Auschwitz Gate

Auschwitz Gate: "Work Will Make You Free"

WHAT CAN ONE POSSIBLY ADD to all that has been said about Auschwitz?

Children at Auschwitz

Children at Auschwitz

A visitor can say, at least, “I went there, hoping to understand what it was like.” A visit now, of course, is entirely unlike the experience of anyone who was there when Auschwitz I operated as a death camp and Auschwitz II/Birkenau was a concentration (slower death) camp. The sounds are quieted and the smells are disinfected away; the bodies and souls both of the oppressed and their oppressors have gone to their rest (or otherwise); the bewilderment, tension, and agony are dissipated, and a calm pervades the scene where a too-human death machine devoured the bodies and souls of men and women every day in a dozen different ways.

A Gas Chamber

A Nazi Gas Chamber

Xyklon B Port

Zyklon B Port

At one end of the death camp are a gas chamber and crematorium not completely destroyed by the retreating and war-crimes-evidence-obliterating Nazis; the death wall where prisoners were executed by shooting; the gallows; the barracks where they died from starvation and disease; the camp where they were worked to death; the sickening variety of subterranean cells where men were crammed together in varying densities to starve; the medical experiment wards, and more. The camp’s operators and enforcers were dead men too—defiled and gutted creatures who siphoned up brutality from a place lower than they ever could drag the bodies and souls of their victims.

A Reconstructed Crematorium

A Reconstructed Nazi Crematorium

Through the exhibits housed in the camp’s preserved buildings, one is led through a recounting of the horrors, in photographs, maps, objects—but also the spaces themselves. On these floors, the devils stomped and the doomed stumbled and expired; along these paths, the newly dead were carried off by the soon-to-follow.
Who they Killed

Who was Murdered at Auschwitz

Wire-Rimmed Spectacles

Plundered Spectacles

THE WORST—the most jolting sight, rests behind glass in the single spot where photography is absolutely forbidden. Rests, I say, but screams. In billows before us lies the shorn hair of 40,000 persons—most of it the long tresses of women and girls. This is the sum of what remains of their murdered bodies. This is why it is too sacred to photograph: this is an open mass grave, and these locks are the corpses. But something is still more shocking: The Nazis coveted their victims’ hair and robbed them of it because, first, it was useful to them—for manufacturing carpeting, uniforms, and pillows (a sample carpet remnant sits in a display nearby). Second, our guide whispers, “It was cheaper than the hair of sheep.” If there were no hell, it would have to be created to hold this depraved calculation.


Stolen Crutches

Here are thousands of children’s shoes; thousands of shaving brushes; a thousand tangled wire-rimmed spectacles; the crutches, braces and prosthetic limbs of the handicapped; suitcases bearing their owners’ names—all plunder for the eager Nazis, who even kept a census of inmates’ false teeth, to facilitate recovery of the gold from their corpses. One wonders why they waited.
The Thessaloniki Ghetto

Greek Jews Readied for Auschwitz

Today’s walk through Auschwitz is necessarily a journey of the imagination—of the mind, the heart, and the stomach—sparked by the buildings, the collected facts and bridging inferences, and the ghosts all of it conjures up. One can take it in as superficially or as deeply as one may be inclined. A recent article suggests that Auschwitz is becoming a Nazi Disneyland. Some of its younger visitors might resemble Magic Kingdom patrons, but the place itself has not succumbed to theme park superficiality.

Gate of Auschwitz II / Birkenau

Gate at Birkenau

Auschwitz I, the (immediate) death camp, seems unexpectedly small. For a New Yorker, its footprint suggests the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, while Auschwitz II / Birkenau, the concentration camp a short ride away, suggests the vastness of the New York Botanical Garden. There, the gate opens to swallow a train whole. With purposeful deception, the tracks continue as far as the eye can see but, in fact, they come to a dead end not far out of sight.

Birkenau Tracks

Birkenau Tracks

THE MUSEUMS at these Nazi death camps face financial difficulty. Some say, “Let them go; why keep them going; let’s all move on.” God forbid. Duly appreciated or not, these sites are much too important to everyone ever to abandon.

What’s so important? Some say, “We need to learn, and remember and never, ever repeat what was done here. Never again!” Yes—that must be the uncompromising stand against the unspeakable barbarism.

Birkenau Barracks

Barracks at Birkenau

But no education, however determined, can suffice to fulfill that oath. The Bible itself points ahead to atrocities fully as bad as this. Why accept that anything like this ever should be done again? We never can entertain accepting that boiling over of hell, but its extinction cannot be hoped for short of profound, widespread personal transformation.

Auschwitz and its sister death camps must be maintained for the same reason that Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, belongs on more than Jewish calendars. They bear testimony to the largely unacknowledged truth about human nature. They are not just  memorials for the victims, nor are they anti-monuments to the inhumanity of a relatively few monstrous men; they are reminders of the realities of humanity. The Holocaust testifies that what lies within me is as depraved as what drove those monsters. Auschwitz is what happens when people have their way with other people.

The Road of Death

There is one remedy—a very costly one. If I want it, it will cost me everything—but not what it cost God, and far less than I receive in return. ”Our old self was crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Romans 6:6. Paul’s rarely-preached declaration of the promise at the heart of Messiah’s sacrifice underscores that Jesus laid down His life not only to forgive our sins, but to knock the wind out of our old selves—our ruined human nature. If I will not embrace the death of the enemy within my own person, my capacity to emulate the worst brutes of the past is restrained by little more than lack of opportunity, lack of imagination, lack of pressure, and cowardice.

The anger I feel at the thought of 40,000 prison shearings to steal “cheap” raw materials can’t be directed at anyone fruitfully, but it can add conviction to my decision to share Jesus’ death sentence with Him. He was crucified because men wouldn’t tolerate the truth about themselves—or tolerate the One who embodies truth and won’t go away. Unwilling to pass sentence on personal and corporate sin, they did what fallen human nature drives men to do—they killed Him. But behind it all, it was God who delivered Him to death, so that He could nail everything wicked about me to Jesus’ cross with Him. Yes, it’s a profoundly supernatural remedy—and one that education and self-improvement, as important as they truly are, can’t duplicate. Co-crucifixion with Messiah is my charter of liberty—and the only real one.

AUSCHWITZ IS WHAT HAPPENS when people insist on having their own way with other people. Only Calvary trumps Auschwitz.

Suitcases of Auschwitz Victims