“Auschwitz cries out with the pain of immense suffering and pleads for a future of respect, peace and encounter among among peoples” -Pope Francis
The last three days I have been in Poland with the rest of my Blouin Cohort. I considering writing a post about Poland and everything we have gotten to experience in the last few days, however, I’ve decided to split my experiences into two posts. As you can tell by the title this post will be about my visit to Auschwitz, the largest concentration camp used by the Nazis for the extermination of Jews. The other, which I will be posting in the next few days, will be about the rest of our time in Poland. I thought it was appropriate to have one post completely dedicated to the horror which is Auschwitz.
I’ve been studying about The Holocaust for years usually in the context of how it fits into international law. The Holocaust spurred a lot of important happenings in the international community. For example, the United Nations had its start in the middle of the war. It was seen as necessary to have an international organization to keep another world war from occurring again. Also, WWII created a segue for the adoption of the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of genocide which, for the first time, defined genocide as the ” intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In addition, the ever important 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees was adopted by the General Assembly to deal with the mass number of people who had fled their country out of fear for their lives, and the proceeding 1967 protocol which applied this convention to all refugees, not only the ones that fled their country during the Second World War.
For the last three years I have spent much of my studies on understanding the concepts of genocide; however, sometimes when you are studying such a topic the true tragedy can be lost among the statistics and literature.Visiting Auschwitz was a reminder of the loss that was experienced during the mid 20th century. Being a place that I learned so much about in books and history class, I thought I was prepared for what I was going to see and feel. But nothing can really prepare you for visiting Auschwitz….
Upon entering Aushwitz you see the gates in which many walked through towards their death. The sign reads “arbeit macht frei” which translates into “work sets you free.” For those who entered these gates, perhaps it gave them a glimmer of hope. Perhaps they thought that if they worked hard, they would then be set free from the torture they endured. The reason the Germans put this slogan above the gate was for me one of the most disturbing aspects of the camp. The work that the prisoner were forced to endure was designed to kill them. The prisoners would not find their freedom through hard work, rather they would find it in death caused by the grueling toil they endured every day.
The size of Auschwitz was surprising. It is actually not one camp, but a network of concentration camps stringed together. The first camp we visited was Auschwitz Birkenau and it consisted of brick buildings referred to as blocks that were used to house the prisoners. They have now been changed into somewhat of a museum. As you walk through, you see the belongings of the prisoners that were stripped away from them upon their arrival. After seeing thousands of glasses, shoes, suitcases, razors, and other possession thrown into a heap that filled an entire room you enter a long hallway that is dimly lit. Along each wall there are glass enclosures which extend from the ceiling to the floor and are around 10 feet deep. In these enclosures there is hair from the prisoners which was taken to be used for yarn. The amount of hair is eerie, and you get a true sense for just how many prisoners suffered on these grounds.
Once you reach the end of the complex you notice a wall which acts as a memorial. There are flowers and candles surrounding the wall. It is now referred to as the wall of death because this is were people were executed by gun shot. Along the sides of the path leading to this wall are long poles with hooks that were used as torture devices. Individuals had their hands tied behind their back and then their hands were hung on the hook, with their legs suspended in the air. Oftentimes this led to excruciating pain and dislocated the prisoner’s shoulders.
We also learned about the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, sometimes referred to as the angel of death who did a experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. One of his goals was to figure out how to encourage the conception of twins so to increase the number of German citizens at a more rapid pace, however he also seemed to enjoy torturing and humiliating the prisoners of the camp. He also was the chief provider for the gas chambers and the crematoria. At one point during our tour, we entered the basement were he conducted his experiments. These experiments included being put into pressure chambers, tested with drugs, castrated, frozen to death, experimental surgeries, injections of lethal germs, sex change operations, and removal of organs and limbs. These experiments were made to torture and kill and oftentimes were senseless.
We made our way to the gas chamber. This was the one site that I was afraid to visit. How could you enter such a place not be overcome with emotion. If you look at the right of the photo you will notice pipes that appear to be showers. Individuals were stripped from their clothing, given bars of soap, and told they were going to take a shower; instead, cyanide was dropped from the ceiling. The poison would take up to 20 minutes to kill the prisoners, and oftentimes individuals would scratch at the wall trying to escape. To this day, you can witness the scratch marks on the walls of the chamber.
The second camp that we visited was Auschwitz-Birkenau which has mostly been taken apart. Most of the blocks were constructed from wood and following the liberation of the camp people began taking the lumber to be used for other projects. Now, the only thing that remains is the brick chimneys. There are rows and rows of chimneys that line the property. Also, towards the end of German occupation attempts were made to hide what had happened, so the four gas chambers were destroyed. Although all that you now see of the gas chambers are the bones, the remains still tell a grippling story. If you have ever watched “Schindler’s List” you might recognize this photo that I took. It is of the entrance to the camp and includes the tracks which brought the prisoners in.
This visit was emotionally exhausting. I have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. many times over and I have read about Auschwitz throughout the years. Actually being there was surreal and I can’t explain the thoughts that were going through my head. Perhaps the most prominent is how quickly we forget the lessons of history.
In one of the hallways, there were photos of the prisoners, none of which survived. Looking into the eyes of these prisoners, you can see the fear. You can tell that many of these individuals knew that their lives were soon to be over.
What we experienced beyond the gates of Auschwitz pales in comparison to what those experienced between 1941 and 1945. Walking through the rocky pathways, you can imagine the terror that the prisoners experienced. And, always lurking in the back of my mind is the pain that those throughout the world continue to experience. To remember those who lost their lives in The Holocaust is not enough. We must try to do better. We must always continue to better this world we live in and prevent such suffering from ever happening again. This might seem like a monumental task that is unachievable, however, through our continued efforts and optimism I feel confident that we make sure that the sacrifice of those lost in these crimes against humanity is not in vain. It is important that we learn from history so as to not repeat mistakes of the past. Visiting Auschwitz and other sites of such tragedy is not “nice.” It isn’t “fun.” We don’t go for enjoyment or pleasure. We go to remind ourselves that it is now our turn to make history.