Beyond the trees: last summer in Auschwitz

For my little Tully


Heat, but it is not so bad.

I always imagined Auschwitz cold; shovels breaking against icy ground; feet in wooden shoes or wrapped in rags; open wounds that do not bleed.

But it gets hot here in summer. The windows in the wooden barracks at Birkenau do not open. It is too hot for us to stay inside. The tour will continue in the shadow of another barracks, where our guide will again quote George Santayana, and we will applaud.

The SS guards would not come into the latrine barracks, due to the stench. This was the one place where prisoners could experience a momentary peace.


Auschwitz 1. Elie Wiesel’s first impression, after emerging into hell on the ramp at Birkenau: ‘better’. There are trees here. The buildings are in stone and two storey.

Some buildings are in dark wood. Like skiing huts. These are the most sinister buildings.

And at every turn the hooked fences, the double fences, and the signs in German and Polish: ‘halt!’ with death’s heads.

Everything is quiet, apart from the crunch of our feet on the gravel. We listen to the voice of our guide in the headphones.


This place was built as a military camp by the Poles. The Germans commandeered it after the partition. Poland like a piece of fruit, devoured from both sides by the Stalin-Ribbentrop pact.

I wondered for a moment that the Germans had straight away got so far East, as the first politicals arrived here in June 1940. But of course, the capital of the General Government was in Krakow. Hans Frank commandeered the castle on the hill we saw just before lunch. Hans Frank presiding over a palace with a Catholic Cathedral and a delicate renaissance arcade.


The sun behind the gate means that we can scarcely see the iron ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’. The camera lens is blackened by a blinding spear of light.

Our guide explains that the sign is ‘cynic’, since no one who went into these gates ever came out, except to work. I am not sure whether this is fully right. Maybe some were liberated here.

For the first time, this overwhelming feeling, which will return throughout the afternoon, that this cannot be real. Everything looks like a simulacrum of the Auschwitz you have dreamed about. Somehow smaller and bigger at the same time.


A conversation, some nights before. It is with a young man, well dressed, accomplished in several languages. He has a cultivated effeminacy and the corners of his mouth seem always on the verge of curving upwards into a self-satisfied smile.

 ‘Donald Trump is the most honest politician in a generation,’ he is telling us.

‘Are you kidding?’, I reply.


We are in a beautiful Warsaw garden. The whole city is a garden. Even where the ghetto was, and the roundups, there are gardens, and trees line every walkway. I had never imagined Warsaw like this.

I had imagined tram lines and narrow streets, with grey brooding memories, an image gleaned from faded photos taken in the second world war: of the long lines of men, women and children being driven on by SS, whose faces are as cold as iron or cynically leer.

‘But he lies. No, he does not even exactly lie.’

‘He does not lie. He believes everything he says.’

‘What you mean is that he says anything, with no regard for the truth. He says whatever he wants, every minute, in order to produce an effect. If it happens to be true, that is one thing. But it doesn’t matter’.

‘He bullshits. You know, like Harry Frankfurt,’ Benjamin jumps in.

‘But I grew up in France. I have seen what politicians are like.’

‘So, we should give up even expecting politicians to believe in the truth of what they’re saying?’

‘Everything he says he means.’

‘You are confusing honesty with shamelessness. Shamelessness is not honesty.’


Next to the gate, the orchestra used to play marching songs as the prisoners marched out in the mornings. To help keep order, and assist the SS in taking the roll. The musicians were Jews. But the Jews could not play any German composer.

The sign does not tell us which marches were played.


He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a
master from Germany


There is an Auschwitz restaurant where your tour will take you. Out of the window, as we wait for our lunch, you can see the gate to Birkenau, two hundred metres away.

We are served soup, which I almost comment is appropriate, but I don’t. Then we are brought a schnitzel, as tough as leather. I barely touch either serve.

No one speaks for almost the whole time before our driver reappears and it is time to enter the lager.


Birkenau, which we visit later, and only for an hour, is different from Auschwitz 1. The gate, that gate, the maw of hell. Again, it looks smaller than it had loomed in my nightmares, as vast and cold as destiny itself.

 I don’t know why it appears smaller to me. I always knew that there were the two stories on either side of the gate tower. The opening is big enough for the single train line, an engine and its cargo.

The rusted base of a small carriage is on the tracks, underneath the arch. While we wait, a few us go on to the line to take photos beneath the arch.

The guide will later tell us that this iconic gate was built only in ‘44. I also did not realise that the Judenrampe was inside this gate. The single track splits in two, just inside the maw, just as in the photos.

