Part VII: Back to Birkenau
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Part VII of the Journal
On the night before, my only objective was to replacethe pictures I thought I might have lost. But, in the event, I changed my mind,in part because I felt I had not lost as much as I first thought. Instead ofretracing my steps, I went after a few critical scenes to document what Ibelieved to be the rebirth of the big lie as it was being played out inpreservation activity. And I decided to ferret out as much more of the realBirkenau as I could find.
My second driver was equally pleasant andhelpful as the first. He had been a Phys Ed teacher before, but found he couldmake a better living driving a taxi for tourists. We talked about that andsports and life in Poland and more. I explained to him that I was going back toBirkenau to get insurance shots.
As we neared Birkenau, he pointed out anabandoned railway station about half-way between Auschwitz and Birkenau andexplained that it had been the originalpoint of debarkation for refugees and was used until the Birkenau spur hadbeen built. When we got to Birkenau, he asked if I wanted to ride down to thecamp administration building, which had been converted to a church. I told him Imight later. He also asked if I wanted a guide while in the camp. I againdeclined. I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go.
My firststop, of course, was the guard tower, mostly because the angle of the sun wouldlet me get shots both to the right and to the left, which I did. I then wentback into the Quarantine block to record its reconstruction. I took picturesthere of the one original block, a foundation being laid, and the newly completed block I hadpreviously not entered. This time, I opened its back door and took a picture inthe available light, which was ample and contrasted sharply with the otherblocks. Also in marked contrast was the quality of the construction.
Thenew block had been erected over a well-poured concrete slab floor with a brickcollar on which rested the outer support timbers. Brick footings laid on theconcrete floor bore the inner supports. All the sheathing appeared to be newwood and many framing timbers were clearly from salvaged original materials, somestill bearing white paint. But, therewere no bunks, no chimney and flue, no capos’ rooms, no slogans. It was alsowider and ringed by a gravel-filled drainage ditch.
It didn’t take long toget the shots I wanted to insure plus a couple of shots of the admin building-cum-church. So, I tookthe time to try to cover what I’d passed up before, starting with the low anddark wooden medical block which sat off by itself in the forward area of theWomen’s Camp. Immediately inside the camp, I went left through a gap in thefence along the Lagerstrasse and clomped through the weeds following a slighttrail and ever on the lookout for bees.
I shouldn’t have done it. Iwasn’t ready for it.
There are not words for the kind of emotional blow Itook. That block was special, of course. I knew that. It had been the site ofsome of the most terrifying and evil medical practice imaginable and more. Iknew that, too. But I still wasn’t ready for what I saw. I’m not sure I’m evenready to recount it here. My whole body shakes when I remember. Thinkingthrough what I wanted to write about the trip, I nearly forgot about it, but it’san unshakable memory.
It was an empty building. No furnishings, nofixtures, no slogans, no bunks. Nothing. But it was very, very different andvery, very familiar. I’d been in places like it before, for treatment, inanother life, in my youngest memory. Peering through a window a one end, what Iremembered in an instant was the panelling – tan, tongue and groove hardwoodbeadboard. I’ve been in examining rooms and surgeries made that way. It was atypical military style. Also typical was the layout. Larger (waiting?) room onone side, smaller (examining and surgery?) rooms on the other.
As I wentto my right around to the side of the block, checking every window on the way,the layout was revealed. At the far end was a panelled, floor-to-ceiling,island cabinet where supplies and instruments would have been kept. Iteffectively sub-divided the area at that end, leaving only enough room to work. Its shelves were not visible through any window from any angle. But I knew itfor what it was. I could sense what it had once held and how it had been used. I could sense too much really.
My mind was flooded by imaginings ofactivity within, the atmosphere, the movement of business, the common smells ofalcohol and ether and blood and formaldehyde. I could see white porcelain cladappliances, the devices and instruments of art, the tables, the gauze and theswabs and the linen, smocks and aprons and containers and books and ledgers. Icould see the man working and his assistants in waiting. I could feel the pokingand prodding and puncturing and the thin scrape of scalpel against skin and thelong tunnelling fall into shock and death. But, mostly, I felt the abject terrorof being inside and unable to get out, the absolute need not to be there, to beanywhere but there. My thoughts were storming and screaming. How could they dothis thing? By what right? By what right?
