** This post is in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day **
When I decided to visit the concentration camp of Auschwitz-Bikenau, I truly thought I was mentally and emotionally prepared for it. I wasn’t. It was one of the saddest and scariest experiences in my life. I’ve been researching the holocaust for a while and I knew a lot about the horrors that happened there. But reading about the murder of millions of Jews and other prisoners and actually standing where it happened are two very different things.
Originally, Auschwitz consisted of three camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz, also called Buna). After the war, Auschwitz III was completely destroyed. More than a million Jews were transported to Auschwitz from all around Europe. Most people where sent to this concentration camp (Konzentrationslager) to die and approximately 1.1 million were murdered in Auschwitz. Although the majority of these prisoners were Jews, other people were also placed in camps. Around 160,000 were political prisoners, who were Poles arrested for their activities in the resistance movement or during repressive operations. There were also Gypsies, Soviet POWs, Correctional prisoners, Police prisoners, Criminal prisoners, Jehovah’s witnesses (Germans imprisoned for their religious behavior), and Homosexuals.
The camp looked scary and intimidating in order to oppress the Jews. Even the walls enclosing the Jewish ghetto that still stand in the Polish city of Krakow are shaped like tombstones. The bunks were small and crowded, cold in the winter, hot in the summer. The prisoners were murdered and tortured in many different ways. In the basement of one bunk, were many small rooms. Prisoners would go there as punishment if they did something wrong. One room had one tiny window and it was called the suffocation cube because the many prisoners in the tiny space would have very little air. Another room was the starvation corner where prisoners would be deprived of food. Lastly there was a standing room, where prisoners had to stand pressed against each other all night, work all day, and then go back and stand again. Imagining how these innocent people suffered made my heart ache. Another thing that really impacted me when I visited Auschwitz were the belongings of the Jews that were taken from them before they were killed in the camps. There are rooms filled with shoes of all shapes and sizes, hairbrushes, pots and pans, clothing, and more. One room holds the hair of victims that was discovered when the camp was liberated. To see it is so powerful and even more devastating.
For me, the gas chamber was the most difficult part of the tour. As soon as I stepped in, I felt this awful feeling and all I wanted to do was go back outside where I could breathe better. It was the most horrible place I had ever been. I thought of all the people that died there, in the very place I was standing, terrified because they didn’t know what was going to happen. When the prisoners were sent to the gas chambers, they were told that they were taking a shower. They would undress and go into a room that looked like a washroom. And then the doors would close. And that was it. They could kill thousands of Jews within 20 minutes with gas. Many of the prisoners would be sent directly to the gas chambers when they arrived. Old people, disabled people, children, and pregnant women were immediately sent to their death because they couldn’t work so they weren’t useful.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is full of horrific memories and the suffering of millions of people. However, I believe it is a place every person should visit once in his or her life because what happened there can never be forgotten. Even more importantly, we need to make sure it is never repeated.