Visiting the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland
The sun soared high in the nearly cloudless sky, casting its rays across the clearing before me. Birds danced among the concrete and brick structures by green meadows of bright yellow flowers and innocent dandelions. For the weight carried by the grounds we now stood upon, even the weather felt wrong and it was only when the sky clouded over that it felt appropriate. It was not so long ago that this land was filled with terror and it is still haunted by the memory of despair, for it goes by the name of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz in today's southern Poland was the largest Nazi concentration and death camp that saw the deaths of over 1 million lives as a part of the Holocaust, the mass genocide of Jews and countless other groups seen as unfit and impure by the Nazis. These are parts of history that we are aware of and learn about all the time, but cannot fully realize its severity until we have walked in the footsteps of its witnesses and victims.
When Adolf Hitler came to power as German chancellor in 1933, he implemented the "Final Solution" to solve what Nazis perceived as the "Jewish question" by exterminating not only Jews but also Soviet civilians, Soviet prisoners of war, Romas, the disabled, and so many more. Auschwitz, established in 1940 to detain Polish political prisoners, became a central part of the Holocaust as a death camp starting in 1942.
At the front gate of Auschwitz I, the main and oldest part of the camp, there stands a foreboding sign, "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "Work makes you free," although this was not the case for almost all who passed through it. As we followed in their footsteps through the gates, we entered a fortress of barbed wire, electric fences, and watchtowers. I cannot imagine how fearful those forced into this entrapment would have been, but the very sight of these barricades would have certainly extinguished the slightest hopes of freedom.
The fears of those deported to Auschwitz, however, were not unfounded either. Almost immediately upon their arrival, prisoners were stripped of their belongings and divided into groups. Those who were fit enough for slave labor remained in the camp, while all others were killed immediately. Those deemed not worth keeping alive were deceived to shower in rooms for the purpose, but these rooms were where the poison Zyklon B was released into the air, quickly killing everyone in it. Designated crematoriums cremated the bodies, and it is estimated that thousands died in this treacherous way every day. The Nazis never recorded these individuals as registered prisoners, and almost all traces of them are lost.
Even if you survived this initial selection process and were chosen for hard labor, life in Auschwitz was not living at all. Death was around every corner, and conditions were intentionally inhumane. In Auschwitz I, you find a row of brick structures that mostly served as the barracks housing prisoners but also as places of torture and execution. The two-story buildings were overcrowded with up to 1,200 people living in each, almost double the buildings' intended capacity. Necessities were lacking, and while starvation, exhaustion, and disease awaited, you lived under the constant fear of being shot, tortured, experimented on, and more.
Looking at the cold structures and buildings that remain in Auschwitz, it is sometimes difficult to process the numbers, the facts, and the immense loss of human life. Inside the barracks, which have been converted as a part of the memorial museum, it is a heartwrenching personal encounter with the camp's victims. Walls of photographs bring you face to face with the people who suffered here, and as their eyes bore into yours, you cannot help but search their faces perhaps for an answer as to how the horrors inflicted upon them could have been allowed to happen. There are further rooms and halls filled with piles upon piles of stolen items from the murdered including their shoes, suitcases, dishes, and even human hair. In another room, a massive book nearly the height of a person records the names of the people killed. Despite the size of each page, the text written is dizzyingly minuscule.
In Auschwitz II or Birkenau, another division of the camp, the scale of the systematic suffering only multiplied. While Auschwitz I could hold about 15,000 people, Birkenau was an expansion and the largest camp of all, holding up to 90,000 at a time. You see the similar signs of oppression in its barbed-wire walls and guard towers, except here, they stretch almost as far as the eye can see as it surrounds an area that is nearly ten times the size of Auschwitz I.
As you enter Birkenau, you walk along train tracks that brought prisoners from across Nazi-occupied Europe, separated family and friends, and sent countless of innocent people to their deaths. You then continue to rows of prisoner barracks that were larger and perhaps even poorer in condition to what we had already seen. Birkenau is thought to be where 90% of Auschwitz's victims died, and it operated until the very end of Nazi power during World War II.
As Nazi defeat approached and Soviet troops advanced on the camp in 1945, the Nazis decided to evacuate Auschwitz, forcing over 60,000 people on what is now known as the Death Marches into Nazi strongholds where countless died on the journey. Before Auschwitz was abandoned, the Nazis even attempted to destroy evidence of their crimes, leaving crematoriums, gas chambers, and more as rubble remains that can still be seen today.
Despite their efforts, the Nazis failed to escape the consequences of the atrocities they committed as the Holocaust remains remembered as one of the largest genocides in history. Even when the Soviets liberated Auschwitz at the very end, what the Nazis had done was all too apparent. In the piles of corpses, hundreds of thousands of shoes and clothes, 7 tons of human hair, and 7,000 people who were close to death that were left behind, the immense suffering was clear.
Today, Auschwitz and the Holocaust are a part of a page in the book of history that has thankfully ended, but it is one that we must never stop looking back at. The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum in Poland stands as a potent reminder that what horrors occurred here must not only never happen again but also never be forgotten. However, when you look around at the world today, sometimes you have to wonder: have we learned from our mistakes?
We visited Auschwitz in 2017 during our year-long trip around the world. Click on the link to read more.