I somehow thought that the ramp was outside of the gate, so everyone had to walk to enter the camp. But maybe that was before ’44.

As the prisoners emerged, amidst the shouts, the dogs, the exhaustion and the confusion, the bodies of the dead and the blows of the guards, the Sonderkommandos in their striped pajamas, the barking dogs and the SS led by Mengele in their grey uniforms, the startled prisoners would have been able to see this tower, with its windows which look in four directions, the small frames like fine, dark gaps between grinning teeth.


Our guide is beautiful. She has eyes as pale and blue as an autumn sky.

As she tells us that we must remember that every hairbrush, every pair of shoes, every pot we can see in the windows in barrack 6 represents a human being, her voice breaks momentarily. I find myself looking to see if there are tears on her cheeks. I wonder how many times she must have given this tour, to be capable of such feeling, and I like her.

Her voice again breaks as she explains a photo of a mother leading terrified children towards the gas. They cannot be much older than seven. It is the last moments of their lives.


There is another man who has joined our tour. He has come by himself, and he has dark hair and a thoughtful mien. As we leave the room with the hair and the brushes, he shakes his head mournfully, in some mixture of disbelief, grief and anger. ‘What did he expect?’, I vaguely wonder, as I shake my head back mutely, lips pursed.

This is all so exactly what I had known that we would see that I am continuing to fight the sense that it is all unreal. Another nightmare of being at Auschwitz.


One little red girls’ shoe has fought its way to the surface, and tumbled forwards down the side of the mountain of faded leather, on the right side of the long shoe corridor. It is alone at the front, nearly touching the glass. I try to stop and see if I can find where its sister is. But the steady shuffle of the line moves us on.

Everyone’s expression is blank.


We descend into the basement of Barrack 11, where the first experiment with Zyklon B was conducted. There are brass tubes attached to the walls, presumably for heating, initially.

The basement is not one room. I had thought it was one room. Instead, there is a corridor with small cells, into which the hundreds of Russians and 250 sick Poles must have been crowded.

The process took half an hour, and still some were alive when the guards opened the doors. The guide tells us that from this experiment, the SS was able to calculate how much gas would be necessary in the chambers.

In the dedicated facilities at Birkenau, the process took twenty minutes, and then the Sonderkommandos would open the doors. Once there was silence.

The air is already so close, with about fifty people in the basement, that we can barely breathe.


He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a
master from Germany
he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you
shall climb to the sky
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie


The little red pamphlet written by Michelle Cohen-Halimi et Francis Cohen, Le cas Trawny, À propos des Cahiers noirs de Heidegger: I read it between attending sessions at the Warsaw conference, in the garden in front of the library, and in cafes in the old town, to prepare myself for the camps.

Trawny, the authors point out, has been feted by the leading institutions of Germany and France, as well as being the Heidegger family’s chosen editor. The authors point out how refreshing it is that in Trawny, Heidegger’s anti-semitism is not, impossibly, insulated from his thinking. Nor is it safely slated to the man who, like many other Nazis, ‘had his Jews’.

The philosopher’s anti-semitism belongs for Trawny to the ‘History of Being’, a ‘Being-historical anti-semitism’. One would have thought that this was enough, in the post-‘45 era, when the reductio ad Hitlerum had force.


Our guide shows us the ‘death wall’ in the courtyard between 10 and 11, with the memorial and the Israeli flag and the candles and the flowers. This is where prisoners found guilty of something, a strange idea in Auschwitz, were shot.

Beneath the blocked windows of barrack 10, there are two keen hooks on standing wooden posts. One does not want to think.


a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are
with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit


As we walk down the ramp towards the crossing, near where the single cattle car stands, the blond giant who has been on our tour is shaking his head: ‘They destroyed it all, didn’t they?’

‘Yeah,’ I nod.

‘My grandfather was one of the Soviets who liberated the camp.’

So he is Russian, not German. I warm to him momentarily.

‘When they came, there were thousands of prisoners, all alone, too weak to leave.’

I nod my head, and silence returns.

We continue walking towards the crossroad with the trees in the distance, beyond the ramp.


I will never forget the passage in Rudolf Höss’s memoirs when he describes Spring in Auschwitz. Birds singing, trees coming to life. And the columns of people, many very young, being led into the trees which the SS left to stand between the camp and the death machines. This contrast of the renewal of life and mechanised death struck Höss.

Even the Commandant of Auschwitz, it seems, was able to consider the death of the people he murdered with a dim echo of something like humanity, if only for one moment.

