In If This is a Man, Primo Levi writes that he and the 650 other Italian Jews who were sent with him to Auschwitz in February 1944 were relieved to hear the name of their destination. What is now a metonym for the Holocaust was at that time still “a name without significance”, he writes, “but at least it implied some place on this earth”. That extraordinary line resonated with me when I first visited what remains of the camp near Krakow in Poland. Nearly 70 years after Levi was sent there, it seemed strange that Auschwitz is still actually “some place on this earth” – that is, not just a metaphysical break, as Adorno saw it, a uniquely terrible historical event, but also simply a physical location. As you approach the camp by car and see the signs for Oświęcim, the Polish name for the place, it seems incongruous – and even somehow obscene? – that normal life goes on here.
Even if, like me, you’ve read a lot about the Holocaust in general and Auschwitz in particular before visiting, actually being there deepens and sharpen one’s understanding of the complex nature of the camp and its role in the evolution of the “final solution”. In Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder writes that the development of the camp “illustrates the transformation of a dream of eastern colonization into a program of Jewish extermination”. Auschwitz was “a special sort of hybrid, a labor facility with a death factory attached”. It began as a Polish army camp, which the Nazis turned into a camp for Polish and Soviet prisoners of war. As it later expanded after 1943, this part of the camp, which consists of brick buildings and remains largely intact, became known as Auschwitz I and is where the main Soviet-era exhibition is. When Jean Améry writes of torture as the “essence” of the Third Reich, this is what he had in mind.
However, even visiting this part of the complex does not prepare you for being at Birkenau, the death camp where most of the the 1.1 million human beings killed at Auschwitz were exterminated in the gas chambers – Auschwitz II. In contrast to Auschwitz I, little is left of this part of the camp. You walk along the railway lines from Auschwitz I, through the famous guardhouse, and there it is before you – a vast open space where the camp used to be. You stand on the “ramp”, where those who were to be immediately to be exterminated with Zyklon B gas (only used at Auschwitz) were separated from those who would be worked to death. You try to imagine what it must have been like. And yet even after having seen the famous photos of hundreds of Hungarian Jews lined up there in the early summer of 1944 – the death factory’s most “productive” period, in which 400,000 were exterminated during a two-month period – I could not imagine the reality. Was it a scene of chaos or order?
Even less remains of the industrial complex attached to the death camp where Levi, a chemist, worked – Auschwitz III. In other words, as well as being a death factory, Auschwitz was also an actual factory, which produced synthetic rubber and armaments for the German war machine. German corporations – many of which still exist today, though in some cases in different form – were deeply involved in, and in many ways drove, the development of this part of Auschwitz. This industrial complex also included a vast, macabre recycling operation: possessions such as clothes were sent to ethnic Germans, gold teeth were melted down, human hair was turned into blankets and socks for submariners and human ashes were used as fertiliser. Piles of these fragments of human beings processed into the most banal consumer and industrial products are on display in glass cases in the exhibition in Auschwitz I – all that remains of those who died at this place.