Today we woke up around 8:15 as our bus left at 8:45 to go to Auschwitz concentration camp. I had been mentally preparing myself for a while because I was told today would be a very emotional day. When we got on the bus, we were told it was an hour drive. They played a documentary of original footage that was shot by a cinematographer around 1944 in the camps. The camps were still active, and the footage showed living conditions, SS treatment to prisoners, and other things that happened there like the selection lines, labor, and the march to the gas chambers. The movie was very graphic and it was hard to watch because the images I was seeing were not computer enhanced for dramatic effect. The movie put a graphic image in my head to help understand what actually happened. I can read as many stories as I want, but the real footage really opened my eyes to how terrible it was for the prisoners there. We first arrived at Auschwitz 1, which was smaller than Auschwitz-Birkenau. We entered through the very gates the prisoners first entered the camp that read “Arbeit Mach Frei”, which translates to “work makes you free”. This was also last time they were referred to by their name and given a number. We then walked through the barracks that housed over 20,000 people at one time. A few of the barracks were remodeled to house exhibits. We went into 4 different barracks total. Each one had a specific topic. The topics were arrival, living conditions, personal belongings, and extermination. We entered the first barrack that contained a vase of real ashes from the crematorium. For the millions cremated, there was only a couple pounds of ashes in a clear vase to symbolize and honor those who were murdered. In total, 1.3 million were killed from 1940-1945, 1.1 of them being Jewish. Upon arrival, the prisoners went through selection where a doctor would determine whether or not they were fit for work. They were split into two groups, fit and unfit. If they were unfit for work, they would immediately be sent to the gas chambers. Our guide told us that women and children, and women with children were almost always sent straight to the chambers. We walked through a part of the exhibit where she pointed out a mother with children, stating that this was their last picture ever because they were being marched to the chambers. If the prisoner was selected as fit for work, they would then be stripped of all belongings and valuables and distributed striped uniforms in which were only washed every so often. The living barracks were so sad to walk through. There would be a triple layered bunk bed, smaller than twin size, in which 2-3 people would sleep in each night. Because their clothes were so dirty and people were getting sick, the living conditions were highly unsanitary with the presence of lice and other deadly diseases.
Two specific barracks were really hard to walk through. The first was extermination. This was dedicated into educating people on how the Jews were executed, how Nazis administered Cyclone B, and what happened after. There was a glass case that contained empty cans that contained Cyclone B. Our guide told us that the Nazis did not know how much to use at first, so they would experiment with prisoners on how much to administered. Sometimes they would not predict enough and the prisoners would be internally suffocated for hours at a time. They found out that 75 kilograms of Cyclone B was needed to kill 1500 prisoners in 15 minutes.
The next barrack that was hard to walk through was the ones that contained personal belongings. One of the first rooms on the top floor contained two tons of hair. Each prisoner had their hair cut short because the Germans tried using the hair to make other products like rugs. When the camp was liberated, two tons of human hair was found stuffed into sacks. Another sobering part of this barrack was the room that contained shoes. Before entering, our guide told us that one pair of shoes symbolized one death. The doorway lead to a hallway about 75 feet long, with shoes on both sides. Shoes were piled in this room, on both sides, from floor to ceiling. It was so sad and unbelievable to think that just 70 years ago, those shoes had once been filled with people full of life. I couldn't help but to look at a shoe and wonder what type of person would have worn those shoes. If it were a cute woman's flat, I would think it was a middle aged women with good fashion sense. If I saw a black leather shoe, I would think it was a successful businessman. But after they took off those shoes, they became just as equal as the other prisoners in there. Money and rank wouldn't save them; the will to live would. The room with the shoes was so surreal. I had heard the stories, and have been told how many people were killed, but the shoes put the visuals to the stories.
There were also other personal belongings in that barrack. Just like the room with the shoes, there was a room filled with empty suitcases, with addresses and names written on the outside for easy recognition. When seeing that, I couldn't believe that just seventy years ago, someone had been holding that very suitcase, placing clothes and shoes and valuable jewelry in it, thinking they were relocating to live somewhere else. The suitcases were immediately taken from the prisoners where they were never seen again. German soldiers would go through the suitcases, separating the items into different piles, seeing what kind of money they could make from the belongings. Another section of the personal belongings included a case with people's glasses, crutches and prosthetic legs, hairbrushes, and pots and pans. When the Jews were told to pack up their things, they brought everything they thought they would need for everyday life, so that is why there were so many pots and pans.
After walking through that barrack, we then entered a barrack that had the original living conditions. When we walked in, we were not allowed into the rooms, but could see through a glass window. The room was just a long strip of bunk beds, two or three levels high. We were told that no one ever slept alone, that 2-3 people would share one bunk. Some people would sleep in just hay, or a thin mattress with no pillow. Another room contained a reconstructed wooden barrack that was like the ones at Auschwitz-Berkinau, but we were able to see an original one later in the day.
