70 years ago today the survivors of Auschwitz were liberated.
I first visited Auschwitz in the spring of 2001 while a student at the National War College. There are many things about this place that are forever etched into my memory, but there are two that stand out above the others.
The first is what I noticed as we walked along the gravel streets in the camp. As we walked, I could not keep from noticing small white pieces of what looked like very tiny stones that were in the gravel of the streets and in the dirt where their was not any grass. I asked our Polish tour guide what kind of stone or rock this was. She informed me that the white objects that I saw in the gravel and in the dirt were actually small fragments of bone – human bone. She said that these small pieces of bone were carried by the smoke of the crematories that were used to burn the bodies and that the entire countryside for many, many miles around are still today covered with them.
The second thing that stands out to me and I can see it as clearly today as I did when I visited there almost 14 years ago, is of going down inside of one of the few remaining “death chambers” where they gassed and killed thousands and thousands of innocent people. It was not a very large room. Maybe 20×50 feet? The German guards would cram several hundred men, women, and children, all totally naked, in this small place. They then would lock and seal the door and then would drop down gas canisters through a pipe from on top of the building. In the ceiling there was a screen that covered the hole. This would let the gas come out and down on the people below. As we walked through, I could almost hear the screams of the people. How terrible it must have been.
At the end of the gas chamber, there was another set of doors which led to a room that contained three furnaces. This is where they burned the bodies. The floor, ceiling, and the walls were covered in thick black soot. This made the room very, very dark. When I entered the room I immediately noticed a terrible odor. It was the smell of burning flesh. I could not believe that after this many years it still smelled this way. The doors to each of the three furnaces were open and inside each of them was a lighted candle and a small flower arrangement. Our guide told us that people come each day to bring new flowers and to replace and light new candles.
There are many other things that I remember from my visit – the room full of women’s hair, the children’s toys and clothes, the ceiling high stack of dentures, the wall where they shot thousands of Polish political prisoners, but when I heard on the news today that it was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, my first thoughts were of the small pieces of bone in the gravel walkways and of the gas chamber.
This is such an awful place but I wish every American could go to Poland and visit Auschwitz and see what evil really looks like. I fear that we may be forgetting. It has been said that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. The world watched while Hitler rose to power and chose to do nothing, and 6 million Jews were slaughtered in places like Auschwitz. I pray that it will never happen again.