I got off the train. In a moment like Lot's wife, I looked back at the train, but did not turn to a pillar of salt. So I changed money, got coffee, found a place to stay, then headed for Auschwitz. The ride was south on rolling hills through beautiful forests and villages. I crossed a railroad bridge then entered the city of Oswiecim, where the Auschwitz museum and the Birkenau camp are located. The Holocaust sites are on the north side of town so as soon as I entered the town, I was close.
I went to Birkenau first. The site is largely preserved, still ringed with barbed wire fences and guard towers and many of the buildings are still standing. The camp is a square kilometer in a flat field with a narrow road running next to the fence. The buses park at a museum 300 meters from the camp gate so streams of people in randomly colored tourists clothes are walking back and forth from the parking lot to camp. It is odd to see tourists trooping in lines through a place of so much suffering and death. It was odder still to see life being so normal around the camp.
To get the size of the place I rode the perimeter. So many hundreds of barracks meant so much suffering, but the entire place was not that big. The Auschwitz and Birkenau camps are about a mile apart. Inmates marched between them to work and then back to suffer the tortures of the night. The two camps and the road between them brought back many images from Primo Levi's book "Survival in Auschwitz." I think most often of the World War I veteran Levi wrote about. He won an Iron Cross for gallantry under fire and probably thought decorated veterans would not be despised by the Nazis who claimed to value courage and patriotism. But racism eclipsed nationalism and even a man who earned the nation's highest honor in war was killed for being a Jew.
Between the two camps was, for me, the saddest site. A small sign on the road between Birkenau and Auschwitz pointed to the "Judenrampe." The tiny road through a residential neighborhood was too narrow for buses, to VW bugs could not pass on this road. With no bus traffic there were almost no tourists. As I rode up I saw someone pushing a wheelchair back to the road.
The site is two old boxcars on a rusty rail siding. Two signs explain the site. This rail siding is where Jews were unloaded from the boxcars and sorted into groups for work, death, medical experiments, and whatever other horrors their captors could inflict. As I read the signs and looked at the boxcars wondering how horrible it was to be stuffed inside them, I heard kids laughing. Behind me was a row a fir trees and a fence that separated a gated house from the Judenrampe. Kids were playing in a pool from the sounds.
It made me think how horrible it was for the people of Oswiecim that the Nazis chose their town to inflict this stain on all of humanity. Hotels grow up around the site and people make money providing tours and selling stuff to tourists. And the laughing kids grow up next to those boxcars.
Just as the American form of slavery was the worst of its kind in the history of the world, Auschwitz represents the impersonal extreme of genocide. The Nazis did everything they could to take every shred of humanity from the inmates before killing them, especially extinguishing hope. American slavery, unlike slavery in the ancient world or indentured servitude, also took away hope. Slaves could never get out except through escape or death. Nor could Auschwitz inmates until the Nazis were defeated.
My next stop, if possible, will be Lviv, Ukraine. For me, Auschwitz and Lviv have been the extremes of the Nazi genocide horror. Auschwitz was the most industrial,
Lviv is the most personal. The people of the city joined with the Nazis, abetted the Nazis and killed their neighbors on the streets and in their homes.
Racism can begin with words, like the horrible Birther lie that was the basis of the Donald Trump's ascent to power. But when racism goes past words into action Auschwitz, Birkenau, Lviv, Sarjevo, Rwanda, and the slave market of New Orleans is the result.