a church in carrick-on-shannon

Visiting Auschwitz

We drove the eighty-odd kilometres from Krakow to Oswieçim by slow car. A kind of funeral procession.It took the whole of the morning and part of the afternoon to make our way through Auschwitz I. We saw many of the images familiar from films and books: the rooms filled with human hair, the landscapes of spectacle frames and mismatched shoes. All these things, of course, had been carried the few kilometres from Birkenau, Auschwitz II, and, along with the mountains of suitcases, sewing kits, wooden limbs, metal bowls, the toothbrushes, hairbrushes, clothes brushes, shaving brushes, shoe brushes, belonged to Jews. The rest of Auschwitz I, however, emphasized the suffering of the Poles. Their pictures hung in the hallways. The rooms where they were interrogated, tortured, imprisoned, the very wall against which they had been shot–all these had been carefully preserved or restored. I can only hope that my response–that mixture of sadness, anger, and fellow-feeling that makes up human empathy–was adequate to what I was shown.But how to respond when we came to the undressing room and gas chamber, with its two brick ovens? I knew that the original gas chambers had been destroyed and that this was in the main a reconstruction, with a false chimney and false vents for Zyklon B. It did not matter. It was enough that the furnaces had been made from the original parts. The greater horror hung about one of what the Sonderkommando called “pushers,” a metal construction used to force the gassed corpses into the flames. It seemed, this thing, as dense, as full of gravity, as a collapsed star. It was without geometry, not round, not square, not a plane, not a box, the ultimate utilitarian object. Nothing on earth looked like this–that is, nothing now existing, because what sprang to mind were photographs of Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These devices–asymmetrical, neither cylinder nor sphere, studded with wires, looked like the freaks, the sports of nature, they were. I reached out my hand to touch the metal. I thought it might be warm, as if it possessed a kind of memory; but it was without temperature, just as it was without any other property, save for a barely perceptible sheen of ineradicable grease. Towards the end of our tour of Auschwitz I, Ilene and I found ourselves walking down an upstairs corridor past the rooms of various Kapos decorated by oddly childish paintings–a steamship, a hill with flowers–each one done by an artist prisoner.  I am not referring to the hundreds of photographs (how beautiful Czeskawa Kwoka, aged thirteen, in her off-centre hat) of murdered Poles or to the dungeons in which so many of them had been forced to stand back to back, but to a single cell. That was where a resistance fighter, Lt. Stefan Jasiewski, had been held for execution. Let me ask: if you had seen the crude calendar, the simple marks, by which he counted his remaining days, and seen among them the scratch of a cross, two perpendicular lines, with which he had comforted himself, would you not be moved toward a certain charity, too? Tolerance has its logic. To visit Auschwitz is inescapably to subject oneself to what I believe is called cognitive dissonance. One stands atop ash and bone but cannot dismiss thoughts of the next day’s travel, the start of what may be a sore throat, and what one is to have for dinner. At Birkenau, whose reason for being had been the murder of Jews, it was particularly difficult to attend to the claims of the dead through the pulsebeat of what remained so insistently alive. The sky, that summer afternoon, was thoroughly blue. Wildflowers waved in the play of the breeze. A butterfly tumbled by. So did white moths. And zig-zagging bees. Cicadas, locusts, crickets… made a whir, paused, then a buzz. Thus encompassed, we began our tour. What we saw first was the rail spur, whose tracks veer straight through the infamous gate house, the one with the roofed tower at its centre. From that perch we looked out over either another planet or what has been described as the anus of this one: acre after acre of chimneys, thousands it seemed, each in an orderly Germanic row. These were what was left of the barracks that had been plundered at war’s end by Poles who wished to rebuild their own homes with the wood. Following the tracks, we came to the flat slab of concrete that had been the unloading platform for the transports. Here was where Mengele waved his finger–left, and the elderly and ill, the children and their mothers, went at once to the crematoria; right, and the able-bodied were marched off to be shaved and disinfected and made ready for the work that would either kill them outright or, together with diet and disease and the abuse they bore, so reduce their physical and moral energies that they too would soon be fuel for the ovens. Now the platform was deserted–indeed, the whole vast expanse of Birkenau had hardly any visitors–save for two blonde-headed children, twin boys, who jumped in play from concrete to rusted rail and back. Naturally enough I thought of their fate had Mengele greeted them on this spot. I contemplated these romping boys with dispassion, examining them with the same bemused interest that everyone takes in the phenomenon of the single egg that splits in two. The tour of Birkenau was nearly over. We emerged from the grove and moved along the path that separated the remains of the men’s and women’s barracks, heading–in the reverse direction the Jews had taken–back toward the unloading ramp. I looked over my shoulder, to the gate house where our visit had begun. There was no rationale for what befell the Jews. In the first known document of his political career Adolf Hitler developed what he called an “Anti-semitism of reason.” There he speaks of the Jews’ materialism, of their “dance around the golden calf,” and their “lust for money and power.” But if the Jews were consistently portrayed by Hitler’s own propaganda machine, and in the psyche of western culture, as the force that controlled the world’s finances from behind the scenes, they were no less attacked for being adherents of their blood brother, Karl Marx. This clash of irreconcilable attributes–banker and bolshevik, capitalist and Communist–underlines as much as anything I can think of the irrational nature of the response to the Jew: on the one hand cosmopolitan and sophisticated, on the other provincial, a disease-carrying beggar; incapable of responding to spiritual values and yet guilty of abstracting the earthy instincts of the folk; aloof, cliquish and foreign, while simultaneously assimilating, insinuating himself into the centre of society, boring from within; the essence of all that is at one and the same time medieval and modern. The degree of incompatibility in these qualities might lead anyone to suspect of those espousing them not merely the sort of motiveless malignity that Coleridge attributed to Iago’s loathing of Othello, but a hatred of logic itself. In Auschwitz, as in all other camps, those in power took the deepest delight in demonstrating to the Jew that his punishment was not for any deed he had committed but for some quality in the sap of his being. The senseless of daily existence (the exact number of buttons to be sewn on one’s shirt, the angle of the cap upon one’s head, the tautness of the blanket upon one’s bunk), the absurdity of one’s labour (the hole dug for hours that was then filled in for hours more, the pile of rocks carried all morning to the left and in the afternoon back to the right), and above all the ubiquity of mood, whim, and the disproportion between cause and effect best symbolized in the tick of Mengele’s finger–all these things combined to remind the Jew and perhaps even more his master of what lay at the core of Fascist mentality: the meaninglessness of life. When Primo Levy finally asked his tormentors “”Warum?””, why was he being tormented, the answer–which recalls, in its force and succinctness, that given by the first of all murderers, “Am I my brother’s Keeper”?– was “Hier ist kein warum.”

