Auschwitz-Birkenau, an Impossible Subject

I encourage you to begin by reading this first paragraph and then decide to continue or not.  Auschwitz is simply one of the most difficult and delicate subjects.  Traveling to Auschwitz includes a wrestling bout within your conscience.  I need say nothing about the place or what it represents unless of course you’re Mocmud Amedenajad, love the name, hate the guy.  No one I’ve spoken to is neutral on a visit to the “most horrific stage of events” in human history.  A subjective title given by our guide, but one certainly defendable.  I’m not going to go into any of the details of what I saw.  After my visit I spoke to the lady I love to call “my most Jewish of Jewish friends”.  Shelly was raised Orthodox in the 1950’s and is still devoutly Orthodox today.  In return, she calls me Goyam with a flick of her wrist and teaches me many Yiddish words I’ve never heard of.   She and her SO Michael, who BTW is my X client for the Historical Society, have had me to Passover and other high holidays.  An honor for sure, and yes…yes, I’ve tasted that nasty, nasty root they call Passover horse radish.  I called her from Krakow after my visit to Auschwitz to decompress. 


What does this horrific piece of human history have to do with architecture?  Certainly architecture is the physical representation of the power and politics of any time.  The National Socialist architecture of the Nazi era speaks to the hubris of a nation hell bent on grandeur and self-aggrandizement.  That those misguided principles fueled the fervor that sought to eliminate an entire religion of citizens viewed as inferior.  When I asked our guide “how this could happen”, her reply was…”they were just numbers to them, just numbers, that’s all”.  

I believe that to prevent such horrors from occurring in the future we must look at them head on and face them.  That’s not to say there are those that with good reason can not look at such ugliness.  For me, on this trip into Eastern Europe still so dramatically affected by the war, still with living memories, I wanted to confront the devils and give some insight.  Let me simply say I cried and kept muttering, “How could this happen?”  How could this happen to such a people and religion?  How could any civilized state perpetrate such atrocities?  How could individuals assigned to carry out such heinous crimes obey those commands?  How was this even possible?  This is not some Hollywood other worldly alien from another planet.  This was not some wild barbarian state or people or terrorists from Islam.  Germany is the place of Bach and Handel and Hayden and Beethoven.  It’s the place of Kant and Hegel and Goethe!  Germany has maintained a leadership role on the world stage both prior to the first half of the 20th Century and since.  I hate to say it this way, but…”many of my best friends are German”!

I’ve traveled there extensively; I’ve worked with and know many Germans very well.  I got close to German families and friends through my contacts.  Part of my ancestry and many other’s is German or close to it. My family is originally from Alsace Lorraine along the Rhine.  “How could this happen” that such a nation as Germany could could nurture an ideology such as the Nazis!


Very soon this will change from living memories to history.  Today we live on the cusp of Auschwitz and other atrocities of WWII becoming only the distant past, where today we still have living testimony to rely on and exist with.  Only a very short time remains and it will be part of human history that will live to the end of our civilized existence and future generations will ask the same question…”How could this happen?”

How and why does a state derail and what power can the citizens affect?  Of the “many of my best friends are German” group, every one is willing to discuss the holocaust, every one is as appalled as the rest of the world, every one has no idea how it could happen within their system.  The fact is that we must look at this horror straight on and with eyes wide open, understand this is not far afield from the rest of our civilized world and must never happen again.


Today, the mess going on in Syria, or Egypt, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Libya sows the seeds for new atrocities.  If you’ve not seen the Frontline special on Syria Syria Behind the Lines , I encourage you to view it.  It’s another chilling disaster in the making.  The small steps towards that nasty and pervasive brink, teetering on the edge of human decency slowly moves human nature towards the worst of the worst that humans are capable of.  That capacity remains there within us, from the beginning of time to today’s living memory.  To memorialize these unspeakable losses is necessary to prevent them in the future.

Auschwitz is full of flowers, flags, and a huge international monument built at the site of the death of literally over a million victims.  A staggering number, one I’m still unable to wrap my mind around.  The Poles call it the National Museum of the Holocaust.  These monuments placed by Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and all other religions memorialize what happened there with the intent to prevent it from ever happening again.


I have selected photos of the people, the victims and none of the horrific images that you can find all over the internet.  I challenge you to look into these faces and imagine who they are.  They are Shelly’s best friend’s mother’s and father’s, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles.  They are you and me. Simple.  You and me.  

Photos of the people of Auschwitz.

In many photos you’ll see the reflections of the other wall in a huge gallery of inmates.

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2 thoughts on “Auschwitz-Birkenau, an Impossible Subject

  1. Blind obedience paralizes the moral and spiritual man from acting. To question authority and act morally and spiritually is the only antidote.

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