So here we stand once again before the gates of Auschwitz. Sixty-five years ago the Russian army liberated this camp. What, we might ask, did they first experience as they approached the gates emblazoned with the unforgettable motif Arbeit Macht Frei?
Contrary to what most people think, the first experience of Auschwitz for the Russians was not the scenes that would later become immortalized in still photographs and film footage. Rather, it was the overpowering stench of death carried in the air as the soldiers approached from ten miles away. When they finally reached the camp gates, the scene of utter desolation could barely be believed, even by hardened soldiers who had survived the Battle of Stalingrad and witnessed its horrific carnage.
Bodies were stacked in places ten feet high; young children, clothed in rags, stumbled from the barracks, emaciated skeletons; Young men and women, some only in their teens, looked aged well beyond their years, haggard, lice infested and covered in grime. The footage that cameraman Alexander Vorontsov and director Irmgard von zur Muhlen, took that afternoon, offered us images that have become indelibly stamped on Western memory. In addition to the utter destitution of the scene, the camera pans across mountains of personal possessions confiscated from the prisoners — nearly half a million suits and dresses and tens of thousands of eyeglasses. The gas chambers, the portable gallows, the warehouse that held countless bags of human hair ( 7.7 tons of it!) and the glare of the silent survivors as they stared unblinking at the camera, were the living reminders of how western civilization had turned on itself.
But the parallel tragedy of the day is often forgotten. Nine days before the liberation, as the Soviets approached the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, Nazi SS officers forced nearly 60,000 inmates to march west. Only 7,000, too sick and enfeebled, remained in the camps.
The death march of the winter of 1945 was the final gift of the Nazis to Western civilization. Although there were many death marches, from most of the concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Treblinka, the Auschwitz Death March is by far the best known and involved the most inmates. The prisoners, were marched toward Wodzisław Śląski (German: Loslau) and were put on freight trains to other camps. Of the 60,000, 15,000 prisoners died, either through summary execution, exposure or exhaustion, their bodies thrown into ditches or left to rot on the road where they fell. They marched in the bitterly cold Polish winter 180 miles in 45 days, with very little to eat or drink and no warmth, sleeping in open fields, barns, warehouses–anywhere they could find shelter along the way. They finally arrived at Camp Hirschberg, near the Czechoslovakian border. Many of the survivors of the march would not be liberated until the very last days of the war.
There is no color film that survives from the day of liberation at Auschwitz. That is perhaps appropriate since color itself, a symbol of vibrancy and life, had become the nemesis of the Nazi operation at Auschwitz. The drabness of the camp, its dank, gray barracks, the colorless prison uniforms and the stark parade grounds represent the Nazi attempt to erase any semblance of normalcy from daily life and convince Auschwitz’s inmates that this new world was the only one they would ever know.
Yet if anything stood in defiance at Auschwitz, it was the resilience of nature itself – the blue of the sky, the green of the nearby forests and the warmth of the sun. Even in the bitterest months of incarceration, the surviving inmates took heart from these reminders that the earth still spun on its axis, that the seasons would still arrive and depart, and that nature, indifferent to Nazi terror, was the one thing that that terrible military machine could not control. This knowledge infused them with the hope that the Nazi regime was itself transient and would one day be swept away by the tide of history.
Such a moment of realization is beautifully captured in a scene from Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl once visited a young woman in Theresienstadt’s infirmary. The young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when Frankl talked to her, she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge:
“I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,” she told me. “In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.” Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, “This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.” Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. “I often talk to this tree,” she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. “Yes.” What did it say to her? She answered, “It said to me, ‘I am here-I am here-I am life, eternal life.”
The will to live, the determination to defy terror and resist evil, takes its inspiration from many sources, but among the most important of them is the sense that human life has purpose and free will is our most important weapon in affirming it. As Frankl himself states, “Everything can be taken from a man but the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We who are blessed with greater freedoms than any other human beings in history, might then wish to use this week’s commemoration to recall that nothing in nature, even a couple of blossoms on a chestnut tree, should be taken for granted. We might want to reinforce the notion that humanity’s course, in defiance of the nihilistic fatalism that dominates so much of our culture, derives from the exercise of our free will. And we might want to remember that how we choose to live our lives, as both individuals and communities, will ultimately determine our collective fate.
Many Holocaust victims learned that the art of survival involves more than just putting bread in your mouth. It also embraces a certain moral world view, one which connects one’s being’s fate to another’s and through love, compassion and caring builds unassailable bonds between them. It is a trait, lest we ever forget, that is distinctly human.