Hello people of the internet! So…it’s been a while, I know. School comes first though and school has been all kinds of crazy busy, especially the last several weeks. A good chunk of my time has been spent working on my Lit Review for my senior comp. (our equivalent to a senior thesis or capstone project). If I wasn’t working on that, I was working on an ethnography research project for another class. So it’s been interesting but busy. Good news is that I am now finished! Holy crap, that means I’m basically a senior now. When did that happen??
Before I get into the meat of this post, I’m also very happy and excited to announce (for anyone who might have been waiting on pins and needles) that I have an internship for this summer! I will be interning at SCETV at home and I’m pretty excited about it. I think I mentioned in an earlier post how I’d been applying to different places trying to find a job or an internship. Mom’s really happy about it. Alright, just wanted to share that with you guys, I’m sure you’ll hear about it in later updates. Now on to the real topic of this post.
I believe I left off with telling you guys about our two or three day stay in Krakow, Poland minus our day spent at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I think out of all the places I’ve traveled to and visited, this was one of the most powerful. Depressing and sickening and sad but very powerful. It snowed the whole time that we were in Poland so it was snowy and cold the day that we went but I thought that the weather somehow fit. It made it easier to try and imagine a fraction of what those who came through the camp suffered through. I visited Dachau with my family a few years ago during the summer when it was warm and sunny and there was green grass everywhere which I think made the experience a bit more surreal. Both experiences were very different from one another.
Before I get into details of what my friends and I saw and felt while we were there, for anyone wishing to visit Auschwitz, it’s not that hard. The hostel that we stayed at had really nice and friendly employees and it also had tons of brochures advertising different things. We knew before arriving that we wanted to visit Auschwitz while we were there so we spoke with one of the employees about it and they showed us the best deals if we wanted to go as part of a tour as well as how to get there if we preferred to go by ourselves. We opted not to do a tour. Next to the train station is the bus station (if you’re approaching the station from the square, the bus station is to the left and just follow the signs). Once at the bus station, we just asked which bus went to Auschwitz and you buy your tickets from the bus driver as you get on. Though it seems like common sense, make sure you buy a round trip ticket so that when you want to return to Krakow, you just have to show the driver your ticket instead of paying for a new one. The trip takes about an hour.
There are a few different ways that you can see Auschwitz. You may be part of a Guided Tour which include general tours, one day study tours, and two day study tours. Something called Guided Tours for Individual Visitors is also an option. Admission is free so if you wish to walk around on your own, you’re welcome to do that. Only the tours require paying an admission fee for the guides. We opted for the Guided Tour for Individual Visitors. I would check the website ahead of time because I think the variety of languages offered as well as tour times vary during different times of the year. Languages offered include Polish, English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, and Russian. Pictures are allowed provided that the flash is not engaged and stands are not used. The only places that pictures are not allowed at all are the basement of Block 11 and the area where the hair of the victims is kept. To be honest, I felt weird taking pictures–not that I took many–because I felt that it was disrespectful even though it was allowed. Honestly, the only reason I took the pictures I did was because I was so shocked at what we learned and saw during our tour and couldn’t believe where we were and what we were seeing. They were a way of confirming yes, I actually saw this, yes, this actually happened.
I would recommend the tour for individual visitors. Our guide was really good. We each had a headset and he talked into a small mike so that we didn’t disturb other groups or visitors and the group was also fairly small. We actually had a vet or two in our group who had either served and had seen the camp while it was still in use or who had stayed at the camp during the war.
The phrase written at the top of the wrought-iron gates leading into Auschwitz are iconic. Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes you free. This is the first thing that you see once you pass the visitor center. Work makes you free. As we passed through the gates, everything seemed almost glaringly loud. Our group was completely silent as we entered the camp and the crunching of our shoes on the snow suddenly seemed loud, wrong, as if we were intruding and you could almost feel the weight of the silence as it settled over us and an air of sadness hung heavy in the air.
Unlike Dachau, most of the buildings in Auschwitz are still standing, built in a grid style. Each building was assigned a block number which was displayed next the door in white lettering on a black board. It was a bit staggering to realize just how many people were kept in these block buildings once you realized how many were in each building and then how many buildings there were. The most horrific of these was Block 11. In school, we learn about WWII and the concentration camps. We learn about the war and what happened, which countries were on the same sides, what concentration camps were and an overview of what happened in them. What we don’t learn is how truly cruel and sadistic a human being can be towards another. I had never heard of Block 11 before our guide explained to us what it was and then led us inside.
Block 11 was and is known as the death block. Between this block and Block 10 is what is called the death wall where prisoners were shot by a firing squad. Inside Block 11 are rooms that were served as creative and different forms of punishment. There were standing cells, starvation cells, and suffocation cells. Standing cells were tall but small rooms that often held up to four people at a time. With four people in the room there was absolutely no room for anyone to do anything but stand. Prisoners in these cells were left for extended periods of time and often overnight. In the morning a guard would open the door and they would go work a full day before having to return to the cell at night. If a prisoner died during the night, they were not removed until a guard came to open the door. Starvation cells were dark cells where prisoners were kept with no light and no food from anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Suffocation cells were small cells that again, held a handful of people at a time. Instead of half-bricked windows as in other block buildings, the windows in these cells were covered with a sheet or metal or a grill that only contained a few small (think 5×5 cm) holes. These punishments were handed out for various reasons including escapees, having contact or attempting to contact civilians, political prisoners, suspected sabotage, etc. and punishment could last from anywhere from a few days to several weeks.
