You know, life has been pretty tough to me and my family for the last two years. We have experienced job loss with my dad and pressing financial burden because of it. We held my grandpa’s hand as he went to heaven last October, losing his battle with heart failure. And finally, over spring break this March, my mom suffered a brain bleed, caused by a meningioma, a non-cancerous tumor of sorts that hemorrhaged into her brain stem, resulting in life-saving, all-day brain surgery, and a hospital stay that will probably take six months to a year to recover from. The Longo family is a tough group of people and we will make it through. As hard as this all seems, none of what has happened over the last two years to us stands up to what happened to the prisoners and victims that died at Auschwitz. Walking through Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau today affirmatively helped me to further realize the quality of life that I live and that no matter what I’ve been through, things could surely be worse.
Auschwitz mentally and emotionally drained me. The tour guide’s horrifying and disheartening facts and accompanying statistics hit me in the heart like bullets lodged in a brick wall. 1.3 million Jews went through Auschwitz after being stripped from their homes, forced to relocate to ghettos, and finally deported to Auschwitz. 1.1 million Jews died in the same places that I stood today. One of the most shocking realizations for me at Auschwitz was knowing that potentially and likely everywhere I looked a Jew could have been beaten to a pulp for no particular reason, or a mother could have hugged her children and husband for the last time on the same dirt path that I walked along with my classmates. It’s a harsh reality to face for anyone, seventy some years later, knowing how much life was taken from innocent people.
At Auschwitz I, we spent toured three different buildings. These blocks held different artifacts and information and focused on different sections of Auschwitz. The hallway in Block 4 was the first place that really broke me down. Seeing the names and death dates, occupations and pictures of prisoners in the hallway really worked to show how much innocence was lost. The occupations of these people particularly struck me; lawyers, doctors, writers, cartoonists – all these people could have and did offer so much value to the world outside of the camps. Block 5 held physical, material, proof. Two tons of human hair was stacked in bunches (seemingly almost to the ceiling) behind glass for us to observe. Block 11 took us to the basement of the block. Here, we viewed things like the standing cells. The Nazis would put up to four people in a 3 x 3’ cell, not giving them room to sit, causing extreme exhaustion. In this room, Zyklon B was also first tested on prisoners here in Block 11. In Block 11, the Nazis discovered that the pesticide caused death and they used it as a weapon for killing mass amounts of people in a short amount of time.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau was hauntingly sprawling in size and substance. After getting off the bus and taking steps towards the camo, the view of the entrance in the sun and the grass actually made the place look nice to the uninformed. First inside Birkenau we walked along the dirt road path, across the same rail-line at which transports came through when entering the camp, and observed an original transport boxcar, which would have a tough time fitting a decent-sized minivan inside of it. Sixty or more people were stuffed like sardines inside of this and other boxcars. There was no room for any passenger to blink, let alone have any kind of comfort. Our tour guide said something like 25% of passengers in these boxcars died before they even got to the camp. After viewing the boxcar, we walked west down the path and viewed the ruins of crematoria 2 & 3. Each crematoria was mirrored from each other across the street, and it seemed fitting that these buildings were destroyed and not left standing by the Nazis, as if the horrendous, inhuman things that took place in the basement and through the chimney of these buildings took a toll on the buildings as well. After the crematoria, we went through a barrack at which Jews stayed while waiting for the inevitable gas-chamber fate. This building, with dirt floors and wood beds, still seems so eerie as all the pictures that held stuffed people inside of them. As many as eight people were forced to fit into one rack, which looks as if the rack would fit one person normally.
As we ended the tour of Birkenau, we went up into the top of the main gate. The view, while surreal to me and indicative of just how vast the spread of this camp was, also packed a moral punch that came with the view. Seeing all the people around the grounds with our vantage point, the visual presented was truly a chilling way to end the tour. The Nazis had this same view so many years ago. What I saw is sewn into my mind, the horror of what happened to these people is branded on my heart forever. Leaving the camp on the bus headed back to Kraków I reflected on how emotionally drained I was. While thankful I got to go, I was more than ready to leave. I spent three hours at Auschwitz, walking free under my own power and yet still felt a burning desire to free myself of the emotional burden the site brought me. Over one million people died here during the war, perhaps some of them are still trying to be freed too.