Shoah: under the watchtowers of Auschwitz
The German words encountered in the world’s most notorious concentration camp are predominantly those of command or threat.
Halt. Vorsicht. Arbeit Macht Frei.
Visitor captions throughout the camp, explaining detail of what happened, are in Polish, Hebrew and English. Only at the memorial area, built after the war, is a flagstone of remembrance in German to be found, melting to inconsequence by the presence of 21 other flagstones and languages, expressing the same sentiment.
But one giant German word lies hidden in plain sight. It is the most haunting word of all.
Oświęcim is the Polish name for this regional town in which the death camps were built. Annexed by Nazi advances in the autumn of 1939, the site was first conceived as a prison, because of its pre-existing Polish army barracks.
As often happens with colonial rulers, the new régime made ‘Oświęcim’ their own by way of phonology, creating a German word that approximated to the sound in Polish.
Os-więcim became Aus-chwitz.
First there was Oświęcim, an anodyne, humble little place which was chosen simply because it lay almost in the geographic dead-centre of German-occupied Europe. And then, Auschwitz, which lay at the heart of Hitler’s nefarious plans.
The Poles are blunt. They may be the custodians of Auschwitz, but it is emphatically not theirs.
Signage on arrival at the camp’s car park spells out ‘Auschwitz’ in old German-gothic font, describing it as a ‘German Nazi concentration and extermination camp’. The blackletter effect is a jarring kind of clarity, acting to distance meaning from medium.
Our stoic guide brings us through Auschwitz I and II (Birkenau) during a walking tour of about four hours.
The Polish language is spoken high in the vocal cords and with an intense energy, resulting in a speech pattern of unusually high tessitura. She brings this same energy to her tour-guide English, with a few charming quirks for good measure: accommondate, imaginate…
Our guide notes that Polish political prisoners were the first to be murdered here, and pays reverent homage to the LGBT people, the Roma people, and the Russian POWs, who subsequently perished too. But her focus is in the story of the 1.1 million European Jews, transported here from all parts of the Continent, to their deaths.
I have been preparing for this visit since I was a schoolboy. Because the core of the story is well known to me, I anticipated that my role would be one of witness rather than student.
I was wrong. Being physically present at Auschwitz serves to untangle understanding that I never knew was tangled.
I did not comprehend quite how vast the Birkenau expansion of 1941 was, its acreage and latticed railway lines each a visible indicator of the industrial slaughter that took place here.
Only with this trip did it occur to me that the first Holocaust deniers were the Nazis themselves. They took care to create a 40km exclusion zone around the camp so that it remained a secret. And in November 1944 as the Red Army advanced, they attempted to destroy evidence of the gas chambers and crematoria, evacuating the emaciated prisoners to the German interior by way of death marches.
I thought that the infamous wrought-iron sign declaring ‘Work Sets You Free’ sat alongside the iconic archway with a train track running through it. But they do not. The former is Auschwitz I, the latter Auschwitz II (Birkenau), which lies 3kms away, and was built by slave labourers from the ‘mother camp’.
‘Mother’. Now there’s a word. The spirit of mothers, in a place so lacking in love, permeates the air and often appears in my guide’s careful narrative.
Here, there are halls displaying tens of thousands of murdered victims’ shoes, frozen in history. Almost all of this footwear is greyish-brown and black in colour. A differentiated, vibrant hue pops here and there , where a few single red shoes lie amongst the oppressive pile of darkness.
I think of the hope, desperation and propriety of the original wearers. Despite pogroms, fear and impending catastrophe, some women chose to be deported, feet clad in elegant red.
The Nazis built their death camps on twisted, fucked-up dogma, but operated them on shrewd human insight. They were master manipulators of the human need for Hope.
On the point of deportation, many Jews were promised non-existent jobs in non-existent farmlands, as part of their resettlement ‘in the East’. It was the detail of the lie that made it reasonably, possibly true.
But the SS also knew their limits. Their prevailing system (with exceptions), kept women and their infants together, as it was imperative to avoid mass panic. They knew that the most provocative act of human aggression is to wrench a clinging baby from its mother.
A sort of emotional flooding occurs as one drifts from block to block, camp to camp. There is a distant look in many of my fellow-visitors’ eyes.
I had been reading, the previous evening, of survivor Viktor Frankl’s belief that meaning can be found in suffering, and indeed that suffering can be used to bring opportunity for growth to one’s life. Finding such purpose is a game-changer for the human soul, as once the ‘why’ is clear, almost any ‘what’ can be endured.
I find my capacity to think is impaired; I cannot immediately knit together what I am seeing, and link it to Frankl’s testimony of meaning.
Little prepares one for the human suffering, cruelty and slaughter that are here memorialised, at once both a museum and the largest cemetery in the world.
Rather aimlessly, I allowed my camera to capture what felt interesting, and my lens drifts to architecture.
The death camps were secured by electrified barbed-wire and manned by wooden watchtowers. The openness of the electric fencing simultaneously hinted at freedom whilst guaranteeing its opposite.
Along the barbed-wire lines, methodically spaced, stood rows of black-hooded lamps, glowering in their minimalist beauty. Their light kept the camp secure, and facilitated frequent shootings. In their carefully designed convex shape, the distinct silhouette of the iconic German World War I soldier’s helmet is clear to my eyes. I stared at those Auschwitz helmet-lamps in wonder. The echo of one war, coldly illuminating the next.
Walking through Birkenau with camera in hand, the sun finally became lively, penetrating the steely sky. I found my spirits raised by this quotidian thing.
Passing watchtower after mesmerising watchtower, I began seeing something, which made me doubt if I actually was seeing things right.
Each Nazi tower sits on a base of four slanted wooden legs, the sides supported by right-angled cross-beams. Four sides, yielding four Xs. (I took a picture, above)
As I strolled by, these 3-dimensional watchtowers revealed a 2-dimensional pattern of triangles. Stop at the right moment, and an odd thing happens. From a specific vantage point only, suddenly, the shape of the Star of David appears, pulsing from the angles of the watchtower’s base.
It is not exactly a faithful rendering. Rather, it is a stretched, avant-garde, deconstructed David’s Star. But it is there. Within the architecture of the oppressor, I found the clarion voice of its victims.
Or did I? Was this just my imagining? Perhaps I am delirious. Drowning. Vexed by the heaviness of it all…
But what are we to do in such a place, if not to shape from it our own reality? And should Hope crawl nakedly into that moment, must we not hold it to our hearts?
To the reader: this essay is written in conjunction with another, found here.