For lifetimes, I was stoppedat a window, rooted by fear until anger released me and my terror turned onitself and I wanted to get in. I wanted badly to get in and I hurried furtheraround until I found the outer door. It was padlocked and sturdy and I couldbarely keep myself from forcing it. I really wanted in, through the door orthrough a window. What if I broke a window? Glass is cheap and easy to replace. It didn’t matter. I wanted in. I wanted to walk around inside and to juststand in the middle of the floor. I stepped away from the door to the nearestwindow, still trying to find an easy way in. That’s when I saw the floor.
The floor! It was made of sand! Washed sand! Clean, uniform, medium, washedsand! Disposable and endlessly renewable.
I was literally knockedbackward by horror and rage. Reeling away from the sight, I understood, I sawthat rivers of blood could flow, had flowed, onto and into the floor. Gallons ofit, along with bits and chunks of bone and flesh could simply be dumped on thefloor to be raked over or shovelled into a wheelbarrow and discarded without atrace. Sanitation was not an issue in that place, not even at the level of afield butchery. There was no need for running water, sinks, or drains. Staffcould have a new floor at will. Daily, even hourly, if they wished. Onlyminutes would have been needed. The cold-blooded simplicity of it repelled andterrified me.
We have no word for the work that was done in that blockwhere Horst Schumann had practiced sterilization or in its long-gone siblings. No-one does. It was unparalleled, unspeakable, and nameless. In this as inother respects, Birkenau was a factory with a constant and ready supply ofmaterials. Jewish skeletons were produced on demand and in bulk. Whole andpartial cadavers and organ specimens were created to fill orders from Germanuniversities and individual researchers. Experiments in sterilization wereconducted. There was vivisection. There was simple torture. Karl Clauberg haddone his butchery there, as did Karl Gebhardt, and the arch-eugenicist JosefMengele. And there were others both known and unknown to us today.
I leftthe scene feeling shocky, trembling and scared.
I pulled myself togetheras much as I could as I went on with my tour. The walk to the next buildingstook a while, which helped.
Among the buildings I next visited in theWomens’ Camp were the Death Blocks, which served as an internal prison forflagrant violators of camp order, a few standard blocks, and the camp kitchen. High weeds deterred me from entering the Death Blocks, which were joined by ashort wall and so shared a semi-private courtyard. Other blocks well off therecommended route were as revealing as their counterparts in Auschwitz. One inparticular had no skylights and still had bars in the window openings instead ofglass. It was pitch black inside thatblock and it was locked up for whatever reason.
The Camp Kitchen washuge and had, as you might expect, several chimneys. It was open and, onentering, I came upon a man and a woman doing what I took to be restoration work. With gestures and inquiring expressions, I got their permission to enter andtake pictures and wander around.
I can’t be sure of anything about thekitchen except that it held large lotsof materials such as timber framing and served as a workshop. It bore little resemblance to akitchen, probably because it had been gutted and pillaged by looters andcurators. I couldn’t tell how the cooking was done or where or with what. Therewere pools of something oily andblack which had also been smeared on walls, chimneys, etc. It may have beencreosote or tar, although I recall no odor. Several large vats that I saw mayhave been used for cooking.
Not much was left for me to explore in theWomens’ Camps after I left the kitchen. So, I moved quickly past the area I’dalready visited and returned to the memorial. I went around it to the left andtook some pictures of guard houses and the fence line behind it. Then I wentaround to the front, took a couple more pictures of the memorial and headed onbeyond Crematorium III off to the right of it. For a while, I walked along anarrow (service?) road which took me to and around to the left of the site oflarge, round, brick fermentation vats which had been used to extract methane fromcamp waste and which were being restored.
A little further along, the roadsplit. A sign with a left arrow pointed the way to mass grave sites outsideBirkenau. I went off to the right and soon passed four large pits partiallyfilled with water and algae. They had once been sedimentation tanks used in sewagetreatment. In each were eight to twelve pillars which had served as supports forservice catwalks. Little more of the system, which never worked right,remained.
A few yards beyond those pits I came upon a run of interiorfence and an open gate. Beyond was abrick building marked as the Sauna on the tour map. Crematoria IV and V hadbeen beyond that and the main security fence ran parallel to me through the birchwood a few yards beyond that. There were no structures apart from the Sauna,just unrecently mowed open field, There seemed to be little more to see, so Iturned back and headed for the car. I had gotten my insurance pictures and thensome and I was tired of walking.
Of course, my driver was waiting. Hepolitely asked if I’d gotten the pictures I needed and whether there wassomething else I’d like to see. I told him I’d like to see the train stationwe’d passed and asked if it was possible. He said we certainly could and off wewent. We had to leave the paved road and drive down some ruts through somechest-high and thistly weeds to get close to the station. When we came to asmall, more-or-less cleared area, I got out to take some pictures just as a trainrolled to a stop nearby. I have no idea why the train stopped, since the drab,gray concrete station, which was across the tracks from us, was obviouslyabandoned, but it did. In fact, it was still there when we left.
