Saturday, August 9, 2014


A week ago today, I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau for the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the liquidation of the Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp).

On August 2nd and 3rd, 1944, 1,200 Sinti and Roma, mostly women, children, the sick, and the elderly, were gassed and cremated in Crematorium V. Historians still do not know why the Nazis decided to remove the Sinti and Roma from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some have argued that the Germans needed more space for the masses of Hungarian Jews arriving in the camp daily. Others attribute the decision to whim.

Although we may never know what moved the Nazis to kill the Sinti and Roma inmates at Auschwitz, we do know why the "gypsies" were there. They were criminals according to Nazi racial ideology. To be born a "gypsy" was to be born a thief, a swindler, a crook. Criminality was in their blood, a inescapable genetic fatalism.

I intended to write a long post about Auschwitz. I experienced so much last Saturday that it's hard not to, but I can't seem to find the words to describe my time in the camp. It is a place that must be felt.

I do, however, have one story.

The commemoration lasted for two hours last Saturday. It was hot that day, and few clouds gave little relief from the blazing sun. Because space was limited in the shaded areas of the compound, we, the younger delegates at the ceremony, had to sit in an open field, where the sun beat down on us mercilessly. After the official ceremony had ended, the majority of us were herded to the site of Crematorium V where a short vigil was held for the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

A small cluster of trees hides Crematorium V from the rest of the camp. The trees are tall and their branches wide forming a canopy. Beneath this leafed roof, we, those reddened by the sun, finally had a respite from its rays. Some students even slouched against the trees in the forest. The day had taken an emotional and physical toll, and the shade of the trees had offered needed relief.

I later learned that the victims of Crematorium V would wait in the same clump of trees prior to being slaughtered. In that moment, it crossed my mind that on a hot summer's day in 1944, Jewish men, women, and children, wary from their travels in cramped cattle cars, must have enjoyed the shade, too.

One hopes that Auschwitz would feel uncanny--that the barracks and the crematoria would be unsettling and strange. It's easier to digest evil when it's doesn't feel so... human. A forest isn't unusual. Neither is a barbed wire fence. Even the gas chambers are just piles of brick now. There is very little in Auschwitz-Birkenau today that I haven't seen before.

And it is this, the presence of the everyday in a place as horrible as Auschwitz, which is so haunting.

I found this photo on another blog today. These are the woods around Crematorium V. In the picture you can also see another photo of Jewish arrivals standing in the same woods in May 1944.They all perished in the gas chambers.

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