The ordinariness of Auschwitz

The Gates of Hell have a parking lot, a nearby pizzeria, and students in tight jeans and UGG boots chewing gum, waiting to have a look inside

Memorial ceremony marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz With the first vice president of the European Parliament and the chief Rabbi and chairman of Yad Vashem Rabbi Israel Lau

Posted by European Jewish Association on Tuesday, January 21, 2020
European Jewish Association Delegation to Auschwitz, 21.01.2020 (Yoni Rykner)

I’m just back from a delegation that we at the European Jewish Association organized to Auschwitz for around 150 ministers and parliamentarians across Europe. Over the next few days, as we lead up to Holocaust Memorial Day, and the poignant 75th anniversary of the liberation of the most infamous death camp of all, you will doubtless read the harrowing statements of the last few witnesses, and pledges from the great and the good: “Never again.”

I’m still trying to process what I saw. To reconcile what in my mind Auschwitz means and what it actually is when you walk through the gates. And the word that best sums it up, the word that makes me sick in the very deepest pit of my stomach is how ordinary it is. 

I don’t know what the gates of hell should look like, but if you, like me, try and imagine it, you don’t picture bucolic countryside surrounding it, a McDonald’s drive-thru close by, parents pushing their children up the street, kids loitering around bus stops trying to look cool and old people chatting outside the shops. 

As a dear colleague put it: “Where is the monster? It’s easier to deal with if there’s a monster here.” 

And that perfect question encapsulates what is so scary and upsetting about the place. There’s no monster. 

The Gates of Hell have a parking lot, a pizzeria across the road and students in tight jeans and UGG boots chewing gum, while waiting to have a look inside. Our Jewish ground zero, literally the sight of our worst nightmare, the scar that each and every one carries in our heart, is an ordinary place.

Now, I have to tell you that the staff there are incredible people, our guide Michal believes with every ounce of his being that it is his duty as a resident to tell the story and history of the place. His knowledge is terrible and devastating. He paints a visual Guernica with his words: the seven tons of human hair that they found packed and ready to be stuffed into G-d knows what, the fact that they found traces of Zyklon B in it, how many people shoveled the bodies in the crematoria, I could go on. But I won’t. 

A few hundred meters from Auschwitz is Birkenau. If Auschwitz is hell’s waiting room, Birkenau is where the doctor, quite literally, would see you. Selection, and then into the flames. Gone for eternity. 

And yet again, so close by, you find houses with swings in the yard, bored dogs barking at cars, the half constructed barbecue made of bricks that was never quite finished (maybe next year, when the rain lets up). 

Auschwitz is so terrifying to me, not because of what happened inside those gates. I know the horrors, I’ve been raised on them. No, it’s so terrifying because of what goes on outside of them, so close, so palpably close. A town where life 80 years ago continued its slow, mundane pace. 

While the crematoria burned and the latest shipment of Greek Jews arrived to be murdered, two old men sank a pint in the nearby pub. A baby cried because its toy broke. Teenagers fumbled awkwardly, away from watching eyes.

And I can’t reconcile that at all. How ordinary life could continue. And worse, I’m scared. I’m scared that people can tuck into their margherita pizza after the tour is over, the same way that you can swim with Jaws at Universal studios, and then tuck into wings and fries. 

Scared too that surrounded by this ordinariness, just as it was all those years ago, anti-Semitism can keep rising and keep rising, while tourists keep on going through those gates having learned nothing, and worse, get back to the football and order another drink while the kindling for the fires of hell is slowly being gathered again, right under their noses. And ordinary life continues…

About the Author
Alex Benjamin is the director of EIPA, a multi-disciplined pro-Israel advocacy Group based in Brussels, with offices in Paris and Berlin. He is also the Director of Public Affairs for EJA: European Jewish Association, a Brussels based NGO which represents and acts on behalf of Jewish communities across the EU and wider European continent, at the heart of the European Institutions and at bilateral level with Member States.
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