By Rachel Gross
AUSCHWITZ — Standing in this wretched brick building in the women’s barracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we begin to take in the impossible details. Around us are 180 wooden bunks, each slightly larger than a twin-sized bed, stacked three bunks high. Each held three to seven women, for a total of anywhere from 480 to 1120 prisoners living together in this tiny mud-filled space. But those stark numbers cannot convey the squalor that accompanied them: the stripping of all identity, the struggle to survive amidst human filth, excrement, lice and disease. This is the “architecture of dehumanization,” explained Paweł Sawicki, our guide and spokesman at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial and Museum.
Here, perhaps for the first time as a journalist, I experience a sort of anti-curiosity. Do I really need to know these details? At one point, Pawel explained in depth the physical effects of Zyklon B, the cyanide gas used in concentration camps, and I recoiled; the intensity of felt experience was too much. But even these details are important. One of biggest problems with reporting on the Holocaust is that reporters often find themselves pressured to “parachute in,” gathering a few facts and impressions before churning out their story and going on their way, Paweł said. Why should they bother themselves with a couple of small details, so long as the overarching narrative of horror and cruelty emerges?
Yet if there is one thing we have learned from reporting on the Holocaust, it is that constructing an accurate narrative depends on building a strong foundation of facts, and the few facts we have about life in the camps are too precious and hard-won to allow them to disintegrate. Later in our discussions, Ari Goldman connected this problem to reporting more broadly: “This is also a responsibility we have in our newsrooms, whether we’re sending you to other neighborhoods or other countries.” Complex stories require in-depth reporting. “Sometimes the reporter just has to say, ‘No…I just can’t parachute in. This demands more time,’” Ari said.
In our visit to Auschwitz we took our time. Most groups that visit the former camp spend the morning at Auschwitz I, the original camp, and the afternoon at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a much larger camp a few miles away. We spent two days and two nights there, which allowed for visits and return visits as well as time for discussion and reflection.
Our second day at Auschwitz-Birkenau began with train tracks. We walked to the brick entrance gate on a cool gray morning from the loading ramp where, from spring of 1942 to late spring 1944, cattle cars of Jews and other prisoners arrived along the tracks to be sorted into the fit and the unfit. Ultimately, more than one million people were murdered there — the vast majority of them Jews. Approaching the gate, we are confronted with a sprawling network of buildings. This is not just a camp but also an entire city, around 30 times the size of Auschwitz I and as systematic as a modern-day slaughterhouse.
Paweł knows the terrain well. He led us as we flattened ourselves, sliding between barbed-wire fences before making our way to the “disinfection barracks” where prisoners were allowed to take the occasional shower to prevent the spread of disease throughout the camp. And yet even at Birkenau, the pinnacle of the Nazis’ ruthlessly effective killing system, people managed to leave traces. Against all odds, prisoners used coins or stones to etch their names, dates, five-pointed stars, even addresses into the bricks. One reads:
Experiencing the specificity of this authentic site — the sprawling grounds of the death machinery that is Birkenau, located on what is now Poland but in 1942 was German Reich soil — is just part of the process of understanding what happened here, said Paweł. We can consider our surroundings as “the frame of a picture.” We must then fill in that frame with other ways of knowing: research, testimony and historical documentation about this dark era of human history.
Journalism fellow Matt Beagle later connected the image of the frame to the act of reporting: “In many ways, that is a metaphor for the craft of journalism,” he said. You start with the plain facts, using them to build a skeleton for your story. Then you fill in the holes with your reporting, striving to build a fuller picture. While you can never perfectly recreate a historical scene, you can weave a tapestry of perspectives from which you hope to convey some form of truth.
From the disinfection barracks we walked to a quiet grove of the birch trees to which Birkenau owes its name, green leaves fluttering in the breeze. To the south we saw the blue outline of the Beskidy Mountains, behind which lays what is now Slovakia. While Birkenau was active, this place of seeming peace was the waiting room of death: prisoners considered unfit — often women and children — were told to wait here for the “showers.” In reality, there were simply too many transports of prisoners; even the finely tuned machinery of this Nazi death camp couldn’t keep up.
The prisoners waited just a few dozen yards from the gas chambers, which were hidden behind a wall. For some of us listening, that detail provided a comfort: at least until they were in the sealed chamber, these people lived without the knowledge of their imminent death. But what happened in that chamber is where the power of testimony comes to an end. Here we have only the words of the Sonderkommando, the special unit of Jewish prisoners who were the first to open the doors and find the prisoners dead, discolored, their skin slick with moisture. We will never know what those prisoners truly experienced in their last moments because none survived. Here, we can only imagine.
Following our visit and during a discussion about the role of emotions in journalism, many FASPE journalists said after visiting Auschwitz I, they were able to take in Birkenau with more of an analytic distance. That, one remarked, is the power of reporting. When confronted with the details that comprise the Holocaust, most react with horror. But journalists that stay and report go one step further, making that crucial switch from the emotional to the critical. This does not mean we lose our humanity. Rather, it means that using the tools of our craft, we strive to recreate the experience on the page for our readers.
We need strong emotions to drive us to the stories we need to go to — in this case, to Auschwitz. But creating compelling and honest journalism also takes an analytical mind, strong reporting skills and the ability to capture details. Good journalists must be emotional, journalism fellow Natalie Lampert said. “We use our emotions to wade into the discomfort. But the beauty is, you don’t necessarily see that on the page. You see the truth, the facts and the reporting, and from there the reader can process their own emotions.”
The goal is not to sterilize our human reactions, passing through the same process that took concentration camp prisoners from living as an individual with a name to a slave identified only by a number. Rather, the goal is to use our reporting and narrative skills to transfer that felt emotion to the page. More than that, it is about recognizing that even the largest narratives rely on the smallest facts.