Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Auschwitz Revisited

Navtej Sarna

On that gentle, sunny afternoon, Oswiecim looks very much what it is. A small town in the rolling plain of south-west Poland, on the banks of the Vistula. A place among the flowers, under the shadow of a church. Lazy, indolent and lost in its anonymity.

One can sense the desire of every human being there to ignore, if not forget, the terrible history that lies just a few kilometers away in the State Museum of Auschwitz Birkenau. This is Oswiecim, they seem to say, a living little Polish town where one can get a fair enough meal in a sleepy restaurant.

And that’s Auschwitz, that’s the factory of death. But in brutal fact, Auschwitz was the name given to Oswiecim under Nazi occupation. And it was a at Auschwitz and at Birkenau (Brzezinka in Polish) that four million innocent human beings lost their lives in an incredible crime against humanity.

The serenity of the afternoon is unbroken at the museum too. This is the site of Auschwitz I, later overtaken in both size and barbarity by Birkenau or Auschwitz II in which, at the height of its evil efficiency, nearly 20,000 people were being gassed and shoveled into ovens every 24 hours.

Suddenly I find myself alone. No camera-clutching tourists no awe-struck villagers, no students. Just the shuffling ghosts and the screaming silences. Just the tranquil swaying of the birches between the red brick blocks which go down in straight lines and angles until they reach No. 11, the starkly named Block of Death. And the smiling yellow flowers of the Polish summer.

I have been there before, with the guide who has the emotion-choked voice and with groups of stunned visitors. I have read the guidebook and seen the film, made by the liberating Red Army in 1945. And the scene in the film where the few liberated prisoners stand behind the gates, as if beyond the pale of humanity, unable to comprehend that they are free…. Each of these gives shocking fragments of the crime, hideous pieces which can only make an even more hideous whole.

The silences begin to fill in the cracks. Unobtrusively, and yet blaring, the questions come and go, not waiting for an answer.

What was the crime? Of those who were brought from Talinn and Rome, from Bucharest and Bergen, and most of all from all parts of Poland itself. In cattle transports, the stuffed women and children. To this Godforsaken place, in the fork between two rivers, chosen because it had a convenient railway connection.

And what did they think, when the rail track ended at Birkenau, just like that. And they were taken off at the railway sidding, clutching their pathetic suitcases with their names written on them with paint which was to prove much stronger than life.

And separated from each other by the instant decision of a Nazi doctor. The fit ones to hellish labour in the camp and in Nazi enterprises. And the frail or the sick, or the too old and the too young to be undressed and gassed and burnt. Not one by one or with a scrap of human dignity. But as part of an experiment in mass extermination, being carried out by men who were playing God.

THE black and white pictures in the museum burn into the mind. Of prisoners in striped campgear, with shaven heads and pinched faces. Of the inhuman living conditions. Of the sprawling hell of Birkenau where only a wasted plain and the ruins of the crematorium can be found today. And of the naked group being led away to the gas chambers. In the shelves of the museum halls, the meticulous records, the maps and the blueprints show the cold-blooded ruthlessness of it all.

…. And the greed. The gold teeth, the clothes, the baby clothes, shoes, the artificial limbs all sent back in trainloads to feed the Nazi war machine. And the mountain of spectacles that I see is only a part of what was collected. And the blood freezes at the roomful of human hair, its bounce and curl stilled forever in death, which used to go back to be made into sack cloth.

Among the gruesome tragedy, the ironies abound. The gate to Auschwitz announces that “Work gives Freedom”, when everyone knew that the only way out was through the chimneystack. And the wall which still seems to echo the music from the camp orchestra, played by the weary prisoners for the bone weary, returning from labour, so that they could march and be counted.

Or the prisoners picking up the bodies and shoveling them into ovens, only to stand in queue thereafter themselves and be gassed.

Or the doctors, Josef Mengele and others, men qualified to save life, performing pseudomedical experiments on women and children. To end a race, create a race.

And the ultimate irony of the frail wooden gallows where Rudolf Hess, the first commandant of the camp, was himself hung in 1947, a stone’s throw from the house in which he had lived. They say that this house features in Sophie’s Choice. But I have never been able to bring myself to see that film or read the book.

THE shadows begin to lengthen. Shadows of the barbed wire and the watchtowers. The courtyard of the Block of Death seems to be in an eternal shadow. The dark shadow of the wall against which 20 thousand prisoners were shot.

And near the wall are the torture cells, the standing cells, half-underground, from which still a strange stench emanates. They seem to speak the suffering they have seen. But they also have the scribbled messages, the brave scratchings of heroic determination.

Suddenly, I want to leave the place quickly. Hurrying out, I see a young Jew, in his black coat and black hat and his open beard, walking in with his head bowed. For me it has been a cruel lesson in history, for him it is a pilgrimage.