First, I will warn you that this isn’t jut a post about me visiting Poland. It’s about my experiences at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s a little heavy, but if you’re interested, then please read on. I’d like to share some of yesterday’s experiences with you.
I’m back at the Castle after a 48-hour trip to Krakow, Poland. The Netherlands welcomed us back this afternoon with an embrace of sunshine and flowers. It was greatly needed after living in perpetual gray-ness. Let me explain…
Early Thursday morning we took a cab to the Düsseldoorf Weeze airport. It’s definitely my favorite airport because it’s only about five miles away in Germany. We had a smooth check in and boarded our flight for 9:55 am. However, instead of landing at 11:30 as scheduled, we flew into a massive rain storm over Krakow. We couldn’t land due to visibility issues and had to land in another airport in Poland an hour later. Luckily, they had shuttle buses prepared for us which brought us back to the Krakow airport… but another hour had gone by. We took a bus to the Main Bus Station and then had some trouble finding the right tram to bring us to the hostel (we didn’t know that it was close enough to walk). In total, it took us about 12 hours to finally reach our hostel. The hostel owners were not happy because we told them our check-in time was noon and we arrived like 7 hours later, but we were so exhausted at that point that we didn’t really care. At least we had made it! That night we got Indian food and wine. I think we definitely deserved it after all the trouble we had been through.
The next day was when the real exhaustive part started, though. That was Auschwitz day. My friends Ellen, Jaymie and I quickly caught a bus that brought us to the city of Oświęcim (the Polish name for Auschwitz). The ride lasted for about 1.5 hours. The city of Krakow may have looked stern and uninviting to me, but it was nothing compared to the outskirts. I felt like I stepped back in time. There were endless stretches of barren, gray land everywhere dotted with run-down industrial-looking buildings (that I guess were houses). It was really depressing and made me feel cold through and through, not even just from the weather. As the surroundings became more and more bleak, we knew we were getting close to Auschwitz.
We were lucky enough to catch the last English guided tour and we watched an introductory film about the camps. The movie mentioned the names of children and their reasons for their deaths as well as the liberated prisoners’ physical states after the Soviets began liberating Auschwitz. Not to mention, there were many clips of the mass graves that were uncovered. There was also footage of people discovering the bags of looted items from the prisoners, including gold teeth and pounds and pounds of human hair. Not even twenty minutes into the tour, my stomach began to turn. We then grabbed some headsets and walked with our tour group outside to visit the various “Blocks” of Auschwitz-I…
Our tour guide walked us through the buildings (they called them “Blocks”) where people were forced to live/where they were punished. We didn’t see only barracks - we saw torture chambers. Jail cells and suffocation chambers. Block 10 was where they held prisoners who would be brutally and inhumanely experimented on by Dr. Mengele. They were actually given nicer conditions than the rest of the prisoners, although they would die horrible and painful deaths soon - especially twin children. Pictures of the prisoners lined the walls, and women and men alike didn’t last more than a couple of months. Between the stretches of blocks there are the remains of a brick wall that separated the sexes.
A couple of these Blocks were set up as museums with quotes, maps, and pictures. We’ve all seen pictures of the Holocaust before. We’ve all heard about how the Nazis looted the prisoners of all their materialistic belongings, sending them to the German treasury. But it was so different to see these items in person. There they were - piles and piles of eyeglasses, brushes, clothes, and shoes… everywhere. So many shoes of the gas victims. I had seen the shoes in the Holocaust Museum in D.C., too, but seeing them here was different. There was a pile of luggage with people’s names printed on them, because they had thought they were going to get the luggage back and wanted to make sure they were clearly labeled. The pots and pans, because they were convinced they were brought to the camp to start new lives and new houses. They would never have a need for these items. The Nazis told them they would be starting new lives so they would bring their most valuable possessions. There were also broken dolls and baby sweaters and shoes. There was so much tangible evidence right there in front of me and it was so overwhelming.
We also saw various places where they’d carry out hangings (we even saw some gallows). We saw the wall where they would perform daily executions by shootings. The last thing we did at Auschwitz I was walk through an actual crematorium. That was the eeriest thing I have ever done in my entire life. We walked through the first underground room - where the prisoners stripped their clothes - then walked through the very same hallway that led to the very same room where the “showers” were. There were still two big holes in the ceiling that poured the toxic gas into the chamber. I was standing in the same place where thousands upon thousands of people were murdered in just 15-20 minutes. Even thinking about it right now gives me shivers… The room on the other side of the wall was the crematorium, which was worked by prisoners themselves…
We weren’t finished then. We took a shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the famous extermination camp which was considered to be the Nazis’ ultimate answer to the “Final Solution” of Jews. People who came here came to die. When we arrived we had a short break before the tour commenced; while looking for the restroom, I took a right and walked through the thin, brick archway. This is what I saw.
