The Longest Walk

Poland was the next country on our list. We were headed to Krakow to visit Auschwitz, one of the locations I was most interested in visiting on this study abroad trip. I was very apprehensive about going to Auschwitz, though. How does one correctly react to walking the very steps of a murdered human? That is exactly what we did in Auschwitz on the tour. At Auschwitz II- Birkenau, the tour guide had us walk the very steps that thousands of victims had done before us.

View from the inside of Auschwitz II- Birkenau.

View from the inside of Auschwitz II- Birkenau.

It started at the railroad that led into the camp. It was so hard to imagine that hundreds of thousands of people had been brought through that very gate by rail car. We then stopped in front of an actual rail car that was used during the Holocaust to transport Jews and other victims of the Nazis. Our tour guide explained the selection process of who would live and who would die. It was so hard to watch as he physically pointed at the areas that the selected would stand. We walked the path that those selected to die would walk. I could not help but to stare at the ground as we walked. It seemed impossible for me to grasp that exactly where I was walking, a girl the same age as me had probably done the same thing. It made me feel ill. During the final part of our journey, we walked through the actual gate doors that led to the crematorium. It felt surreal knowing all the death that surrounded me on those cursed grounds.

Inside one of the huts.

Inside one of the huts at Auschwitz II- Birkenau. The men, women, and children who were to be sent to the crematorium stayed here.

The whole day of walking through Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau left my chest feeling heavy. I could not believe all that I had actually witnessed. It was one thing to read about this place in historical fiction and nonfiction books. It was entirely different to actually walk into an old crematorium and see the furnaces, or walk into a brick building full of wooden shelves that people slept on until they died. Everywhere I walked I saw death and destruction, the consequences of pure evil. Walking through the labor/death camp felt like the longest journey I had ever taken, as each step weighed my heart down more and more. It was a day I will never forget and an experience that will stay with me forever.

The day of this trip I was faced with another interesting predicament. It was my 21st birthday. I was again faced with a challenging question: how do I celebrate my 21st birthday on the day that I visited the location where so many were murdered? I felt guilty having any sort of excitement for that day. I approached the situation the best way I knew. I accepted birthday wishes with a smile, but while at the camp I pushed the memory of my birthday out of my mind completely. It felt disrespectful to be happy about anything in such a morbid place.

Once we left Auschwitz II- Birkenau, I took the bus ride back to the hotel as a debriefing time. It was a way for me to transition to a celebratory mood without feeling selfish or conceited. That night I enjoyed my time in Krakow, walking around the town square and hanging out with my friends. I would occasionally think back on the day and remember all that I had seen. Although it would be a very sobering memory, I looked upon my current joy as a way that I could honor those who lost their lives. Remembering and honoring them is right, but it does not need to consume the life I have been given. I am honored to say that I went to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau on my birthday. It is important to celebrate life as well as mourn death.

Sara Wendel and I celebrating my birthday.

Sara Wendel and I celebrating my birthday.

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