At the far end of Birkenau, beyond where our guide will take us because of the heat, there are the tall birch trees concealing the remains of Crematoria II and III. I wonder on the ramp, as our guide points to the exact spots where the selections took place, whether they are the same trees Höss had been contemplating.


a man in the house your golden hair Margarete
he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a


A photo in the museum. An SS guard, at the moment of selection, on the edge of the ramp. An old man is in front of him, but we can see only his back.

The guard points with one hand to the left, where a crowd of people are walking towards Crematoria II. A cane is against the man’s back, prompting the man to follow. He seems riveted to the spot.

This is the last moment in which his life could conceivably have been spared. The cane is pushing him towards oblivion.

There are German shepherds in many of these photos, panting with the guards.


In the German, the title of Trawny’s Irrnisfugue echoes the title of Todesfugue, the poem by Paul Celan, a Jewish survivor. Cohen’s poem had tried to capture the nightmare of the place whose broken shells surround you as you stand on the ramp, in the lines of brick chimneys and foundations no higher than your knees that reach as far as the eye can see.

There are many more chimneys on the male side of the camp than on the female.

I bend down and pick up a small stone and move it around in my hand, not knowing what else to do.


He who thinks great thoughts errs greatly, Heidegger claimed. One wonders whether, as Trawny wants to suggest, Heidegger could have thought that his subliming of the language of German hatred was ‘errancy’: of the Jews as rootless, landless, cosmopolitan, with their knack for calculation, the denizens of a ‘world conspiracy’ experiencing in the modern age a temporary ‘gain in power’ that Heidegger apparently did not think Kristallnacht and the Shoah had overturned.

The Shoah, Heidegger tells us, is the culminating act of Jewish self-destruction. Even the SS, it seems, were Jewish avatars in this malign vision.

‘Why on earth did you come here?’, a Sonderkommando shouted angrily to Elie and his father amidst the frenzy of the first moments on the ramp.

The reply: ‘do you think we came here of our own free will?’


He calls play that death thing more sweetly Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
he calls scrape that fiddle more darkly then hover like smoke in the air
then scoop out a grave in the clouds where it’s roomy to lie


So I think again of Celan’s poem, the Todesfugue, that Trawny, extraordinarily, proposes that we can align with Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, in which the philosopher avows the most vulgar antisemitism.

And I think of the great fire which the crazed woman on Elie Wiesel’s transport saw prophetically in the transport. The fire at the top of the chimneys which greeted the arrivals in Birkenau, with the searing heat of the pits in which the children’s lifeless bodies were being incinerated, along with Eli’s ancestral faith.


Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink
we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start flashing he whistles his
 dogs to draw near
whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of sand
he comm
ands us to play for the dance


Outside, in a small wooded grove, there is the second gallows we have seen. The first was in front of the Appelplatz, more a wide street than the open square I had imagined.

This second gallows is where former prisoners elected that Rudolf Höss, the man who whistled his Jews to appear and commanded prisoners to play for the dance, was hung in 1947.

Over the stone wall, on the far side, through the leafy trees, one can glimpse the garden where he and his children had played and the house in which this man and his family lived for five years.


At lunch, to break the silence, I ask the two young Americans in the group where they are from, and what brings them here.

‘She always wanted to come to Auschwitz’, the young man replies, and the girl nods.

‘Yeah, it’s strange isn’t it?’, I reply, and we smile sad smiles.

Tomorrow, they will travel to Rome. I tell them that it will be hotter there, and more crowded.


‘The highest political act consists in insensibly implicating the enemy in a situation where he finds himself constrained to organise his own self-destruction.’ (Martin Heidegger, GA 96: 262)


He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others
you sing and you play
he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are
his eyes
stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on
for the dancing


At the end of the tour of Auschwitz 1, I did not know that we would find the remains of a chamber. I thought that the work of destroying all evidence had been complete.

It is a sinister-looking thing which could scarcely be mistaken for anything else. A single chimney emerges from a large, grass-covered mound of earth.

It is outside of the area of the camp that the prisoners could access, guarded by the two hooked lines of electrified wire, and the paths between them that we have all seen the emaciated ones filing along in the pictures.

No, our guide tells us. This was only used until 1943, when the extermination was fully moved to Birkenau. There, the chambers were much bigger. Two thousand at one time, as against several hundred. Nine thousand a day at the height of the Hungarian ‘Aktion’, Höss records in his memoirs.

So this mound, intact, was used after ’43 as an arms depot. The Germans did not feel they needed to wholly annihilate it. It has been reconstructed from the original bricks.


Heidegger says that the Jews in the chambers did not die, they perished. People still leap ahead to defend him. He is surely saying what his lover, a Jewess, also said, what Primo Levi said, and what all who survived have said.


