While planning my vacation in Poland last year, out of pure curiosity, I decided to go to Auschwitz.
I didn’t give it much thought back then. I knew the basics from the history lessons in high school and out of the documentaries and movies I’ve watched along the years. In fact, I was more exited to see a close friend who was living in Warsaw at that time.
I hopped off the bus and found myself standing next to a huge gate with train tracks running trough it. A rusty metal sign announced unceremoniously “Auschwitz — Birkenau”. There were three camps called Auschwitz (Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II — Birkenau and Auschwitz III — Monowitz). The real horrors happened in Auschwitz I although a lot more people died in Birkenau.
The journey trough Birkenau creates a heavy feeling that builds up inside you as you walk deeper into the camp. The further you go, the heavier you feel. It’s something you just can’t shrug off. The stark contrasts, the warm inviting weather, the empty barracks, the deafening silence, the endless fences of barbed wire, the black signs listing terrible horrors… sometimes it’s just unbearable.
It’s really hard to imagine people were held there. Your mind just refuses to make the connection, it tries to protect you from it. Everywhere you look, everywhere you go you’re constantly reminded of how many people died there and what role that particular section of the camp had, in killing them.
You go trough all of them: the tracks where trains were unloaded and luggage plundered, the place where children were separated from their mothers, the corner where the old and the sick were immediately disposed of, the infirmary where the healthy were experimented on, the gas chambers where tens of thousands were murdered, and finally the pit where the ashes were discarded. It is surreal.
After you’ve passed trough all the horrors, at the end of the lines, a monument stands as a reminder to all those who lost their lives there. It’s a place of sorrow, where people gather to remember, light a candle and leave flowers for the departed.
On the steps of the monument lies a row of granite slabs, each covered with a metal plate, inscribed in every major language of Europe:
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.
When I left Birkenau my head was spinning. I felt spent and empty, but it wasn’t over yet. I had yet to see Camp 1.
After stepping trough the gates with that horrible inscription, the torment started again. I realized later, that Birkenau was merely serving as preparation for Camp 1.
Walking trough the buildings of Camp 1, more horrors unfolded, this time, each being described with excruciating details.
A courtyard closed of the main site was designated for mass shootings where people were forced to undress before the shooting, so cleanup was easier afterwards. The basement of a building near this courtyard, was the place where Zyklon B was first successfully tested. Eight hundred fifty souls died, paving the way for Zyklon B to become the preferred mass execution method in specially built gas chambers.
While Birkenau is a deserted place with endless rows of hollow buildings and miles of barbed wire fences, Camp 1 is a cramped millitary base, featuring numerous categories of personal items, pictures and historical facts.
You‘re slowly guided into accepting that those who died here were real people, people like you and me.
Thing is, the brain can comprehend huge numbers only by comparison. You’re constantly remembered that 1,5 million people died in Auschwitz, but that number just doesn’t sink in. One of the final rooms of the museum instantly changes this. When you’re surrounded by mountains of bags, shoes, clothes, and other personal items, your brain is forced into accepting the reality and the scale of it all.
Seeing mountains of … small shoes … tiny clothes and broken toys is simply soul crushing. The weight is unbearable and like many others there, I couldn’t help weeping quietly.
The things I saw and experienced in Auschwitz has left a deep mark on me and it will continue to be a part of me for the rest of my life. But then again, this is why this place exists. It’s a cry of desperation and suffering that scars you deeply, something you’ll never be able to forget.
Auschwitz was one of our worst moments as a species and that’s precisely why you need to go there once in your life. Seeing humanity at its worst, wearing that scar, will guide your actions for the rest of your life.