Walking around Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau was an emotionally complicated experience. Throughout my life, I have learned of these places and the sickening events that occurred there, but actually standing where more than 1.1 million prisoners were brutally murdered was almost impossible to process. My understanding of the war experience was enhanced through emotionally processing the horrors of the Holocaust at Auschwitz.
Learning history from books is important but visiting a site, like Auschwitz, can completely change your perspective. For example, the first thing that stood out to me when we arrived was how big the site was. When learning about the Auschwitz camps I saw pictures that showcased the inhumane cramped conditions. Consequently, I mentally processed the space as smaller, rather than the amount of people as greater. The size of the space made me realize the amount of people that suffered there was beyond my comprehension. Contrary to my assumptions, being there actually made it harder to understand what happened. Now to clarify, this was not a big area, and the buildings were most definitely cramped, but in my mind, I had always viewed the camps as smaller.
Walking around with our tour guide he discussed the different forms of torture enacted at the camps. In previous classes there were discussions on the purposeful starvation that occurred as well as the combination of inhumane forced labor. I was unaware of women prisoners being routinely used in Auschwitz for sterilization experiments. These women would be hand selected and forced to endure torture in the name of “medical research” that either resulted in their death or their permanent disfigurement. All over the camps men, women, and children were tortured and murdered in the name of science.
In the past, when learning about death camps or concentration camps, hearing the story of the few who escaped was simultaneously uplifting and horrendous. Uplifting for the fact they were able to escape a living hell, yet, horrendous for learning about the reality of what was occurring at these camps. Our tour guide explained that for every 1 prisoner who escaped Auschwitz, 10 prisoners were chosen to go down to cell block 11 and starve to death. Cell block 11 is where prisoners were punished in either a regular small cell, a completely dark cell, or a standing cell. Punishments could last days, weeks, or until death. Standing in cell block 11 for less than two minutes made me nauseous and claustrophobic.
Included in those sent to cell block 11 was Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest. After someone escaped, Kolbe was not chosen as one of the 10 to die by starvation. A man named Franciszek Gajowniczek was chosen along with 9 others. Kolbe heard Gajowniczek’s cries to be spared and desperation about never seeing his wife and children again. Thus, Kolbe requested to take on Gajowniczek’s death sentence, and the Nazis allowed him to do so. Kolbe sacrificed himself for Gajowniczek who was able to survive until 1995. In 1981, Maximillian Kolbe was canonized as a Martyr by Pope John Paul II.
This example of self-sacrifice and love by a complete stranger to another is nothing short of extraordinary. I would never have thought a place filled with hate and unthinkable evil could also bring out the best of humanity.
Visiting Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, left me feeling drained, angry, sad, depressed, and immensely frustrated, but it was one of the most important days of this trip. I would highly recommend everyone at least once in their life to go and view the Holocaust in a new perspective. I feel I have become more aware of the privileges in my life because of this experience. Going there is a reminder to be grateful for everyone and everything in our lives.