Six Hours at Auschwitz
Wednesday, October 19th, 10:30PM
Last Friday I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland. I want to share the story, it feels so important. If you only read one of my blog posts all the way through, I hope it is this one. I’ll be writing this blog as a mental diary chronicling my visit to the two camps, step-by-step. As we travel through a place of death, I hope this will make the experience come to life.
It is 9am. The hour-long bus ride from Krakow, Poland has ended. I’ve come with a girl named Anne, a friend from school in Florence. We cross a parking lot and enter the Welcome building. We’re doing a six hour Study Tour. I feel so unprepared. How are you supposed to prepare for visiting a concentration camp? How are you supposed to prepare for visiting a death camp? A place where 1.1 million people died. A place that was the most important camp in the Nazis so called “final answer to the Jewish question”. What a disgusting phrase. I don’t know how to feel.
It is really cold, low 40s. I’m wearing four layers, shorts under my jeans, and a beanie. I’m still cold. Our tour guide tell us that the inmates wore only rags. Clothes we would wear to the gym or to the beach. It isn’t even winter yet. Last winter it got to -30 degrees at Auschwitz. The prisoners would have been wearing rags during that. I imagine wearing my thinnest shirt and shorts in -30 degree weather. I don’t feel so cold anymore.
Our tour of 15 people walks to the entry gate of Auschwitz I. It reads “Arbeit Macht Frei”. This means “Work sets you free”. This sets the the mood — it is so cruel. Here at Auschwitz, work will not set you free, it will kill you.
Auschwitz I is 25 or so brick buildings. 20 of these house prisoners, they’re called “Blocks”. The entire camp is the size of a football stadium. It is here that the Third Reich sent not only Jewish people, but Poles, Gypsies, homesexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soviet Prisoners of War, and prisoners from other ethnic groups. 90% of the 1.1 million people killed here were Jews. As the wind rustles the fall trees, it feels eerie.
We enter Block 4, then 6, 7, and so on. The blocks, where the prisoners used to sleep, now contain exhibits. We see images of Jewish people being sent to camps. Many thought they would return home someday, so they would bring their valuables, favorite clothes, family pictures, even house-keys to the camp. Their arrival would be the last time they would see those things. The valuables and clothes would be sent to Germany, to feed Hitler’s war machine. The pictures & house-keys would be throw into camp piles — living proof of the desperation of their situation.
Upon arrival they would be fully shaved, from head to toe. Girls would lose all their hair. We enter a Block with an exhibit containing bags of hair. Our tour guide tells us the Nazis would bag the human hair and send it back to Germany to be used in textile factories. Of course they would.
Each prisoner was given clothing marked with their “crime” upon arrival. Jewish prisoners received the infamous star, homosexuals received pink triangles, etc. They were also tattooed with their number. This number became their name, their identity. Humans treated like cattle.
We enter Block 11, where the Nazis would torture prisoners. Here the Nazis constructucted Standing Cells. Prisoners would be forced to work all day (12 hours), then four of them would be stuffed into one of these cells — forced to stand through the night. Outside Block 11, between it and Block 10, is the Death Wall. Here, thousands of prionsers were lined up for execution by firing squad. A man is leading the collection of people in prayer. I take a moment to pray.
We enter a Block that is playing a video with images of prisoners before they were sent to the camp, before the war, before they were persecuted. I can see them eating dinner out together, going to school, playing sports, doing everyday things. This video really gets to me. These people were persecuted for just being themselves. I have to wipe away tears.
The Block contains a huge book, called “The Book of Names”. It includes the names of the victims of the Halocaust. I find Anne Frank’s name. She died at Auschwitz. I read her diary in middle school.
We begin walking out of Auschwitz I. As I walk, I try to picture what the camp was like during the war. I look at the barbed wire electric fence & watchtowers, and imagine the Nazi SS soldiers looking down upon the prisoners. I look at the main ground, where prisoners were forced to line-up everyday for Roll Call. If the gaurds couldn’t locate every single prisoner, they would recount. Sometimes this would take hours. Often times in the freezing weather. I imagine the prisoners walking the camp, feeling hungry, wondering where their family is, and if they are even alive.
We walk across the double ring of electric fences that enclose Auschwitz, and enter the first Gas Chamber. The Nazi’s used gas chambers because it was more efficient, and was easier mentally on the guards compared to using a firing squad. As if the minds of those gaurds hadn’t already been completely lost.
We leave Auschwitz I, and our guide gives us a 30 minute lunch break. I haven’t eaten much today. I’m not hungry. We board a bus. It is a short five minute ride to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
We arrive at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I is a concentration camp. “Concentration camp” means the prisoners work. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is a death camp, not a concentration camp. Prisoners do not come here to work, they come here to die. And “camp” is not the right word; this is a city. At its peak, Auschwitz II-Birkenau housed 100,000 prisoners. This is an industrialized death machine.
We enter the camp, right by the infamous train tracks that brought hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Upon arriving, the “cattle cars” as they were called, would unload and the people separated into two groups: those who would be sent immediately to the gas chambers, and those who would go to work. The groups of people immediately killed were children, elderly people, pregnant women, anyone who was sick, and sometimes women in general. Mere hours into arriving, they would be dead.
If you were not picked to die, it was not an act of mercy. Instead, you worked all day to prolong the killing machine. It became your job to remove corpses from gas chambers, or lay train tracks so more people could be brought. In Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the “lucky ones” were the ones who operated the toilets, because they had constant access to water. They spent all day moving human fecies. In Auschwitz II-Birkenau, these were the lucky ones.
We enter a barrack. Here people would sleep, four or five across, on one piece of wood. We visit the remains of where Josef Mengele, a German doctor, used to perform deadly experiments on people. We enter the only Children’s Bunker. There are playful drawings on the wall. My heart breaks again.
We walk to end of the camp, where the crematoriums were. There were four total crematoriums at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Here they would systemically gas people, then burn them. When they would enter the gas chambers after the gassing, they would find piles of dead bodies by the door.
We start walking back, the tour is coming to a close. Nobody is really talking. What could you even say? As we are walking I sit down on one side of the train tracks. I pray again. It feels like the smallest thing, but it feels right.
We pass through the gates. Leaving the gas chambers and barracks behind. This feels so powerful. I get to leave. I have only been here six hours.
I am not Jewish, a homosexual, or a Gypsy. But, I am human. I leave the camp behind, but not the feeling. I will never forget the feeling.
On the way out, our tour guide told us that last year 1.7 million people visited Auschwitz — the most ever. This year, they are expecting 2 million; this will break the record again. On a day of heartache, this makes me smile. It means that more people than ever are experiencing this feeling too. It means we are not forgetting. It means we are trying to learn from history.
It means that in the long run, love wins. Not hate.
Thank you for reading,
Thursday, October 20th, 12:20AM