Auschwitz I: A Lesson in Honoring Survivors' Stories

We first walked with Noémi through Auschwitz I. Noémi was never a prisoner here, but the tour was invaluable because it gave Noémi reason to voice her concerns about how the story of the Holocaust must be told, and how tour guides must honor Holocaust sites.

07/01/06 8:30 am [on the tour bus]
It’s 8:30 in the morning, July 1, exactly 62 years after Noémi first arrived as a prisoner at Auschwitz. At noon we’ll arrive at Auschwitz I itself ... Noémi will have visited Auschwitz II - Birkenau earlier in the morning with her son Steven and her granddaughter Julia. Noémi wants time to walk through Auschwitz before the rest of the group and the cameras, to mentally prepare. I don't know what to expect. Will Noémi be overcome and cry? Will I?

I had butterflies in my chest. I had heard Noémi tell of her suffering in Auschwitz before and had read her book, and they had moved me deeply. How would I react in Auschwitz I, let along Auschwitz II, the very place where her suffering happened?

11:30 am [outside Auschwitz I]
Sean: This starts the first of my recordings… As I look around I notice there are some shops and restaurants. I think that’s a little tasteless in a place like this. I think I heard it upset Noémi, which is one of the reasons we brought our own lunches here.

12:21 pm
Sean: We walked through the gates of Auschwitz I, under the infamous sign made out of wrought-iron metal. It said “Arbeit Macht Frei,” “Work Makes You Free.” Which, it never did at this camp. There were two rows of barbed wire fences which had been electrified at the time, and there were signs with skull and crossbones on the inside that said, “STOJ,” apparently "STOP."

The tour guides said there is no way to be certain, but the estimate is that 1.5 million Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. 448,000 were taken from Hungary to Auschwitz. 400,000 were murdered. Only 48,000 survivors.

Reflecting on that number, I am so thankful Noémi survived. We walked through several buildings that had been converted to museums housing memorials to the victims, as well as items confiscated from the victims sent to Auschwitz.

12:34 pm
Sean: We walked by a clear urn of human ashes that people had left flowers by. I gave a bow of respect to it. I didn’t take any pictures.

1:08 pm
Sean: One [exhibit] had empty cans of Zyklon B gas behind a glass case, and the other one there was … it was a mountain of human hair behind glass. And they also showed rugs that had been made up human hair. Looking at this I think there are so many characters in the past that have claimed that people were being made slaves of the economy. Well, in this case they were supplying the raw products of the economy. The room with the rug was musty, probably from the smell of the hair …Again I find myself at a loss for words, other than that this seems to be the ultimate in dehumanization … Noémi once said “I want them [students] to see clearly what happens when hatred, prejudice and bigotry go uncontrolled. The result is death, death for whom he hates and he who hates.” This is the proof it that.

"Giftgas!" is German for "Poisonous Gas!" The Nazis put loud warning labels on products designed for mass murder.

Another WWU student on the tour, Ryan Shupe, is a survivor of cancer and has a prosthetic leg. One of the exhibits had mountains of prostheses behind glass. He paused before the sight, shocked. Lynn Stone, who is a special education teacher in the town of Arlington and who is Jewish, broke into tears when she saw piles of Jewish prayer shawls.

Some buildings in Auschwitz I now have been converted to museums dedicated to the different victims of the Holocaust. One, dedicated to the Hungarian victims, listed those victims' names. Among them were the names of many members of Noémi's immediate family and extended family. I read the following from a plate in that museum.

2:01 pm
Sean: “The German occupation of March 19th, 1944, … Jews were marked, crowded into ghettos and collection camps ... at a speed unprecedented in the Holocaust ... In 56 days, 437,000 Jews from the countryside were carried off from Hungary. The crematoria of Auschwitz - Birkenau had never worked with such an intensity as in the summer of 1944, during the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. All of this would never have happened without the collaboration of the Hungarian government … on the other hand, human lives were never so extensively and so effectively saved by diplomats as they were in the Hungarian capital during the winter of 1944-1945. One out of every ten victims of the Holocaust, and every third victim of the annihilation camp in Auschwitz - Birkenau was a Hungarian citizen. More than 500,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1945.

At one point James Lortz, a WWU professor filming the tour, said Noémi was bored with the tour guides’ tour. Outside a building housing a gas chamber in Auschwitz I, we learned Noémi ’s reaction was more than that. The tour guides unemotionally listed facts about the number of people killed in the gas chambers, and claimed the Poles in the surrounding countryside had not smelled the burning ashes, a claim Noémi did not believe. At one point I raised my hand and asked the guides if lives could have been saved if the railways into Auschwitz had been bombed. The tour guide admitted they might have been, and said “It was probably a mistake” to not intervene. Noémi had her hand over her mouth and looked very upset. James Lortz told me that Noémi was tired of being called a “they,” as the tour guides referred to the victims.

2:28 pm
Sean: Noémi said, “For them, this is just a job. They don’t seem to have any feeling. They say it like it is something written in a history book. They don’t ever say they are sorry that it happened.”

Noémi also said the guides did not acknowledge that the Holocaust was “horrible.” Noémi said that while the guides had been speaking, she hadn’t voiced objections because she simply wanted to honor her loved ones, not start a discussion with the guides on how to present the Holocaust. Noémi stayed behind while I and others entered the gas chamber. Noemi's family likely died in a chamber similar to this one.

2:32 pm
Sean: Right now I’m in one of the gas chambers. The tour guides said the Nazis would fit up to 900 people at a time in these, and they tried to get as many people in at a time because more people means more body heat, higher temperature in the room, and when the temperature is higher they need less Zyklon B Gas. It was more economical. [I paused my speech. The echoes of other visitors’ footsteps resound in the gas chamber]. The guides said the crematorium, the original, could burn up to 340 people per day, I think it was. It wasn’t enough, so they had to build another one. This place manufactured death … You can see the holes in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was dropped … there’s a memorial in the center. There are flowers and candles.

I exited the gas chamber.

My mind worked over two deep concerns: Will future generations remember survivors' stories in more than just an abstract sense? Will they honor these places?

Though it pains me to acknowledge it, Noémi and other survivors will not live forever

2:36 pm
Sean: I’m afraid one thing we’re going to be missing as survivors such as Noémi pass on is … it’s going to be more and more that places like this, they become, in a sense, tourist attractions. Of course, many people will be respectful, they will understand in an intellectual sense that something terrible happened here, I’m sure many of them also will have emotional reactions, yet … there are shops around here, some of the tour guides just state facts and statistics matter-of-factly, and I think Noémi is right. They don’t seem to capture the real horror of it. And maybe that’s impossible. Maybe only the survivors could truly understand that horror ... we’re very lucky to be with Noémi. She will be able to give her insight, her understanding of these places.

Writing, initial Web design and photos by Sean DeButts
Copyright © 2006, Sean DeButts