It is not often I write a post that requires a disclaimer – but this one does. You see, we went to visit the concentration camps in Oswiecim – that is Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (known as Birkenau). Because both are so different in their nature I will write about each separately. But be warned – I have photos and I plan on telling you the honest truth of my experience there and what I have learned of the 1.5 million Jews, Sinti, Romani, Homosexuals, Men, Women and Children that were murdered there. I went there because I believed there was something important about understanding the truth and therefore I only have truth to tell. To say it was a difficult day would not begin to summarize that feelings of walking in the footsteps of those I can only believe to be much braver than I, over 70 years ago.
We began our day at 8am, right when the museum opened. They call it a museum, but it’s hard to imagine it as such. I guess it is, in the way that it stands to educate others, but in reality it feels like a cemetery littered with the souls of the fallen. There is no cost to go there – it only exists and is maintained so that the stories of those lost will be told, and so that we will learn from the mistakes of our past. I say “our” past, because it is one thing to be the persecutor, and another to be those who stand by and allow it to happen. When you arrive at the Auschwitz site and walk through the building, you are walking through the same building that the Jews (and it was majority of Jews at these sites, so when I say this it is not to forget the others, but acknowledging the dominant group that went through there) walked through upon their arrival. This is where they were processed, informed of the rules, tagged, assigned a block (building), had their clothes removed, possessions taken and were generally processed as cattle. When you leave this processing building you move towards the main gate the reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” – translating as “Work makes freedom.” Because these were work camps, forcing those who could work to work for the Nazi’s 11 hours a day (and most often those who couldn’t work were killed), many believed that they would work their way out of these camps. Auschwitz wasn’t designed as a death camp the way that it’s predecessor was. The buildings were 3 stories high and had “nice” wooden bunks, that began as single bunks (but eventually became shared). These bunks contained mats, and the Jews were given clothing (appeared as stripped pajamas). They were given 1500-1700 calories per day to keep up their energy to work. There was a hospital building in which the sick were treated (those who would be able to work were given medical treatment). But don’t mistake this as this being a rosy place. I mean it to say that the purpose of this facility was one of WORK. But this didn’t last long. The came is surrounded by layers of electrified barbed wire. The guard homes and towers are mostly outside this, while the brick houses for the Jews were lined up inside. There was as many as 10,000 Jews here at one time. There were separate houses for meals and a few buildings for infirmaries and experiments. Women and Men were separated into different houses. When visiting the sites, each of the houses has a different purpose. Some have been preserved to show living conditions, while others have been turned into museums honouring different groups, for example, one house for the Polish Jews, one for the Austrian Jews, one for the Dutch Jews etc. – Each telling the unique. story of the people from each country.
As we entered the buildings one by one we were able to learn a lot about the lives of the Jews at the camp. In the buildings dedicated to life at the camp, the walls are lined with pictures of men and women who were killed there. While there isn’t enough wall space for each (nor were their photos for all), it is hard, but important, to start putting faces to the deaths that happened here. In the infirmary, women and children were experimented on. Drugs were injected, limbs removed, water boarding and lashing done, pain tolerances tested, men and women sterilized and many other forms of scientific and medical studies. When the camp was liberated by the Soviets in 1945, one of the first things that happened was that medical treatment was given to those experimented on who were still alive (and many were). There was a documentary video we saw while there showing all the people with missing limbs, random patches of rock hard skin, infections from IV drugs and the list goes on. Every morning everyone had to line up in the court yards for roll call. While we were there it was less than 0 degrees C and we were FREEZING. We couldn’t imagine how it must have been for the Jews. In cases where children misbehaved, they were forced to stand outside barefoot in the snow for 12 hours – and there were many pictures of children on the walls and in the documentary who had frostbitten feet that needed amputations. In the meanwhile, the guard could rest nicely in the hut at the front of the courtyard, so they wouldn’t get cold while roll call was happening.
