Earlier this week marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camps. The prisoners who were children at the time were invited back to the camp to participate in a ceremony marking the anniversary. Matt and I went to Auschwitz while we were in Krawkow, and I couldn’t imagine going back again, let alone reliving the nightmare if I was a prisoner there at one time. I did not want to visit Auschwitz. Last year, I watched The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (if you haven’t seen this, it is an incredible film that I would recommend, but be aware that it is very heartbreaking), and as tears streamed down my face, I told Matt that there was no way that I could go to the camp. Obviously by the time that we got to Europe, Matt had convinced me that we should go.
I cannot imagine myself returning, but I am glad that I went at the time. We owe it to future generations to educate ourselves on the horrors that happened only a short time ago, to ensure that something as tragic as this never happens again. As we rode the bus from our hostel in Krakow to Auschwitz I, we watched a video telling a brief history of the camp. I already felt sick to my stomach. A little over an hour later, we reached the camp and were given a headset and a tour guide (you cannot enter the site without being a part of a tour). We were greeted by barbed wire fences that were almost double my height, and went as far as I could see. Walking underneath the Arbeit Macht Frei sign (“work sets you free”), we entered the camp.
We walked along the uneven grounds made of stone, cement, and dirt that the prisoners had laid at one point in time with their own hands, and looked around at the buildings upon buildings lined up in rows. Right from the beginning of our tour, it was unnerving knowing that we were standing where such extreme hatred had occurred. I was walking in the same footsteps where prisoners walked every day fearing for their lives and praying for their families, except somehow I was lucky enough to be walking these paths as a free human being. We continued walking, and began touring through some of the buildings that had been turned into museums. It is in these buildings that you see the endless piles of eye glasses and shoes that were taken from the prisoners. We walked past a room filled with human hair, that we learned was used to make socks and blankets for the German soldiers. Another room contained a massive pile of luggage marked with the names and addresses that they once belonged to. We learned that the prisoners were told that they were “moving” and to bring only their most prized possessions with them, which the Nazis took from them the second they stepped off the train. The Nazis kept the belongings in a building on the site, and we learned that the prisoners referred to that building as “Canada”, because that meant freedom to them. This broke my heart, but made me proud to call Canada my home all at the same time.
I wanted to walk out of each and every one of these rooms as soon as I had entered them. Nothing breaks my heart more than someone being taken advantage of when they are most vulnerable. The piles of these items were so deep and wide, Matt and I couldn’t believe it. We were told that these items were just what was left after the war. The Nazis had began destroying the camps near the end of the war, and these massive piles weren’t even a fraction of what they had accumulated over the four and a half years that the sites existed. Again, I thought I was going to be sick. We made our way over to the gas chamber, and I was shocked at how big the building was. The chamber was made into three rooms. The first, is where the prisoners stripped out of their clothes to go into the showers. There were hooks on the walls for them to hang their clothing on. The second room was the actual gas chamber. Matt and I noticed nail marks on the walls from prisoners clinging so desperately to life, and saw the holes overhead from where the gas was dropped in from. I hated being in this room. Absolutely hated it. The third room was where the ovens were. After inspecting each body for gold teeth, the Nazis burned them into ashes. Some people in our tour were looking into the ovens, I went outside as soon as I could to try to erase the last five minutes from my mind.
This is when we went to Auschwitz II- Birkenau. The second camp of Auschwitz is almost ten times larger than the first. The Germans burned down most of these
buildings as they knew they were losing the war, and wanted to destroy the evidence. The camp today is a LARGE field, and all you can see are the leftover chimneys from each building that stand in the middle of it. There isn’t any wildlife there whatsoever. Birds do not fly overhead, squirrels aren’t hiding in the trees….even the animals know to stay away.
At this camp, the Nazis couldn’t keep up with the amount of people they killed each day. Instead of using the ovens, we saw where they burned the bodies in a pile, and threw the ashes into a pond afterwards.
This is the camp that most of the prisoners arrived to by train. The train tracks went through town, and came to a stop in the middle of Auschwitz II- Birkenau where prisoners were either directed to the gas chambers or sent to work. One of the most maddening points in this day, was seeing kids from school trips posing for photos on these exact train tracks.
If you ever find yourself in Poland, please take some time to visit Auschwitz. As you can imagine, the day is emotionally exhausting. It will not be the highlight of your trip, or something that you look forward to telling your friends about, but it will put your own life into perspective. I am thankful that I was not alive during this horrific decade, and am even more grateful for the military that fought in the second world war to ensure that this nightmare had an end.