8 AM- we cleared security at Auschwitz 1- the one with that famous gate reading “Arbeit Macht Frei”
I quickly learned that the first shipment of prisoners to arrive at the camp were told the only way out was the chimneys at the crematorium, and then we took our first steps inside the camp. The ground was riddled with stones set in the mud that made it almost impossible to walk without looking down. Surrounded by bunkers and the large kitchen, our amazing tour guide explained a little about daily life at camp- prisoners would march out every morning to work and march back carrying the bodies of those who died that day as body count, dead or alive, had to be the same. He took us through bunkers that have been set up to mimic the living spaces of prisoners. He also took us into the museum at the camp which features things left behind by prisoners who assumed they’d get their belongings back, and that every know wall of hair. The hardest thing for me to see idly enough was the collection of crutches and prosthetic limbs. It really materialized for me that individual people were murdered here.
We got to see the jail within the camp, with cells about the size of a phone booth that would hold 4+ prisoners at a time as punishment, starvation cells, and more. Outside of the jail was the death walk where thousands of prisoners were shot. This was another thing I struggled to see in real life because it’s in all the major movies about Auschwitz, Oprah went there, it’s a known site, and there it was in front of me. The back board standing firm as if it hadn’t been riddled with bullets used to murder innocent individuals at some point less than 100 years ago. I was in shock.
We went into an exhibit on Jewish culture before, during, and after the camps. The first room showed videos of Jews in countless European countries just enjoying life pre war. It showed the side of Jewish history often overshadowed by the holocaust and made a lot of us tear up. The next room featured survivor testimonies which are always heart breaking but what really got me was the final room. It featured drawings made by children at the camps which they traced and put on walls, as if they were things a kid scribbled on a wall accidentally. Some of those doodles featured hangings or mass shootings in a forest- a kid has to see that kind of thing before being able to draw it. And those kids were no older than 13. I spent a lot of time in that room just in shock at what the kids saw within daily life- some drawings were innocent and fun like families and flowers, but the ones of SS officers and punishments were painful to look at.
Then we went to Auschwitz 2, or Auschwitz- Birkenau. The death camp. There we had no guide except Ms. Freeman. There was no museum- just what remained of the camp. We walked through Barracks, seeing bunks and the appalling living conditions faced by the millions of innocent people who passed through the camp. The chambers and crematoriums were imploded and nothing but piles of rubble with some shape to them, but it wasn’t impossible to imagine the horrors that took place within their walls. The rows of barracks overlooked the chambers but we learned they were actually hidden from view. Additionally, the thing that has gotten me most over this trip is that the nazis thought everything out. Inmates were given bars of soap to make them feel comfortable enough to go into a “shower”. I also learned of inmates who had to dispose of the bodies and a brave group of some that blew up one of the chambers at the cost of their own lives, reducing death tolls at the camp significantly- an incredibly selfless act.
We stood in front of a field that held the ash remains of 300,000+ murdered people. That was something. I could not even imagine what that would have been like. We got to stop and reflect at that sight, I took the opportunity to be thankful for this opportunity to stand at such a horrible yet powerful spot, while paying my respects to the people who never got the chance to fight for themselves because they were murdered so quickly.
The most haunting part of Birkenau for me was the last stop we made to the women’s barracks. There were paintings made by female inmates and the original bunks were in the space. Unfortunately, they were also covered in graffiti. I saw everything from names and years to an etching of an American flag. Needless to say, I was disgusted. That space was so powerful in part because we went at sundown, as it was getting dark, therefore it felt much more real.
We left Birkenau to a beautiful sunset which was incredibly frustrating because a death camp should not look or feel that pretty, but yet it was impossible to ignore the glowing red sun and the rainbow sky behind it, overlooking the infamous gate and train tracks.
Last stop of the day before our 6 hour bus ride featuring the sound of music was to a monastery to see the work of Marian Kołodziej. Marian was number 432 at Auschwitz- one of the first prisoners to arrive, he was a political criminal and managed to survive his entire time in Auschwitz, being arrested at merely 18 years old. He had a stroke later in life and began to draw as part of his recovery, and his drawings were the first time he ever told his story about his time in Auschwitz. His work is absolutely breathtaking. He did so many pictures, each of which tells a very deliberate story, and many of which are connected to his catholic faith. We heard horrors of how he encountered his best friend’s body while working at the crematorium, or how he was hung from a tree for days by an arm. This exhibit is one I will never forget- his work is so detailed and horrifying in a way none of us will ever understand. Plus our tour guide cracked a couple of jokes which made things interesting.
Today was a long but important day. I won’t lie I’m finishing this up at 2:30 in the morning since we arrived in Lublin less than an hour ago after that long bus ride, but today was so worth every minute. Everything I saw and learned today will stick with me for the rest of my life because seeing these horrible places on screens and in pictures is one thing, but nothing can compare to walking through them yourself.
Oh and happy 18th birthday JD!
LEFT: Auschwitz I barracks (blocks)
MIDDLE: children’s art at Auschwitz
RIGHT: a view as we were leaving Birkenau