While in Poland, I did a bit of unusual reading. Meeting D’s Polish side of the family inspired me to learn more about his family history, and we dug up an memoir written by his grandfather (only a few years ago). In it, he documented the war years while fighting in Warsaw Rising (against the German occupation) and then his experience as a prisoner of war in the German camp (though it wasn’t a death camp). What struck me the most was how even after all these decades, every bit of memory was still so preserved and vivid, right down to details about his meals. Truly, it proves how these experiences will forever haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives.
With that said, today, we continue where I left off on yesterday’s post – stepping through the barbed wire fence and into Auschwitz.
* Please note that I didn’t take these pictures because I think it’s a tourist attraction. I don’t. I took pictures because I believe the world needs to see and understand, even if you can’t visit it yourself.
First, a brief explanation: Auschwitz consisted of 3 separate locations:
- Auschwitz I: the first one. Contains special prison rooms, medical experiment labs, 1 gas chamber, and the SS living spaces.
- Auschwitz II- Birkenau: built later to house more prisoners. Contains the sorting platform, the majority of the prisoner barracks, and 4 large gas chambers.
- Auschwitz III- Monowitz: built near the factory to house prisoners who worked there. Later destroyed by the SS in order to cover up their crimes.
Today, visitors can visit I and II. Auschwitz I functions more or less as a museum. The old buildings (called blocks) contain displays of items taken from the people, living conditions, and special prisons. Auschwitz II-Birkenau is a little more raw, a little less “clean”.
My first impression of Auschwitz I is that it is not such an ugly place. Rows of red brick buildings are lined up neatly on the green lawn. You could even call it scenic. We learn this is because these used to be the Polish military barracks, before the Nazis discovered it and turned it into a death camp.
But no one knew that death was to be their fate as they were forced out of their homes and packed into cattle cars to be shipped to Auschwitz. You learn that many of these people fully believed that they were coming to have jobs. They arrived with their suitcases full of their most valuable belongings and of hopes and dreams… only to have it all taken away within the first few minutes.
On the sorting platform, a German soldier decided the fate of the newly arrived: either immediate death by gassing, or a slow prolonged death by hard labor and starvation.
Those determined to be unfit for work were told to strip and that they needed to take a shower before working. They literally had no idea what was coming as they walked into the gas chamber, and well… you know how it ends.
Then their hair was shaved and gold teeth removed, before being sent to the crematoriums. Everyday, thousands of people were killed and pillaged for their goods. What’s even more f’ed up is that fellow prisoners were forced to do the pillaging and removal of bodies from gas chambers (until they themselves are gassed one day).
Almost nothing was spared. The hair was used to make carpeting and clothing, gold teeth pulled and melted into bars, skin turned into lampshades, and clothes sent back to Germany to be sold.
You hear about how many people came through Auschwitz and perished, yet those numbers don’t really mean anything to you until you see the magnitude of it in physical representations.
One block is entirely dedicated to the things taken from the people. One room contains hair – a couple of tons of hair. The hair is no longer silky and luxurious, and instead a tangled mess, almost like the texture of wool now. So, so much hair. You wonder just how many people it took to collect that and a lump forms in your throat. You walk through other rooms, containing suitcases filled with battered hopes and dreams… toothbrushes & hairbrushes …. eyeglasses…. and the pots and dishes that people brought with them. And all of a sudden, it hits you that these people truly believed they were starting new lives.
But they never had a chance. And now all that’s left of their existence on this earth is their possessions piled haphazardly behind a glass display.
Then there are the shoes… 80,000 pairs of them, the display stretching on and on. It’s always the shoes that are the hardest. Each pair was one person, and you can almost imagine the person who used to walk in them, the life that was stolen.
And yet, it doesn’t nearly come close to how many people really walked through these doors. These shoes were only the ones that hadn’t yet been sent to back to Germany.
One block showcased the living conditions of the prisoners. At first they all slept on mats on the floor, and gradually on bunk beds. Some special prisoners even had their own private room. The bathrooms (not pictured) lacked privacy, but had plumb toilets. You may think, this does not look sooooo terrible. I admit I did, at least. Maybe it was just a way to ease my mind in any way I could.
The most disturbing of all in this block are the corridors lined with headshots of the prisoners, in identical prisoner garb and identical defeated stares – scared, sad, hopeless. Underneath the photos are 2 dates: date of arrival and date of death. It’s heartbreaking to scan the dates and see that most of them are merely a couple of months apart. But those short months must have felt like an eternity. I wonder how each person met their end… Starvation? Illness? Or just simply loss of the will to live?
Another block (Block 11) holds the special torture chambers in the basement. There were 3 kinds: 1) the starvation room – where prisoners were locked up without food or water for weeks until they died, 2) the dark room – where they were locked up in complete darkness day in and out, and 3) the standing room – a concrete box about the size of a phone booth, where 5-6 prisoners were made to stand in there pressed against each other, sleep evading them, sometimes every night straight for an entire month.
I don’t think it takes too much imagination to imagine all the horror these rooms once held.
This is about the time when it starts to get really heartbreaking. So let’s end the visit to Auschwitz I with a (somewhat) heartwarming story.
