The immensity of this camp is startling. Imagine an
area the size of two 18-hole golf courses. Down the
middle for 1,000 yards run two train tracks with wide
gravel avenues on each side for unloading the human
High barbed-wire fences and guard towers surround
the tracks. To one side, numerous low-slung
barracks with few windows still stand. On the other
side sprawls an immense field filled with row upon
row of chimneys, stark icons 25 feet high, the only
remains of barracks that once held captive, Jews,
Gypsies, Gays, Christians and other detested people.
Alice finds a barrack in lager (section) A. She
doesn't know if it is the one she lived in, but it doesn't
matter, they were all alike.
We enter one of the barracks and I scream. These are the cubby holes I describe in my book
and talk about to the school children. We slept eight or more to a shelf, with no room to even
turn over in the night.
Memory after memory surfaces, and I feel faint. How much strength it takes to stand here today,
to touch the dead barbed wire fences, to see the bathhouse with its disinfectant apparatus.
Barbed wire. It surrounds each lager 10 feet high. The posts, with a menacing crook inward at the
top, are made of cement with insulators holding the once electrified wire. Lager A, Lager B, Lager
C: There are so many sections, all surrounded by the imprisoning wire.
And the lines are so crisp. Everything linear and logical, engineered to be orderly and systematic.
Seventy-five percent of each train load of people were "selected" for immediate disposal. The
average life-expectancy of those chosen for work was three months. About 1 1/2 million people
were killed in this one camp.
There were four gas chamber/crematoriums, located at the end of the tracks, the termination point.
At one time they burned day and night, but they are ruins now, a fittingly twisted and lifeless mass
of bricks that were blown up by the retreating Germans as the Russian troops closed in.
My daughters and I are looking for the place
where the hundreds and thousands were
gassed, also my mother with my two little
cousins. We find a huge pile of rubble, a
blasted destroyed crematorium; this is our
place to say a prayer. We cried, said our
prayer, then left.
To survive something like this nightmare,
today one cannot comprehend. But I am so
proud of my daughters, their strength and
support, and for being next to me all the
time. I suppose my energy lasted just
because of them, otherwise my legs and
overwhelmed soul would have collapsed
IN MEMORY - Praying at the ruins of Auschwitz
crematorium, Alice and her daughters (from left,
Sue Wendel, Gerri Senft, Debbi Montrose, and
Evie Oxman) light a candle in memory of their
relatives who perished there.
Auschwitz I is 2 miles away, much smaller than Birkenau. It is near the center of the little Polish
town of Oswiecim and is preserved with almost all the buildings intact. Alice finds the museum for
the Hungarian Jews (her part of Romania was previously in Hungary) and looks over several rooms
of photos giving the history of the persecution.
There are also exhibits for Denmark, Poland, Austria, France, Italy and several other countries,
each with its own story and reaction to the "final solution" for the Jews of Europe.
Alice finds a quotation and says it must be filmed. She looks into the camera intently: "I want to tell
the world why I am here." She points to the plain black sign with white letters, and reads with force,
"THE ONE WHO DOES NOT REMEMBER HISTORY IS BOUND TO LIVE IT THROUGH AGAIN.
We must never, ever forget what happened here."
She continues through many of the exhibits, finding rooms full of shoes, large mounds of human
hair and eyeglasses, even an insidious pile of empty buckets once containing the Zyclon B
genocidal gas. Later Alice stands outside the small crematorium of Auschwitz I and looks into the
"Well, I am about to go into a crematorium, where I have never been before." She walks down a
narrow ramp and into a barren room with the brick ovens. She finds them intact with black iron
doors swung open to reveal not ashes or bones but a candle, a note and a flower.
As she leaves the complex, Alice wants to film the famous iron gate with the words wrought
overhead: "Arbeit Macht Frei" - work makes you free. But Alice says fighting evil makes you free,
which is how the Nazi's were finally overcome. Now Alice champions freedom as she holds her
head high and walks down the road, out of Auschwitz.
Final notes from her journal:
The journey ended when we found the famous gate "Arbeit Macht Frei." But this time we all
walked out on our own, well dressed and fed. I do not think I will return again.
|Please email for permission to download
photos or re-publish this article.
Copyright 1995, Robert Bowling
A special thank you to Janie Nafzinger
for her editing expertise when this ran
on the "People" page in 1998.
Auschwitz. The word known to so many, the place
known to so few. It was not a concentration camp, it
was a death factory.
Now 50 years later, Alice Kern links arms with her
four daughters and walks bravely under the main
gate of Auschwitz II/ Birkenau. She is describing her
feelings on videotape about this courageous moment
when the air is jolted by the wail of an air-raid siren.
Its screeching note ebbs and flows like the cries of a
banshee. Alice looks up, frightened. "Where are the
planes?" she asks. "In 1944 we heard that sound
Notes from Alice: I can still remember Mengele and the selection, but now I can see around me. It
was dark before, with spotlights beaming down on us. My mother and my two little cousins were sent
to the left, I was sent to the right.
I never saw my mother or my cousins again.
Alice and her daughters continue up the railroad tracks several hundred yards to a crossroads near the
center of the camp. It was here that her train arrived after whisking her away from her youth and her
culture in Sighet, Romania.
Click to enlarge
Alice points to Birkenau, the area
within the dashed line. Each little box
is a barrack 200 ft long. Auschwitz I
is at the bottom left.
"So, these are the famous ovens,"
she says. "I have seen many
pictures. Shocking." She stares
blankly at the opening, this time
thinking not so much of the friends
and family she lost, but just for a
She sighs. "I still believe in
miracles. Three times I was
selected with skinny girls, but
always by some miracle I was
Click to enlarge