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Auschwitz and Birkenau

I woke up at 6:50 a.m in a drunken stupor from my night of Vodka. Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps were on the day’s itinerary and I had to make my way to the bus station in order to catch my 8:40 bus. I woke up and ate breakfast at my hotel—dark bread with cheese and meat, cucumbers and tomatoes topped off with a hard boiled egg. It was hearty and filling and I thought about taking food for the road, but decided I didn’t want to carry it in my little fanny pack. I set out on the bus for the hour and half trip west of Krakow to the town of Oswiecim. I had been anticipating that the day was going to be a difficult journey, but I had no idea just how taxing it would truly be.

Upon arrival to Auschwitz, tourists are greeted by an administrative mindfuck. People are shuffled into confused lines—groups and individuals. Nobody knows just what to do or where to go as you approach the security checkpoint required to enter the museum. You have to elbow your way through a throng of people, just to be told that your backpack or purse is too large to take into the museum. Many people make it to the front of the line and then are promptly directed to the baggage check, only to have to rejoin the ridiculous line at the end. Thank god I didn’t have to deal with this (fanny packs for life), but I stood there pondering who the hell thought this was a good or efficient way to herd so many tourists into the gates of Auschwitz.

In fact, while there are many rules for tourists visiting in Auschwitz, there felt as if there was no system to regulate the thousands upon thousands of people who visit there each week. Perhaps this speaks to the place itself– how can there be order in a place that doesn’t make any sense to begin with? After passing through security twice, once because it was required, and a second time because I had to use the restroom (…located outside of the security point), I checked in for my pre-arranged tour.

I joined a group of thirty other English speaks as our tour guide took us on a 3.5 hour long journey through recent history. The camp, which was liberated a mere 71 years ago, shocked me to my core. Of course I’ve read about the holocaust and I’ve even been to the holocaust museums in Geneva and Jerusalem, but nothing could prepare me for the tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Nothing.

As you walk through the world’s largest cemetery, you are overcome with a sense of disbelief. How could this have happened ? It just doesn’t make sense. We walked through the grounds at Auschwitz, and viewed the bone chilling evidence of the atrocities that took place there. When you enter the camp you pass through a gate that says “Arbeit Macht Frei, ” which means “Work makes you free.” The sarcastic nature of this statement is maniacal. Walking in, you are told of a band, which played music in order to keep the prisoners marching in step and who would play classical music upon their return from a hard day’s work. Even imagining the sound was eerie, and my heart broke completely when I thought about how planned and perfect the Nazi Party’s final solution was. Every detail, right down to the soundtrack, was calculated and exact. The evil genius of it all sucked the life out of me.

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We were taken into rooms displaying shoes of the victims, both young and old, and suitcase upon suitcase marked with names and home addresses, demonstrating the hope of the prisoners that they would one day return home. They were stripped of everything—most of all their dignity.

The hardest part of the entire tour was entering into a room, which was filled with two tons of human hair clipped off the heads of the women and children. It was could literally sense the total shock and disbelief of every single person in the room. It wasn’t a possession like the other things we were seeing. This was physical human evidence, and it was absolutely appalling. Our guide explained that the hair of these prisoners was used to make blankets and wigs for German civilians. In fact, everything from prosthetic legs of Jewish WWI heroes, to shoes, combs, glasses and even the ashes and feces of the the prisoners were recycled by the German S.S.

“Germany was built with their dust.”

The pangs of hunger I began to feel come the afternoon were juxtaposed with life-size pictures of starving 55 lb. prisoners. The perspective alone would have been enough to shut me up, though it didn’t need to because I had already been rendered mute.

Birkenau was worse. You could feel the dichotomy of the painful deaths that took place there.  Our guide explained to us the difference between anhilation and extermination. The first being the prisoners of Birkenau who passed from a slow and torturous existence if they were fit to work, and the second was the immediate mass murder of those deemed otherwise useless to the Nazis. As tourists we had the luxury of turning around and walking back through the gates, but for the prisoners there they weren’t as lucky, and many of them walked forward to their death. The remnants of the gas chambers and furnaces were horrific. The thought alone makes my heart break, but seeing them first hand is another thing in and of itself.

Throughout the day tears would well in my eyes, but the shock of it all wouldn’t allow them to fall. My deep inhales and exhales only took the dark energy of the place into my cells. After the tour, I boarded the bus in the direction of Krakow, and immediately fell asleep. The life had been completely sucked out of me. Every limb felt as heavy as my heart. I walked back to my hotel and crawled into bed at 6:30 p.m. uncertain that I would be able to go in search of food, even though I had not eaten since early that morning.

I knew, however, that I needed to take care of myself. I needed to be comforted and fortunately enough for me, there was a local Milk Bar called U Babci Maliny 5 minutes walk from my hotel. I ate Grandma’s pierogies and cheese pancakes and drank a cold beer. Comfort food for my aching soul. 

I came home and finally cried, and it felt good to cleanse the disappointment I felt in humanity. It was a tough but beautiful day, and it reminded of the importance of striving for social justice. When we say, “Never again” we should mean that. Not just for the Jews but for all disenfranchised groups of humans. If I learned anything from my day at Auschwitz and Birkenau, it’s that a hateful ideology can evolve into so much more than words. There have been other genocides since the Holocaust, and ideological wars that have ravaged whole societies. We have to spread awareness, acceptance, understanding, peace and above all, love.

Fear is the opposite of love. Fear builds walls, hope builds bridges. Here’s to the privilege of the future.

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