Oswiecim, Poland - June 1944
Not a cloud was in the bright blue June sky, but—ignoring the heat—one could easily mistake the ashes falling from above for a light snow. It was not snow, however. Snow was for happier times. Times of peace, hope, and joy.
Death was falling from the sky. It covered the grass, the trees, and the walkways surrounding the stone building, tucked away in the north corner of the concentration camp. Death was in every step, every look, and every breath. One could not escape it.
Within the barbed wire fences of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, the ovens raged, consuming the bodies of thousands of innocent Jews as they were unceremoniously shoveled into the fiery infernos. The already emaciated bodies shriveled, turned black, and eventually denigrated into nothing but falling ashes.
Aldrich Blau stepped forward to receive yet another body—number A3765—which he swiftly inserted into the brick oven. The flesh of the unnamed Jew crackled and popped as it was cooked by the intense heat.
Blau bristled. It was usually the job of the Jewish prisoners to man the ovens, but Blau had overslept and as punishment been assigned a few days inside the crematoriums. The monotonous work within the hot and rancid stone building was hard; and like any soldier, he would rather be on the front lines fighting the Americans and the British to the west or the Soviets to the east. He hated work at the camps.
As he shoved another body deep into the fire—number A8790—he thought of his parents in Berlin. They had profusely protested when he told them he wanted to join the army and fight for the Fuhrer. They believed Hitler was a madman who would bring about the destruction of Germany as a world power.
“Hitler is a fool!” His father had shouted at him. “We will end up worse off than we were after the Great War. He will not succeed!”
“How dare you denigrate the Fuhrer in such a way!” Blau had shouted back. “You will see, father. The Third Reich will rise and bring great glory to the Fatherland.”
Those had been his last words to his father. He had stormed out the front door of their home into a rainy dark night and never looked back. He had believed it all. Anyone who could not see that this was Germany’s destiny was a fool. Anyone who could not see that this was mankind’s destiny was a fool. The Aryan race was supreme, and if it required the extermination of the “lesser people” for that to be realized, so be it.
“Faster, Blau!” shouted his commander, "I am hungry."
“Yes, Herr Krantz,” Blau responded quickly, another body—number B4539—being inserted into the oven.
Blau didn’t enjoy killing the innocent. He would much rather be going toe to toe with another country’s soldiers, rifle in hand. But the dirty jobs had to be done by someone. And by the time the Jews arrived at the ovens, they were merely a body with a number.
Until they weren’t.
As Blau moved to receive the last body of his shift—number A3811—the man’s face tripped something in the back of Blau’s mind. There was something familiar about the features of this particular body. A fuzzy picture was forming of a treehouse in the backyard of his family’s Berlin home…
“Blau, let’s go. We’re almost done with our shift,” his commander said. But Blau was zoned out, deep within the grasp of this man’s face and the memory banks of his own mind.
Suddenly, it all clicked. Jacob. The name came rushing back along with a flood of other memories. They had been friends as children and together built the treehouse that still resided in the backyard of Blau’s childhood home. They had moved away when Blau was thirteen. He didn’t know their family was Jewish…
Blau reached down and pushed the hair away from the top right corner of Jacob’s forehead. A two-inch scar ran from the beginning of his hairline and down the side of his head. The result of a fall he had taken while they were building the treehouse.
“Oh, dear God, forgive me,” Blau whispered. His head was pounding, and he could feel hot bile rising in his throat.
“Blau, what is wrong with you?”
Without another word, Blau stumbled out of the crematorium and into the warm June afternoon. He collapsed in a heap onto the grass, stirring the white ashes that seemingly covered everything.
And there he laid. The number—A3811—pounding again and again in his head. He was more than a number, he thought. He was Jacob.
But it was too late, and all he could do was lie there as the ashes—the death—floated down around him. The ashes of the innocent. The ashes of Jacob.
* * *
Oswiecim, Poland - June 2021
The English-speaking tour guide led the group through the barracks of Auschwitz II and towards the northernmost corner of the preserved concentration camp. There, preserved for all to see, stood Krematorium IV and V.
“And here we have crematoriums four and five,” the tour guide said to the group as they entered the stone building. Its lone feature being the tall brick chimney out of which ashes once poured.
