One Week in Auschwitz

After spending several days in Berlin, I’m now on Day 4 of my stay in Auschwitz. Technically, the town I am in is called Oświęcim. Auschwitz is the German translation, which is what the Nazis called the city and the concentration camps within it. Despite the history, the town tries to maintain a separate identity from the infamous camps by keeping their lesser known Polish name, although I imagine this is difficult given the ghosts of the landscape and the fact that the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is the second largest employer in the area.

We will be here six days total, spending half of our time touring and half doing service work. Like any nonprofit that hosts millions of visitors, they rely heavily on donations and volunteers. Our service work has been primarily cleaning large, historic objects in extremely dusty environments, including the basement of one of the historic buildings and inside of the former parcel office between cell blocks.

Amidst cleaning oversize soup pots, light fixtures, loud speakers, and other items, you can’t help but feel your freedom in every move. My allergies were bothering me, so I stepped outside for some fresh air. Need a bathroom break? Go right ahead. After my hearty breakfast, I didn’t need to worry about hunger, but I have snacks in my bag just in case. These basics would have been unheard of luxuries for concentration camp workers. In fact, these soup pots are storied to have held something far from soup — water cooked with potato peels and grass for seasoning.

Preservation is a big issue for the Museum. Although founded in 1947, just two years after liberation, many items were destroyed by the S.S. in the final days in efforts to hide evidence of their crimes, some were taken with as belongings as people fled, and some taken as people came through in the two year interim. What remains is thought to be less than 10% of the items. The facility is upgrading some of their storage facilities, which will help in the long term, both with objects and their collection of over 2000 art pieces.

With limited items to begin with and limited resources for preservation, the other big issue for the Museum is security. I had a strange feeling when I saw the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (German for “work will set you free”) gate that so many people crowded around to photograph. It looked too new and flawless. I later found out the original was broken into three pieces and stolen on behalf of a neo-nazi in 2009. It was later recovered but not reposted for fear of future theft. Similarly, the gate sign was stolen from Dachau in 2014. Like many Holocaust-related items, these are not just taken for value. These are taken as actions of ongoing anti-semitism and Holocaust denial.

Of course, the horrors of the Holocaust take on a whole new meaning when you’re inside the camp (especially the gas chamber and crematorium). But what also struck me from being there in person was the sheer size and scale. In a sense, this was a community. But how can I even use a word like “community” for something like this? There is a kitchen, a parcel office, barracks for housing, a medical clinic, and a canteen, all along a train track. Part of the ongoing need for workers, was the ongoing need for expansion. There were so many people there, speaking so many languages, leading to chaos, which the SS then tried to control through order, violence, and extermination. According to the Museum:

At its peak in the summer of 1944, Auschwitz covered about 40 sq. km. in the core area, and more than 40 branch camps dispersed within a radius of several hundred kilometers. At this time, there were about 135 thousand people (105 thousand registered prisoners and about 30 thousand unregistered) in the Auschwitz complex, which accounted for 25% of all the people in the entire concentration camp system.
Bunks, Office where SS approved death orders, Crematorium

Today, I head to Auschwitz-Birkenau which is almost 10x the size of Auschwitz I (and reflected in the numbers above) to continue to witness, remember, and share.

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