A few blocks had been turned intoapartments for people whose connection to the museum I may never know. I learnedthat by accident.
The ungated gap in the fence, toward which I walked, wasthe exit leading to Crematorium I. While roaming the grounds near Crematorium I outside the perimeter fence, Isuddenly came upon a blonde girl about seven playing next to one block. Atfirst, 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 layhere and there on the ground and on a stoop.
Within a minute or two, thegirl stopped playing and began to move away like a child should when approachedby a stranger, even though I did not approach. She could not have known mypresence was accidental. I caught the change in her behavior and I caught aglimpse of a woman looking out a window at us. Then it dawned on me. I was insomebody’s yard!
That discovery was not welcome and I scarcely believed it. But I confirmed it when I was on theother side of that same block walking up the camp guards’ route between thetwo outer fences. There were potted spider plants on some window ledges and lacycurtains inside the windows. People moved about inside. It was true! Peoplewere 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 deepconcerns about the stewardship of the State Museum.
Most difficult of allthat 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 largelyintact when liberated by the Red Army and lay just beyond the primary perimeterfences. At first glance, it resembled the earth-covered concrete bomb shelters Ionce explored as a boy amidst Japanese rice paddies, except that its roof wasflat and not covered by earth.
I knew it for what it was instantly. Therewas no mistaking the stout brick chimney that jutted up behind it. But I wasconfused by its park-like setting – It was just left of a built-up open area setin a small grove. My subconscious was prepped for desolation and I couldn’tfigure out why or when that small, raised gardennette of a clearing came about. There wasn’t any obvious reason for its elevation. The grounds all around wereon the same lower grade.
I took some pictures of the little clearing, whichheld a replica of the gallows onwhich camp commandant Rudolph Hoess was summarily and deservedly hanged for hiscrimes. And I could not resist clambering up the earthen embankment of thecrematorium to see the roof and to confirm that there were indeed drop holes forZyklon B. Surprisingly, the portableventilation stacks and drop hole covers were in place. Check!
Next, Igot pictures of the so-called prisoners’entrance, which was actually not there until after the building was no longera killing site and had been turned into an SS bomb shelter. The designation,however, while known to be incorrect, has been perpetuated by carelessresearchers, by visitors, and by the State Museum. A narrow, downward-leadingrock and concrete corridor cut into the mounded, sound-deadening earth led to thedoorway. Inadvertently, I got one photograph of a man wearing a yarmulkah as heentered the bunker. We would later meet and talk briefly about the exhibits atBirkenau.
At the end of the corridor was a door several inches thick with ahole in it at eye-level which probably once held a thick piece of glass. It gavethe impression that it was there that guards would peek through to see when agassing was over. But, there’s no telling where the door came from. The Nazishad put the building to several uses and had nearly completely dismantled itbefore abandoning the camp. After the war, there were also several restorationsusing parts from all over the place. Still, I don’t doubt that it had beenkilling room door somewhere. In the event, however, overseers had there reliedmore on rough timing adjusted for weather conditions. Only a few minutes wereneeded for a couple of hundred people on a humid day. A little longer if it wasdry.
Gruesome no matter where it came from, the door opened inward andswung on right-hand mounted hinges. Its swing space was accommodated as a smallfoyer that once formed an air lock and had a second door, which was in place. Ihad to go immediately to the left into a lighted, well-poured and hardened, concretechamber 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 Ientered and turned, I took a photograph as though looking back over my leftshoulder. It was a chilling sight for any who, like me, assumed that it had beenthe 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 awindowed door off to the left. Behind that door an oil-fired furnace once stood. It was through that door that prisoners had entered the the gas chamber. Between that door and the place where I stood was evidence of the alterationsthat were done at different times. Several rooms had been partitioned off duringthe bomb shelter days and I could see where the interior walls had met the floorand walls of the chamber.
I wandered on in and my mood changeddramatically. What I saw and what I smelled made me furious! What I saw wasthat the crematorium, which had been restored by the Soviets after liberation,had been doctored since! Drop holes and all the other openings in the ceilinghad been cemented over. There was no evidence from inside that canisters ofpellets could be poured over the people trapped in there when the doors wereshut. 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?
Evenmore infuriating was the smell. Blending with the familiar dusty smell of aclean, dry cement bunker was the unmistakable smell of burnt people! After fiftyyears I could still get the sweet, oily stink of death!!! (And, yes, my sense ofsmell is that acute and, yes, I’ve smelled that smell before, when I worked as anambulance 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 blendedwith the smell of damp char as I moved into the room. Both got stronger thefarther in I went.
About two-thirds of the way in and on the right weremore doors that opened into an equivalent but subdivided chamber where stood two double-muffled retorts in whichbodies were burned. There had once been three — two side-by-side in the rightcentral area and one in the far corner opposite the others. The two that I sawwere unimposing and, in fact, seemed to me too small for Auschwitz. No more thanfive or six corpses could have been taken at once by each. They could not havedone all the work for which Auschwitzs so reviled.
