Tuesday’s weather forecast included snow with temperatures hovering a few degrees below the freezing mark, colder if you calculated the wind chill. It’s the forecast for Auschwitz, Poland, fitting weather for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp where more than one million, mostly Jews, were slaughtered during World War II.
By contrast, the atmosphere seemed a little out of whack when our family visited Auschwitz during the summer of 2008. The sun shone brightly. The grass was lush and verdant. Birds chirped. Everything was neat, in its place. Serene even. Color was everywhere. It made it difficult to comprehend that this was the epicenter of man’s bestiality toward his fellow man.
A former Polish military installation of mostly brick buildings, Auschwitz proved to be too small for the mass murder the Germans had in mind. So they built Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, just down the road. That’s where the often-pictured railroad gateway with the Arbeit Macht Frei (work brings freedom) slogan greeted the wretched crammed into boxcars, most of them transported from Hungary and surrounding countries during the latter stages of the war. Those “fortunate” enough not to be immediately consigned to the “showers” and crematoria at the rear of the camp found shelter in row after row of wooden barracks (I’ve previously written how the Nazis carried fire insurance provided by Allianz for the structures: http://nosocksneededanymore.blogspot.com/2010/01/chain-of-one-person-events.html).
We’ve all seen concentration camp scenes from movies. They’re often rendered in black and white or gauzy color meant to take the life out of the reality. Now a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of those killed and meant to be a cautionary monument to the extremes every generation must guard against, Auschwitz, to me at least, did not evoke the same sense of loss and despair I experienced when visiting Holocaust memorials in Washington, DC, New York City or Jerusalem. It lacked context. Personalization. Scope.
Sure, the seemingly endless number of victims was remembered through mounds of luggage. Eyeglasses. Shoes. Hair. But what escaped my consciousness was an overwhelming feeling of individual suffering, of agony, of crushing horror and hopelessness. The museum was…too clinical. Too…German. Apparently, mine was not the only such reaction. Plans are underway to humanize the tragedy (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/24/world/europe/for-auschwitz-museum-and-survivors-a-moment-of-passage.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone&_r=0).
Will it matter? Will mankind stop mass murder and genocide? The record over the last 70 years is not reassuring. Think China’s Cultural Revolution. Cambodia’s Killing Fields. Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis. The massacre of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Boko Haram in Nigeria. Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Assads in Syria. Sunnis and Shia in Iraq and Syria.
I don’t find it depressing (ok, too depressing) that atrocities of unspeakable scale still occur. What I find truly depressing and maddening is that the civilized world does not or cannot, or does not want to, stop them from happening. With all the knowledge and technology available to us, with our commitment to “Never Again,” again keeps happening again and again.
The commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz should be a moment of reassurance. Sadly, it has not yet attained that status.