OŚWIĘCIM, Poland – It is difficult to grasp the terrible scale of the method used by the Nazi regime to eliminate 1.1 million people between May 1940 and January 1945 on the grounds at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
But, how is someone able to comprehend such a number? How do you measure this amount of human suffering? How do you measure such calculated evil crafted by human hands?
Today, the site, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, rests in memorial to those who were detained and killed there. It measures the tragedy that was the Holocaust in bundles of hair now preserved in a large glass case approximately 30 feet long, 6 feet wide and 12 feet high. It measures the fate of these millions in a pile of glasses, all mashed together in a wiry mass of bent frames and cracked lenses.
U.S. Soldiers with Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division traveled to the museum and memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau throughout the month of September, 2022, to better understand the history of the site, the need to remember the atrocities committed there and the result of inaction.
It is difficult to imagine being separated from a child or family member knowing that it was more than likely they would not survive, said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Clark, first sergeant of Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Infantry Division.
During a curated tour, Soldiers walked in silence past more glass cases. In one, a mountain of shoes appears to rest just as they had been left when their owners untied and removed them after disembarking from the train that forcibly shuttled people into the camp. In another display sat people’s luggage, emblazoned with white paint to identify the owner amassed in a pile that rises to the ceiling. German officers gave people deported to Auschwitz the order to make identifying marks on their belongings to trick them into believing they’d be reunited with their loved ones.
“Showing up, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Clark. “You read about Auschwitz in history books, but going in person and seeing the devastation and the turmoil that people went through there was a very grim yet eye opening experience.”
For many who have visited the site, including Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, it is difficult to grasp the magnitude with which such inhumanity was performed.
“You can’t wrap your head around the concept as a whole,” said Staff Sgt. Philip Borgmann, the training room non-commissioned officer for Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Infantry Division. “It’s too evil. In the room where the baggage was I saw a little tiny display case. There were homemade toys and a jumper that a mother made for her child.”
Perhaps it is best to try and comprehend the history of Auschwitz through the people who lived through it. Those people who were guilty only of existing.
“In less than ten minutes all the fit men had been collected together in a group,” writes Primo Levy in his book “If This is A Man,” remembering the experience of arriving at Auschwitz on a cold night in February 1944. Levi was imprisoned in one of the camps at Auschwitz for 11 months before it was liberated on January 27, 1945. He died many years later in his home in Turin, Italy on April 11, 1987. “What happened to the others, to the women, to the children, to the old men, we could establish neither then nor later: the night swallowed them up, purely and simply.”
In his book, Levy recounts how when he arrived at the camp he and the hundreds who arrived alongside him were immediately stripped of their humanity.
“Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand,” Levi writes. “They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”
“This is hell. Today, in our times, hell must be like this. A huge, empty room: we are tired, standing on our feet, with a tap which drops while we cannot drink the water, and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens and nothing continues to happen. What can one think about? One cannot think anymore it is like being already dead. Someone sits down on the ground. The time passes drop by drop.”
Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division who toured Auschwitz-Birkenau stepped over the same ground that Levi and millions of others walked upon. They went through the first camp as their tour guide paused periodically to discuss the history scratched into the walls of the gas chamber or contained within the bricks of the “death wall” located between blocks number 10 and 11.
“Terror was the most important Nazi tool,” said the groups tour guide.
Often prisoners were instilled with the belief that the only way out was through the chimney of the crematorium. This belief was remembered by people lucky enough to have survived the horrors of the Holocaust, many of whom would recite the belief out loud even years after the camp’s liberation, said the tour guide.
“We got an in person view of history,” said Borgmann. “History that’s often easier to forget than to actually think about.”
The buildings in the museum and memorial are left standing in much the same way as they were found during the camp’s liberation in 1945. The red brick has weathered over the years in a place that feels like a living monument vehemently protected so that generations to come can visit those hallowed grounds where so many drew their final breaths.
“The reason why they haven’t changed things is because it is about directly confronting the reality,” said Borgmann.
In total it is believed that over the course of the Second World War, 960,000 Jews, 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma & Sinti, 15,000 Soviet POWs as well as 15,000 Byelorussians, Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, French, Germans and Austrians were killed inside the Auschwitz camp complex.
Items that were found during the liberation of the camp included approximately 837,000 women's garments, 370,000 men’s suits, 44,000 pairs of shoes and 7,000 kg (about 15,432 lbs) of human hair believed to have belonged to over 140,000 people. In the three main camps and the 500 sub camps connected to Auschwitz, 7,000 prisoners were found still alive when the camp was liberated. Among them were discovered around 600 corpses.
While introducing Levi’s first book, Howard Jacobson, a Booker Prize-winning writer and journalist, writes the following;
“The danger, as time goes by, is that we will tire of hearing about the Holocaust, grow not only weary but disbelieving, and that out of fatigue and ignorance more than cynicism, we will belittle and by stages finally deny – actively or by default –the horror of the exterminations camps and the witness, by then so many fading memories, of those who experienced them. The obligation to remember is inscribed on every Holocaust memorial, but even the words ‘Never Forget’ become irksome eventually.”
“In a terrible dream which he discovers he shares with fellow inmates,” Jacobson continues in his introduction, “Levi is back home telling people of his experiences, but they are ‘completely indifferent…speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there.’ Here is the dread to end dreads – ‘the ever-repeated scene of the un-listened to story.’”
As they walked through the cobbled streets, now eroded from the masses that had once passed through the camp, 1st Infantry Division Soldiers were able to better understand the plight of those who came through the gates of Auschwitz. In doing so, they were reminded of a part of history as it was.
They toured the halls of the museum and viewed display cases filled with people’s personal belongings and the expended gas canisters that were used to slay millions. They walked up and down the staircases that had been shaved down and molded from all the feet that ascended and descended them in droves numerous times on a daily basis. They walked through the dungeons in the basements of the block houses that housed people in overly cramped quarters and where the business of mass murder was conducted.
“Any U.S. Soldier in Europe should see it,” said Borgmann. “They need to see it.”