Disembarking off a night train from Prague to Krakow on Good Friday, we boarded a tour bus to Auschwitz. The train set us up for this visit. It traversed the same route along which many Czech Jews were sent to their deaths, packed in dirty, unheated railcars. We travelled in relative comfort, in a sleeper, but I was awake most of the night in my uncomfortable bunk, wondering what went on in the minds of those poor people who were lured to their deaths with promises of “relocation.” When the train stopped for long periods at stations en•route and the engines shut down, locking us inside (even going to the washroom was out of the question), I knew it was for our safety; although it added to my discomfort and reinforced the horrible plight of those poor unsuspecting souls, locked•in, never to leave.
The tour bus meandered through pastoral country: small farms, villages, forests bursting into Spring foliage. The narrow but well paved road wove through wartime farmhouses and newer ones with three•car garages; everyone seemed to be growing fruit in their back yards from water fed by the Wisla river that was once fed the ashes of humans incinerated in the Nazi crematoria.
Auschwitz I, the base camp, is small, but packed with the main exhibits: the cells, the torture chambers, the death cells, the “experimentation” rooms, the mock•trial rooms, the wall of death where naked prisoners accused of petty crime were shot or hung. Standing in the mustering yard, it was hard to imagine scantily clad prisoners shivering in the winter for hours until the manual count of inmates was tallied and balanced—this was a twice daily occurrence. One count lasted 19 hours. Auschwitz I also has the sole remaining gas chamber and crematorium, the others, in Birkenau, were destroyed by the Nazis to hide the evidence, just before the camp was liberated by the Russians in 1945.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau (at least five times the size of the first camp), gave me a sense of the scale of the destruction. By the time it opened two years after Auschwitz I, the Nazis had perfected the art of mass extermination. No one entering the camp by train—following arduous journeys from as far as Greece and Norway—knew what was in store for them. I paced the kilometre of the “death walk” where—after “selection” performed by the Nazis—people were sorted out by (a) able•bodied and good for labour, (b) elderly, pregnant or sick, and (c) children, and marched to their fates. Groups (b) and (c) were requested to walk to the end of the camp grounds for well earned “showers.” Photographs show happy women and children, eating, laughing, talking and unknowingly walking along this final stretch to the gas chambers. A solicitous ambulance even follows the newcomers, not carrying emergency supplies for those in need, but the dreaded Zyclon B gas canisters.
The efficiency of the Nazi economic machine was spellbinding: an inexhaustible supply of free labour for the factories, belongings and valuables of the prisoners for resale, gold fillings from the dead for melting down and redistribution to the SS, human hair for making cloth, and human remains for fertilizer. There was no waste, other than for the countless dreams that perished in those infernos. The Devil must have indeed been running wild and free at that time.