This post may contain affiliate links- to see my full disclosure statement, please click here.
I had the awesome opportunity and privilege to be a foreign exchange student in Poland a few years ago. I’ll probably elaborate on this trip in a later post.
Today though, I want to share details of my visit to the infamous Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps of Auschwitz (Part I) and Birkenau (Part II).
I visited Auschwitz first. Their accommodations for guests is set up quite well. Everyone starts out together in one building, and tours are lead by one person. You have the option to walk alone or with a guide in a group. We unanimously decided to walk with a guide. The museum provides headphones to wear that will translate the tour to your native language, which was quite helpful. Sixteen of us were touring together, and I believe that only my group spoke English. There were Spaniards, Russians, and a handful of Japanese. There was one man in particular who I’ll never forget. He quietly moped around the camp, often straying from the group, not reading the plaques, unconcerned with us. He solumnly traced his fingers on the doorways, gazed through the old windows, and seemed buried with his thoughts in his mind. I don’t know his story, but I’ll never forget him.
As the tour began, we walked under the archway, and I was numb.
I visited Auschwitz years ago, but the feelings and emotions it brought to me, has not, and never will, leave or fade from my mind. I truly can’t even begin to explain the nothingness I felt. I was an empty, cold shell of a person that day. I didn’t even feel human. My heart was trespassing to a place where it didn’t belong, a place where millions of hearts finally stopped beating after their broken souls had poured out of them. My body floated through the gates, I was so numb I didn’t even feel the ground I threaded beneath me. The emotions I underwent were overwhelming, yet neutral, and still yet, chaotic. It was truly an indescribable moment.
It was a beautiful sunny and seventy five degree day, which seemed so out of place for such a horrible place such as this one. We didn’t deserve sunshine; A cold, drenching downpour, mud, and stench would have been much more fitting. Although the weather seemed to disregard the evils of it’s history, the birds did not. Though they had filled the nearby city of Krakow with their happy little bodies, and songs, they were no where to be seen in this God Forsaken place. It was quiet, and eery without their presences and expected chatters.
Beyond the gate, were rows of massive brick, blocky buildings. These were surrounded by two story tall wire fences, that were once electrified- and lots of watch towers. I was quite uneasy being fully surrounded, and herded into this place. I walked in easily, unarmed, and without a fight, like so many of those unexpecting victims in the beginning of the war.
Some of the buildings were locked up, but many were not. We were free to walk wherever we liked. Each building told a different story.
Block 24, the very first building you see when you enter the camp, (shown behind the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ Gate) was a brothel. Hand selected women prisoners from Auschwitz were kept in here, and were forced to have sex with Nazi officers daily. They were apparently the best treated prisoners in Auschwitz. They were kept clean, given ample portions of food, and allowed to take walks throughout the camp.
Block 15 was a former barrack. It’s where you begin your guided tour, and it’s now a museum. It holds dozens of powerful historical photographs, captions, brochures, and more.
Blocks 5-7 are also museum conversions. They are just massive hallways, with glass casing on both sides. The glass cases contain “Material Evidences of Crime”. Shoes, makeup, prosthetics, canes, suit cases, and briefcases, fill these, from floor to ceiling. It is absolutely shocking to see. The glasses were exceptionally difficult to look at for me. My dad and grandpa both wear glasses that are a similar style the the thousands behind the case. The thought of them being murdered because of their poor eyesight, and then thrown away like millions of other victims, just broke me. No, the Holocaust didn’t just target Jews. It targeted the old, the handicapped, the visually impaired, the gypsies, and countless others. Even the Nazis were victims. Most didn’t want anything to do with this, but if they refused, they would be forced to watch their families be executed.
Block 4 is also a museum conversion with material evidences of crime, but it was the most upsetting of them all. Fourteen tons of human hair lined the cases. When the prisoners were brought into camp, their heads were shaved. So many ponytails and braids were piled in, and it was overwhelming for me. Not only this, but what I was seeing was just what the Nazis hadn’t already made into cloth materials and sold. Out of respect, I did not take photos, but here is one picture, courtesy of Lukasz Trzcinski.
