The Sciences

What I Did on My Summer Vacation - Part 2

Cosmic VarianceBy John ConwaySep 18, 2009 8:47 PM


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Travel is broadening, and in particle physics we get to do a lot of it. In July, having temporarily settled my father into a nursing home after being hospitalized (the subject of my last post, Part 1), I was able to meet my commitment to travel to Krakow, Poland, to give a plenary talk on the search for the Higgs boson at the annual Europhysics conferenceheld at the Jagiellonian University there (where Copernicus studied for four years, 1491-1495). Central Krakow emerged from World War II, which began nearly exactly 70 years ago, nearly unscathed. The central square is one of the more beautiful in Europe, similar in a way to that of Prague. But it was hard to avoid waling there without imagining what it must have looked like during the war, occupied by German soldiers who had made Krakow the center of their regional government during the war. From the square one can take tours in little golf-cart-like jitneys, and see some of the interesting historical sites, including the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) and Schindler's famous enamelware factory. Some of the apartment buildings in Kazimierz are still in the state they were at the end of the war, a rather grim reminder of the central role Krakow played in the Holocaust.

From Krakow one can take day trips to a number of interesting places, and we visited the spectacular salt mines of Wielicka, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which have amazing, huge rooms carved out of the rock. But there was another interesting place to tour that we were hesitant about - Auschwitz. Others who took the tour came back saying that it was well worth the journey, over an hour by bus each way, but tended not to say much more about it...hmmm. So on our last free day we took the plunge, signed up for the tour, and went. The bus traveled through quite rural countryside on two-lane roads, past farms and villages, roughly following the Vistula river, until reaching the town of Oswiecim, which the Germans called Auschwitz. There are in fact two concentration camps there, called Auschwitz and Birkenau, the latter actually being Auschwitz II. Birkenau is twenty times larger than the original camp, which was in fact a Polish army installation before the war. Auschwitz I was turned into a labor camp by the Germans shortly after the start of the war, and tens of thousands lost their lives there, working in nearby armaments factories, and on the construction of the Birkenau camp, starving to death on a 500-calorie-a day diet, or in the original gas chamber there.

The camps are still plainly visible from the air, as you can see in the photo. Auschwitz I is now a museum and living memorial to those who died there. Our tour of the museum included rooms filled with the personal effects taken from the prisoners: shoes, clothing, eyeglasses, and, perhaps most shockingly, human hair, which was used to make clothing for the German army. It's actually hard to write about this, forcing myself to remember touring the housing blocks and the infamous Block 11, where, as an experiment, the SS first tested Cyclon B as a means of mass murder on 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 sick Poles. After touring the museum, we went a few kilometers to Birkenau. The entry to the camp, along the rail line through the brick block house, is the same as the entry was for over a million people who were murdered there, predominantly Jews (most from Hungary), but also Gypsies. In late 1944 and early 1945, the fleeing Germans tried to destroy as much of the camp as they could, blowing up the crematoria and burning the wooden barracks, leaving only the brick chimneys standing behind the once-electrified barbed wire fences. The pictures we took say it all. Throughout the tour of both places, everyone was hushed and, I think, awestruck by the sheer scale of the evil perpetrated there, and duplicated at so many other camps in eastern Europe and Germany. You can watch Sophie's Choice or Schindler's List, or read about the Holocaust, but until you stand there and see for yourself the actual crematoria and barracks, the mile-long rail line inside the camp, and the electrified fences with guard towers, you may not have truly appreciated what happened. AllI could think about was how anyone with an ounce of goodness in their hearts could have perpetrated this, but some 70,000 SS members did exactly that. Only 10,000 or so were ever brought to justice. In an attempt to understand the mindset of the perpetrators, at the Auschwitz bookstore I bought a book called "KL Auschwitz seen by the SS" with the written reminiscences of the commandant of the camp, Rudolf Hoess, the diary of one of the camp doctors who participated in many of the "selections" of prisoners upon arrival. Hoess' memoir was chilling, to say the least. It was written while he was in prison, before being hanged at Auschwitz in April, 1947. He describes the process of creating and operating the camp, and carrying out the Final Solution, in terms which are more reminiscent of large project management than mass murder. He had a very tight budget, and had to be ruthlessly efficient in meeting the SS quotas for labor production and human destruction. He was a problem solver at heart...that's what made it so chilling. As for the diary of the doctor, Paul Kremer, it was particularly difficult to swallow his diatribes against the Allied bombing of Germany after his clinical discussion of his work at the camp. How can people do this to other people? We also bought the book "Hope is the Last to Die" by Halina Birenbaum, who describes her teen years spent in the Warsaw ghetto and then a series of concentration camps, somehow managing to survive through numerous near-death events. She is still alive, as far as I can tell, living in Israel. This book is a must-read. This one-day tour, and the books we read, had a profound affect on me this past summer. And there are two things that I really have to say at this juncture. Firstly, it has been tremendously disturbing to see Obama (or any US president) seriously compared to or equated with Hitler or the Nazi party. Anyone who does such a thing is, to my mind, a sick human being, and doing a terrible disservice to the memories of the victims of the Holocaust. Secondly, earlier today in Iran the world was treated to the annual sight of Iranians marching in the street, chanting "Death to America! Death to Israel!", with Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust, as we have come to expect. I guess it's not realistic to ask them to do the reading on this one, much less visit a place like Auschwitz.

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