Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lifelines 2


I attended a meeting at the Collegium Medicum at the Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland. It is a beautiful city with medieval and renaissance churches and buildings that were spared the damage of two world wars. It is also the city where the astronomer, Copernicus, lived and taught before moving to Frauenberg. The house of his student, Rheticus, still stands across the street from a very fine Museum of the History of Medicine which I visited.

I also visited Auschwitz, an hour’s bus ride to the west of Krakow that passes the Vistula River and beautiful monasteries, churches, and farms until it encounters the coal mines of Silesia a few miles from Oswecim, or Auschwitz, as the Germans called it during their occupation. There were actually three Auschwitz camps. The first consists of about thirty brick buildings that served as an army barracks during World War I. The second, called Birkenau, about a mile away, was built by slave labor. It is much larger and consisted of 300 barracks, most of them wooden, and most of them destroyed by fire as the Nazis left, or they were later stripped of their lumber by local residents to rebuild the surrounding country side after the war. The third Auschwitz is no longer in existence. It was the industrial factory system of German chemical manufacturers (I. G. Farben, especially) and it made synthetic rubber during the war. It was called Morowitz. It continues today as a Polish industrial complex.

The first camp, or Auschwitz I, opened in 1939 and until 1941 it housed mostly Polish intellectuals and others considered threats to the Nazis. They were executed by firing squads and that wall still stands. From 1942 on it began filling with deported Jews and Birkenau or Auschwitz II was built to meet the immense influx of them. Auschwitz I added the first gas chambers and crematoria to dispose of the dead when the stack of bodies exceeded the ground’s capacity for their burial. Birkenau was designed as a death camp with more efficient gas chambers and crematoria.

As I walked from barrack to barrack and saw the displays of shoes, toothbrushes, hair, artificial limbs, and eye glasses looted from the dead, I felt numbed by the capacity of educated middle class cultured people to kill their fellow human beings, stripping them of their humanity as easily as shaving off the hair from their naked bodies. Most painful to contemplate, were the small mountains of children’s clothes and toys. Only 700 children (out of more than a million) survived. Most of the survivors were twins, subjects of medical experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele.

I picked up a few fallen leaves from the trees at Auschwitz I. The trees were planted by the inmates on orders from the Nazi who wished to disguise what was going on in Auschwitz I. There were no trees in Birkenau. It was intended to be quickly dismantled after the war and converted back to farm. I thought it fitting to think of the dead as anonymous as the fallen leaves and as reminders of the capacity of life to find renewal.

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