I meant to post my thoughts and feelings after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau shortly after my visit. I was unable to do so that night because my emotions had gotten the better of me. But the trip got away from me and each day I was blogging about something else and I never posted. When I returned I realized that I needed to do this (and wish I had at least typed something up right after so that I would have a personal account of the raw emotion, at least for myself). I posted the photos a few weeks ago and thought about doing it then, but I didn’t. Then I realized that we were approaching the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation and decided that this was the perfect opportunity. I have been reading survivors’ accounts and stories over the last few days (not just from US media, but also articles in the Irish papers) in preparation for this post. I also reviewed my photos and reread all the signs I photographed (but did not post). Nothing will bring back that raw emotion, but here goes.
First, some background. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi concentration camp and at least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945 and 1.1 million of those people died there. The vast majority were Jews, but it started for Polish prisoners and Soviet POWs. I was very glad to have had a Polish tour guide, as she provided a lot of context and history from the Polish perspective. Of the Jews at Auschwitz, the vast majority were Polish and Hungarian, though they came from all over Europe, as far away as Greece.
Even as I look at photos and remember back to standing there, I can’t adequately convey how it felt to be there. To stand in a place of so much horror. In a place where so much history resides. The Nazis shaved the victims’ heads when they arrived at the camp because human hair was a commodity. The Nazis did not pass up any opportunity to make money. There is an exhibit that is full of human hair from the victims. You can have no idea how it feels to stand before a massive room full of hair of people you know were tortured and killed. So much of the Holocaust is unimaginable, but even seeing it up close and personal doesn’t make it any more understandable.
As you moved through the barracks (called blocks), it became more and more difficult. First we saw the hair, then the eyeglasses, prayer shawls, handicap equipment (wheelchairs, crutches, prosthetics, etc.), plates and bowls, luggage (the luggage was especially poignant for me and I took many photos because the names of the victims were written on their suitcases. I thought a lot of the people who carried those names and I felt it was quite personal.), baby clothes, toiletries, and then the shoes. You may have heard about the shoe exhibit. It is in a hallway with glass enclosures on both sides and the enclosures are full of shoes. To imagine the number of people to go with each pair of shoes was overwhelming. But the baby bootie was the one that made me cry.
I was surprised at the lack of emotion shown by my fellow tourists. Although I was on the English-speaking tour, I was the only native English speaker. I don’t know how and what other countries teach when it comes to WWII and the Holocaust, but if you are choosing to visit Auschwitz, I would imagine you care enough about what happened. How these people could not be moved was beyond me, though I wouldn’t know just how much until later in the day. So as overcome as I was by my emotions, I tried to keep it in check so I wasn’t looked at the weirdo of the group.
I wanted very much to pick up a rock or something from the grounds as we proceeded from block to block, but they specifically tell you not to. It’s apparently a strict rule and I am a strict rule-follower. I guess it makes sense because if everyone who visited took rocks, there wouldn’t be anything left. I really wanted something tangible to remember it by, but I will have to make do with photos and videos.
It was interesting as we went along on the tour to see the conditions worsen as the camp went on. At first, victims were housed in blocks that had sufficient shelter from the elements, though still overcrowded. The bunks had “mattresses” and there were toilets and sinks for them to use. As the war went on and Birkenau was built, conditions deteriorated immensely.
We got to go into the block that held the Gestapo Court was held. Unsurprisingly, most of the sentences were death sentences and they were carried out outside the building the courtyard. The back wall of the courtyard was known as the “Death Wall”. The blocks on either side that held victims (I don’t call them prisoners or inmates, as they did nothing to warrant their incarceration…they are clearly victims) had the windows boarded over so that they could not see the executions taking place. As if they couldn’t hear the gunfire and know what was happening. In this block, the Soviet liberators located many of the victims’ corpses in the basement and ground floor of this building.
