It's hard to put into words what it was like visiting both Austwhich and Auschwitz-Birkenau today. This is a bit of a long post but it is as much for me to capture the experience. We decided to take a tour to the camp and am glad we did. We had door to door bus service and a smallish group. It is very busy at Auschwitz and everyone has to have a guides tour anyway. Huge tip if you go shell out the extra vs public transit.
We visited Auschwitz first which was the work camp with permanent buildings that housed a variety of prisoners of war including Polish and Jews and was built right after Germany occupied Poland. The stories of course were horrific and hard to even comprehend how all of this could happen just over 60 years ago in a relatively modern society.
There were exhibits that were long hallways full of people's shoes, luggage, clothing, pots/pans and even human hair... Of course this was only a tiny percentage and the exhibit was already massive. It brought an incredibly overwhelming humanization to the victims. A blue and white strappy sandal with a sailor's anchor detailed on it.. A carefully chosen and purchased item, a reflection of a women's taste, personality... Perhaps that is all that is left as this woman may never have been recorded as even having arrived to the camps.
We saw many iconic images that you learn about in school and see in movies and documentaries..the square where 'roll call' was done each day and night, a courtyard next to the prison where there was a shooting wall... The purposely constructed gallows where a group of men trying to lead an uprise where hung together. It was an odd thing to be so familiar with such images. It was even tougher to see them live, 3D, tactile, tangible items that hold so much tragedy.
Then we took a short bus ride over to Auschwitz- Birkenau.... And if Auschwitz was horrible, Birkenau was sickening. It was 327 hectares of rows and rows of shoddily constructed, structures. It is all still here, ordered instantly to be preserved after the liberation of the camps. There was a clear difference between the 2 camps,
This one was meant to be temporary, not even the effort of trying to hold a facade of being a work camp. essentially this camp was reserved for being the solution 'to the Jewish question.'
The Germans managed to destroy the gas chambers and a few other buildings but many of the buildings lay untouched. The electric barb wire fence along the dirt road, the railway track and a train car that Jewish people from all over Europe would have arrived by was still there.
Throughout both museums there are photographs that depict the final documentation of people's lives, many of these photographs are taken at Birkenau. Women and children walking on that very road I stood, told they were on the their way to take a shower before heading into the camps. You stand at the photo and you wonder if they had any clue what was about to happen to them. I wonder why it happened.. War is (thankfully) a foreign concept to me... Genocide, hatred, religious persecution. All concepts I just don't get. I can understand in battle if you don't shoot they are going to shoot you, but I can't understand this. It was sickening and heartbreaking to see the photo on its original backdrop but so important it remain there.
We went inside the barracks and it was overwhelming to imagine what life had been like. We saw the rations 300-400 calories a day... We saw the picture of emaciated people... We saw the bathrooms...We saw the pits where the crematoriums would dump the ashes, to be later picked up by truck and scattered around. We saw the piles of rubble that were the gas chambers as Poland was taken by the Soviets and the Germans tried in vain to destroy the evidence to their crimes.
Over 1M people visited Auschwitz last year and it has been steadily increasing. It's good to see people honoring this place. It will be a day I certainly will never forget.