That’s right. Large expanses of just barren land and remains of buildings. This picture doesn’t even do it justice. A train track ran through the camp (about 2x the size of Auschwitz I). This train car carried prisoners packed like sardines to a platform where an officer would point right or left - either to the showers to prepare for brutal work or to the “showers” and a fiery grave. The prisoners were largely Jews, but other groups of people were greatly victimized as well. Russian POWs, gypsies, homosexuals… the list goes on.
(The train track from the back end of Birkenau - the camp was huge. I don’t know if I can emphasize that enough)
(Photo of the new arrivals being directed to their fate - many women, small children, disabled people, and elderly people were immediately directed toward the gas chambers, unaware of their fates until it was too late)
(Standing at this same exact platform today)
Birkenau didn’t have much to see and it was much less like a museum than Auschwitz I. But this is because so many of the buildings were destroyed after the Soviets liberated the camp. We did see some barracks built by prisoners themselves and shivered as we thought about how freezing it would have been to have lived in them - there were holes everywhere and the ground was simply compressed earth. In the middle of the barracks was a long chimney: a cruel mockery to the prisoners who were forbidden to use them. Pregnant women gave birth on top of part of the chimney - I learned that, amazingly, some children born in Auschwitz survived to see liberation. We saw some of the remains of crematoriums, too - there were four at Birkenau alone. Like I said, people came here to die. They were basically told that in those same, direct words by the Nazi officers themselves. It was the “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem.
(The remains of one of the crematoriums)
As you can probably tell, the weather was just horrible. It was raining/snowing/hailing, which definitely made our experience more miserable. The creepiest part of the trip was getting back to Auschwitz I and having to wait about half an hour for the next bus back to Krakow. Auschwitz was closed for the night, so everything was just dark. I was too focused that moment on my freezing fingers and toes to feel really creeped out, and to make things worse, I felt that I absolutely couldn’t complain about my condition in light of everything I had learned/seen that day. During the two hour bus ride back to Krakow, however, it really started to sink in… what I had actually seen that day. The feelings I experienced. The eerie sense of helplessness that colors the whole place. Though the people were gone, the atmosphere was still there, definitely… the pain and the suffering. It held so many tortured souls. The scariest thing to think about was the fact that this kind of bestial treatment was only half a century ago. Not long ago at all. It always seemed to bother me that the United States had done nothing to intervene until much too late (even though sources point out that we had an inkling of what was going on long before but were afraid to challenge Hitler so directly). How could we - or any watching nation - let this happen, and for so long?
I am still really disturbed thinking about and re-living all of what I saw yesterday. It disgusted but also fascinated me. It fascinated me in the sense that it seemed so real - the Holocaust wasn’t just a period in history textbooks anymore. It was an absolute and horrifying reality. We don’t even know all of the horrors that went on there. Though it was probably the most uncomfortable situation I’ve ever been in, I’m glad that I went because I’ve now seen the place with my own eyes. I will always remember what I saw and learned about for the rest of my life. However, after visiting the Anne Frank House, Terezín concentration camp, Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau (and not to mention the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.) I am going to be taking a long break from learning about the Holocaust. Pretty understandable, I’d say…
(Inscription: “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. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945”).
I was eager to say goodbye to Krakow, Poland. The city itself was harsh, but the outskirts were much more dreary. Like I said before, perpetual gray-ness. That was my last experience in eastern Europe. Even though I am complaining about Poland, I am truly glad that I went. I can’t believe that I actually saw Auschwitz. I’ve always been really interested in the Holocaust for some reason and have been eager to learn more about it; I wanted to go to Poland for the sole purpose of seeing Auschwitz, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to do so. I think it was a good experience for me; it put things into perspective. I’m sure that many people consider me crazy for willingly subjecting myself to something like Auschwitz. But I felt that I needed to. It was a reality check. It’s so easy to live life without paying attention to important lessons such as the Holocaust. But no matter how hard you try to ignore it, it’s still there. It happened. We need to learn from it. And leaders of countries like Hamas continue to deny that it ever happened. It’s blasphemy and it makes me sick. Holocausts are still going on today, right at this very second.
As you can tell, my mind’s reeling now with all of these disgusted and depressing thoughts and emotions. I’m sure I have much more to say on the subject, but I thought this was enough for a public blog post. Please, if you have any further questions, let me know.