One is not allowed to speak when one is inside, out of respect for the thousands murdered here by the SS.  There are black beams supporting the roof of the chamber.  It is so dark that one needs the guides to show the chutes in the ceiling from which the gas fell. 

Then there are the scratch marks on the wall. One can only imagine what agonies could have forced fingernails into the grey of this block concrete, heavy as death.

There are four crematoria in the adjoining room.  They are brass, like cauldrons, and appear red-golden in the glancing sunlight. 

We file past slowly and exit out into the whisper of the trees. 


Auschwitz was a vast machinery to dehumanise the person. By the time that they were murdered, these 1.1 million people had lost everything. Rather, everything had been taken from them by terror and force. Down finally to their hair, their pots, their brushes. Even, in many cases, their clothes.

The numbers on the left arm that remain seared there until death, in place of a name.

Starvation, degradation, exposure, exhaustion, shock, terror, anguish, separation, loss, confusion, malnutrition, overwork, unspeakable cruelty, disorientation, fatigue, deceit, illness, injury, hopelessness, despair.

Many of these men, women and children walked knowingly but without protest into the trees at the other end of the camp we can see from the ramp, and which our guide tells us that it is too hot for us today to visit, but that beyond them we could see the remains of Crematoria II and III.


Carved in birchbark a plea – ‘remember’,
cries out for the lost tribe
this grove once mocked.
The birches and the memory still grow, pointedly,
heavenward, screaming at God.


‘But he is the god emperor’, the young man is now saying.

I lose my temper.

‘He is not the god emperor!’

My friends are being ironic, someone says. They are playing with words.

I don’t see the humor in describing the elected leader of a 200-year old republic as a god emperor, but don’t find the words.

I think of the old Jewish joke in Freud, about the man going to Krakow: ‘Why are you telling me you are going to Krakow, so I think you are going to Rameny, and you really are going to Krakow?’

‘That is what Alt-righters call him online,’ I say, and the young dilettante looks surprised that I know this.

 ‘So I don’t call him that. I write against these guys. Are you a Trumpist?’

‘No’, he says. And one is bound by language and civilisation to presume for honesty.


Nazism, and this place above all, operates a double annihilation. Firstly, the crime is committed. People are violated, undone, with every device that malice can conceive, and then they killed in ways people outside can scarcely imagine.

Then, secondly, one destroys the evidence. An annihilation of the annihilation. Forgetting, denialism, was not begun by David Irving, Le Pen pére and the others. It was begun with dynamite in the opening days of 1945, at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Heidegger’s contribution has been to introduce it into philosophy, not as a matter of fact, but of ontological mystification.


Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall
we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at
drink you and drink you


That is why I fight the sense that this is unreal, again and again – that one cannot believe that these things happened, and that we are standing, as our guide says, on the largest cemetery on earth.

The German philosopher is wrong. No one perished here as animals perish. Men, women, children were brutalised and murdered by other human beings playing at being some accursed, nameless God.

To redouble this dehumanisation in our language, and say that the millions only ‘perished’, but did not ‘die’, is not wisdom but complicity.


Back in Warsaw, in the garden, amidst the trees.

‘But I am not praising Trump by saying that he is honest’.

‘Are you familiar with the idea of casuistry, my friend?’

There is no reply.

‘If I say to you that I think you are dishonest, I am not praising you’.

‘But there are different forms of negation,’ a third jumps in. And so the moment becomes stranger, more weightless and surreal.

Again, I am told that these folks are playing with words.

‘Yes, but to call someone dishonest is not to pat them on the back. If I call Benjamin dishonest, I am not applauding him.’

‘Yes … but even so …’


a man in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents


And so the conversation, which has become unpleasant, fades into silence.

We talk about something else, anything else.

Once the moment has passed, I tell Benjamin quietly that I worry that we are losing the simple, forthright language that will be able to prevent the reemergence of the very worst.

With sadness in his large eyes, he concurs.

When fascism comes again, it will have been presaged by a thousand conversations like this.


There are birches you can see in the distance at Birkenau. They must be 500 metres from where the selections took place on the Judenrampe, a 5-10 minute walk.

They were planted by the SS to conceal the Crematoria, the guide has been telling us. But the flames and smoke were visible immediately to the new arrivals. And the ashes would fall from the sky for miles around on the living, as the smoke traced out a vast invisible grave in the sky.

If fascism comes again, most people will turn away.



Image: Entrance to gas chamber II changing room at Auschwitz, Flickr

Matthew Sharpe

Matt Sharpe teaches philosophy at Deakin University and has written for The Conversation, Arena and various other magazines.

More by Matthew Sharpe ›

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