Hallowed Grounds: Reflecting on the Remnants of Auschwitz

Feature, Poland, Travelogue — By on April 1, 2012 at 7:10 am

Auschwitz.  What do you say really?  It is not the only prison camp and death machine the Nazis used during their reign of terror but likely the most recognizable by the West.  We all grow up learning about the world wars.  We all grow up hearing stories of the Holocaust.  We learn about it in school, we see a dumbed down, censored version through our teachers.  We hear facts, dates and figures like 6 million but in the context in which we learn about it, we cannot come to terms, even remotely, with what that number really means.  It’s not until you stand in a place like Auschwitz and Birkenau and see the sheer size of it that you can even begin. I certainly couldn’t.  Not until I stood in a room with nearly two metric tonnes of human hair.  Shaved from women sent to the gas chamber in an attempt to use it to make textiles.

Auschwitz today is a museum.  It lies roughly 70 kilometers west of the city of Krakow, Poland in a town called Oswiecim.  Given the number of tourists that visit each year, it’s fairly easy to get to.  Mini buses leave every hour, more in the high season, from the train station and will take you right to the front door.  You can take a train to the town of Oswiecim, they run less frequently and only get you as far as the train station so you’ll have to get another bus or a taxi to take you the rest of the way.  It may take longer (about 1hr 20min), but the mini bus is the way to go.  Get on the bus, pay the driver directly and if you buy a return ticket, the return times are printed on the face of the ticket.  If you buy a one way, then you can catch any bus going back when you’re ready.

When you walk into the main museum building there is a coffee and snack kiosk and my suggestion would be to use it or bring snacks and water with you, especially in the summer.  It’s a big place.  Entrance on your own if free but you don’t get the 17-minute introduction film consisting of some raw Soviet footage from the first hours of the camps ‘liberation.’  It is likely that if you go in the high season you will not be given the choice but to take an organized tour, and this will cost money.  Every language under the sun seems to be well represented so not to worry but it’s a whole day event either way.

Auschwitz is actually split into two main places.  Auschwitz I was formerly a Polish Army Barrack and most of the buildings were already there when the Nazis started to use it as a POW prison.  The Nazis started constructing Auschwitz II (Birkenau) in 1941 to deal with over crowding and to become an “extermination” camp.

Starting at Auschwitz I, I am immediately familiar with the buildings, seen in so many photographs that I recognized them right away.  So too did I recognize the ironic sign over the main gate that says ARBEIT MACHT FREI (work sets you free).  The sign was actually stolen in 2009 in a despicable act.  The sign has been replaced by a replica and the original, which was found some time later, apparently will be shown in a museum rather than be replaced.

If you are interested in the facts I would suggest brushing up and doing some reading before you visit.  There is so much material and so much to read that it is quickly overwhelming.  In addition, there may not be enough time, as the waves of visitors don’t stop, you have to keep moving.

Each building has something different.  Some of the buildings have been designated to, and funded by a specific country like Hungary, Czech, France and the Netherlands, each telling their story about how Jews and other prisoners were rounded up and herded on to box cars and sent to the prison camps.

Other buildings include displays of the aforementioned pile of human hair.  Piles of clothing, shoes, eyeglasses, combs, prosthetics and other personal effects, each definitely strike a chord.  The display that really got me was the pile of suitcases.  I stood transfixed knowing that every suitcase represented a person, a son, a daughter, a life, a family torn.  I found myself wanting to know about each individual.  What was going through their mind when they were packing their suitcase?  What did they pack?  Did the fathers still feel as though they could protect their families?

There are photographs of guards supervising and forcing a select group of prisoners to open and rummage through all of the suitcases.  Separating what was useful and discarding the rest while the owners of the suitcases where marched down the arrival platform directly to the gas chamber.  Their personal belongings likely had been sorted through before they even reached the chamber door.  The empty suitcases just tossed aside into a pile like they meant nothing, the same pile that I found myself staring at so many years later.

I wish I were a writer with a proper lexicon that could accurately describe the feeling.  I guess there are no words but I find myself trying anyway.  I like to think every visitor has one of those moments, maybe with a different display or photograph, but as time separates itself from the 1940’s it seems the message isn’t properly filtering down to the younger generation.  It may be ignorance but it can come across as disrespect.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau is 3km from Auschwitz I.  A shuttle bus runs every 15 minutes or so between the two.  Its seemingly endless rows of brick buildings are daunting.  I stood in a moment of deep thought trying to envision what this would have looked like in the early 1940’s from the very same vantage point.  What would I have seen, smelled or heard?  I walked to some of the buildings where the prisoners slept 4 and 5 wide in a single bunk after a long day of hard labour; thinking, wishing, hurting, starving.   I lay my hands on the cold wooden bunks and try to feel the memory of the people who laid here, to somehow feel the pain of the prisoners who laid these very bricks.  It’s unfathomable to know what millions of people felt, or what they experienced.  Maybe that’s why I try and focus my energy on one item, one wall, one photograph, one bunk bed and try and put myself there.  I feel like if I can see and understand what one person felt, it might just open the whole story up to me.

I think about the prison guards also.  At one point they were men just trying to support their families too.  It’s quite impactful to see how far Hitler and Himmler’s words made it.  All the way to the lowly SS prison guards forced to perform disgraceful acts on fellow humans.  Didn’t they have a conscience, even just one?  Didn’t they ever question why they threw people naked in the snow in -25 degree weather and toss a bucket of water on them until they died right before their eyes?  Before they performed medical experiments?  Before they made them dig their own graves?  Before they looked children in the eye and then proceeded to strip them bare of even the most basic dignity?  I could go on, my point is, grandfathers and great grandfathers on this side of the pond who served are deemed war heroes.  I don’t know what I’d think if our grandfathers did those things.  It’s a bit backward now as we think of the men of the SS and the Third Reich as monsters and animals as they once thought of us.

The world changed when the full extent of the near extermination of a people surfaced.  It seems nobody before then felt as if the Devil could truly walk among us, lead us, be made of flesh and blood.  I do feel a strange pull to discover traumatic places like these, maybe it’s because I feel more complete having made a connection on some level to an eternally sacred place.  I’m glad so many people still visit each year, I think it’s important but unfortunately, it’s not the only place.  Perhaps the biggest atrocity committed here was that the world collectively said…”never again.”

Entrance to Hell, Auschwitz

Electric fences surround Birkenau

Ruins of a gas chamber destroyed by the retreating Nazis at Birkenau

Memorial at Birkenau


Tracks leading to the arrival platform at Birkenau

"The Wall" at Auschwitz where so many were punished or executed as a "lesson" to other prisoners.


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