Things are about to get a little somber here on Slightly Astray. Originally, I wasn’t sure how I was going to write about Auschwitz or if I was going to at all. But I believe Auschwitz needs proper coverage here so that the world forever knows and remembers this crime against humanity.
On the way to Auschwitz, we drive past tranquil green pastures spotted with cute red farmhouses, and acres of lush forest. The scenery outside is peaceful. However, the mood inside our van is somber. A heavy quiet hangs in the air as we watch a documentary of the liberation of Auschwitz, showing original footage shot by a Soviet cameraman the day they arrived and the following weeks and months.
The footage is horrible. The camera pans past faces behind barbed wire, with their sunken cheeks and dead, hollow eyes. It focuses on children who no longer have an identity or a name, and only exist as the number tattooed on their arm. You see naked emancipated bodies piled several deep in mass graves, all skin and bones, hardly even human. And the worst: tiny frail bodies of dead babies; they never even had a chance. You see piles of clothes, personal belongings, and hair (yes, hair) stolen from the innocent people. So, so many piles of it. However much you’re imagining now is not nearly enough.
Even worse is the narrative accompanying it, compiled from many interviewers with the cameramen, survivors and witnesses. It describes the things they saw and the torture inflicted upon the prisoners for imagined crimes.
Upon arrival to Auschwitz, people were sorted into 2 groups: 1) those who looked well enough to work, and 2) those who were sent to the gas chambers right away.
Isn’t it horrible to have your worthiness of life dictated with just one glance and a finger point?
But as you watch on, soon you begin to think that (as horrible as it is) perhaps those sorted into Group 2 were the lucky ones, spared from months of torture and starvation until they died. For Auschwitz wasn’t a labor camp; it was a death camp. And the goal was to work the prisoners until they died. It’s a slow, tortuous death.
Their wills were broken until they even believe themselves to be no longer human. They lived in barracks (each one housing 1000 people), with no plumbing and sleeping at least 6 deep on hard wooden planks. They suffered from all kinds of diseases, including diarrhea and dysentery, but were often too weak to move and thus relieving themselves upon fellow prisoners.
The torture was unimaginable. There were prisoners who were sent to locked cells with no food or water until they literally starved to death. Or hung by their arms twisted behind the back until the shoulders dislocated. There were little girls who were forced to stand in the snow barefoot for 12 hours. And the hundreds of thousands who were used in sick medical experiments.
And the stats of things collected from the victims were shocking:
- 15000 pounds of human hair collected in over 250 large sacks
- 15-16 million pairs of shoes
- Enough clothes to fill dozens of railway cars
- Gold teeth pulled and melted into bars, sometimes 10 kilos a day
Just thinking about how many people all that stuff belonged to makes me physically sick.
After the video, we all sit still in our seats, unsure how to respond… as if we’re all scared to be the one to make the first sound and break the silence. As the van pulls up into the Auschwitz lot, I tell D that I don’t even want to go visit anymore. I’ve already seen and heard too much. Do I really need to see the physical place as well?
But that’s why we travel, isn’t it? Not only to eat food and learn about other cultures, but also to learn the accurate account of history. To see things with our own eyes and learn things that can’t be taught from textbooks. And then to bring it back with us and share with the world.
So with that in mind, I got out of the van, took a deep breath, and stepped through the barbed wire fence.
Now that I’ve prepared the mood, come back tomorrow to read about the visit itself. I know this isn’t a fun topic, but I need to give it the attention it deserves.