My visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Throughout this Spring semester, we’ve done an incredible amount of preparation for this trip. Our three classes have provided us with extensive background on history and culture before, during, and after the war. In our seminar class alone, we’ve read countless stories about the victims of bombing raids, life in occupied countries, fallen soldiers, and even displaced people after the war. I mistakenly thought that after spending so much time looking at the war’s victims, I would be desensitized enough to handle Auschwitz.

I was wrong.

It felt odd to me how intense the traffic was around the visitor’s center, I had always imagined the camp as dead, silent, and black and white—even in the present day. Our tour guide led us through the infamous gates that read “Work will set you free,” and I instantly felt ill. I looked back at the gates from the inside and realized how many people must have looked back at those gates without any hope of escaping them.


The camp was oddly colorful and open. Little red brick buildings, named in blocks, sat facing each other, quite un-assuming of the horrors that occurred within them. The stillness of the site was disturbed only by the occasional breeze, and throughout the day I found the sunshine and gorgeous weather to be so wrong in this murderous place.

Before my visit, I had heard of the room filled with shoes taken from the prisoners and somewhat mentally prepared myself to view it. What I had not been aware of was the dark room which housed two tons of sheared hair, mostly women’s, that sat on the second floor of the “material evidence” room. Any of the artifacts taken from the prisoners were enough to sicken the stomach, but what utterly broke me were these physical remnants of the prisoners. This hair, only a fraction of the seven tons found, was a very visual representation of how disgusting this camp was, and how many lives it completely destroyed. We all toured the room in silence, and blinked away our tears before emerging into the ill-placed sunlight outside.

In our German culture and Democracy class, we read “The Investigation” by Peter Weiss. In this book, the author used actual transcripts of a trial of the Nazi guards/associates from Auschwitz Birkenau in the form of a play split into 11 cantos. Without punctuation, additional analysis, or even any mention of the camp name or the word “Jew,” he is able to convey they evil of the camp through only the words provided by the guards and witnesses. One particularly intense part of the book was the description of the the “Black Wall,” which was used to execute prisoners by gunshots. The Investigation divulges its horror through the stories of the routine: undressing in the washrooms is followed by guidance to the wall, execution, and transport to the crematorium or mass grave. One witness even recounts an instance when he watched a little girl who was led to the wall by a guard just after her parents were killed. When she turned around the guard instructed her to look at the wall, and she was promptly shot in the head. I kept all of this in mind as we too walked out to the wall, which stood quietly between block 10 and 11. I looked around at the red brick towards the entrance and then turned around to see the last sight the little girl in the book and so many others would ever see.

The Crematorium One was the last stop of our base camp tour. The gas chamber/crematorium is situated under the earth, and is the most lifeless place I’ve ever been. Dark, damp, and crowded, our group entered silently into the surreal chamber where millions were murdered in a cloud of fear, pain and desperation. I simply don’t have the words to describe the emptiness and sadness I felt, with each second adding to the enormity of this death-hall. The tiny squares in the ceilings, which I originally thought were skylights to help aid visitors, were explained to be the openings from which the poison would be added to the room. The panic the victims must have felt is unbearable to imagine, and I felt so much anger at how any of this was possible. The crematorium in the adjoining room was equally crushing, and I felt such a sense of loss to imagine how the freshly dead, so alive just minutes before, would quickly become nothing more than ashes. One human life, now just a handful of ash, for stupid hatred. The Nazis turned the crematorium into a bomb shelter after the establishment of the other killing facilities, but this disregard for respect or human life shouldn’t have surprised me.

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We moved on to the second camp, Auschwitz Birkenau, which we were told made base camp look “like a holiday home.” We followed alongside the railroad tracks to the same selection point which would decide whether you were to die immediately or soon after. No human should have the power to choose life or death like that. I imagined what it would have been like to see my family for the last time, but had to stop myself before I cried again. Our group moved along somberly to buildings 2 and 3, which are the ruins of the identical crematoriums/gas chambers that mirrored across the train tracks that disappear into the forest. I stood outside building two and saw the rubble created when the Nazis attempted to cover their tracks of mass extermination. I looked first to the undressing rooms, which were used to further trick the prisoners into thinking they were being de-sanitized, but also as means to eliminate the need for Sonderkomando to undress the corpses. I looked into the gas chamber and again felt sick to my stomach as I remembered another story from The Investigation. The twenty-minute extermination process would not happen peacefully in this chamber, but rather, would be 20 minutes of excruciating pain and terror. The naked prisoners would often claw and climb on top of each other in hopes of escaping, which would result in the Sonderkommandos finding a tangled mess of humans covered in vomit, blood, and tears before they removed the corpses. I saw the big chimney where the dead would finally reach some escape, and paused for a long while in front of the small pond memorial where many of these ashes were discarded. Maybe the people in Germany, who did little to stop the Holocaust, thought “it doesn’t affect me.” The horrible events of this camp were very, very real for the victims of this camp, and losing a mother, father, siblings, or children was an absolute reality for them. In my previous blog post, I questioned how “worth it” this war was. The impersonality of GI uniformity is not even comparable to the inhumanity of Auschwitz Birkenau. In the base camp, we learned that Auschwitz was the only camp to tattoo prisoners with their identification number. As if the prisoner living conditions, terror punishments, and mass murder wasn’t horrible enough, the Nazis found a way to further dehumanize the Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” crammed into the camp by the reduction of names into numbers. Even more gruesome, this practice was started because the prisoners became so gaunt by the time of their deaths that the Nazi’s needed an easier way to identify the dead than from looking at photo records. . I feel the Allied effort in the war can be justified by the Holocaust alone.

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