What Can and Can’t Be Learned from a Visit to Auschwitz

Jan. 30 2018

The site of the Nazis’ largest and best-known concentration camp has been preserved for visitors, with museum-style exhibits, tours, and even a concession stand. But can seeing the train tracks, empty barracks, and remains of the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz convey anything of the horrors that occurred there? Daniel Krauthammer reflects:

It was not easy to look at an empty bunk and imagine how it looked overcrowded with terrified prisoners, much less what it smelled like, sounded like, and felt like to be one of those poor souls, starving and brutalized. The barracks we saw, about the size of a small stable, officially held 744 prisoners. But what does 744 people look like? What does a crowd that big feel like crammed into a space that small? Human intuition quickly reaches its limits as numbers rise this high.

The problem of comprehending scale is endemic to Auschwitz. At first, the sheer size of the site has an emotional impact all its own. The primary subcamp stretches for 422 acres, dotted with the remains of brick prison barracks as far as the eye can see. But one soon realizes that the size of a site does not map directly to the scale of its crimes. The greatest center of death did not lie here, but in another area all its own—an extermination camp that feels much smaller, more secluded, and less remarkable than the vast concentration camp surrounding it. . . .

The vast majority of the 1.1 million Jews deported to Auschwitz never entered its concentration camp at all. They didn’t last the few weeks that most other prisoners, [who normally died of disease or starvation], did. They lasted less than an hour. When their trains arrived, these Jews (and it was only the Jews who were brought this way) were pulled from the lethally packed cars, stripped, and separated into men, women, and children. A few adults were pulled aside if they looked healthy or were known to have special skills. The rest were marched a few hundred yards down the line to the gas chambers. . . .

Some 960,000 Jews died at Auschwitz. . . . But there are no mass graves at Auschwitz, no physical markers that convey the magnitude of what happened. All that a visitor can see are the ruins of a half-sunken gas chamber, which the Nazis blew up as they retreated before the Red Army. It is less than half the size of a regulation basketball court. There were six other such chambers at the camp— all together making up an area no larger than a high school gymnasium. One looks at their mangled ruins—some charred brick, a bit of twisted metal, an empty hole in the ground—and the mind reels. How could a million souls have disappeared into a space so small? Human beings are simply not equipped to handle such a mismatch in scale.

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More about: Auschwitz, History & Ideas, Holocaust

No, Israel Hasn’t Used Disproportionate Force against Hamas

Aug. 15 2018

Last week, Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza launched nearly 200 rockets and mortars into Israel, in addition to the ongoing makeshift incendiary devices and sporadic sniper fire. Israel responded with an intensive round of airstrikes, which stopped the rockets. Typically, condemnations of the Jewish state’s use of “disproportionate force” followed; and typically, as Peter Lerner, a former IDF spokesman, explains, these were wholly inaccurate:

The IDF conducted, by its own admission, approximately 180 precision strikes. In the aftermath of those strikes the Hamas Ministry of Health announced that three people had been killed. One of the dead was [identified] as a Hamas terrorist. The two others were reported as civilians: Inas Abu Khmash, a twenty-three-year-old pregnant woman, and her eighteen-month daughter, Bayan. While their deaths are tragic, they are not an indication of a disproportionate response to Hamas’s bombardment of Israel’s southern communities. With . . . 28 Israelis who required medical assistance [and] 30 Iron Dome interceptions, I would argue the heart-rending Palestinian deaths indicate the exact opposite.

The precision strikes on Hamas’s assets with so few deaths show how deep and thorough is the planning process the IDF has put in place. . . . Proportionality in warfare, [however], is not a numbers game, as so many of the journalists I’ve worked with maintain. . . . Proportionality weighs the necessity of a military action against the anguish that the action might cause to civilians in the vicinity. . . . In the case of the last few days, it appears that even intended combatant deaths were [deemed] undesirable, due to their potential to increase the chances of war. . . .

The question that should be repeated is why indiscriminate rocket fire against Israeli civilians from behind Gazan civilians is accepted, underreported, and not condemned.

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More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, IDF, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict