Railroad to the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau (Wikimedia Commons/Dieglop)

The medieval city of Cracow, when I was there last fall, still displayed blood-red bunting hanging from the buildings around the picturesque square of Rynek Glowny. There were crossed-out bombs and swastikas crudely painted on them, along with the slogan, “Namba Mordercom z Uswiecimia 1939 NIE!” recalling that infamous September 1 Nazi invasion and the atrocity-ridden occupation that followed.

“It is hard,” a middle-aged Pole said to me in a cafe (speaking in German incidentally), “not to hate the Germans if you have lived through those times. And the regime feeds on this understandable resentment and distrust and tries to keep it alive.”

My table companion became more friendly as the evening wore on and before parting extended an invitation to his home. When it turned out that he lived, of all places, in Auschwitz, just 40 train miles away, I promised definitely to come. A few days later I checked out of my hotel and headed for the notorious town.

Oswiecim, as it is known in Polish, looks much like any Polish town of 15,000, with its drab market place, filled twice a week with colorful stalls and big umbrellas, its muddy, potted roads, its town hall, non-descript shops and soot-covered Catholic church. In spite of the new train terminal (enlarged to accommodate the constant stream of visitors to the former extermination camp site), the overall impression is one of neglect and deterioration.

To be sure, there is the relatively new housing project on the outskirts of the town, complete with apartment blocks, a catch-all community, center, pseudo-modern shops and even a couple of miniature skyscrapers. But on closer inspection the entire complex turns out to be an ugly jerry-built affair, about as glamorous as a twenty-year-old Buick. The walls are discolored and cracked, the pastel balconies smeared and faded.

The single telephone book found (after nearly an hour's searching) had half its pages torn out, but I finally contacted my host, whom I shall call Kowalski, who welcomed me to his home. Proudly he showed me the town, as if it lived up to its pretensions, climaxing the tour at the community center. In the lobby an elaborate display of charts and diagrams boasted of the town's rising production and standard of living. That there is more wishful thinking than fact in these ambitious figures is evident on any Polish street, with its visible evidence of widespread poverty and inadequate employment, and, for that matter, on the Kowalski dinner table. Almost tearfully Mrs. Kowalski apologized for the absence of butter, milk and meat. “I tried at at least a dozen shops,” she said, “all for nothing.”

Mr. Kowalski, a chemist, works at one of the plants left behind by the great German I.G. Farben chemical trust. It had early in World War II “discovered” Auschwitz as a profitable site for the German wartime synthetic coal-off and rubber plant with the full benefit of the cheap slave labor provided by the extermination camp. Today the Kowalskis sometimes have to keep their windows closed even in summer when the wind blows in their direction, for the air is so polluted by these factories that it makes their eyes smart.

The Kowalskis have three children, Henryk, 10, Waclaw, 16, and Basia, 12. The next morning I learned that Waclaw slept on the kitchen floor so that I could use his bed. The notorious former extermination camp is not visible from any part of the town, but a five-minute bus ride from the main square will bring you there. On my second day in Oswiecim, Mrs. Kowalski accompanied me on a tour of the camp site.

It had early in World War II “discovered” Auschwitz as a profitable site with the full benefit of the cheap slave labor provided by the extermination camp.

Not Much to See

When you get off at the end of the line, there is not much to see, just a couple of refreshment stands, a duster of trees, and an old barracks building, which serves as the reception center and point of entry. Unlike the Dachau camp site, which stands out conspicuously on a plain, the Auschwitz site is secluded. Nor were there such “souvenirs” on sale here, as there had been at Dachau a couple of years ago of postcards showing the ovens and the barracks buildings.

It is only when you pass through a grove of trees, that the actual camp emerges, much of it still intact. First the triple, once electrically-charged, wire fence, broken every 50 yards or so by grim lookout towers. Then, just as we turned the corner, the chilling impact of the main entrance, spanned by a steel arch of the type sometimes found in Bavarian beer gardens, with the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes Free) that first greeted the incoming prisoners herded into the camp.

Inside, several rows of red brick barracks buildings, for the most part just as they were when they housed the prisoners destined for the “final solution of the Jewish question,” comprise the Auschwitz Museum, which is maintained by the Polish government. Mrs. Kowalski and I tagged onto a group of peasants from a remote part of Poland making the standard tour.

We entered the first block, where there was a huge glass case, about the size of three boxcars, nearly filled with a mound of what at first looked like steel wool. And then, with a shudder I realized that it was human hair that had been shaved off the prisoners' heads. “In the adjoining case,” droned the teenage girl guide, “is a roll of matting made from this hair, which was used by the Germans during the war.”

