Auschwitz: “Work (does not) make you free”

Arbeit Macht Frei- "Work Makes You Free" at the entrance of Auschwitz I

I won’t lie to you. I’ve been dreading writing this post since last Sunday when I visited Auschwitz. It’s hard to know exactly how to describe such horror and tragedy. But it’s even more horrifying writing these things and knowing they are true.

After our pleasant and leisurely three night stay in Krakow, we made the hour drive to the town of Oswiecim, which is the original name of Auschwitz in Polish. Though the ride was only a little over an hour, the group dynamic and atmosphere of the trip changed considerably as we all seemed to mentally prepare to visit the largest and undoubtedly most fatal of the concentration camps. I had been worrying about the visit for weeks, ever since my visit to Lidice had uncovered such grief and incomprehension of WWII. The night before the visit, I dreamt that poisonous spiders were crawling all over me and despite all of my thrashing and scratching, I couldn’t get them off. I’m no dream expert, but I think it is safe to say I was a little anxious about the trip.

So let me begin….

Auschwitz was actually a network of camps with three main camps, Auschwitz I (base camp), Auschwitz II- Birkenau (the extermination camp), and Auschwitz III- Monowitz (a labor camp dealing with chemicals) and more than 40 satellite camps. We first visited the base camp of Auschwitz I which is made up of 30 or so red-brick barracks. The original base camp now acts as a museum of the entire network, displaying artifacts and portraits in the different “Blocks” or barracks. We had a phenomenal guide who was a historian by profession. As she led us through the camp, going in and out of the different blocks, she gave us a detailed account of the everyday going-ons at the camp, including living conditions and extermination.

The two rows of barb-wired fence that still remain surrounding Auschwitz I
The red-brick barracks of Auschwitz I

Functioning as a museum, the blocks each depict a different aspect of the camp. One block discusses extermination, another is still originally set up as the “prison-within-a-prison” where caught escapees would await their execution by firing squad in the lot next door, while another depicts the different modes of destruction, and still another shows the affects of starvation and medical experiments within the camp. While all of these “exhibits” were difficult to see, I experienced the most difficulty in Block 5.

Block 5 is dedicated to the “Material Evidence of Crime” where they have thousands upon thousands of the victims’ belongings on display. Part of Auschwitz II was a row of barracks known as “Canada” which were used as storage for the prisoners’ belongings. Since much of the Jewish population that was liquidated from the ghettos had been under the impression that they were “starting a new life” when they had arrived to Auschwitz, they had packed all of their most prized possessions.

Piles and piles of eyeglasses, suitcases, shoes, and hair brushes are on display. One room of Block 5 even contains a frighteningly large collection of all of the prosthetic limbs, crutches, and tools of the physically disabled that were collected as the prisoners were immediately sent to the gas chambers upon arrival to Auschwitz. The physically and mentally disabled had absolutely no chance at Auschwitz.

It was in the room of Block 5 however, which displayed the masses upon masses of hair, that I reached my breaking point. My brother, Jensen, visited Auschwitz a few years ago while on a summer academic program in Europe and before I left for my trip the one thing he mentioned about my preparation for Auschwitz was the room with the piles of hair. But there really is no way to prepare to see such a sight. I had no idea how hard it would be to see a room literally full of human hair, human hair which was once attached to living and breathing mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters.

Seeing all of this material evidence of the Holocaust made it so much more “real.” You get a glimpse into a person’s life when you look over their personal belongings and seeing these piles and piles of everyday belongings (which was really only a fraction of the real collection since much of it was burned by the SS before liberation) the magnitude of the Holocaust and the human hate hit me like a speeding train.

We finished our tour of Auschwitz I by visiting the only standing and intact gas chamber and crematorium in the complex. The Nazis’ methods of extermination was downright atrocious but to understand the trickery which was involved, makes the killing even more sickening. Those selected for the gas chambers would be led to the building, asked to go into the changing room and disrobe because they would be taking showers before they registered. SS men would even remind the prisoners to make sure they remembered their hanger number so that when they got out of the showers, they would be able to locate the correct clothes. It was all a sick act. While the prisoners would be changing, other SS men, via a Red Cross ambulance, would transport the poison, Cyclone B, to the gas chambers where they would drop the killing agent through holes in the roof of the chamber once the prisoners were herded into the chamber. Those closest to the holes would die rather quickly but those unfortunate victims tucked in corners away from the holes, would die of slow and painful suffocation.

Once all victims were assumed dead, other prisoners that were designated to work in the crematorium would search all the bodies for gold fillings and jewelry, as well as remove all hair before erasing all evidence of the crime in the crematorium. It’s horrifying what the human race can do.

Following the visit of Auschwitz I, our emotions earned no rest as we drove the 3 km to visit the much larger Auschwitz II- Birkenau. It was here that most of the killing took place. It is also here that you would most likely recognize the infamous Holocaust photographs depicting the ‘selection process’ such as the one below.

Prisoners along with all of their belongings would be transported to Birkenau via train in what resembled cattle cars. Once the train stopped in the middle of camp, the prisoners were asked to form two lines, men on one side and women and children on the other. The ‘process’ would then begin as an SS doctor would stand at the front of the line giving each prisoner a once-over. If the prisoner looked healthy and capable of work, they would be sent in one direction where they would be registered, given a uniform, and assigned a barrack. Small children, pregnant women, invalids, the elderly, and the disabled were sent in the other direction where they were immediately led to the gas chambers and crematorium at the edge of the camp.

The entrance gate of Auschwitz II- Birkenau
The train tracks leading to the selection platform
The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium #2

The sheer size of Birkenau was staggering. Holding more than 90,000 prisoners at one point in 1944, standing in the center of camp you are surrounded by barracks, still in tact as well as demolished, as far as the eye can see. Such a large piece of land, so much time devoted to construction and strategy, and all for what? All for the systematic destruction and elimination of human life? How is this possible?

Sun shining through the menacing barbed-wire

It seemed to be a cruel joke as I wandered around the camp in the budding spring weather under the radiant sunshine. We were experiencing the first signs of spring and the beginning of new life in a place that only ever demolished it.

Visiting Auschwitz was a terrifying, emotional, and downright exhausting experience and yet I’m so thankful to have had the chance to visit. I feel like I finally understand the magnitude of the Holocaust. Although I learned about the devastation of the Holocaust throughout my schooling, it took actually laying my eyes on the remnants and evidence of the crime to fully comprehend the amount of lives lost.

And as thankful as I am for the experience, I’m even more thankful that the visit can be my last. I have seen the devastation and paid my humble respects to the near 1.2 million lives lost at Auschwitz, and in turn have gained a better understanding of not only the immensity of the Holocaust but also of the alarming capabilities of the human race. While I will not be returning to Auschwitz, I recommend if you ever have the chance to travel to Central Europe to visit Auschwitz, or any other concentration camp for that matter. It’s an experience you will never forget, I know I won’t.

Na shledanou,

Maarja

Up next: Lifting our spirits in Moravia.