Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Day of Sorrow and Remembrance

Auschwitz is not a place only for history buffs like myself. It is a place that each and every human being should see first-hand. It is about humanity, humility, perseverance, and ultimately, mortality. 

An hour outside of Krakow, our bus led us to what would become a day full of sadness, despair, and shock. Knowing through textbooks and memoirs, the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, nothing anyone can read can truly capture the feeling one feels when stepping on the grounds of this horrific place.

We started at Auschwitz, inside the museum. Walking towards the entrance of the camp, we were met yet again with the infamous words, "Arbeit Macht Frei." A replica, the original was stolen in 2009. Our guide led us to various buildings, informing us that many of the blocks feature exhibitions; however, it would take more than a day to see every aspect of Auschwitz. 

Electrical barbed wire could be seen to the right of us -- the immediate death for so many prisoners who sought death inside Auschwitz. Walking along the pathways, the large, red brick buildings surrounded us on both the left and right. Each building was labeled with block numbers.

Providing background details on the number of prisoners inside Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 1.3 million people were in Auschwitz: 1.1 million Jews; 140-150,000 Poles; 23,000 Gypsies; 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war; and 25,000 other ethnic groups. 

Individual cards containing inmate information could be found under plexiglass within the rooms we entered. Each prisoner was given a number (which was tattooed on forearms and for younger children, on their leg). Photos showed Hungarian Jews filing off one of the railway cars, unknowing of what lie ahead -- selection.  Making them believe that this was a temporary place of residence, a sense of calm was portrayed by the guards. Two lines formed -- women and children in one line and men in the other. Often, the women and children were immediately directed to the gas chamber. Told they would be taking a shower and would receive food and water after the shower, none of them hesitated, but actually felt somewhat relieved. After traveling in such horrible conditions in the railway car, the idea of getting a shower seemed heavenly. Little did they know, they were walking to their death. 

The camp doctor threw his thumb left or right to determine those who were fit to work and those who were not. 

Continuing on our tour, our guide gave us more insight into the chemical that was used to kill so many -- Zyklon B.  Seven kilograms was enough to kill 1500 people. Originally used to kill rats, the Nazi's believed that if it could be strong enough to kill rodents, it could be strong enough to kill humans. Before us stood a large pile of zyklon-B canisters, emptied of their contents.

Entering another block, we were shown the various personal items that prisoners carried with them upon entering the camp.  When exiting the train, they were told to discard their belongings, that they would get them back at a later time. Of course, within half an hour, many were either undressing or already in the gas chambers. Inside the exhibition, glass separated visitors from walls of Jewish prayer shawls, eye glasses, bowls, suitcases (complete with the names and addresses of those who arrived at Auschwitz), thousands upon thousands of shoes, and even hair and shaving brushes. 

It was an emotional experience to see all of these personal belongings on such a massive scale. What was even more haunting was the hall in which we saw rows upon rows upon rows of inmate photographs. Each inmate was photographed in the blue and white clothing, complete with date of birth, arrival date to Auschwitz, and of course, the death date. Many only lived within the camp 3-4 months, many much less. 

Coming down the stairs, we passed a group of girls, maybe four. One was sobbing and weeping heavily and we wondered if maybe some of her family had died inside this place.  I could never imagine, nor would I ever want, members of my family enduring this type of tortured living.

Exiting each building exhibition, my heart felt heavier and heavier. I realized that although my tears were not evident, my emotions grew stronger internally. Being inside Auschwitz changes a person. In some way, you are not the same person as when you entered the gate. Arriving at Block 11, we were told this was the camp prison. It seemed odd that a prison itself would have an actual prison for "criminals."  Inside, we saw the small "courtroom" where inmates sentences were delivered. Many entered the room unknowing that the decision had already been made. There was no "innocent until proven guilty." It was usually automatic death.

Our guide informed us that this was the only block within Auschwitz that was in its original state. What we saw inside is what the camp prisoners saw in the years they were here. That made this all the more eerie. Passing by various cells, we were told about 3 rooms specifically: the starvation cell, suffocation cell, and the lastly, what I would call the exhaustion cell. 

