Today we went to Auschwitz I and II which is a surreal experience, to walk where so many walked before, their journeys ending in death. Auschwitz II looks like any other historical monument, with crumbling buildings, ruins spreading out in every direction. Fields lay under picturesque trees and open sky. The suffering, death, and torture that occurred within the walls is there only in the memories of those who survived. The fields hide the mass graves below. It is impersonal in construction and in its remains. Apart from one room with photos of the dead and occasional plaques and stones marking mass graves, Auschwitz II is empty of any signs of those who entered. Auschwitz II was the extermination camp where the vast majority of people who were deported to Auschwitz went; killed the day they arrived. The sense of the scale comes from what remains of the buildings and the sheer size of the fenced off complex. Walking around the perimeter of Auschwitz II past the Red House, through the gates, into where the White House was, I realized the size of Auschwitz for the first time.
I had no ideas that next to the factories smaller barracks were constructed to keep prisoners near by. Auschwitz is not simply a single camp as I had imagined from learning about it in school, it was a massive complex of extermination and concentration camps and work sites and other administrative buildings. Father Desbois said, “We don’t work to find big numbers. We work to find the graves of Anna, Itshik, David, and Boris.” Auschwitz is about the big numbers, the size serves as a reminder of the 1.4 million who were systematically exterminated there. The big numbers are crucial to Holocaust education, but the reminders of the individuality of each person who passed through was seen in the walls of photos in Auschwitz I and the displays of possessions of prisoners. The descriptions of minute details, such as the displayed poem a man wrote for his wife bring a humanity to the men, women, and children who never left the walls of the camp. As much as I learned about Auschwitz in classes in school and in museums, it was not until I was there that I realized not only the sheer scale of the complex but how integrated it was into the surrounding village.
I was very surprised that people live overlooking Auschwitz today. Clearly, they are unfazed by it, but my question is why? I wonder why they chose to live there specifically, is it just another monument in the backyard? But on the other hand as Father Desbois said, life must go on. The village was there before the war and after, people keep on living and working. The contrast between Auschwitz and the surrounding city is stark. It will be interesting to see how Auschwitz as a museum and memorial is treated in the coming years and whether the remembrance or historical education part is emphasized more. For now I try to remember that below the mass graves, sitting next to the roads, are Anna, Ishtik, David, and Boris.