Situated near the Tatra Mountains and the ancient city of Krakow in southern Poland was once a dirty secret — an atrocity so evil, Russian soldiers unfortunate enough to have been the first to cross under the now famous black iron arched gates on this date in 1945 most likely could barely comprehend what they were seeing.
In the summer of 1985, I know I couldn’t. The first time I entered the massive iron gates and read the German words on the ominous archway overhead, I didn’t know what they meant.
“Arbeit. Macht. Frei?”
“It basically means ‘Work sets you free,’” explained the Polish tour guide in her best broken English.
“Well that’s a bald-faced lie,” I mumbled as I entered the Auschwitz concentration camp. A sinking feeling of dread and repulsion set in as I slowly walked past the sign and stood in the main open courtyard.
The museum and bookstore situated just outside the camp provided a timeline, shelves full of books, and some art depicting what I was completely unprepared to witness. As I later walked around the remarkably well preserved camp, I was stunned at how incredibly efficient and meticulous the Nazis were at killing people. Their records would be the envy of many bookkeepers today.
But for a period of time at that moment, I just stood there in the courtyard, trying to understand what took place. More than 40 years before, more than a million Jews systematically exited or were dragged from train boxcars near the camp. They were then marched to that courtyard and forced to form up in rows. I stood where they once stood.
To my left rose a tall brick smoke stack. I learned that in the mid ‘40s, blue skies were rarely seen in nearby Oswiecim — the Polish name for the town of Auschwitz — due to almost constant smoke and ash pouring from the stack.
The smell must have been suffocating. How could the townsfolk not have known?
The tour guide explained that Dr. Josef Mengele would stand in the courtyard every time a group of Jews were brought in. He would inspect them for defects and decide whether they would walk to the left for a “nice warm shower,” or to the right for a cold, hard bed.
“Another lie,” she told me. Those who stripped down and went to the showers were actually going to the gas chamber — a large, low unassuming building next to the smoke stack, where they were packed in tight, in a pitch-black sealed room with several pipes hanging from the ceiling. From those pipes, cyanide drifted down from tin canisters. The guide told me most people died either from being trampled by others, or suffocated under the bodies of those actually killed by the gas.
In front of me and to the right were rows and rows of barracks. A bed of pretty flowers adorned the front of a barracks building nearest me. The guide told me the Nazis made prisoners cultivate the flowers to give the camp a pleasant atmosphere. Even a band would play as Jews entered the camp.
“More lies,” she said.
Within each of the barracks were glassed-in displays, demonstrating how meticulous the Nazis were at categorizing and documenting everything. They recorded each Jew who entered the camp, to include when they arrived, their family lineage, ailments, valuables and birth and anniversary dates. Jews were separated from their no-longer-needed eyewear, prosthetics, shoes, wheelchairs, crutches, clothes, suitcases, family heirlooms and much more.
I somberly walked through each building, observing pictures of emaciated prisoners who were now known only to God — until I walked into one particular display room. In that room was a huge glass case filled from floor to ceiling with women’s hair.
The guide explained that the Nazis used and reused many items from the collections they received from the Jews, including the hair they had shaved from the Jewish women who would later be gassed and cremated. They wove the hair into winter coats and other items that provided them warmth and comfort.
I fell to my knees and wept uncontrollably for what felt like an eternity.
Nearly 20 years later, long after the Berlin Wall had fallen, I returned to Auschwitz. I wanted to remember what I had witnessed so many years before. The camp was still there, the museum too, but there was a feeling of cleanliness about it all this time. It didn’t seem as gritty and raw as it had back in 1985.
What I took away from both of those experiences was a deeper understanding of the hatred hardwired into mankind when left unchecked. I wept at the realization of that hatred for others; how it is cultivated and matured in a bed of lies — how sweet the music sounds.
Today marks 76 years since those first Russian soldiers liberated Auschwitz, a moment that would come to represent so much horror and grief to decent human beings around the world that it, and the concentration camps liberated by American and Allied soldiers, would force world leaders to conclude Jews needed their own sovereign nation to truly be free from tyranny.
Today, we remember Auschwitz: not just as a holocaust of unbelievable horror and evil, but also for the incredible sacrifices our diverse American Soldiers made to rid the world of such evil.