**Fair warning: this is a long one, but I feel that the topic deserves a lengthy post.**
As promised, this entire post is dedicated to my visit to Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau death camps, which are located about an hour and a half outside of Krakow. I have been fascinated with WWII, and especially Holocaust history, since I was 10 or 11…about the same time my mom bought me The Diary of Anne Frank and suggested I read it. My pre-teen brain (hell, even my adult brain) had trouble processing how something so atrocious could be imagined, put into practice, and sustained for so many years. I have watched countless documentaries and movies depicting life in this particular concentration camp, but I don’t think that anything could have prepared me for actually stepping foot on the grounds where one of the most devastating events in history took place.
We’ll start with some background and basic info about the camp to help give my experience some context:
- Auschwitz was initially intended for political prisoners when it was founded in 1940.
- Despite what it looks like in movies, the original Auschwitz camp is located in the middle of a village in Southern Poland. I was taken aback at how visible it actually is.
- Auschwitz I housed between 15,000-20,000 political prisoners; Auschwitz II-Birkenau housed 90,000 prisoners
- Most deaths were carried out at Birkenau and the majority of those that died were the elderly, the infirm, and children that were deemed too young to work.
- Those that were killed were taken to the gas chambers immediately after getting off the train—a 5 second inspection by the camp doctor determined life or death for them
- They were killed by Zyklon B, which are little white crystals that create a poisonous gas when activated by body heat. These crystals were dropped through roof hatches and most everyone in the chamber died within 15-20 minutes after exposure–those that didn’t die were shot by SS guards.
- Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945 where they found 7600 detainees that had been left behind after the Nazi soldiers forced 60,000 other prisoners into a death march 30km across Poland earlier in the month to escape the Soviets.
- It is estimated that between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died in Auschwitz; 70,000-80,000 Poles along with 19,000-20,000 Gypsies and other individuals of targeted groups
Entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau
“Dormitories” at Auschwitz I
Auschwitz was the largest death camp constructed—not to be confused with concentration camps. Concentration camps were detention centers focused on hard labor whereas death camps were created for the sole purpose of killing off Jews and “undesirables” as dictated by Adolf Hitler. Just let that sink it: a place built solely to kill off targeted groups within society that ONE MAN decided were dangerous to his master plan. Hmm, strikes a chord with current events if ya ask me…
But neither here nor there.
Auschwitz is somewhere that I have wanted to visit for a very long time, which yes, is kind of weird. I get it. But, I’ve always felt compelled to go there and pay my respects to those that suffered especially after visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. (which is fabulous and, if you haven’t visited, you totally should!). Anyway, after finding myself in Eastern Europe, I knew that I’d never have another opportunity like this, so off I went. I booked a tour through a local tour group out of Krakow and ended up touring with a group of Canadian college students, which was interesting in and of itself, but that’s a different story. After loading 7 people into 6 empty seats in this van, we left Krakow and arrived at Auschwitz I an hour and a half later. We milled around for a bit as tour groups got themselves organized and eventually entered with an official tour guide and a group of about 50. We had those nifty little headsets where we could hear our tour guide without him having to yell, which I was thankful for because that would made for a weird ambiance…being at a death camp while tour guides were yelling facts and figures all around us…woulda been weird.
Anyhoo, we began at the iconic iron front gate where the saying “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes You Free” greeted every visitor and prisoner coming into the camp. *Cue the cold chills that literally persisted for the next 3 hours of our tour* During our time in Auschwitz I, we walked through various dormitory buildings that have been converted into museum walkthrough areas, showcasing various events during the Holocaust and depicting what life was like in the death camps. At one point, after being able to see a display case with actual Zyklon B crystals, our tour guide instructed us that we were not to take pictures in the next room—that’s when you know you’re getting into something heavy. I walked into the next room and my breath immediately left my chest. The walls in this room were glass display cases that held hair—human hair—shaved from actual prisoners in Auschwitz I that wasn’t sold to various textile industries. Even now, just thinking about it makes me want to cry. I remember watching my mom’s reaction to the shoes at the Holocaust Museum and not really understanding why she was emotional (to be fair, I was a teenager and altogether clueless at that point), but it is so clear now.
