Auschwitz

In August, before going to Bucharest, I went to visit Auschwitz. The former extermination camp is located around 70 kilometers west of Krakow. From Krakow, you have many options to visit Auschwitz. You can go by train, bus or car.

Although I have read many things about this extermination camp, it’s entirely different from being there. It is one thing to get info about the life in the death factory and a different experience to be in a chamber where hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

Entry to Auschwitz extermination camp. In front of the well-known iron gate with the message “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

The Auschwitz camp was first used as a labor camp and then, from 1942 to 1945, was an extermination camp. In January 1942, the Nazis decided to kill all the Jews from the German-occupied territories. Therefore they start moving more than one million Jews from Ghettoes to the exterminations camps by trains. Those who were not able to work were sent directly to the gas chamber. That included old people and children. It is estimated that more than 1.1 million people were killed in this camp. During the war from the six extermination camps, this was the camp with the most victims.

An electrified barbed-wire fence separates areas in the extermination camp.

The Nazis tried hard to hide the atrocities they did everywhere and the massacres against innocent people. Their actions to conceal facts failed. For example, in Auschwitz, they blew up the gas chambers before leaving the camp in January 1945. The Auschwitz museum was open soon after the war in 1947. Since 2016, more than 2 million people have visited the Auschwitz museum in the concentration camp each year. Having many visitors is a good sign that we learn from history not to repeat the same horrors.

Gas chamber II was blown up by Nazis before departing the camp. There were four gas chambers in Birkenau and one in Auschwitz. The gas chamber in Auschwitz is the only one that tourists can visit.
Aerial view of Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp from 1944. Gas chamber II marked on this image was shown in the previous picture.

That day in August, I heard about many atrocities and impressive stories told by our guide. I won’t mention those things here as this is not the purpose of this post.

In one of the buildings, there were two long opposite walls with pictures of former inmates. On one wall, there were pictures of men while on the other of women. Under each image was written the date when they entered the concentration camp and the day they died. They were all prisoners selected for work. They had better physical condition when they arrived. The guide told us that, on average, men resisted more prolonged than women. That was not because of physical strength but because of mental differences. During that time, women were expected to marry, have children and grow them. For many being there meant the end of life, that they were prepared to live. In many cases, the death happened within weeks after the arrival in the camp. It was not dying because of hunger or physical extermination but because of giving up hope.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: a memorial plaque written in Romanian

I wanted to understand more of what was causing that. I read Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Searching for Meaning”. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz and wrote about this experience.

He said that those who had a purpose in the life lived longer. His advice for humans was not to ask “what life offered me?” but rather “what can I do for this life?”. The answer would help us find meaning in life.

Another idea from the book is that the things that happen to us are not under our control. What matters is how we respond to the things that happen to us. Seneca said this in a format of heroism: “The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.”

There was one more insight. Viktor Frankl quoted Goethe, who said: “If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” I have resonated for a long time with this statement.

On my departure from Auschwitz, I looked back over the camp and saw the light coming down through the clouds over Birkenau. That light was over the place on earth where some human beings killed so many innocent humans. The ashes of so many people rose to the sky there, and human beings suffered a lot. We should not forget this.

Birkenau – a place that we should never forget

Goethe’s lessons for life

According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, Goethe was an INFJ, the same type as me. I recommend this personality test. You’ll learn many things about yourself. You can take this test online for free from many sites, including the one linked above.

Goethe liked to travel, and he traveled a lot for his time. This would be his first life lesson. Once, I realized that I have visited over twenty towns and cities in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, where Goethe walked over 200 years before me. I do agree that the places you’ve seen do not influence you as much as the people you interact with during a lifetime or the books you read. But still, they have a small impact on you.

For these “elective affinities” I resonate with Goethe’s vision on life and the world. When I was in high school, I liked some of his quotes. “Chess is the touchstone of intellect“. Being a chess player, I shared that opinion. “One look into the book and two into life“. The ideal proportion of reading and living. My favorite quote at that age was “Life is the childhood of our immortality“.

Years have passed and I see things differently now. I do no longer rate these sayings as high as I did then.

Later, when I was a student, I read “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Faust“. That was all I have ever read from Goethe. But I’ve also found out many interesting things about his life. Probably I liked those books as they were inspired by real-life happenings.

In “The Sorrows of Young Werther“, Goethe writes about a sad love story ending with the suicide of Werther. In fact, the novel recounts a biographic love of the author for Charlotte Buff (Lotte) while he worked as a lawyer in Wetzlar. Goethe redirects his sufferance for the lost love in writing about it. Instead of killing himself, he writes about the suicide of Werther. Psychologically this is explained by the fact that by focusing his energy on writing, Goethe was able to pass over this painful episode. This way he offered us another life lesson. In 1939 Thomas Mann wrote “Lotte in Weimar” on the ending of this famous story.

“Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!” – Goethe, Faust

Faust” was Goethe’s most important creation and he worked on it for many years. It is also inspired by a sad story from Goethe’s biography. I don’t want to discuss it here. I knew about Faust’s story from a movie I saw in my childhood. He sold his soul to the devil and the devil made him look younger. The devil gave him anything he wanted. Only to make him say that life is so beautiful and wish that moment stay forever. If he will say “Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!” that moment he will die. This is the most famous line in German literature.

Perhaps, one life lesson behind this story is that anything is possible in life, even getting younger if you are willing to pay a price.

The first time I’ve heard about Faust’s story was during my childhood. I was impressed by the movie “La beaute du diable” with Gerard Philipe and Michel Simon. Faust signing the pact with the devil.

Over twenty years passed by and now I appreciate more some other words of wisdom from him.

If you don’t feel it, you’ll never get it” – Goethe

It did happen to me to hear people talking about their lives, their problems, and the losses they suffered. It was a lot easy for me to understand those who talked about issues I was confronted with and felt the pain myself. Even if someone was talking about greater pains, for me it was easier to understand the pains I experienced before.

Too many parents make life hard for their children by trying, too zealously, to make it easy for them.” – Goethe

Such a modern saying, we all know cases like this where having the best intentions the parents harm the lives of their children by “helping” them.

Actually, Goethe had many quotes that would categorize him as having a modern growth mindset.

I love those who yearn for the impossible.” – Goethe

We live only once, so why not try to get out of the beaten path? This is a recommendation for people at any age to move out of their comfort zone. For trying to achieve what they feel would give meaning to their life. Even if we won’t succeed at least we’ve tried and did whatever we could.

Dear reader, hopefully, by going over these lines, you’ve found something to think about.

Egmont was a play by Goethe. Beethoven composed the music for this play. Celibidache conducted it in a destroyed post-war Berlin in 1950.