You might have seen the movie The Bucket List. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, playing two terminally ill men, escape from a cancer ward and embark on a road trip with a wish list of things they want to do before they die.
Many people have their own version of this. One of the places on my list was the Nazi camp at Austzwich, situated about 80 kilometers outside Krakow in the southwest corner of Poland.
Krakow is a fairly typical eastern European city. Beautiful old buildings sit alongside grey, utilitarian communist architecture. We visited the remarkable salt mines, the oldest commercial business in Poland, in operation for over 900 years. For centuries salt provided the only means of preserving food – and was a hugely valuable commodity. The tour of the mines (not for the faint hearted- especially the lift to get out) was educational and upbeat.
On Saturday morning we went to Auschwitz. During the bus journey, a video was shown explaining the conditions for people who were imprisoned there. I was reasonably familiar with the story based on a lot of reading about the camp. Arguably, the atrocities that took place in Austzwich (somewhere between 1.1 and 1.6 million people were murdered) represent a low point in human history. No amount of reading prepares you for the physical impact of the place. Among a plethora of almost indescribable horrors the following stood out:
1. The illusion of re-settlement was maintained to lower resistance. In a particularly grotesque example this, some Jewish people who were re-settled actually paid for their train tickets to Austzwich. They then spent up to 2 weeks travelling like animals in packed rail cars — journeying from as far away as Greece and Sweden.
2. The new arrivals put their names and addresses on suitcases in order to ‘re-claim’ them following the showers (75% of incoming people were immediately sent to the gas chambers). The illusion continued right up to the moment of death, with false showerheads installed in the gas chambers to simulate real fittings.
3. The people who were selected to work lived in the most appalling conditions. Freezing cold in the winter, working long shifts at a run, sleeping on straw with the most primitive sanitary conditions imaginable. No soap, no toilet paper. Even the time allowed in the toilets was restricted due to massive overcrowding.
4. The average survival time for people selected for the work detail was 2 months for women and just under 6 months for men. Some died after just a couple of days in the camp. Many just lost the will to live in this sub-human place (read ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Victor Frankl for a brilliant explanation of this).
5. The museum had mountains of human hair, shaved from the woman prisoner’s heads. The hair was bagged, sent to Germany and subsequently weaved into cloth for use in military uniforms. Alongside this, thousands of children’s shoes were randomly piled together in a poignant display of human evil.
6. Within segregation areas in Auschwitz 1 (the original camp) criminal medical procedures were conducted on adults and children, including the mass sterilization of Jewish women (who were then murdered in order for autopsies to be performed). This was also the site where the notorious experiments on sets of twins by Dr. Josef Mengele were conducted.
No one spoke as we walked past the exhibits. We were in collective shock. At the early part of the tour I had started to take photographs. As we moved through the camp and the sadness deepened, I stopped, feeling an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism. Before Soviet soldiers liberated the camp (January 27th 1945), the Nazis had destroyed the main gas chambers and much of the camp infrastructure. But the sheer scale of the place (100,000+ people were there at any one time) ensured that much of the evidence survived. What is left has been masterfully arranged into a museum of human depravity – so that the world should never forget.
The camp was not in any way commercial. While there were some books and photos for sale, this was extremely low key. There were no ‘high-tech’ reenactments, no ‘days in the life’. The camp, in all its dreary bleakness, stands as a stark reminder of human potential for destructiveness. It doesn’t need any enhancements.
Reflections: Firstly, I was sorry that I did not have my kids with me (the place is not suitable for younger children). Secondly, it struck me just how lucky we are in Ireland, never having been involved in a world war. Despite all our moaning about the fall of the Celtic Tiger and the five sorrowful mysteries which accompany this, we still have great relative wealth.
The visit to Austzwich to ‘tick a box’ ended up as a profound emotional experience. Some people will feel that they are coping with enough stresses in their own life not to deliberately take on a depressing pilgrimage like this. But it was ultimately uplifting – to know that this horror was so far beyond the pale, that it has been preserved as a monument to human evil. In the short-term, it has certainly had an impact on me. The self-talk is ‘just stop moaning and get on with it’. No doubt it will wear off over time. I will be back moaning with the best, yet perhaps with a little less angst about minnow issues.
Organization Lesson: Is there an organization lesson in all of the above? I think there is – albeit hardly comparable in terms of impact. If you see something that is blatantly wrong where you work, you have to have the courage to call time on this. Regardless of the source. As Edmund Burke reminded us: “The only thing needed for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing”.
Paul Mooney PhD.