Auschwitz – A Visit from Krakow

Growing up, we learned extensively about the Holocaust. We heard stories from survivors, saw videos and images of the horror of the camps, had personal connections to people who survived it, and recognized Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remember Day) each year. However, nothing prepared us for the profoundly moving and troubling experience of visiting Auschwitz. It felt like the suffering and evil seeped into the ground and walls, where it was felt all around us as we walked. It took me a few days to recover from what we saw there. (The following contains some upsetting and graphic descriptions and pictures.)

Arbeit Mache Frei

We started at Auschwitz I, which is less than an hour drive from Krakow,. The entrance bears the sign “Arbeit Mache Frei” … “Work Makes You Free”, an ironic message to those arriving to the camp, though Auschwitz I started as a work camp for political prisoners. With a tour guide we walked through the preserved camp and prison blocks, where some have been turned into small museums holding everything from eyeglasses, hairbrushes, clothing, shoes, and hair. Real human hair that the guards shaved from the dead, later to be turned into blankets, clothing, and other textiles.

Auschwitz sign

We also saw many photographs that gave us a human connection to the empty rooms and barracks that we saw. Our guide said that less than an hour after the following picture was taken all of these people were dead. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t able to get this particular picture out of my head. Did they know what was about to happen to them, or were they still hopeful at this point?

People at Auschwitz

Our guide took us to many parts of the camp. We saw the places where prisoners slept, one of the gas chambers, and one of the crematoria. It was hard to be in a place where so many people had died.

Birkenau

Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was where the majority of Jews died. In fact, 90% of the people on the trains were killed in the gas chambers (and then the crematorium) within one hour of arriving at Auschwitz. A selection process determined whether you would become a forced laborer or would be killed. Those who could not work, looked like they couldn’t work, the elderly, pregnant women, young children, infants, and many others were sent to the gas chambers straight away, although these were disguised as shower installations to mislead the victims. The others endured immense suffering with long hours, little to no food, unsanitary conditions, disease, torture, and horrific medical experiments.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp was the largest of its kind. There aren’t definite numbers, but it’s agreed upon that about 1.3 million people died at Auschwitz. 90% of them were Jewish. Though upsetting, we’re fortunate that we had the chance to see a part of history that should never be forgotten. The world needs to remember the atrocities that happened here and at other camps. To quote Elie Wiesel, author of Night and a Holocaust survivor, “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”. Never forget.