Auschwitz. Last but not least. Undoubtedly the heaviest and most solemn visit we have done during this program. I believe that it was an eye-opening experience for all of us, and maybe for some a life-changing experience. It is hard to find words to describe all we have seen during our tour of the concentration and extermination camps, but I will try my best.
We arrived in this very green, beautiful place, filled with flowered trees, birds singing, under a wonderful blue sky, full of life and nature. Yet, we were soon to be walked through areas where, seventy years ago, the worse atrocities and brutalities source of mass murder had been committed.
Our tour guide brought us in a couple of the barracks, or “blocks” as they are referred to, that are found in Auschwitz I. He was very effective I think, in giving us a great deal of information in a very solemn way, which I really enjoyed. The first thing that we must remember is that Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp that was built by the Germans. It was meant to separate the aliens to the Reich, such as the Communist or the political dissidents, mostly Polish, or enemies of the Aryan race, such as the Jehovah Witnesses, but also the “useless people” such as homosexuals and gypsies, that represented a “burden to the state”, and of course the “inferior races”, especially the Jews. It was not meant, at first, to serve as a center for industrial and systematic mass murder; the prisoners were brought to the camp for work. It was done in harsh conditions, for sure, and the SS had no pity, as they reserved brutal treatments to the innocent victims – but they were not directly assassinated in gas chambers. This came only later.
What we witnessed in a couple of those barracks, and that I found the most shocking, is those immense heaps of belongings that were automatically taken from the prisoners as soon as they set foot on the camp. Here we start to see the cruelty and dehumanization that the Nazis used against every single detainee to satisfy their horrible ideology. Physically, the people were dehumanized: their hair was shaved, both for men, women, children and the elderly, their golden or silver teeth were removed from their mouths, their clothes were removed, their names were taken away from them and instead, all they possessed and represented was a number – firstly written on their uniform, and later tattooed on their skin, as it is used for beasts. Then materially, the Nazis took all of their belongings: their suitcases, their shoes, their combs and brushes, their hot pots, their blankets, their glasses… Here we see how tragic this was for all of those deported families and individuals, who brought their suitcases and all of their goods with them before departing, because they believed that this was going to be a simple relocation. They did not know what was awaiting them. They had hope. But eventually their hope was soon to be destroyed. The conditions were so harsh, the beating by the SS, the underfeeding, the cold, the heat, the lack of space, the smell and the hygiene, that the life expectancy was terribly low in Auschwitz I. We witnessed this when we walked through one of the corridors of the barracks, as on the walls hung some pictures of the prisoners, with their date of birth, date of arrival at the camp and date of death. Some were only kids when they arrived, and none of their stays at the camp exceeding a couple of months…
It was shocking and impressive to be able to see piles of the original belongings that the detainees had brought when they initially came to the camp. I felt disturbed by some of this, and I think it is understandable, and necessary, in order to feel the importance and weight of historical events that have marked the history of mankind. It was also tough to walk on the path that led to the gas chamber and the crematorium of Auschwitz I: only a part of our tour for us, but for many of our equals, for many innocent people, the last steps of their lives. It is hard to realize how many of those unfortunates were packed in these rooms at once. It is unimaginable for us to picture mass murder like this, but still it happened and this tour was a great way to make us have a more concrete approach to this type of sadistic activity.
Our tour guide also explained to us very well how the Nazis organized themselves to disguise some of their practices. For example, the transport and distribution of the gas used for the chambers was all done through vans and trucks having red crosses on them, to make them seem like nursery and pharmacy goods for the camp. Also, dramatic irony lies in the fact that those poor detainees were sent to the gas chambers with the belief of being sent to showers, to be washed. It is even more cruel, when you think that they did not even know they were going to lose their life, so they did not even have time to say farewell to any of their friends or family members, they were treated like objects really.
Then, the rest of our tour was in Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. This extermination camp was built between 1941 and 1942, and its exclusive purpose was the industrially massive murder of Jews and enemies of the Reich. After the Wannsee conference of January 1942, thousands of Jews and enemies of the Reich from all around Europe arrived in small cattle trucks through the railway lines that led to Birkenau. Systematically and immediately, there was a choice made by the SS officers: those who were valuable for working in the “lager” were deprived of all their belongings and registered, and then sent to the barracks, and those who could not work – children, elderly, sick people – were directly sent to gas chambers. No rights. No voice. No respect. They were not human beings anymore, and this is why it is so important to go to Auschwitz and listen to the guide, look around yourself, and imagine all the atrocities that were perpetrated, and finally stop to think.
We walked around some of the 360 acres of land that contained over 180,000 prisoners at its peak, in which everyday died thousands of people guilty – according to the Nazis – of being Jews, political dissidents, “useless” to the Reich or simply foreigners. We observed the ruins of the gas chambers and the crematoria of Birkenau, where so many perished, and we respected the silence around those. Finally, we were brought in some of the barracks where the prisoners slept every night. I remember our guide explaining to us briefly the conditions of their daily life: it was impossible to get comfortable rest, because there was no room for everyone to lie on their back; the prisoners could only go to the toilets once a day and those were infected with dysentery and smelt terribly bad; some who did not have the chance to reach the toilets just kept everything in their pajamas, and they could not wash them, they could not shower, so all of their straw bed got dirty too, so the barracks smelt awful too… Also, everyday, the prisoners had to smell the smoke of human skin being burnt, out of the crematoria. They always wore the same clothes – winter, summer, rain, snow – and had to cope with the extremely harsh temperatures of the winter with their pajamas only. They led a terrible life, and all of them went through terrible suffering, and unjustified and irrational criminal treatment that should never be perpetrated again in history of mankind.
As our guide told us, we should remember. We should always talk about it when we see something wrong. We should never remain silent; we should never ignore a crime. Because if we do, we might give way to crimes with a scope that we could never imagine.
I think that after this experience we should all realize how lucky we are to have been born in an era of freedom, in countries where human rights and democracy are inalienable principles that are the bases of society. We should think twice before we start complaining about an issue of frivolous importance, about any type of issue eventually. We should be eternally grateful and thankful for all of what our ancestors have done to fight for justice and basic rights, to triumph against tyranny and brutalities, to preserve their identities as human beings, despite the attempts of dehumanization. Auschwitz-Birkenau, and every concentration camp, reminds us of a past that had been ignored and approved by many, of a past that should never repeat itself in the future. Yet, some countries still perpetrate genocides – Rwanda – and very little is done, because of ignorance and oppression. For this reason, we have to remember, to study what happen, to go and see it with our own eyes. We need to wake up; we need to be shocked to understand history and its scope on our daily lives. I am convinced that this strong experience will never leave any of us indifferent to the crimes of genocide and against humanity that were perpetrated there.