Auschwitz – Birkenau

14 Jul

Auschwitz is simpler than I’d expected. In the barracks preserved to show to the public, a few photographs adorn the walls. In other barracks we find evidence–thousands of baby and adult shoes, pots and pans, and two tons of human hair. I look at it without much thought, but later that night I dream of one blonde braid atop the pile.

Auschwitz gate: "Work brings freedom"

“Bo” is our guide, steering us through torrential rain. She’s a short pudgy woman who dishes compliments like a pez dispenser. While overlooking a pile of hundreds and hundreds of suitcases, with like “Goldstein” and “Epstein” (my mother’s original maiden name, before it was anglicised), she tells us people were told they were starting new lives. It was all taken from them when they arrived.

Next, we walk to one of the only remaining gas chambers (of an original 10 in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex). They were destroyed by the Germans who were retreating, though one was burned during a brief prisoner uprising.

The one we enter was used to kill 700 people at a time. (Most of them killed 1,500). There are square holes in the ceiling where the poisonous Zyklon B was fed through. After rigorous testing, the Nazis were able to perfect the method as such that in half an hour the whole room would be dead. Conveniently located next to the gas chamber, is the crematorium, where specially selected Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, or political dissidents were responsible for burning the bodies. These people were never permitted to live beyond six months.

Three kilometres over, in Birkenau, the larger part of the camp complex, the rain pounds down harder. I find out later that the Poles were worried about flooding. Bo asks if we want to walk the length of the track; it’s about 3km. My grandmother doesn’t, but I do. I walk until my jeans are glued to my skin and my shoes squeak with water. I walk until I’m in pain from the cold. This feels right, I think.

Men's Barracks

In the barracks, which consist of three rows of beds in each bunk, Bo tells me about living conditions. The healthiest would lay on the top and the sickest on the bottom. Often people would have diarrhea from the poor diet, she says, and since they were only allowed to use the toilet twice a day they would just go in the bed and it would drip onto the people below.

At every single stop, I ask a question, but I feel nothing. Even confronted with the evidence, it was unbelievable.

On the walk to the ruins of the gas chamber, the end of the railroad track, we stop at the halfway point. It was here people were divided–gas chamber or work. If you worked you could at least hope for 3 to 6 months more of life, for women and men respectively. If you went to the gas chamber…well, maybe you had another 30 minutes of life.

We trudge back to the main building to view a short film. When we emerge I look around a room filled with men and women of all nationalities and all ages. And in that moment I saw more men crying than I’ve ever seen in my 22 years of life. In a way, seeing the faces of the crying men made it more real for me than the physical evidence ever could.

In the car on the way back to the hotel my Grandmother turns to face me.

“Was it a mistake to take you here?” she asks, peering into my eyes.



One Response to “Auschwitz – Birkenau”

  1. Andrew Petcher July 19, 2011 at 6:39 pm #

    It is difficult to comment on your post – you describe your visit with feeling. I went there in 2008, I had to go but it is hard to share the experience with others.

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