Sad & Somber- My Visit to Auschwitz

In the summer of 1998, on my tour of Eastern Europe, I visited the former German Concentration Camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, located about 50 miles outside of Krakow, Poland. It is an experience that left me shaken, but also one I do not regret doing. 
The exact number of people who lost their lives in the German’s ‘Final Solution’ for the Jews of Europe is unknown and widely debated. The museum at Auschwitz uses the number of ‘over 4 million’ while other historians say the number was somewhere between one and two million. It really is all semantics by that point, the fact is that it is a tragic and unfathomable loss of life.
Human Hair
There were so many things about this tour that stick in my mind, even 13 years later. One of the most vivid memories I have is the room that contained a large display case of human hair, shaved from the heads of the victims before they were sent to the gas chamber. The rooms that followed contained similar glass cases, full of eyeglasses, suitcases, shoes, and false teeth, just to name a few. I remember thinking to myself “Who could possibly do this?” It wasn’t the only time that day that I asked that question. 
Arbeit Macht Frei- Work Makes Free at the Auschwitz entrance
The woman who led our tour was a survivor of the camp, she was soft-spoken and mild-mannered, and she told the story in a way that no other tour guide I have ever had has been able to.
The story of the holocaust is one that has been widely reported. The release of the movie Schindler’s List in 1993 served as a powerful visual reminder of the atrocities that had taken place during this period.
Above the entrance to the camp is a sign that says “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “Work Makes Free”. The sign has become a symbol of the lies that surrounded Auschwitz.
The Execution Wall
Every new turn on the tour brought more somber reminders. There was the ‘execution wall’ between blocks 10 & 11. There were the starvation cells, where victim were chosen to be starved to death to be used as example for the other prisoners. There was the complex housing the gas chamber and the crematorium. Being at the site brought out the horrors of that event like no other site I have ever visited.
The gallows where the camps commander, Rudolph Hoss, was hung in 1947
One of the crematoriums
The tracks of death leading into Birkenau
The camp at Auschwitz eventually became too small for the German’s massive extermination operation, so a second camp, Birkenau, was built close by. The camp at Birkenau was featured prominently in Schindler’s List. The scene where the train rolls into the camp at night took place at Birkenau. Much of the second camp was destroyed by fleeing German soldiers in an attempt to cover up the evil purpose of the camp. 
Birkenau became the site of large scale exterminations, with thousands of victims dying in the gas chamber every day.
Row of Toilets in bunkhouse at Birkenau
I’m often asked by people why I would want to visit such a place. Some want to know why a site of such unspeakable acts is preserved at all. To answer those people I always respond with the quote seen above. The day I spent at the camps was one of the most emotionally exhausting days I have ever had in my life. My roommate on the trip, a 21 year old 2nd generation American Jew eventually just fell to his knees about half way through the tour and wept. I returned to our hotel and went to bed without noticing that I hadn’t eaten dinner. No one on our tour group went out drinking that night, and that says a lot for that hard-partying group I was with.

I don’t think I would want to revisit Auschwitz, but I am glad I did. The lessons of history often aren’t very kind, but it is important that they are learned nonetheless.

For more about the site, visit the site’s web page. There is also a through article about Auschwitz on Wikipedia, and one on the website for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

8 Responses to “Sad & Somber- My Visit to Auschwitz”

  1. eriksmithdotcom says:

    So true Jeremy, so true. This post has been my most popular by far, and I just hope people can understand the enormous emotional weight during this visit. I visited here 14 years ago, and I have seen few things since that solicited such an overwhelming reaction, and none where that emotion was so heavily laden with sadness- for the victims and their families, of course, but also for all men, knowing the capability of this kind of evil is possible. 

  2. Erik, a follow up to my comments from a few months ago.

    I wrote a post on my experience at Auschwitz for yTravelBlog.  Sites like this are very tough to visit.  However, they are important.  We can't forget this history or tragedy even if we don't like to look at it up close.  The pain, the emotions, and anger must be experienced so that we turn it into action and never let these things happen again.

  3. Great post on Auschwitz. It's definitely important to visit sites like this but it isn't always fun. You did a great job of taking photos here. I only wish I had taken more. I think I was so caught up in the place that I didn't take as many photos as I would have liked.

  4. I've been to Bergen-Belsen in Germany and Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam and the Holocaust Memorial in Israel and, like you, while I never want to go back to any of them, I'm glad I saw them once.

  5. Thanks for the really thoughtful post, Eric. The Holocaust has always haunted me. I even assigned the graphic novel, “Maus,” to my English Comp students. I think it's incredibly important to remember this event. We are all capable of cruelty (or of ignoring it) under some conditions.

  6. Laura says:

    that is sad but i think its one of those places that we have to see to realise the low point of the human race. great post, going to read a few of the others
    http://sandbetweentoes.wordpress.com/

  7. Wow, what an intense experience. I've heard people complain about these kinds of historical sites and museums before (though through the guise of “we shouldn't preserve something so horrible!”) and I have the exact same response as you. The only way we can prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again is to remember – and learn! – from what happened in the past. Hiding away the evidence is both foolish and dangerous.

  8. Kris Koeller says:

    Pretty powerful photos. Such a shocking chapter in history.

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