The Jewish people being brought to these camps were not told where they were going when they were packed up and moved out of ghettos across Europe—they thought they were being relocated to another place where they could live as humans. They brought their belongings—pots, pans, brushes, shoes, luggage, nice clothes, prayer cloths, shoe shine, hair scissors, etc—just for it to all be confiscated and picked through by SS guards while they were warehoused like animals and stripped of every piece of humanity they had. If that doesn’t make you feel all the things, then you might want to check your pulse and make sure you’re still alive. We saw buildings where heinous medical experiments were carried out, particularly on children and twins. We saw a concrete wall where prisoners would be lined up and the firing squad would end their lives. We saw the hanging gallows where prisoners would swing for various infractions. But, most of all, we saw and were able to go into the only remaining gas chamber at either of the Auschwitz camps.
Our tour guide gave us a brief overview of the gas chamber role in these camps and explained how they worked. After this we were allowed to walk into the room where people died. The room where people suffered. Everyone else in my group took the obligatory pictures and moved on to the next room, but I hung back. I stopped, placed my hand on the wall, closed my eyes, and just took a moment. Took a moment to take it all in—the pain, the fear, the despair—that once existed in that space. I sent up a spiritual message hoping that nothing like this would ever happen again and that, one day, people would replace hate with love. Maybe that’s naive or overly optimistic, but I really don’t care. If we don’t dare to believe in a world like that, it is an absolute that it’ll never exist.
Ovens in the gas chamber at Auschwitz I where they would burn the bodies after gassing them
We moved onto Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which is situated about a 5 minute drive away from the original camp. It is wayyyy bigger and its history is much darker. This death farm had 4-5 gas chambers and the entire purpose of this camp was to kill off the “undesirables”—kill them off immediately in the gas chambers, starve or work them to death, or lead them to a fatal illness through environmental exposure, unsanitary living conditions, or a variety of other heinous activities that took place inside those barbed wire fences. A few different things happened while inside this camp so, instead of talking about everything that I experienced, I’ll just highlight those specific events.
- The first thing I saw when I walked into the camp was a group of Jewish youth, sitting on the railroad tracks, spending time in prayer and fellowship. How did I know that they were Jewish? Well, most of them had flags with the Star of David wrapped around their shoulders. To say that this image was powerful is truly doing it an injustice—it will forever remain in my mind when I think about my time at the camp.
2. Another thing I observed as we were walking in was an older woman being driven in a golf cart while a man with a camera followed along beside them, keeping her on camera the whole time. I didn’t think much of it until we saw them later with hardhats on, walking into a random building that was not open to guests. Still not 100% sure what was actually happening, but I really feel like she was a survivor and she was back at the camp visiting the building in which she lived during her time as a prisoner. Powerful stuff.
3. At the back of the camp, there is a memorial comprised of several different large plaques, each written in a language of some of the prisoners that were housed at Auschwitz, plus one in English so that tourists could understand the message that was being presented. I walked along the plaques and found one written in Romanian to commemorate the numerous Jewish and Roma individuals who lost their lives in this camp.
“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.”
4. The sleeping quarters…I don’t know that I have the words to articulate what bombarded my brain and heart upon entering these buildings. I don’t emote well so it was overwhelming to say the least. When looking at the picture below, just keep in mind that each level would sleep 3-4 (sometimes 5) women at a time and they weren’t given anything to protect them from the elements besides the thin striped prison uniforms they wore. Just imagine.
This visit was heavy. There is really no other way to describe it. There is so much that I felt and experienced that could never be put into words and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to try. It was scary because I see the hatred surrounding us and I fear that we are regressing to a situation that could very well mirror the one that led to these camps. It was frustrating because there was so much that could have been done on the part of other countries to liberate these camps earlier, but they just sat back because this “wasn’t their fight” (lookin’ at you, USA). To put it simply, it was heartbreaking. And profoundly personal. And life altering.