Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bucket List: Visiting Auschwitz

This was a hard post to write and it will likely be a hard one for you to read. But as difficult as it is to dwell on, it must have been unimaginably traumatic to experience first hand. We owe it to the millions who died to remember their despair in a vivid way.

When we moved to Europe, it was important to us that we make a pilgrimage to Auschwitz to pay our respects to those who lost their lives and livelihood under the Third Reich. Visiting Auschwitz was different than all other items on my bucket list simply because it wasn’t something I looked forward to with excitement, but rather with apprehension, anxiety, and grief.
For weeks before visiting, I prepared myself by reading novel after novel retelling the horrors of that black page in European history. Because of this, I’ve been having vivid nightmares for a month now. But I’d gladly take a nightmare that I can wake up from over the reality that so many woke up to every day in those camps.
And while Auschwitz wasn’t the only Nazi death camp, it seems to serve as a disturbing symbol for the holocaust. But the sad truth is, it was only one of several. Only 1.5 million of the 11 million total, were murdered on these premises. Aren’t those numbers astounding? 1.5 million. 11 million. 1,500,000. 11,000,000.
It’s hard to really quantify, until you’re faced with rooms full of their hair, and shoes, and suitcases, and glasses.
Then it’s hard to stop quantifying it. 1.5 million. 11 million.
A mound of glasses. An individual pair. It weighs heavy on my heart. It makes me ashamed of the human condition.
But then I think of the 1.5 million visitors who make the journey to Auschwitz every year. The 1.5 million a year who remember the atrocities and experience profound grief for what happened here.
How by remembering in such a raw and painful way, we are hopefully  insuring that such a genocide will never recur. That we honor their memory by fighting everyday against racism, prejudice, close-mindedness, and hateful propaganda.
That we refuse to appease dictators who persecute and crucify their own people. That we remember; that we speak out; that we stand up for peace and human rights for every single person on earth.
So with that said, here are some of the images from our tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau, along with some horrifying facts that we learned throughout the day.
A map showing where the prisoners came from. It amazes me how far reached and widespread the round ups were. It's sad to think that even  the French Jews weren't safe from Hitler's madness.
Many of the exiled were deceived by the Germans into thinking that they were being sent to Eastern Europe to start a new life. They were sold plots of fictitious land and even train tickets to Auschwitz. They were told to pack a suitcase with their belongings, which were confiscated immediately upon their arrival at the death camps. The Germans knew that if the Jews believed they were going to be settling down, they would pack their most precious and valuable belongings.
The Nazis were very economical and re-used clothes, glasses, and even hair from the slaughtered prisoners. This picture shows crutches, braces, etc from some of the disabled detainees, all of which were sent immediately to the gas chambers since they were unable to work.
"Work Brings Freedom" was the slogan welcoming slave laborers to and from the gates of Auschwitz. It was a cynical saying, since no prisoner ever earned their freedom through hard work. They were much more likely to die from over-exertion and starvation. Not all of the exiles were killed by execution. Some were murdered indirectly from suffocation, starvation, untreated illness, hard labor, and freezing to death.
The execution wall, where detainees were killed by gunshot.
At first, the Auschwitz residents slept on pallets on the floor, but when the rooms became too crowded, three-tiered bunk beds were added, and two people were assigned to each mattress. Though each barrack was made to fit 200, many had well over 400 living inside.
In this room, women were stripped and their heads shaved before being sent to the execution wall.
One of the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
After killing the prisoners in the gas chambers, their bodies were burned in the "chimneys" housed in the same building.
Though we often think of Auschwitz as the most terrible concentration camp, this satellite camp at Birkenau was even more horrific. This is where all Auschwitz detainees were processed and selected. Upon arrival by cattle car train, they were separated into two groups. 75% went straight to the gas chambers on the premises; the other 'lucky' 25% were used as slave laborers at Auschwitz. Needless to say, those who weren't seen as useful workers were not selected to survive. That included most women, children, infants, disabled, and elderly people.
This is when I lost my composure and started sobbing. Such simple words, but so concise and powerful. This plaque was in full view of the two gas chambers used at Birkenau. In order to keep the Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians, etc calm when marching to their death, they were told that they were going to take a shower before moving into their new barracks. To keep them subdued until the last moment, the Germans even installed fake shower fixtures and water pipes in the gas chambers.
When it was clear that the camps were going to be liberated by the soviets, the Germans abandoned ship and blew up the gas chambers in order to hide the evidence of their crimes.
Another cynical sign, as if the electric barbed wire were any more deadly that what was waiting for them inside the camp. 
When my friend Pam saw that I had posted some pictures of Auschwitz on my facebook page, she sent me a link to this article in order to restore my faith in humanity. It was a great reminder that humans are also capable of wondrous acts of generosity and selflessness. I recommend going and reading it now, because I’m sure you’ll need some cheer after pondering the slaughter of 11 million innocent people.


  1. A hard post to read, but no hardship comes close to what those innocent people experienced. Thank you for sharing. We have to remember this ugly, horrific time in our history and make sure nothing close to it ever happens again.

    P.S. the restore your faith in humanity pictures only led to more bawling!

  2. It is so unbelievable to me that some can say that it never happened, that it was all a hoax... I have feared that as these final generations pass on that no one will tell their story. That we may be forced to relive out of ignorance and apathy. These were atrocities and horrific crimes agains mankind and in particular a race of people and a religion. Thank you for your post... We must never forget... lest we be doomed to repeat.

    I have only seen the exhibit at the Smithsonian in DC.. (read many books) .. I also agree.. the room with the mountains of shoes touched me in a way like no other tribute or memorial has to date. Profound. I hope to one day make this trek as you have.

  3. Great post! I remember going to Dachau and it was heart breaking, but I agree with you people need to keep going so this never happens again! Thanks for sharing!!