Auschwitz: Trying to Understand

When I first started talking about traveling in Europe, many people asked if I wanted to visit a concentration camp. I’m a very proud Jewish woman. Some people asked like they thought I’d say no, others seemed afraid of the answer and some themselves wanted to make the trip.  When my friend mentioned going to Auschwitz, I thought it was an important trip to make.  It wasn’t going to be a fun filed day of sightseeing and eating like most Eurotrips, but I thought that if I’m going to be traveling I should create a spiritually enlightening experience for myself.  Part of the spiritual enlightenment is going out of the way to understand the human condition.

Getting There

We went to Warsaw because it was significantly cheaper than flying into Krakow.  The trek was incredibly long but it seemed appropriate because (in not nearly the same way) my ancestors had made the journey from home to train to death.

Train from Warsaw to Krakow (4 hrs.)  60 PLN 13.94 Euro

Bus from Krakow to Auschwitz (1 hr.)  12 PLN 2.49 Euro

Tour Guide through Auschwitz (4 hrs.)  30 PLN 6.97Euro

Since the Auschwitz is open from 10 AM-3 PM (times vary based on season), we had to get up at 3 AM to get there. The first tours are at 10:30 AM.  Be prepared for cold and wet conditions and lots of walking.

The Tour

The tour guide was amazing.  You could see the pride and passion he had for his job. I think we would have just wandered around aimlessly if we didn’t have the tour guide.  There’s a ton of information that he gave us.  I wish I could write all of it down for you. The tour of both camps Auschwitz and Berkinau.

Entering Auschwitz

First, we watched a short film with footage from the era. Then we entered under the infamous gate.  A guard tour, where once sat a guard with a gun, stands next to it.  I felt a wave of nerves, we are entering Auschwitz, a monument to human’s ability to hate.

We went through the alleys of brick buildings.  They almost looked like apartments, like a normal block of houses. Originally, this part of Auschwitz was created to house political prisoners. auschwitz6

Then we enter the museum.  We walk past pictures of Jews being loaded off the trains and into the camp. I asked the tour guide, “How do we have all of these photos, if the Nazis wanted to hide the Holocaust?” His answer was pretty amazing.  They had a professional photographer take photos so that if they won, they could memorialize their achievements.  However when they began to lose the war, all the photos were placed in a photo album and hidden under a hospital bed.  A woman getting treated for typhus found it and when the camp was liberated she took it and donated it to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

A poignant monument is placed in the first room. It is a vase that contains the remaining ashes found in the incinerators after liberation.  Hundreds of victims fit into a the monument. It’s the closest most of the victims got to a grave.

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As we walked through the prisoner’s living quarters, there are portraits of Holocaust victims.  These were taken after they were of the lucky 1/3 to make it through the selection process.  Almost none made it past three months and many barely made it to one month.  It was eerie to look into their eyes then glance their date of death. Roughly, one million people died in Auschwitz.

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Some other jarring images were rooms and cases filled with items. Human hair used in textiles, glasses, prosthetics, baby items.  The words: For sale: baby shoes. never worn. never had more meaning.

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Nazis told them they were going to have their items returned to them. So they wrote their names with a inkling of hope.
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confiscated baby items. children were always immediately put to death at Auschwitz.
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anyone that seemed mildly ill or unable to work was immediately put to death. The owner’s of these never spent a night at Auschwitz.

Next, we tour the grounds of Auschwitz.  We see the starving rooms.  There is a whole building of rooms where people were meant to suffer and die.  As you exit the building you walk to this wall. The wall that would seem mundane but it was where they publicly executed prisoners.  For every person that escaped Auschwitz 10 others were killed.

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People leave flowers and candles in memorial of the victims killed here.