After that first shock, what followed was anti-climactic. In a second block a similar glass case contained a 12-foot high mound of children's shoes. In a third, the victims’ clothes, with those of the children piled separately. In a fourth, toothbrushes, broken eyeglasses, false teeth, and elsewhere mounds of pots, pans, commodes.

In blocks 10 and 11 we were shown the dungeons where men and women were hanged by their thumbs in tight cells without ventilation. Crude attempts at artistry, scratched into the wall with fingernails as a last desperate cry for humanity, are still visible. Outside, faded drawings of flowers can still be seen on the schwarze wand (black wall) where thousands were executed by firing squads.

Finally, we were taken to the notorious gas chamber, airtight and windowless, about the size of a small classroom. The outlets for the former gas jets spaced at intervals in the ceiling were still to be seen. Prisoners, told that they were going to take a shower, must have wondered about the absence of any drains in the floor. From here the bodies were scooped out and thrown, one by one, into the furnaces in the adjoining crematorium. Two of them are still on display. (The manufacturer was so proud of their construction for this purpose that they were patented.)

“... and toward the end the camp was setting new records,” the monotone voice of the guide droned on, “with more than 6,000 gassings a day...”

In order to make sure that even the least imaginative visitor does not fail to grasp the significance of the tour, the Museum offers regular showings of documentary movies, taken at the moment of liberation and by the SS guards themselves, which reveal the actual condition of the camp during its use.

One surprising feature of the camp is its smallness, far less impressive physically than many American parking lots. One somehow expects a place of such unfathomable ignominy to be also physically overwhelming, until one realizes that not much room is needed when the inmates are continually exterminated.

Less than two miles away is the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extension. Here a one-way railroad track still ends at a ramp, where prisoners were unloaded from cattle cars to be selected, either for the barracks, as slave labor at the I.G. Farben plant, or for the gas chamber.

Although Mrs. Kowalski admitted that she has taken her own children on a tour of the camp, she has made a point of teaching them not to hate the Germans. It is hard to say whether her forgiving attitude is widespread in Poland, but most certainly it is not typical. Even less typical is the fact that her son, Waclaw, corresponds regularly with a West German boy whom he met when the latter was making a Catholic Action bicycle tour of atonement to various concentration camp sites.

Mr. Kowalski pointed out that the anti-German campaign on the part of the Polish government is real enough. Although the stream of visitors to Auschwitz has declined in recent years, it is still a stream, while Poles themselves continue to pour in by the busload, almost daily, from every corner of Poland, often at government expense.

The real meaning behind this, according to veteran observers, is to build up trust for the Soviet Union as “our true friend.” Some effort is made to portray East Germany as the “good Germany, while the Federal Republic is often described with the adjective “war-mongering.”

Shortly before going to Auschwitz I spent a couple of days at Czestochowa, where I visited the monastery of Jasna Gora, famous for its “Black Madonna.” One of the Pauline Fathers, who are in charge of the shrine, guided me through the monastery and ended the tour by showing me two huge guest books in the library. Flipping open to a certain page in these books; the monk pointed to one of the signatures that, considering where we were, can only be regarded as sacrilegious: none other than that of SS Chief Heinrich Himmler. There was also one believed to be a pseudonym of Hitler himself. Ironically, the same books contain the signatures of Kortrad Adenauer and John, Robert, Ethel and Eunice Kennedy.

Here a one-way railroad track still ends at a ramp, where prisoners were unloaded from cattle cars to be selected.

Trial in Germany

After leaving Poland, by sheer coincidence, I happened to visit a German family in Frankfurt where the Auschwitz trial had been in progress for 18 months. The son of the family, here called Kohler, accompanied me to one of its final sessions, being held in the auditorium of Frankfurt's Gallus Community Center, a sleek new building whose cheerfulness lent an eerie, unreal quality to the proceedings. Presumably the Center was chosen to avoid disrupting the regular court calendars.

Inside, with its solid red brick wall on one side, and ceiling-high picture windows on the other side, the improvised courtroom looks like nothing so much as an American high school gymnasium. Opposite the balcony, which served as the press gallery, the judges sat on the auditorium stage, in front of a long table literally covered with bulging folders. Below them in rows of benches like choir stalls, the accused and their police guards impassively faced the  prosecutor's table and grim diagrams of the Auschwitz camp.

Outside, children were shrieking and shouting during recess at the adjoining Günderrode Schule, while the prosecutor inside, making his summation, was arguing monotonously for a stiff sentence for one of the accused. Tactfully, the pastel blue drapes were drawn closed so that the children could not gaze inside.

