Why Were The Stairs Warped?

Staircase in a prison block (Simon Norfolk – Auschwitz)

The tour guide at Auschwitz I took our group into block 4, and I was hyper aware of everything since it was the first block I’d ever been in. Maybe I was extremely dramatic, which was definitely self-inflicted, but I was afraid to breathe the air in there. Afraid that the air would tell me something sinister that I didn’t know about Auschwitz yet. First of all, air doesn’t necessarily have a voice, at least as far as I am concerned. But that doesn’t mean that air can’t. Stay with me, Reader, I am a unique writer without any formal training. I can’t remember what we saw or what the tour guide talked about throughout the block because on my left, at the end of a hallway, were a set of marble stairs. I was struck by the oddness of each step that led to the 2nd level; each step of marble was warped. Warped in the way that very thin metal bends, but each step was made of hard marble, and two directions of wear were present. Throughout the stairs’ lifetime, they’d been traveled up and down a lot. As worn down as they are, it’s possible that visitors have carved the marble overtime. It’s possible that the stairs had been subjected to the wear of even the Polish soldiers who had utilized the building before Nazi prisoner’s ever had.

To me, the stairs symbolize many things, but I want to draw attention to them as a symbol of the history of World War II. Pay no attention to the up-and-down directions that stairs mean. Focus on the plains and valleys of a single step. The plain of marble symbolizes the general history of the era, so the textbook lessons that I read throughout my K-12 education. These lessons are introductory, and they state factual history without any primary sources. On the step, there are two sides that are incredibly worn down. They slope upwards towards the middle of the step where the marble is level. Let’s say that the right slope symbolizes the written and oral experiences of the survivors and victims who were persecuted by the Nazis. Their stories alter the factual history in grade school textbooks by breaking down the general facts, exposing the layers of how scary and sad being on the receiving end of Nazi atrocities was. Once the graphic details are revealed, you can never forget them. For me, the most shocking details are of the starvation of prisoners (Elie Weisel, Night, 100-102), the humiliation of Jews forced to scrub streets with their bare hands (Dokumentationsarchiv des Oesterreichischen, USHMM), and the picture of a Ukrainian Jew kneeling at the edge of a mass grave where he’d fall forward into the grave after he was shot (USHMM). Knowing these details have worn on me overtime because they have been useful in my own attempt at understanding of the magnanimity of the Holocaust specifically. They are the steps that I take to asking deeper, more complex questions about history. Without them, no one would truly know what happened during that time.

In the left valley on the marble steps, I can insert anything, such as the experiences of Nazi soldiers. This can be frustrating if you don’t understand why reading and listening to their experiences, especially parallel to their victims’, is important to fully understanding the context in which they operated.

Hopefully you see now why the warped stairs in block 4 gained my attention. Bringing the up-and-down aspect of them back into this discussion, going up the steps can be hard, but so can going down them. Learning the history of World War II can be hard and intense, and sometimes easy, but every step is important because it holds stories and experiences that no one would know if they were not investigated. Look around. The most obvious, seemingly uninteresting objects may have the most stories to tell.


By Isabella Scully-Tenpenny

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