Visiting Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Before boarding the 50’s era bus for the ninety minute ride to Auschwitz, I stopped in that really beautiful St. Mary’s church with Jesus hanging from above. So strikingly beautiful. Which only magnified the contrast with the day ahead.
Stepped outside and it was the perfect day to visit Auschwitz. Bitterly cold. Gray. So here are some random thoughts:
You arrive and walk under the famously cynical sign that reads, “Work sets you free.” But every political prisoner and Jew knew that meant that the only freedom you would ever get is through your own death.
It wasn’t depressing. It was weighty. You stand in the same exact spot where 1.1 million human beings were exterminated because one group decided they had no right to exist.
And it’s a reminder of what I am capable of when I judge others and assume the worst about them. Or dehumanize people. I do that at times. I didn’t take a lot of pictures because I really wanted to soak it up rather than worry about “capturing” it all.
I stood for a moment silently when I was in the little room where Nazi guards jammed 2,000 Jews, telling them they were just getting disinfected before going to work, as they gassed them to death. Just to imagine what it felt like.
This is one of the ovens into which they slid the dead bodies of children, mothers and men.
It was so dehumanizing how they shaved the hair from their heads. You see thousands of shoes of dead people.
For some reason, seeing their luggage moved me. In every picture you see of Jews leaving their ghettos to board trains, they have suitcases as if they are going to work camps. Deception to get them on board. Very startling picture because you see their names on these suitcases. Thousands of them stacked up.
We stood in the very courtyard where Jews were shot and could see the ashes of their relatives being incinerated. They could smell them burning. Inhuman. Their ashes were then used to fertilize fields. In this little puddle you can still see people’s bones.
Twice a day everyone was marched to these group toilets to do their business. Otherwise you defecated on your bed. No sewage. So imagine the smell. Again it’s treatment worse than an animal.
Casey took this haunting picture. You stand on the train track right where the Jews were brought in cattle cars into this massive camp. Only most never made it. Instead they were marched underground to be gassed and incinerated while Jews working in the camp watched them disappear.
There is worse stuff but there’s only so much you can absorb. Our tour guide was phenomenal. Just so passionate and interesting. He made it personal. He’d pause for dramatic effect and even react angrily as he told stories.
Here are a few interesting facts:
– Originally Auschwitz housed Polish troops. Nazis took it over and originally used it to detain Polish business, media, educational and government leaders. But there were 3.5 million Jews living in Poland. It became the first camp to gas Jews as an efficient way to exterminate them. But the incinerators for the dead bodies couldn’t keep up so they had to build more.
– 1.3 million prisoners came to this camp. 1 million Jews and 100,000 Polish people were exterminated here in only 18 months.
– Even though there were 100,000 people in the camps at a time, they only needed 2,000 guards. The prisoners were so physically exhausted and deceived they didn’t represent a threat.
– As they entered the gas chambers the guards would say, “Remember your clothes hangar number,” making them believe they were just being disinfected. So they wouldn’t resist. 20 minutes later they were dead.
– Other Jews had to gather the dead bodies, slide them into the ovens, and incinerate them.
The other part that moved me was standing right where they had to live and sleep. They worked 12 hours per day and ate a couple hundred calories per day. There was no heat or AC. I had four layers and two hats on, and I was shivering. I stood by these barracks. Between 4-8 men slept on each board here. That’s how emaciated they were.