A Haunted Journey
The district is there, but there are almost no Jews. I probably saw most of them attending a concert at the center and, on another day, a painful exhibition of photographs and films at the former Isaac's Synagogue. The exhibit's purpose was to contrast the life of the Jews before the war with their subsequent agony, drawing on material found in SS and Gestapo archives. Notably, there were two poorly edited films, on the Warsaw ghetto and on deportations, which were at once nearly incomprehensible and awe-inspiring. You saw an unending stream of Jews running from the doorway of an unidentified building. Then, helpless and hopeless, they climbed into trucks and apparently paid a fee for their ultimate journey. There was also a scene showing their arrival in a camp and a Nazi officer with a gesture of his thumb deciding their fate: to the gas chamber or to work, that is to say, provisional survival. That evening, I crossed the Vistula to Harmony Square, now renamed the Heroes of the Ghetto. It had been the starting point for deportations to Plaszczow camp, which is within walking distance. All this was appropriate preparation for the inevitable final stage of this trip: Oswiecim.
Saturday was sunny and the bus comfortable (they hadn't traveled like this). On the way we glimpsed Monowice, a camp providing slave labor for the German chemical concern IG Farben; it was an important element of this concentration complex. Auschwitz is both familiar, with the notorious sign proclaiming Arbeit Macht Frei on its gate, and puzzling: The expected train platform and the wooden barracks are not here but a couple of miles away at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. In Auschwitz I the buildings are of solid brick; originally they were Polish Army barracks. At first the camp was for political prisoners, mainly Poles. You can see pictures of these early victims, with dates of entry and death recorded with German precision; some lasted ten months, most only a couple. It was only after 1942, when the decision was made to exterminate all Jews, that the camp was expanded, Birkenau built up and the death factory began to function at full capacity.
Today Auschwitz I is a museum for our memory, which each one perceives through his own sensibility. I was less affected by such horrors as the punishment cells, where prisoners often died of suffocation, and the execution ground, with its death wall. Even in the gas chamber, in which 2,000 people could be put to death in less than half an hour, my imagination was not quite up to it. But I was shattered when I looked at those terrible masterpieces of twentieth-century art, the showcases with the remnant possessions of the dead. Not the hair for textiles or the gold from teeth for ingots, but everyday objects: brushes, spectacles, suitcases, shoes for kids and adults, and, to crown it all, because the victims believed or fooled themselves that they were being "resettled," a humanité morte, an extraordinary bric-a-brac of kitchen utensils, saucepans, washbowls. My eye was irresistibly drawn to a small child's chamber pot.
When you exit Auschwitz I, the skirmishes over crosses pale into insignificance (while I was in Warsaw there was a storm in a teapot because the outgoing chief rabbi had, in rather broken Polish, asked "Mister Pope" to remove the crosses from Auschwitz). Indeed, it took some time in neighboring Birkenau to realize that this really was the main terrain of mass extermination. Then you become aware of the space--about 425 square acres, in which some 100,000 people would be crammed at one time. There are the wooden barracks, copies of German stables, each with 800 humans instead of fifty-two horses; there are the latrines, which were fantastic carriers of germs. Disease, exhaustion and starvation competed for victims with the gas chambers and the four crematoriums. The Germans, unusually, did not leave precise accounts of the manner of death. For Auschwitz as a whole, the dead are estimated at more than 80,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies (killed, like the Jews, because they were Gypsies), 12,000 Soviet prisoners of war and more than a million Jews from all over Europe. In my mind, one child's chamber pot captured the horror, the rational madness of the twentieth century, far better than these bare figures.
The point has been reached to draw conclusions. Polish anti-Semitism may be revived for a while if the law requiring restitution of prewar property, which has not yet been passed, is carried out on a wide scale and if wealthy American Jews then give the impression through their pressure that they are powerful enough to bully anybody into obedience. But, in any case, it is now a passion without object and a symptom rather than the disease. For Poland, as for the other countries of Eastern Europe, the politicians must decide whether they will provide progressive, rational solutions for the bulk of their population, and not only for the wealthy few; or, failing that, whether they will try to channel popular discontent against scapegoats.
For me, this pilgrimage has provided an answer to the difficult question, What does it mean today to be a Jew when you are not religious, do not believe Jews are a race and do not have, as my parents did, real roots in a Jewish language and culture (a culture that, incidentally, is dying out together with its Polish source)? My deep links are with the dead whose ashes are interred here. But this should not be interpreted in any nationalistic fashion. The heritage I claim is that of standing on the side of the victims, of the downtrodden, of the exploited, whatever their color or passport, black, white or yellow, Palestinian or Jew. The only difference is that I might have--should have?--died in the Warsaw ghetto or in Treblinka.
From the personal to the political. It is good that analytical light is now being applied to the Shoah business and to the political manipulation of the Holocaust. Take just the latest example: However much sympathy the uprooted Kosovars deserved, to compare them to the Jews and liken that minor scoundrel Milosevic to Hitler was simply a way to blackmail the critics of the "just war" into silence. Viewed from Auschwitz it was, to put it mildly, indecent. This does not mean that the Holocaust should be treated in splendid isolation. I always thought that it was at once unique and comparable. It is unique in its scientific organization, in its ruthless, systematic and successful annihilation of a people, a "race." But it is also a warning, a call for comparison. We must now look at every situation with the permanent knowledge at the back of our minds that, if we are not careful, humankind can descend to unbelievable depths. Racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, are the curses, the maledictions, of our age. When you cast somebody out because he is other, different, alien, when you raise ethnicity to a political religion, you start on a slippery road that, we now know, can lead to hell on earth.
Passers-by, if you stop in Warsaw, take time to proceed along what is called the Memory Lane, where the last Jewish fighters perished along with a dying world. They entrusted us with the task unfinished, nay, scarcely begun, of building a different world, in which such atrocities will be genuinely unthinkable.