“I don’t know what to think of myself for coming here.”
That’s the only line I have written in my travel journal from my day visiting Auschwitz.
One of the first novels I ever read as a child was The Devil’s Arithmetic — a YA book about the Holocaust. In the years that followed, I read obsessively about WWII and its atrocities because it took me that long to wrap my head around how any of this could happen in such recent history.
I don’t think I ever came closer to understanding the world, but it made me less naive.
Fast forward 20 years and I’m living in Germany, the origin of these unbelievable horrors, next door to Poland.
In a weird macabre sort of way, I’ve always wanted to visit Auschwitz. I’ve never really known why.
By the time my year in Germany was drawing near its end, I still hadn’t made my trip over to Poland. But when my friend Ashley came to visit, we decided it was time.
Thinking about Auschwitz-Birkenau as a “tourism destination” is a weird thing. It’s not a place you particularly want to see, but something tells you that you ought to. I turned this idea over in my head so many times before visiting. Even on the bus on my way to the site, I had to take stock of my feelings.
Am I a bad person for even wanting to see something so dark and brutal? What is it about these places that draw us in?
Throughout my year in Berlin, I often drew parallels between the current refugee crisis and the Holocaust. I don’t think it’s an entirely fair comparison — I don’t want these two things to become muddled into one. But it’s easy to see the similarities between turning Jews away and turning refugees away in their times of need. Germany, of course, received the largest influx of refugees, and so I spent some time volunteering at shelters. One of the things I appreciated the most about Germany was its complete acknowledgment of its past; nobody glosses over the facts. It is a rigid part of their education to ensure it never happens again.
That’s why sites like Auschwitz-Birkenau are necessary. That’s why we need the reminders.
It was disorienting to visit the site with the sun out in full force. People teemed around the museum, buying tickets, taking photos. You’d never know this was the largest death camp in World War II.
I was in tears before I even reached the door, thanks to the exhibit outside the museum featuring real stories from former prisoners. And then we started our tour.
Most of the tourists spent their time in quiet contemplation. I wondered about a lot of things, like what went through the minds of the people who stumbled across this site after the war ended. And how our guide must feel doing this tour every day, in total solemnity. And how it must be for survivors or family of survivors to come here.
We walked through the Room of Shoes, piled with 43,000 pairs. Children-sized boots poking out of the pile. There’s a display of prosthetic limbs, and a room filled with suitcases. Names in large lettering on the their sides.
But the worst? The worst is the room filled with human hair. 7,000 kilograms of human hair.
Everything in this room throws you off. The lighting is dim, perhaps for preservation purposes. You’re not allowed to take photos, but I saw a woman doing so anyway. I wanted to yell at her. How dare you be so disrespectful?
I didn’t cry. I had spent so much time worrying about my reaction to Auschwitz, I just couldn’t seem to cry.
We walked through the buildings, past lines of black-and-white photos of prisoners. I paused at one set — twins. There were children, too. We peeked into doors where mattresses were slung onto the floor. We walked past bathrooms with clothes still hanging from the sink, where prisoners stripped down before their death sentences.
There was a picture on the wall, of some naked women in a forested area. The camera angle was tilted, like the photo was never meant to be taken, like someone had taken the photo from a camera hidden inside their jacket. You can make out the shapes of nude women clustered together, arms outstretched, like they’re running. And you know it’s their final moments, and good god, I still can’t stop thinking about that picture.
And then we got to the gas chamber, and we walked through it, and I wanted so badly to make sense of it all. But I couldn’t.
Birkenau is worse, in some ways. It’s the iconic place you see in all the photos, with the guard towers and the train tracks. The sun beat down on the rows and rows of tiny buildings used to house hundreds of prisoners in squalor. I feel like the sun should never shine on such a place. But there’s that pesky thing about life — it goes on.
At some point, Auschwitz-Birkenau was no longer a work camp. It was a death camp. And as soon as the trains rolled in with new prisoners, they were led to the gas chambers.
That’s when I finally broke down. It’s the unfairness. How fucking unfair is it that these people had no say about their own lives? Was there still a glimmer of hope left in their minds as they were marched to their deaths? Did they cling to their children and their loved ones and still think, “Maybe we’ll make it out”? Hope springs eternal. That’s the pesky thing about life.
Please, go visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Take your children. Tell them. Tell them that even though it’s 2016 we can’t forget about these things, and we’re certainly not safe from it never happening again.
To visit Auschwitz-Birkenau:
Be aware that visiting the site is an all-day affair. Pack a lunch.
Do it independently rather than hiring a guided tour straight from Krakow. There’s a bus shuttle, Lajkonik, that leaves from the main terminal and also elsewhere.
Opt for a guided tour from the museum when you arrive. It’s affordable and the guides are amazing. You’ll get way more out of a guided tour than you will trying to do it on your own.