Yesterday I visited the site of the Auschwitz death camp and the Birkenau/Auschwitz II death camp near Krakow, Poland. I don’t have the words to express the feelings I felt there, or the thoughts going through my head. Bafflement, shock, numbness, sadness don’t really cut it. There were a few distinct moments that really stuck out to me, which I would like to share with you.
The first occurred when I walked into the exhibit containing items from the last trains of victims to arrive at Auschwitz. First we passed a giant display of long, braided locks of women’s hair, losing their color after the years, then a display of hundreds of suitcases labeled with names like Mishka and Wojel. We passed a case, about ten feet cubed, full of children’s shoes. I’ve seen pictures of the shoes from Auschwitz before, but no picture could have ever prepared me for what I saw when I rounded the next corner. Displays twice as long and about 2/3rds as deep as my classroom lined both sides of the hallway, full to nearly the top with black, brown, and red shoes of the men and women on the last trains to arrive at the camp (the other shoes from the previous years would have been sold or recycled rather than stored here). I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach as I struggled to hold back tears. “80,000 shoes,” said the guide, “40,000 pairs.” 40,000 people, most of whom, like their shoes, never left Auschwitz again.
The next moment was in the penitentiary building, which was called the waiting room for the crematorium (the hospital was also called this). I passed through the building, looking at cells for solitary confinement, standing cells (where five men would be forced to stay the night together standing in a three by three cell, then go to work for 12 hours, then do it all over again until they died of exhaustion), and others. A small child, panicked maybe by the tight hallways, the crowds, or the somber attitude of the adults, began to scream close to where my guide was standing, so I could hear him through the headset. I quickly left the building, but as I walked through the hall between the cells and then through the officer’s quarters away from the child, I could still hear him screaming through the guide’s microphone. It is chilling to think how many times that building has born witness to that sound.
The final moment I want to share was the moment I walked through the “Gate of Death,” through which the railway cars full of victims veered the death camp of Birkenau. We had just taken a short bus ride from Auschwitz, after walking through the gate which proclaims that “work will make you free” and walking through the gas chambers (by now, perhaps there have been enough visitors walking through to outnumber the prisoners who entered on their feet but didn’t leave that way). Year before last, I taught 10th grade world history, and the year before that, 10th grade English. We studied the Holocaust and read Night. I’ve seen most Holocaust movies that have been dubbed or filmed in English, ready autobiographies and historical fictions, and looked through thousands of holocaust photos to try and show my students why this matters. Walking along the tracks at Birkenau, I never read, watched, or viewed anything that made me aware of the sheer scale of the camp. Standing in the gate, which lies in the middle of one of the fences, I could barely see the fence to the left or right of me, and I couldn’t see the fence on the other side of the camp in front of me, although I had a clear line of sight. There are between 200 and 300 building on the site of Birkenau, including five crematoria of hundreds of bunk houses. About one and half million people died here alone, in gas chambers, executions by shooting or hanging, starvation, exhaustion, cold, suicide by running into the electric fence, etc. There is no way to conceptualize the number of lives lost in this camp, or in this tragedy in general. But, standing in the middle of the Birkenau fence, looking past destroyed buildings straining my eyes to see any hint of the other side, I could no longer see just a number. I could not begin to understand how people could look at this camp, at the living conditions, at the people, and believe they were doing something good, and right. How is it possible to walk into a barrack smaller than my parents house in California containing literally 1000 sleeping people and walk them to a gas chamber? How could anyone lie to their faces, saying they were just going to take a shower? How could the doctors stand at the front of the selection lines, and in less than a second with the gesture of a thumb, condemn them either to death by gas that day or a prolonged week, month, year of suffering as they lived on 400 calories while working 12 hours a day? It was everything I could do to not throw up standing in the gate.
I don’t know how to end this post, or how to reconcile what I’ve seen. The stairs through the buildings at Auschwitz all have two groves from people filing up and down the steps. It is encouraging that so many millions of people have passed through this site that the grooves are inches deep in places, and leave the concrete bare through the stone overlay. I’m bringing back books and pictures for my students, and I hope everyone will someday go and visit the camps, because it is really impossible to understand the history of Europe without understanding the Holocaust (this isn’t the right word, how can one understand this?), and know that I feel different about the Holocaust, though I understand it even less, after my visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau.
“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”