Hubert, our beloved Polish taxi driver who picked us up from the airport and offered to chauffeur us to Auschwitz the following day (despite it being his day off), greeted us this morning with a friendly smile and wave. He kindly drove us to a BP, where I managed to get Stacie the iced coffee she’s been craving since we left the states, and we were then on our way to the one-hour commute to the town of Oświęcim.
Watching the lush green forest whiz past our taxi van, I started spacing off. I thought of this being the very ground our grandfathers and great-grandfathers tread upon, equally unprepared as I to witness the sights waiting for us at this most infamous extermination camp. I thought about their fervor and delight when it came time to volunteer to go to Europe to fight the forces of fascism and oppression, and then I contrasted that with the images I see of today, those of the rising swell of white nationalism and neo-nazism, bearing many of the same symbols as the flags that once flew over this parade of horrors.
And then, we arrived, and there it was: the gate, where in permanently emblazoned wrought iron, the past proclaims, “Work shall set you free.”
This is a symbol I’ve only seen in movies, on television, in history books, and the internet, but here it was, in full color and the resolution of life, beckoning me into this dark and twisted memorial to the worst of humanity.
We gathered ourselves and entered, regardless.
Among the permanent displays, housed in some of the more well-maintained buildings, we learned of the many methods used to both calm the prisoners so that they could be manipulated into marching to their own deaths, as well as terrify and outright torture the ones they selected to bear the brunt of Nazi rage and fury.
We paraded through room after room of prisoners’ material possessions, such as shoes, eyeglasses, luggage, pots/pans, and even implements such as crutches and prosthetics taken from the disabled. These prisoners were deliberately deceived, telling them such lies as “Tie your shoes together so that it will be easier for you to find them later.” The knots made it easier for the SS soldiers to fling them into pile after pile. Or, “Write your name and address clearly on your luggage so that you can retrieve it later.”
In one room, I saw a display of children’s clothing (bottom left, above) that brought me to tears. To know that these frightened, bewildered, and yet somehow, optimistic people, had been duped into giving up their freedom by such a sadistic and evil regime, combined with my imagination conjuring up images of these children wandering around in confusion and fear, was more than I could bear.
But I had to press on. We owe it to the past to learn and confront these atrocities.
We then entered an area where pictures are forbidden, out of respect for the murdered. I wondered what would be waiting in store for our group, but as I entered a large room, about the size of an average gas station back home in the U.S., I saw why. On all sides of the room, behind glass walls, sat literal truckloads – piles stacked several feet high – of human hair, and it was hair that had been collected off the corpses of those the SS determined unfit for labor.
And its purpose?
To stuff pillows and mattresses.
These were human beings who had been reduced to something as arbitrary as the stuffing used for the sole purpose of giving another human a sense of comfort. These were mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors whose kids would play with mine, and their worth had been reduced to a clump of hair thrown into bags and sold cheaply to the lowest bidder.
The second area we were forbidden to take pictures in was the basement of the prison. Granted, the whole camp was a prison, ‘prison’ means that this was where the extra inhumane treatment took place, situated next door to the building where Mengele performed involuntary sterilizations and experiments that more resembled butchery.
Within the prison basement, we were introduced to several rooms: the suffocation room, where the elderly were locked in and deprived of air to see how long they could last; the starvation room, where prisoners who irritated the guards most were brought to die one of the slowest, most painful deaths imaginable; and the standing cells, 90x90cm broom closets where prisoners were kept for days, forced to stand because space was so severely limited.
The conclusion of this part of the tour was conducted in silence, as we made our way out of the prison to the notorious death wall, where thousands upon thousands of indiscriminate executions took place, often with the SS lining up prisoners single-file to save on bullets.
By this time, my legs felt weak. We felt like we were baking in the heat and humidity, which of course, made us all think of what it must have been like to be a prisoner here during these same summer conditions. After all, we had Nikes and bottled water. We were listening to a tour guide with a calming voice over headphones. We knew nothing of the suffering that took place in this nightmarish facility, other than the stories I relay here.
The final and arguably most brutal exhibit in the original Auschwitz I camp was the gas chamber and crematorium. I knew in advance that this would potentially be the most difficult building in which to tread, but again, we pressed on.
Upon entering the building, we saw the processing area, where prisoners were ordered to strip for a “sanitizing shower.” They were then ushered into the room next door, pictured below:
Following securing of the doors, SS soldiers would then open up holes in the roof (below), and drop in Zyklon-B crystals, measured precisely, so as not to waste material but also effectively exterminate each and every last prisoner inside. The Nazis had this down to a coldly calculated science, as they had conducted experiments in the early 40s on captured Soviet soldiers to determine the levels of the chemical pesticide needed.
As I stood beneath that hole in the roof, I imagined that being the last image an innocent human saw while alive, and I simply wept. My feet froze, my gaze still turned upward, and I could no longer move.
Within moments, I regained my composure as the next group came in behind me, and I moved on to the room next door, which I was shocked to see was the crematorium:
Nothing, I repeat, NOTHING prepares you to walk into a room where you know the bodies of innocent and murdered humans were treated as rubbish, loaded onto a cart, and shoved summarily into a furnace, with proof of their existence wiped clean from the face of the earth, their essence reduced to flakes of ash floating up to the atmosphere to be deposited on that very same lush, green forest I had driven past only hours earlier.
But, our tour was only half over. We still had Auschwitz II-Birkenau to explore, and as the other group made their way in as well, met with gasps and reeling horror at the sight of these ovens, I exited the building.
If there is one word that comes to mind when entering Birkenau, it is this: imposing. I cannot begin to fathom the depths of terror people must have felt when being offloaded from the cattle cars coming from all around Europe.
As I stood motionless by this lone remaining train car, parked conspicuously as a memorial, I tried to imagine what the scene must have looked like, and I wandered around the car to find an impromptu memorial to the ghosts of the tortured past:
And in this moment, I felt a brief tinge of hope. There are those who not only remember, but also honor those who suffered at the hands of those who would objectify, scapegoat, and oppress an entire ethnic group, along with those who love differently, look differently, and exist differently than what one small group of people think should be the ideal human. There was someone in this world who thought far enough ahead to bring roses to the spirits of the dead as an offering, a way of saying, yes, we remember you, and no, we will never, ever forget.
My final confrontation with the past occurred at a place in Birkenau where it is not forbidden to take pictures, but still, I could not bring myself to do so. Seeing a building in relatively good shape (most of Birkenau has crumbled, leaving behind only fragments and chimneys rising out of buildings no longer standing) with a sign in front of it, I approached the sign.
As I drew nearer, I could see the three translations: one in Polish, one in Hebrew, and the last in English. Once the words in the English translation came into focus, I was absolutely stunned and horrified to the point of sobbing. My son asked from a distance what was wrong, and I told him not to come any closer.
It was the building where SS soldiers coldly, brutally, and systemically exterminated newborn infants and their mothers, sometimes with injections of phenol, and other times by drowning. It only depended upon how cruel they were feeling that day.
I could take no more, and I had to leave, so I end this recap with pictures from elsewhere around this hell on earth.
May we never forget, and may we NEVER let it happen again.