Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945) in Auschwitz-Birkenau, was for me – as it has doubtless been for countless tourists – an experience never to be forgotten.
The objective of the site is not to let the world forget the horrors of war, particularly the incredible evil of the Nazis. In my case, the site has succeeded. Although I was born at the end of the war, I shall never forget the Holocaust.
One of the things I learned is that the victims of the horror were not just the Jews. The camp was the site of the mass murder of non-Jewish Poles, Romas (we call them gypsies, which is a derogative term and thus politically incorrect), Russian prisoners, and other prisoners from outside Poland. A sign inside the site quotes a Nazi commander saying, “All Poles, Jews, Russians, and Gypsies should be exterminated.”
In fact, the first inmates were Polish intellectuals (not all of them Jewish), Russian prisoners of war, German criminals, and German homosexuals. One thing the tour guide said struck me: “Not all Germans were Nazis and not all Nazis were German.” Some of the most cruel torturers in Auschwitz, confirmed another tour guide, were not even German Nazis (or SS) but criminals put in charge of inmates.
The main site is in the Polish town of Oświęcim, mispronounced and renamed by the Nazis as Auschwitz. Another site is a few minutes away, that of Birkenau, which today is just ruins, because the Nazis burned it down in an attempt to destroy all evidence of the mass murder.
The Auschwitz site, more precisely called Auschwitz I, is very well preserved. The beautifully-architectured prewar buildings form an ironic background to the real identity of the camp. Within the camp, about 1.1 million human beings were slaughtered by the Nazis.
In the beginning, mass murder was part of scientific experiments in medicine and in biological warfare. Later, the site became a factory, supplying Germany with artificial limbs taken from dead prisoners, human hair to be woven into rugs, and ashes for building roads. It also became a laboratory for time and motion studies of the Nazis, who learned how to become more efficient in terms of how many persons could be killed in the least amount of time and how to build incinerators that could burn the most number of bodies with the least amount of heat. The lack of humanity in the Nazis is evident in every square inch of the site.
What makes the site extremely effective in touching the hearts of visitors is the progression of exhibits, carefully designed along theatrical lines. The visitors are first shown into exhibit halls with photographs and photocopies of various pieces of evidence of the mass murders. Soon the visitors see actual pieces left intact from the war, including canisters of Zyklon-B (the basic chemical poison used in the gas chambers), various objects taken from the victims (eyeglasses, artificial limbs, hair, suitcases, household goods, clothes, and so on), the gallows, and the wall against which many prisoners were shot. Eventually, after seeing various torture cells, visitors enter a gas chamber.
What the Nazis did was clearly one of the lowest points in the history of humanity. We should not forget, however, that it was only one of many low points. Mass murders have occurred many times in our history, with huge portions of populations deliberately killed by invaders. The Auschwitz memorial is unique because it aims to make us remember. We have forgotten most of the other mass murders.
As I walked through the Auschwitz memorial, I could not help but fantasize that, one day, the Philippine government will put up similar memorials to ensure that Filipinos and foreign tourists will never forget the mass murders that happened in our own country.
Not being a historian, I cannot list them all. I just remember the attacks on the Chinese by the Spanish troops, the Balangiga massacre, the tortures done by the Japanese in Fort Santiago, and the tortures by the military during the Marcos dictatorship. If the United Nations is to be believed, torture continues to be used even today under Gloria Arroyo. Do we not owe it to our children to have them remember these horrors of declared and undeclared wars in the Philippines?
The Auschwitz buildings are just nice buildings without the exhibits. Fort Santiago is just a fort (which is so nice lovers actually enjoy walking there) without a well-conceived museum showing the horrors of World War II. Fort Bonifacio has turned into a tourist attraction not because of the tortures inflicted there on Filipinos during martial law, but because of its high-end restaurants.
Just as it is true that not all Germans were Nazis (see the movie Valkyrie), it is also obviously true that not all Spaniards hated the Chinese, not all Americans thought we were monkeys with no tails, not all Japanese condoned Fort Santiago, not all of the Marcos loyalists cheered the military torturers, and not all of our government officials today are turning a blind eye towards the government-sanctioned killings of ordinary citizens but, as the Auschwitz exhibit says, quoting George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”