The site of the Nazis’ largest and best-known concentration camp has been preserved for visitors, with museum-style exhibits, tours, and even a concession stand. But can seeing the train tracks, empty barracks, and remains of the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz convey anything of the horrors that occurred there? Daniel Krauthammer reflects:
It was not easy to look at an empty bunk and imagine how it looked overcrowded with terrified prisoners, much less what it smelled like, sounded like, and felt like to be one of those poor souls, starving and brutalized. The barracks we saw, about the size of a small stable, officially held 744 prisoners. But what does 744 people look like? What does a crowd that big feel like crammed into a space that small? Human intuition quickly reaches its limits as numbers rise this high.
The problem of comprehending scale is endemic to Auschwitz. At first, the sheer size of the site has an emotional impact all its own. The primary subcamp stretches for 422 acres, dotted with the remains of brick prison barracks as far as the eye can see. But one soon realizes that the size of a site does not map directly to the scale of its crimes. The greatest center of death did not lie here, but in another area all its own—an extermination camp that feels much smaller, more secluded, and less remarkable than the vast concentration camp surrounding it. . . .
The vast majority of the 1.1 million Jews deported to Auschwitz never entered its concentration camp at all. They didn’t last the few weeks that most other prisoners, [who normally died of disease or starvation], did. They lasted less than an hour. When their trains arrived, these Jews (and it was only the Jews who were brought this way) were pulled from the lethally packed cars, stripped, and separated into men, women, and children. A few adults were pulled aside if they looked healthy or were known to have special skills. The rest were marched a few hundred yards down the line to the gas chambers. . . .
Some 960,000 Jews died at Auschwitz. . . . But there are no mass graves at Auschwitz, no physical markers that convey the magnitude of what happened. All that a visitor can see are the ruins of a half-sunken gas chamber, which the Nazis blew up as they retreated before the Red Army. It is less than half the size of a regulation basketball court. There were six other such chambers at the camp— all together making up an area no larger than a high school gymnasium. One looks at their mangled ruins—some charred brick, a bit of twisted metal, an empty hole in the ground—and the mind reels. How could a million souls have disappeared into a space so small? Human beings are simply not equipped to handle such a mismatch in scale.