Auschwitz ironies where the devil once danced, dust remains

For any basic student of history, the horrors of the Holocaust are known. Yet when you’re actually here, walking the paths of pain that parallel with railroad tracks of wrath, the sickening facts not only slap one right between the eyes. Those facts also fill the ventricles of the emotional heart.

Irony is all around. A restaurant stands just outside the main entrance. Not one but two snack bars are outside the inner gate where more than a million Jews were rationed to 500 calories a day, a meal, often of lice-laden bread and some form of liquid the German soldiers tried to pass off a soup. Buses deposit thousands of people every day on this site.

The ages of the visitors I saw ranged from 9 to 90. I heard languages from Latvia to Luxemburg, from Austin, Texas, to Austria, even Canadian and Spanish from Columbia. Without knowing the specifics of a given syllable, one knows what is being said. Hatred knows no border of language or location.

I’m here with a group from the Jewish Federation of Broward County, Fla. WRAL-TV General Manager Steve Hammel was told of this trip and decided he and his wife would join the group. They’re here to listen and learn and to walk. Thursday all of us in the group will join some 12,000 others in the 30th Annual March for the Living. My job is to also listen and learn and document what we are experiencing. Thirteen years ago, I visited the Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich, Germany. Moved to tears and haunted for years, I knew one day my travels would complete this odyssey in Poland.

More irony. The sign over the entrance reads: Arbett Mach Fret. Translation, “Work Will Set You Free.” The letter B in the word Arbett is upside down. An 88 year old who spent time in these buildings told me, “I think it was a sign to the rest of us.”

We quietly shuffle from room to room. Immediately it becomes hard to even pick up your feet to move. Triple wooden bunk beds where five to a mattress slept. Irene pointed and said, “If one of us had to turn over we ALL had to turn over.” Clothes of the prisoners. Striped uniforms all with the yellow JUDE star. Then the shoes. Thousands of shoes. The Germans wanted to harvest the leather and the rubber soles. Pumps, sandals, boots, orthopedic shoes and, most painful of all, baby shoes. Shoes replaced by sandals and clogs. Not exactly the best for mud and 20-degree weather.

We walked down steps. Concrete worn from all the steps before us. There we are shown single cells. A starvation cell. An isolation cell. A dark cell. All self-explanatory. Then we stand in front of the standing cell. One meter by one meter. A cell measuring 9.6 square feet. Four men would stand in that space. For three days. Naked. “They were stripped of their dignity as they were stripped of what little clothing they were allowed to wear,” intoned Michal. He added, “Often one of men collapsed before the time was finished.”

On these 346 acres 16 of the barracks still stand. The gas chambers are in ruins. Some by the Germans who wanted to destroy all evidence. Some by the prisoners as they were liberated. These are what’s left of the networks of killing machines that once annihilated 2,000 Jews a day.

“Some of the women smuggled in gunpowder and blew up this death chamber.” Avi Marcovitz is a scholar of Holocaust studies. “These Jews were not like lambs led to the slaughter. They often fought back. Here’s some of the evidence.” The ovens are now reduced to rubble.

Ellie Wiesel wrote that Holocaust is a word that cannot be defined beyond evil. As I walk tomorrow, a non-Jew, a Christian among 12,000 people, the vast majority with a proud Jewish heritage, I will do so as a privileged minority. I will walk along those bearing scars deeper than I can ever possibly imagine. I too will be saying “Never Forget.”