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WARNING: Graphic content is included below.
Brief description: Auschwitz is a concentration camp in Poland, set up by the Nazi Germans during the World War 2.
Nothing can prepare you adequately for a visit to Auschwitz. In all honestly, I did not want to go there at all. Since I was young I always had a very big imagination. I did not need to go to Auschwitz to imagine all the horrible things that took place there. And thinking about it alone made the hair on my head stand up in all directions. This was never meant to be a fun trip. This in fact turned out to be the hardest trip of my life.
It was an early, rainy Sunday morning when I boarded a bus with a bunch of other tourists from all walks of life in Kraków. The ride to Auschwitz takes about an hour. On the bus they showed us a video about Auschwitz, shot by the first Russian cameraman who arrived there at the time of its liberation. The footage included a lot of graphic images that I will not discuss here, as well as some interviews with the survivors, whom unfortunately we could not hear as the video came with narration but no actual sound was preserved. The minute we started watching the video I had goosebumps all over my body, and by the middle of it I was ready to weep.
The camp was established in the year of 1940 by the Nazis (Germans that is). It quickly became “operational”, receiving and destroying people as they came in. The people came in packaged tightly like sardines in a box in special delivery trains. Many did not even make it to the camp. They suffocated during the journey.
Once the people were deposited on the main platform, they were separated in two columns: men, and women with children. A doctor stood in the middle of the platform and people were required to approach him in line, one by one that is. The doctor would take a quick look at a person and decide, by the physical appearance alone, whether they would live or die. Those deemed healthy enough by this doctor were sent to barracks for heavy duty labour assignments, and many would die later from starvation and exhaustion. The rest were sent to gas chambers to die. The rest always included pregnant women, elderly, and the children.
The Auschwitz camp area actually includes a few different large camps. Once the first was built, the rest were added slowly, as the needs grew. Jewish people accounted for about 90% of all the people held in the camps. The rest included all the other nationalities from occupied European countries, as well as gypsies, prostitutes, gays, and the ‘political traitors’.
When we arrived to Auschwitz our first stop was the main camp area, called Auschwitz 1. The entrance to the camp includes the following German words, which can be translated as: “Work Makes You Free”. Ironically, as our tour guide pointed out, it was only death that made those miserable people inside the camps free. The camp included long, rectangular, brick, two-story buildings, spread around evenly and surrounded by electric barb wires. We were explained that at that time if any prisoner approached the wire closer than 1 meter, they would be shot to death by the guards.
We started the tour by going inside some of those buildings and seeing the exhibitions that were mounted there, as part of the preservation work, to keep alive the memory of the victims. And the memory should stay alive forever and ever, if you ask me. The Auschwitz was also named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
So what did we see inside those buildings? In one building we saw the actual, black and white photographs that were found at the site, as well as some written explanations next to them. At another, some personal belongings behind a glass wall, grouped into various categories: glasses, luggage boxes, thousands of shoes, children and infant clothes, and in one room… human hair. It was estimated that this hair once belonged to 40,000 people, now exhibited in that room alone. It is really incomprehensible to understand the full tragedy that happened here, and I have tears in my eyes right now as I am writing this.
At the end of the tour in the first camp, we came to one of the… gas chambers. The victims were told to strip naked before they were forced into the first large room. There, as they were packed up by several hundreds, suddenly the light would be switched off and the gas would be poured in from the above. It took 30 minutes for everyone inside to die. In the next room there were fire stoves, were the bodies would be shoved in, to burn them into ashes. And so using this method alone the chamber could “process” up to 4,500 people in a given day.
After the Auschwitz 1, we went to the Auschwitz 2 (or the Auschwitz -Birkenau) camp, around 65 kilometers from the first one. This camp is spread around an even bigger area, and includes the train tracks and the infamous platform where most of the newly arrived people were deposited and then ‘sorted’. The people were told that they were taken to a “better life”, before they were brought here, and once in, they were told to leave their small possessions behind and that they will be reunited with them later, which never happened, of course. Not far from the platform are the numerous gas chambers were people were taken to, if they were deemed ‘undesirable’ to be kept alive for work, or any other reason. As you can imagine, all these people, once they arrive to Auschwitz, and stepped off the train, were now marching to their deaths.
There were about 1,300,000 million people killed in those camps alone, and that is only the official number, what is the real number – we will never know. So why were these people killed? For what reason? For which fault? What crime did they commit that they had to be shipped here like a bunch of cattle, and stripped of all their human dignity? With the exception of the political prisoners, there was no reason at all, and no fault of their own, simply nothing. People were killed because of one thing only: their race. Because one man had so much hatred against humanity, that he was able to convince other like-minded creatures to go and destroy, humiliate, and bring shame on the generations after generations of their own civilians.
So what lesson have we learned from this irreversible tragedy? What are we going to tell the new, upcoming generations of our children and grandchildren? I can think of at least one: it is only when we, the people of this Planet Earth, will stop diving each other by the color of our skin (black, white, and other), by the religion (Judaism, Islam, Christianity), and by the race, then and ONLY then will peace come into our World.
For those were not ‘Jews’ killed in those shocking camp areas, those were people. Regular, average citizens – like you and me, made from the same flesh and bones, with the same blood running in their veins, same tears falling from their eyes, same emotions of fear, love, hate, and same aspirations and desires that we all have. Their dreams unfortunately were cut short, their lives were ended in the most brutal way possible, and even in death, they were stripped of all the basic, human dignity that we all take for granted. We all need to finally realize one thing only – that we are all the SAME. That I am you, and you are me.
* * *
For further reading: I picked up a copy of this book at the bookstore in the Auschwitz camp. It is a hard, but very enlightening book. Read it if you would like to find out more about the life of a Polish female prisoner, as she saw and experienced it. Here’s a small excerpt:
“A girl approached us.
‘Do you need a headscarf?’ she asked.
‘What do you want for it?’
‘A portion of bread.’
Zosia showed interest. ‘Is it for sale?’
‘If you have enough willpower not to eat your supper bread or if you get a parcel, you’ll be able to buy many things on the wiese. We Jews don’t receive parcels. We’re not allowed to, besides we don’t have anyone anymore. They’ve murdered everybody, gassed them. And yet, we want to live. Surprised, aren’t you?'”