Below is what I wrote following my visit to Auschwitz in December 5, 2014. Due to the upcoming Victory Day marking the 70th year to the victory of the Red Army over Nazism in the course of which Auschwitz was liberated and the recent Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, this appears as the right time to publish.
Visiting Auschwitz is very different than reading about the Holocaust. For one, visiting the physical town of Oświęcim, means that one can make contact with that immense event. In my case, I felt that it allowed me to imagine myself in the position of the victims, to see how they lived and to therefore develop my one own impressions rather than simply adopt blindly interpretations offered by ideological writers. Walking on a ground where the ashes of 1.5 million are buried feels somewhat as walking in a metaphysical reality where the death around is palpable. One realizes that yes, the Holocaust was a physical thing and yes, it did take place, and still one can walk where it happened, experience the trauma left behind and survive. The decades that passed may have slightly dissipated the smog of death but it is still there.
Did we learn anything from that event?
Often people forget that the camps of Auschwitz were not just spaces of extermination but also concentration camps. In other words, prisons where life was ordered in very strict lines, where fences separated one section from another, where tens of people were confined to the same bed, and where a sign stated ‘Sei Ruhig’ (Be Quiet). It was a place where power was practiced against the defenseless. Millions of Jews, Roma and Communist political prisoners were imprisoned there. It was a place where obedience to the set law was the highest goal while the lives of people were meaningless.
“Be Quiet” marked in one of the cabins.
Polish political prisoner
That the guards every day dutifully ordered trains filled with people to disembark and placed them in sections of the camp before they were exterminated should not come as a shock. For the guards who were living in the camp, Auschwitz was the normal, a reality they became accustomed to. How many people today practice immoral things that are encoded in law? How many soldiers obey orders to commit war crimes? People are social animals and as such tend to follow orders and the fear of standing out of the crowd is greater than the courage to rebel when a moral injustice occurs among most. The famous Milgram experiment confirmed this. Few are the brave ones who can rise above the tendency to fit in and dare to separate themselves from the rest. Most humans are weak, and as long as they get paid, and the law says so, they will follow it. “If it legal, it must be ok,” is what people convince themselves.
The view from the watch tower at the entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau
The more one digs into the issue, the more it becomes evident that Auschwitz was not a place where reason did not operate but was where the height of a certain logic was brought into its ultimate expression.
One who visits the area cannot escape but noting the perfect rationality that prevailed everywhere.
The close relationship between the concept of Auschwitz and Capitalism, and between Fascism and Capitalism, has also evaded notice by many liberal westerns who prefer to look at the Holocaust as the irrational event pointing to the ills of ethnic hatred. Victims were not only exterminated but were robbed of the physical things they possessed, their suitcases and belongings, golden teeth, glasses and hair. Western companies were heavily invested in the camps and made significant profits. Many of these companies still operate today and are well known to all of us. People were not viewed as humans worthy of rights but as less-than-humans to be abused. War itself is not only profitable, but the destruction it causes allows for new financial “growth”. Did we create a society where people are given dignity by being first and foremost humans? or does our society look at people based on how much they contribute to the capitalist system?
Human hair of victims
Furthermore, is the corporate defense industry now not heavily invested in wars and in the prison system, and therefore has an interest in this process of dehumanization of the other to continue, while turning a blind eye to the humanity of its innocent victims? People are still entrapped in prisons and in zones of destruction due to the greed of others.
The US corporate-military machine has been waging tens of wars around the world where masses of unrelated people, captured in circumstances beyond their control, are killed. The American prison complex houses millions of prisoners in a judicial system that convicts high numbers of people of color and where justice is an hypocritical concept. People from Latin America who seek entry into the US are detected and imprisoned. The oppressive mechanism of fencing and imprisoning innocent people is very widespread and is accepted as legitimate. The killing of the surplus population continues.
Auschwitz was an event on a momentous scale, traumatic enough to shake us up and make us reconsider what kind of world we want to live in and that humans must be given basic dignity.
Does the killing of those deemed undesirables no longer take place?
Are people no longer confined and segregated based on ethnicity, a force which is beyond their control?
Are companies no longer involved in operations that derive profit from the suffering of humans and which would need this suffering to expand in order to increase profit?
In today’s societies following the law is more important than obeying one’s own human conscience.
I am not sure we learned too much from Auschwitz, thought we try to tell ourselves we did.