Leonard Pitts: Hell was a place called Auschwitz

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 26, 2020

By Leonard Pitts

This week marks 75 years since Soviet troops stormed the gates of hell.

Hell was near a Polish town called Oswiecim. Hell was a place called Auschwitz.

Seven and a half decades later, the murder factory has all but passed from living memory, been swallowed by that great maw called history. So perhaps it feels distant to you, far removed in space and time.

In 2005, the year of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I went to Poland with a Holocaust remembrance group led by a man named Joe Engel. We toured Majdanek, Belzec, Treblinka and the two main camps of the Auschwitz complex, from which Engel escaped in January 1945.

With the Soviets closing in, the Nazis tried to run, sweeping nearly 60,000 prisoners before them. Engel, then 17, said he jumped from a train and hid beneath eight feet of snow until the Nazis gave up looking for him and the train moved on.

Standing outside an Auschwitz barracks six decades later, we talked about that sense of distance and how, for those who were not there, those for whom these events are history, not memory, the Holocaust can seem not quite real. His English still imperfect even after 50 years in the United States, Engel recalled once being challenged by a girl when he spoke at her school.

“She rised up and she said, ‘I don’t believe you, what you said. How could one human do it to another one like this?’ I said, ‘You don’t believe me? I take you to the place, so you can find out, you can see for your own eyes.’ You couldn’t convince her. You got people now said the Jews made it up.”

And even among those of us who don’t deny the Holocaust, there is, isn’t there, a sense that here is something aberrant, that what happened in places like Auschwitz bespeaks some deviance unique to the Germans and to that era. We are not Germans, we reason. And anyway, we are much more enlightened now.

In its own way, this conceit of distance is just as dangerous as the conceit of denial.

At a restaurant in Warsaw, a few days after the trip to Auschwitz, Engel raised a toast and admonished us in the name of the dead. “Don’t you ever forget me, so long you gon’ live. You tell this story for us, because we not here to tell this story.”

The truth no one ever speaks about the Holocaust is that it was imminently logical. If you accept a premise that some human beings are vermin and trash, viruses and animals, that they are at home in broken, rat-infested places, that they are invaders from “s—hole countries,” then it is a short leap to the imperative to rid yourself of them as quickly and efficiently as possible.

You don’t negotiate with roaches. You don’t waste compassion on bacteria.

The only thing that made the Germans different — the only thing — was their decision to follow the premise to that logical end: murder on an industrial scale. It’s a decision that echoes like the footfall of soldiers and the tread of tanks, that moans like a wind foreshadowing storm, in synagogue shootings and church murders, in broken tombstones and desecrated mosques, in prayers that rise in whispered Spanish from chain-link cages. And in the disinterest of those who stand witness.

Engel told me that when the war ended, survivors like him thought, “That’s the end of everything. But you can see now what’s going on. People still killing people and everything. Things didn’t change.”

Maybe they won’t until we rid ourselves of this conceit of distance. So, for the record, please note: It’s now 75 years since Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz.

That’s not as long ago as you might think. And not nearly so far away.

Email Pitts at lpitts@miamiherald.com