Day Four: Auschwitz-Birkenau

Today’s excursion was undoubtedly the most emotional experience of our travels thus far. A two-hour trip of mental preparation through Krakow’s countryside led us to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest German concentration camp of World War II. It’s next to impossible to express the eeriness lingering throughout the camp, the final destination of over a million Jews, Poles, gypsies, POWs, and other targeted groups. It was amazing in the most haunting of ways.

"Work will set you free"

“Work will set you free”

A young Polish woman led our tour. It began as we walked through the camp’s notorious entrance gate, which read “Arbeit Macht Frei,” (translating into the horrifyingly ironic phrase “Work will set you free.”) Auschwitz, the first of three camps built in the Auschwitz-Birkenau network, has created a museum of sorts within the block barracks. Each block contains an exhibit with artifacts from a different aspect of its history: everyday life, living and sanitary conditions, plundered goods and more. Within these we saw shocking amounts of remains from the camp’s prisoners, including over 80,000 shoes, artificial legs, eyeglasses, suitcases, and—most disturbingly—the shaved hair of an estimated 140,000 individuals. Though many of us expected the museum would make us cry, we found ourselves sick to our stomachs first.

Our group was then led through gas chambers and crematoriums, torture chambers and cells for medial experiments. We saw gallows where peoplewere hung in public, and the execution wall where individuals were shot. Scratches of the prisoners covered the walls of the buildings where they were strategically killed using Zyklon-B. Though everyone in our group had studied these placed before, we found that the horror really hit home while standing in the exact places that hundreds of thousands of people were brutally murdered only 67 years ago.

The firing wall in the Auschwitz death block

The firing wall in the Auschwitz death block

After our tour of Auschwitz ,we continued on to the Birkenau camp. This size of the camp was astounding; though most of the wooden barracks have collapsed over time, over 300 brick furnaces stood in their skeletons. The wooden barracks were built in the later years of the camp’s existence, when the S.S. realized that it was more efficient and inexpensive for the prisoners to build them using wood instead of brick. You read that right–they were forced to build the stable-like huts they would then suffer in. We were able to tour an unaltered brick barrack, as well as a recreated wooden one. Seven hundred people were crammed in each—five per small bunk. We shivered in the cold while donning warm jackets, scarves and boots, and imagined how exponentially more miserable it would have been if all we were allowed to wear was as thick as pajamas. We saw a rail car that held hundreds of prisoners, and stood in the spot where doctors impassively sent the arrivers to the left or the right—to immediate death, or to death by excessive labor. Though the majority of the gas chambers and crematoriums had been in this camp, the Nazis destroyed them after the liberation to remove the evidence of their cruelty.

Train tracks running through the largest camp, Birkenau. People traveled for hours or days crammed in small rail cars without food , water or fresh air.

Train tracks running through the largest camp, Birkenau. People traveled for hours or days crammed in small rail cars without food , water or fresh air.

At the end of the railroad running through the middle of the camp, a memorial to the prisoners has been constructed. Plaques in all 22 languages of the individuals held and tortured read, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”

The entire experience wasone I won’t ever forget. It’s entirely impossible to imagine how these mass murders went without discovery for so long, or the absolute despair experienced by the prisoners in the camps. However, as our guide explained, the most important thing is not to imagine what it would be like—it’s to remember the tragedy so it will never happen again.

Maria Opatz

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