Sunday, February 06, 2005

What image scares me

I was reading Erica's post and was reminded of a TV news item about the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Mind you, I only heard about this when I was flipping through the TV channels in order. I saw a picture on one of the Spanish-language channels and instantly thought, "that looks like Birkenau. What a creepy thing to show a picture that looks so much like Birkenau." I was surprised that a straight-forward brick gatehouse would be instantly recognizable to me on television when the only other time I had ever seen it was one day eight years ago.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the most infamous concentration camp complex built by the Nazis, and estimates place deaths there during WWII at 1-1.5 million. The site now is a protected historical landmark, which is a good thing: I visited one concentration camp where the Nazis did their best to cover their tracks; the site was found because of eyewitness accounts of people who escaped.

But making a site of murder into a place to visit is an odd proposition at best. If you have an odd fascination, or a morbid curiosity to get out of your system, visit the Auschwitz part of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There you'll find the signs and exhibits you'd expect from a historical museum: a pile of shoes, a pile of hair, signs with dates of events, a plaque stating what this or that building was used for. Afterwards, you can eat a muted lunch at the picnic tables while the kids to young to understand play tag.

If you want a first-hand feel of the scope, the history, and the passage of time, go to the Birkenau part of the complex, preferably with someone who was interred there who is actually willing to talk about his past (an inevitably dwindling group of people). It is large. There is no plexiglas in front of the furniture. Half was preserved, reconstructed here and there to fill in blanks, and half is in ruins. Cramped wooden bunks are still intact, the buildings still stained and painted on the outside in dark brown. Grass is growing over the train tracks where the cattle cars ran. One of the caved-in gas chambers is now a muddy, stone-strewn morass. Half of it is neatly kept so that you understand, and the worst is left to the decay it deserves.

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