Pieces of equipment layhere and there in front of the ovens. There were tracks in the floor over whichcounterweighted steel or irontrolleys were pushed back and forth from the gassing room to the ovens. Onecomplete and one incomplete trolley stood at rest in front of the most distantoven on the right. Each had a burned and rusted corpse caddy some eight feet ormore in length jutting out into mid-air and pointing directly into the doors. Thecaddies were essentially concave sheet metal trays. Just in front of the nearestoven was a bodiless set of trolley wheels sitting on the gas room to oven tracks. Part of another trolley stood off left near where the third oven hadbeen.
When in use, the trolleys would be pushed back and forth over railsbetween the gassing room and the ovens. Turntables in the floor allowed them tomake the ninety degree turns needed to shove the loaded caddies into the waitingfurnaces. The trolleys would then be pulled back and the load of corpses slidoff inside the oven like loaves from a baker’s paddle. Beneath the chargingdoors of each oven were the doors from which ashes and bits of unconsumed bonewere removed.
Since I had never considered the mechanics of holocaust, Icould not fully comprehend what I saw. The crematory area was to me a confusingtangle and I wondered where were the banks of furnaces which were at the heart ofthe dark history of that place. What was before me seemed common. That thoserooms were far from common was attested to by fresh flowers placed on and beforethe ovens atop the trolleys. The bright flowers were in stark contrast with thesooty room and equipment and with the purpose of the place. The blossoms werereminders to all visitors that the furnaces were also graves.
As I movedaround, between and behind theovens and in and out of the bunker to line up my shots, other tourists cameand went both singly and in groups. Few besides tour guides spoke and few usedtheir cameras. Some left flowers. I kept quiet and I kept my distancethroughout, using my camera only when alone in that room. Insofar as it waspossible, 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 groupto move on. I didn’t want to disturb the other visitors or to distract them inany way.
My curiosity drove me hither, thither and yon in search of cluesto what happened during the war and I found them. But it was impossible to get ahandle on how things had worked until I got back home. The disposalinfrastructure, for example, was long gone as were the grizzly accessories. Apart from the tracks, the trolleys, and the wheeled axles there was justnondescript metal junk lying here and there. I found the coke stoking doors andwork pits behind the ovens, but there were no shovels or other tools. In one ofthe smaller rooms there was a crematory furnace of another design from some othercamp.
Curiosity and confusion remained and mingled with my anger after Ileft Crematorium I behind. Where was the production line on which so many werekilled? What had they done with what was left? Where were the tools of thatawful 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 notsee my emotional forest for what it was. At the time, I was just irritated by itall.
It took six months for me to realize that what was wrong was that mysubconscious sense of scale had been violated. The enormity and the site didn’tmatch up. I knew that Auschwitz was a small camp, a labor camp first andforemost. I knew that it fed the I.G. Farben plant just down the road and thenearby munitions plant, as well as coal mines and construction projectsthroughout the region. And I knew the SS had tried to remove the evidence andthat the camp had been open to pilferage, souvenir-hunting, and reconstructionfor five decades. Much of what was there had been recreated in accordance withany number of divergent political agendas using both what little was left andparts 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 Iwalked away from in such a state was actually the third stop on my self-directedtour. The gate was first and the next was the main fence line outside which werethe crematorium, Gestapo building, camp commandant’s office, the SS hospital, andother buildings, all reached by turning left a few yards beyond the main gate. Iwalked quite a ways up the gravel path between the two fences that made up theouter security perimeter.
As I walked upon the gravel, the two fencesformed parallel lines to my line of sight. One of my best pictures is sighteddown those two runs of barbed wire, between which SS guards once walked with dogand rifle at the ready twenty-four hours a day. Views of that walk have gracedevery Auschwitz film ever made, but the most compelling I’ve ever seen is a shortdocumentary sequence of young and newly-rescued children in camp clothing movingthrough the wire-bound corridor in a tight little group to freedom.
As withthe buildings, the fencing was well-done – sturdy and enduring – with littleslack in the wire. Outdoor lamps under inverted-saucer reflectors arched overthe path on symbiotic, curved metal posts of their own. If nothing else, thequality of those fences, with their formed cement posts studded with heavy-dutywhite ceramic insulators secured by half-inch steel rods, showed that the placewas intended for long-term use.
After fifty some-odd years, nearly allthe fenceposts were still ramrod straight and showed few signs of decay. Thebarbed wire, which must need to be mended now and again, could still have beenpulled as taut as a bowstring across the glazed insulators. The whole thing wasas imposing as the walls of Huntsville, and, seemingly, just as solid. Most ofthe blocks were in also good repair. Only a few inside the prisoners’ area wereunlocked and most of those were on the tour path. Exhibition blocks held variouscountry-specific displays which included photographs and inmate art.
