Note: This post contains images from Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
I walk back through the gates and stand, looking up from under the brim of my umbrella, at the arched words, Abreit Mach Frei.
The wind makes the leaves rustle near the camp’s mustering grounds. Ravens craw at each other from up in the trees. Rain hits my umbrella with a sombre rhythm. There are no blue skies here.
I will leave this place, I think, but it will never leave me.
I came to Krakow for the express purpose of completing a six hour study tour of Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
People puzzled over my choice of visiting the most notorious Nazi death camp on my spring holiday. How can I say that I have wanted to make a journey here since I was fourteen, only then beginning to learn about the Holocaust (this was pre-Internet life), required to read The Diary of Anne Frank for grade eight social studies class. I, like so many others, groaned at the size of the book, and I was not overly convinced that I needed to read it. I took the book home, sat on my bed, and got to it, because that was the type of student I was.
Hours later, I was still reading the diary. This young girl spoke to me in a way I understood, being fourteen myself, and she had the same issues I had (boys included) and being rather “stuck” in one place (that’s another post altogether).
After befriending Anne Frank through her personal writing, I was horrified to read the final appendix to the diary.
Anne Frank, almost all of her family, and the rest of the attic residents had been killed in this terrifyingly real event called the Holocaust.
Whilst I was given some material to read in class, I sucked up as much information about the Holocaust as I could – again, pre-Google. I dug up Elie Wiesel’s Night and Dawn. I found other short stories here and there, and then there was Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic. That was what I could remember finding at the time. We read a personal account of a woman who dropped her bread in the camp latrines and dove back in to get it because there was no other food for her if she didn’t.
In my young brain, I tried to make sense of this. Why would people do this to someone else? I could not imagine the scope or scale of it, but there was this placed called Auschwitz, all the way around the world in Poland, and one day, I wanted to see this place where Anne Frank died. Where at least one million Jews died.
Where humanity – died.
The day of my visit was suitable chilly, rainy, and overcast. There is no hint of sun like there had been the last week or so. Like there would be the next day. I didn’t think I should see it in the sunshine, lest I think it any less than it is – a factory of hell.
The tour starts out around 9 AM, and we walk through the infamous gates into Auschwitz. It looks like a small village, quiet now, except for the crunch of boots on the gravel and the commentary of guides taking groups around. It’s still early, so there aren’t as many groups as would show up later.
We begin slowly, going in and out of barracks and learning about camp life. However, the exhibits become increasingly more graphic and horrifying – photographs of Mengele’s experiments on children. A massive collection of dishware people brought with them thinking that they were going to a new life. Suitcases raided and tossed away. The wall of shoes were one red high heel remains amidst all the boggy brown ones, waiting for the owner to come back to dance in it. The basement cell where a priest sacrificed his life for another prisoner. The shooting wall. And, heaven help me, the piles of human hair sheared from the heads of unsuspecting prisoners.
The intensity of the morning is staggering. Slowly, no one talks anymore. We simply absorb the words of our guide and the visuals which seem – impossible. That is what kept going through my mind – how is this possible? HOW?
I know the history, of course. I know why it happened. I think the psychology is the scariest part. How so many people became slaves to a hateful ideology. How so many people were complacent because of fear of death. The Holocaust called up something frightening in human beings that we hope really isn’t there – but it is.
It was the child of horror that birthed great courage in others. For all the heroes we know of, there are more who have not been formally recognized. How was that courage possible?
We can never say how much courage we would have until we are faced with a situation that demands everything we have – and that everything might even be our own lives.
To walk into the gas chamber is to walk into a grave. I saw scrapes along the wall that I thought might have been from people trying to claw their way out. Having watched the film Son of Saul only two weeks prior to the visit, I saw the hellish nightmare rooms shown in the film – the view of the sonderkommando.
I could look up and see the grey sky through the Zyklon B holes. What did they see? Men in masks dropping in the tablets? Did they see any blue sky?
A woman sounds like she is crying just outside the exit of the gas chamber. I am too stunned to cry at that moment.
When would it sink in to my mind, the sheer magnitude of what I had just seen?
In retrospect, I felt strangely numb at the time. I had full knowledge of what I was going to see, and I had done enough reading, both fiction and nonfiction, on the topic of the Holocaust. But here I was, listening to the woman weeping, and I left the gas chamber behind, as we had a break before going over to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I walked out, but they never did.
I think that is what still troubles me now.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is a short bus ride from the first camp.
I walk in easily through the gatehouse. An ice-cold wind whips up across the open landscape, and all of us huddle together as the rain begins again. We visit the barracks with their open toilets and hard wooden bunk beds. Hundreds of people were crowded into these bunks. The smell was awful. It was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. There was never any proper food. Roll call lasted for hours.
It is quiet in there now, and it is cold. I have a jacket and winter gear on. I am lucky.
Our guide takes us to the bombed-out crematorium shelters and other gas chambers. We see the storehouse “Canada” and the memorial at the back of the camp. The birch trees shiver in the wind, and I wonder what horrors they witnessed. They are sentinels, guarding the razor wire in the distance.
Turning back toward the guardhouse, my eyes trace the railway from the back of the camp toward the horizon. It is the most iconic and nightmarish view of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The tracks through the gatehouse and out into the wider world beyond. The searchlights are off, and there are no dogs. No shouting. No smoke. No screams.
It is as close to silent as it can be with so many visitors roaming around the camp.
You can choose to remember, choose to forget, or choose to deny. That is your choice here today. The memory can leave as soon as you walk out to the bus, or you can take that memory and pass it to others. You can teach it and make sure that others know what you have seen – because soon, there will be no survivors left to tell their stories. It will become your job. And your children’s job.
As I stand on the selection grounds, I listen to the final words of our guard:
You stand here and are cold, but you have jackets. They had nothing. They had become nothing. If you hear anything here, it is the voices of those people telling you to remember. Most of them could never leave. But you, you will walk out of the gates, and you will leave here. But it will never leave you.
It will never leave me.