Revisiting Auschwitz

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published February 23, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

On an average day in 2010, nearly 3,800 people visited Auschwitz, up from about 1,200 a day in the year 2000.

Such numbers jar me, since my vivid recollection of my own life-changing visit, in 1973, is that in addition to the 42 folks I was traveling with, there were no more than a hundred or so others milling about. The reality of Auschwitz as a tourist attraction is less than implausible; it is disruptive.

We learn the current numbers from Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, who is quoted extensively in a February 18 New York Times article that reports on plans to change the visitor’s experience, to enrich and deepen it. As Cywinski puts it, “It’s not enough to cry. Empathy is noble, but it’s not enough.”

We cried. We sobbed, we wept, we clung to each other for support. Before the war, Auschwitz I had been a Polish army barracks, two-story red brick buildings, not unattractive. Now in each there was one of what have by now become iconic exhibits, glass cases filled with shoes, with human hair, with prostheses, with suitcases, with brushes of every kind, with eyeglasses — and here, among the shoes, a wooden shoe, and suddenly a world is conjured, a Dutch woman, and there, amidst the hair, an intricate blond braid, personhood preserved. And rack upon rack of tallesim, prayer shawls. Enough to prompt the tears.

And then, a space between the barracks, a free-standing wall, “the wall of death,” where, so we were told, prisoners, mainly intellectuals from Krakow, were shot, the crisper path to death than the gas chambers and crematoria. And only then, yet another barrack, yet another glass-encased exhibit, this time on the second floor, a glass case of modest proportion, coffee-table shape and size, and beneath the glass: babies’ pacifiers.

It was not until 1991, in a speech by then senator Bill Bradley, that I learned of what Richard Wright, the author of “Native Son,” had observed about that book some years after it was published: “I found that I had written a book that even the banker’s daughter could read and weep over and feel good about. I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

But some sense of that was with us on that drizzly day at Auschwitz, for the tears stopped when our guide told us that the “Jewish Pavilion” was closed for repairs, anger displacing sorrow. We insisted and he finally went off to fetch the key to a building as unprepossessing outside as in, the shabbiest room we’d been in, dusty, non-descript exhibits, too dilapidated to evoke desolation — until, off in the corner, we came upon a cheap copy of Picasso’s “Guernica,” and were powerfully reminded of the larger context, of cruelty and violence as constants in the human/inhuman saga. Yet the artist’s reminder served somehow to enhance the authenticity of the place. For above all else, Auschwitz, perhaps more than any other place on Earth, embodies authenticity. No masks or disguises, no rhetorical flourishes, no formulaic consolation or comfort. There is no comfort. Auschwitz is not a symbol; it is a cemetery.

But it is now 66 years since Auschwitz was liberated, and new generations must be helped to find their own way into learning what happened there and why such learning matters. That is what the new plans, supported by Poland, Germany, Austria and the United States are meant to accomplish. Piotr Cywinski is just 39 years old, yet the memory and the lessons that need learning seem safe in his hands. This is what he says: “More or less eight to ten million people go to such exhibitions around the world today, they cry, they ask why people didn’t react more at the time, why there were so few righteous, then they go home, see genocide on television and don’t move a finger. They don’t ask themselves why they are not righteous themselves.”

That is not an easy question for us to ask ourselves. Nor is it only genocide that ought prompt such questions. The experience of Auschwitz itself, as also the trail of tears that preceded the arrivals and the disposition of the people after the slaughter were all elements in a program of dehumanization that became quite routine.

While the Shoah belongs to us, the Jews, we do not own it (nor must we allow it to own us). It remains fundamentally incomprehensible, though all the scholarship and the memoirs and the testimonials and the museums are gifts of inestimable value. We can study and we can learn, but in the end all that we can know for certain is that the battle against dehumanization must be waged every day, everywhere.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.