Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin

IMG_0002Like our visit to Poland, I found Berlin’s culture to be captivating. The language barrier between our group and the locals helped to solidify our thoughts of this “foreign” country, and remained ever-present on every street sign, menu, and doner-kebap advertisement. The “ß” is the most prominent departure from our English alphabet, and made pronunciation of the street of our hotel, “Stresemannstraße” nearly impossible without Dr. Davidson’s guidance. Another pinnacle of Berlin street signage is the adorable “Amplemann.” This bourgeois figure originated on Eastern German streetlights, but survived the fall of the wall and tells pedestrians when to walk throughout Berlin in present-day. These lights, which are unique to Berlin, are both whimsical and historical—like so                                                                                                  much of the city.



bike festival at dusk

Immediately upon arrival to our hotel, I learned of how bike-friendly the city is. I almost was side-swiped by a bicyclist who rode on the city-mandated bike path that occupied 1/3 of the sidewalk. The bike path was present throughout the entire city, and I was surprised at just how often I heard bells alerting our large group to move out of the way. People of all ages and occupations could be seen commuting to and from work or otherwise taking advantage of the excellent transport option. Visitors are also encouraged to use the bike paths, and can rent bikes per day on various blocks around the city. I was cut off by a never-ending line of bicyclists one night in a remarkable exhibition of Berlin’s many bike riders. Hundreds of locals took charge on their bikes and continued on what must have been a loop around the city. This group, primarily composed of twenty-somethings, toted wagons with speakers, food, and even children during this biking festival. I watched at least a dozen riders impressively juggle steering and drinking beer as they whooshed down the streets of Berlin. This show of bikers inspired both a cacophony of car horns and a hint of spontaneity in the air. If I had not already fallen in love with the food here, I could tell this city-vibe would soon do the trick.




We visited many museums and memorials for our program, but also had a large amount of free time to explore the city. My dinner in the Görlitzer-Park area one night was a heavy contrast from what we had explored near Brandenburg gate. This neighborhood, on the East side of Berlin, was recommended by Dr. Davidson for those looking to be “adventurous.” When my friend Avery and I got off at the U-Bahn stop in this area, I instantly saw what he meant. Every building, and really any surface here, was completelyIMG_0008 covered with graffiti. This excited me, however, as it is exactly what I had hoped I would find in

Berlin. I loved looking at the beautiful and modern buildings in the center-city, but had longed to find a grittier and more colorful section that aligned with the city in my imagination. In the old area of East Kreuzberg, I found it. Every street in this city sported unique shops and restaurants that would make the most minor foodie drool. Signs for fancy burgers, goth bars, and even all-vegetarian plant themed joints were squeezed between vibrant arrays of artistic expression. The young and indieIMG_0004 population also seemed unique amongst the vine and graffiti covered buildings. I felt that I had walked through a time machine when Avery and I wandered through Görlitzer Park and found so many groups scattered through the grassy pit who were picnicking, hula hooping, and even playing guitar. It was dusk by the time we decided to get dinner, and the streets we walked through were much darker than around Potsdamer Platz. Still, eclectic gastro-pubs and greasy diners illuminated the street with a subtle glow. We ate with a view of the U1 train line in sight, and enjoyed the exceptional food and drinks almost as muchIMG_0007 as the diverse night-scene we observed while people watching. Like many of the European cities we’ve visited, the coveted sidewalk seats were in high demand as they provided the perfect viewing platform for the busy streets ahead. A Spanish guitar and piccolo duo performed in front of our restaurant, and we listened as bikers and Saturday night-goers bustled behind. The whole experience was charming, and left me with a youthful yet aged impression of Berlin.




IMG_0012The next night, I returned to the area to view the East Side Gallery. I walked across the bridge above the Spree river, and quickly found the 1.3 km section of the Berlin Wall (painted in 1990 and restored in 2010.) The gallery, which is a section of the wall, can be viewed from the sidewalk. The murals of peace, political activism, and contempt for the wall itself were stunning in the yellow glow of the streetlights. It surprised me how quiet and accessible the wall was, although the occasional graffiti are combatted by rented guard rails in front of the art. When I viewed the gallery in the day, I noticed slightly more traffic to the wall and how vivid the colors and messages really were. My favorite quote from the gallery is “Wer will dass die welt so bleibt wie sie ist der will nicht dass sie bleibt,” [Erich Fried] which was kindly translated by the artist and reads: “He who wants the world to remain as it is doesn’t want it to remain at all.” This is clearly aimed at

Picasso's "Guernica" (devastating fire-bombing of the town during the Spanish Civil War) reimagined in terms of Berlin

Picasso’s “Guernica” (which depicts the devastating fire-bombing of the named town during the Spanish Civil War) reimagined in terms of Berlin

the communist occupiers of Berlin during the wall era, but it reminded me of lessons we’ve learned about the lead up to WWII. Indifference can be just as horrible of a culprit as aggression, and utter control at the expense of individuality and progress is detrimental to the human experience. After WWII, the German people’s change towards utter democracy (on the West End) was embraced much more fervently than during the period of the Weimar Republic. People sought more freedom and power, and their devotion to democracy can even be seen in the architecture of the renovated Reichstag building. The transparency of their government is mimicked in the glass designs, and care was taken to ensure the “people” would be on the same leIMG_0013vel of their representatives. The generation after the war wanted their world to change, and saw through that it happened. This is starkly different from Soviet occupied Berlin, which switched from one totalitarian state to another. In Fried’s quote I found a warning that can be followed even in the present day. Future generations must be willing to accept and contribute to social change in the name of what is right, and cannot stand idly by to accept what is comfortable.





I was sad to say Auf Wiedersehen to my friends and professors last night, but found Berlin to be a beautiful place for such goodbyes. I’ve enjoyed every minute of the past month, and am incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I’m writing now on my bus to Prague, where I hope to begin my next adventure.

German Objectivity

As we walked through the German History Museum, I was surprised by the objectivity of its presentation. Throughout this trip, we have visited numerous museums, each with different methods of presenting information. In my opinion, the French museums glossed over information the most, – indicative of their history of ignoring France’s collaboration and the Holocaust – the Schindler Museum in Poland was the most nationalistic, and the Churchill War Rooms in London were able to be objective because they held no blame in the Nazi narrative. I expected the German museums to be as nationalistic as the Schindler museum and as inexplicit as the Caen Memorial. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.

The German History Museum did not conceal the facts of Germany’s past. From the start, the modern war exhibit discussed World War I and explained the German defeat. The displays and audio guide walked you through the Treaty of Versailles and the consequences of the public’s ignorance to the true German position at the end of the war. It explicitly mentioned the anti-Semitism and anti-bolshevism that already existed in German society and how it increased after the war. Being that the German public at the time were entirely ignorant to the means of their defeat, I was happy to see that this is no longer the case.

Further into the exhibit the rise of Hitler and the National Socialist Party was expressed through facts. This was strikingly different from the entrance to the Caen Memorial with its descending stairway to hell. I say “descending stairway to hell” because the entrance to its main exhibit was a downward spiraling ramp that depicted the rise of Nazism as evil. Although facts were presented, the spiral made heavy use of mise-en-scène, a term we discussed in Dr. Davidson’s class. Mise-en-scène refers to a style of visual production that is meant to lead your mind in a particular way. At the Caen Memorial, this was accomplished through a gradual change in the wall’s material, from smooth and white to dark and rough, as well as many pictures, posters and videos of the Nazis rise to power. By the time you got to the bottom of the spiral, you could look up and see the difference between the first, stark white wall and the final wall that resembled a jagged rock. At the German History Museum, there was no such thing. All of the facts were presented in sequence with explanations of their significance, but then you were free to interpret them however you chose.

The contrast between the wall gradient at the beginning of the Caen Memorial to the bottom of the spiral.

The contrast between the wall gradient at the beginning of the Caen Memorial to the bottom of the spiral.

The descending spiral at the Caen Memorial was covered in media showing the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.

The descending spiral at the Caen Memorial made heavy use of mise-en-scène. The walls were covered in media showing the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. In this picture you can see the contrast in gradient of the walls. 













