From the platform to the birch forest: retracing victims’ steps at Birkenau

By Alyssa Creamer

Roughly 40 people stood around a bus outside a hotel in Oświęcim, Poland, many solemn and quiet because they had visited the first of two concentration camps—preserved now as museums—the day before. Squinting in the sunlight, they waited for instructions before departing for the second, Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

A small, seemingly offhand comment from the fellowship director sent several people scurrying back to their hotel rooms for a moment: because of what happened on the grounds they’d soon be standing on, he said, most people might prefer to wear closed-toe shoes to sandals.

After a short bus ride, the fellows met Pawel Sawicki of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and his colleague, and separated into two groups. Those with Sawicki were urged to walk swiftly so they could see as much as possible of the site’s 40 square kilometers in the three hours allotted for the visit.

Many visitors walk along paths that led to death for most prisoners accompanied by tour guides who are tested for their historical knowledge as well as their empathy, Sawicki explained. The logic behind the museum’s policy of rigorously testing guides is clear, perhaps especially in Birkenau. The sun may shine on chirping birds and the grass may now grow, but every step touches a past terror, and it is the tour guide’s task to make visitors understand the human side of all this inhumanity.

At the start of the tour, Sawicki told a story he said is emblematic of Nazi logic in the extermination camps. Patients and nurses from a Jewish mental hospital in the Netherlands were transported by train to the area between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. While Sawicki did not provide a specific date, it is likely he was speaking about the Jan. 21, 1943, evacuation of the Jewish mental hospital, Apeldoornse Bos, in Apeldoorn, Holland. The patients were supposed to be taken in trucks to the gas chambers. All was meant to be orderly, but the Nazi’s regimented approach to genocide broke down.

“In this case, Germans had no control over the people,” he said. “Here, the whole system of guards and orders and methods failed, because people did not listen. They were wandering around, because they were crazy.” The nurses were forced to round up their patients and put them on the trucks; many of the caretakers were ultimately gassed with their charges.

The story, Sawicki contends, exemplifies both Nazi cruelty and their dependence on calculated order. Though the patients do not survive, the Nazis experience a brief break down in their mass murder system—a breakdown that, as the rest of the tour showed, was rarely undermined.

For the Nazis, order was enormously important to carrying out murder, and to keep that order, the Nazis devised a number of ways to prevent deportees from becoming aware of the near-certain death that awaited them.


At Birkenau, prisoners walk toward a gas chamber; their calm carefully orchestrated by the Nazis. (Wikimedia Commons)

Jews deported to Birkenau were instructed to bring luggage that met precise size requirements, Sawicki said. The Nazis intended the specificity of those requirements to suggest that a life awaited the deportees. At the same time, the size limitations made the deportees able to bring only their money and most precious valuables, unknowingly making things easier for Nazi plunder.

Once the bags were taken from them, the new arrivals waited on the platform. “Here you can see the moment of selection: the doctor waving his hand and dividing people into two groups,” Sawicki said, pointing to two blurry, blown-up photographs mounted on giant black placards. “Like here, the woman and the baby, they will be sent to their deaths. … Pregnant women, parents with children, old people, disabled people—75, 80 percent of people were sent to their deaths.”

He then pointed to three men in one of the photographs. They were members of the Sonderkommando, Jews charged with the horrifying task of disposing of other Jews’ bodies.

The Nazis determined when the Sonderkommandos would die and based the date of their deaths on their willingness to follow orders. They were allowed to live for a bit longer than many of the camp’s workers for efficiency’s sake. Without people trained to take away the bodies and dispose of them, Nazi efficiency would falter.

In the photograph Sawicki pointed to, the Sonderkommandos wait for the prisoners’ selections to end. Their terrible knowledge set them apart—they shared, in some way, the perspective of those visiting the site decades later. They weren’t allowed to talk to the prisoners, except as occasional translators, Sawicki said.

“But sometimes these people had a chance to talk to a newly arrived and helped them to pass the selection in very indirect ways,” he explained. They’d ask young teens, who would most likely be killed, for their ages, and when they’d reply with their real age of 12 or 13, a Sonderkommando might reply, “no, remember, you’re 16, or 17, or 18.”

“The other way they could help pass selection was much more painful, because it [was] linked with the babies and the parents,” he said. “Always a parent and a small child or baby was sent to a gas chamber to avoid separation. Separation brought stress and emotions, and Germans wanted to avoid panic and such stressful situations. So even if a parent was fit and young, whenever he or she had a baby with them, it was straight to the gas chambers.”

The Sonderkommandos sometimes would tell the parent to give their baby to someone old. “They knew this could at least save one person,” Sawicki said. The survivor would soon learn that their children and loved ones had been sent to the gas chambers. Some committed suicide. Some understood why the Sonderkommandos did what they did. “That was the only way they could be alive,” he said.

Despite how much was happening on the platform to hundreds of people (losing luggage, being sorted, perhaps hearing a clue from the Sonderkommandos) everyone in the photographs displayed at the site seems calm.

In another photograph, an S.S. member seems to argue with an eccentrically dressed and apparently animated deportee. Those waiting in line look on with curiosity; their reactions are little different to a modern crowd gawking as a police officer argues with a vagrant. Their responses suggest that the prisoners did not understand what was to become of them.

“People wouldn’t behave like that if they were aware that in two hours they will be sent to gas chambers,” Sawicki said. “If they had this awareness, then their minds would be preoccupied with completely different thoughts … so thanks to these seemingly unimportant details that the photographers managed to capture, we also can learn something about the state of mind on the platform.”

After looking at these photographs, the fellows followed Sawicki along the path of the group of people marked for immediate extermination—a much larger group than those selected for work. The fellows walked into a forest where Jews and others once waited, not realizing their lives would soon end.

Sawicki told the group that the closest crematorium was hidden from view by a fence. A photograph displayed in the forest shows families sitting in the dappled shade, waiting, apparently calm and unaware of what lay just a few meters away. Outside the crematorium, the Nazis parked an ambulance, emblazoned with the Red Cross.

Beyond the fencing, the Sonderkommandos waited, as they would once again be forced to remove the gassed bodies. Later, Sawicki spoke of the Sonderkommandos’ failed uprising, an act of resistance that left countless dead and one crematorium partially destroyed. The fellows stood close to the preserved ruins of another crematorium. Ashes remain, mixed in the dirt.

On those grounds, I couldn’t protect myself from feeling the enormity of the cruelty. There isn’t a kind of shoe that can make me feel protected from what happened here.

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