A glimpse of the Holocaust
When I studied the Holocaust in grade school, I never imagined I’d stand in the place where some of the most horrific scenes of human history occurred.
But Saturday, I saw gas chambers, torture rooms and two tons of human hair in Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
The camps are just outside Krakow, Poland, which isn’t a common destination for study abroaders. It was cold, wet, muddy and gray, but I’m so happy I went. I’ve learned about the Holocaust throughout school, but touring the camps made it so real and so much more tragic.
We began the day at Auschwitz I, the original camp and administrative center for the whole Auschwitz complex.
“Work makes you free”
Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. From 1940 to 1945, the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to the camp. About 1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz; approximately 90 percent of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.
Nazis documented some of the activity in the camp with paperwork and photographs.
Empty cans of Zyklon B
In 1941, a camp commandant officer experimented on 600 Russian POWs and 250 Polish inmates by gathering them in the basement of Block 11 and gassing them with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide. This paved the way for the use of Zyklon B as an instrument for extermination at Auschwitz, and a gas chamber and crematorium were constructed by converting a bunker.
The officers didn’t know how many of these pellets were needed to make the gas deadly, so it took two days to kill the first victims.
Makeup brushes and hair brushes
(Victims were told to pack such items because they would be starting a new life.)
Toys and children’s clothes
(In another room, a case the same size was filled with two tons of human hair. When the Red Army liberated the camp in 1945, soldiers found seven tons of hair packed in bags to be shipped. The hair was used to make mattresses and tarps.)
Nazis documented the prisoners with mug shots before tattooing them with numbers was deemed more efficient.
As we walked through the blocks, we received some insight into living conditions because many of the buildings are kept in their original state. The above photo shows sleeping quarters, where five to eight people would share one cement and straw “bed.” In other sleeping quarters, beds made of wood would sometimes collapse from the weight onto people below.
Standing cell, Block 11
Block 11 was the prison inside the prison. It housed various torture chambers for prisoners who did anything wrong — from trying to escape, to making a mistake at work. Pictured above is a standing cell in the basement of Block 11. These four cells were 31.5 inches square; there was no light coming in at all, and no heating or cooling system.
Four prisoners had to crawl into the cell through a tiny door at the bottom. Metal bars at the entrance allowed guards to open the door and look inside the cell. There was no room to lie down or sit down; prisoners had to stand up. The floors were covered with excrement left by the occupants.
Prisoners were put into these cells three nights in a row, and in the morning taken out to perform a full 10-hour day of work. This punishment was usually given to prisoners who had tried to sabotage the work done in the factories at Auschwitz. If they survived the nights without suffocating, they never survived the following days’ work.
Other torture chambers included starvation cells and suffocation cells, where prisoners were left until they died.
Wall outside Block 11, where thousands of prisoners were shot to death.
Prisoners stripped in this room before they were shot.
Different blocks and the entire camp are surrounded by electric fences, where many committed suicide.
This gas chamber could kill 2,000 people at once, totaling more than 1 million deaths throughout the Holocaust. When we walked inside, we were asked to remain silent to remember the lives of those victims. That moment was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and hopefully that I will ever experience again. I didn’t cry or feel sick, but it was difficult for me to breathe. I kept thinking about the thousands of people who walked where I was standing and never walked out. As I waited to enter, I took a deep breath of fresh air and turned to look around at the landscape. The yard was muddy and ugly, but the sun was shining and the sky was bright blue. I stared at the sky, and wondered if any prisoners turned to do the same — to catch that same glimpse of beauty in the world before walking to their deaths.
One of the gas holes
The gas chamber could kill 2,000 at once, but the crematorium could only burn 1,500 at once, so hundreds were also burned outside.
Of the six extermination camps in Europe, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest, and the living conditions were much worse than those at Auschwitz I. The average life expectancy at Auschwitz I was six months; at Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was three months. Life expectancy for Jewish people was much shorter.
Original train car
Hundreds of thousands were shipped to Auschwitz-Birkenau in cramped cattle cars. When the camp was liberated, 200 tickets were found at the platform; the Nazis had made prisoners pay for their train tickets.
There were more than 300 barracks, which prisoners built themselves. Only two were bathrooms, and prisoners could only use them for brief periods at morning and night. A symptom of starvation is diarrhea, so sleeping barracks were covered in excrements.
One barrack held 700 to 1,000 people, with five to eight people per bed. These wooden beds sometimes collapsed onto people below.
Nazis bombed this crematory and burned hundreds of barracks in an effort to destroy evidence.
“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”
I didn’t cry, but I was teary-eyed during most of the day. At some points I felt sick to my stomach, and I had an overwhelming pit of disbelief and sadness that human beings could actually do these things to one another. What’s worse: genocide still happens. Our society is horrified by the Holocaust, but I think a large part of the horror comes from the fact that we can relate to the victims. They came from Western-style cultures with Western-style families, homes, jobs and schools, and they were plucked from their normal lives to be brutally tortured and murdered. Similar crimes happen every day throughout Africa and the Middle East, but we can’t relate. Those worlds are so foreign to us; they don’t hit home, and we allow tragedy to continue.
More than anything, I was saddened and even angered by the diversity and unfairness of life. Why do I have a safe home, loving family, college education and this incredible opportunity to travel the world, while other beautiful people — some probably better than I — are starved and tortured? What makes me so worthy?
The life I am blessed with is what life should be. I am healthy, safe and educated, and I’ve had so many amazing experiences with people I love — at home and now across the globe. It breaks my heart that so many people don’t have those things. It’s not fair that a life can be misery, hunger and torture.
I like to consider myself a thankful person, but the day was an unforgettable lesson in gratitude and not taking any moment for granted.
On a lighter note, we found cupcakes in Krakow:
The city was unlike anywhere I’ve been so far. In all honesty, it was kind of ugly. It was rainy, muddy and gray, but the buildings were cool, the people were friendly and the food was AMAZING. I also loved the language, and we gained lots of money because the euro is worth four times as much as the zloty.
We spent Friday strolling around town, and we stopped for lunch and dinner at two different Polish restaurants. I was nervous because I’m pretty picky, but I was excited to try something new. Those meals turned out to be two of the best meals of my life. I LOVE Polish food! I think I liked it better than Italian food…
Chicken in mushroom sauce, herb potatoes and veggies (called salad) in a sweet dressing — preceded by delicious mushroom soup
Polish perogies (half meat, half veggie)
On Saturday we had dinner at a traditional Ukrainian restaurant because one of the girls is from Ukraine.
Traditional borscht, made of beets, surprisingly yummy
Cheese and onion “pancakes”
I was a little bummed because we forgot to find Oscar Schindler’s factory, and all of the major museums were closed for renovations. But I was happy to spend the time exploring and getting a taste of Poland.
Unfortunately, the only flight back to Florence was early Sunday morning. We had a long layover in Rome, and I wanted to spend the time revisiting the city I had loved so much. The other girls wanted to wait in the station (and all had their iPods), so I ventured out alone! I was nervous at first, but I ended up finding a pretty park that I didn’t see a month ago.
Spring is finally here!