Note: As of 2015 it appears that the links to pictures are broken. I apologize and at some point I hope to come back and insert the most relevant pictures into this post, but for the time being I think it’s important to leave the post how it was originally written, links and all.
Listening to: City & Color, “Save Your Scissors”
I don’t want to write this blog entry.
I didn’t want to get on the bus that morning.
I didn’t want to go on the tour of Auschwitz and Auschwitz II- Birkenau. In the back of my mind, I pondered methods of escape. I couldn’t even imagine walking around these grounds where over a million people were murdered in brutal and horrific ways. Surely if I said I was sick they would let me stay on the bus. Maybe I could go sit outside the camp and read a book or listen to my ipod instead. But I knew even if I was actually sick, I still couldn’t make excuses like that. The ability to travel to Poland and see a preserved Nazi concentration camp and extermination camp isn’t available to everyone, and one more set of eyes bearing witness, one more scared girl writing a blog post for her friends back home makes a difference.
On the way from Prague to Krakow, we watched part of a documentary by Mr. Bernard Offen, who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz when he was a young teenager. For a long time after the war, he avoided thinking or talking about the Holocaust (Elie Weisel, another survivor I have had the honor to hear speak, didn’t say a word about his suffering for 10 years.) The sad fact of the matter is, most survivors and witnesses are nearing the end of their time on Earth, so Mr. Offen began leading tours of Auschwitz and the other camps where he was held, sharing his story, testifying to groups of younger people, so they would carry on his legacy as “second-generation witnesses.”
So you see, I don’t have a choice. I had to take that tour. I have to write this entry. We, as a society, as a global community, can’t let the Holocaust fade into history, can’t let it eventually be glossed over in books as ‘oh yeah, the Nazis did some bad stuff, but America won the war and we all lived happily ever after.’ We need witnesses, we need testimony, we need to remember that each and every person who suffered and died in the camps was a human being, with a personality, with friends and family, who loved and was loved and was worked to death, starved to death, gassed or shot or burned, their corpse thrown on a pile like so much dead wood, their ashes used as fertilizer and thrown to the wind.
This is not a post for the weak of heart.
You can look up the exact details online, http://en.auschwitz.org has a lot of accurate information and statistics. I’m not here to write a textbook or even a historical article about the Holocaust, I’m here to tell you about my visit to Auschwitz and the thoughts going through my head. I posted almost every picture I took on Facebook, and the album is public so even if you’re not on Facebook, you should be able to see it here. I’ll link to some of the pictures in this post as usual, but if you’re not in the mood for my wordiness, you can use the above link and just do a visual tour. So let’s start with the beginning.
Auschwitz I was the first part (what we call ‘Auschwitz’ was actually 3 camps located pretty close together, the third one was destroyed so we only visited the remains of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau) that had once been a Polish military barracks and training area. This is where the well-known sign, “Work Will Set You Free” hangs over the entrance. The barracks are surprisingly innocuous: without knowing where you are, it could have been any university, military institution, or low-income housing. However, since you know it’s a Nazi concentration and extermination camp, a chill sets in as soon as you pass the double layer of barbed wire, and you know that this feeling of fear and dread, echoes of pain and suffering, is the same sensation that millions of visitors have felt. There are dozens of barracks with a guard tower at the end of each row. A handful have been set up as exhibits: this one, one of the first we entered, is bluntly titled ‘extermination.’ Inside, there are maps, charts, and informative plaques, showing where prisoners (Jews, Polish political prisoners, Russian prisoners of war, Gypsies, and others) were relocated from. In one room, a small urn of human ashes is all that remains of over a million lives. To destroy the evidence, the Nazis used human ashes as fertilizer, spread them to the wind, and dumped them in rivers, but some were buried and these were recovered to serve as a memorial.
Later in this building, the ‘extermination’ exhibit, I began to freeze up and shut down. I couldn’t process what I was seeing. A rather pragmatic, factual room informing us about the logistics of gas chambers and furnaces was followed, without warning, by an exhibit featuring more than two tons of human hair. Braids, curls, blonde hair and brown hair, taken from the heads of murdered humans. The Nazis sold this hair to the textile industry back in Germany, making a few cents a bushel, but two tons remained in the camp, packaged for shipping, when it was liberated. Can you imagine two tons of human hair? The glass cases holding it, piles and piles of it, were about 50 feet long and 15 feet deep, and the piles themselves were 15 feet tall. I was too shocked and horrified to cry.
The next few rooms were the possessions confiscated from prisoners. You see, many people who were deported had been told that they were going off to start a new, better life, that land had been bought and reserved for them in some ambiguous destination. Many were forced to buy tickets to Auschwitz or other camps. So they packed their suitcases with necessities and treasured items before getting herded into cattle cars. I think it was these rooms where the tears started flowing for me. A friend was in another tour group, and we passed each other somewhere among the cases and cases of confiscated hairbrushes, prayer shawls, pots and pans, childrens’ toys and shoes, and wordlessly exchanged a tight hug. I read somewhere that one of the exhibits was 80,000 shoes. Can you visualize 80,000 shoes? Can you, in your head, imagine 80,000 pairs of little leather shoes, and know that each one belonged to a person with love and hope and dreams, and now all that’s left is that pair of shoes? Reading it does nothing, seeing a picture does a little, but being there… words don’t even. I stopped taking pictures and just stared.
Outside, there was an execution courtyard. In the building on the right, Polish political prisoners were held while awaiting hour-long ‘trials’ during which hundreds of people would be given the death sentence. Stripped naked, they were shot against the wall at the end of the courtyard. The windows of the barracks on the left were blocked so nobody could see what was going on, but they could still hear. The diagonal poles on the left were where prisoners were tortured, hung by their hands crossed and tied behind their backs, then killed because they were unable to work.
After this, we walked through the barracks where political prisoners and those in the camp’s ‘jail’ were held. The concept was almost laughable because the whole camp can’t be described as anything less than a prison, but of course the Nazis devised new ways of torture for those who were caught breaking rules. There were tiny cells in the basement where rule-breakers were tortured, four men stuffed in a room the size of a closet, unable to sit or sleep, then brought out during the day for work; cells with no windows and doors that sealed shut so those inside were doomed to suffocate. One cell had a memorial to a Polish priest, father Maxmillian Kolbe, who volunteered to die in place of a complete stranger. I suppose this is the part of the blog where I say that a large part of my family is Polish and Catholic, even though I had never heard of this man before seeing his memorial, I felt some distant kinship. He was later canonized by Pope John Paul II.
We left the torture/prison block and headed around the grounds- by this time the sun was shining and the whole thing felt even more surreal. Stopping to talk about a gallows where prisoners were hung for various offenses, the womens’ block which was surrounded by extra barbed wire, and an SS administration building, we wrapped up our tour of Auschwitz I.
I suppose this is a good ending point for this blog post, as well. I had planned on this being two parts- the first one for the visits, and the second for a seminar with Mr. Bernard Offen, but I can already tell that I’ve written a lot and going through this entry isn’t going to be easy for anyone. So, I’ll take a break here and come back later with part 2, Birkenau, and part 3, Mr. Offen.
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