Day #8: A Field at Auschwitz-Birkenau

By Sonner Kehrt

Here is a people who are gone.

Here is the machinery of their disappearance, the strange mundanity of it, the train schedules and the conferences and the signatures of the bureaucrats. That is how you destroy a people in a world that is modern: You make sure the trains run on time, you get the correct signatures. You build a system, and at the end of it is a group of people on a dusty platform near a small town in Poland.

Oświęcim. In German, the town name translates to Auschwitz. Outside of town, there are groves of birch trees: birken.

“Here at Birkenau, we do no re-creations,” says Kasia the tour guide, who says she first came here on a school trip and swore she would not return. Birkenau isn’t like Auschwitz I, remade to look like it did when it broke bodies and families and souls. Auschwitz I is horrific in its orderliness. There’s manicured grass and neat brick buildings with the rooms the way they looked then, and you can peer through the glass and point and say look, look at that over there.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is immediate. You can stand in the middle of the camp and feel it suffocating you; you can touch the wooden planks with the faded white paint upon which prisoners slept, five to a bed, if it could be called that, and waited for death. You can see the ceramic troughs for washing, the carved grooves for bars of soap — for those who were “lucky” enough to have one.

Here is the Death Block, where women deemed unfit to work stayed in the days before they were sent to the gas chambers. Here is the small room off the entrance which was designed to hold bread; in all the other blocks, it did hold bread. But the room didn’t hold bread in the Death Block, Kasia says. Why give bread to a woman condemned to death?

Here is the tower, under which the train tracks run. From across the camp, you can see a tourist in the tower, and he looks like a guard.

Here are the latrines, 204 holes in three concrete blocks, 204 holes for thousands of people.

Here is the Children’s Block, Block 16. Here are the ladders to the top of the three-high sleeping platforms, the rungs worn soft by small feet. Here is the mural painted on the wall, children marching along carrying their toys: a drum, a doll, a hobby horse.

Life imitates art; art imitates life. Kasia explains. When children were marched off to the gas chambers, they were often given toys to carry along the way. It was supposed to keep them calm, she says.

Where are their toys? (Where are their parents?)

Where are the things a people held, the things they made, the things that made them?

Bits and pieces remain. Every now and then, the rain washes away the years around the foundations of what prisoners once called “Canada,” storerooms for the possessions stripped from those who came through here. A visitor stoops down, brushes away the dirt: a fork. It goes into one of the very few displays at Birkenau. Here are the pieces of a people, their silverware, their favorite dishes, the photographs of their babies.

Here is a stand of birch trees, silvery trunks rising out of the thick green grass. Here is where human beings waited outside a building constructed to end them.

Here are the building’s toppled ruins, the bricks lying haphazardly in the grass, sitting where they fell when the Nazis tried to dynamite away their sins as the Soviet Army approached. Here are the outlines of the gas chambers; here is the twisted iron skeleton of the crematorium.

Here is a field in the back of the camp, the wind sighing gently through the long grass, the sun low and golden. There were ventilation problems in the crematorium, Kasia says, so sometimes they had to drag the bodies out of the chambers and burn them in a nearby field. At the edge of the field, there are four dark stones, engraved in Polish, English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

“Here lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.”

Here is a space, and no one is in it.

Here is a people: their songs and their children and their family meals; their personal grudges and mosquito bites; their poetry and the dirt beneath their fingernails. Here is excitement the night before a holiday, the feeling of coming into a building out of the rain, the smell of dinner cooking. Here is the comfort in a shared history, the dreams for a new year, the sound of a girl laughing outside a window.

Here is a people, reduced to a field.


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