SHADOWED GROUND: WALKING AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

-by Rob Franciosi

During the spring semester, professors Rob Franciosi and Dan Balfour escorted a group of 18 Grand Valley students to Europe as part of an Honors College course, " Remembering the Holocaust: Museums, Memorials, and Sites."

Taking a group of GVSU students to the shadowed grounds of Europe had always been a goal -- but I was certain nothing about Auschwitz-Birkenau would surprise me.

I'd read dozens of books about the camp; viewed hundreds of photographs; studied maps, drawings, paintings, and web pages; watched the 31 minutes of Night and Fog, the nine hours of Shoa; and I'd taught courses on the Holocaust for more than a decade. With all this preparation, I'd felt, encountering the site where a million Jews had been murdered would simply corroborate all my imaginings, all my expectations about the look and feel of a place that had more than once haunted my dreams.

But knowing facts and understanding the site's historical significance was not nearly enough. I was unprepared for Birkenau's size, its simple immensity. I should have known better. In the years since the September 11th attacks my students have often heard me say, "You cannot imagine the sheer height and mass of those falling towers. You had to have seen them up close, from the street below." Now having walked the expanses of Birkenau, I readily confess the inadequacy of my own imagination.

The camp is 425 acres, a mile by a mile-and-a-half, but this information offers little guidance. The Allendale campus is more than twice its size. No, it is Birkenau's horizontal emptiness that makes it seem so much larger than it actually is. Only a few of its nearly 300 barracks still stand on the windswept and barbed-wire-enclosed plain, a field dotted with chimneys surviving like burned tree trunks after a sweeping fire. A space once crammed with 100,000 prisoners now stands deserted, except for small groups of mostly silent tourists.

Not only did Birkenau's size jar my scholarly equilibrium. The site's familiar shapes -- stanchions holding up barbed wire, watchtowers, crazily angled wooden bunks -- also held surprises when engaged as physical objects rather than as the two-dimensional images I knew from films and photographs.

On an oddly cold June afternoon, as our group gazed at a latrine with dozens of back-to-back holes on a long, open platform, I realized that this crude structure was not made of wood, as I had assumed, but of poured concrete -- a minor detail, perhaps; but I immediately thought of bitter Polish winters. The torment of sitting on an icy slab would have compounded the indignity of the open latrine, what Terrence Des Pres has termed the "excremental assault" of camp life. And like so much else in the camp -- the prefab horse stables used for barracks, the stanchions and miles of barbed wire, the crematoria themselves -- the cement slabs had been ordered, designed, manufactured, purchased, delivered and installed. All were products of a complicit society extending beyond the camp's perimeter into the heart of Germany itself.

Historians have extensively documented the bureaucracy that created Birkenau. Experiencing it through the physical senses, however, offers another level of comprehension. I felt the gravel beneath my feet as I walked hundreds of yards from the ramp to the gas chamber ruins, pulled my jacket against the unusually biting early June wind, and was driven by a swarm of mosquitoes from the surrounding woods. Each of these sensory encounters gave me the slightest physical indication of the daily life described by survivors.

But even such traces are misleading. We heard only the insistent wind once we were beyond the tour groups at the main gate. If the tomb-like silence of the vast camp now made it difficult to imagine the screams and shouts and shots that once filled Birkenau's air, the verdant freshness of the late spring was even more deceiving: "We can tell the camp by the smell," wrote French survivor Charlotte Delbo. "A smell of corpses and diarrhea, enveloped by the thicker, suffocating odor of the crematorium." A smell that she and her comrades could identify from more than a mile away.

Walking the grounds at Birkenau proved to me the value to our students -- and to myself -- of moving from the classroom's safe abstractions to the blood-soaked grounds of Poland, to a place Elie Wiesel calls "the world's largest Jewish cemetery."

