Touring Auschwitz the Week After Elie Wiesels Death
Remembering Elie Wiesel, and reading his shattering volume Night, during a visit to the largest crime scene in human history.”>
The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be borntomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.
–Night, by Eli Wiesel.
This week, just after the death of Eli Wiesel, I traveled with my family to Auschwitz, the largest crime scene in world history.
Nowadays its a gruesome but essential tourist destination in Oswiecim, Poland, an hour and a half west of charming Krakow. A visit to Auschwitz( the German name for the area) includes a devastating three-hour guided tour, the only route summer guests are allowed in the camps.
Wiesels classic book Night, which went from selling 1,000 copies when first published in the indifferent 1950 s to more than 10 million today, offers a shattering supplement to the experience.
Last weeks Wiesel obituaries were all fine, but they couldnt fully bear witness to his ordeal. The important thing for this most honored of survivors wasnt recollecting him as much as remembering his Holocaust experienceand the lives and deaths of the millions who werent luck enough to tell their own stories.
Any one of the fields of ashes in Birkenau carries more weight than all the testimonies about Birkenau.
Wiesel was being modest about his own historic witnes, which will no doubt still be read a century from now. But he was right about assuring those ash pitswhere small flecks of human bone are still visible in a swampy hole.
The remnants the Poles have preserved at Auschwitz are less artfully mournful than the Holocaust Museums of Berlin and Washington–and less sacred than Israels Yad Vashem–but they deliver emotional body blows impossible to replicate beyond the fencings of concentration camps.
While the site features the usual snack shops and even some unwelcome graffiti in a cellblock reserved for non-Jewish infants( the Jewish infants there were all annihilated ), the experience is tasteful, and it generally stillness even the noisiest of tourists.
In our tour group of 30, led by a bright and emotional Polish mother raised nearby, few took pictures and noneincluding usasked questions. Even the most substantive ones would have felt trivial amid the Zyklon B canisters and mounds of hair, shoes and eyeglasses taken from Jews and piled in the rough-hewn museum housed in one of the barracks.
Our guide started by explaining that Auschwitz, where more than 1.1 million Jewsplus two hundred thousand Poles, gypsies, homosexuals and othersdied between 1940 and 1945, is actually three large sites , now known as: Auschwitz I, the original camp hijacked from the Polish Army by the Nazis, where the deride ARBEIT MACHT FREI( Work induces you free) sign greeted Polish inmates who were quickly worked to demise; Auschwitz II, better known as Birkenau, the sprawling extermination camp constructed from scratch by inmates three miles away and named for the surrounding birch trees, where once stood scores of wooden barracks, four gas chambers and four crematoria; and Auschwitz III, also known as Monowitz-Buna, an I.G Farben rubber plant that employed slave labor and where another factory sits today.
Wiesel expended time in all three at various days in 1944 and 1945, with Auschwitz-Birkenau the first and worst.
There are eighty of you in the car, the German officer said. If anyone goes missing, you will all be shot like dogs.
As late as the springtime of 1944, the Wiesel family of Sighet, Hungary( the country with the most Auschwitz victims) thought it was safe from the distant war. But in a matter of weeks, “peoples lives” were upended. A fascist party preaching detest and exclusion took power in Hungary; the once-friendly Hungarian policecollaborating like so many when faced with a strong handplaced the Jews in ghettos, with many Jews still rationalizing the change as not so bad; and Wiesels father, a highly cultured store-owner, rejected an offer from their Christian housekeeper to hide them in the countryside. Then they were told to reduce all of their worldly possessions to 25 kilograms( about whats allowed today in airline carry-on) and crammed into a sealed cow auto with a pail for trash, destination unknown.