Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Obscene Purification

Innocence of holding hands. 
So what then is pollution of the soul? My hand touched the oven of death then tried to stroke my daughters face. Am I tainted and her with me or made pure and blessed with a baptism of faint residue?

In early 1990, just as the Berlin Wall was about to fall, I was among the very first westerners behind the Iron Curtain. My next door neighbor was a refugee from the Solidarity movement of Poland in the early 1980s and we had become both friends and business partners. Using his contacts Jurek and I had been able to get past the heavy security and gain very early access to the untapped potential of black market businesses which had been subsisting beneath the shadow of a communistic hand.

Faun fountain in Glwice
To the locals we came to meet, our arrival was a big affair. We represented the first symbolic ray of hope of a new future and prosperity. Levi jeans, Star Trek, and the Beatles were our commonly shared vision of the world where the Polish people yearning to be free looked to us for omens of good fortune.

Our base of operations was in Gliwice, a city in the Upper Silesia district of Poland. Gliwice was symbolic as the place where Hitler's launched his first attack of World War Two using storm-troopers dressed as Polish soldiers to give him the excuse he needed for war.

After we had been there a week meeting with those whom desired trade and commerce, we took a day off for a specially arranged tour of Auschwitz. Konzentrationslager Auschwitz, as the German's would say, was a special prison camp where extermination of those people unwanted by the state occurred. This camp had been designated the place where the final solution to the Jewish question in Europe would be resolved. One of the secret business owners we had been negotiating with had pulled some strings and got us a private tour of this place of terror and great pain.

"Work will Make you Free" says the gate to the camp
Dressed in somber black we met Ewa, the graduate student from the University of Silesia who had made a deep study of German occupied Poland, having agreed to act as our guide. Only Jurek, Ewa, and I were at the Auschwitz camp that day, the tour being private and the camp closed to tourists. Ewa unlocked the gate and escorted us slowly through offices, work rooms, barracks, gas chambers, crematoria, and processing blocks.

Jews lining up to be "relocated"
At least 1.1 million Jews and over two hundred thousand other people met their deaths in this place. Nazi authorities had targeted groups because of their perceived inferiority for race, political views, ideology, or behavior. People whom today we would call “gay” or “homosexual” were among the first to be led to their deaths as undesirables. Communists and anarchists followed, with Gypsies and Jews close behind.

The ghastly procedure was carried out with incredible efficiency  Trains of humans packed in by the hundreds to cars made for hauling livestock would arrive. All had been told to bring a small kit of goods so that they could be resettled to the newly conquered land or “lebensraum”. Getting out of the trains, SS soldiers would divide those who could work from those to be immediately killed. After working them in starvation conditions or being used for medical experimentation, even those divided out would be sent on to a fateful shower of Zykon B.

Combs stripped from the bodies
From the showers, the bodies of those who had been victims of the gas chamber where removed and their personal effects gathered for reuse by the Reich. Small, black, plastic hair combs by the tens of thousands filled one two-story, basketball court sized building we saw on our tour.

We spent several unbelievably difficult minutes by the ovens where the bodies were burned, stacked and packed remains filling the small space of heat to maximize the energy used to reduce to ash what had only minutes before been human beings.

As I stood there filled with a horrific sense of fascination upon the limits of cruelty possible by my fellow man; I by reflex reached out and touched the oven brick and its open metal arch shaped door. Becoming conscious of what I had done, I jerked my hand away.  I tried to wipe it clean of the feeling of the thing on my pants. There were no remains, or even dust, on my hand as I stared down at it in disbelief of my own action. Ewa, sensing my violent physical reaction to the abominable touch, quickly and mercifully hustled us on to the next monstrous exhibit.
Ovens to remove the evidence

This sense of having become personally involved with the destruction did not soon leave me. Like post-traumatic shock or the death of a family member, my heart was darkened by a force I could not shake. Even the shared bottle of vodka Jurek and I downed could not obliterate the feeling that I had been polluted.

Several weeks later, upon returning to my home, I reached out to touch my young daughter's cheek. Remembering the ovens, I was unable to even place that hand upon her. The idea of sharing that evil, even in so indirect a way caused me to shudder and lose courage.

As time passed and my perspective changed by other events entering my mind and concern, the intensity of the experience faded. Even during the worst of it, I never thought there was anything real to this haunting feeling, but all along I knew it was my own emotions run amok. This knowledge did not provide comfort. Eventually I was able to put the feelings aside.

Challenge hate.
Even now, this memory still occasionally returns to me. The feeling of cold. The smell of death. The cramped intense little space of so much claustrophobic evil. When I hear those deniers of this great sin against humanity, I wonder at how such ideas can even exist in the hearts of men.

Confronting evil, staring in the abyss of what men can do, while jarring and unpleasant has had a profound impact on my conscience  and morality. This many years removed I can say that it has allowed me to become more patient, more tolerant, and more filled with the desire to understand the diversity and beauty of my fellow man.

To those of you who are filled with hate. Who fear the gay, the black, the Jew, the religion unlike your own; I challenge you. Go to such a place of great evil, mediate and return to those you love, if you dare.

No comments:

Post a Comment