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Day 7 (Auschwitz)

May 17, 2012

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The visit to Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of the definitive points of our study tour.  It’s what we signed up for when we decided to we wanted to do this trip.  It’s what we knew would have the greatest impact on us while we were there.  It’s what we knew would change our lives after we left.

The night before we visited Auschwitz I could not sleep.  It was the same with Ravensbrück, the female concentration camp in Germany that we had visited a few days before.  How can one sleep before they visit the very place that maimed, tortured, destroyed, and killed 1.2 million people?  How can one eat?  My time up to and including the bus ride there was ripe with anticipation.

As I sat on the bus I looked for the sign to Oświęcim, the Polish word for the town of Auschwitz.  As always, the countryside was beautiful– too beautiful as a way to cover up where victims of the Holocaust were really headed.  We entered the town of Auschwitz and drove past many factories.  It made me wonder how the townspeople feel.  What is it like to live in this town? (Addendum: A good article can be found here about it).

We drove past the factories and in a very surreal way, I knew it meant we had come close to the camps.  Things turned grey– the roads, the ground, the buildings looked strange and twisted.  And that’s when we passed brick buildings surrounded by a barbed wire fence.  We pulled into Auschwitz and the grey mixed with an ugly sand color that had lost its saturation.

After we received headsets (group tours can wear headsets to listen to their tour guide while being able to walk around individually) we stood outside in the area before the infamous Auschwitz I gate.  Our tour guide was quiet but informative.  Normally I took notes each day, but I knew I would take no notes here.  What could I jot down?  Auschwitz was a visual, audible, tactile, and olfactory experience.  Everything I learned that day was through the senses.

 Even though we collectively walked under the gate, I felt like I had passed through it alone.  The phrase Arbeit Macht Frei means “work sets you free”– that alone can be interpreted in a number of ways.  Perhaps holding on to hope and waiting to be freed made people feel isolated as they realized it wouldn’t happen.  That’s certainly how I felt.

We toured through some of the buildings which housed exhibitions about the kinds of people who were sent to Auschwitz.  Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “asocials” (criminals, homosexuals, mentally ill), political resisters all succumbed to the same fate.  The Eastern European Jews however were murdered as quickly as possible.

Life in the camps was horrendous.  Today there are trees and grass lining parts of the camp.  This was not the case during the Holocaust.  Green meant edible, and for people who received hardly any rations, this could have been food.  This is one of the misleading elements about the site today.  In the two camps we visited grass was everywhere.  More about that later though.

The world-famous collection of artifacts from Auschwitz is ironically enough housed in one of the former barracks (I was not aware of this prior to visiting).  We walked into a room with dozens of Zyklon-B canisters that were used to murder the prisoners.  The sight of these cans brought up an anger in me.  It’s been recorded that there were SS-guards and Nazi officials who got nauseous looking into the peep holes to watch the prisoners die.  There are also reports of the same types of people who enjoyed watching innocent people die and wanted to expedite the process to kill even more people in one day.  Who among these two groups is worse, is crazier?  Those that can’t stand the sight of it and acknowledge it’s grotesque nature but allow it to continue, or those who don’t?

We walked up the stairs into one of the most famous of rooms, the collection of prisoner hair on display.  Anger was replaced with complete and utter sorrow.  When you see how much hair is still there, it’s unbelievable.  Replicate that to the amount of 1.2 million and it would be downright deranged.  I myself felt uneasy in my body knowing that I could look at shorn hair but the people to whom that hair belonged could never have a choice.  Out of respect for the dead, photographs were not permitted in the room.

The next rooms contained eyeglasses, prayer shawls, personal effects (bowls, combs, etc).  We saw only a fragment of what the Nazis collected– again a surreal and uneasy experience.  Our emotions were stirred once again as we were in the rooms that held prosthetic devices, canes, crutches, and other support devices.  The people who needed physical assistance were always separated and sent straight to the gas chambers.  The Nazis deemed them unfit for work and the people never knew where they were headed.  They never had a say.

The next room housed the suitcases of the prisoners.  Suitcases were marked with names and addresses (even though the Nazis had stripped Jews of their addresses and nationality).  Suitcases received in processing were then searched for valuable items.  The SS even forced Jewish inmates to tear apart suitcases looking for hidden money or precious metal (the SS believed Jews to be money hungry).  So many millions of Jews (and other victims of the Holocaust) were displaced from their homes, sent to live in filthy ghettos, and then transported here.  The suitcases were only a ploy to make people think they’d be staying somewhere for awhile.

The last collection we saw was as hard-hitting as the hair.  Shoes lined the walls on either side of the room.  Most of the shoes are decomposing, but every once in awhile you will notice a red shoe among the mass.  There were shoes of every kind– boots, flats, dress shoes, and high heels.  The children’s shoes were especially hard to look at.  As many as 17 million people were killed in the Holocaust (6 million of them Jews).  Think of how many shoes 17 million people had.

When we left those barracks we went into ones that recreated the living situation for the people to whom those eyeglasses, suitcases, and shoes belonged.  To say prisoners were given secondhand items is an understatement.  These people had to sleep on straw, on wooden bunks shared with as many as four other people, or on brick shelves.  Later in Auschwitz-Birkenau we learned the barracks were originally meant to house horses.  Here in Auschwitz I the conditions were not much better.

Straw “beds”

Wooden bunks

Brick bunks













Our last stop in Auschwitz was the very thing I think most of us were afraid to see.  As we rounded the building that held the gas chamber, I watched the expressions of the people who had exited the building.  No one was crying which I thought was odd.  People had a faraway look as though their thoughts were somewhere else.  Most people looked sullen and and also expressionless at the same time, if that is possible.  As I stepped inside I looked at the deathly black char on the walls.  I saw jaggedy lines etched into the walls where people clawed in desperation.  I looked up and saw the hatch from which the Zyklon-B was thrown.  There was no emotion I could possible have that would have done justice to the pure hell that went on in this room.  When we walked into the adjacent crematorium I saw the chutes the corpses were thrown into to burn more expediently.  As I walked out I understood the reactions I had seen on the people’s faces as they had exited the building.  There is no emotion a visitor can have as they realize they have walked out of door when the only way out for 1.2 million people was through a chimney.



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