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Facing Evil – Thoughts on a Visit to Auschwitz

Michal Govrin, Hold on to the Sun: True Stories and Legends, The Feminist Press, NY, 2010 | Translated from the Hebrew by Barabara Harshav

Discussions are currently underway about restoring the Auschwitz Museum, which was established on the grounds of the concentration camp two years after World War II. I visited the museum last summer as part of a writing journey in which I followed in the footsteps of my mother, a Holocaust survivor. When I returned, bewildered by the exhibit, I was asked to share my thoughts with the museum’s advisory committee.
My first visit to Auschwitz was thirty years ago, alone, as a young Israeli doctoral student living abroad in Paris.1 That was before I began to cope with the past of my mother, Rina Govrin, who went on the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen; and it was before I began to come to terms with the short life of her son, my half-brother Marek Laub, who was sent to the gas chambers at the age of eight after his father was murdered. That was before the concept of the “second generation” became common currency, back when Communist Poland was largely closed off to the Western world. In the empty, abandoned spaces of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I found only a small group of Polish schoolchildren in the late autumn chill, as if time had stopped. And there, in the heart of the menacing silence of the biggest cemetery in the world, echoed the rage to shout that which lies outside the human capacity for language and imagination.
Dazed, I walked among the blocs of Auschwitz and across the grounds of Birkenau. And there, facing the silence of the place, I understood that I couldn’t go on denying the past, though it had seemed so easy in the Tel Aviv of my childhood or in Paris of the 1970s. From then on, much of what I wrote was, in some way, an echo of my mother’s story.2

Those who were murdered have left no personal traces, and even in the museum, they practically do not exist – not as human beings. Not in their previous lives and not as they lived between the fences of the camp, in the blocs, the huts, the lines to death.

Last summer, I returned as part of a “delegation of two” with Rachel-Shlomit, my older daughter, who had lost her grandmother as a baby. It was a full twenty years after my mother’s death, but I traveled with the voices of the women who had survived alongside her and who had conveyed to me, one by one, several strands of the story she had silenced. On that summer morning, the museum was teeming with masses of visitors from all over the world, both individuals and groups, only a few from Israel. This time, when we were swallowed up among those congregating at the museum exhibits, what was most apparent to me was the mighty process of erasing. Then and now.
Among the other tourists who were divided into groups, we were led by a Polish guide on an official tour. Following now in my own footsteps as well, I passed through the museum exhibits for the second time in my life. As the visit progressed, I was confronted by a sense of internal paralysis. I felt the renewed shock of facing the trap of destruction — the ramp where the transports arrived straight to death, and its alternative: forced labor, starvation, human experimentation laboratories, and only then to the gas chambers with cans of Zyklon B and the ovens. And the remains, heaps of remains: the shoes, the eyeglasses, the brushes, the hair. But at the same time, I was seized by another emptiness that grew stronger: the silence of millions of human beings who were murdered and tortured here. During the visit, they were once again swallowed up in the anonymity of mass numbers, in the facelessness of collective identity, in the deceptive glory of martyrdom.  And they were swallowed, too, in the compressed piles of remains that stood as holy relics in glass display cases. Among the masses of visitors, their absence reverberated.

Auschwitz is a graveyard without a grave. The Nazi death factory murdered a million and a half people here, systematically wiping out their ashes and their memory. Those who were murdered have left no personal traces, and even in the museum, they practically do not exist – not as human beings. Not in their previous lives and not as they lived between the fences of the camp, in the blocs, the huts, the lines to death. The names of the dead or of the survivors aren’t mentioned, and their photos are hard to find. Few have voices, and most of their stories remain untold. The museum doesn’t show us the complexity of their responses, and they remain frozen for the most part as they appear in Nazi documentation. And so, facing the detailed exhibition of the face of evil, there is almost no echo of the human experience in the Lager in the Auschwitz Museum. This is not at the center of the exhibition, nor are the many ways in which human beings stood tall or collapsed to the ground in the face of evil.

Feeling dizzy, I retreated from the groups of visitors. Despite myself, I felt like a collaborator. As if with a one-way gaze, the visitor to Auschwitz continues to wipe out the humanity of the Lager inmates, reducing them to a pile of organic matter that will decay over the years. And so, it wasn’t just the heaps of hair that dismayed me, but also their graying color (even though, according to the museum’s documents, the hair underwent preservation in the museum labs in 1968, when a hundred kilos of dust were removed from it, and its “natural color” was restored).

But Auschwitz was not established by God or created by Satan. Man built Auschwitz, and man tortured human beings to death in it. The victims of Auschwitz didn’t die for the “Sanctification of the Name,” but struggled for the “Sanctification of life.”

When confronted with the itinerary of our tour through the torture blocs and the paths that led to death, I felt like I was waiting in line with the crowds that had thronged, all throughout history, to take part in the macabre tradition of the spectacle of death – from the medieval scenes of hell to the curio tours of the torture chambers, up to the thrill of the haunted house ride in amusement parks. The deep fascination with the culture of horror shows still lives on even after Auschwitz, after Rwanda and Darfur, and also after September 11 (which won Stockhausen’s praise for its “aesthetic force”).