The German History Museum’s exhibit was comprehensive. Not only did it include World War I and the Nazi’s rise to power, but also the tactical aspects of the war, the same model of Auschwitz II- Birkenau on display at the camp, and the extensive Nazi propaganda. I was excited to see the posters for films we watched in Dr. Davidson’s class and thoroughly intrigued by the high degree the Nazis went to indoctrinate the German people. There were even dollhouses with pictures of Hitler in their living rooms and wallpaper displaying scenes of Hitler Youth. The Nazis truly tried to cover every audience.

The dollhouses produced during the Nazi Era had framed pictures of Hitler hanging in the living rooms.

The dollhouses produced during the Nazi Era had framed pictures of Hitler hanging in the living rooms.

A poster for La Habanera, a film we watched in Dr. Davidson's class that portrayed the Aryan race as morally superior to others.

A poster for La Habanera, a film we watched in Dr. Davidson’s class that portrayed the Aryan race as morally superior to others.












As I mentioned, there was a scale model of the crematoriums at Auschwitz II-Birkenau included in the exhibit. Although it caught me off guard, I was pleased to see that it was included in the museum. The audio guide we used throughout the exhibit often had a children’s version. So out of curiosity, a few of us listened to the children’s version about the crematorium model to see what the nation was teaching its children. The audio was extremely explicit, using words like murder and describing the process of going from the undressing rooms to the gas chamber to the crematorium. The adult version was even more detailed. Though even we thought this may have been too much for children to handle, we were impressed that the museum was going to such lengths to teach their people from an early age about the Holocaust. Later, Dr. Davidson shared that most German school children are required to visit a holocaust site several times throughout their education as a part of their curriculum. Overall, I was very impressed with the German History Museum’s objective presentation and Germany’s commitment to owning up to its past.


Mind the Bike Path

The last leg of our trip was to Berlin, Germany. I was very excited to go to Germany because I have German ancestry. I was ready to attempt any German word that I knew, although that mainly consisted of “nein” and ”guten tag.” I expected to not be able to communicate with any of the locals and to have to resort to gestures and guessing. I was shocked that most people were able to speak English during a conversation. Ordering food was a lot simpler and asking for directions was less intimidating. I can honestly say I was a little disappointed there was not more of a language barrier. I wanted to be fully immersed in the German culture and seeing English signs, although useful, was kind of a bummer. I enjoyed when Professor Davidson would speak with the locals in fluent German. There is something fascinating about watching two people communicate and not knowing what is going on.

Although there were English signs and people were able to speak English, the German transportation system was the hardest for me to learn by far. You could travel by bus, train, or subway with the same ticket. There were so many different options, I never knew which was the best to pick and what options combined would get me to my destination the fastest (or at all). I was grateful for the times when Professor Davidson and Professor Steigerwald would travel with us. Even though I know I should not have, I basically followed them blindly while in Berlin.


Something that will forever be engrained in my memory is “mind the bike path.” If you walked in the bike path, you were guaranteed to get it. It was a common phrase for us to use because we loved combining the warning with “mind the gap” from the London Underground. It took a while for me to get use to, but I started to really like the idea of a bike path and wondered why this was not something commonly used in other countries, like the United States.

While “minding the bike path,” I loved looking around at the city as I walked. The history of Berlin was so evident, whether it was the remains of a bombed train station or the graffiti covering every surface. World War II and the Cold War were so prominent within the landscape and architecture of the city. It was so fascinating to see history right in front of my face. Seeing the Berlin Wall and the East Side Gallery were two times that I was staring straight at history and there was no ignoring it.

A section of East Side Gallery, once the Berlin Wall.

A section of East Side Gallery, once the Berlin Wall.

My time in Berlin will be a cultural and historical endeavor that I will never forget.

The Importance of Auschwitz


Building at the entrance to Auschwitz I.

Ever since getting the itinerary of all of the stops we would be making on our World War II Study Tour, I had been waiting to visit Auschwitz with much anticipation. As the largest concentration camp, it is a site that most people recognized when I told them where I would be going over the course of my travels across Europe, probably because when most people first begin learning about World War II in grade school Auschwitz is always mentioned. Because I had first learned about Auschwitz several years ago, I had quite naively set expectations for what I was about to be seeing at the site. I imagined it would look exactly how it looked in the pictures taken over seventy years ago during the 1940s: a miserable looking camp located in the middle of nowhere. It would be intense, and at times hard to handle. I didn’t really expect many tourists, and the tourists who would be visiting during the same time as us would be visiting would be subdued and respectful. However, when we pulled into the camp, almost every expectation I had was completely shattered. The area surrounding Auschwitz has been built up. There are now businesses, including a KFC and a McDonalds. I wasn’t even aware that we were pulling into Auschwitz until I saw a sign directing our bus where to park.

Aside from the urbanization of the surrounding area the thing that took me most by surprise was the sheer number of people that were there to visit Auschwitz. There were just groups of people everywhere, many of whom seemed to be laughing and joking around. Not only that, but there was a gift shop for people to poke around in while they waited, along with several places to buy food. It made me feel like we were about to visit a Disney World rather than the site of where 1.1 million innocent people lost their lives. It was upon seeing all of these people that I began to question whether or not a site like Auschwitz should even be open for public consumption.

The masses of people did not seem to diminish when we entered into the camp. Just before we made our way to the main gates we met with our tour guide and were given headsets so we could have an easier time listening to him. The tour guide was another area where my expectations didn’t coincide with what we actually experienced. In Professor Steigerwald’s class we read a piece by Frederick Kuh who visited Auschwitz in the early 1950s with a tour guide who seemed to get exhilarated talking about all the horrors that took place at Auschwitz. To my surprise though, our tour guide spoke about Auschwitz with very little emotion. Combined with headsets that made you feel a little cut off from the rest of your group, his emotionless voice allowed visitors to really take on their own interpretation of the things that we were seeing.

Because of the isolation inherent in the setup of the tour it was easy to ignore the masses of people that surrounded us, except for when their behavior didn’t match the somber tone of the rest of the camp. One such case was when we entered into the room full of human hair. In the display case was two tons of human hair that the Nazis took from the prisoners of the camps. The display seemed to go one forever, but what was most unnerving was the Nazis accumulated an estimated seven tons of hair, over three times what was being shown to visitors. This room was one of the most unnerving parts of the whole tour. Also included in the display was a blanket made out of human hair. As our tour guide put it the Nazis “made killing an industry.” A few of the guests in front of us in line decided it would be appropriate to take pictures in this room despite being told repeatedly not to. Despite the powerful display we were seeing it was hard not to question again whether or not Auschwitz should be open for the general public to see.

Once we moved on from the hair room we made our way to a room containing displays with shoes from the victims, glasses from the victims and other personal items that the Nazis stole. I had been aware of the shoe display before even visiting Auschwitz, but the display of glasses really hit me hard. Up until this point in the tour it was easy to think of the victims in large chunks. Our tour guide had put such an emphasis in the beginning about the amount of people killed that it was hard to really wrap your head around the victims as individuals. Seeing the individual glasses really brought this into perspective for me. In the hair room it was hard to see individual people, but glasses are such an individualized thing. Each person has their own pair, made especially for them and their needs. Not only that, but it was easy to begin counting the number of glasses in the display case causing the visitor to focus even more acutely on the individual people.


View of the train tracks from the entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

When we made our way over to Auschwitz-Birkenau my original expectations were met a little more. Most of the Auschwitz pictures I had seen had come from Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the surrounding area wasn’t nearly as built up as the surroundings of Auschwitz I. That didn’t make the experience any less powerful. We got to see the train tracks and the gate that the prisoners had to pass through. Many of these people didn’t realize that they were headed towards their unavoidable death, thanks in large part to the Nazi propaganda. We saw the tiny train cars that these people were packed in to along with all of their belongings. After touring the grounds we stopped by a holding cell where prisoners were taken shortly before they were sent off to be killed. The room itself was dark and miserable, and it’s incredibly upsetting knowing that so many people spent their last days starving, cramped together with other dying or dead people. In such a depressing room, it was surprising to find graffiti left behind by past visitors on the walls of the building, showing a complete disrespect for those people who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

Obviously, visiting Auschwitz is an intense and powerful experience, yet having people vandalize and show a complete disrespect for the people who died there could serve as proof that Auschwitz shouldn’t be open for people to visit. However, I believe it shows the opposite. Visiting and studying places Auschwitz, and to a greater extent studying history as a whole, propels society forward because we are able to learn from our mistakes in the past. There are always going to be people who don’t “get it.” But in a society dictated by majorities, as long as the vast majority of visitors respect and understand the importance of Auschwitz, it should remain open as a reminder to everyone of what could happen when there is a complete break down in public morality.


