Our class spent a long weekend in Poland recently, and part of the trip was a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was a very cold, very wet day, and a very powerful experience. We had just read Taduesz Borowski’s account of his time in Auschwitz during the Second World War. Borowski was a Pole who arrived just after the decision was made to stop sending non-Jews immediately to the gas chambers. He survived the war, but was deeply affected by the horrors he witnessed and was made to participate in, and he committed suicide in 1951. His account is very stark; his Auschwitz is a cruel, crooked place with its own economy and social structure, where strength takes the form of ruthless self-preservation.
So there was life in Auschwitz, devastating as it was. But there was also much, awful death. One of the more affecting exhibits was a display of women’s hair that had been cut off after the women had been gased. The hair was collected and woven into fabric that was made into blankets and uniforms that clothed the Nazi army. Our guide told us that the Nazis also had plans to build a fertilizer factory to make use of the ashes from the crematoria, which were otherwise used to level uneven ground and fill ponds. What efficient engineering! What thrift! And what horror, to take human beings and sacrifice them to base utility.
I had always sort of thought that the persecution of the Jews was just a pretense for seizing power in Europe. But we learned at Birkenau that as the Red Army approached from the East, the Nazis used resources that might have been used to fight the Soviets to ramp up the killing in the death camp, convinced it was their duty. In so many ways—the medical experiments, the fertilizer and uniforms, the confiscation of gold—morality was suspended in deference to utility. But there it was, a moral mandate: kill every one, even in the face of defeat. “But this is a monstrous lie, a grotesque lie, like the whole camp, like the whole world.”