January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.
I travelled to Auschwitz last year. It had long occupied an almost mythic place in my mind: the epicenter of an evil so unspeakable one can hardly believe it is a real physical place. It’s as if you could visit one of the circle’s of Dante’s Hell by taking a flight and a few bus rides. There is a disconcerting normality to the site, whose front entrance features a ticket booth, turnstiles, and a concessions stand. Without the barbed-wire fence and guard towers, you might think it was an old army base or some kind of immense summer camp. It would be impossible to discern the nature of the horrors perpetrated there without being told by those who saw it with their own eyes. And that was exactly the point.
The Nazis’ purpose at Auschwitz—as in the whole of the Final Solution—was not just to destroy an entire people, but to erase them from memory. There were to be no victory columns, no fanfare, no parades to celebrate the vanquishing of the hated Jewish race. History was not to record that they were conquered or enslaved or murdered. The Jews were simply to disappear. Perhaps the only thing more shocking than the scale of the Holocaust is how minimal are the remaining markers. It makes remembrance all the more difficult, and all the more vital.
I made my own visit on a pleasant summer day. Groups of tourists in shorts and sunhats strolled leisurely about. Young children played on the train tracks, and families took pictures smiling next to cattle cars that had helped ferry a million people to their deaths. Observing the wooden bunks in one of the barracks, I heard a young girl tell her father “that doesn’t look so bad—I could sleep on that.”
Of course, I wished the seriousness of the place were more apparent to the children—and even more so to their parents. But my reactions, too, were more muted than I had expected and wanted them to be. It was not easy to look at an empty bunk and imagine how it looked overcrowded with terrified prisoners, much less what it smelled like, sounded like, and felt like to be one of those poor souls, starving and brutalized. The barracks we saw, about the size of a small stable, officially held 744 prisoners. But what does 744 people look like? What does a crowd that big feel like crammed into a space that small? Human intuition quickly reaches its limits as numbers rise this high.
by Daniel Krauthammer