On a grey, misty Saturday morning, our bus pulled into an already full parking lot. Outside a relatively plain looking brick building, tour groups of all ages mulled around without a clear sense of purpose. Seeing signs for currency exchange and snack bars, I was reminded more of an airport terminal than a site of mass murder and evil. All of this gave me a certain added uneasiness about what I was about to walk into.
After receiving our headphones and receivers (given to us so that the guide would not have to talk very loud and limiting the disturbing of other groups) and being introduced to our guide, Szymon, we left the building and walked to the entrance of Auschwitz I.
Suddenly we were standing beneath the iconic “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (Translation: work will set you free) sign that marks the entrance to the camp. While I stood and stared at the sign, unsure of what I thought about entering a place of such suffering, Szymon made sure to distinguish the difference between a death camp and a concentration camp.
Death camps were set up as mass murder machines, allowing for the industrial-like killing of people whereas concentration camps were originally set up to isolate the enemies of the Third Reich. Auschwitz began as a concentration camp, but quickly became a death camp. Of the 1.3 million people the Nazis deported to Auschwitz, 1.1 million of them also died at Auschwitz. 90% of those that died were Jewish. Death was this machine’s main export.
Disturbing as it is, the Nazis did not let these corpses go to industrial waste. Ashes were used for fertilizer, hair was used to make fabrics, gold teeth were melted down, and prized possessions were sold. One of the rooms we visited in Auschwitz I was fitted with displays of artifacts left behind. One display in particular was filled to the brim with shoes of all shapes and sizes. Despite how large and encompassing this display seemed, it only contained 5% of the shoes found on the premises. Another display contained suitcases that likely once held a family’s prized possessions. It is impossible to imagine all of the lives that were connected to these artifacts.
Of the displays at Auschwitz I, perhaps the most emotional was a new exhibit on Jewish life. Upon entering the barrack you are immediately drawn into the first room where you are captivated by videos playing all around the room. These videos, complete with traditional Jewish music, really play with your heart strings as you realize how much of a community and a culture was completely ravaged and destroyed through the Holocaust.
A different room in the exhibit is filled with children’s drawings, painfully reconstructed from drawings found in the camp. Walking through the room you see drawings all over, from the edge of the windowsill to just below the ceiling. It’s heartbreaking to see a child’s recreation of life around them with an understanding of what they were seeing.
The final room in the exhibit contains an impossibly large book. This book, titled “The Book of Names,” contains the names of the Jews that were murdered. Each entry contains the name, date of birth, place of birth, and where the person was murdered. The book is set up in a way that, in order to read it, you are forced to put yourself between the pages. It is an incredibly powerful experience as the small type and large pages enumerate the death and destruction that the Holocaust procured.
From this exhibit we headed to a different part of the camp where we saw where some of this death took place; the gas chamber. Silently, our group slowly walked into the dark, cold room that once acted as an early model of the Nazi’s killing machine. Scratch marks filled the walls and I couldn’t help but consider how incredibly terrifying it must have been to die in such a disturbing place. It’s something I hope I never have to encounter.
On this note, we loaded back on to our bus and took a short drive over to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The first thing Szymon made a note of telling us is that everything that we see here was built by prisoners. In fact, the camp was under construction until one month before the prisoners were liberated. Looking at the rows of barracks and the unbelievably large footprint of the camp, it is hard to imagine the number of prisoners it took to build such a site.
The first place we stop is one of the barracks, reconstructed to look as it did when prisoners lived there. Long, wooden bunk beds fill the room. We are forced to imagine the number of people, rats and lice that once resided here. It’s not an easy thing to do.
The latrines are our next stop, where two long, concrete rows are centered in the room. With no toilet paper offered, and nothing to protect your bare skin from the equally bare concrete, I know I hope to never have to use a bathroom like it.
From the latrines we head towards Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers. To get there, we follow the train tracks that reach deep into the camp. Stopped about halfway down is a cattle car, identical to one that would have brought prisoners by the thousands to the camp. It’s presence makes the otherwise empty railroad even more eerie.
When we arrive at the gas chambers, we see their expansive footprint. Unlike Auschwitz I, none of the gas chambers were left standing here. Only their ruins remain, destroyed in the days leading up to liberation to attempt to hide the truth of the camp’s purpose.
Our final stop in Auschwitz-Birkenau is the registration building. Here prisoners would have their belongings taken from them and their names would be replaced with a number tattooed on their bodies. In this building now resides an exhibit filled with pictures of individuals and families that went through Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some of the pictures are supplemented with stories of the people they feature. Displays like these make the numbers of the Holocaust so much more real.
As we headed back to the front of the camp to exit, I saw a few deer hopping around the ruins of a building. I can’t explain how strange it was to see this interaction between this industry of death and nature. It’s an image I can’t quite get out of my mind.
Just before leaving the camp, we took one final stop at the watchtower. Here we were able to climb to the top of the watchtower and see the camp as the guards would have seen it. Despite walking a large majority of the camp myself, I still have a hard time fully comprehending the sheer size of this once full death camp. Honestly, I still have a hard time comprehending the experience as a whole.
When we had walked around I had attempted to picture what the camp once looked like, full of emaciated, starving prisoners and aggressive guards. Try as I might, I just couldn’t do it. The evil and immorality of a place, such as this camp, forces you to question how so many people were able to go along with this industrialized death without speaking up or out. If nothing else, it teaches the importance of standing up for what you think is right.