Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Late last year, in early October, Sidra and I visited Poland for the first time, and among our stops, inevitably, we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Walking the pathway, smack down the middle of the camp, I decided not to write about the experience until today, not out of any sense of decorum, but because I knew I would need some time to see what faded and what stuck. Four months seemed about the minimum one needed to let first impressions ripen.
And now, having let time pass, I feel nearly as dumbstruck as I did then. For the overwhelming first impression I had in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which I still fear bringing to consciousness, was the terrible beauty of the place. And this, of all things, has stuck. I don't mean the beauty of the meadow and forest, about which much has been written: the pathos of the birdsong, the mocking of the seasons. I have enough imagination to assume that the sounds of captivity and stench of murder would put the idyll of any countryside into a dark eclipse. I mean the perfect symmetry and elegant architectural touches of the camp itself: the deco curves in the pylons holding the electrified wires, the broad-shouldered grandeur of the masonry walls, the angular roof-lines over the receiving gates. Now, 60 years later, it looked to me like a flattened, transplanted Brooklyn Bridge gone to seed.
All of which put another thought in my head: what I am seeing now in my mind's eye is very nearly how the camp must have looked to the architect, one Lothar Hartjenstein, before any structure actually went up. I can see him fussing over his blue-prints at 3 AM, perhaps tamping out his last cigarette, finally putting down his pencil. "Ya...," I can hear him whispering to himself, the goose-flesh rising on his arms. It dawned on me that, perhaps, the most devilish Nazis after all were the Speers and the Hartjensteins, the purveyors of perfect symmetry. How magnificent was the world they dreamed up, which so many young Germans could only fall in love with; a world as beautiful as an F-16 in flight or a Victoria Secret model after Photoshop.
"Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made," Immanuel Kant, once remarked. But would he have bothered issuing this supreme warning had he not known that a big part of what made us so crooked was our yearning for straight things? And what of the inmates themselves? Did they not, too, yearn? The thing that pains me the most is the thought that any number of Birkenau's victims might have disembarked and, in spite of their terror and hatred, been struck by its grandeur, too; that among the burdens they had to bear, having lost their lives even before they were killed, was the thought, however fleeting, that the camp architecture was somehow proof of their being dispatched by what could only be thought civilization.
My dear friend, the late Ilona Karmel, survived the Plashow camp a few miles away. Sidra and I visited that site, too, and walked its gentle hill. Ila never told me this, but it was clear from the camp's vantage point that she could see the low-slung, stately buildings of downtown Krakow in the distance, the way one sees downtown Boston from Farlow Hill in Newton Corner. She told me once that she strangely missed the camp now and then, because it was the only moment in her life when she knew, exactly, right from wrong. Another symmetry Nazis--but not only Nazis--achieved.