Saint of Auschwitz

In an inspiring story, July 31st, 1941, a Catholic priest named Maximillian Kolbe was watching Nazi officers select the 10 people that would go into the starving rooms.  One man, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, “I will never see my wife and children again.” Kolbe stepped forward saying, “I have no children or wife, take me.”  And there was silence because no one thought the Nazis would honor the request but they did(it was the closest thing to kindness any prisoner could expect from a Nazi officer). Kolbe was taken into a cramped room with nine other people piled on top of each other with barely enough space to breathe. Kolbe lead them in prayers until their end.  He was named the Saint of Auschwitz in 1982 by Pope John Paul II his feast day if August 14th.

Death Dealer

As we exit Auschwitz, we see a gallows and a house.  The house is actually owned by a family.  We could see them sitting around their dinner table. It was once a guard house.  The family refuses to sell to the museum. I wonder what it’s like to have your address be Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

Across from the house is a gallows.  This is where they hung the commanding officer Rudolph Hoess, The Death Dealer of Auschwitz, in 1947.  They thought it would be poetic justice to kill him where he murdered.

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Berkinau

We got on a 5 minute bus to Berkinau.  This was the more somber sight.  The buildings were shacks built quickly to accommodate the extermination.

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We were actually greeted by a cat.  It belongs to one of the neighbors.  It wanders through the ruins very casually.  It even let me scratch behind its ear.It’s eerie to think of this cat’s day, just exploring in and out of old living quarters and in and out of gas chamber ruins.

We were taken through the living quarters of Berkinau.  They were significantly worse than Auschwitz.  Seeing where they used the restroom and slept made me realize the extremely disgusting conditions. It’s hard to conceptualize the conditions until you see it.  (I will go into detail in a separate piece)

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5-7 people were sleeping in one bunk. They got straw if they were lucky.

Then we come across remains of the gas chambers. One week before liberation, the group of prisoners in charge of putting bodies into the incinerators revolted and blew up some of the chambers.  The rest were blown up by Russian military.  There remains one fully intact gas chamber that was meant to look like a bomb shelter.  You can walk into the room where they’d shove dozens of people, look up at the small hole where zkylon b pellets were thrown and feel the air of desperation the poor souls must have felt as they drew their last breath.

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One step over is the incinerator room where other prisoners were given one of the worst tasks of all, quickly taking bodies and burning them.

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We are All Jews 

When the Holocaust ended, we all became Jews. We all became scarred with the notion that humans can truly be evil. Should everyone visit a concentration camp? If you are able to, yes. We can’t understand the pain of the prisoners but we can walk down these alleys in solace. We can’t fathom the pain but we can attempt to understand their woes.  We will never be able to change what happened but we can make our effort to make the world better. Whether that effort is in donating to charities, being an activist or simply standing up for someone that is being hurt, we all have the power to make sure atrocities like this stop. I can’t really say, “never again,” like the popular saying goes because human rights are stripped from people everyday around the world.  I can’t say never again because it’s happening again so just take a moment to remember how luck you are reading a blog and not fighting to survive annihilation.

You ask yourself how people let something like this happen.  Psychology calls it the bystander effect, when in a large group of people see an event, everyone expects someone else to act, to be brave. The group has a diffusion of responsibility but then no one acts and then the Holocaust happens.  So let every Holocaust memorial you go to remind you the danger of the bystander effect. If you don’t act when someone is in need, no one will. Auschwitz illustrates that quite clearly.

6 thoughts on “Auschwitz: Trying to Understand

  1. Wow. I want to go but I don’t know if I could handle it honestly. I have family from Poland and I desperately want to visit the villages they were from (or rather where the villages used to be) but I don’t know if I could do the camps. As a Jew who just returned from a trip to Israel today, I am proud to say that even despite this extreme cruelty and evil the Jewish people have survived and will continue to survive and even thrive despite the hate in the world. We will never forget. ❤ Am Yisrael Chai.

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    1. I felt the same way. Why do I want to cry all day? But there’s a explainable, enlightening feeling when you leave. You realized how blessed you are, how much the world has progressed and really helped me to understand what had happened. I felt like it was well worth the visit. If you have a chance to go to Poland I say, go for it. Try and bring a friend and experience it.

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