“The Nazis used the crematoriums to dispose of the bodies of the thousands of Jewish prisoners who were gassed to death. It’s estimated nearly one million Jews were killed and cremated using these very ovens.”
The mostly American group was silent and somber as they each thought about what once took place in the very chamber in which they stood. The group parted ways for the white-haired Brooklyn native who slowly made his way to the barrier and intently peered into the ovens, as if he might catch a glimpse of a flicker of life where death had reigned supreme.
The tour guide continued to talk about how the ovens worked and Topf and Sons, the manufacturer who supplied the Nazis with the ovens. But the white-haired gentleman wasn’t listening. How could mankind be so depraved? He thought to himself. How could the life of another man be worth so little in the eyes of a fellow human? How does one reduce a living human to simply a number worthy of death?
The tour guide led the group out of the crematorium, but the white-haired gentleman remained, staring into the ovens, lost in his thoughts and unnoticed by the rest of the group. He thought of his family, who had very likely passed through these very ovens, victims of Hitler’s hateful and deadly ideology.
He pulled himself away and was about to walk out and catch up with the group when he realized he was not the only one still in the crematorium. Leaning against the far wall was a younger man, staring down at the ground.
“Excuse me,” the white-haired gentleman said. “Are you okay? We better hurry if we want to catch up.”
The younger man looked up, a tear forming in his right eye. “You go on. I need to stay here a little longer.”
The older man nodded and took a step towards the door but then turned back. The young man looked so crestfallen, his shoulders slumped, and his hands clasped tightly in front of him. “Are you Jewish?” The older man asked.
“No,” the younger man replied, shaking his head. “I’m German. My grandfather worked in this very room, disposing of the bodies of the Jews who had been gassed.”
There was a moment of silence as both men were transported back nearly eighty years. The sounds and smells of cooking flesh seemed to swirl in the air—each man imagining the same event but from totally different perspectives.
“I don’t understand how someone could do it,” the younger man said, breaking the silence, “how someone could so blindly follow the edicts of a murderous madman.”
The white-haired gentleman walked forward and put his arm around the younger man. “Hate is a strong emotion, and when it takes root in someone’s heart, or in a people, or in a nation, it can—no, it will—lead to horrible and ghastly things.”
“I just feel so guilty knowing my grandfather was a willing instrument in the perpetration of possibly the greatest travesty in human existence.”
“Have you ever hated anyone?”
The young man was taken aback. “Excuse me?”
“Think back throughout all of your life. Have you ever hated anyone? Because I know I have. Sometimes for good reason and other times for stupid reasons. It’s human nature to want to hate people that hurt you or that you disagree with. It’s about recognizing the hate and getting rid of it before it metastasizes into something more than just an emotion.”
Neither of them said a word for nearly a full minute.
“My grandfather was swept up in the resentment and hate that filled Germany following World War I. I have read his journals. When Hitler came along and proclaimed that the Jews were the cause of all of Germany’s problems, he truly believed it.”
“But you don’t.” The response was a statement, not a question.
“No, I don’t. Not at all. I despise what my grandfather partook in.”
The white-haired man sighed. “Humanity is capable of great achievements and accomplishments, but we are also capable of devastating tragedies. It’s up to you and me to banish hate from our hearts. If we don’t do it individually, we will never do it as a society.”
The young man nodded. “Thank you, sir. You’ve helped me tremendously.”
“What’s your name, by the way?”
“Blau. Aldrich Blau. I’m actually named after my grandfather. And yours?”
“Jacob Eitan. I’m named after my father, prisoner A3811.”
“Did he survive?”
“Unfortunately, no,” the older man responded. “But I did,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a number tattooed into his right arm, A3812.
“I was a boy when I was brought here. It’s a miracle I was never sent to the gas chamber myself. Maybe God had a meeting in mind between you and me.”
The young man smiled sadly. “Would you like to get lunch? I think we’ve lost our group.”
“I’d love to.”
The pair walked out of the crematorium and into the sunlight. Not a cloud was in the bright blue June sky, but this time there were no falling ashes.
* * *
Authors Note: This story was written in memory of my Jewish ancestors, the Zaslowsky’s, who were marched into the forest one night and murdered by Nazi soldiers. Rest in peace.