View from Wansee House

View from Wansee House of everyday life near the historic site 

Berlin is an interesting city from culture to architecture and overall atmosphere. Berlin has remnants of art and buildings that are hundreds of years old next to buildings and locations from World War II and memorials and sight markers in between everything. This mix of old and new and how the city has formed is a lot different than other cities we have stayed in over the past several weeks. Both London and Berlin were subjected to urban remodeling from the bombings of the Blitz in London and the many bombing runs on Berlin. Even with both cities suffering terrible loses from the war they both developed differently since it ended.

The mix of buildings is not what makes Berlin Berlin. The people who live in the city make it have the unique charm only Berlin could have. While at Bletchley Park the tour guide said that if the Allies lost the war then maybe he would be giving the tour in German. While here in Berlin, almost everyone speaks some English. I think after all the post war involvement from the US and British that English became common in the city. This ability to communicate with a Berliner in English was something that Paris did not offer.

Berlin is also very unique by the way the residents do not speak if they can avoid speaking. While in Berlin I have seen two huge events on the roads. One was when bicyclist blocked traffic and ran red lights with what seemed like dedication to delay drivers and take over the road. The second event was with motorcyclist who drove down the same road the next day but were going in the other direction. This event seemed more coordinated with people waiting to block traffic at the intersections to make sure cars did not enter. During both events drivers honked their horns repeatedly to express that traffic needed to flow. This is the same action that bicyclist take while on the bike paths. No cyclist ever yells or makes and expression instead they repeated use their bell and continue on. The system of ringing a bell or honking a horn my be more practical, but it loses the human element.

This lack of human expression and interaction has reminded me of how after the war the Germans did not speak about the events and what happened during and leading up to Berlin being overrun by Soviet forces. During our tour of the Reichstag our tour guide told us about how the building had panels installed over the Soviet writing. This reminded me a lot about whitewashing away what was written and even removing the walls themselves from being seen.

After being in Berlin I cannot see how not coming to terms with what happened was possible. Everywhere I turned there is a reminder of what happened. There are markers on the ground, signs on the road, monuments and memorials everywhere. One interesting place that we went to was the Wansee House. At the house we went to the back and looked at the water behind it. It was filled with boats of all types and people on the other side of the lake. It was shocking knowing what happened at the house and how being around it people could go boating and would want to spend time even around it where it was in sight.

At Potsdam, I was shocked by how honored the Germans were of the site. The site itself is under construction to help prepare it for its centennial. After learning about World War I and seeing how the Germans felt so betrayed that when given the opportunity to insult the French the same train car was used to sign the peace treaty for the invasion of France. I was expecting something similar to this and the site to be neglected and run almost by force and set up by the Soviets. This was not entirely the case but the front garden still has a soviet red star visible.

Berlin has been an interesting and modern city. I think that it is a good thing that within the city are plenty of memorials and museums showing the history and that people in the city are talking about it openly. I also think that the more modern buildings are a good thing for the city to help Berlin not become a depressing city that is only remembering and living in the past.



Entering Krakow was not something I had ever ventured to expect in my life. I had no idea what I was walking into and without knowing a lick of polish I was more nervous than any other city. But to my surprise I found it to be one of the greatest cities I’ve visited to date.  Krakow had some of the most beautiful buildings. The city was not flooded with modern architecture or skyscrapers. Most of the building didn’t exceed 5 stories and were painted a beautiful pastel color, enhancing their historical design. The market in the town center was bustling with local artists and vendors and the food was delicious. The people around town were incredibly friendly and were always up to something interesting, such as concerts on the square.

Unfortunately for Poland, their city life was not always this bright and enjoyable. During World War II more than 70,000 Jews were deported from the city with only around 3,000 surviving. Today there remains little of the Krakow ghetto, where many Jewish people were forced to live at the beginning of the war. The Schindler factory, run by Oscar Schindler was located within walking distance of the ghetto. This enamelware factory became a saving grace for more than 1200 Jews who otherwise would’ve been sent to concentration or death camps. Schindler, originally interested in making the most profit saw the Jews as a cheap alternative to the polish workers he was originally employing. He however eventually began to see the horrors, and realized he could make a large difference in the lives of many. He employed entire families with his youngest worker being around 10 years old.  He spent his money on bribes and pay offs, ending the war penniless and without his company. We spent our first morning visiting this factory as it was opened as a museum in 2010. Throughout the museum was a timeline of Poland during the time span of 1939-1945. It began with the joyful and celebratory life before Germany and the Soviet Union began their invasion. Poland fell quickly and from then on suffered under the German occupation. The Germans were quick to spread anti-Semitism and by 1940 all of the Jews were relocated to the ghetto. The museum tried to focus on this part of the occupation and recreated the ghetto conditions. It was unbelievable how dirty, dark and inhumane the living conditions were. There were several families packed into a single room and rats and other rodents were scare as they were used for food. The inflation was so high, food and other goods were around 500 times what they were just outside the walls. As we continued, we entered a room which recreated a basement that 8 human beings living in for months. This room had no light and the floor was dirt. 8 people lived there and with 3 other people in the room for a few minutes, I was uncomfortable. I can’t even begin to imagine how unbearable life must have been. The museum ended with two books, a white book and a black one. The white contained the names of those who had aided and provided refuge to the Jews and the black contained the names of informers. This seemed terrifying to me as I read the names and crimes committed by the people in the black book. One woman betrayed her own husband because she was fearful for her social future. This seemed to be one of the more disturbing concepts to me as it gave great insight to the thoughts of people at the time. It proved just how easily people could be convinced to join the bandwagon and how fear is sometimes the most powerful motivator. Although the general content of the museum did not focus on Schindler specifically, on the outside of the building there were photos of many of the people he helped. His office also remained relatively untouched with the addition of a beautiful memorial to those he aided. The memorial contained 1200 metal pots for the representation of all those who were saved by the factory and on the inside were the names of each individual.

Our second day in the city continued to deepen my understanding of the horrible crimes committed during the war. Day two was our trip the Auschwitz-Birkenau. This camp remains exactly as it was in 1945 when it was liberated by the Allies. It genuinely surprised me how close the surrounding town seemed to be to such a significant sight. It seemed strange to me that people were living their daily lives just meters from a place in which so many innocent people lost their lives. I also was shocked at the amount of visitors that came each year, totaling around 2 million. Arriving in the parking lot we were only one of several groups of students, with most being much younger. The Polish school groups looked to be either middle or high school students. It was interesting to see how these school children were being exposed to something so horrific.

We entered the camp through gates inscribed “Arbeit Macht Frei” or work will set you free. This gate, for so many people, was the difference between life and death. Upon entering this gate there was no hope for escape. Being inside a place in which such devastating crimes occurred was overwhelming. Whilst listening to our tour guide it was almost impossible to believe a lot of what he was saying. Once we entered the buildings we were shown the remains of what the Germans had left behind in their haste to escape. This was the most tragic. Upon entering the first building, 2 tons of human hair had been preserved. The Germans had left almost 7 tons in their retreat. The 2 tons filled a room larger than the entire first floor of my home. This was unbelievable to me. The excessive greed and complete dehumanization of these innocent people was truly shown in this room. Whilst the hair was meant for fabric, stuffing, and other miscellaneous uses the room also contained enamelware and eyeglasses. This was the most sickening proof that could exist for the Nazi use of these lives for profit. Actually seeing these amounts of items was truly eye opening for me. Although statistics had been thrown at me my entire life, there was something completely life changing about seeing these mass amounts of daily item in person. I can now understand the emphasis placed on keeping Auschwitz forever in the eyes of the world. By visiting this camp I could finally begin to comprehend the numbers and statistics I have learned about. Being in such a significant place gave me a new more personal connection to something I hadn’t been able to fully understand without seeing. Our tour guide also provided us with personal accounts and stories about the prisoners which helped increase my understanding as I was standing in the same place. By the end of my visit to Auschwitz I had been an entire new appreciation, respect and general heartbreak for the victims of such treacherous crimes. It made me thankful to know that Poland would never let what happened to the people of their country, and those of so many others be forgotten.


