No one could have imagined Holocaust terror
By Harriet P. Gross

Weeks ago, I promised more about my end-time in Poland, which was Warsaw. But before I write that, I want to share some other, vivid memories of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
I’ve complained that visiting Auschwitz was like touring a museum. But — why shouldn’t that be? It became one, officially, in 1947, and is now filled with statistics and visuals. Visitors must conjure up for themselves the horrors of starvation, suffocation, death.
Our little group walked single-file behind a guide, looking like prisoners ourselves, as he showed us Block 4’s symbolic urn of ashes, told us that 728 Poles who arrived in mid-June of 1940 actually had to buy tickets to ride on the train that brought them to this hellish place, noted that the two tons of human hair — so dull and dry — were taken from 50,000 prisoners 70 years ago, and the shoes — likewise behind glass — represented only 80,000 of the 200,000 youngsters under 14 who came here and of whom only a handful survived.
We saw the homely items so dutifully packed by the camp’s inmates for the journey that ended at an entry gate promising freedom through work: pots and pans, shaving mugs and brushes, prayer shawls; and the sad, battered suitcases into which these pitiful remnants of a previous life had been crammed, with the family names — familiar names, Jewish names — lettered on their outsides, still legible after all this time.
How could they have known? Or, perhaps, how could they not have known? The questions are still alive here where the people are not, whispered by the walls of the infamous Block of Death, by the concrete killing yard where straw soaked up the blood of those who were shot in groups that included young children, by stables built for 52 horses into which at least 400 people were shelved like cheap merchandise.
Birkenau is only a short distance away. Here, the first gas chambers and crematoria were built. Here stand a guardhouse, an observation tower, a gallows. And here is the sweet little house, behind a thicket of beautiful birch trees, where Rudolf Hess lived with his wife and five children — until, in April of 1947, he was hanged on that same gallows himself. Was the sky as blue on that day as on the day of our visit? Were the same puffy white clouds drifting lazily by? Was there a raven cawing, like the one we saw and heard, looking and sounding like death? Maybe it was channeling the poet’s “Nevermore.”
Soon after my return, a friend sent me a page torn from the book section of a weekend Wall Street Journal. Its lead piece reviewed the massive, three-volume history titled “The Jews in Poland and Russia” by Antony Polonsky.
The review was massive in itself, centered by a large image of a schoolroom crowded with boys studying Talmud with their melamad (teacher), hatted and bearded, sitting among them. The photo was taken in 1937 in a place now part of Ukraine. The caption tells us that all the Jews of this place, once a center of Hasidism, were rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz soon after Passover 1944.
Polonsky explains, as an academic historian, how this came to happen: The areas we now know as Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine had received Jews expelled from western and central Europe beginning as far back as 1300, and here developed the shtetl, described as “a private town owned by a Polish nobleman, distant from royal authority, with a Jewish-majority population generally permitted to manage its own affairs.” But later, much of this area came under Russian rule, with pogroms and persecutions following. Then Poland was invaded in 1939 and the Soviet Union in 1941 and, as a consequence, seven million Jews finally found themselves living in an area under the sole control of Nazi Germany.
Polonsky’s reviewer, Timothy Snyder, concludes, “After 2,500 pages, our sense of Jewish life is vivid, deep and rich. The world that is lost is real. We understand Jewish responses to the Holocaust better because we understand the world before the Holocaust. In Mr. Polonsky’s telling, the Holocaust is not part of any historical logic, no lesson that Jews had to learn. Its bottomless reality is worse and truer than any story that can be told about it.”
So, a historian is able make chronological sense of how the pre-Holocaust world set up, perhaps inevitably, the Holocaust itself. But, Auschwitz and Birkenau? Who can make any sense at all of them?

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