Forewarning: this will be the longest post I will ever have, but I have too much to say about this topic to condense it down any further.
Today is about to be one of the most enriching experiences of my educational career. Our group is heading off to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. I already have a lot of ideas of what to expect at Auschwitz, but I am very eager to learn more about the camp and the holocaust in general. We left our town of Krakow at 8:30 am, and had an hour long bus ride to the camp. Auschwitz is split into two parts, Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau. For as much as I have learned about Auschwitz, I never fully recognized the fact that there are two separate parts to the camp, Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau. When we first arrived, we were taken to Auschwitz 1, and I was very confused. I guess I was just so overwhelmed with the fact that I was actually at the place that I have learned so much about that my mind was going in all different directions. Walking through the gate “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free) definitely set the tone for the day. To walk through the same gate that over a million Jews walked through to their deaths is a heart wrenching feeling to say the least.
Once inside; we saw all the barracks that the people lived in, where prisoners were kept, and where doctors would do experiments on people.
Next to one of the blocks where prisoners were kept and where some of the first experiments of killing via toxic gas were performed, there was a small courtyard. In the courtyard, the Nazi soldiers would bring prisoners to the courtyard and execute them against a brick wall. They destroyed the wall to “hide the evidence” but it has since been rebuilt and serves as a memorial for those who were executed at that site. The windows of the barracks that faced the courtyard were blocked off so that people could not see what was happening there.
40,000 shoes (20,000 pairs) of Jews, Poles, and political prisoners. These are not all of the shoes, but as a fraction of the number of people killed, it really opened my eyes to just how many people were actually murdered at this place.
“Canisters which contained Zyklon B, a pesticide used for killing victims in the gas chambers”
When the Jews were escorted to the gas chambers, they were told to leave their luggage behind. Their bags were then sorted by other Jews or prisoners to sort out valuable items for the Nazis to send back to Germany.
The living quarters that people in Auschwitz had was unimaginable. At first they only slept on straw, then they upgraded to sacks of straw on wooden bunks. There were typically anywhere from 4-9 people sleeping on each level, or in one bed together. The bedding in Auschwitz 1 (1st picture) was much better than the bedding in Birkenau (2nd picture). In Birkenau, the bedding was a 3 level bunk made of wood. 4-5 people would have to sleep on each level, with the sickest people sleeping on the bottom, they did not have any bedding provided.
Our final destination for Auschwitz 1 was the gas chamber and cremation room. This by far was the most emotional part of the tour. We were told to be silent as we entered out of respect, which added a whole other level of emotion to the experience. The gas chamber and cremation room were in the same building, so that it was easier to transport the bodies from one room to the other. The people who were in charge of moving and cremating the bodies were other prisoners of Auschwitz. They would typically spend a few months doing that job, and then they themselves would be executed since they knew too much and could testify against the Nazis.
Overall, Auschwitz 1 was not at all what I expected. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so much like a museum. I definitely got more out of the Birkenau part. The famous picture of the train tracks entering through the building into the camp is actually at Birkenau. That’s one of the reasons why I was so confused at Auschwitz 1, was because I was trying to find that building, and I didn’t see it anywhere.
The site of Birkenau was MASASAIVE. I never imagined such a large site. When people would first arrive to the camp, they were separated into two groups: those who would immediately go to the gas chamber, and those who would be sent to work. If there was a family that was split among the two groups, it would be very easy for those who began work to not even know that their family members were actually killed since you could go a very long time without seeing someone you know at Birkenau, due to the site being so large and spread out.
A memorial was built at the end of the train tracks leading into the camp. A plaque reading “For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945” There were roughly 15-20 of these signs written in several languages stating the same phrase.
The barracks at Birkenau were much shorter than the ones at Auschwitz 1. While at Birkenau, we learned more chilling facts. People were only allowed to go to the bathroom twice a day and were allowed one shower a month, lasting at most 15 seconds.
Overall, this was the best educational experience I will ever have. To finally see in person the things that I have been learning about since elementary school is something that not everyone has the opportunity to do. It is one thing to read about something in a textbook and take a test about it, but it’s another to actually go and put yourself in that situation, and try to imagine the things that happened at that site. Although this is a very touchy subject for most people, I think it is important to understand the acts of genocide that were carried out during the Holocaust.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” –George Santayana