Kasteel Well Week 4 Special: Auschwitz
I am going to do my very best to describe the indescribable. I had decided with a few friends to visit Oświęcim, Poland to see the remnants of the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau Concentration Camps where over 1.1 million people were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust. We knew going into the trip that this would be an intense experience but we felt that it was something that was important for everyone to see. We knew this would not be a fun part of our journey, but felt that we probably wouldn’t be in a position to visit at another point in our lives unlike other European destinations.
This will be a brief post, as my words will not accurately articulate the feeling as you stand in the snow shivering and looking out upon the ruined barracks. We walked into Auschwitz I the same way that the prisoners did over 68 years ago, through the main gate with its famous sign. “Arbeit macht frei” – “work makes [you] free”. This camp was originally designed as a concentration camp for Soviet POWs. A concentration camp differed from a labor camp in that the work was intended to make the prisoners suffer until they succumbed to the harsh conditions. Prisoners walked through that gate, saw the sign, and thought that if they worked hard enough, they would be freed. Only in hindsight can we look back and realize that that was not an option.
We toured through several barracks that have been converted to part of the museum, which showed many different aspects of the conditions and activities at the camp. Samples of evidence found after the liberation of the camp remain for viewing including a room full of luggage, a room filled with shoes, and a room filled with 2 tons of human hair. Models of the gas chambers and crematoriums showed the horrific monstrosities that occurred at the camps.
One of the most shocking barracks was Block 11, which acted as a prison cell. Prisoners were punished in standing cells and this was where the SS first started experimenting with Zyklon B for the purposes of human extermination. The SS officers would walk through the hallways of the basement sprinkling the substance during the evening, and then check in the morning to see if anyone had survived. Many did and suffered as the poison affected their bodies. The SS repeatedly experimented in order to find the right amount of poison needed for their operations at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Near the end of our tour of Auschwitz I, we walked past the former site of the SS Headquarters where the gallows still stand where SS Commandant Rudolf Höss was hanged for his involvement at Auschwitz. The gallows are located next to an arms bunker that had been retrofitted into the first gas chamber and crematorium at the camp. Walking into the building was haunting it is mostly empty concrete rooms with the exception of the furnaces and a small floral memorial. Each footstep echoed as everyone silently proceeded through the wide chambers.
A shuttle bus dropped us off at the gates to Auschwitz II-Birkenau and we started walking through the center of the camp along the famous railroad tracks and unloading platforms. The Nazis destroyed most of the camp as they evacuated the camp in January 1945 in response to the advancing Russian army. The camp goes as far as you can see in every direction and only partially collapsed chimneys represent most of the former barracks. Following the tracks away from the main gate, you come to a multilingual memorial to all of the victims. Some said prayers while others left flowers or notes at the memorial.
Near the memorial lies the remains of Crematorium II, which was completely destroyed during the evacuation. The fact that the Germans were so efficient in destroying the evidence of their crimes stood out to me as a symbol that they knew exactly what they were doing. Our final stop was a barracks where prisoners lived. Referred to as chicken coops, there were as many as 8 prisoners lived in each bunk. Beds filled the entire building and each had 3 bunks.
I am still trying to make sense of everything that I experienced as I walked around the camps. Although I did not have any connection to Auschwitz or the Holocaust, the experience really hit home for me. There were some things that our guide said that sparked a deep emotion in me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Someone had asked if the prisoners knew getting off the train what was going to happen. Our guide replied that the deportees were being told they were starting a new life and what hit me was they found keys in their luggage.
They brought keys because they thought they were going home.
They truly had no idea.
I remember going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. when I was in 8th grade and walking out knowing that was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Those who have visited that museum know what I mean, but believe me when I say that nothing compares to standing inside the confines of the camps. As you walk along the unloading platforms you realize that the Holocaust wasn’t just a history lesson, you feel the impact on everyone who never left the camp. It is impossible for us to understand 68 years later, but taking the time to try is important in the process. If you are able to visit Auschwitz, go. This is something you have to experience yourself. No amount of pictures or video will do it justice.