One of the buildings, a prison, was complete with rooms dedicated to punishment cells. This could be for misbehaving, for uttering negative statements about the nazi’s or if the SS even thought you knew something about something. The upstairs rooms were full of tables for lashings and water boarding. The downstairs contained more intense types of prison cells. There were starvation cells, where you were locked up until you starved to death, oxygen deprivation cells, with limited air access, where you were locked until you suffocated to death, and standing only cells, where 4 people were forced to crawl through a little hole up into a standing cell made of brick on all 4 sides – which usually led to approx. 50% dying of exhaustion. It was clear that this camp was build for both work, and torture. The kinds of torture and deaths handed over were varied, and those involved in the killing took pleasure in it. While the prison cells and the medical experiments and the torture to children were a start, there were more direct methods of which death was handed to an inmate. When someone was handed their death sentence, they were often executed by firing squad. They washed their faces, and placed their clothes in one room, then walked into another room – a hallway with a cast iron door out the end – and into a courtyard with a gray wall. This courtyard was seem by 2 neighbouring houses, so the women and children could watch the executions. Today the courtyard and wall are filled with stones – brought by Jews as a sign of honour and remembrance of those who’s blood was shed here. As well, there was an apparatus for hanging (more effectively designed by Jewish scientists as part of their work detail at the camp).
As the camp grew, and more and more visitors came, the bunk beds were redesigned to be made of brick and coated with straw instead. They were infested with bugs and many people slept on each level.
Auschwitz was home to torture and experimentation. It wore down the humanity of the Jews, and took away their hope inch by inch. Elie Wiesel’s book “Night” – an incredibly heart-breaking account of his experience at Auschwitz as a child, leaves him asking “where was God?” And walking through these steps, it is easy to see why he asked that question. But many more, even in light of their suffering, never doubted their God. Their bravery and their faith in light of such terrible persecution is inspiring.
And while experimentation, and firing squads, and manual labour, and hanging, and prison cells and all the torture they could muster allowed the Nazi’s to demonstrate what they truly believed to be the Germany Superiority as a race, they sought out more effective ways to kill their prisoners. While those who could work had value, those who could not, did not. This led to the experimental gas chamber. Off the side of the came was build a cement room in the ground. In it was a big empty chamber, with only a small hole in the ceiling. To the room around the corner, 2 furnaces for cremating bodies. Jews were ushered into this chamber in larger groups, and an experimental drug – called Zyklon B – was dropped in through the hole in the ceiling. Jews were killed, and then their bodies burned by the furnaces in the neighbouring room. This was the beginning of gas chambers as a use of mass extermination – helping execute a plan created by SS Chief Himmler – and named by Hitler “the final solution to the Jewish question.”
It was infuriating. Everything about Auschwitz made me ANGRY. I just keep breathing in rage and asking myself “WHY?” This wasn’t just a system built for death. It was a system build for torture. For showing the dominance of the German people. For being the biggest bully there ever could be. And it didn’t make any sense. How it happened. Why is happened. Why people let it happen. There wasn’t one moment walking from building from building and following in their footsteps that I could understand. None of this made sense. It was cruel. It was senseless. The whole camp was a system built on power. And for this reason I wanted to scream and shout and kick and hit things because I was so angry that a place like this could exist. That the world could let this happen. I wondered how many moments of brainwashing had to occur or how many children grew up without parents who loved them, or how many members of the SS and SA and Gestapo and Nazi party and whoever else was involved so said “YES” or said “THIS ISN’T MY FIGHT.” And what point in time and in what ways and in what moments was this place truly born. And are people really capable of this sort of evil? I can’t make sense of it. I have no coherent thought to share of final words of wisdom to add to this experience. I have seen this place. And it is important that people do see this place. And that they are angry or sad or broken because of it because we all have a role to play in making sure it stops.
So I am glad that I have been. And I have been changed. And I can’t make more sense for you than that – because I don’t know if there is any to be made here today.