The Horrors of Auschwitz

Walking through the gates of Auschwitz was one of the most haunting things that I have ever experienced. Above the gates to Auschwitz I read the words, “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning “Work sets you free.” This was not the case. Most people sent to Auschwitz did not even last half of a year. Many died within just the first month or two, and those were the ones who made it past selection, in which the prisoners were lined up and either sent to the gas chambers or to do forced labor. Walking underneath these infamous gates knowing what had happened here was a truly dreary experience.

Gates entering Auschwitz I that read “Arbeit Macht Frei”

There were many buildings and rooms inside of Auschwitz I, the most daunting of which was a room  with two tons of hair from Jews who were killed there. According to our  tour guide,  when the Soviets liberated the camp there was roughly seven tons of hair leftover. As I walked into the room and saw the glass case full of hair on the left my jaw entirely dropped. It went from floor to ceiling and spanned the entire wall. Immediately I began getting choked up as it became hard to swallow I stared at what little remained of the million people killed there. It is one thing to hear about them, but it is another thing to what remains of them, and this was only a small percentage of it. It gets even worse when you see how the Nazis used the hair of the Jews to make boots and other equipment. To the Nazis they were nothing more than guinea pigs, being used for experimentation and forced labor, if not then mercilessly killed. Looking at each strand of hair as I passed by helped to not only accentuate the number of people that died, but how each person that died was their own individual.

Similarly, in another room was a pile full of hair brushes, taken from prisoners as they entered the camp. Inside many of these hair brushes you could see different colors and lengths of hair, some blonde, some brown or black, and some red. They were remnants of the lives lost in the past. Not only were objects and possessions lost, but actual people were. I found myself staring at this collection of brushes and hair for what seemed like forever. I examined every one that I could, finding myself wondering what each person must have been like before they arrived at the camp. What did they do? How were they captured and deported and why? What was their life like before they were sent to Auschwitz?

These were  innocent people; they just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. They were killed because of their beliefs or their heritage, not because of anything that they had actually done wrong. Reading about the number of lives lost in a textbook doesn’t help you to actually understand the importance of each live lost or the true scale of the amount of people killed. Seeing the hair fill up the wall of what was just a tiny percentage of the lives lost helped give a much better visual representation of how many people 1.1 million really is. Sometimes people just think too much about the Holocaust in terms of numbers, but numbers can often dilute things and take away from the value of each individual life. Each strand of hair tells a different story, and each picture of each person tells a story of its own. It’s hard to look back and be able to examine the horror of such a terrifying event without actually seeing some of the damage that it has done on a smaller scale. Entering Auschwitz and seeing all of the electric fences, guard towers, wooden bunk beds, remaining hair, and gates at the entrance really does help to give a better perspective. It helped me realize how real the Holocaust actually was; it’s not just something that you should be able to read in a book and move on from

Picture of the railroad entering Auschwitz II - Birkenau.

Picture of the railroad entering Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

Culture Shock in Poland

As we drove across the city of Kraków, I immediately noticed how different it was from any city or town I had ever visited. It was a bit of a culture shock. The architecture and the public transportation were vastly different than anything I have ever seen. The buildings had a Tuscan flare to them; some were pink, some were green, some had huge archways, and some had high, intricate steeples. The main form of public transportation was a tram connecting wires that ran on tracks. It was interesting to see people not have to pay to use the tram.

The town square was my favorite part of the city. It was so open with many different restaurants, dessert shops, and quirky stores that sold the most unique items. There was also this clock tower in one of the corners of the square. It was so tall and so different from when I saw Big Ben in London. It was green, had a detailed steeple about fifty feet tall, and was numbered with faded, gold paint. It was so beautiful that two of the girls on the trip with me took the time to sit in the square and sketch the clock tower. The square also had about ten horse-drawn carriages that you could pay to take you for a ride around the square. I was shocked to see horse-drawn carriages because since I live in Piqua, Ohio, I have never seen one before. There was also this group of men who were in the square that had a rope attached to two sticks. The rope had many loops in it so that when he dipped the rope in soap, he made numerous giant bubbles float across the square. This was completely new to me. To see these men make bubbles for the kids running around the square was one of the sweetest and most uplifting scenes I experienced.

This is a view inside the town square of one of the horse-drawn carriages.

This is a view inside the town square of one of the horse-drawn carriages.


One of the biggest differences I noticed was how people had to pay for food and souvenirs. In the states, it is normal to receive separate checks and pay with big bills at restaurants. In Kraków, it was the exact opposite situation. The waiters and waitresses could not give us change if we used a bill worth more than twenty zloty (the currency in Poland). If a group of us went out to dinner together, they also could not separate our checks. We all had to put in the exact cost of our personal meals and pay all together. When we all went to dinner to try pierogis our first night, we had a rude awakening when almost none of us had less than a fifty zloty bill. Instead of having us all pay separately, the waiter gave us all change for our fifties so that we could then put our money together to pay for the bill all at once. We were all very confused and blatantly showed everyone in the restaurant that we were tourists.

The biggest difference in Kraków was obviously the language barrier. I was expecting to have a very difficult time trying to communicate with the people of Kraków since I do not speak a word of Polish. I was pleasantly surprised when some of them spoke some English on our first night. I mistakenly assumed that most of the people I would encounter would also understand English. Being in Poland was the first time that I have had the problem of a language barrier, especially with no one there to help translate. This woman was asking us to come into the restaurant where she was employed to eat dinner. I told her that we had already eaten dinner, but the other people I was with were intrigued by the place and wanted to ask her more information. One of the others asked her if live music was played every night, and she just stared straight into her face. She tried again and the woman still just stared at her. We decided the best thing to do was to apologize along with apologetic facial expressions and walk away from her without finding out any information about the restaurant.

The most shocking part about Kraków was the proximity of this pleasant little city to the most heinous place that has ever existed. Auschwitz-Birkenau is 68 km from Kraków; that’s about an hour drive. Walking around the town square, we saw many posters advertising tours through the labor and death camp. It was bizarre to see this place being marketed as a tourist attraction. When we arrived at the Auschwitz camp, there were multiple groups of people just standing around. Some people were smoking, others were buying food, others were buying souvenirs, and others were staring at their cell phones. As I took in the scene around me, I felt uneasy. The site felt so touristy that it made me feel anxious and uncomfortable. Once our tour began, my uneasiness only grew. I took a picture of the gate to Auschwitz that read, “Arbeit Macht Frei.” This phrase translates to, “Work Will Set You Free.” After that I took one picture of the railway that runs through Birkenau. I took both pictures outside of each camp. It felt wrong to take pictures inside of either camps, and it was infuriating to see people who took pictures of the human ashes and some who even used “selfie-sticks.”

As we were walking through Auschwitz, I did not process we were really where so much murder took place until we entered the room filled with two tons of human hair found at the camp when it was liberated in 1945. I expected to see the suitcases, shoes, and random belongings. I never expected to see human hair. I immediately began to cry and tried everything I could to keep myself together while we were in that room. I was able to keep my cool until we visited one of the death barracks in Birkenau. These barracks were where they kept the people who were next to be gassed. When I saw the scratchings in the walls, I assumed that it was the prisoners that might have scratched their own names into the walls. Our tour guide then told us that it was graffiti from people who visited the site after the war before it was a tourist destination. My mouth dropped. I could not and still cannot believe that someone could be that ignorant and that disrespectful. When we left the site, I rode the bus back to the hotel in silence.

