Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Auschwitz Concentration Camp (May Not Be Appropriate for Children)

I always write my impressions and experiences in my blog. I know there are some children that are following along and I need to give a warning that this content may not be appropriate for them. The events of the Holocaust are difficult for an adult to comprehend. There are few pictures in this blog out of respect for the victims and following the museum rules of pictures only outside. 
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, end of the train tracks.
 Auschwitz, the name makes my body tense. My mom and I had talked about visiting the museum when we decided to go to Poland. I knew I had to be mentally ready the day we visited. It would be a difficult and emotional day and knowing myself, I would leave exhausted and angry at the atrocities and hatred mankind afflicted on innocent victims.

We decided to visit the museum and then take the overnight train to Budapest at the end of the day. So we packed our bags and hauled them to the train station. It was cold outside. I was not just whining, it was freezing. Snow was falling. Brrrr! We boarded the bus and watched the countryside as we traveled 1.5 hours to Auschwitz. We passed small villages and green fields. The snow was falling and was sticking to the countryside. It reminded me of Iowa with flat expanses of farms and a few trees. 

We arrived at Auschwitz and met Elyse (a young Jewish woman from Boston) that joined us as we walked the memorial. We stopped for a picture at the entrance. Elyse had saved her camera battery for one photo at the gate. 
This is the notorious gate with the cruel message Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Sets You Free"). When the prisoners arrived, the men were separated from the women and children. Then, 75% of the people were taken directly to the gas chambers. The remaining were put to hard labor in horrific conditions. The concentration camp is surrounded by two electric and barbed wire fences. Auschwitz was originally built as base for the Polish army. When Hitler occupied Poland, it became a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners and then a death camp for the people Hitler determined to be "undesirables" (Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped, etc).

I realized it is typically called a camp but I had a personal problem with using a term I always associated as happy memories with a place that had such horrific atrocities.  I always referred to it by name, Auschwitz.  We walked through the exhibits explaining how prisoners were transferred to Auschwitz, their valuables were confiscated (the prisoners referred to the warehouse with their belongings as Canada since they thought of Canada as a wealthy country) and their photographs were taken. I was surprised at the meticulous records the Nazi's kept for a race they planned to make extinct. It was overwhelming. 

The next stop was a building filled with documented evidence of the Holocaust. In edition to letters and telegrams sent by the Auschwitz officials and Nazi's, there was also lists of individuals and the dates they died in the gas chambers. We walked into one room and I had to do a double take. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at. The room was at least 30 feet long. On one side was human hair piled 5-6 feet tall and at least 10 feet deep. The Nazi's had collected the hair of the victims and stored it in a warehouse or sold it to make cloth for Nazi uniforms. At the time of liberation, they found 4,400 pounds of human hair. I gasped at the realization. Also on display were the shoes and suitcases from the victims. As we walked into the room with the suitcases, Elyse gasped. Her hand went to her chest and her eyes filled with tears. She pointed to a suitcase and said "that's my families name." My emotions welled. I got goose bumps and tears in my eyes. I could not imagine seeing my family name on a suitcase. My mother and I both asked Elyse if she was ok. She nodded and we continued onward. 

Then we went through the living quarters. The prisoners were given striped shirts and pants. They slept 5 people in a bunk bed and the bunks were three levels high. If one person turned over, all of them had to turn over. The bathrooms were shared and the sewer systems did not work well. Their food rations were minimal with a cup of tea in the morning, a vegetable broth and bread crusts made of sawdust or chestnuts. Many prisoners starved to death. Those that survived were put to work and endured the daily roll calls. All of the of the prisoners were brought outside and lined up for roll call that could last 2 or more hours. As I stood out in the cold shivering I could not imagine the prisoners ability to survive. I was cold in the 2C weather and I had on long underwear, pants, socks, 2 shirts, 2 jackets, 2 scarves, a hat and mittens. I was freezing. I could not imagine standing in the cold of winter in their thin shirts and pants. It was inhumane. 

As we continued down the path, we came to the execution courtyard. This is where religious leaders, political prisoners and leaders of camp resistance were executed. The Nazi's covered the windows of the surrounding barracks so there were no witnesses to the executions. The killed the prisoners at close range and in front of a specially designed wall to ensure the bullets would not ricochet.
Next door, was the death block. Nobody survived this area. We toured down to the basement floor where prisoners starved and/or suffocated in different types of cells. I was disgusted. There were so many tourists, Elyse had to leave. Mom and I went to check on her. She was fine. She just needed a moment. It was too much.