Two months earlier, at a campus meeting prompted by recent hate incidents at Grand Valley, I'd heard a young woman urge her audience to feel such outrages, to resist intellectualizing them. I understood her anger, but inwardly rejected her plea. Doesn't a university finally owe more to the mind than to the heart, to bringing intellect to bear on passion? Our main challenge at Birkenau, I decided, indeed throughout the trip, was to achieve a balance between knowing and feeling. We engaged this task most effectively, perhaps, when a group of us set out in search of the original selection ramp.

The Alte Judenrampe (Old Jewish Ramp), located about a third of a mile southeast of the main camp entrance, had served Birkenau from 1942 until the spring of 1944 as the end point for hundreds of transports from all over Europe. Three-fourths of those who arrived were immediately sent to the gas. Only in May 1944, when trains packed with Hungarian Jews first used a new rail spur, were the cars unloaded within the camp itself. Despite the iconic infamy of the newer ramp and its distinctive watchtower entrance, most victims gassed at Auschwitz had arrived at the original site. What remained of that place? Could we find evidence of its infamous function? Armed only with our curiosity and a crude map, we set out on a path that parallels the rail spur for several hundred yards, until we reached a small sign that directed us through a rural neighborhood.

Dogs barked at us without much conviction and two men hammering boards on a shed barely looked up. Just beyond the last house we saw a memorial site that was not on the standard Auschwitz tours. Two Holocaust-era box cars sat on tracks in a bed of fresh gravel, and a few signs in English, Polish, and French explained the ramp's history.

Well outside the official boundary of the UNESCO world heritage site, the Alte Judenrampe was even more abandoned than had been the open fields of Birkenau, whose watchtower we could still see in the distance. The Old Jewish Ramp was a memorial without mourners. We had found it only because we knew to look. But there was something wrong about the tracks. They seemed authentic, but the siding was too short to have accommodated arriving trains. If this was a re-creation, then where was the original?

The numerous rail lines passing through Oswiecim -- the Polish town renamed Auschwitz by the Germans -- were just a hundred weed-choked yards away. I knew from 1944 aerial photographs that the original Jewish ramp had paralleled this network of tracks. Ignoring "Danger" signs, but unsure how far I could or should go, I plowed into shoulder-high grass. Ten yards on I tripped on rusty tracks buried beneath the thick overgrowth. The ties were damp and crumbling; the gravel bed, spotty and compacted with a distinctly reddish tint. I looked back beyond the cattle cars at the brick watchtower in the distance, then stooped among the debris and pried a stone into the light.

In the weeks since our return I have further researched the Alte Judenrampe, learning for example that Charlotte Delbo's compatriots are responsible for at last memorializing this spot where nearly all of France's victims had arrived. Little of the original ramp remains, but further refinements are planned to incorporate the current memorial into the larger Auschwitz tour.

Bringing knowledge to bear on our exploration of the Judenrampe confirmed my belief that on-site Holocaust encounters must be anchored in historical study, in a detailing of the facts. Yet hunting among those weeds and rusted tracks sobered this scholar. How fragile is an actual place. At times anyone teaching and studying the Holocaust is vulnerable to despair, to being overwhelmed by the sheer weight of information and analysis, even to forgetting the catastrophe's human dimensions. There are so many words, so many deaths, that one is tempted to abandon the pursuit of more knowledge and to look away. When next this mood grips me, I'll turn to the bookcase where I store a host of memorial objects and reach for a small reddish-tinged stone.

The two-week trip to Berlin and Krakow allowed students to examine how Holocaust history has been remembered in Germany and Poland and to formulate research projects based on those encounters. To keep the cost reasonable for students, funds were provided from the following sources: Joseph Stevens Freedom Endowment, Honors College, and College of Interdisciplinary Studies. Plans for future trips are underway and financial support can be directed either to the Stevens Endowment or to the Honors College.

Photos for this essay were by Carly Paszek, a third-year photography major from Grand Rapids.

Grand Valley's public television station recently broadcast its Emmy award winning documentary production, "Surviving Auschwitz: Children of the Shoah," featuring the recollections of Auschwitz survivors who were children at the time of their incarceration.

Copies of the broadcast are available from www.wgvu.org/store.

Page last modified March 17, 2014