Auschwitz I – Auschwitz II – Birkenau

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ARBEIT MACHT FREI – Work Makes You Free

As soon as my mom told me that she and my dad were coming to visit in May, I started thinking about where Richard and I could go without the kids.  Leaving them with Baca is not only free from cost, but free from stress and worry. It is an opportunity that must not be lost!

I had remembered that Tanya said she and Tim took a quick trip to Poland to go to Auschwitz without their kids and that seemed like a good idea.  But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I didn’t really want to go to Auschwitz.  Just the idea of it felt unbearably heartbreaking and I started to wonder why I wanted to go there.  What kind of morbid person deliberately visits a place where some of Earth’s greatest horrors took place?  Surely we had better options. (Rome anyone?!)  As I began to drift away from Poland as a destination, a powerful thought struck me.  What if no one visited Auschwitz?  And that prospect felt even more heartbreaking than the prospect of going. So I knew we needed to go. 

In anticipation of our visit, Richard and I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.  It’s an inspiring book for sure, but it was inadequate to the task.  I was looking for something to prevent the pain, but that was futile.   

Our tour was three and a half hours and it began at Auschwitz I and then we took a shuttle bus to Auschwitz II – Birkenau.  Our tour guide had two uncles who died in the camps and I could tell it felt personal to her.  I don’t know how to write about my experience without it sounding trite, and I just don’t have the emotional energy to recount the facts as I heard them.  I’ve mentioned a few details in the photo captions below, but you can read more here.  And if you’re interested in this atrocious part of history I encourage you to find books and read the stories of the people for whom Auschwitz was a reality.   

The processes of death that took place daily in these camps was overwhelming.  To learn of the neglect and dehumanization of the prisoners was nauseating.  For the first hour I felt my throat burning and my eyes blurring as I tried to refrain from completely falling apart into ugly sobs.  For the most part I maintained composure; I wanted to feel deeply but I also didn’t want to detract from anyone else’s experience by making obvious displays of emotion.   The moment when I could no longer refrain from weeping (and I cry now just thinking of it) was as we stood on the platform at Birkenau where 70 years ago a German guard hastily made the choice between life and death for families as they arrived.  Young and middle-aged men and women were kept for labor, but the elderly and children were sent immediately to the gas chambers.  I simply cannot fathom the terror in the hearts of the mothers as they were separated from their children in chaos and confusion. Never to see them again.  And the poor children, God bless their sweet spirits as they walked bravely and unknowingly to their death.  There was a photograph in one of the museum exhibits of a grandmother, carrying an infant and surrounded with three young children holding hands, as they walked away along the dusty road toward the chambers and away from their parents.  That photograph will haunt me forever.

The only other thing I want to say is that I considered it an honor to be there.  To spend time on that hallowed and sanctified ground was a privilege.  It was a holy place to me.  

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Auschwitz I – It was hard, on a beautiful spring day, to imagine how bitterly cold it would have been in the winter. But the pleasant weather helped me feel some peace in spite of the emotional turmoil.

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The barracks in Auschwitz I were nothing more than concrete floors with perhaps some straw for mattresses and primitive washrooms for using the toilet and cleaning up. But compared to the barracks at Birkenau, they seemed like the Ritz.

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Empty metal canisters of Zyklon-B. Most of the mass homicide was done in the gas chambers at Birkenau. Auschwitz I had only a “small” gas chamber.

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The entire length of the hallway in one of the barracks in Auschwitz I was lined with the photographs of prisoners. Males on one wall and females on the opposite wall. The SS took photos only in the beginning, eventually there were so many incoming prisoners they began tracking them by number (tattooed on the arm) rather than photos. I wanted to read each name, remember each face.

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Glass and ceramic dishes. When they were forced onto the trains, the Jews were told that they were going somewhere to start a new life, so it only seemed natural to bring practical things.

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Auschwitz I – double electrical fence. Prisoners would be shot just for approaching the fence and guards were rewarded with vodka and holiday for foiling attempted “escapes”.

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Auschwitz II – Birkenau

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As allied forces approached and the end of the war was imminent, the SS burned or disassembled most of the barracks at Birkenau. All that remains here are concrete foundations and brick chimneys.

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Birkenau- The train tracks came right into the center of the camp, and individuals and families were unloaded from these carriages. Sometimes the journey had lasted days, dozens of people crammed into the train with no food or water and nowhere to use a toilet. Many people didn’t survive.

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Birkenau – the dusty road that served as the platform for the selection process. The guard signaled left or right with his thumb, left to the gas, right for work.

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Birkenau – The remains of one of two massive gas chambers. I felt almost relieved that all that remained was ruins. It made it more difficult to imagine what took place there, which felt like a small mercy. Just to say that I feel selfish and guilty. There was no mercy for those who lost their lives there, or perhaps worse, those who lived in the sheds nearby and grieved the loss of their loved ones in the foreboding structures I was spared of having to actually see in real form.

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Birkenau – Five to ten people slept on each wooden slab.

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The women’s barracks were made of brick and consisted of wooden bunks, nothing else.

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Birkenau was so massive. It seemed to go on forever. I had no idea it was so big. There were as many as 100,000 prisoners there at one time.

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Each row of barracks had a toilet/wash room. These were the toilets. You were only allowed to use them once in the morning and once at night.

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The men’s barracks were modified horses stables, with wood bunks.

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After our tour was finished we had to wait for the bus back to Krakow. Neither of us felt much like talking and neither of us had much to say I suppose. Richard bought a book about Auschwitz in the shop and we sat under a tree until the bus came.

One thought on “Auschwitz I – Auschwitz II – Birkenau

  1. Thank you for posting this. I had hoped you would visit a death camp while you were there. It is horrible what happened in this era in history but I have always felt a connection to those that lost their lives because of my German heritage. I hope one day to be able to visit them first hand. It was great to see real time pictures of this camp and feel the horror of what went on just by reading it. Thank you Jo!

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