We continued past the gallows where prisoners were hung. We continued on to the crematorium. People were told they were going for showers. They were instructed to undress outside and told to place their belongings in a locker and remember the number when they returned. This was done to ensure they did not panic. They took their final steps into the gas chambers. Fake shower heads were installed in the chamber. The Nazi's dropped Zyklon-B (cyanide) through vents to gas the prisoners. The chamber was large enough to gas 700 people at one time. Some prisoners were assigned the job of shaving the corpses heads and collecting the hair. Others removed any metal-filled (gold) teeth. Next door was a replica of the crematory furnace. It was able to burn 340 bodies a day. Since the Nazi's did not like the inefficiency (2 days to burn the bodies), they built Auschwitz II- Birkenau with four large crematoria. I found myself asking on question over and over again. Why?

We were all quiet and pensive as we walked out of Auschwitz to the shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. I could not wrap my mind around the why? None of this made sense to me. Why shave the hair of the Jews, gypsies and Poles to make your uniforms? You considered them less then human. You equated them to bedbugs and rats. Why save all the shoes? Why kill harmless children? What caused such hate? How did others find this acceptable and go along? I didn't understand and there is no answer that makes it acceptable. Hatred isn't logical. It's emotional. It is taught. It is despicable. Deplorable.  

As the we drove through town to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau we passed through town. Why did the townspeople allow the atrocities? Was it for survival? Agreement? I found myself wondering what I would have done in their place. 

We arrived at the entrance. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was large, 100,000 prisoners could live here and there were plans to expanded it to hold 200,000 people when it was liberated.  We walked through the entrance. Most prisoners arrived by train. The entrance has a gate with train tracks entering. I realized nobody ever left on the train. The tracks continue to the end...the gas chambers. As I looked around, I saw barbed wire fence, wooden barracks for hundreds of meters. Chimney's marked the original barracks which were burnt to the ground by the German's when the Soviet troops liberated the camp. Others were used for fuel and building materials after the war. The grounds were muddy as we walked back to the memorial. Elyse and I overheard a tour guide say "this was a muddy, black camp. Ashes were always floating from the crematoria. It was a horrible place to die." I agreed. 

As we got to the end of the memorial, we observed the grey, murky lake where ashes were dumped and the remains of the crematoria. We walked along the memorial and paid our respects. Elyse, reached down and found a pebble and in accordance with Jewish tradition, placed it on a small memorial at the end of the railroad tracks. She took a picture and said "I can't believe my camera battery has lasted this long. It is like the menorah that only has enough oil to last through Hanukkah." She took a photo. Then, she asked if I would take one of her. She handed me the camera. I pressed the button and a message appeared on the screen that the battery had died. I got goose bumps as I handed it to her and told her the battery had died. She looked at me and smiled. "It lasted for my visit." 
As we walked back to the entrance, I saw Elyse turn and look back several times. I asked about her family and learned her grandparents had moved to Boston before the war. She shared that her family had relatives in Poland that had been relocated to Jerusalem after the war. She was actually born in Israel while her parents were visiting family. Elyse enriched my visit to Auschwitz by sharing the stories of her family and friends survival and perseverance through unimaginable hardships. I left Auschwitz with the feelings I had expected but also with a special experience from meeting Elyse and sharing the experience with her. It was difficult but meaningful and a place that will haunt my memories but I will never forget. All of us must remember to ensure that history is not repeated.

As I road the bus back to Krakow and boarded the train, I realized how lucky I am. I was born in a country where I can speak out, I have human rights. I have family and friends that are safe and well. I am sleeping in a warm bed. As I lay on the train I realized my life is different. I was born lucky and need to be more thankful for the basics. Many people have much less and have endured horrific lives. I must be thankful and appreciative. I must also always remember to stand for what is right. Not because it is what everyone else does or believes. It is what I know is right. I have always had strong ethics and beliefs. My visit to Auschwitz reminded me what happens when everyone turns away and nobody stands up for what they know is right. I want to live in a world where we are kind and protective of the less fortunate and stand up for what is right. It will only make us a better society. 

1 comment:

  1. Wow Michelle! I have tears, how can one not? I am with you, how can this type of hatred thrive? But unfortunately it still does in certain parts of the world. I've enjoyed your posts on your journey, and this one in a whole new light. Thanks girl! :)