I still do not think I have processed my experience at Auschwitz completely. It is unreal to think that we were all standing in the same spots that so many people were murdered. It is sickening to me that I fell in love with a city that offers a deal on tours of this monstrous place. How could such an amazing city be so close to a place that symbolizes evil and death?

This is a view from the front of Birkenau. Through the fence, the train tracks can be seen going straight to the back of the camp.

This is a view from the front of Birkenau. Through the fence, the train tracks can be seen going straight to the back of the camp.

Almost everything about the city was different from my small hometown in Ohio. Kraków has been the only place so far where I truly felt like I was in a foreign country. The language barrier was not as intense in England or France. I was introduced to new architecture, a new public transportation system, a town square, a horse-drawn carriage, and a completely different language. It was a culture shock, but it has been my favorite city so far as well.

The Longest Walk

Poland was the next country on our list. We were headed to Krakow to visit Auschwitz, one of the locations I was most interested in visiting on this study abroad trip. I was very apprehensive about going to Auschwitz, though. How does one correctly react to walking the very steps of a murdered human? That is exactly what we did in Auschwitz on the tour. At Auschwitz II- Birkenau, the tour guide had us walk the very steps that thousands of victims had done before us.

View from the inside of Auschwitz II- Birkenau.

View from the inside of Auschwitz II- Birkenau.

It started at the railroad that led into the camp. It was so hard to imagine that hundreds of thousands of people had been brought through that very gate by rail car. We then stopped in front of an actual rail car that was used during the Holocaust to transport Jews and other victims of the Nazis. Our tour guide explained the selection process of who would live and who would die. It was so hard to watch as he physically pointed at the areas that the selected would stand. We walked the path that those selected to die would walk. I could not help but to stare at the ground as we walked. It seemed impossible for me to grasp that exactly where I was walking, a girl the same age as me had probably done the same thing. It made me feel ill. During the final part of our journey, we walked through the actual gate doors that led to the crematorium. It felt surreal knowing all the death that surrounded me on those cursed grounds.

Inside one of the huts.

Inside one of the huts at Auschwitz II- Birkenau. The men, women, and children who were to be sent to the crematorium stayed here.

The whole day of walking through Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau left my chest feeling heavy. I could not believe all that I had actually witnessed. It was one thing to read about this place in historical fiction and nonfiction books. It was entirely different to actually walk into an old crematorium and see the furnaces, or walk into a brick building full of wooden shelves that people slept on until they died. Everywhere I walked I saw death and destruction, the consequences of pure evil. Walking through the labor/death camp felt like the longest journey I had ever taken, as each step weighed my heart down more and more. It was a day I will never forget and an experience that will stay with me forever.

The day of this trip I was faced with another interesting predicament. It was my 21st birthday. I was again faced with a challenging question: how do I celebrate my 21st birthday on the day that I visited the location where so many were murdered? I felt guilty having any sort of excitement for that day. I approached the situation the best way I knew. I accepted birthday wishes with a smile, but while at the camp I pushed the memory of my birthday out of my mind completely. It felt disrespectful to be happy about anything in such a morbid place.

Once we left Auschwitz II- Birkenau, I took the bus ride back to the hotel as a debriefing time. It was a way for me to transition to a celebratory mood without feeling selfish or conceited. That night I enjoyed my time in Krakow, walking around the town square and hanging out with my friends. I would occasionally think back on the day and remember all that I had seen. Although it would be a very sobering memory, I looked upon my current joy as a way that I could honor those who lost their lives. Remembering and honoring them is right, but it does not need to consume the life I have been given. I am honored to say that I went to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II- Birkenau on my birthday. It is important to celebrate life as well as mourn death.

Sara Wendel and I celebrating my birthday.

Sara Wendel and I celebrating my birthday.


I was a bit nervous to be traveling to Krakow. It would be the first country that nobody in our group could speak the native language in, and I expected fewer people to speak English. I thought I would need to resort to using many hand motions and pointing to try to communicate with the residents. I was also nervous because I did not know what to expect from the city. I had a general idea of the type of setting I was getting into when going to London, Bayeux, and Paris, but I had no idea what Krakow would be like.

To my surprise, soon after arriving in Krakow, I realized that I was going to like the city. Professor Steigerwald and Professor Davidson took us on a short walking tour to help orient us, and then we were on our own for dinner. Most of us went to a small, traditional Polish restaurant for dinner. I had pierogi, and they were delicious! Afterwards, we walked down the street to look in some of the small shops and get ice cream.

I really enjoyed walking around the streets and square in Krakow. The stone streets were beautiful, and we could walk down the middle of them, rarely having to move for cars. Some of my favorite times in Krakow were walking around. The square had so many street vendors and there was a small market in the center, filled with authentic, hand made Polish souvenirs and items. The detail in the various items for sale was amazing. There was an entire booth of hand painted religious icons. Just looking at them was amazing. I personally liked the hand carved chess sets. Even though I am not very good, I enjoy playing chess. There were sets of all different sizes and made from all different woods. I ended up purchasing one made partially out of cherry.


My delicious doner kebab.

My delicious doner kebab.

The square was also a good place to sit and observe the action or grab a bite to eat. There were frequently horse drawn carriages to watch and street performers to listen to. It offered a variety of eating options. Whether I wanted to grab a quick bite to eat from a food stand or sit down at a fancy restaurant, I could find it in or near the square. I particularly enjoyed the doner kebabs. These were great if I needed a quick meal or wanted to eat on the go.


As I explored the square, I realized that the calmness and pleasantness of Krakow was a bit bizarre. Here was this beautiful city with good food and a nice square, and not to far away was one of the most notorious sites for genocide in the world. It just did not seem right that this pleasant city was so close to Auschwitz. I continued thinking about this while I was in Krakow, and while I was still partially uneasy about it, another part of me was okay with it. It is extremely important to remember the past and to honor those who were killed at Auschwitz,

Train tracks leading into Auschwitz II - Birkenau, on which trains arrived daily, carrying thousands to their deaths.

Train tracks leading into Auschwitz II – Birkenau, on which trains arrived daily, carrying thousands to their deaths.

but it is also important to not become bogged down in the past and not look forward to the future. The Polish people need to remember their past and recognize the atrocities they faced, but they also must move forward as a country. To not move forward is to give the Nazis the final word. Krakovians did not give the Nazis the final word though, and because of this, I think it is okay for Krakow to be a pleasant city to live in or visit, as long as while you are there, you also take the time to honor the thousands of Jews and other Poles who were killed by the Nazis.

Visiting Krakow was extremely interesting. I enjoyed experiencing their culture and learning about how they dealt with their painful history. The people of Krakow, especially the Jews, have been through tremendous horrors, but they do not let that define their city. They remember, but they also move forward.

Erik Smith

Nothing Will Ever Compare


You know, life has been pretty tough to me and my family for the last two years. We have experienced job loss with my dad and pressing financial burden because of it. We held my grandpa’s hand as he went to heaven last October, losing his battle with heart failure. And finally, over spring break this March, my mom suffered a brain bleed, caused by a meningioma, a non-cancerous tumor of sorts that hemorrhaged into her brain stem, resulting in life-saving, all-day brain surgery, and a hospital stay that will probably take six months to a year to recover from. The Longo family is a tough group of people and we will make it through. As hard as this all seems, none of what has happened over the last two years to us stands up to what happened to the prisoners and victims that died at Auschwitz. Walking through Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau today affirmatively helped me to further realize the quality of life that I live and that no matter what I’ve been through, things could surely be worse.

Auschwitz mentally and emotionally drained me. The tour guide’s horrifying and disheartening facts and accompanying statistics hit me in the heart like bullets lodged in a brick wall. 1.3 million Jews went through Auschwitz after being stripped from their homes, forced to relocate to ghettos, and finally deported to Auschwitz. 1.1 million Jews died in the same places that I stood today. One of the most shocking realizations for me at Auschwitz was knowing that potentially and likely everywhere I looked a Jew could have been beaten to a pulp for no particular reason, or a mother could have hugged her children and husband for the last time on the same dirt path that I walked along with my classmates. It’s a harsh reality to face for anyone, seventy some years later, knowing how much life was taken from innocent people.


Positioned at the entrance to Auschwitz I, these barb-wire fences once held an electric charge, capable of killing those who tried to escape.