Oneof the most dreadful aspects of Auschwitz was that people had been turned intoraw materials. Hair, teeth, tattooed skin, artificial limbs, and more had beenstripped from their bodies, cleaned, repaired, packaged, and shipped back to theFatherland. Along with the salvaged body parts had gone worldly possessions.Family treasure, mementoes, luggage, shoes, toothbrushes, combs, eyeglasses,clothes, jewelry, plates, bowls, cups, flatware, prams, cradles, blankets,bedding – everything the dead had carried – was collected, sorted, counted,catalogued and sent back home literally by the trainload.
Some of what wasso brutally stolen remained to be seen in the exhibition blocks and the sight wasdevastating. Human hair, braided or tied or wrapped or pigtailed or loose as theday it was shorn filled a huge sealed bin. Thousands of shoes of hundreds ofstyles and colors filled another. Luggage was stacked to the ceiling. Tablewarefilled an entire room. And I repeat. It was devastating. All I could do wascry. All anybody who saw it could do was cry. And we did.
I took it hardand I took it personal. What remained could have been all that was left of mydaughter or N____ or my father or you or me. Any of us could vanish as quicklyand completely as any who had. All the mourning I had ever done or neverfinished overwhelmed me then and there and mixed with a stark, cold feeling ofsheer helplessness. I could not change any of it in my life or theirs, andstanding there all I wanted was to undo it all. The abandonment and the despairthat 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 theirage and, I felt, were more eloquent as testimonials to what happened here. Intheir depreciated state, they seemed as gaunt and hollow-eyed as the living and the dead they once contained. Forme, those blocks lay in state. I did not dare even to consider whether I mightenter for fear of offending not the memory of the dead but the dead themselves.
Elsewhere, there were other and puzzling elements. For example, I founda swimming pool with its diving boardsgone, full of stinking water and algae. The pool has been drawn in but notlabeled on few of the many maps of the compound that I have seen. No markersexplained 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 theparade alley. I wondered then and I wonder now if it had once served as apromenade for the SS or the odd visiting official. Can you imagine peopleswimming and diving or people sitting unconcerned on benches in the middle ofsuch misery? Oddly enough, it’s likely to have happened. Everything about theplace was irrational!
I realized I’d have to do some research to makesense of it all. I had so many questions. Why, for example was Auschwitz walledin on two sides? Wasn’t the electrified barbed wire enough? And what about the huge storehouse in which theworldly possessions of the condemned were sorted and processed and packaged forreuse? Why did it lie not just outside the fence but outside one of theunscalable walls? What happened to its contents? And how had it come later tobe a convent and then to be abandoned and now unused?
One question, that ofsize versus reputation, has already been answered. Part of the answer is thatthe main camp at Auschwitz was never a full-fledged killing center. It startedout as a detention center for political prisoners and other sorts of undesirablesand remained so throughout the war. The artillery depot had been converted toCrematorium I when experiments with Zyklon B showed that the basements of thedetention blocks would be too clumsy and inefficient to be production gaschambers. Too few could be killed and it took too long to clear the cells ofvapors and bodies. Larger facilities intended for Auschwitz were planned butbuilt elsewhere. The murders and cremations at KL I numbered in the thousandsrather than the hundreds of thousands.
A second part of the answer lies inthe recollections of survivors. For them, the word Auschwitz was all-inclusive. They had neither reason nor need to differentiate one named place from the other. Auschwitz was the word of foreboding whispered in the ghettos. It was Auschwitzto which the condemned had been told they were going. Those who could get aglimpse of highway and railroad signs during their transport reported having seenthe word Auschwitz. And what happened in one part happened in all.
Bymodern convention, Auschwitz means the main camp, which, like the Brown Reclusespider, was small but very, very deadly. Anyone consigned there faced a thousandforms 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 inmany ways. Others were consigned from there and further transported only to beused up and die in places distant or near like AuschwitzI (Birkenau), AuschwitzII(Monowitz, also called Buna), and scores of other named and unnamed sub-camps andwork sites. Exhaustion, disease, burial or burning alive, beatings, execution bygun or rope or gas, starvation, sport, dehydration, medical experiments, suicide,exposure, infection, dogs, inmate murder, and despair each took their toll andthen 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 spentlooking for the hidden places, although it seems I was there for much, muchlonger. And while I didn’t see every exhibit, I saw many, and I saw all fourcorners of it. But, Birkenau (Birch Wood) or AuschwitzI was the place I neededmost to see. It’s about three clicks from Auschwitz and it was both a labor campand, eventually, a death camp. The legendary trains and convoys stopped atBirkenau, not Auschwitz. What you most often see in documentary footage of thetime and the site most closely identified with the most outrageous crimes of thewar is Birkenau.
Dazed and confused by what I’d seen and felt at KL I, Iwandered out through the main building to the parking lot. My driver had movedhis car across the lot under the shade of a tree. He was talking to otherdrivers, 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 offfor Birkenau, which was a short trip. First a right turn out of the parking lotand a left over some railroad tracks. Three or four minutes more driving in thefarmland just outside Osweicim and we were there. It was around 1:30 or 2:00 inthe afternoon.