My first visit to Auschwitz

Auschwitz — What do you get when you add confusion to confusion? I definitely don’t think you get anything but more confusion.My first visit at Auschwitz leaves me still wondering how human beings are able to do evil and, not just for a short time or as a quick mistake, but for a sustained and deliberate period of time.Let me begin with what I thought the place would look like.
A solemn moment as Eugene Kwibuka(R) and two other journalism students looked at  photographs of victims killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Photo by Suzanne Rozdeba)
A solemn moment as Eugene Kwibuka(R) and two other journalism students looked at photographs of victims killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Photo by Suzanne Rozdeba)

Auschwitz — What do you get when you add confusion to confusion? I definitely don’t think you get anything but more confusion.

My first visit at Auschwitz leaves me still wondering how human beings are able to do evil and, not just for a short time or as a quick mistake, but for a sustained and deliberate period of time.

Let me begin with what I thought the place would look like.

Based on where I’m from – Rwanda – I had a mental picture of Auschwitz in my head. I figured it was a place where you could see remains of the victims and the sophisticated machinery that was used to kill them.

And having spent a night in the nearby Polish town of Oświęcim prior to the visit of the memorial, I was able to learn some more interesting things.

Before going to the death camp, I spent time speaking with people in the town square and visiting the last remaining synagogue, The Auschwitz Jewish Center.

I learned that it wasn’t only Jews killed at Auschwitz. A quick chat with four young Poles who were having a beer in a bar opposite Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oswiecim, informed me they would like the world to know that Poles were also killed during German occupation in 1939.

I lost many relatives during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and visiting genocide memorials and reflecting on what happened, is something usual for me.

I was also planning to check if there were similarities with what I already saw in genocide memorials back home in Rwanda and what I would see at Auschwitz.

How, for instance, did the Auschwitz State Museum handle victims’ remains? This would at least be some good food for my brain as I follow an ongoing debate in Rwanda on whether it is ethical to display some remains of lovely ones for museum purposes instead of burying them somewhere they can rest in peace.

I felt comfortable as we started our tour with other journalism students and I gradually noticed each of us was touched in a unique way by what we saw.

We started at the gate of the site which holds Germany words “Arbeit Macht Frei” and our guide said the words mean: “work will set you free.”

It didn’t sound new for me since murderers during Rwanda’s genocide would call their activities to kill Tutsis the word, “gukora” which means to work.

Therefore people in Rwanda would be sensitized on radio stations during the genocide to wake up and go for ‘work’.

“Aushwitz was not a work camp, Aushwitz was a die camp,” our guide said emphatically, as if someone else’s voice was still there to insist the place was a work camp.

We crossed the double barbed fence of the camp and we toured different blocks.

We saw where an orchestra made up of inmates would play propaganda songs as a way to calm the fears of the prisoners and to help them march to work.

Killers in Rwanda had their own propaganda songs too, so I wasn’t aware of new things at this point.

We saw loads of survivors’ shoes and other belongings like suitcases and toothbrushes but again this wasn’t much shock for me since I already saw many genocide victims’ belongings in Rwanda.

But I finally saw the worst that still haunts me as I write.

I am just having a hard time understanding how the killers came up with effective technology and more advanced ways in slaughtering people.

We saw a picture of naked women being taken to a gas chamber.

We toured inside gas chambers in which people would be loaded and killed using crystal chemicals.

Then I kept waiting to see whether I will see skull remains of the victims or any other parts of the victims’ bodies like in Rwanda’s memorials.

No way! The killers used cremation methods to reduce the victims’ bodies to ashes and we were shown some in a small quantity.

I learned that most of the ash that remained was buried in a nearby Jewish cemetery in dignity but, coming from a place where the deceased’s entire remains are normally placed in a coffin and buried in the land, I am not in good terms with the system where people’s remains are burned.

I know that cremation is normally an acceptable funeral procedure among many cultures including German but I become unwell with the feeling that an extermination plan of the victims was so successful that their bodies were easily turned into ashes using cremation furnaces.

Another troubling story for me is how the women’s hair was shorn and then shipped for use in textile factories. We saw some hair estimated at seven tons.

Our guide estimated that in a display case before us was the hair of 30,000 women.

I just can’t imagine how human beings could exploit others to this extent and I keep wondering what would have happened if the Nazis had not been stopped.

We saw standing walls for prisoners, suffocation cells, and starvation chambers, all different ways that were used to punish detainees, often for the smallest infraction, like taking an extra piece of cloth for warmth.

When our tour was done, I kept wondering why people would do so much evil and for a long time.

I know there are theories about the steps toward genocide and that should help to manage my confusion, but it just doesn’t provide the answer for why Hitler and his aides couldn’t stop, think for a minute, and realize they were wrong.

Neither does it help me understand why people keep repeating mistakes following the same steps toward the genocide and many other crimes against humanity.

A bit of math shows the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda happened less than 50 years after the Holocaust.

I can still feel the confusion as I delve deeper into these issues but I know that 10 days dedicated to reflections on professional ethics will be a good contribution on the way I handle my work.

Eugene Kwibuka is a freelance
journalist from Rwanda and a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa.

He travelled with other journalism students to see Holocaust memorials in Europe as part of a program to examine the role of the media during the genocide as a way to reflect on professional ethics in journalism.

The program is organized by the New York based Museum of Jewish Heritage
kwirwa@gmail.com.