At Auschwitz I, we spent toured three different buildings. These blocks held different artifacts and information and focused on different sections of Auschwitz. The hallway in Block 4 was the first place that really broke me down. Seeing the names and death dates, occupations and pictures of prisoners in the hallway really worked to show how much innocence was lost. The occupations of these people particularly struck me; lawyers, doctors, writers, cartoonists – all these people could have and did offer so much value to the world outside of the camps. Block 5 held physical, material, proof. Two tons of human hair was stacked in bunches (seemingly almost to the ceiling) behind glass for us to observe. Block 11 took us to the basement of the block. Here, we viewed things like the standing cells. The Nazis would put up to four people in a 3 x 3’ cell, not giving them room to sit, causing extreme exhaustion. In this room, Zyklon B was also first tested on prisoners here in Block 11. In Block 11, the Nazis discovered that the pesticide caused death and they used it as a weapon for killing mass amounts of people in a short amount of time.


Canisters of Zyklon B displayed at Auschwitz I that caused the death of many, many innocent people.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was hauntingly sprawling in size and substance. After getting off the bus and taking steps towards the camo, the view of the entrance in the sun and the grass actually made the place look nice to the uninformed. First inside Birkenau we walked along the dirt road path, across the same rail-line at which transports came through when entering the camp, and observed an original transport boxcar, which would have a tough time fitting a decent-sized minivan inside of it. Sixty or more people were stuffed like sardines inside of this and other boxcars. There was no room for any passenger to blink, let alone have any kind of comfort. Our tour guide said something like 25% of passengers in these boxcars died before they even got to the camp. After viewing the boxcar, we walked west down the path and viewed the ruins of crematoria 2 & 3. Each crematoria was mirrored from each other across the street, and it seemed fitting that these buildings were destroyed and not left standing by the Nazis, as if the horrendous, inhuman things that took place in the basement and through the chimney of these buildings took a toll on the buildings as well. After the crematoria, we went through a barrack at which Jews stayed while waiting for the inevitable gas-chamber fate. This building, with dirt floors and wood beds, still seems so eerie as all the pictures that held stuffed people inside of them. As many as eight people were forced to fit into one rack, which looks as if the rack would fit one person normally.

Each rack, minuscule in size and support, was supposed to fit 6-8 people.

As we ended the tour of Birkenau, we went up into the top of the main gate. The view, while surreal to me and indicative of just how vast the spread of this camp was, also packed a moral punch that came with the view. Seeing all the people around the grounds with our vantage point, the visual presented was truly a chilling way to end the tour. The Nazis had this same view so many years ago. What I saw is sewn into my mind, the horror of what happened to these people is branded on my heart forever. Leaving the camp on the bus headed back to Kraków I reflected on how emotionally drained I was. While thankful I got to go, I was more than ready to leave. I spent three hours at Auschwitz, walking free under my own power and yet still felt a burning desire to free myself of the emotional burden the site brought me. Over one million people died here during the war, perhaps some of them are still trying to be freed too.

What is “Evil”?

Hoess Home

The former home of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, located just feet away from Auschwitz I and within view of the first experimental gas chamber and crematoria

On Wednesday, our group toured the site of the former Nazi labor and death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, located about an hour outside the Polish city of Kraków.  During the war, the site saw the murder of around 1.2 million people – most of them Jews.  I didn’t know what to expect when our group first entered Auschwitz.  Despite the ominous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” gate and barbed wire fences, the camp seemed rather unimposing; while large in size, the buildings and ruins gave me little sense of the horror that occurred there.  What did affect me, however, was seeing the personal belongings robbed from the victims – shoes, eyeglasses, kitchenware, and hair – there was an entire room with hair shaved from the heads of the prisoners.  I had known beforehand I would be seeing these things, but it was still a shocking experience.  I expected I might feel grief, but I didn’t feel this at all.  Instead, I felt angry.


The unloading ramp at Birkenau, where hundreds of thousands of arriving transports were “selected” for labor in the labor camp or for immediate death in the gas chambers

People talk about the impersonality of the killing, but this clearly was not the case.  Someone had to unload the deported Jews from the trains.  Someone had to select who went to the labor camp and who went to the gas chambers.  Someone had to guide the deportees to their execution sites. And someone had to dump the Zyklon B into the gas chambers.  There is nothing impersonal about this.  Seeing the piles of hair (at least for me) was the most upsetting aspect of the site.  The simple task of cutting the hair from the individual heads of murdered prisoners or forced laborers at a work camp seems incomprehensible.  The first word that comes to mind is “evil,” but this description is too easy.

The word “evil” conjures up images of malice and sadism, of monsters who enjoyed inflicting suffering and death on others.  It is an absolute term.  “Evil” gives us clear monsters, people we can easily point to and blame.  Rudolf Höss was one such monster. During his time as commandant of Auschwitz, Höss personally oversaw the camp’s expansion from a labor camp into a death camp, as well as the first experimental gassings.  He lived at a villa with his wife and family, just feet away from the camp and within viewing distance of the original gas chamber and crematoria.  Focusing on monsters like Höss, however, lets others off the hook.


Canisters of Zyklon B on display at Auschwitz I

Our guide at Auschwitz briefly spoke about the guards and bureaucrats working at Auschwitz who were not directly involved in the selections and gassings, and in particular, he mentioned the case of Oskar Gröning – a former SS guard at Auschwitz who was convicted last year of 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.  Gröning worked as a bank clerk before the war and joined the Waffen-SS after the German victories in Poland and France.  Gröning worked various clerical jobs before being sent to Auschwitz.  There, he continued his clerical work, taking inventory of the various items and currencies stolen from arriving Jews.  Gröning never directly took part in the killing process, which, for him, made it easy to get cozy with work at the camp.

In a 2004 interview with historian Laurence Rees, Gröning expressed guilt for his actions during the war, but explained that he “drew a line between those who were directly involved in the killing and those who were not directly involved.”  The former SS officer never invoked the “I was just following orders” defense.  Instead, he referred to the power that Nazi propaganda had had on his thinking.  As he explained, he continued to work at Auschwitz (even after personally witnessing a gassing) not because he was ordered to, but because he genuinely believed that the Nazi extermination program was “right” – that by aiding in the destruction of Germany’s enemies (the Jews) he could protect his family back home and do his part in the war effort.  In his book Auschwitz: A New History, Rees wrote: “the essential—almost frightening—point about Oskar Gröning is that he is one of the least exceptional human beings you are ever likely to meet.”

Hannah Arendt, a famous German political theorist, termed this frightening realization the “banality of evil.” The crimes of the Holocaust did not occur because of Germans’ will to do evil and commit murder – evil intentions are not always required for evil actions to take place.  Most Holocaust perpetrators became involved in the genocide not because of their desire to kill, but because of their simple failure to recognize the humanity of other human beings and to identify the moral and human dimensions of what they were doing.  When we fail to recognize the humanity of others, it becomes impossible for us to understand their suffering, opening the door for any number of horrors and crimes to be committed.  The Jews at Auschwitz were not treated as human beings, but as raw materials.  The room full of hair at Auschwitz displayed this point quite literally.  The hair of prisoners was sewn into various products for use back in Germany.


The main entrance to the Schindler Factory in Kraków, where around 1,200 Jews were saved from death by Oskar Schindler. Today, the former factory houses a museum and is a growing tourist attraction, largely thanks to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film, Schindler’s List

Last February, Timothy Snyder, another prominent Holocaust historian, came to Ohio State’s campus to speak about his book Black Earth.  In the book, Snyder contrasts Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil” with his own theory of the “banality of good.”  Despite widespread collaboration with the Nazis during the war, there were still thousands of people throughout Europe who courageously acted to help individual Jews escape death, even though, if caught, they could be subjected to punishment or death from the Germans.  These people were certainly not all saints, but they acted out of a basic sense of decency; even in the horror of war, they still managed to recognize the humanity of others.