I’d never heard of this death block before we stood outside it. I thought I had an idea of how bad these camps were and how horribly and inhumanely prisoners were treated but this, this was a new level of cruelty. As we filed down the corridor and took our turn peeking into some of the cells, I just remember feeling waves of horror wash over me again and again at how depraved the situation really was. Along the walls inside the building on the first floor are rows and rows of pictures. Men and women, all dressed in the prison uniform, stare unsmilingly back from the frames. Names are written below each picture and each picture is of someone who walked into Auschwitz but never walked out.
Another building served as a museum of sorts. In this building, panels with pictures and a history of the WWII and Auschwitz were scattered throughout the first floor. Also in one of these rooms in a small alcove is a huge glass urn filled with ashes that stands on top of a marble mount. Upstairs are large spaces separated by glass windows. Behind these windows were piles of things, a small part of the physical evidence left behind by prisoners. Behind one window is a pile of combs, brushes, wash jugs, and other toiletry items, behind another were thousands of shoes, and behind a third were piles of suitcases. That was startling because names were stamped on many of the suitcases and one near the front bore a last name from my father’s side of the family. While it’s a common Jewish name and I don’t think that any of my dad’s family were still in Europe at that time, it was still a jolt to see the name on a suitcase among all these other suitcases that belonged to someone. One of the piles was made up of just cans of Cyclone B, the poison that was used in the gas chambers. The pile of human hair is also encased behind glass. I’d heard about the pile of hair from when prisoners first entered camp and had their heads shaved but I’d somehow pictured a huge mass of hair, indistinguishable from one another except for the color. I wasn’t exactly expecting to see graying hair still braided or in a ponytail held together with an elastic.
After we saw all of Auschwitz, our guide led us back to the front of the visitors’ center where we caught a shuttle bus to what would’ve been Birkenau, a second camp that was in the process of being built at the time the camp was shut down. The chimney stacks and cremation buildings were also over there. Railroad tracks run through the center of Birkenau. To the left of the tracks, beyond the wire stand a few rows of long buildings. We could see foundations for similar buildings in the snow on the opposite side of the tracks. These buildings, once completed, were going to be gender-segregated with men’s’ quarters on one side of the tracks and women and children’s quarters on the other side. Behind these buildings and foundations, toward the center of the compound are the remains of the crematorium and chimney towers. A memorial stands in the back to the side of the remains. Along the memorial is the same inscription in different languages. It reads, “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.” Stones are scattered along the length of the memorial that people had left to honor those killed at Auschwitz.
The remains were something else. Roof collapsed, the brick and wood that remained were black and charred and covered in a dusting of snow. Our guide told us that the Nazis in charge set the building and the chimneys ablaze once they learned that liberation forces were closing in. While the whole experience was eye-opening and horrible, this was possibly the worst thing that we learned besides the purpose of Block 11. Next to the remains was what looked like a small pond. Our guide informed us that this “pond” was actually a huge grave filled with the ashes of countless people. They have no idea how many people were cremated and dumped in this hole or even how deep the hole is. Our guide said that at one point they tried to find out but had to stop digging when they just kept finding more and more ashes the farther down they dug. That was really hard to wrap my mind around and I just remember looking at this pond and feeling such sadness. So many people lost their lives there and in the other concentration camps around Europe because of one man’s prejudice.
It was surreal and difficult to wrap my head around at times, but it was a powerful experience. It’s hard to believe that people lived through such terrible conditions and treatment not to mention the fact that others inflicted it. While it may be difficult to visit, I think that it’s something everyone should consider. I think that growing up now–I was born around 50 years after the war ended–it’s easier to learn about points in history like they are stories because we are removed from them. But seeing a physical reminder of what we learned in social studies or history class makes it real and much closer to the present than from the inside of a classroom.
A year prior to this trip, during my freshman year of college, we had a guest speaker come and give a talk. He spoke a little about his experience before, during, and after the war and then took questions. His name was Aaron Elster and he also had written a book called I Still See her Haunting Eyes: The Holocaust and a Hidden Child Named Aaron. I got meet him briefly afterward when he signed my copy of his book. He was really sweet and even hearing him speak it was hard to believe that this man had gone through so much at such a young age. But the thing I thought was the most impressive was the message that he wanted us to walk away with. I don’t remember his exact wording but it was similar to the way Ellen ends her show everyday, “Be kind to one another.” That was his message. He’d seen so much and instead of still being bitter or hating Germans, his plea for us was to be kind to one another because the world could always use more kindness. It was simple and it was his wish for us he said. If we left his talk learning or remembering nothing else, that’s what he wanted to stick with us.
To be honest, I’m not really sure how to end this post. I know I’ve said this throughout but while visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau wasn’t the happiest of trips, it was one of the most powerful and I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to visit and that my two traveling companions were okay with going.
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” –Eli Wiesel