Walking through the gates of Auschwitz was one of the most haunting things that I have ever experienced. Above the gates to Auschwitz I read the words, “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning “Work sets you free.” This was not the case. Most people sent to Auschwitz did not even last half of a year. Many died within just the first month or two, and those were the ones who made it past selection, in which the prisoners were lined up and either sent to the gas chambers or to do forced labor. Walking underneath these infamous gates knowing what had happened here was a truly dreary experience.
There were many buildings and rooms inside of Auschwitz I, the most daunting of which was a room with two tons of hair from Jews who were killed there. According to our tour guide, when the Soviets liberated the camp there was roughly seven tons of hair leftover. As I walked into the room and saw the glass case full of hair on the left my jaw entirely dropped. It went from floor to ceiling and spanned the entire wall. Immediately I began getting choked up as it became hard to swallow I stared at what little remained of the million people killed there. It is one thing to hear about them, but it is another thing to what remains of them, and this was only a small percentage of it. It gets even worse when you see how the Nazis used the hair of the Jews to make boots and other equipment. To the Nazis they were nothing more than guinea pigs, being used for experimentation and forced labor, if not then mercilessly killed. Looking at each strand of hair as I passed by helped to not only accentuate the number of people that died, but how each person that died was their own individual.
Similarly, in another room was a pile full of hair brushes, taken from prisoners as they entered the camp. Inside many of these hair brushes you could see different colors and lengths of hair, some blonde, some brown or black, and some red. They were remnants of the lives lost in the past. Not only were objects and possessions lost, but actual people were. I found myself staring at this collection of brushes and hair for what seemed like forever. I examined every one that I could, finding myself wondering what each person must have been like before they arrived at the camp. What did they do? How were they captured and deported and why? What was their life like before they were sent to Auschwitz?
These were innocent people; they just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were killed because of their beliefs or their heritage, not because of anything that they had actually done wrong. Reading about the number of lives lost in a textbook doesn’t help you to actually understand the importance of each live lost or the true scale of the amount of people killed. Seeing the hair fill up the wall of what was just a tiny percentage of the lives lost helped give a much better visual representation of how many people 1.1 million really is. Sometimes people just think too much about the Holocaust in terms of numbers, but numbers can often dilute things and take away from the value of each individual life. Each strand of hair tells a different story, and each picture of each person tells a story of its own. It’s hard to look back and be able to examine the horror of such a terrifying event without actually seeing some of the damage that it has done on a smaller scale. Entering Auschwitz and seeing all of the electric fences, guard towers, wooden bunk beds, remaining hair, and gates at the entrance really does help to give a better perspective. It helped me realize how real the Holocaust actually was; it’s not just something that you should be able to read in a book and move on from