Today on our first full day in Krakow we had an early start to the day with a van ride to Auschwitz. In my opinion, this has been by far the most emotional and eye opening visit of the entire trip. To me it was just surreal to be standing in the ground where so many people were stripped away of their humanity and murdered only less than 75 years ago. I think mankind has come a long way but if more people had the chance to see places like Auschwitz, there is no doubt in my mind that the world would change for better. Auschwitz is one of those places that is now so peaceful and so historic that sometimes it is hard to see beyond what is right in front of you and actually re-live some of the moments as some of the people that we encountered during our tour proved with their indifferent attitudes.
Auschwitz was not just one concentration camp, it was a network of Nazi concentration and extermination camps which consisted of three main camps plus some 45 satellite camps. There were 1.3 million people that were deported to the camp, 1.1 million of whom were murdered there. Although Jewish people accounted for the majority of those who were deported, the camp did not only include Jewish people. There were many non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies, soviet prisoners of war, and a large number of prisoners from other ethnic groups that included people who opposed the Nazi regime.
We started our tour on the site of Auschwitz I, where at front gate the first sign we saw said “Work brings freedom.” This was very sad to me because the people that were deported to the camp thought, at least initially, that they would be starting a new life and this was reflected by the kinds of things that they took with them which we could see in some of the exhibitions such as pots and pans, shoe polish, etc. The conditions inside of the living quarters were deplorable to say the least and something that most people accustomed to a modern style of living would not be able to withstand for nearly as long as most people did during WWII. I was particularly shocked by the standing cells in the basement of Block 11. These were 1 square yard with a 2 inch opening for air and a 2 square feet hatch for prisoners to enter the cell. There were up to four people at one time inside the cell where they could not sit or see the light of day and then they were repeatedly forced to work day after day until most of them died. We went through some of the gas and cremation chambers where approximately 90% of the people that were deported to the camp were murdered. These chambers were the result of the optimization of execution by Nazi officials since the price of ammunition was too high at the time. There we saw the places where people were told they would take a disinfecting bath and then sent to the concentration camp with everyone else but never made it out. Another thing that shocked me is that many people that were deported to the death camps were isolated from the rest of the camps and called the Sonderkommando. These special units were forced to work cremating the bodies of sometimes their own neighbors and family members after they had been gassed to death and then they were eventually put inside the chambers themselves.
We learned that the Nazi officials wanted to destroy Jewish those deported to the camps not only as a race but as human beings. They were lied to just so they would get on the train and then they were lied to just so they would get on the gas chambers. I think if they had known what kind of atrocities awaited them, they would have rather died fighting, but they didn’t know. As soon as they reached the camps they were stripped form their belongings and even their hair which was later used to make fabrics and their bones to make buttons. This to me was the ultimate dehumanization of these people. They were essentially reduced to the equivalent of raw materials, something so inhumane and so atrocious that for me it is impossible to imagine anyone could do that and to another human being and still live with themselves.
The tour continued in Auschwitz II-Birkenau were most of the murders were carried out. This place is now equally as peaceful as Auschwitz I and even surrounded by beautiful vegetation that now somewhat disguises the atrocities committed there. There we saw some other types of barracks were people were forced to live. None of the places really had a way to stay warm during the harsh winters and the bunk beds they had to share with five other people were not even larger enough for me to lay fully horizontally. Out of all of these experiences in Auschwitz however, what affected me the most emotionally was entering Auschwitz II and walking towards the death chambers using the exact same path that hundreds of thousands of people used to walk to their death. I tried to imagine what it would be like to take those steps during that time, the feeling of hopelessness and desperation that they must have felt when some of them eventually knew the faith that awaited them.
At the end of the tour, our guide told us that there have been debates about whether the place should even exist and be preserved anymore. I can almost understand how some people might want to forget this period of their history, move on and erase this painful period of time from their memories; however, this reminded me of a quote that I saw when we first entered the camp which said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I thought this was a very important quote specially in the times that we are living in right now with a migration and political crisis that is starting to spark feelings similar to those that steered us into WWII. That is why I think that Auschwitz should not only be preserved but should be taught about and should be exposed as much as possible. A few years from now when most survivors from that time period pass away and their relatives feel very distant from their memories, all we will have to remind us that atrocities such as the ones committed during WWII must never happen again will be sites like Auschwitz.
All in all, I think I can speak for all of us in the program when I say that today was a truly moving day and even life changing for some of us. Today, this knowledge was passed down to us so we could learn from it and make better decision during in our life and one day all of us will hopefully pass it down again to the next generations in hopes that we can teach them enough for them not to repeat the same mistakes that have been made in the past and ensure that this will never happen again.