Since I last posted, a ton has happened. I've left Krakow and all the other volunteers and am now in Komancza with my host family. But I wanted to take some time to reflect on my trip to Auschwitz on Saturday.
Visiting Auschwitz has been on my bucket list since I first learned about the Holocaust in school. Let me tell ya, learning about it from a book and standing within its barbed wire fences are two very, very different things.
When we first arrived, the weather matched the darkness of the camp; it was cold and overcast with mud and water on the ground from the day before. Our tour guide first took us through the base camp, the first part of Auschwitz, then later brought us to Birkenau, the second and larger of the two. The base camp is the one with the symbolic gate entrance that reads "Arbeit macht frei" which means "Work makes you free."
Our tour guide took us through the brick buildings which had once held experimentation rooms, prison cells, and barracks. Now they hold pictures, documents, and relics of the tragedy that occurred there. At one point, our tour guide explained why the victims brought suitcases and bags with them. "Hope," he said, "They never gave up hope. These are symbols of their hope." They had collected everything- suitcases with names on them, shoes, human hair, glasses, and more. It was overwhelming, and it didn't even come close to the sheer number of people murdered at that site.
During the walk, we also came across the house of Rudolf Höss, the Nazi commander in charge of the entire camp. His house where his family and children lived was only yards away from the gas chamber where thousands of people died every day. When he was convicted in 1944 after liberation, he was hung on a gallows built in between his home and the gas chamber.
Then we saw the gas chamber. There really isn't a way to describe what it feels like to stand in a room where 70,000 people were murdered.
Birkenau, unlike the base camp, was built to ease congestion in the base camp. This is where most people sent to Auschwitz ended up, and it was huge. Majority of the wooden barracks had been destroyed either by the Germans or natural destruction over the years. However, some remained, and seeing the wood planks lined up on top of one another made my stomach turn. Our tour guide described the number of people who would fit into one cell, often covered in diarrhea from those in the cell above suffering from starvation and exhaustion. He said that rats were so aggressive, they would bite at the victims who were too weak to swat them away. The air was stale, and maybe it was my imagination, but I felt like there was a stench to the staleness.
At this point, I was walking through the camp with incredible guilt. I felt guilty for the incredible life I've been given, and guilty for not being able to do anything for these people who were taken so unfairly and so horrifically. But mostly, I think I just felt guilty that there is a place within the human heart that is capable of this kind of cruelty. Our tour guide said, "Do not judge those for these actions. It's easy to pass judgement on those who did nothing to help but who knew. But if it were you in this time, it would not be as easy to risk your family's lives to help others."
I'm honored to have had the opportunity to visit one of the most important places in human history. Thank you LE.