Auschwitz-Birkenau

by 8:12 AM 0 comments
Following our visit to the Schindler Museum, our group loaded onto our bus and went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The ride takes about an hour, and passes through tiny villages as well as a lot of forested areas with slender but towering trees.

We ate lunch upon arrival in a private dining room, and then we got ready to go into the camps. I had seen a map of the two areas in Maus before, but I didn't realize how far apart Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II were. We had to take a bus between them. It was literally freezing, and raining. I asked the guide if it got much colder than this, and she said that the weather wasn't bad for the area. With ear muffs, gloves, a coat, and boots that got me through Minnesota winters, I was slightly uncomfortable. In a single layer of cheap fabric, I don't understand how anyone survived.


First we went to Auschwitz I, which is where the labor camp was. The facilities were originally built for the purpose of a re-education camp meant for Germans who would eventually re-enter society, which is the meaning behind the infamous sign that reads "Arbeit Macht Frei/ Work Makes (You) Free." 



I wasn't really feeling very emotional about visiting Auschwitz prior to stepping inside the gates. I think I got a little too much Holocaust education at too young of an age, which led to years of terrible nightmares. I kind of felt like, I already know all of this, I'm not going to be dragged through misery again thinking about it, I will NOT cry on this visit.

When I started walking down the roads of Auschwitz I, though, I had a strange experience. I don't believe in ghosts, and I don't feel like I'm receptive to that kind of feeling. If anything, on that day in particular, I was closed off to any feelings at all. But I swear I felt something on my skin. It felt like a cold hand, but I wasn't literally cold, it was just that sort of sensation.  

We went through the museum portion, which had the real vestiges of victims. A room full of hair, a room full of suitcases, a room full of shoes. 

Below is a plaque outlining the number of victims from each respective group:


We went into another building, where rows of pictures of victims were displayed. Each prisoner had their picture taken before the camp became too populous to be able to account for each member in that way. The faces were so human: people looking sad, scared, and angry. There were so many. 

We saw the starvation bunkers, the suffocation chambers, the public execution area. I was guarded against feelings of sadness, but when I started crying, it wasn't sadness, it was anger. These people were monsters. I hate them. I don't care that they were brainwashed by a brutalist youth movement. I don't care that they were just following orders. I don't care that they went through a period of unparalleled inflation, that they had to pick up the bill for WWI, and that we're all culpable for the rise of Naziism in the sense that the Treaty of Versailles was a terrible deal. I don't forgive them, I hate them. 

After Auschwitz I, we got back on our bus for Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We went to see the gas chambers, the observation towers, the place where the train tracks ended. We saw the place where Dr. Mengele experimented on his victims. It is worth noting that Auschwitz is packed full of miserable-looking tourists speaking a plethora of languages. The only people who looked completely unaffected were the tour guides, who would stop to smile at one another and chat lightly, proving once again that you can get used to anything. 




There's are some memorials for the victims, I think the first of these pictures is actually from Auschwitz I:





The only complaint that I have about the presentation of Auschwitz is the complete lack of acknowledgement of gay victims. I googled it on the bus ride back because I wasn't sure if I was mis-remembering, but 15,000 gay men died in the camps. They were subjected to extreme torture, and died at higher rates than any other group except Jews. They were scorned by everyone, including the Jews, and were given their own separate living quarters and brutal work detail. It's obviously tragic that they went through all of this and aren't even given official recognition by the people who run the museum. I wonder if it would help Poland's current problem with homophobia if the past was brought to light in the current memorial site and educational curriculum. 

I don't like thinking of Jewish identity as at all equivalent to victimhood, but the Holocaust is part of a rich and complex history of massacres and survivals. It's easy to hear numbers, but stories are unforgettable, and so is the feeling of walking through that huge swath of land in the freezing cold where so many people were murdered. Life can be beautiful, life can be terrible, and we have to remember what happened at Auschwitz, and to work to ensure the elimination of future mass slaughters, not just of the Jewish people, but of all people, because this world is what we make it, and making killing fields and gas chambers isn't just the antithesis of Judaism, it's the antithesis of humanhood. 



Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.

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