I sat helplessly at the side of the path between the blocs, and I knew that, as with the tradition of the macabre, so on the visit to Auschwitz, the good ones would come out better and the bad ones worse. When confronted with evil, some will whisper a vow of justice and others will repeat the wicked catechisms of the grand executioners.

Can it be that, despite its noble intentions, the Auschwitz Museum is essentially a memorial to the Genius of Evil? Will it contribute to the unbearable dizzying swirl of terms such as holiness, victimhood, martyrdom? Will it enhance the vertigo which, perhaps, began with the victimizing sacred concept of “Holo-Caust” (burnt offering; burnt whole), coined by Francois Mauriac in his introduction to Eli Wiesel’s Night, and which has since become the “desired term” in the global “contest” of blood for the status of victim, and for the venal sanctification of martyrdom and death (including that of suicide bombers)?3

But Auschwitz was not established by God or created by Satan. Man built Auschwitz, and man tortured human beings to death in it. The victims of Auschwitz didn’t die for the “Sanctification of the Name,” but struggled for the “Sanctification of life,” as Rabbi Isaac Nussbaum declared during his last months in the Warsaw Ghetto. In the Lager, man was revealed, in his depths and his heights.
And what about the voice of the human beings? How to make them heard in the pit of hell? How to memorialize the ways they stood facing evil? How to listen to the many facets of meaning revealed in the heart of evil? How to recall the despair, the weakness, the strength, the cruelty, the brotherhood, the compassion, the heresy and the belief in God, in man? How to learn the extreme lesson of the Lager, of what Victor Frankel termed “man’s search for meaning”?  

On that afternoon at Auschwitz, I didn’t return to the groups of visitors. Through the exhibitions, the blocs, and the huts, I tried to hold on to my mother’s story — the story that she, refusing to be a victim, was determined to erase when she came to Israel in 1948 — and so she underwent an operation to remove the number from her arm, and her story was silenced until she died. I held on to the threads of that story that had been hidden in my childhood and that I had pieced together in recent years from relatives and from the ten women, the “Zenershaft,” as they were called in the camps, with whom my mother had survived Plaszow, Birkenau, Auschwitz, the death march and Bergen-Belsen. How, after their families were murdered, they strengthened one another amidst the torture, the forced labor, the hunger; and how they helped one another, took the weak ones out of the selection lines, lit Hanukkah candles in bloc 24, shared their bread, tried to go on laughing, to go on maintaining a human image. I pictured my uncle, Tovek Poser, who threw himself onto the electrified fence of Auschwitz, and eight-year-old Marek who was sent to death with the children’s transport from Plaszow.

My legs buckling, next to my daughter, I came to the birches behind the chimneys of the crematoria. In the distance, the voice of an Israeli teacher could be heard reading excerpts of personal testimonies to her students. Without a word, I searched for a moment for a sign carved in a tree. My mother’s friend had told me that as they were waiting at the entrance to the gas chambers, when some were saying their final confessions, my mother had walked among the birches. She was seeking a sign that Marek might have left for her. I looked for a sign, too. A personal one. When I found none, I marked on one of the trunks the letter M – the first letter of our names: Marek. Michal. And then, in this place steeped in smoke and ashes, I said Kaddish.

This is the place to hear the voices of man. To listen to the trenchant lesson of the Lager: the lesson of how man can create a machinery of annihilation, and the lesson about the ways to hold on to life and to meaning – the founding lesson of humanity. This is the place where the visitor comes to listen to the voices of man, and from here s/he will carry them to his/her home to turn to them in the crucial moments of his/her life.

The Auschwitz Museum was established in 1947 by the Polish government. When the Russian army entered the camp, a group of Polish survivors fought to preserve the remnants so as to thwart the Nazis’ attempt at complete obliteration, and so as to collect evidence of the crimes that were committed at Auschwitz. Later on, it was decided to make no changes in the site — to respect it as a graveyard, and to preserve it as it was at the time of the Liberation. The piles of personal items, the hair, the blocs, the huts, the remains of the crematoria became silent witnesses, and Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp became a place of memory. A place of testimony and condemnation.

The founders of the museum refrained from sharing their private experiences in public. “Your mother didn’t have to talk about Auschwitz, she was there,” one of her survivor friends told me recently. But the life experiences of the members of that generation is not the legacy of future generations. Presenting the machinery of death and torture is only half the story. The other half is the story of human beings facing evil.

When the gates of Auschwitz were opened in January 1945, the camp was almost completely empty. Most of the prisoners had been sent on a death march to labor and extermination camps throughout Poland and Germany. What remained in Auschwitz were the silent remnants of the machinery of annihilation, and the Nazi lists, photos, and other forms of documentation. Those were the artifacts that comprised most of the original exhibition.

