Disclaimer: This post is about our visit to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps in Poland. I’m not going to be detailed in any horrific descriptions or include too many pictures, but I am going to reflect on my experience. It was a deeply moving and disturbing experience, so this reflection will be highly colored by those emotions. Be forewarned.
A few pronunciations for you:
These were the German names assigned to these places; they are not Polish names.
I spent a great deal of time waffling about whether or not I would even go to Auschwitz. I knew for a while that it was on the group itinerary (because it’s less than 2 hours from Krakow), and I could not decide until the night before if I would actually be able to go through with it. The rational part of me argued that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But the emotional part of me (which is, admittedly, much louder than the rational part), kept saying, “DON’T DO IT! YOU WILL CRY BUCKETS AND HAVE NIGHTMARES FOR WEEKS!” Which is not an unreasonable argument. I know this to be accurate because right before we left the States for this trip, Brad and I watched a short Rick Steves episode about Krakow, which included approximately 5 minutes about Auschwitz, and I BAWLED through the whole 5 minutes, giving myself a migraine. I am not even kidding. I do not handle details about the Holocaust well AT ALL.
Despite that, I decided to do it. I packed tissues and headache medicine and steeled myself (to the best of my ability) for the trip. I was very happy to see that it was a bright sunny day, as I had been dreading walking through the camps under a gray sky. We sat with fun friends in the van on the way there, and my spirits were feeling buoyed…until the van driver started a video about Auschwitz. I was not prepared for an hour-long prequel to our visit, so that threw me off. The video covered quite a bit of background on the development of the camps, as well as an overview of the many heinous and inhumane treatments and experimentations the SS officers implemented among the camp victims. Things I knew about, as well as a few I didn’t. That shocked me; I was unaware of experiments they performed on women at Auschwitz. Or what it meant for a prisoner to go to the “hospital.” I won’t write about it, but I’m sure you can learn about it, if you’re wondering. I bet you can guess that it’s horrific. One quote from the video that haunted me was in reference to the words over the wrought-iron gate leading into the Auschwitz camp: Arbeit Macht Frei (work will set you free). The video narrator commented: “No one was ever made free by work- only through death.” That was a chilling thought to process.
By the time we arrived at the camp/museum entrance, I was genuinely nauseated. Some of it was probably a touch of motion sickness from the trip (back of the bus + switchbacks), but a lot of it was emotional. I couldn’t eat lunch, but thankfully, there were some Polish bagels available. Our group of Lilly folks ended up going in two different tour groups (although we were joined by other visitors in each of our groups). Groups touring the camps are organized by language (and there are many languages present among visitors), and tour start times are staggered, so the first half of our group started half an hour before the second (we were in the second). At the time, I was actually bummed not to be in the first group, so that I could get it over with sooner. However, I learned later that I ended up in the group with the far superior guide- and I’m so grateful for that. She was very professional and had an appropriate gravitas, but a sense of responsibility to the memories of those lost shone through her manner and demeanor.
Rather than reconstruct the tour and try to remember everything we saw, I thought I’d write about the things that stuck out to me the most. I took very few pictures; it’s not something I wanted to document, but yes, we saw all the things you’ve probably read about: the infamous Auschwitz gates, the train tracks and unloading platforms, barracks, gas chambers, rooms piled with possessions taken from Jews when they arrived, starvation rooms, public execution sites, solitary cells. They were all as dreadful and haunting as you can imagine. And I did cry a lot.
This might be one of Piotr's...but it could also be Brad's. Not sure. This is the gate that says "Work will make you free." It was haunting to walk through it.
In no particular order, here’s a bit of my stream of consciousness that I jotted down as we walked…
The Nazis were terribly thorough in their handling of European Jews. They thought through their processes with precision and efficiency, for lack of a less de-humanizing word. The goal was to “constrain, humiliate, and eliminate.” And they were quite good at all parts of it. Again, I don’t want to write too much about the details; I can never unhear or unsee what I heard and saw, but I won’t put it all in writing here in my corner of the internet.
