The contrast continues at Auschwitz. Pounded out in wrought iron letters and hanging between posts at the front gate are the cynical words - "Work will set you free."
I walk through the gate and have my first look a Auschwitz. Immediately, I notice the neat orderly rows of brick buildings. They look like dormitories on a college campus.
But Inside, prisoners were kept 3 bodies to a bunk stacked three high. Displays tell the story of what went on here from 1940 to 1945.
Originally, Auschwitz was meant for Polish prisoners. They would be brought here and worked hard until disease or starvation ended life - usually within 5 months.
Latrines where prisoners would often hide
Our guide tells us that names and faces were problematic. The Nazis had an insatiable need to be in control of everything - even those they murdered.
At first they took photos of those who came to the Camps so that they could identify who died. But the Camps were growing quickly and the need to process more bodies made photos impractical. Besides as the body eats away at itself, appearance changes making absolute identification uncertain.
Uncertainty was a threat to Nazi supremacy. So they developed the practice of tattooing numbers. Match the numbers with the record card - Nazi certainty. When Ally troops liberated children in 1945 and asked their names, the children simply pointed to the numbers on their tiny arms or legs. Names no longer mattered.
Somewhere around 1942, the ideology of racial supremacy connected with the efficiency of Concentration Camps and created a mechanism for mass extinction. The Nazis were learning how to handle hundreds of thousands of bodies.
Separate women and children from the men. Get rid of the children first and then the mothers. They have no work value. One of the lasting images is a large display case with little children shoes. My stomach actually gets acid reflux as I spy a clump of baby booties in the mound of remains.
Our guide tells us more about the sorting of human life. With a quick nod, doctors ordered healthier men to the work barracks and sick ones to the hospital and certain death. A jumble of eye glasses, maybe several thousand, are in a display case. I take my glasses off and hold them next to the pile with only glass separating us. I shudder, but not quite silently.
Nazi lust for racial purity lead to many twisted enterprises. Doctors experimented on women in search of an injection that would cause sterilization. Injections had an advantage over gassing. There would be no body refuse to clean up. In this medically clean way, Nazis could rid the world of other undesirables, like Slavic people, after they had taken care of the Jews.
Remains of Baracks
The killing machine expanded. An adjoining Camp known as Birkenau was started. Unlike Auschwitz where people had to walk from a train station into the Camp, at Birkenau, the tracks came in through a narrow gate and spread out across an open field.
After the initial sorting, women and children were promised a shower at one of 4 buildings on the far end of the field. They walked along the train tracks to their death.
I walk the same train tracks from the crematories towards the open gate. I count the railroad ties separating the two. There are over 4,000 withe each tie being a step. How long does it take to walk 4000 steps? How long until life is showered away?
The sun is blazing hot with temperatures more than 90 F. Step by step, a strange image enters my mind. It seems like I am walking along a kind of birthing canal.
Visually I see the opening of the gate. Except this one is in reverse. It starts among the living in the outside world and draws human life into a womb of death.
Birkenau was so efficient. The exact number is unknown, but our guide says about 1.500,000 died here including more than 235,000 children. They say that 95% of all Jews brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau were dead by 1945, the year of my birth.
Slowly I walk the train tracks and count the ties and think about living and dieing.
I remember an Elder from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. He once told me to be careful about too much religion and I would add now, about too much ideology. I dismissed his advice at the time being a bit of a zealot myself, but as years have passed I understand his wisdom.
It seems to me that whenever any group believes that they have unshakable certainty, no good will follow. It matters little if it be the Taliban in Afghanistan condeming moderism or the Christian Radical Right condemning homosexuality. Certainty in a cause breeds intolerance and soon breeds hatred.
Sometimes people are willing to sacrifice freedom and life in order to have their own way enforced. I think it's a kind of lust for control and power. Sure we can wrap many rationalizations around the certainty of our cause and give it a more respectable appearance, but I think it stills eats away at human life.
I want to remain a skeptic. Maybe the horrific legacy of 1945 can be a reminder. There is no good in having it all figured out. Life is a beautiful mystery. Uncertainty always opens space for living freely.
What do you think?