A famous priest, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, died in the starvation cell, opting to take the place of a married man. Those imprisoned in the suffocation cell were forced to sit in a small area where the fresh air was constricted, and lastly, as many as four individuals were forced to stand in a very small area, upright, all night with no food, before going to work detail the next morning -- proving to be exhausting for those who endured this punishment. However, for those who received immediate death sentences, they were taken to the execution wall next to the building. Here, a concrete wall stood before us. Today, flowers and candles lay at its base, honoring those who were shot. While viewing this horrible scene, a small group of girls lay candles in remembrance. It was a beautiful sight.

A short walk, we came to the only standing gas chamber and crematorium in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The chimney stood high as we made our way around to the entrance. Much like how I felt at Dachau, my apprehension to enter was great. This gas chamber was only used for a short time, mainly because Birkenau became the main extermination camp, not Auschwitz. Entering the building, my inner emotions became almost overwhelming. The room where prisoners undressed left a horrid images of thousands of people standing and waiting for death. As I stepped inside the gas chamber, I literally felt as if my body temperature dropped drastically. The concrete walls surrounding me, my imagination providing me with the sounds of screaming men, women, and children, and my eyes looking around, imagining lifeless bodies before all became a bit too much. People snapped pictures all around me, but I could not find the ability to lift my arms to do the same. In my mind, this was a place of respect...I could not take photos of a place where so many died...I just couldn't. I felt the same the moment I passed into the crematorium.  

Exiting the gas chamber, I felt my tears welling, thinking of how lucky I am to leave this building when so many did not. Our tour finished at Auschwitz and were told to gather back on the bus and prepare for the short ride to Birkenau. 

Most people who read about Auschwitz-Birkenau have seen the infamous image of "The Gate of Death" and the railway tracks leading into Birkenau. Rounding the corner of the road, my eyes were fixated on this image. Before me was the large brown, brick building. Directly in the center was what looked like a tall tower with an archway below. On both sides lay two long brick buildings. Railway tracks followed straight ahead through the archway -- leading to a camp so full of misery and despair.

The ground at Birkenau was wet and muddy, much different than at Auschwitz. Prisoners dug drainage ditches to prevent the grounds from flooding -- backbreaking work for many exhausted souls. The railway tracks were old, yet, maintained their solid structure. A railway car sits on the tracks as a reminder of what prisoners traveled in -- cramped and undignified conditions. 

On our tour, we passed by a group from Israel. Each member waving the Israeli flag with pride. It made me feel good to know that they wanted to see this place. 

Standing on the tracks, our guide told us a story of one mother who exited the train with her son. Two lines were formed and she hurriedly pushed him into the other line. Saddened at the fact that his mother was pushing him away, he kept trying to come back to her but she continuously pushed him back into the other line. Finally staying in the other line, he looked at her and she said, "I hide you." Hearing this, it was almost more than I could take. That boy's mother was taken immediately to the gas chamber, along with others in her group. 

Famous author Elie Wiesel, arrived at Auschwitz with his mother and sisters. Once separated from his mother and siblings, he admits he never got to say goodbye due to the hurried nature of everything going on. He later tells that his mother and sisters were marched to the gas chamber -- he never saw them again.

Far in the distance, our guide directed us to the gas chambers and crematoriums -- their ruins. Torn down and bombed in the weeks before liberation, all that exists are mounds of rumble. 

What seemed to be more disturbing was the nearby barracks -- both men and women's barracks. Brick barracks remain standing as a reminder of where the women of Auschwitz lived. Stacked three high, new incomers had to fight for their place. As many as four to five women slept in one bunk area and nothing but a concrete floor lay beneath them. The men did not have much better conditions in their wooden barracks. The heating systems within each barrack served as more of a decorative feature because there was never any coal to fuel the fireplace-like heating systems. 

As cold as we were on this day, bundled up, I simply could not imagine the cold these people felt in those days. Our guide ended our tour in the wooden barracks, reminding us that this place changes everyone who enters its gates. The fear and possibility of the Holocaust remains today and should never be taken lightly. His words, reminding each of us that something like this could very easily happen again, resonated loudly within me. "Do not treat others as if they are beneath you. We are all human beings," he said. 

Stepping outside, I immediately saw white snow falling to the ground. Immediately, my mind went to the scene in "Schindler's List" when someone looks at the sky to see what looked like snow. An SS guard looks at them and laughs, telling them that it isn't snow, but instead it is the ashes coming out of the chimneys -- ironic that it was never in the forecast for it to snow here, yet, it served as a reminder of the souls lost here.


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