Von Galen

A portrait of Bishop Clemens August von Galen at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. As the Bishop of Münster, von Galen had a large audience, and his sermons against the T4 program caused a large public backlash against the Nazis’ euthanasia policy

During our group’s trip to Poland, we encountered another Oskar: Oskar Schindler.  Unlike Oskar Gröning, Schindler was a German businessman and Nazi Party member who rescued around 1,200 Jews during the war.  After the invasion of Poland in 1939, he opened up business at an enamelware factory in Kraków, where he exploited the slave labor of Jews for profit.  Despite this fact, Schindler later took up resistance against the murder of Jews, personally protecting his Jewish workers from deportation and extermination – usually by bribing high-ranking officials and at great risk to himself (he was arrested more than once).  Why? What did Schindler have to gain by saving these Jews?  While it is hard to say what the turning point for Schindler may have been, his actions almost certainly arose from his recognition of the humanity of the Jews he was saving from death.

Schindler was not alone.  In our class with Professor Davidson, we discussed the T4 euthanasia program, which implemented the mercy-killing of thousands of mentally ill and physically disabled men, women, and children.  Unlike in the case of the Holocaust against the Jews, there had been widespread outcry in Germany against the T4 program, thanks largely to the sermons of a Catholic bishop in Münster.  What examples like these show is that there were alternatives for Germans (and Europeans at large).  It was possible for people to resist the Nazis, to recognize the humanity in others deemed “unworthy of life.”

Happy Nazis

Auschwitz camp personnel enjoying a weekend retreat in the summer of 1944. Just a few miles away from where this photo was taken, one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century was taking place (Photo taken from USHMM)

When we think of evil, we think of monsters like Adolf Hitler or Rudolf Höss, but these monsters are the exception.  In writing this blog, I thought back to a photo album on display at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  The photographs depict Auschwitz personnel – ordinary people like Oskar Gröning – enjoying a weekend retreat near the camp.  The smiling and laughing Germans in these photographs aren’t monsters – they aren’t demons with glowing red eyes and horns growing out of their heads – they are simply normal people enjoying a warm weekend retreat.  That is what I find most terrifying about the Holocaust: not the idea that the Nazis were a special kind of evil, but the realization that ordinary, every-day people are capable of evil.

Shining Light on the Darkest Corners of History

I could not really conceive of what Auschwitz-Birkenau truly was until we climbed off our bus and walked down the gravel path towards its entrance. “Auschwitz” was black and white photographs in textbooks alongside words on a page. These photographs disconnected me to its place in history, giving the site an eerie and archaic feel. It was as though this place existed only in the past and was inaccessible to us now. The black and white photos immortalize Auschwitz-Birkenau in the darkest corners of history; I could not feel its presence in today’s world. These old photos of the barracks, gas chambers, and watch towers show contrasting shades of darkness and light, their red brick and chimneys standing against a stark, white sky. I was able to feel this same contrast when I walked through the camp. The darkness of Auschwitz became present, though not in the ways I expected, and I no longer felt disconnected from this depraved piece of history.

As we entered through the wrought iron gates, the iniquitous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” looming above us, I did not see the darkness I anticipated from the photos. I saw red brick buildings constructed for the Polish army as barracks prior to World War II. The bricks were carefully laid, the buildings constructed to last. A bird’s-eye view of the area depicts a gridded, regimented landscape lined with trees. As strange as it sounds, Auschwitz was aesthetically pleasing. I did not see the darkness I was anticipating. I saw sunshine reflecting off windows and leaves rustling with the wind, like a day at a summer camp rather than a site of mass death and evil. The uniformity of the buildings and the trees that lined them were almost picturesque.

Yet, this darkness still felt so present. Though I could not see it, I could feel it. I walked around Auschwitz-Birkenau conflicted by my perceptions. Death could be felt so strongly, but the landscape suggested nothing of the atrocities that occurred here. I imagined guards in the watchtowers 70 years ago, observing feeble prisoners dragging along the gravel paths back to their barracks, paralleled by the same tree-lined buildings I was seeing today.


St. Maximilian Kolbe provided light for others in the darkest times (

This feeling of darkness intensified inside of the buildings. We were led into the basement of a building, Block 11, that housed torture rooms. As we descended the stairs, the air became chillier and the ventilation poorer. We were prompted to look inside the cells intended for starvation or suffocation. The second to last cell once held St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest who volunteered for death in place of a stranger. After a prisoner escaped, the Nazis chose 10 prisoners at random to be executed as an example to the rest of the camp. St. Maximilian sacrificed his life in place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, who had a wife and children. St. Maximilian survived for over two weeks in the cell he was supposed to be starved in and ultimately received a lethal injection that led to his death.

I stared into the dark cell, which was transformed into a shrine of sorts for St. Maximilian. The flickers of the flames from three candles elicited the same strange contrast of darkness and light I found in the black and white photographs. The flames illuminated the small cell just enough to read a plaque beneath them and observe a picture on the back wall. Somehow, this dark cell was still a beacon of light, as St. Maximilian was to other prisoners in the camp. The contrasts of dark and light in this moment were not products of exposure or shadows created by photographic techniques, but of the light of hope in the darkness of death.

I experienced this light throughout the camp. I could not remove the image of St. Maximilian’s cell from my mind. I walked through the camp with the sight of three flickering flames illumining my thoughts. These flames were the smallest light in such a vast darkness, and a symbol of hope in a world and history of death.

As the skies overhead blackened with an approaching storm, we walked the remaining areas of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz in my mind—the Auschwitz I had read about on a page in a textbook and seen through black and white photographs—was real. It was present. As I walked through it, the dichotomy of darkness and light persisted. Auschwitz was a site of extreme darkness penetrated by slivers of light. Today, in color and in person, this darkness was only a feeling. It could not be seen in the shadowy, eerie way the photographs suggested. I looked back up at the skies continuing to cloud. The sun never disappeared. Even as it began to rain and thunder rumbled in the distance, the sun was still shining.

The Hellish Hues

Never could I have anticipated the horror of seeing the camp in color. I expected Auschwitz-Birkenau to be a cold and dreary place – an image I fashioned based on years of only seeing haunting black and white images. So imagine my shock when I passed through the infamous gate and underneath the words “Arbeit Macht Frei,” meaning, “Work Sets You Free.” Before me I saw lawns of green grass shimmering in the sunlight, well-groomed trees and red brick buildings lined in an ascetically pleasing row. It was disturbingly pretty – a thought that chilled me to the bones. The bizarre view gave me new insight into how the first deported prisoners who walked through the same gate could have been unaware of their unspeakable fate.

We walked through the same gate that all prisoners of Auschwitz passed through unaware of the hell they were entering. It was a startling experience to see the camp in color, when I had only ever pictured it in black and white.

As we walked through the same gate that all prisoners of Auschwitz passed through I was startled to see the camp in color, shattering my back and white expectation. 

However civilized the camp appeared, it couldn’t disguise the horrors that happened there. I felt almost ghostly as I walked up the road, around Block 11 towards the Black Wall and into the gas chambers. I moved at a soundless, sickened pace knowing that I was walking a route that to millions was the daily monotony of a living hell. I have never been so ashamed to be a human being, to be one of a race so susceptible to evil and capable of destruction.

The previous day we visited the Schindler Museum dedicated to Oscar Schindler, a factory owner who saved over one thousand Jewish lives during the Holocaust. For me, the biggest take-away from this site was the ambiguity that surrounded Schindler’s transition from being a businessman benefiting from the exploitation of inexpensive Jewish laborers to an altruistic guardian. Oscar Schindler, like many others during this time, was an opportunist who bought a factory taken from its previous Jewish owners and quickly began to profit. Although he exploited them, Schindler protected his employees from being deported through his connections within the Nazi Party. After our visit, Professor Davidson posed the question as to why this change of heart. I argued that humans are much more willing to exploit and enslave other humans than to exterminate them. The nature of Schindler’s actions suggests that his turning point was the knowledge that exploitation had become genocide. Once it was clear that the Nazis were not merely “relocating” the Jews, Schindler sheltered those he employed from the trains, fed them hearty meals and helped to preserve their humanity.

