When we first got to Auschwitz, we all knew it would be an emotional day. From accounts of Comrades in previous years of the WWII trip and the disclaimers given by Professors Steigerwald and Breyfogle, we expected to be shocked. However, nothing could’ve prepared me for the trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau.
Upon arrival, I felt uneasy and had an uncomfortable feeling that we were not alone in this camp. It wasn’t the other schools’ groups and visitors that I had felt, but it was instead the raw emotion, trauma, and evil that was left behind by the Nazis when they fled Auschwitz in January 1945. Walking into the main tour building to receive our headsets through which we would listen to our tour guide, you see a sign before the entrance that reads, “Prepare for Inspection.” For a moment I felt uncomfortable that I was to be “inspected”, and if I am completely honest, saw it as a slight inconvenience. It was then that I realized: while I was just being inspected for a brief moment heading to the museum, the Jewish and other minority prisoners here before me were forced to endure a much harsher form of “inspection”. Those inspections stripped them of their dignity, dehumanized them, and sent most of to their almost immediate deaths.
As we moved on into the camp, this feeling of guilt washed over me. I felt as if I shouldn’t have been there. Not out of disinterest, but I felt as if I was disrespecting the victims who died here by taking a tour of the camp; walking the same roads they were forced to march down and passing the shooting blocks and hanging posts in which so many were murdered. I grappled with whether I should even take any pictures, as I didn’t want to offend the people that had passed nor their families. I decided not to enter the cellars in which prisoners were beaten by the Gestapo and the gas chambers that took the lives of so many, because of this guilt and overall sadness. I couldn’t shake this feeling as we continued onto the Auschwitz II Birkenau camp. At this camp, we could really see on such an enormous scale just how large this death camp operation was, from the rows and rows of barracks that held all of these prisoners to the many watchtowers and fences of barbed wire that line either side of the train tracks.
Overall, I agree with the use of Auschwitz as an educational site while still honoring the people who were murdered there. While it was tough to walk through the camps, keeping places like Auschwitz open is important for so many reasons. Education about horrific events of the past is pertinent to preventing them in the future. As George Santayana said it best, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”