«We had the Second World War, Hitler in our towns and homes. If we look at the facts closely, European societies, if not each single individual, deserved what was happening to them: their way of living was worth much too little, based as it was on selfishness on the one hand and on the other on ideals in which they no longer believed.»
-Albert Camus, February 1946.
The Man finally leaves the compartment, overwhelmed by the suffocating heat, the stench and the narrow bunk bed. The train corridor was dimly lit, two light bulbs were missing: German trains, he thought. The train felt cold as it raced through the night of a slumbering and indifferent Europe. Sometimes it would cross countries and cities, the Man’s gaze dwelling on the long freight trains, loaded with coal or other materials. He was travelling to Krakow in search of a tomb: that of a distant uncle, an Alpine soldier of the Cuneo brigade who had been buried in a mass grave in the city together with 2300 other German soldiers. He couldn’t stop wondering why. It was his third trip, always in January, same train, and every time he ended up at Auschwitz/Birkenau.
The trains would stop on these tracks, he thinks. Frozen withered stalks pushing up from under the snow: “It is the symbol of something I do not understand,” thinks the Man. He observes the rusty tracks which end abruptly and an abandoned solitary carriage, black and motionless in the snow. Then he walks towards the camp.
Birkenau. He enters walking on the tracks stretching out into the expanse: they started operating in May of 1944. One thought troubles him: “If I had been in this place, during those years, what would I have been?” Then he imagines them as they get off the train, in single file: men to one side, women and children to the other. They must have seen the turrets, the machine guns, the large dogs, the soldiers, the SS officers, the skulls on the uniforms, and maybe, the Man thinks, they will have guessed.
Here is EVIL. It has a name, Otto Adolf Eichmann, and a grade, SS-Obersturmbannfũhrer. He was the man mainly responsible for the so-called Final Solution: the extermination of Europe’s Jews. The Man stares at the portrait: he observes the fox’s long face under a hat, far too big, his thin lips, his mocking expression with one eye half shut. An ordinary man, unremarkable all in all. Just a killer. Captured in Argentina and hanged in Ramia, Israel, nel 1962. He was 56 years old.
The photo that strikes him, that moves him, is this one: Michalina Petrenko, 13 years old, number E 27018, entered Auschwitz on 13 December 1942, died 14 August 1944. It was a Sunday. The little girl’s sweet face, a Polish peasant scarf on her head, from the right of the photograph looks into the distance, somewhat surprised. “What sins did you commit?” the man asks her, “Michalina, what deeds were you accused of? How did you cross paths with Evil and why?”
The Man is astonished by the uncanny orderliness of the landscape: every tree, every bench, the steps up to the trampoline, the posts the barbed wire was tied to and in the background the guard turret are all arranged precisely, too precisely. Only an aesthetically perverse mind, taken to the extreme, could have devised such order.
What happened in this office, under Hitler’s eyes? Who stood behind the desk, and who on the other side of it? Who entered here and what were their fears? What was that cube on the table? And those keys, what doors did they open or close? The light in this doctor’s cabinet strikes him: the Man observes the white sheet on the table and the whiteness of the two gowns, then he notices the syringes, a small black bottle in the background. Could it have been the office of Doctor Josef Mengele, he thinks. The Man tries to imagine his experiments on children. They called him Uncle.
Mengele undeservedly died of natural causes, he deserved to be hanged, he thinks.
Millions of shoes, millions of steps: the Man cannot imagine how many fields or football pitches they could fill. And then millions of glasses, razors, tooth and hairbrushes. The deported were deprived of their shoes and given hard wooden clogs, sometimes of different sizes, while their clothes were replaced with a sort of striped pyjama. All this was done to transform them from people into being nothing, being worth nothing, and without the possibility of becoming anything.
The Man takes a long pause to read the names and the addresses on the battered immigrant cases. He takes numerous photographs despite it being forbidden, attempting to imagine them, to get to know them. What will they have hastily thrown into those cases as the SS guards shouted at them? And where did they think they were going? Could they have ever imagined their fate?
The Man steps through an iron gate on the path leading to death. The snow has been cleared. At the end of this track, between two lines of buildings under a winter birch tree, he sees a black wall and in front of it a smaller one: it is the execution wall. Here the prisoners condemned for who knows what deeds were killed. The shots could probably be heard ringing throughout the camp.
Beneath the buildings of the death quarter the cellars were used as a prison. One of the walls looks damp with blood. The Man remembers seeing something similar at Srebrenitza in the warehouses abandoned by the Dutch soldiers and taken over by Mladic’s assassins. Then his gaze falls on a plaque, commemorating Father Maximilian Kolbe, prisoner number 16670: he gave his life in place of another man, and was killed with an injection of carbolic acid. His body was cremated and the ashes were scattered.
Brothers Zelig and Sril Jacob were 9 and 11. In the original photo they appear together, they have just got off the train. In the museum they have been divided. The Man cannot understand the reason: he knows they would be reunited in death. Zelig stares at the SS taking the photo, Sril looks into the distance: he gazes at the camp, troubled, wrapped up in his coat bearing a six-point yellow star.
So many photos can be studied in this museum and in the history of this unimaginable place. The Man now stands in the French block. On one of the walls, between two windows, the faces of the numerous children who were killed here. Nearly 80,000 French Jews were transferred to the German concentration camp, only 2,665 returned.
Of the 230,000 children deported to Auschwitz, only 700 remained when the camp was liberated.
The Sauna. This is where camp entrance procedures were carried out: undressing, shaving, shower and disinfestation. On a large wall, the Man sees, amongst the many which have survived, a photograph. A celebration, a wedding maybe, the woman wearing a white hat with a veil toasts with the man sitting next to her, who also appears in the next photo. They are both very good-looking and the Man feels suffocated by the thought that so much joy of living could have ended there, amongst those birch trees.
Part of Birkenau looks abandoned. The symbol of this desolation are the grid support poles which have fallen into the snow or have been beaten down by the weather. Camp maintenance is actually very expensive and technically difficult. Birkenau could be abandoned to the dust of time.
At nightfall everything becomes cold, the colour of death. Cold seeps into his bones and the Man believes he can hear murmurs rising from the blackened huts, in the gloom of the vanishing light. The snow creaks beneath his feet. The whispering he hears are the voices of the victims, it is the wind speaking to him through the trees.
The setting sun turns into a grey stain amongst the ruins of what used to be the gas chambers, blown up by the Germans as they fled in January 1945. The Man gazes at them under the weight of the snow: they are bleak and black. A few twisted steel cables protrude from the cement, there are rabbit or hare prints on the snow, the trees in the background try to hide in the night sky. It’s late now, the Man must leave the camp. The freezing air shrouds him.
As he walks toward the exit, in the darkness, the turret lights suddenly turn on. For a second the Man feels in danger, as if he were in the firing line of automatic weapons. He thinks he hears cries in a foreign language and he realizes that the camp doors are closed. Now he is a prisoner, he panics. The he finds a way out, like a fugitive.
«The evil I’m talking about lives in us all. It takes hold in an individual, in private lives, within a family, and then it’s children who suffer most. And then, when the conditions are right, in different countries, at different times, a terrible cruelty, a viciousness against life erupts, and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself.