Today, January 27th, is Auschwitz Remembrance Day/Holocaust Memorial Day. Seventy-two years ago the massive and horrific concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated after five years in existence as a concentration and death camp, the largest death camp of Nazi Europe. It is recorded that around 1.1 million people lost their lives at Auschwitz, people whom were sent from countries all over Europe, mostly Jews, many Poles.
In late April of last year, I visited Poland, spending some time in Krakow. From Krakow, my boyfriend and I got on a bus to Auschwitz. We initially thought that we were too late to book a tour of the concentration camp, so we went extra early in order to learn on our own before the gate shuts to those without tickets of tours. We arrived around 8:00 am and got in line to buy tickets as soon as we could, reserving tickets for a 10 o’clock tour. All in all we spent around 7 hours learning about the camps.
Before the tour we walked Auschwitz on our own and then reconvened inside with our English tour, we received headphones which is how the tour guide communicated to our group throughout the day, necessary since hundreds of people were touring that day, all in different languages, we then followed our Polish tour guide from harrowing landmark to harrowing landmark. Our guide stopped us outside the buildings and told us how the S.S. made the prisoners stand outside in freezing winter temperatures while they called roll, at times making them stand and wait for up to 24 hours straight, no food, no rest.
We went inside buildings that housed prisoners – prisoners whose main offenses were to defy and disagree with the Nazi Party, political prisoners. One hallway was lined with intake photographs of prisoners, the last image of many them to ever be preserved in history. There were exhibitions of belongings that had been taken from the prisoners. The volume of the items piled up high on top of each other put into perspective just how many innocent men, women, and children were sent to the camp and perished there. On our tour I learned of unspeakable atrocities, of unthinkable “living” conditions, if you can call the labor-prison-death camp existence “living.” The masses of people who were thought of in by the Nazis as fit enough to work, or too weak to live. The disabled or injured were sent straight to the gas chambers while the young and healthy were put to tiresome, endless work, producing for Germany. The gate at the entrance of reads: “Arbeit Macht Frei – Work Sets You Free.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau is separate from Auschwitz I camp. After touring Auschwitz I, our tour group got on a bus and rode for a few minutes to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This is where the gassing of tens of thousands of Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, and opposition of the Third Reich took place. The dark scene of crammed-cattle-cars slowly rolling up to the main gate of Birkenau is one that many of us have seen in Holocaust movies. Scenes that usually include smoke stacks emitting dark, thick debris. Direct signs of what was to come of many in the cattle cars. Arriving by bus decades later I was aware of what took place there and I was shocked at how extremely large the camp is. The small brick structures that housed the victims go on and on in a square grid for what seems like miles and miles.
Both camps mostly remain standing, one building that was destroyed by the Nazis before Soviet liberation was one of the larger crematoriums (photo above, next to it are the cyanide-based pesticide-pellets that were dropped into the gas chambers.) Out of fear, the Nazis set the building to fire, but of course their heinous crimes were discovered and are remembered.
While touring in late April it was eerie how beautiful the landscape was, the grass, trees, and birds have continued on after the camp was liberated and the sun was shinning during our tour. The spring beauty was an odd juxtoposition to what went on in the past there.
The natural beuty of the Polish countryside that surrounds the ugly history of the big brick buildings is a metaphor to me of how we tend to live our lives. We are mostly distracted by the simplicities of our lives, our jobs and families, and we often overlook the tragedies happening right in front of our eyes. We put our blinders on and surround ourselves in the comforting safety of ignorance instead of remembering the genocides of the past and present. We look beyond the brick buildings and focus on the trees.
This post is short and lacks all of the detail that I could have included had I written closer to my visit, but I hope that it is an insight into the largest Nazi concentration camp. May we never forget the past; we celebrate victories and advances in society, but we must also remember the dark days of history, lest we repeat them. It is an especially necessary lesson to remember at these times of created division of race and religion. A time when many world leaders leave human rights and peace and justice behind for strict nationalsim and fearmongering of immigrants and outsiders. As one Holocaust survivor wisely stated,
“The Germans were well-advanced, educated, progressive. Maybe civilization is just veneer-thin. We all need to be very careful about any hate-propaganda.This is very important. It starts as a small stream, but then it has the potential to erupt – and when it does, it’s too late to stop it.”