AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU — It is hard to convey what was lost at Auschwitz. Through constant retelling, the numbers of the dead are well known. The gas chambers, the enslavement, the wanton killing are paradigmatic chapters of German and European history.

The Holocaust also has a clear meaning for the Jews, its paradigmatic victims: as a dismayingly vast proof that there is no safety in European pluralism, culture or “civilization,” in high-minded talk of humanism, individualism and international community, or in calming analyses that downplay future threats.

These are all important reflections on the “lessons” and “meaning” of Auschwitz, but they constitute too much of our public conversation about it, almost as though we are willing to discuss any aspect of that event except the choking, shivering bodies of the real-life gas chamber. Auschwitz too often serves as a bludgeon for our social or political agendas, an instrument to express our own fears and passions. There is a vague consensus that Auschwitz reflects something ultimate and untouchable, and so we immediately set about sullying it.

This use and misuse of the Holocaust is often done for noble, honest reasons, for example by those advocates who, under the banner of “never again,” distill the Holocaust into a moral-political lesson about the dangers of the Nazis’ imagined ideological errors: racism, chauvinism.

The Holocaust was undoubtedly a product of its time and place, of Nazi racial theory and totalitarian psychology. But its “lesson,” its “significance,” is both more permanent and more immediate. The vast, meticulously engineered infrastructure of death; the murder conducted according to immutable categories of human beings, erasing the victims’ individuality, and thus any possible pretense to their guilt, in the very framing of the reasoning for their annihilation; and the intimacy of the murders, the physical proximity of murderer and murdered for weeks, months and years — with these hard-won achievements, the Nazis plumbed the depths of human mercilessness.

Seen up close, Nazism was less an experiment in totalitarianism or fanatical collectivism — the usual images associated with the Third Reich — than a test of the elasticity of the very boundaries of humanness.

The engineers

Thus we find an ordinary German company, Topf & Sons from the city of Erfurt (actual sign at the entrance to its administrative offices: “Always glad to serve you”) taking pride in being selected to build 46 furnaces to handle the daily disposal of over 10,000 corpses each day at Auschwitz.

The company even applied for a patent in 1941 for its continuously operating “corpse incineration oven,” apparently fearful its innovations in human corpse incineration technology would be stolen by competitors.

The engineers were under no illusions as to the purpose of their work. Asked in a March 1946 interrogation whether he knew “that in the gas chamber and in the crematoriums [that he helped build at Auschwitz] there took place the liquidation of innocent human beings,” Kurt Prufer, Topf & Sons senior engineer, said he did.

Auschwitz was a thoughtful, considered project, built and maintained by normative, highly educated family men devoted to their craft. Some were not even members of the Nazi party

“I have known since spring 1943 that innocent human beings were being liquidated in Auschwitz gas chambers and that their corpses were subsequently incinerated in the crematoriums,” he stated flatly.

By spring 1943, Prufer, one of the chief civilian engineers of the Auschwitz death machine, not only knew what he had built; he was actively engaged in its upkeep. He visited Auschwitz three times after that spring: in autumn 1943 “to inspect a fault in the construction of a Krema [crematorium] chimney,” in early 1944 to inspect the repairs on that chimney, and a final time in the fall of 1944 to consider the engineering challenges of relocating the death facilities as Soviet forces crept nearer.

Auschwitz was a thoughtful, considered project, built and maintained by normative, highly educated family men devoted to their craft. Some were not even members of the Nazi party.

By their skilled work, Auschwitz became startlingly efficient. Between 1941 and the closure of the death camp in January 1945, most of the inmates who arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, at least 85% of them, or some 1.1 million people, were dead within four hours after their arrival.

To achieve that rate of industrial killing, the machinery had to be fast. Arrivals just off the train were told they were headed to showers. Outside the killing complex, the truck containing the Zyklon B gas was painted with the symbol of the Red Cross. In each of the two largest gas chambers, 2,500 arrivals could be killed in a single blow. Two smaller gas chambers could handle 1,800 each.

The bottleneck was not the gassing, which took just six to ten minutes before all the hundreds of arrivals lay in piles of dead, gaping corpses. It was the incineration process that frustrated the SS men throughout the camp’s operation and led to constant pressure to improve the facilities. It took 30-40 minutes to burn the three bodies that would fit in each oven (sometimes four, if a baby could be fit in between the adults). It was this bureaucratic pressure that gave the civilian engineers such an important role in the camp’s operation.

By the end of 1944, just weeks before the camp’s liberation by Soviet forces, 1,000 Jewish slave laborers were “employed” in the work of the death facilities, doing all parts of the work except the gassing itself. They herded the arrivals into the undressing hall, then into the gas chamber. They carried the bodies to the ovens for incineration, all under the watchful and vindictive eye of the SS guards.

The gassing itself was handled by a handful of SS officers trained to handle the Zyklon B gas.

It was a vast, monstrous mechanism, overseen by careful, thoughtful men and operating with pitiless efficiency for four long years. To murder six million people, the Nazis have convincingly shown us, you don’t even need fanatics.

