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Oskar Groening's Sentence Reminds Me Of My Trip to Auschwitz

07/26/2015 08:38 EDT | Updated 07/26/2016 05:59 EDT
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94-year-old former SS sergeant Oskar Groening listens to the verdict of his trial Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at a court in Lueneburg, northern Germany. Groening, who served at the Auschwitz death camp was convicted on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder and given a four-year sentence. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool Photo via AP)

Earlier this month Oskar Groening, a 94-year-old former bookkeeper was sentenced to four years imprisonment for his, albeit peripheral role, in facilitating mass murder at Auschwitz during the Second World War. News of his trial brought back my own memories of visiting Auschwitz in 2011. I'd been at a conference at the University of Gdansk, when it occurred to me that my daughter and I ought to see Auschwitz before leaving Poland. There was no shortage of tour options available out of Warsaw and Krakow, but we opted to figure out on our own how to get there. There were moments of inevitable tension as we stood on the wrong train platform time and again, beginning before dawn and battling the oppressive July heat. Here is what I've written in my journal:

In the back seat of a taxi, on road #780, I am proud to have negotiated this deal with the Polish driver who speaks no English: 300 zlotys for the 90-minute drive to Auschwitz. I keep expecting a sense of doom to descend over me, a "black cloud" sensation of evil as we approach "Oswiecim," but there is nothing to indicate that one million Jews died here. There is a woman in shorts walking by the road, a hair salon, an auto-repair shop. There's a restaurant, a deer-crossing sign, a gas station. The driver continues to speak Polish to me though I clearly don't understand. I sense that he is wanting to justify his choices -- this road over that road. I recognize the word "kilometer" and "Birkenhau." He points to green highway signs to assure me that we are on the right road. I don't know what I expected. Perhaps Gotham City from the comic book: dark skies, colourless houses, grey roads. Not ordinary people doing ordinary things: pushing strollers, cutting grass, filling up cars with gas. Perhaps it's the look of disbelief on my face that causes the driver to relentlessly point out road signs in Polish to me.

When we arrive, I discover to my consternation he intends to accompany us and provide his own running commentary on the tour. Over the next several hours, he will repeatedly tap my shoulder, point to various locations, and say words like "SS" and "Commandant." Then he will make a slicing motion across his throat or pull his finger on an imaginary machine gun and make shooting noises, like a school boy playing "war."

Who hasn't wondered how it would feel to stand inside the gas chamber or next to the ovens? The reality, though, is that these sites are too surreal to be soul-crushing. I placed my hand firmly on a wall in the gas chamber to acknowledge those whose hands clawed desperately there years ago, but the overwhelming presence of tourist paraphernalia makes it feel like a movie set: camera flashes, purses being unzipped for tissues, the smell of sweat and sunscreen, the voice of the tour guide encouraging silence in four languages.

What shut down the outside world entirely for me was not the crematorium or the gas chamber. It was the sight of the suitcases piled as high as three people standing on shoulders. Suitcases, behind glass, carefully lettered with names and addresses. Suitcases which I imagined being packed with care. "Should I bring this? Or leave it behind?" The piles of combs, the spectacles and men's shaving brushes...and then, the shoes. We lingered here the longest. Few women had packed dress shoes. No heels. No pumps. But every here and there within the vast piles, I'd spot something colourful: a pink canvas shoe with fancy fasteners at the ankle, a rainbow-coloured sandal. Those were the most painful.

I stood rooted in front of the shoes, imagining the people who once wore them...who packed them, expecting to wear them again. I struggled to take it all in, and as my eyes poured over the pile, a strange thing happened. Was it the heat? The exhaustion of navigating our way there since pre-dawn? My mind began to superimpose a black and white movie on the glass before me.

I could even hear the clickety clackety of an old film projector as the images appeared. I could see feet grow like shoots of a plant, from within the shoes. Soon a leg would appear and stretch outwards, and then an entire body would gradually take shape. It was as though the bodies had re-assembled themselves from the crematorium and come as spirits to reclaim their belongings.

Mothers made cooing sounds as they discovered the shoes of their children. One by one husbands were finding wives, mothers bent to pick up babies, sisters were linking arms, and everyone found their shoes. They toddled off as little families in the direction of their suitcases....anxious to gather up their things and head home. The entire vision lasted only a minute but it will stay with me as long as I live.

Their faces were clear in my mind's eye -- drawn from the rows of photographs of inmates that lined the walls of the block I'd just come from. I'd paused to read each name in my own private memorial pronouncing the names through open lips: Otto, Etty, Mordechai, Leah, Ewa. It was these faces that fixed themselves to the spirit people in my vision, transformed from images of the haunted and the unhinged to faces of ordinary people, collecting their loved ones and their possessions.

Oskar Groening did not herd people into the gas chamber. His term at Auschwitz was served documenting the valuables that Jews brought with them to the camp. His apology to the court was not particularly satisfying. It was one of those "I'm sorry that you see it that way" sort of apologies. Still I can't accept that prison is the best place for him. Why not require him to spend the remaining years of his life confronting holocaust deniers? Or speaking out against genocide and xenophobic nationalism? We should have done this differently.

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