And what is this yeast, so bubbling, so insistent, so difficult to tolerate, but the force of imagination? I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the war of the Germans against the Jews was a war against certain qualities of the Jewish mind, and that, to twist the famous aphorism of Heine, before the mobs in Berlin and Munich and Dresden could burn the Jews, they first had to burn their books. What is in these minds and books that bedevils so many who come in contact with them? I think the hated element is the continuous exercise of what Coleridge, once again, called the primary imagination: the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am.” It is the Jews who took the imaginative leap of comprehending out of an empty whirlwind, a burning bush, “The I Am That I Am”. It is the Jews who substituted the “story” of Abraham and Isaac for the reality of a father killing a son and a son killing his father. If in some measure Christianity longed for a return to the original form of sacrifice, it was German paganism that made that hidden wish a fact of life. And it is the Jews, too, who have maintained in their finite minds a belief in the infinite; when that belief, that supreme fiction, which is that we matter, that “existence has meaning”, became a rebuke to our age’s countervailing faith, which is that everything is possible, then those finite minds, and all that they held within them, had to be destroyed.

So I remember. I remember a thousand people walking in total silence and then seeing someone falling to the floor, slumping to the ground and sobbing. I remember seeing a group of Polish teenagers carrying flowers, and calmly kneeling to pray in a dignified, unselfconscious group. I remember a note scrawled in German and stuck into a crevice in the wall saying “Please forgive us.” It made me think of the Wailing Wall, and then the ironies rattled in my brain.

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