Preserving Humanity’s Darkest Hour

I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland and attended our local public schools every year beginning in Kindergarten. In 8th grade, we spent a quarter of the school year studying the Holocaust in Language Arts. In 9th grade, I read Night by Elie Weisel and studied other Holocaust writings in class. In addition to this, almost every history class I’ve taken has included the study of the Holocaust. Through all of these classes, I have learned a lot of facts and numbers. I could tell you that 11 million people died during the Holocaust or that the major death camps instituted by the Nazis were located in Poland. Though very informative, this learning only achieved so much. Years in the classroom only offer so much. I lacked the historical understanding that would help me grasp the worst crime in human history. That changed when I spent the day visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.


For the first time, the World War II study abroad program made a stop in Krakow, Poland. Making a stop in Poland has been something that has interested me since my acceptance into this program. When I told people where I was going to study abroad, they were always very interested to here that I would be traveling to Poland. And if they were interested to here about my travels to Poland, they were amazed to here that I would be traveling to Auschwitz. The name itself conjures a reaction without anything else being said. Being at the camp helped me to realize the challenges that it faces. One of the most difficult tasks of the employees is to maintain the inventory and buildings that the Nazis so desperately wanted to be destroyed.


In the original Auschwitz camp, the horrors of mass extermination were put right in front of my eyes. We walked through buildings that contained items the Nazis stole from Jews and other groups sent to Auschwitz upon arrival. There were pots. There were eyeglasses. The most moving parts were a room full of shoes and a room full of 2 tons of human hair. In the face of such a scene, I had trouble comprehending what I was seeing. It was hard to even imagine that each pair of shoes and every strand of hair belonged to a real person who was killed in the Holocaust. When we went block 11 and I saw a small room that people were crammed in to and left for dead I didn’t want to believe it. We passed by small brick rooms where four people were forced to stand for days on end without being able to move or sit down. We walked out back to the wall where the SS tortured and shot prisoners. We saw the gallows where they hung prisoners in front of other inmates in order to instill fear and obedience in the others. We saw for ourselves the gas chambers where the Nazis forced hundreds of thousands of Jews into a small room and then proceeded to kill them with poisonous gas. How is it possible for someone in the modern day to even imagine these horrors? What are we supposed to make of something that doesn’t even happen in our worst nightmares? For this reason, we need to do our best to remember. And for this reason, the camp must be maintained.


I saw workers in Auschwitz I (the original concentration camp that I have mentioned) working on the restoration of a building. In Birkenau (the death camp built after the Nazis decided on the “final solution”), some of the barracks are in danger of collapsing. I read that millions of dollars are spent on preserving this site along with some of the most skilled employees the country has to offer.

The front gate of Auschwitz reads Albeit Macht Frei meaning "Work Sets You Free"

The front gate of Auschwitz reads Albeit Macht Frei meaning “Work Sets You Free”

Remembering our past is not always easy. But it must be done. We have to keep the train tracks where the Nazis hauled in prisoners in cars that were cramped to the point of not being able to turn around. We have to keep the path where prisoners who were deemed unfit to perform slave labor were pointed to in order to be escorted to the gas chambers. I was numb as I visited these locations. I really didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to shake my head and hide from this horrible truth. We can only come to terms with history’s most horrific events when we face them head on. The important thing was that I was actually at the camp and only that allowed me to more fully comprehend the terror of the Holocaust.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau) is the large-scale extermination camp built in 1941.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau) is the large-scale extermination camp built in 1941.

It was a sunny day in Auschwitz. The parking lot was full of buses and cars that had transported visitors to the camp. Other cars drove straight by the camp. The horrors of the camp may not have even been present in their mind as they passed the rows of barracks and remains of gas chambers. One way or another, the Polish town of Oswiecim had to move on just like the rest of the world. However, moving on does not mean forgetting. The Nazis wanted these crimes to be erased. They blew up gas chambers in Birkenau in hopes that their crimes would also disappear. The memorial that the camp has become is clear evidence that the people who do the work of preserving this camps ghastly inventory have not forgotten. Now, it is up to the rest of the world to follow.

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