Today we traveled to Auschwitz, the German name for Oswiecim. It's an hour's ride from Krakow. I've been there twice before, but the visit is still shocking. Each time another facet of the camp comes into focus. Today I was struck by the routinization of genocide, the industrial-style organization of the death process that surpasses brutality and leaps into the bizarre. The modernity and efficiency of this extermination site is a distinctive feature of what the Nazis termed "the Final Solution," a dimension that sets the Holocaust apart in the sad roll call of mass murders. No wonder the starved, exhausted victims could not imagine the fate that awaited them. Such an industrialized form of killing was not yet a part of history. That traces of humanity survived at all among the victims seems miraculous.
I've noticed that in the last decade the historical background provided by the guides has improved. The young man who was our guide (and the guides are almost all under 40) was well trained and informed. Auschwitz is a research center where historical data is continually explored and updated. Conservators maintain the camps; funds for maintenance are provided by the Polish and German governments, the EU, and Unesco. It is very costly to keep the site preserved and part of what visitors see is reconstruction. The territory that comprised the entire Auschwitz complex is very large. To set up the camp, the Germans cleared the area of all Polish population, deported them, and used their buildings' material to build the camp. Slave labor was the fate of only those who were healthy enough to work---some 20-25% of those transported to Auschwitz. The vast majority transported (especially women with children, the elderly, the infirm) went directly to death.