Posted by: Stanlee Stahl | September 7, 2010

Trying to make sense of Auschwitz

The main road into Auschwitz.

We began what would be a very long day at Auschwitz.  Upon arrival, Robert Jan van Pelt gave a lecture just outside the camp gate, and I will never be able to look at barbed wire the same way again.  He began with the idea that a camp is “any place surrounded by barbed wire.”  We learned that barbed wire was originally created by a farmer in Illinois, and that it had, in fact, been used during World War I.  Unlike animals who can withstand the barbed wire, humans can be severely injured by barbed wire and it can even inflict death.  Additionally, barbed wire is such a powerful symbol of war and enslavement in the modern age.  With barbed wire, prisoners are exposed and visible to their capturers.  Likewise, the prisoner is able to see the outside world, but he or she is unable to reach it.  Barbed wire is not only a brutal tool of war and imprisonment, it is also a form of cruel psychological torture for those it bounds.

Professor van Pelt, teaching about concentration camps and barbed wire.

Looking at Auschwitz from the outside also forces one to think about the role of concentration camps in war.  The Nazis and Communists believed fervently in the usage of concentration camps, Robert Jan explain to us, as a means of gaining control through torture.  There are many theories of what constitutes a camp.  In Giorgio Agamben’s “What is a Camp?” he claims it is a place where your civil rights are suspended.  In a place like Auschwitz, however, the camp stripped prisoners not only of civil rights but also of basic human rights.  In Hannah Arendt’s “Origins on Totalitarianism,” she defines three tiers of camps, with Auschwitz falling into tier three, the most inhumane, where people become so sick and hungry that they are devoid of their individualism.

Before walking into Auschwitz we learned about the origins of the symbolic gate, with the words “ARBEIT MACHT FREI,” or “work sets you free.”  Aside from being a form of mockery, we learned that the sign was created by a Polish prisoner.  The “B” in “Arbeit” is upside-down, and the reason for this is unknown; perhaps it was an intentional design, or perhaps it was an act of defiance on behalf of the prisoner.  In December 2009 the sign was stolen and cut into pieces; it was later recovered, but the sign that currently hangs over the gate is a reproduction and not the original.

As our group entered the camp, we could not help feeling an overwhelming sense of freedom entering as visitors, free to leave at will. 

We spent the entire day in Auschwitz.  Our time was very informative and included a guided tour by Pavel Savicki, head of Communication at the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, of many of the exhibition barracks and the artifact restoration center.  While we learned and saw so much, it is difficult to write about our experience, as we learned about the unspeakable horrors that occurred inside the camp.  The same can be said of trying to communicate the prisoner experience; no words can truly depict the suffering of prisoners of Auschwitz.

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