It's been a few days, but I really should write something about it. I visited Auschwitz on Tuesday.
I don't think that any reasonable human being can be fully prepared for a trip like that. We've all grown up with the stories of the gas chambers and crematoriums, the Hollywood films referencing the "death camps", and the 1940s Soviet footage of the camp liberation. We all know what went on there, but being there, standing on the very spot where children were executed... it's something else.
Every person's experience with that place is personal, and for me, what struck me the most was the astounding industrial nature of the whole operation. In the beginning, Auschwitz was simply an industrialist's wet dream: unlimited free labour. People were shipped in by cattle car, worked until they couldn't, and then replaced like chipped cogs in a machine. But as time passed, new ideas were rolled into the process and the nature of the facility changed from simply slave labour to extermination.
What was hardest for me is that I've come to accept that bad things happen and people die... all the time. Sometimes those bad things are just unlucky street crossings or unfortunate genetics, and sometimes we're talking about random shootings and nuclear bombs. I understand these because the human factor, the nature of those killed, is never questioned. Jews may hate Arabs and Arabs may hate Jews, but one never questions that the other isn't truly human. Our media fed us all sorts of lies about the Japanese during WW2, but I don't think that Truman ever stopped thinking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as being populated by anything other than people. What I saw in Auschwitz... was something completely different.
The Nazis had decided that the population of Poland had to be eradicated. Additionally, they wanted to exterminate every Jew on the planet. We know that these were not empty words, as they did manage to murder six million Jews and six million Poles during their campaign of only a few years. But for me, the truly astonishing question is: what exactly does it mean to attempt to exterminate a people?
We often glaze over the fact that the world is Very Big, and that there are a lot of people living on it. We like to frame wars as if one nation invades another, like single entities poking at other entities and changing colour. But take a moment to absorb the fact that before the Nazis invaded, there were roughly 24million Poles in Poland. To put that in a scale that's easier to understand, Hitler wanted to eradicate roughly 10 Torontos worth of people. This was a job that needed meticulous planning and industrial "solutions".
When you're dealing with a "problem" this big, you can't simply march an army across the country. Poland is really big, too big for any army to eradicate so many. Instead they invented the SS, and compelled people to relocate to concentration camps, where they were put to work building more camps for more of their own people so they could get all of their kills in one place.
They had another problem: simply shooting them was inefficient and messy. They couldn't be wasting ammunition on Poles and Jews of all "things", and they needed their clothing for use in Germany -- it'd be no good with holes and blood stains. They needed a gas that was relatively fast-acting, that could be pumped into a closed space for a maximum kill ratio, and then vented over the camp without killing any Germans. They enlisted the help of IG Farben to design such a gas, and they used Auschwitz prisoners to test it:
- Put ten men in a sealed room, and pump in x amount of gas.
- Wait 20 minutes
- Check if anyone is still alive.
- If yes, increase the amount of gas.
- Repeat until everyone is dead.
Once the formula was perfected, they began killing people, but suddenly a new problem: they were killing people twice as fast as they could cremate them.
Imagine what that conversation must have been like:
- "Sir, we've killed 400 people Jews today, but we're only burning the bodies at a rate of 200 per day. What do we do now?"
- "Damnit do I have to think of everything? Just have the workers build two crematoriums for every gas chamber, and until they're ready just have the prisoners dump the bodies in a mass grave um.... over there".
Everything in the death camp was logged and counted:
- Prisoners were forced to walk in rows of 5, and other prisoners had to play music while the work crews moved from their barracks to their "jobs". The music wasn't for morale, but an effort to keep the prisoners walking in time... to make counting them easier.
- Those destined for the gas chambers (typically women and children, as they were the least "useful"), were stripped of their hair and clothing before execution. The hair would be used for clothing like socks for Germans, their personal possessions: glasses, shoes, even chamber pots, shipped back to Germany for sale and reuse.
- One group of Roma were spared the chambers for a full 17 months, permitted to remain with their families as a sort of anthropological experiment. When Himmler tired of them however, they were all gassed.
To operate Auschwitz was to industrialise the process of liquefying a people that weren't a threat to anyone. Their lands and fortunes were all taken, there was no rational reason to do what the Nazis did unless we accept that to the Nazis, the Poles, Jews, Roma, and homosexuals weren't people, but simply numbers that needed to be re-allocated on a balance sheet.
After all this, I was actually considering the whole concept of Europe, and what it would mean for Poland to be a part. It's one thing for the British to have close relations with the Germans post-WW2, but Poland? The Germans didn't simply attack Poland, they attempted to erase them from history. They set up hundreds of camps designed to streamline the process of murder throughout Poland and Germany, and over the course of a few years gassed millions of men, women, and children as if they were action items on a project planner. Now I understand the grand purpose of the European experiment, and I support it completely, but I honestly don't understand the Polish restraint, and am not confident that I would be able to do the same in their place.
Auschwitz is not a place you should want to visit, but it's a place that everyone should see. The Nazis weren't special, they were humans doing some of the most evil things in the history of our species, and it's important that we all learn from it what we can, lest it be allowed to happen again.