If you read my last blog post, you might remember that I left it on quite a somber note by mentioning that our next field trip was to Auschwitz – Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp during WWII. Now after seeing it in person, I feel the need to share my experience with others.
We arrived outside of the gates of Auschwitz around noon. The sky was dark and gray with a slight drizzle, an unfortunate but fitting way to begin our tour where millions of people lost their lives. Many of those people walked through the very gate that I walked through on Saturday. As they walked through, they read the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “work will set you free.” It provided a false hope that freedom could be attained if the prisoners worked themselves to exhaustion. Immediately inside the gate, I already had an eerie feeling, looking at all of the buildings lined up in perfect rows. In the first building we entered, I was surprised to find the same quote that I had used in my last blog:
It was a good reminder of why I was there and why it’s so important to know exactly what happened in history during that time. Our tour guide walked us through the building, explaining the photos on the walls that were taken when the Jews and other victims entered the death camp. I distinctly remember one picture she pointed out where the prisoners were “selected” into two different lines. She told us to notice how there didn’t seem to be any indication of panic in the photo because the Germans lied to them about where they were going. They had no idea that while one group was sent to their new living spaces, the rest were sent to the gas chambers where they perished.
After seeing several pictures of the victims entering the death camp, what we saw next was an image I will never be able to get out of my head. To honor the lives that were lost, we were asked not to take photos for this part of the tour. Behind a glass wall in a large room of the building sat 2 tons of human hair. Some pieces were wadded up while others were still in braids. Imagine seeing that much hair and knowing that each little strand belonged to a human life. What was even more shocking was that it was only a small fraction of the hair cut by the Nazis in Auschwitz. Once the Soviet Union began liberating the concentration camps, the Nazis were able to burn most of the evidence. While the rest of the camp was difficult to take in and process, seeing the 2 tons of human hair was an image I will never forget.
We continued on through the building and saw more belongings of the victims. Among these belongings were hairbrushes, pots, pans, shoes, and glasses. I had the same sunken feeling from seeing the hair when I saw the massive pile of shoes. Our tour guide reminded us that it wasn’t just a pile of shoes. Each shoe represented a human life that was taken far too soon, and without reason. Right as I was about to leave the room, there on the bottom of the pile sat a little red shoe that once belonged to a little girl. I instantly imagined the scenario where the little girl may have asked her mom why she had to give up her shoes – being an innocent soul without any idea of what was going to happen. I felt myself holding back tears as I walked out of the room.
In the next building, we saw what the living conditions were like for the victims. From when the camp first came into existence, the victims mostly slept crammed together on piles of hay. Later on the Nazis provided thin mattresses. At the beginning, toilets were holes in the ground outside. Eventually they created a bathroom with better toilets. Prisoners were only allowed to use the toilet once in the morning and once at night. In the main hallway of the building there were photographs of some of the victims who died at Auschwitz. Along with their photograph was their date of birth, the day they arrived at the camp, and the day they died. From what I could see, the longest anyone survived in the camp was approximately 2 years. However most died within 3 months of entering the camp.
As we walked on to the next building, our tour guide informed us of the unethical experiments that took place at Auschwitz, mostly by Dr. Josef Mengele. Many of the test subjects died due to the experiments performed on them. The next building we entered was used for prisoners of war and individuals who were defiant against the Nazi authorities. Because of the horrifying conditions of this building, we were asked not to take pictures. The first floor included the offices of the gestapo (German police) and rooms filled with bunkbeds for the prisoners. In the basement there were separate stalls made of brick about 3×3 feet each. As a method of torture, victims were forced to stand in the stalls overnight and then return to work each morning. After living in the basement for a few days, the victims were led outside to the execution wall where they were lined up and shot to death. Today many flowers and other gifts line the wall in remembrance of the lives lost.
We walked on to the other side of the camp towards the gas chamber. Not far from the gas chamber, behind a wall of trees sat the home of the Nazi Officer who was in charge of the camp. Our tour guide told us that his wife often referred to her home as “paradise” because she received many of the items that belonged to the victims. After the liberation, the officer was found guilty and a separate gallows was created on the grounds of the camp just for him. His last views were of his home and the gas chamber.
The last stop for our first tour was the gas chamber. We were asked to stay silent inside, in remembrance of the lives lost in the chamber. The ceiling of the chamber created the illusion of a shower. However in a small window above, the Nazis infiltrated the chamber with Zyklon B gas and killed thousands of victims. From the gas room, other prisoners were forced to pick up the bodies and put them into the crematorium to be burned. As we walked out of the chamber and ended the first tour, my heart and mind were overwhelmed. It gave me a numb feeling, trying to comprehend everything I just saw.
We took a short break before meeting up with our tour guide at Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Upon entry, we walked on the platform alongside the train tracks. In the middle of the tracks sat a cattle car. Approximately up to 80 victims were crammed into a single car, traveling many miles from all over Europe. Upon arrival, majority of the victims were sent directly to the chambers on either side of the tracks behind a wall of trees. We followed the same path towards the chambers to see what was left of them. In an attempt to hide the evidence, the Nazis destroyed a good portion of Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Despite their attempt, you can still manage to see the layout of the chambers, from the gas room to the crematorium.
After seeing one of the chambers, we headed up the opposite side of the tracks to some other buildings. During our walk, I noticed how rough the ground was with sharp rocks poking up in different directions. I couldn’t even imagine being a working prisoner at the camp and not having shoes to walk around in. Even with the shoes I had on, I felt every rock beneath my feet.
Our guide led us to one of the buildings on the edge of the camp. We peered inside the windows and saw what looked like a bunch of unsanitary porta-potties lined up in a long row. These were the toilets used by the prisoners. We walked on to the next building where we saw the living conditions of the prisoners who awaited their unfortunate deaths. Inside the building, there were 3 levels of wooden planks. The victims were expected to cram together and sleep on the bare wood without clothes or blankets.
Our final stop of the tour was the top of the tallest lookout tower. From there, we could see the entire camp. The remains mostly consisted of brick chimneys because the Nazis burned the wooden buildings before the liberation. As I looked over the desolated camp before me, I couldn’t help but wonder how humankind could have been capable of allowing this to happen. I would like to think that most people believe in love and kindness. But the major flaw in the mind of a Nazi was seeing the Jews and other victims as nothing more than cattle. In no way were their lives seen as valuable. It’s an idea I learned from one of my psychology classes. Discrimination often arises because the minority is seen as the equivalant to mere objects and nothing more. If only the Nazi authorities would have attributed value to the innocent victims, so many lives could have spared.
On that cold, rainy day, I was reminded that humankind is flawed. We steal, we cheat, we lie, we harm others, and the list goes on. Yet the positive thing is that we can learn from their immorality and create a better tomorrow for one another. We are all capable of choosing how we treat others. My hope is that we can learn from that moment in history and choose to show love and kindness to all lives we come in contact with, regardless of our differences.
“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.” – Anne Frank