On ourside of the tracks were two other and obviously occupied concrete buildings. Mydriver told me they had originally been SS offices and that selection for work ordeath had taken place on the ground where we stood up to the time the Birkenauspur was opened. After that, the transport trains ran right into the compound akilometer or so away. He went on to say that every two years thousands of peoplefrom all over the world, mostly Jews, gather there in April for a memorialservice which includes a march into Birkenau. I found myself wanting to be therethe next time. As we were leaving, I asked him who was using the buildings nowand why. He couldn’t say. My guess is that someone was living there.
Weleft the dead train station early in the afternoon. Since I had no furtherplans, I was glad for and readily agreed to my driver’s suggestion that we visita nearby historical site. It was an 18th-century village which had beenrelocated from its original site on the Vistula and it was beautiful. For asmall fee, we got a guided tour with running commentary which my drivertranslated. Outdoor picture-taking was free. Indoor photography privileges cost20,000 zlotys per building.
The buildings were all made of logs or timberframe and furnished with everyday things of the period. Most had thatch roofsand one was being re-thatched whenwe arrived. It was fascinating to watch. Among the buildings were ordinary dwellings, lean-tos,outbuildings, the mayor’s house, anexquisite village church andwatchtower, and a restaurant that wasstill used as a gathering place by area residents. Had it been open forbusiness, we’d have eaten there.
Our side-trip only lasted for an hour orso, but when we were leaving we ran into a roadblock of lightly armed Polishsoldiers. I damn near freaked out! Was I, were we, about to be detained? Hadwar broken out? Or civil unrest? My driver asked our village tour guide whatwas up and came over to say “It’s the bicycles.” I had no idea what he meant. What bicycles? There wasn’t a bike in sight! Had some been stolen?
Itturned out to be a race – the Tour de Pologne. We waited and waited andeventually they flew past us. Icould get only two shots, one coming and one going. I had never seenprofessionals at work and never dreamedof bicycles moving so fast! It wasimpressive! My driver had had some idea of where else we might go, but the raceate up the time we needed. But, there was still time to do something. I optedto return to the synagogue and I’m glad I did.
Without the old witch of anORBIS guide, I learned a lot. With yarmulkah atop, I wandered freely through the cemetery, with my driver fillingme in about its history. It had been bulldozed by the Germans and later rebuilt,with headstones from other cemeteries being brought in. In the late 1950s, anarcheological dig revealed hundreds of whole and broken tombstones dating back tothe 1500s. Many were re-erected. Hundreds of headstone fragments had also beenused to create a dramatic mosaicwall which in itself was a memorial. Knowing about the dig, I couldunderstand why the cemetery, which ran behind and to one side of the synagogue,resembled a shallow quarry pit. Standing in the center of the cemetery, I gotsome good pictures of the back of theunrestored buildings I had seen two days earlier.
Shadows werelengthening and that was it, I thought. Nothing to do but get some sunset shotsand wrap it up. I would be leaving the next day. But, I was wrong. Not aboutleaving, but about whether there something else I needed to see. That night, Itook a long look at the map of Birkenau and knew I had to go back. I had notseen it all and I had not seen what I knew was there to be seen. And now I had aguide who had proven honest and knowledgeable and forthcoming. If I didn’t goback one more time, I’d be leaving without finishing, without finding what Isought.
I had not seen every corner of the camps at Birkenau as I hadAuschwitz. “Canada”, crematorium IV, the Sauna, the mass burial sites andburning pits, and more remained to be seen. “Canada” was the part of the campnearest crematoria IV and V and was the site of the hospital blocks andstorehouse, all of which are now gone. I also had not seen some things I knewlay outside the fence. There were piles of ash and pieces of bone to be found. I had come to see it – the direct proof of Nazi butchery – for myself. All itwould take would take was a walk around. The PBS film Kitty had made that muchclear to me before I came.
I sorted out my things and packed what I wouldnot need for the trip home. With that done, I could retrieve my bags and checkout in a matter of minutes. I counted on my driver being there since we’d talkedbriefly about whether I’d be doing more sightseeing. I had said I might, but wasunsure where I might go.
At about 8:00 the next morning, my driver and Ileft the hotel and headed back to Birkenau. I had until 2:00 that afternoon tocheck out. My train didn’t leave until 6:00 that evening. I had a whole day toresolve the trip.
End of Part VII