The tour led us into the basement of one of the blocks where the Nazis began experimenting with Zyklon B. The gas that would be used in the gas chambers at Birkenau. The feel of the basement is not one I can convey in words. It was oppressive and macabre. We were not allowed to take photos there. One of the cells was particularly shocking. One of the punishments that the Nazis doled out was incarceration in what is called a “standing cell.” These cells were for four victims to stand in, and even in their emaciated condition, I don’t know how four people fit standing up inside. There was only a 2” opening for air. They stood all night in these cells and then were worked to the bone during the day, only to be returned to the standing cell at night. The Nazis counted on the victims not surviving. And most did not. The Nazis claimed that incarceration in a standing cell was no longer than three days, but many victims disputed that.
The Nazis were clearly also in the game of psychological warfare and torture and that was evident by the site of a mass hanging in 1943. The Nazis executed 12 Polish victims in Auschwitz’s largest public execution. They did so by hanging. But it wasn’t just any hanging. The crossbar at the top of the gallows was a railroad track. They were shipped into the camp like cattle in a railway car and they were executed by being hung from a railroad track. Just shameful.
Finally, at the end of the Auschwitz part of the tour, we saw the areas where the Nazi officers lived. We were unable to enter the buildings, but the area was cordoned off with electrical fencing from the rest of the camp. I took great joy in photographing the gallows that stood in this part of the camp, as it was the gallows used to execute the camp’s first, and most famous, commandant, Rudolf Hoss. I loved that they brought him to the scene of his atrocious crimes for his execution.
This area was right near the only gas chamber that existed at Auschwitz (which makes the claim that the wives and families of the officers didn’t know what was going on even more incredible). This gas chamber and crematorium was still standing (unlike the ones at Birkenau). To walk into a gas chamber, know that thousands and thousands of people also entered, but never to exit, was incredibly overwhelming. (We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, which I wouldn’t have anyway, as it is disrespectful. That didn’t stop fellow tourists from doing so and I wanted to punch them in the face. I was trying not to break down sobbing and there’s a lady next to me taking photos of the incinerators.) I know I keep saying it, but as you can imagine, there are no words for how it felt to stand in there. But it may have been the only time I have truly felt claustrophobic.
After this our group was bussed over Birkenau. It was a short bus ride, but I imagined the victims of Auschwitz who were malnourished and required to walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau in order to build that camp. In all four seasons. Birkenau was incredibly difficult. First, you have the building with the famous railroad tracks running through it (the Gate of Death). As you walk further into the camp, there is an actual railway car sitting at the spot where the selections occurred by Nazi doctors. The young, the old, and the sick went to the left and the strong and the healthy to the right. The left led immediately to the gas chamber.
If you went to the left, you walked down the road to where two gas chambers: one on the right and one on the left. We made that walk. I videotaped part of it. I wanted to have a visual reminder of how it looked and sounded making that walk. Many of the barracks are no longer standing, which actually occurred before the Nazis realized that time was running out. They had been built of wood and had been dismantled when the Nazis needed the wood. The brick chimneys still stand in as a haunting reminder of how many victims were housed there like animals.
Shortly before liberation, the Nazis knew time was short. So they tried to erase all evidence of their atrocities. This including imploding the gas chambers/crematoria, burning documents, etc. So the two gas chambers and their attendant crematoria are just ruins today. At first I was upset about this, but after having gone into the one in the Auschwitz camp, I don’t know if I would have been able to go into these.
After viewing the gas chambers, we were led to one side of the camp to where a few remaining barracks stood. We went into a women’s barracks and this is where I was no longer able to keep it together (and again, almost committed an assault on a fellow tourist who decided mugging for the camera inside was appropriate). I cannot describe to you the smell, but it is a smell that I will never forget. I know it was 70 years ago, but there is still a distinct odor that was something I have never smelled before. Seeing and touching the wooden bunks that so many women slept on was overpowering. I took photos inside, as we were allowed to do, but unlike my fellow tourist, I only took a photo of my hand touching the bunks. I wanted to touch it to remember it. I was off in a corner slightly away from my group. I prayed there as tears streamed down my face.
Again, I was the only one of the group who seemed to have any emotion here. I don’t understand that. Just like I don’t understand how one human being could do these things to other human beings. Survivors of this camp returned to Poland today to show their strength. They urge that we never forget the incomprehensible things that happened here, because with the state of the world today and the rampant anti-Semitism in (mostly) other parts of the world, we need to be reminded that it could happen again.