Auschwitz and Birkenau

Auschwitz – the Door to Hell

The visit to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps is of course an eerie experience. Getting this close to such atrocities really gets to you. What is it in man that makes these things possible? Under given circumstances, would I…? Is it just the cruelling effects of war? Could it, or will it, happen again? There is a tradition in Norway for schools to arrange trips for the young to see for themselves what happened here. This is the absolutely right and proper thing to do. But in a broader sense, it also raises questions; with all that focus on what happened to millions here, will the atrocities just be connected with this place? I’ve heard young (and not so young) people attributing all of this to one man, Adolf Hitler. Or as a friend of mine said: “There once was an evil man named Hitler….. and if it wasn’t for him, none of this would have happened.

If Adolf’s father had been allowed to keep his original name, his name would have been Alois Schickelgruber and young Adolf would have been called Schickelgruber too. What effect would that have had on history? It’s hard to imagine the nazi-rallies with people shouting: “Heil Schickelgruber!” Or is it? Do these things need an instigator?

Is he the only one to blame? Looking at history it is evident that things like these are the rule rather than the exception. It’ll suffice to look at Stalin’s GuLags, Szrebrenica, Rwanda, Cambodia, these things happen all the time, all over the world. In my view, the only thing that can counteract it is the open society, the free press. Nothing must be allowed to happen quietly. Whenever something challenges the freedom of expression we must be ready to face up to it. There is nothing a dictator fears more than publicity and an inquiring press. In the Norwegian folklore we have creatures called “Trolls”. They are evil but rather simpleminded and they burst when exposed to daylight. Much the same thing happens to the world dictators. The free word is their major enemy and one that they need to silence. The German poet, Heinrich Heine once said: “When a nation starts burning books, it will eventually end up burning people.

One thing that struck me at Auschwitz was the young Israelis wrapped in the Israeli flag. They obviously wanted to make a point, a political statement:”Here you can see what we, the Jews have had to endure. The pain inflicted upon us!” I have always considered the Nazi atrocities to be committed against the individual prisoner and not against groups or nations, but I see now that not everybody shares this view. Can a nation be a victim any more than a nation can be collectively guilty? Are the Germans of today in any way guilty of what happened here? Of course not – and  that of course, raises the next question: are the young Israelis of today victims?

I do of course recognize the right to mourn the dead and the importance of keeping the awareness of these atrocities alive, but to use them for political manifestations? …. I am not so sure.

The name Auschwitz symbolizes the cruelty and the suffering that man is capable of inflicting upon one another, but as our very competent guide, Anita points out to us, the Auschwitz camp, which is quite intact, was built for political prisoners and is  relatively small. A “mere” 50.000 were murdered here whereas in the neighboring camp, Birkenau they managed to exterminate millions.

Birkenau was extermination on an industrial scale, more than 70 % of all the new arrivals here were sent straight to the gas chambers and then cremated, some were sent to the surrounding labour camps and some were destined for medical experimentation. It is hard to comprehend what happened here, it is on such a scale that it is beyond me to take it all in; and I definitely don’t think that this is a place for political statements. This is a place for contemplation

To learn more about the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, visit the official homepage here.

 

 

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