Humans have historically enslaved each other for racist and economic purposes – the United States is not an exception. Although the Confederacy was fundamentally racist, slavery was equally needed to maintain the region’s agricultural production at an inexpensive rate. In the Nazis’ case, their impulses were deeply racist with additional economic benefits. The prisoners of the concentration camps provided them with free labor, valuable items that were brought with them, and the opportunity for scientific experimentation. But ultimately, the camps were the means for the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Though the human rights of African Americans were thoroughly violated by slave-owners, racism did not lead to the same horrors performed in the concentration camps. However, our nation’s past is one of many examples of human willingness to exploit others for profit and/or out of prejudice.

The appalling acceptance of slavery and exploitation is not one of the past. Slavery continues to be a global issue in the forms of human trafficking, child labor, sweatshops, and in many other forms – yet we claim to “remember the past so that we don’t make the same mistakes.” Although slavery is now illegal in the United States, capitalistic endeavors to be competitive have led many companies to relocate their factories out of the United States where production is cheaper. Labor laws in many foreign countries allow companies to exploit workers in ways that U.S. law would prevent – a situation that many U.S. companies have taken advantage of to lower expenses. Often times these workers are women and children working long hours for a horrendously small wage in poor working conditions. Still Americans don’t seem to mind. By relocating production, consumers are able purchase their items at a lower price and have an endless supply of choices. Although this particular form of exploitation is not racist, it is powered by greed and profit.

It would be hypocritical to say I’m not a part of this problem – in fact I’m wearing Nike shoes and the Ohio State “Undisputed National Champs” t-shirt produced by Nike as I write this critical piece. My generation’s obsession with labels and need for instant gratification has only perpetuated the problem. As I currently stare at my shoes, I’m overcome with both guilt and hope. I’m ashamed of the swoosh on the sides and what it means for those who produced them, but as I notice the dust kicked up from walking along the train tracks at Birkenau and down the roads of Auschwitz I, I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because after studying the evils of the Holocaust and then making the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I see in color. An unforgettable color image that will always remind me how easily desensitized we are to atrocities and hardship forced upon others.

Leaving the camp, I shared my shock at seeing the camp in color with my friend Bethany. She shared a similar sentiment, except with her own twist. In her mind, it was striking to see Auschwitz in color because it placed it in the present, whereas her previous black and white conceptions confined the evils to the past. We agreed that although the sight of the luscious green grass and red bricks were pretty, they were equally discomforting. Not only did the black and white images maintain the image that the Holocaust is something behind us, but that it couldn’t happen again. However, seeing the site in person – set up in the same manner, like it could have been functional yesterday – I now know that that is certainly not true. Exploitation, slavery and genocide exist today and I fear that we haven’t learned our lesson.

My visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Throughout this Spring semester, we’ve done an incredible amount of preparation for this trip. Our three classes have provided us with extensive background on history and culture before, during, and after the war. In our seminar class alone, we’ve read countless stories about the victims of bombing raids, life in occupied countries, fallen soldiers, and even displaced people after the war. I mistakenly thought that after spending so much time looking at the war’s victims, I would be desensitized enough to handle Auschwitz.

I was wrong.

It felt odd to me how intense the traffic was around the visitor’s center, I had always imagined the camp as dead, silent, and black and white—even in the present day. Our tour guide led us through the infamous gates that read “Work will set you free,” and I instantly felt ill. I looked back at the gates from the inside and realized how many people must have looked back at those gates without any hope of escaping them.


The camp was oddly colorful and open. Little red brick buildings, named in blocks, sat facing each other, quite un-assuming of the horrors that occurred within them. The stillness of the site was disturbed only by the occasional breeze, and throughout the day I found the sunshine and gorgeous weather to be so wrong in this murderous place.

Before my visit, I had heard of the room filled with shoes taken from the prisoners and somewhat mentally prepared myself to view it. What I had not been aware of was the dark room which housed two tons of sheared hair, mostly women’s, that sat on the second floor of the “material evidence” room. Any of the artifacts taken from the prisoners were enough to sicken the stomach, but what utterly broke me were these physical remnants of the prisoners. This hair, only a fraction of the seven tons found, was a very visual representation of how disgusting this camp was, and how many lives it completely destroyed. We all toured the room in silence, and blinked away our tears before emerging into the ill-placed sunlight outside.

In our German culture and Democracy class, we read “The Investigation” by Peter Weiss. In this book, the author used actual transcripts of a trial of the Nazi guards/associates from Auschwitz Birkenau in the form of a play split into 11 cantos. Without punctuation, additional analysis, or even any mention of the camp name or the word “Jew,” he is able to convey they evil of the camp through only the words provided by the guards and witnesses. One particularly intense part of the book was the description of the the “Black Wall,” which was used to execute prisoners by gunshots. The Investigation divulges its horror through the stories of the routine: undressing in the washrooms is followed by guidance to the wall, execution, and transport to the crematorium or mass grave. One witness even recounts an instance when he watched a little girl who was led to the wall by a guard just after her parents were killed. When she turned around the guard instructed her to look at the wall, and she was promptly shot in the head. I kept all of this in mind as we too walked out to the wall, which stood quietly between block 10 and 11. I looked around at the red brick towards the entrance and then turned around to see the last sight the little girl in the book and so many others would ever see.

The Crematorium One was the last stop of our base camp tour. The gas chamber/crematorium is situated under the earth, and is the most lifeless place I’ve ever been. Dark, damp, and crowded, our group entered silently into the surreal chamber where millions were murdered in a cloud of fear, pain and desperation. I simply don’t have the words to describe the emptiness and sadness I felt, with each second adding to the enormity of this death-hall. The tiny squares in the ceilings, which I originally thought were skylights to help aid visitors, were explained to be the openings from which the poison would be added to the room. The panic the victims must have felt is unbearable to imagine, and I felt so much anger at how any of this was possible. The crematorium in the adjoining room was equally crushing, and I felt such a sense of loss to imagine how the freshly dead, so alive just minutes before, would quickly become nothing more than ashes. One human life, now just a handful of ash, for stupid hatred. The Nazis turned the crematorium into a bomb shelter after the establishment of the other killing facilities, but this disregard for respect or human life shouldn’t have surprised me.

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We moved on to the second camp, Auschwitz Birkenau, which we were told made base camp look “like a holiday home.” We followed alongside the railroad tracks to the same selection point which would decide whether you were to die immediately or soon after. No human should have the power to choose life or death like that. I imagined what it would have been like to see my family for the last time, but had to stop myself before I cried again. Our group moved along somberly to buildings 2 and 3, which are the ruins of the identical crematoriums/gas chambers that mirrored across the train tracks that disappear into the forest. I stood outside building two and saw the rubble created when the Nazis attempted to cover their tracks of mass extermination. I looked first to the undressing rooms, which were used to further trick the prisoners into thinking they were being de-sanitized, but also as means to eliminate the need for Sonderkomando to undress the corpses. I looked into the gas chamber and again felt sick to my stomach as I remembered another story from The Investigation. The twenty-minute extermination process would not happen peacefully in this chamber, but rather, would be 20 minutes of excruciating pain and terror. The naked prisoners would often claw and climb on top of each other in hopes of escaping, which would result in the Sonderkommandos finding a tangled mess of humans covered in vomit, blood, and tears before they removed the corpses. I saw the big chimney where the dead would finally reach some escape, and paused for a long while in front of the small pond memorial where many of these ashes were discarded. Maybe the people in Germany, who did little to stop the Holocaust, thought “it doesn’t affect me.” The horrible events of this camp were very, very real for the victims of this camp, and losing a mother, father, siblings, or children was an absolute reality for them. In my previous blog post, I questioned how “worth it” this war was. The impersonality of GI uniformity is not even comparable to the inhumanity of Auschwitz Birkenau. In the base camp, we learned that Auschwitz was the only camp to tattoo prisoners with their identification number. As if the prisoner living conditions, terror punishments, and mass murder wasn’t horrible enough, the Nazis found a way to further dehumanize the Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” crammed into the camp by the reduction of names into numbers. Even more gruesome, this practice was started because the prisoners became so gaunt by the time of their deaths that the Nazi’s needed an easier way to identify the dead than from looking at photo records. . I feel the Allied effort in the war can be justified by the Holocaust alone.