A Visit to Auschwitz That Ahmadinejad Will Never Make

By Gabe Pressman
|  Friday, Sep 25, 2009  |  Updated 9:28 AM CDT
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A Visit to Auschwitz That Ahmadinejad Will Never Make

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Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wants his opponents prosecuted.

It was a bitterly cold day in January 1948. I can never forget it.

A former inmate of Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi extermination camps, was leading the way. We walked over the frozen ground through the gate bearing the words in large letters: "Arbeit Macht Frei." (Work Makes You Free).

The words themselves were a mockery of the poor souls who lived there for a brief time before being gassed to death in the execution chambers.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rants about the Holocaust never having happened I think of this cold day in Poland. And I remember how angry I was as I saw evidence of Nazi efficiency and cruelty in this supreme death factory.

My guide, who was wearing a tattered American military coat and limping, was very matter of fact as he showed me the evidence. We visited the barracks buildings where hundreds of thousands were held. When the Russians were advancing late in the war, the Nazis had to flee in a hurry. They left behind many remnants of the lives that were taken there.
             
One building held thousands of clumps of women's hair, shaved off the heads of victims after they were gassed. It was part of the Auschwitz routine to ship this hair back to Germany to be used in the manufacture of mattresses. In one large barracks building were mounds of shoes, taken from the victims' feet before death, the guide told me.

There were men's shoes and women's shoes and children's shoes -- a sad testimony to what happened here.

Few Americans, at that time, fully realized the extent of the tragedy, the systematic killing that happened. I was so stunned -- and furious -- that I decided to take home some souvenirs. I had a paper bag and, in it, I placed some woman's hair that still smelled faintly from Zyklon, the gas that killed her, and a baby's shoe. 

Later, outside, the guide explained that when the ovens got too full toward the end of the war, bodies were burned out here in ditches. He got on his knees and started digging with his hands, pulling out a silver-capped tooth. And, I, obsessed with the idea of recording this moment, started digging too. I came up with a few chips of bone.

The guide said, "Because of all the bodies buried underneath, this is probably some of the richest soil in Europe."

In another building, we found hundreds of suitcases with addresses stenciled on them. Sadly, the people to be executed had brought some of their belongings to Auschwitz because they had been told they should be prepared to stay a while.

I remember all the features of this horrible place, including the railroad tracks that led right to the center of the camp. Some of the victims were housed in barracks buildings and put to work for a while.  Others went directly from the trains to the gas chambers. They were told to undress so they could take a shower. Then the rooms were sealed and the gas poured out and killed them.

When I got back to the press hotel in Germany a few days later, I had to confront somebody so I picked on the room clerk. He was a handsome, ex-Luftwaffe officer about my age.

I poured the contents of the bag on the reception desk. And he blurted out in a heavy German accent, ''We didn't know about these things!"

I got similar reactions from other Germans until I dumped the contents of the bag on the bedspread and my cleaning lady saw what was there and started to cry. She obviously understood about these things.

After I told her about the experience, my mother wrote me from New York:  "I don't give a damn what your hatred of the Germans will do to them. I do care very much what it will do to you."

Sixty years have passed. I have marveled at the transformation in Germany, where the younger generations have, for the most part,  expressed regret for what happened and the major political leaders have spoken out against the Holocaust and what happened in their country.

The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has denounced the Iranian president for his "anti-Semitic rants."

He commended those who walked out on Ahmadinejad. And then added dramatically, "To those who gave this Holocaust denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere: Have you no shame? Have you no decency?"

The Polish government has made a museum, a shrine out of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. It would be wonderful if the UN could ship Ahmadinejad there -- just for a day, just long enough to see evidence of the crimes he denies. It's just a fantasy, of course, but wouldn't it be great to put this bum on a plane to Cracow and have him go there, to proclaim, again, on the soil of Poland, that it never happened?

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