Nathan Gray: Efficiently Engineered Ruthlessness
Efficiently Engineered Ruthlessness
By Nathan Hoturoa Gray
"No one should ever have to be put through such a debased level of existence...the fact that it still occurs on the planet is a disgrace to our species. The only one ever known to imprison, torture, and then kill its own. We are no better than dogs. No, I take it back. They are far superior."
The Polish town of Oswiecim, about 60 km west of Krakow, may be unfamiliar to most foreigners, but its German name - Auschwitz - is not. Strolling like a typical curious tourist to the entry gate, it looks like any old picturesque village. A host of brick buildings, lined up in tidy suburban rows like any old retirement village. It could so easily be Pleasantville. Something however doesn't feel quite right.
Upon entering the barbed wire fence, the gate clangs behind with a sense of eternal entrapment. Grey clouds lurk ominously above the cold brick buildings. Upon entering the first warehouse of this haunted museum, the gigantic storehouse is filled almost to the brim with rotting shoes, glasses, combs, tooth-brushes, suitcases and clothing. Alongside the festering storage pits lie the squalid, almost death inspiring living conditions that the prisoners had to endure. Crammed into wooden bunks like sardines this was a luxury compared with the physically tormenting work conditions placed upon the Nazi's slaves starting at 3am with only a piece of bread to sustain them each day at 10am. (The worker 'turnover' was calculated at three months to ensure the camps remained at full capacity.)
Out in the green fields behind the brick buildings lies a giant grey bunker. The gas chambers. Metal pipes line the concrete room that reeks of desperate screams and annihilation. After their shower the limbs of the suffocated bodies were first untangled and then haplessly hurled into the fire kiln in the aligning chamber to make room for the next human installment.
However, it doesn't come when you look at the implements of torturous horror. It doesn't come when you smell the pungent aroma of death at the firing wall... And it doesn't come when you see the mountains of shoes or enter the gas chamber. My soul was shaken when I least expected.
A wave of morose emotion consumes me as I round the corner of yet another human warehouse. It's as if one of the spirits of these tormented souls was still wandering the grounds, and I had unwittingly crossed its path. Another wave hits me as I walk the pathway to the firing wall, just trying to comprehend what the doomed must have been thinking. I find myself quickly thinking to the uplifting conclusion to Benito's film, ' Life is beautiful', if anything to just protect me.
In every building, the corridors are littered with the pictures of hapless victims. They all look out as you pass, expressions of terror and anguish cemented in their eyes. So many faces. So many corridors. This for me was perhaps the most disconcerting. Few of the prisoners actually looked straight into the camera, (and hence straight at you). Perhaps they were told by the photographer to look at a spot just above the lens line. Perhaps they were too afraid to look straight at the lens. I notice two faces that look straight back at my prolonged stare. After returning to the first, I realise that the two were brothers. Strong family, I can only imagine.
Everyone has their own individual impression of this world. Many find the place too surreal to fully comprehend, this alien reality simply unfathomable to the imaginations of our present generation. Israeli visitors were mortified. American tourists were hushed, and even a group of English and Italian boy-scouts walked round in respectful silence. An Australian I met quite liked the place given the fact he made a few friends to travel with on the way. Despite the horror on display, it was definitely the people that came to visit that interested me the most. Few could actually look each other in the eye, and if they did, it was only for brief fleeting glances. It wasn't as if we were ashamed to show our emotion. No, it was more that what we were witnessing, feeling; the absolute genocidal atrocity that a species of human can inflict upon another, that made everyone feel so uneasy. No one could trust anyone. The paranoia was all pervasive.
After the visit to the camp, and waiting for my train to go to the Czech Republic I am inconveniently told by the border guards at 1 am to get out of the train and jump into the next one that crosses the border. A young American traveler calls out to the host of weary tourists that wait. "Don't worry guys, if it had been 65 years ago , you'd be on the connection to Auschwitz."
But it was Birkenhoff, the neighbouring camp, (portrayed in Spielberg's Schindler's List), that a holocaust victim didn't want to get transported. Just the immense size of this place, a capacity of 200,000 prisoners, simply blows the mind. The train tracks are built right to the gas chambers themselves. Last stop termination zone. This was ruthless Nazi efficiency at its very, very best.
On the right hand side lay a barbed wire fence and a bleak dusty road that led to the gas chambers - on the left the prisoner accommodation. It must have been strange getting off that train during that hideous era. I wonder if, during those ugly years, the word had got out, that if you were on the left-hand side of the terminal upon arrival, you would have yourself a cabin, but on the right, well, that was it...
Shaken and stirred