Block 7 is full of artwork, made by memory, from Holocaust survivors. Apparently in 1941, Rudolph Höss opened an art museum in the camp, and actually encouraged the prisoners to contribute to it. Some of these pieces hanging in block 7 are from that museum.
Block 11 was where all the gassing murder methods began. It spoke of an officer who, prior to the war, (when the camps were merely a jail for POWs & Polish political prisoners) locked up all the Russian POWs in Block 11. He then sealed the doors and windows, and experimentally gassed them with Zyklon B in September of 1941. It took two attempts to kill all the prisoners because the gas was so diluted, but it worked. Prior to this, the SS had tried shooting innocent prisoners via firing squad, blowing them up in concrete buildings, and suffocating them with car exhaust. It was very difficult for the Nazis’ morales to repeatedly do these horrendous acts upon innocent, unarmed people.Edit This gas method was ground breaking. He reported his success to SS Captain Rudolf Höss. Höss then passed on this information to SS Reichsfűhrer Heinrich Himmler, who then shared the new technique in the infamous Wannsee meeting on January 20th of 1942. This set the entire ‘Undesirables’ Extermination mission into motion.
We were given access to one of the gas chambers. I should have expected to be granted that opportunity, but my heart dropped with fear thinking about walking inside.
Many people assume that the victims were just shoved inside, terrified, and knowing they were going to die. That’s not the case at the beginning of the Holocaust. As bombs started dropping on starving neighborhoods in the beginning of the war, people wanted out. They were offered a safe place, and they willingly took the offer. The suitcases, cosmetics and dolls shown above, are proof of that. When they arrived at Auschwitz, they saw the beautiful poplar trees, smelled the officer’s kitchen, saw the secure fencing, and felt a false sense of security. They all lined up on a grassy knoll right above the gas chambers, for a speech. They were told they’d be given hot soup after they showered. They then walked into the gas chamber as a large group, a heavy metal door with a seal locked behind them, and the gas was pumped in. It usually took up to ten minutes for everyone to suffocate and stop screaming. This woman in particular, managed to survive. Read her amazing story here. After they died, their bodies were burned, and the next group would come in. The photos below are a courtesy of jewishvirtuallibrary.org
We walked past the gallows where many of the holocaust victims were hanged. At the end of the war, dozens of Nazi officers were tried and hanged at the same gallows. Among those was Rudolf Höss who I mentioned several times above. He truly was a fascinating person, and even upon his hanging, he only believed that up to a million and a half (not the total eleven million) people were murdered. I found a short, yet extremely fascinating article about him here.
Remember Block 11 I mentioned earlier? Right beside it, is the Black Wall. This is where Nazis had originally lined victims up and shot them with a firing squad. Thousands died right here.
Throughout this entire trip, no one made eye contact. We were all on our own, stuck in our heads, swimming though and fighting overwhelming emotions and numbnesses. When we did catch each other’s eyes, there was love and understanding there. Though I didn’t speak the language of many of the others visiting, we all had a sense of fellowship and togetherness. We all knew that one another was at a loss for words, and overwhelmed. I didn’t understand what humanity meant until that day, and that appreciation we had for one another’s lives, without speaking a word- was amazing.
If you ever have the opportunity to go, please, please do. It is life changing. Even if you don’t visit, I implore you to not give into the conspiracy theories that this horror never happened. I also don’t mind getting my hands sticky with politics with what I’m about to say next. Never trade your freedoms for safety. In the beginning, many of the victims marched into the fenced gates of Auschwitz, because they thought it would provide them safety in exchange for their freedoms. They were murdered within an hour. As the war progressed, they handed over their firearms, and complied with officials because they thought they’d be safer. In the grand scheme of things, realize it’s better to have a few gun related accidents and attacks, than to lose Eleven Million People, as a result of fear overtaking logic.
I’ll be releasing Part II of this as I finish it. Part II will show you Birkenau, part of Auschwitz that was just a mile and a half of the road. It was uncomfortabley large, and the temperature seemed to drop when I stepped on the property. It also has a massive memorial in remembrance of the World War II Holocaust, and its Eleven Million innocent victims.
As always, thank you for reading. ❤