My visit to Auschwitz

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I didn’t believe the Auschwitz tour guide when he answered my question.

Sure he pointed out the gas chambers and the summer camp like dorms where prisoners from all over German occupied Europe slept. He pointed to the wall where people were lined up and shot to death, execution style. This tour of a house of horrors never seemed to end.

The guide noted the piles of human hair behind the glass windows. He pointed to the canisters of Zyklon B stacked further on. He let visitors draw their own conclusions about the cases of eyeglasses. He didn’t dispute the numbers of Jews and others who died in this most notorious of all concentration camps of World War II.

I’ll never forget the photographs on the walls of young girls and boys in prison uniforms, such sweet faces, so doomed.

It’s been seventy years this week since Soviet soldiers liberated the Auschwitz camps. I still can’t erase the images of my visit years later. News stories of the anniversary ended up buried on the inside page of my old newspaper. Not a big news story I guess.

A million victims? Just at this one camp? Yes, our guide conceded. Maybe more. Of course, it was a fraction of those six million Jews the Nazis killed within a few years in the 1940s. The Nazis had designed an efficient means of murdering lots of people in a short time.

What the guide wouldn’t admit was this. He insisted the Polish citizens who lived in houses scattered throughout the countryside around the death camp didn’t know the Nazis were committing mass murder behind the acres of high barbed wire fences that lined the camp.

That denial I couldn’t believe. I pressed him on the question. He stuck to his story.

The heavy smoke from chimneys littered with strange debris? Nobody wondered? The box cars unloading hundreds of men, women and children on a daily basis yet empty box cars leaving Auschwitz almost daily. Nobody wondered what happened to them inside the camp that there always was room for hundreds more with the next arrival of prisoners?

It was in the early 1990s I had joined a group of journalists and spouses on a National Conference of Editorial Writers tour of Eastern Europe. My group boarded a train in Warsaw to visit the infamous death camp. Some spouses, including my wife Toni, chose to skip that tour and instead visit museums in the Polish capital. I understood.

Auschwitz was an ordeal. I admit it. It wasn’t just our tour guide. So what if he wanted to sanitize wartime prejudices of the locals half century later? He led us on a tour of one of the gas chambers. Just trying to imagine hundreds of naked people herded into these rooms with poisonous clouds of gas filling the room made it surreal.

No wonder allied leaders doubted the stories European refugees were telling them. Beyond belief. So they never seriously considered bombing the camps.

Still, thank goodness, the memory of the Holocaust survives. Very few of those liberated Auschwitz prisoners are still living. But the museums dedicated to the premise “Never forget” can be visited in cities throughout the United States and Europe. Yes, even in Poland.

When I was a graduate student in Cincinnati in the 1960s, I spent an afternoon at a downtown theater that showed graphic black and white film of Europe’s death camps. Years later at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York, I heard Elie Wiesel tell his story, captured in his book, “Night.” Toni and I took our granddaughters on a visit to a museum in Los Angeles. The year we lived in Washington, D.C., we visited the museum there.

Perhaps most memorable for me was Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I spent a hour or two at that Holocaust museum. As our group of American journalists filed out, we crowded into waiting taxis. Somebody gave our driver the name of our hotel. Otherwise, nobody felt like talking. The visit to the museum said it all.

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