I have learned about the Holocaust in my history classes for as long as I can remember. Despite seeing pictures from Auschwitz-Birkenau, nothing could have prepared me for how it felt to walk around and stand in the death camp.
Before we entered the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, I never understood the sheer size of it. We passed through the gates that I have seen in every textbook and museum I’ve visited, and it suddenly became real to me. I didn’t realize how little I had internalized the brutality of the camps until I stood crying at a pair of toddler’s shoes behind a pane of glass. Even worse was seeing the “beds” that prisoners crammed into. The dark, hard wood looked uncomfortable at best, and hearing stories about people waking up next to cold, dead bodies, and being happy that it wasn’t them shook me. We saw the blocks, the death wall, the tracks, and stolen valuables. We were able to see pictures of victims, and hear about how they got there. Our guide was especially good, helping us understand what we were shown, connecting it back to the lives robbed from all of these people. Our studies had covered the estimated number of deaths in the camp and explained the inhumane treatment of prisoners, but facts and figures will never compare to standing in the camp itself and seeing the aftermath personally. The piles of shaved hair, glasses, and shoes continue to haunt me.
Brutality was palpable in every room, but most telling for me were the rooms dedicated to different modes of execution. I work in a veterinary clinic and have been present for animal euthanasia. I have held and comforted animals as they passed from an injection to the heart. The pictures of human beings killed in a similar manner – but without sedation or comfort — made me feel sick. Learning more about the terrifying deaths of millions of people has truly shown me how these prisoners were treated as not only less than human, but as less than animals.