Grey clouds wept over the Polish countryside as I left on a bus from Krakow to visit one of the most infamous sites of mass murder: Auschwitz- Birkenau Concentration Camp. Between 1941-1945, 1.1 million innocent people were systematically murdered here: Jews, Roma, Poles, and prisoners of war. Trying to explain the impact of Auschwitz in way that will truly penetrate with the impact it deserves is futile–there is nothing that can prepare you for it. But I’ll try.
To say that Auschwitz was sobering is an injustice to the horror. The camp emerges from the rolling hills a tangle of barbed wire and cold brick. Muddy paths where millions of prisoners marched to their torment and eventual death lead to the ominous front gates. Arbeit Macht Frei, reads the twisted lettering. “Work sets you free.” A mocking overture to those with no way out but the gas chamber. Death still dances across the vast expanse of this former Polish military compound. Foreshadowing crows cah at passerbyers from skeleton trees above. The ghosts are very present here and the Polish people want it that way. They want the graphic knowledge of the atrocities committed here burned into your memory so that the world never repeats what happened on this soil.
Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp in the Nazi system and remains the most important and moving sight of the Holocaust. There are actually two main camps: Auschwitz I and Birkenau. The first camp, first meant to house Polish opposition during the early years of Nazi occupation, quickly filled to capacity once Hitler began collecting prisoners from around Europe. Birkenau–just down the road–was built to hold 200,000 prisoners at one time.
You will see bone-chilling sights here that will scrape the core of your existence. Photographs of emaciated children will haunt you. Images of 50-pound naked women undergoing mad science experiments will curdle your blood. Tiny baby shoes say everything without words. A room surrounded by floor-to ceiling glass cases showcasing 8 tons human hair shorn from female victims before they stepped into the gas chamber will turn your stomach to bile.
Women and children were typically killed instantly upon arrival at Auschwitz. Some were kept alive for medical experiments. Nazi doctors were particularly interested in practicing sterilization and fertility techniques on the women and genetic experiments on the children. Occasionally a young child, if blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful, might be sent to live with a childless German family. Men physically fit to work were sent to the labor side of the camp, where they faced 12-14 days of hard manual labor on a few hundred calories per day. They slept 3-6 to a single twin-size bed and had no running water. The average life expectancy was two months. Prisoners who defied orders or refused to work were subjected to any number of punishments and death sentences– forced to stand in the snow naked and doused with water, sealed in a brick compartment with no air, put in a cell and left to starve. If you were lucky, you were shot, hanged or gassed. Right, lucky.
What I’m telling you is pretty horrific, I know. But it doesn’t even scratch the surface. I encourage you to learn more. Hell, visit this place if you ever have the chance. It will change your paradigm forever. It was raining, cold, and muddy and I became famished half way through the visit. But I stood in my down jacket and heavy boots, tickled by a spring rain, a few hours departed from a hearty breakfast and felt guilty for my mild discomfort. At the sight of the crematorium, capable of incinerating 4,500 bodies a day, I knelt and wept a little.
When the end of the war was inevitable, the Nazis destroyed much of the evidence to the horrors committed here. They bombed the crematorium and gas chamber (one still remains), and tried to dispose of many of the torture devices, but much of the evidence was recovered. Auschwitz was liberated in 1945, but by then more than a million people had been murdered here.
I left Auschwitz with a heavy heart but an enlightened mind. I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same. I came back to Krakow and spent some time enjoying the simple pleasures of the evening market–a warm cup of wine and hot soup, a faint violin, the moon’s reflection over St. Mary’s, buying some warm wool socks.
Polish children are required to visit Auschwitz on field trip. I can only imagine what kind of emotional toll that takes on a young person. But as George Santayana said, those who cannot understand the past are condemned to repeat it.