A clump of paper birch trees was planted by my neighbor in his front yard several years ago. Today, the white-bark trees stand out proudly against his blue house in Des Moines. They delight the eye. Their cousin, the river birch, is in our front yard across the street. 80 feet tall. It is a monster of a tree. Our white-bark tree also stands proudly over our house. Both sets of trees seem protective as they sit like sentries in our neighborhood. Guarding us against evil.
Listen . . . .
I was not surprised to see the displays of shoes taken from the victims of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Adult shoes. Children’s shoes. Stylish shoes. Yes, even shoes with holes. All in one pile. When the Soviets arrived to liberate the camps in 1945, they found 43,525 pairs of shoes not yet shipped out by the Nazis.
It is also no surprise the source of these items. The Nazis deported, at a minimum, 1,100,000 Jews to these camps located on the edge of the Polish town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz to the Germans), about 30 miles from Krakow. And those numbers don’t even include the thousands upon thousands of Poles and Roma taken to Auschwitz. The large majority of newly-arrived victims — the children, the sick, the elderly, pregnant women, mothers with small children — were stripped of these same displayed clothes and were immediately pushed into the gas chambers. The remaining small group, the “prisoners,” were also stripped of their clothing, their heads shaved, and they were put to work, or experimented upon, or shot, or hung. Their lives were a couple of weeks or a couple of months or a couple of years. As one surviving prisoner wrote: “[The Nazis told us] you did not come here to live, you came here to die, and you will.”
The size of the place is also not a surprise. I stood midway on the train tracks in Birkenau and looked down to the far trees. It’s like standing at the Polk County Courthouse and looking east down Court Avenue all the way to the Des Moines River. Now, do that same distance in all four directions. There you go. The size of Birkenau.
Auschwitz and Birkenau were distinct camps, but they were really part of the same complex made up of several nearby camps. Birkenau’s claim was its ability to kill and cremate the most people in the quickest time. It had four main gas chambers with crematoriums, each able to murder 5000 people a day. Efficiency was documented and prized by the Nazis. Meticulous work orders were saved even for the crematoriums. No surprise.
I was also not surprised by the display of hundreds of canisters of deadly gas pellets, Zyklon-B, that were poured down the chimneys into the gas chambers.
Our guide, a Polish woman, who committed to this life’s work when she was 18, told us that the poison gas pellets were activated by the heat of the victims’ bodies. Even the choice of poison seemed to underscore Nazi hatred. The Jews must die, according to the Nazis, as long as their bodies are warm. Hate is not surprising. Gut-wrenching. Horrible. But not surprising.
No, I was surprised by only one thing . . . .
The three of us walked through the main gate of Birkenau, down the tracks that run on and on until they don’t, and then we turned to the right. We passed the gas chambers and crematoriums that the Nazis tried to destroy before the Soviets arrived. Crematorium III, with it’s stairs going downward into the large vault where thousand upon thousands had their final moments. Crematorium IV, which was destroyed in a mutiny by Jewish prisoners in 1944 — three SS men dead — 250 Jews killed. The ruins of Crematorium V.
And then we looked up.
We are totally alone. Not another human soul. Birds call somewhere in the far distance. Muted. The grey sky empties the late-winter landscape of all color. Dusk in the middle of the afternoon. Everything appears to be descending, enveloping, eroding.
And then there’s the birch trees. They rise up out of the forest floor, stately and proud, watching us watch.
There’s a picture, taken by one of the SS officers in 1944, showing dozens of mothers and children, and an old man or two, next to these trees. Waiting to go into the gas chamber. Sitting and standing in this forest. Moments from death. Innocent.
I ask our guide if it was really this peaceful back then.
“Yes,” she says. “I have talked to several survivors who said it was very quiet because no one wanted to say anything that would draw the Nazi’s notice. If the Nazis noticed them, they were beaten or shot.”
And are these the same trees as back then? “Yes,” she says. I later read that the Polish variety of the “common birch tree” lives to over 100 years.
The guide considers me as I look closely at the trees, and she says: “You know, the name ‘Birkenau’ means birch trees.”
Of course it does. Certainly it does. How could it not? A nightmare wrapped in festive paper.
Yes, I admit it, I am totally surprised as I stand next to these trees. I know it doesn’t make sense. I know I’m an old guy whose mind is on the way out. I know that crazy is actually crazy. But I can’t stop thinking — given what the birch trees saw, how can they not be weeping?