Walking through the notorious gate of Auschwitz I was an experience I’ll never forget. The sky above was dark and gloomy, and the series of brick buildings in front of me, surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence, emanated a sense of evil and menace. As we made our way through these cramped buildings, quickly ushered along by our tour guide, a mixture of profound sorrow, anger and disbelief at the number of individuals who suffered and died here weighed heavily in my chest.
All that I have learned about the Nazi death camps in my classes, even the harrowing pictures and personal narratives from survivors that I have read, could not compare to walking the grounds in person and really understanding the scale of the events that took place there. 1.1 million dead are an unfathomable number, which the exhibits and tour guide sought to help us visualize and comprehend. There was a room filled with 100,000 pairs of shoes, and these were just some of the shoes that were deemed to be unwearable. Shoes in better condition were shipped back to Germany to be worn again, as were other articles of clothing and more personal items such as hairbrushes or pots and pans. Most upsetting for me was the room filled with 2 tons of human hair, or the equivalent of 40,000 women. Some of it was still carefully braided, exactly as it was 75 years ago. This hair would also be sent back to Germany, to be weaved into cloth or to stuff pillows and mattresses.
While the two camps we visited did feel a bit more touristy than I was expecting, with bookshops, several snack stands and groups of people taking selfies outside, I believe that it is important for people to see these places in person. It is our responsibility to preserve the memory of the millions who suffered and died in the Holocaust, and to prevent it from happening again. Understanding what happened and seeing the place in which it occurred in person, where it is impossible to ignore the brutality, is the most powerful way to accomplish this. I believe that given the chance, it is an important place to visit and also to preserve for generations to come.