Over 500,000 people a year visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, really one big camp separated by two miles of road. It’s hard to say anything about this experience–it seems like science fiction, even though you are walking through it.
The question that occurs over and over is “How could it happen?” and “Could it happen again?” You think, inhuman, but only humans have this methodical malice. Just logistically, the extermination of millions of people is not a trivial undertaking. Walking through what remains of Birkenau especially, you get a sense of the scope of the project. This is looking in one direction at the ruins of the barracks.
Many visitors are high-school students. At Auschwitz they’ve arranged exhibits by country in the old barracks, one block for the Jews of the Netherlands, one for Czech Jews, a huge exhibit for the over three million Polish Jews. Eyeglasses, canisters of Zyklon B, the ruins of the crematoria, maps of how they worked: the undressing rooms, the furnaces.
Walking through the exhibits or the acres of fenced ruins, I thought of this poem by Tadeusz Borowski, who was a prisoner here.
Night Over Birkenau
Night again. Again the grim sky closes
circling like a vulture over the dead silence.
Like a crouching beast over the camp
the moon sets, pale as a corpse.
And like a shield abandoned in battle,
blue Orion–lost among the stars.
The transports growl in darkness
and the eyes of the crematoria blaze.
It’s steamy, stifling. Sleep is a stone.
Breath rattles in my throat.
This lead foot crushing my chest
is the silence of three million dead.
Night, night without end. No dawn comes.
My eyes are poisoned from sleep.
Like God’s judgement on the corpse of the earth
fog descends over Birkenau.