Like a hellish twin to the Louvre’s glass pyramid, the dynamited concrete roof of Crematorium II’s gas chamber slopes down into the soggy Earth. On the overcast day of our visit, the caved-in roof of the gas chamber, black and flooded as though by sorrow, seemed to be a black hole. According to conservative estimates, the SS murdered 1.1 million people in Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Standing in the camp myself, looking at the remains of the crematoria, I suddenly realized that hundreds of thousands died within 50 feet of where I was standing. I wanted to run away. What do a million people even look like alive, much less dead? At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the loss to humanity hangs heavy in the air. The American cemetery in Normandy drew tears from me, but standing where more people died per square foot than anywhere else on Earth more so evokes dumbfounded depression, incomprehension, and terror.
Though mediocre and lapdoggish bureaucrats filled the ranks of Nazi Germany’s civil service, Auschwitz embodies the terrifying efficiency by which the world knows the Nazis. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the terminus of Germany’s vast rail-deportation network. Cattle cars of starved innocents arrived daily through its gate, each one sorted by SS officers and racial doctors for either work “selection” or immediate death. In the most perverse sense, those sent to the chambers were lucky: the forced laborers were given only starvation rations, crammed six-abreast in triple bunks, and worked to death. In Auschwitz I, the original camp, guards tortured and starved (and sometimes gassed) Poles, Jews, Roma, and others. They exploited labor by terror and mass punishment.
The camp even has ghosts, of a sort: the remains of long since dismantled shelters stretch into the distance in eerily neat rows. Only the bones of the buildings, the chimneys and foundations, remain. Photos cannot fully capture the camp’s expansiveness. Even with most buildings gone, one cannot easily see from one end of the camp to the other.
Auschwitz offers no great historical lessons on its own. Its memorial plaques do not preach with walls of text, but rather offer a warning to humanity. The camp speaks on its own behalf. Students talk of racialization and dehumanization in the abstract in classes, and we naturally recoil at mention of those –tions, but the praxis of those –tions is quite different and far more harrowing. The Nazis needed assembly-line-style murder facilities because their soldiers in the East could no longer stomach shooting innocents and kicking them into mass graves; perhaps that fact should give us hope for humanity, but Auschwitz itself offers no balm. Its existence should curb visitors’ enthusiasm for the dehumanization rampant in modern politics. Neither blood nor creed nor origin are sufficient to treat humans like livestock. Nothing is.
Visit Auschwitz yourself. It’s our duty as human beings to bear witness, to remember, and to act to ensure no regime can enact such horrors again.