One of the best parts of the tour for both Brad and me was the barrack in which the halls were lined with pictures, names, and dates for Polish Jews (before the Nazis began tattooing numbers on the prisoners, they took their photos). Somehow, seeing faces and reading names was empowering to me. I read all the names that I could, trying to look into their faces, doing my best to pay my respects by noting them and refusing to acknowledge the anonymity in which they suffered and died. My favorite pictures were of the men and women who insisted on holding their heads high, thrusting their chins out, looking away from the camera. It was as if their resistance and courage was captured on film. It was so heartening.
photo credit: Piotr
Perhaps the most moving story told was of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Brad had told me about him beforehand, but hearing it again while in the camp was very powerful. When a prisoner successfully escaped from the camp and it was discovered during the daily roll call, the Nazis would choose 10 prisoners to lock in the starvation chambers in the escapee’s place. Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest who volunteered to take the place of a man chosen in this manner, knowing that the other man was a father and had a family. Maximilian was canonized by Pope John Paul II, and his cell has been specially memorialized (it was the one thing I actually wanted a picture of, but it’s located in one of the only areas of camp in which you can’t take pictures). The man whose place he took survived the camp and passed away only a few years ago. He visited the camp every year until he died so that he could honor St. Maximilian. Isn’t that beautiful?
Bunkers + barbed wire
There are actually 3 camps that comprise “Auschwitz”: Auschwitz I (the main camp), Birkenau/ Auschwitz II (built by prisoners and the site of the primary gas chambers), and Auschwitz III (which isn’t part of the museum). When we visited Birkenau, the desolation of everything was overwhelming. This was the main site for unloading trains of Jews and for sending them to the gas chambers. It was oppressive. But also- surprisingly- upsetting to me was the fact that the barracks built at Birkenau (by prisoners) were built out of the bricks taken from the houses of Polish residents. Aga (our guide) said they were living in the wrong place at the wrong time; they were sent away and their houses dismantled to be used to build the death camps. I can’t even process that.
Train tracks and unloading platform at Birkenau.
photo credit: Piotr
Something that struck me forcibly during our visit was a sense of connection. I realize that the things I’m about to write bear almost no resemblance to what the inmates of that horrible place endured, but it shaped for me an ability to experience empathy in a way I wasn’t expecting. When we were getting set up for our tours, we were all given stickers that labeled us by language- which brought to mind the prisoners’ tattoos when they arrived (as well as the stars identifying Jews in the ghettos). Our tour group was comprised of a wide range of ages and abilities, including parents, children (although not young children, thank goodness), the elderly, the intelligentsia (that would be Brad and his cohort)- much like I imagine the composition of the groups of Jewish arrivals would have been. We were led from place to place, not knowing where we were going next or what we would see. An older man in our group struggled to keep up on occasion, needing help up and down stairs. One of the Lilly guys in our group even shared his water with this gentleman at one point, which made me think of the elderly Jews who would have struggled getting to the camp. I also had the horrifying realization that that gentleman, as well as myself (being a mother with two small children) would have immediately been sorted out as “unfit to work.” It was shocking. I have never so clearly imagined the terror and confusion the millions who passed through that place must have felt.
Map of locations around Europe from which Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
My language-labeling sticker.
I haven’t been able to fully stop thinking about what I saw and learned at Auschwitz in the days since. I’m still not completely sure that I’m glad I went. It has been one of the most mentally, spiritually, and emotionally confusing events of my life. I’m not sure I can recommend it. Maybe? I don’t know. But I am glad for the opportunity to think about and honor the courage and bravery of so many. Did you know that the Auschwitz camp museum was begun with the help of a group of women who had been inmates at the camp? When the Nazis fled and the Soviets arrived, these women were still alive (barely) but had nowhere to go- no homes or families. They chose to stay at the death camp and help develop it into a memorial. Can you imagine? It is unbelievable to think about human resiliency in the face of such horror.