It Wasn’t ‘The Final Solution’
A month ago I reversed the death walk that many of the 1.1-1.5 million Jews exterminated at Auschwitz-Birkenau were forced to make.
Whether or not you’ve visited this extermination camp or have simply seen pictures in any of the now many museums, films, or books dedicated to the memories of this and other Nazi camps, you probably have a picture in your mind of Jews being unloaded from boxcars and standing on the ‘platforms.‘
The rails led into the camp and ended just short of the crematoriums themselves. Those who were judged (in an instant) of being incapable of working were sent directly to the crematoriums. The ‘remainders’ were herded to barracks where they may have lasted anywhere from a few days to a number of months.
Most never made it out alive.
And of course it was not just Jews. In fact, the first prisoners and occupants of Auschwitz I were ethnic Poles. 75,000 of them died at Auschwitz I, II and the other sub camps. And of course there were gypsies (estimated at 21,000), Soviet prisoners (15,000) and other minorities, the handicapped, the disabled, the homosexuals, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholic priests, etc. (perhaps another 15,000).
But 90% of the more than one million killed or who died in the Auschwitz camps were Jews.
And that was the prime reason I was at Auschwitz.
To somehow bear witness, to commemorate, to pay respect, to try to understand.
And so what did I see? What did I do there? What did I learn?
Set up as a State Museum by the Polish government, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau (the much larger extermination camp) are just what the word ‘museum’ indicates.
In many ways this site(s) is not so different from any of the Holocaust museums that now exist throughout the world. There are photos, exhibits (hair shaved from prisoners heads, shoes, spectacles, crutches and prostheses, valises, clothes, and always the evidence of the children). But there are also (reconstructed) barracks, extermination rooms, crematoriums, watch towers, electrified barb wired fences as well as the remains of several of the crematoriums that the Nazis tried to blow up as they fled just prior to the Soviets’ entrance and liberation of the camp.
You spend perhaps three hours going through, seeing, and hearing about all of the above, first in Auschwitz I and then on to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a few miles away. You are also usually with a group, and, if you are as fortunate as we were with your guide, you learn things you did not know, no matter how many other Holocaust museums you’ve visited.
But it was only when I split off from the group and wandered alone that I felt being here was different and important. Even tho I have no immediate family members who were victims of these atrocities, simply being at the site where one quarter of the six million Jews lost their lives made Auschwitz a different experience than visiting other museums.
Of course it happened.
It happened right here.
And while I surprisingly was not in tears, the most powerful part of the experience for me was reversing the walk along those dead end tracks, walking from the end of them near the crematoriums to the outside gates where the trains entered, saying over and over to myself, “You weren’t successful. You didn’t prevail.”
Thinking, “Your ‘Final Solution’ was not ‘A Final Solution’ after all. I am walking out of here.”
And, as I reflected on the day, I was struck by the comparison with another Holocaust ‘witnessing experience’ I had had.
Perhaps ten years ago with my father, brother-in-law and a cousin, I went to Eisiskes in Lithuania, near the Belarus border, in an attempt to show my father where he had come from (his mother immigrated from this small Lithuanian town/shetl to the US in 1905. And she use to say to my father, “We’ve come a long way from Eisiskes.”).
This ‘roots’ trip also turned into a ‘Holocaust witnessing’ trip as we had the wonderful good fortune of being a part of a group of three Holocaust survivors and their family who were returning to Eisiskes and Lithuania. They were hoping to find the grave of a brother they had buried there and a torah they had hidden in the rafters of a home they had been forced to abandon.
Only (only!) one-quarter of the Jews who died were murdered in the various concentration and extermination camps. The other three-quarters were killed in the forests, the streets, the market places, in small towns, in gravel pits, in synagogues, throughout Germany, Poland, Lithuania, etc.
And it was standing in an empty field, listening to one of the survivor’s description of what had occurred here, that I found myself sobbing and sobbing. He described the huge pit that had been dug (by the victims?) and the lining up of the Jews from Eisiskes on the edge of the pit, the shooting of them, the piles of bodies that grew and grew in the pit. He told us about timing his own fall into the pit with the rifle fire, of his lying in the pit under dead bodies of folks he knew all his life, and of his ultimate escape late at night into the forest, where he became a resistance fighter.
He took us into the market place in the town where there was a second massacre and described that atrocity too, as we all sobbed and sobbed. And there was also a trip to the now disintegrating synagogue where he and the other Jews of Eisiskes had been herded and from where they left to die in the pit(s) and the market place.
Just as I had no immediate family who died in Auschwitz, I had no family who died in Eisiskes.
And while the total number of deaths in Eisiskes was probably between 3,500-4,000 (plus another 1500 from surrounding towns), somehow I felt their loss more intensely than I did for the more than a million who died in Auschwitz.
I suspect the difference in my reaction to the two ‘visits’ had to do with hearing from someone who was there, who knew and personally recounted the details of the horrors that had taken place in Eisiskes from his own experience.
And I suspect that it is the Eisiskes ‘visit’ that will remain with me all of my life, even tho the horrors of the mass exterminations of Auschwitz affected more people.
But in the end, I suppose that is a distinction without a difference.
For so many, it was ‘A Final Solution.’
But, thankfully, not for all of us.