One day, during roll call, it was discovered that one person was missing. As punishment, the SS randomly picked 10 people to die in the starvation room. One young man started crying. He had a wife and kids; he wanted to survive. A man – a Polish friar – volunteered to go into that room in his place in an act of martyrdom. After 2 weeks, the cell was opened and remarkably, he was found to be the only one alive still. The Nazis killed him anyway by lethal injection to the heart. So where’s the happy ending I promised you? Remember the young man who was spared? He did end up surviving. He reunited with his wife and lived to be 90. It’s the only happy ending in the camp, though borne out of sadness. The starvation room now has a flower tribute for Maksymilian Kolbe , the Polish friar.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
Birkenau was built about 3 kilometers away from Auschwitz I to hold more prisoners and larger gas chambers. Apparently, one gas chamber in Auschwitz I was inefficient as it killed only 800 at a time. So 4 gas chambers were built at Birkenau, each one with the capacity to kill 2000 people at once. This was a purely a place where death and suffering occurred.
When you get there, you almost can’t comprehend the size of it. The field stretch far into all directions, with rows upon rows of barracks, over 300 to be exact. It’s unbelievable that such a place was created specifically for death.
Birkenau is so vast that a rail way was built right through the middle of it, for the sole purpose of delivering the prisoners to their death quicker, for the crematoriums were all located towards the far end of the camp.
Along the track is a typical cattle car that shuttled people in from all over Europe. These would be crammed full of people, standing room only. Lying down to sleep was impossible and they were not let out to use the bathroom. D’s grandfather recounts in his memoir that he arrived at his camp in such a car. He was in there for 3 days with no food or water. Sometimes, people were in here for an entire week.
There were 4 large gas chambers/crematoriums at Birkenau. 3 were destroyed by the SS themselves in order to cover up their crimes, shortly before the arrival of the Soviets. 1 was burned down by prisoners – the only act of rebellion the entire time Auschwitz existed.
The conditions in Birkenau were considerably worse than in Auschwitz I. Because Auschwitz I was an old Polish military barrack, it had somewhat modern toilets and bunk beds. But Birkenau was built with death in mind, and living conditions were primitive, to say the least. Prisoners slept on wooden slats, each one holding 6-8 people. There were no toilets. The ceilings had holes and icicles would form in the wintertime. People froze to death in their own beds.
Next, we peeked into the bathroom barrack – a long dirty concrete bench with holes lined up in a row. There’s no privacy, no flush, no toilet paper, no washing of the hands. It was the most inhumane thing I’ve ever seen. People were only allowed to use the bathroom twice a day: morning and before bed, even though many suffered from diarrhea. The bathrooms were cleaned by prisoners. Can you even imagine what a horrid job that must have been? And yet, prisoners wanted that job, for it meant that they worked indoors away from the elements (and thus lived longer). And they were safe from the German soldiers as no one would dare go near the smell. Whoever got to clean the bathroom was considered lucky. Imagine that.
Here in Birkenau, the barracks weren’t built to give people proper shelter, and rather just as a room waiting for death.
At the far end of Birkenau, on the edge of the forest, now stands a memorial for all the victims of Auschwitz. The memorial contains 22 placards in 22 languages, one for each language spoken by prisoners at Auschwitz. Each plaque reads (in their respective language):
“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.”
One and a half million. This is the final estimate for how many people walked through the doors and died at the hands of the Nazis. One and a half million lost innocent souls. This is a number too big to fathom. No amount of shoes or hair can make me grasp the scale.
I wish I could say that being there in the place where over a million suffered and died, seeing their primitive living conditions, I really understood the atrocity of it all. I wish I could say it changed me. But who am I kidding??
I’m lucky to have been born the year I was and to be raised in a safe country. I’ve never suffered. While D’s grandfather is a camp survivor, and therefore it hits a little closer to home, I’m still 2 generations removed from this horrendous period in history. All I can say is that visiting stirs up different emotions from just reading a textbook. I felt extreme anger towards what human beings are capable of when power goes unchecked. And even angrier that 90% of the SS never even received punishment. I felt sad for each pair of shoes I saw, for each person who called those barracks their home, for those who walked into the gas chambers and never made it out alive, for everyone who suffered on the journey there, and everyone who perished in the last March of Death. My heart felt heavy for all of them. But can I truly understand? Never.
I can’t possibly even begin to know what it was like for those who suffered, perished, and/or survived it. I can’t even begin to imagine what true hunger or exhaustion feel like, or what real pain is. Or how it must have felt to live in such conditions not even fit for animals. When we visit now, the rooms have all been cleaned, the grounds are peaceful and beautiful even, and there is no smell in the air.
Today, when we visit, we don’t see human waste over all the surfaces. We don’t smell the constant stench of burning flesh from the crematoriums. We don’t hear the screams and cries of those being tortured. And we’re not haunted by the hollow eyes or emancipated bodies. The environment isn’t real anymore; it’s sterile, even.
And after we leave, our lives quickly return to normal. We go back to town and can immediately satisfy our rumbling tummies with as much food as we need. We will laugh. We will sing and dance. We will once again travel on to new places and soon, Auschwitz becomes just another memory. But for the survivors, their lives never return to normal. Though they have escaped with their lives, a part of them – their original spark, zest for life – is forever stolen. And for them, it will never become just a memory. They will never escape the nightmare etched forever deep.
So to ensure that this does not just become another faint memory, all I can do is write about what I saw and properly memorialize it. And hope that just maybe, someone else will understand better too.
Have you been to Auschwitz or another camp? How did you feel?