With the exception of former Gestapo sergeant Wilhelm Boger, who actually does have a bestial appearance, the accused looked more like tired, middle-aged subway commuters than brutal Auschwitz guards, underlining Hannah Arendt's comment, in reference to the Eichmann trial, on “the banality of evil.”

The poor attendance at the trial that day-I counted about a hundred spectators, mostly under 25-was very misleading. An Israeli reporter, who had followed the proceedings from the beginning, told me that throughout the trial it has been well attended, sometimes to overflowing. Almost daily, members of the Bundeswehr were present. But he also said that some Germans were snubbed by their friends because they attended.

My companion, aged 28, is a young budding political scientist and his musically and politically conscious family is not exactly typical. He has an older brother, aged 8, and two younger sisters. Mr. Kohler is a music teacher. During the war, he fought on the Russian front, but was not otherwise involved in the Nazi regime. The Kohlers live comfortably, unlike the Kowalskis, in their own house, have an Opel car and enjoy the abundance of West German prosperity.

The Kohler family is unanimously in favor of continuing the Nazi trials. Unlike most Germans, the Kohlers believe that the German people should give up, once and for all, their hopes of regaining the former German Oder-Neisse territories, now under Polish administration. The Kohlers belong to that segment of the German people-no one knows how large it is-which is willing to accept fully the burden of responsibility and atonement for the sins of the Nazi regime against the Jews.

By contrast, however, the more common reaction to the Auschwitz trials is, “We  have had enough of this. Why must the name of Germany be continually dragged through the mud, because of a few bandits?” The lawyers on the small prosecution staff of the Auschwitz trial reportedly believe that as many as 90 percent of the German people are opposed to such trials. They base their judgment on their own marl and the difficulties they frequently encounter trying to get local authorities to ferret out and arrest suspected Nazi criminals. Meanwhile, a West German federal agency in Ludwigsburg has accumulated a massive file on former Nazi criminals still at large, estimated at over 22,000.

The most common remark Germans make when asked what they think about the Nazi murder of millions of Jews is: “We didn't know.” This is hard to reconcile with the fact that anti-Semitic laws were enforced everywhere, that humiliation of the Jews and the brutalities of the pogroms were public actions, and that their sudden and mysterious disappearance was common knowledge. “Who can believe such statistics,” is another common answer. “We suffered too. Millions of Germans were driven from the homeland, and look what the Allies did to Dresden!”

A nationwide opinion survey, made under the auspices of West German television, which is government-owned, showed that fifty-seven percent of West Germany's eligible voters wanted to stop prosecution of Nazi criminals, while only 32 percent favored continuing the Nazi hunt, and 11 percent in this category gave no opinion. Only 46 percent of respondents over 80 years of age said they had heard of Nazi atrocities against the Jews during the war.

A reporter for a leading West German newspaper, however, thought the number of those opposed to the Nazi trials might be even higher, “because,” he said, “few of the older generation can be expected in such a survey to give honest answers.”

To My Loving Son

The difficulty of arriving at a true answer of German attitudes towards the Nazi era is illustrated by the following incident. I had gone to say goodbye to a young German neighbor who was moving away. While he was sorting out his things he showed me a book about the group of men, today regarded as heroes in the Federal Republic, who unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Hitler. It was inscribed, “to my loving son on his 28th birthday,” a present from his father. But in so doing he accidentally knocked over a pile of papers on his desk, which included a photo of Hitler. On the back of this picture an almost identical inscription from his father had been not quite erased. It read: "to my loving son on his 8th birthday."

It is important, however, to point out that although it is only a minority of Germans who appear to satisfy the world's-and especially the Jewish-expectations of repentance, restitution and atonement, this is nevertheless the elite minority. With some exceptions, it includes most of the country's educators, politicians, leaders, writers and journalists. To date West Germany has paid over $4.18 billion in adjudicated claims to Jewish victims of Nazism. While no amount of money can ever make good what has happened at Auschwitz and elsewhere, it appears that Israel is sufficiently impressed by West Germany's efforts to establish diplomatic relations with Bonn.

Whatever the disappointment over the rank-and-file Germans’ callousness toward the lesson of Auschwitz, the West German press, radio, television has surely given the Auschwitz trial and everything connected with the Nazi era the most comprehensive, soul-searching coverage to date that it is humanly possible to expect. As the young Kohler said to me, “the Auschwitz trial, like the Eichmann trial, is important for its educational value. For it has compelled the Germans to realize that the unbelievable is believable.”

Adolph Schalk, an American writer now residing in Switzerland, contributes frequently to journals here and in Europe.

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