So to say that Auschwitz is a warning against racism, or even against the dangers of desensitization and dehumanization under totalitarian regimes, is to miss the stark reality of the actual experience. At Auschwitz is buried our certainty in a shared humanity, in the undeniable, intrinsic value of the human being. These remain lofty ideals, to be sure, but they are no longer axioms premised on the human condition itself. Any limits to human cruelty, if they exist at all, lie beyond the most rabid viciousness ever conceived in the human imagination.

A Holocaust survivor talks to an Israeli delegation about his years at the Auschwitz death camp, as the delegation visits Auschwitz, Poland, as part of the "March of the Living" on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 7, 2013. (Photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)

A Holocaust survivor talks to an Israeli delegation about his years at the Auschwitz death camp, as the delegation visits Auschwitz, Poland, as part of the March of the Living on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 7, 2013. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)

In a 1965 lecture, twenty years after the Holocaust and at the height of the nuclear fears of the Cold War, the social critic Theodor Adorno would wonder at the way in which Auschwitz shattered the pretense to “civilization” and undermined the universalist discourse of philosophers and moralists.

“In the face of the experiences we have had, not only through Auschwitz but through the introduction of torture as a permanent institution [a reference to the concentration camps] and through the atomic bomb — all these things form a kind of coherence, a hellish unity — in the face of these experiences the assertion that what is has meaning… become[s] a mockery; and in the face of the victims it becomes downright immoral. For anyone who allows himself to be fobbed off with such meaning moderates in some way the unspeakable and irreparable things that have happened by conceding that somehow, in a secret order of being, all this will have had some kind of purpose.

“…There can be no one, whose organ of experience has not entirely atrophied, for whom the world after Auschwitz, that is, the world in which Auschwitz was possible, is the same world as it was before.”

The Knesset visits

The Israeli Knesset lifted off from Ben Gurion airport early Monday, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, for the largest-ever Israeli state visit to Auschwitz.

Some 64 MKs are here, at least six cabinet ministers, a Supreme Court justice, the state comptroller, two dozen survivors and a panoply of journalists, European Jewish leaders and activists, Polish parliamentarians and dozens of security agents. Organized by the nonprofit organization From the Depths, whose executive director Jonny Daniels first brought the idea to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and then raised much of the funding for the event, the massive commemoration event marks an apex of over a decade of official commemorations and delegations from the State of Israel to the death camps of Europe.

That such gestures pale into insignificance when set against the event being commemorated is a tautology. But there is also an overarching political message to the commemorations: Israel guards the world’s Jews now; Israel remembers; Israel will never allow another Holocaust.

And, perhaps: Israel could have prevented the Holocaust had it been founded sooner.

This is an important declaration, often uttered by Israelis. But it is an unexamined declaration nonetheless. The Nazi race eastward across North Africa was not stopped in autumn 1942 by the nascent Jewish pre-state militias, but by imperial Britain. It is not clear that had Israel been founded by then, and the British withdrawn, that the last living Jewish civilization of the eastern hemisphere, the Hebrew-speaking Israelis, would have survived the war.

The Israelis, heirs to a historical experience of unprecedented mass-death and mass-expulsion across three continents, come to Auschwitz to renew their commitment — and recall the alternative — to Jewish self-reliance.

Yet these messages, though noble, are in an important sense as deaf to Auschwitz’s stark reality as the ideology behind “never again.” This deafness is evident in the “Holocaust fatigue” often heard from Israelis — in the cheap cynicism of journalists, in the disdain one often hears from young and old alike, in the discomfort around official Holocaust commemorations, there is always a noticeable but unarticulated exhaustion.

It is hard not to sympathize with this fatigue. The reality of Auschwitz is so monstrous, so immense, that the very contemplation of it is necessarily accompanied by guilt. When faced with the insatiable horror of the machinery of death, expressions of ordinary empathy or ritualized commemoration can seem pale and unfeeling.

An Israeli delegation seen visiting the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, April 8, 2013. (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

An Israeli delegation seen visiting the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, April 8, 2013. (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/FLASH90)

And then there are the shallower political uses of the event. Yitzhak Rabin was a Nazi for going to Oslo, the settlers are “Judeo-Nazis,” and on and on. On left and right, the very power given to the vocabulary of the Holocaust by the clouds of human ash floating over the air currents of Europe is employed for the polemics of the moment — and as often by Jews as by anyone else.

Throughout it all, in the ignorance and intellectual neglect of political polemics, the actual killing is often lost. The men and women and children, the beating hearts and screaming voices, the killing for killing’s sake, the inescapability of death, the irretrievable moral world forever destroyed by Auschwitz — are secondary to the vicissitudes and passions of the moment.

It is a hopeful, touching sign, then, that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein eschewed traditional Israeli discourse on Israel’s own relationship with the Holocaust, and instead issued a simpler, brief statement ahead of the trip that placed the victims themselves as the event’s central message.

”The elected parliament of the nation of Israel,” he said, “is traveling to the killing valley in order to feel part of the pain [of the victims] and allow its memory to be engraved in our hearts.”