The stories of the inmates were revealed very gradually. Only years later were diaries of the members of the Sonderkommando dug up out of the piles of ashes in the chimneys of the crematoria and added to the exhibition. The voices of the survivors were late in being heard too, either because of all those who were unwilling to listen, or because the survivors were trying to put the past aside and establish a new life for themselves. In the first years, society could bear to listen only to the bold voices of the underground fighters and the rebels. They resonated in a world that had fought the Nazis, and in a nascent State of Israel in the midst of its own war for existence. It was years until the concept of heroism could also echo in a piece of bread given by one prisoner to another, in a prayer of the Days of Awe handwritten by memory in the absence of prayer books, in the ability to love in the Lager, in the gallows humor, or in the voice of Primo Levi, who recited Dante on his way to pick up the pot of soup. Years passed until the stigma of “like sheep to the slaughter” began to fade – we had to first endure the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics (1972) to prove that hostages, even able-bodied ones, may actually be helpless vis-à-vis their captors. Years passed until the rage of survival gained recognition and appreciation – the hasty marriages, the astonishing number of babies born in the DP camps, and the survivors’ obstinate will to live. Years passed until the guilt of the survivors vis-à-vis the killed, and even more the guilt of society vis-à-vis the survivors, gave way to listening and documentation. At the last moment.

For sixty years, material has been collected in archives, libraries and courts. We have testimonies, Video interviews, conversations with children and grandchildren. Slowly the names of the dead were gathered, and the solitary voices coalesced into a great chorus of personal stories disassembling the anonymous mass of people-turned-numbers and restoring the faces to the millions who filled Auschwitz. Writing the mighty story of the human face.

The founders of the museum stopped the systematic suppression of all traces of Nazi atrocity. But the exhibits didn’t stop the impulse of denial – as is demonstrated by the speeches of Ahmadinajab culminating in the recent Holocaust Denial Conference in Tehran, or the many websites devoted to this cause which play saccharine music as they present Auschwitz as “a model work camp” with a “sauna” and an “orchestra” and a “hospital”…

More and more museums in the world are telling the stories of the human faces of the Holocaust, led by Yad Vashem in its new incarnation. So maybe that’s enough? Maybe there’s no need for a pilgrimage to the place of dread, that place that lies outside of time and place?

Among the group of stone buildings and the expanses of crumbling huts, the story of humanity is buried. Here, everyone comes to confront their own past: the children and grandchildren of the murderers and the murdered, of the torturers and the tortured, of those who stood on the side and those who reached out a hand. It is the meeting place of the human spirit. The meeting place and the place for the accounting of the soul. Here the battle for memory and meaning is waged, a battle that is ongoing and urgent – a battle that will determine the face of our world.

This is the place to weep for the dead, to remember their names, ages, and places of origin; to mourn for the loss of children, musicians, rabbis, students, artisans, workers, industrialists, scientists, artists; to mourn for near and distant relatives, for our people or for people of other lands. Every visitor in his or her own way.

Auschwitz wasn’t on another planet; it was an extreme manifestation of the human soul. This is the place to hear the voices of man. To listen to the trenchant lesson of the Lager: the lesson of how man can create a machinery of annihilation, and the lesson about the ways to hold on to life and to meaning – the founding lesson of humanity. This is the place where the visitor comes to listen to the voices of man, and from here s/he will carry them to his/her home to turn to them in the crucial moments of his/her life. Inevitably, we will all have our own moments of accounting – in situations when we ourselves will be strong or will be held hostage, when we will be asked to choose between turning our backs or holding out our hands.

In a new techno-savvy Auschwitz Museum, visitors should have access to an enormous human mosaic of voices and stories. Voices of the murdered and voices of the survivors, voices of the second and third generation, and of artists, thinkers, and psychologists. A mighty chorus of voices that will resound through the silence of the graveyard. And the visitor will lend an ear to the voices s/he will choose, the voices s/he will encounter, the voices with whom s/he will converse in his/her soul.

Before the shape of the memory is stamped on to the Museum, and before the events of the Holocaust retreat to the realms of myth and are frozen into ritual, it is urgent to recall just what is the memory of Auschwitz, and what are its voices.

In the bus that took my daughter and me and the other visitors out of Auschwitz, there was silence. I looked at the numb, withdrawn people. There were Europeans and Americans, Asians and Africans, and a shabby young couple with a Tartar look who were resting, their heads leaning on one another. The setting sun gilded the summer fields and the faces of the passengers, and bathed the gentle motion of the bus in a soft light.

In Auschwitz, a universal story was written. A story with many voices, many faces. A living memory, compelling, demanding, of every single human to view himself as if he, too, had come out of Auschwitz.


  1. Michal Govrin, “The journey to Poland“, Partisan Review, 1999/4.
  2. As, in English translation, in: The Name, novel, Riverhead Books of Penguin, New York, 1998; La Promenade, novella, in: Facing the Holocaust, ed., Ranraz-Rauch G., and Michman-Melkman J. JPS, Philadelphia, 1985.
  3. Martyrs or Survivors?” Thoughts on the Mythical Dimension of the Story War. Partisan Review 2003/2; Les Temps Modernes mai-juin-juillet 2003.