Auschwitz is back. Six hours of it.
But then it never really went away. For the 60 years this month since Soviet soldiers liberated it, history's largest mass murder site has pulsated in memory and metaphor.
No one knows how to digest its numbers: 1.1 million people murdered there from 1940 to 1945 -- more than the combined losses of America and Britain in all of World War II. A million Jews, the rest Polish political prisoners, Soviet POWs, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, God knows who else.
Joseph Stalin, who killed 20 million, famously recognized the dilemma: "A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic."
We still search for meaning from the Auschwitz death star -- the epicenter of the Holocaust -- to avoid the appalling prospect that it may have simply been a random malignancy. And yet that may be precisely what it was.
"I think we learn nothing from it. . . . It has nothing to teach us. It's that terrible." says Melvin Jules Bukiet, a child of Holocaust survivors, about that genocide in the first segment of "Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State."
You be the judge. Wednesday, WGBH airs the first two hours of this powerful six-hour documentary. For those weary of its horrors -- and there are many of us -- give this a chance.
What "Auschwitz" does is provide a spine to the death camp arc, a coherence to its existence, and a look inside the minds of the Nazis who designed and managed it. Most of us lack this comprehensive perspective. Instead, we have absorbed Auschwitz in a disconnected blur of survivor accounts and an uneven mix of literature and film offerings.
Holocaust fatigue among gentiles and Jews alike coexists with rank ignorance about the subject. According to a BBC poll taken last month, 45 percent of Britons have never heard of Auschwitz. The figure rises to 60 percent among women and those under 35. (And consider the insensitivity of Prince Harry's decision to wear a Nazi costume at a recent party.) The challenge then for Laurence Rees, who wrote and produced the documentary, was to educate the ignorant and engage the informed.
He does this, well. The episodes of this joint production of KCET/Hollywood and the BBC ripple with first-rate research, strong writing, and surprisingly effective dramatizations of events based on original testimony, documents, and interviews with the perpetrators and survivors. Actress Linda Hunt narrates while traces of the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's haunting Third Symphony float behind the images.
"Auschwitz" is nothing if not ambitious. After each segment, host Linda Ellerbee leads a discussion, with mixed success, on issues such as genocide, collective guilt, and hatred with Holocaust scholars, authors, and students. Attention is paid to the massacres in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Pol Pot's ravages in Cambodia.
(On a local note: There will be an airing of an episode followed by a panel discussion in conjunction with Facing History and Ourselves at Brookline's Coolidge Corner Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 24.)
If these well-intentioned affairs inoculate the project from Holocaust tunnel vision, they come with a fair number of platitudes. On balance, they neither damage nor add much to the documentary.
One wonders: Can a morally sensitive person declare Holocaust fatigue, 60 years after the event, without being tarred an anti-Semite? Yes, if Holocaust presentations retill old ground with banality. No, if they are done with originality and bring new understanding. Exhibit A in this category is the prize-winning film "The Pianist." "Auschwitz" belongs here, too. But the bar above Holocaust fatigue continues to rise as the huge body of Holocaust literature, films, and documentaries continues to swell.
Auschwitz begins as a camp for Polish political prisoners in dilapidated Polish army barracks in backwater southern Poland. The gas chambers have not been conceived when SS officer Rudolph Hss arrives as camp commandant in 1940. (The dreaded SS runs the camp.) Later, IG Farben, the German chemical giant, builds a factory near there to take advantage of the rich supply of water, lime, and coal -- and the anticipated pool of slave labor from the nearby camp that soon would hold more than 10,000 prisoners.
Auschwitz ceases to be a backwater when Hitler invades the Soviet Union in 1941. Soviet POWs are herded there to work and die. It is then that SS death squads move into Ukraine to kill Jews. They experiment with explosives to perfect mass killings but stop when body parts are found in trees. Back in Auschwitz, the gassing of prisoners begins under a euthanasia edict for all handicapped and mentally retarded. Some 70,000 are killed by the summer.
The Germans continue to search for more efficient killing methods. Crude exhaust systems in trucks are used to kill people before the arrival of Zyklon B, whose crystals become a lethal gas when dissolved in the air. "The gassing had a calming effect on me," Hss, happy to avoid bloodier methods, later writes in his diary.
The prototypical mass killer/family man, Hss plans a new camp to hold 100,000 people -- initially for Soviet POWS, not Jews. The new camp, called Birkenau, is to be located a couple of miles from Auschwitz itself. (In all, there would be 45 subcamps.)
The Final Solution to expunge European Jews is decided on early in 1942. It is in this year that Auschwitz begins using its crematorium to gas people. It is in this year that the Slovak government pays the Nazis to take thousands of its Jews.
The first Jews from western Europe deported to Auschwitz come from France that year, aided by collaborationist French officials. Some 4,100 French children are shipped in freight cars in the summer. Still photographs of these kids are devastating. Of the 200,000 western European Jews taken to Auschwitz in 1942, 70 percent die immediately.
Joseph Mengele arrives at Auschwitz in 1943 with his ghastly experiments on human guinea pigs. New gas chambers open that spring. These are called "the boom years" by the camp staff for the staggering corruption that took place there. "Canada" -- so named because it was thought to be a land of "untold riches" -- is the area where prisoners' belongings are sorted. The guards steal so much money and valuables that even Berlin is scandalized.
"Auschwitz" explores every grisly aspect of the camp, from its brothels to the camp stores, bowling alley, and swimming pool. We learn about the brief uprising of the Sondercommando, Jews forced to do the dirty work in the killing and disposal of bodies.
By 1944, 550,000 have died in Auschwitz. Another 300,000 are murdered in the spring and summer of that year. During one night in August, almost all of the 23,000 Gypsies there are annihilated. The vast majority of those killed in 1944 are Hungarian Jews. In Budapest, Adolf Eichmann attempts to negotiate a trade of 1 million Jewish lives for 10,000 trucks supplied by the Allies, but they turn him down.
The Allies bomb the IG Farben factory near Auschwitz but not the railroad tracks bringing people to the camp. "This we could not understand," says one survivor.
The Soviets come in January 1945. Hitler commits suicide in April. Hss is eventually caught and writes his record of Auschwitz while awaiting trial (and later hanging). It is considered of great historical importance.
Stalin treats the surviving Soviet POWs as suspected spies and exiles them. Other camp survivors return to their homes to find them in possession of strangers. "To return home was my worst experience," says one.
Of the 7,000 Auschwitz SS who survive the war, 800 are tried. One who is not, Oskar Grning, breaks years of silence to confront the Holocaust deniers. While he expresses no appreciable guilt, he does say this: "Those atrocities happened. I was there."
And yet, despite six hours of superior television, we still don't know why.