After those barracks, we walked through block number 11, which was also known as the prison. Through the gates, there was a wall called the "wall of death". This is where about 20,000 people we executed for committing certain "crimes" while on the premises. Some of the prisoners were educated poles that first arrived when the camp opened, and others were prisoners that had tried to escape, or caught trying to gain extra food. The wall of death is where the Nazis would shoot the prisoners. At the wall of death, there were flowers and candles left by people honoring the victims. Once we saw that, we walked into the prison where we saw living quarters. In the basement of the facility was a room called the suffocation room and the starvation room. When a prisoner tried to escape, or succeeded in escaping, 20 prisoners were sentenced to death. Some were sentenced to death by starvation, where they were left to die with out food. This would usually take 10-15 days. Another sentence was death by suffocation, where prisoners were put in a black room with a lack of oxygen and would eventually die because of the lack of air.
After walking through the 11th block, we then walked to the last part of our tour at Auschwitz 1, the gas chambers and crematorium. When we walked in, there was a big group a Rabbis gathering to pray, so we were only in the chamber for about 2 minutes. Nonetheless, it was still hard to imagine how many people had lost their lives in there and the terror they went through. The quarters were small to contain 1500 people. Walking through the chambers, and then onto the crematorium, I felt an emotion that cannot be explained. I could not believe people could be so evil, and even agree to think it was humane to kill so many innocent people.
After that part of the tour, we had a ten-minute break before driving to Auschwitz- Berkinau. That gave me some time to gather my emotions. The next part of the tour was mostly a walking tour. When we first arrived, our tour guide took us through the entrance where the original train tracks ran through the middle. On each side of the train tracks were barracks for the prisoners. On the left was brick barracks for women and children, and on the right was wooden barracks for the men. We walked for a couple minutes before arriving at a boxcar in which people were transported. It was a small wooden "cattle car" in which 80-100 people were crammed into. We were told that there was not room to lay down, no room to sit, and barely any fresh air. There was also not bathroom so people relieved themselves in the corner, which produced a terrible stench. People have also left stones and flowers the as well. From the train, people would go straight to the selection, where all rights would then be taken from them. Just in Berkinau, there were 5 gas chambers, so many prisoners from the trains were sent straight to their deaths.
Once we received all that information, we then walked to the end of the camp, where there was a memorial. There was a block of rocks in honor of the victims and then many plaques saying the same thing in different languages. We then walked to the pit in which victims were burned, some alive at the time, and then to a gas chamber and crematorium that was blown up by the Nazis when liberation came near. They tried to destroy all evidence of crime by using bombs when they knew that they would be defeated soon. We then walked through the area in which women and children were housed, and then back to the entrance to the wooden barracks. Only three wooden barracks were open to walk in for viewing as the rest were not safe. When we walked in, I noticed that it was not completely enclosed, as where the roof and walls came together there was about a 6 inch gap. It was also built like a stable that could comfortably fit 52 horses. Along both sides of the barracks were triple leveled bunk beds, and the single heating system through the middle. These were two tall chimneys with other vents that would heat the whole place. I can only imagine how cold it would get in the dead of winter when it was -20 degrees Celsius outside.
While touring Berkinau, I thought and talked with others about the terrible living conditions the prisoners had to endure. I was layered up with 3 jackets, thick jeans, three pairs of socks, and a pair of knee length boots. I was still cold and my toes went numb. That is what triggered me to think of the prisoners. They had only a set of striped shirt and pants, and wooden shoes that would not keep out any moisture. I have read multiple stories and novels about survivors who had to endure these conditions, and I still can't believe how much they had to go through. It is almost unbelievable to think that just so recently, something like this has happened, and people still live to tell about it.
Also while reading many stories, including Athens to Auschwitz, and Night, I cannot help but think how lucky those two were to make it out alive. The author of Athens to Auschwitz had boils on his hands from hard labor in the freezing cold, and the author of Night was lucky because he did not arrive to Auschwitz- Berkinau until 1944. The camp was much more horrific in the earlier years of the war. The guide told us that of all the people who were deported to Auschwitz, 85 percent of them were killed. Hearing these survival stories, I could only help but think about those who had died and how those who did survive could muster strength to hold on.
After finishing our tour, I took another couple minutes to gather my emotions, and then our bus was on the way back to the hotel. The bus ride home was mainly quiet, with people thinking about what they had just seen and learned. The rest of the day was pretty somber. I hung out in the hotel room for a couple hours to rest before going to dinner at a traditional polish restaurant. After dinner, I packed up my bag to leave in the morning and went to bed.