Reflections on Auschwitz-Birkenau

Posted on Saturday, August 17, 2019

One of the places I’ve always wanted to see is Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland. It is and has been on so many peoples’ travel lists, including mine, but I couldn’t tell you why. It’s supposed to be a sobering experience, and something that makes people realise how lucky we are to have what we do. I guess that’s why I wanted to go. I wanted to get emotionally sober, to feel more emotions than what I normally feel.

I was nervous going into the camp. I thought maybe I’d accidentally or unknowingly say or do something wrong, or that I’d see someone blatantly doing something inappropriate (such as taking a selfie or laughing). Everyone there behaved and I myself did not do anything dumb. First we went through the arbeit macht frei gate, which is quite small in person, and then you can see what Auschwitz looks like on the inside. It’s actually not a bad-looking camp. The buildings are well preserved and the lawns and trees well manicured. It’s such a juxtaposition to all the horrors that happened there.

A lot of the rooms we visited were informational, with artefacts, photographs, and facts relating to the Holocaust. With a guide, you don’t have enough time to see these for yourself. Of course, Auschwitz has items that belonged to Holocaust victims there: shoes, pans, suitcases with their names on them, and most notably, the hair. I wanted to imagine all of the lives that once filled the shoes, that cooked with those pans, that wrote their names on their suitcases, that wore their hair. The weight of all those lives would’ve been crushing.

There’s also a hallway with a bunch of photographs of early Auschwitz victims, which truly puts a face on the horrors. They had a lot of anger or even despondence in their faces, and I wondered how many of them knew at that time that they were going to die.
Actually, the most touching photograph I saw was at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. It’s of a little girl who I believe was 12. She had so much fear in her eyes.

We then got to see more administrative buildings and the Death Wall. This gave a lot more perspective on how people actually lived – if they got to – at Auschwitz. What got me was the little cells in which they’d hold up to 4 people. We got to see that they clearly were not large enough for 4 people, and had to be entered through a small door only a few feet high. I felt uncomfortable just thinking about it. We then got to walk through the doors that the condemned would walk through to get to the wall. It was so strange seeing what so many people saw during their last bit of life.

However I found Birkenau to be more touching. When execution got on so large a scale, Birkenau was built and was the real extermination camp. It was so desolate. Of course we went on the train tracks but here, you could see the actual gas chambers where thousands of people were murdered. You get to go into one gas chamber and see the holes in the roof for the gas pellets. This was particularly creepy. I rushed out of there and into the crematorium, which was obviously no better. Actually, I tripped on a recessed part of the floor, which was where the tracks for the crematorium cart went. At this point, I felt physically ill.

Auschwitz and Birkenau were both strong, thorough museums. They’re very well preserved and give quality information about the Holocaust. What struck me the most about the tour was how much it was driven home that nobody really knew what was going on. Of course there are a lot of theories and fake news out now, but I’d believe from the stories of locals that everything was kept hidden. That’s why so many people went and brought their prized possessions; they thought they were going to be relocated rather than killed. It makes me so terrified about what’s going on today.

Even though I did something I’ve always wanted to do, I was disappointed in myself for feeling so numb – for not being able to imagine and feel what happened there. For not being able to cry. I shouldn’t have been disappointed. In retrospect, it’s completely normal for people regulate their emotions as I did that day, so they don’t feel extreme feelings. But it reminded me of how privileged I am to live here and now. I never lived through a war or through genocide. To me, it’s hard to imagine that could ever happen in my country in my lifetime. But it’s heartbreaking that these millions of people walked straight into their deaths and they actually didn’t even see it coming. In a weird way, Auschwitz gave me more skepticism for the world, but also more peace with other people.

And to be honest, I never noticed how much the Holocaust and Auschwitz itself is always compared to current events. Visiting gave me a sense of what Auschwitz actually is, not just what people say it is.

At the end of our tour, we got to see the plaques in several languages that promise to never forget what happened there. Our tour guide sincerely thanked us for coming since it helps keep the camps open. That was actually the most sobering part for me: never forget. The site is a memorial now and a way to remember all the souls lost to genocide. It’s tangible proof that the Holocaust happened. It’s sad to think that if Auschwitz closes and is torn down, our memories might shrink a little bit. It’s so strange how that happens.

Maybe that’s why I wanted to go to Auschwitz: to help the memorial survive. But in all honestly, I still don’t know why I really went.

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Getting to Auschwitz: From Krakow, you want to get to Oswiecim, which can be done via train. The ticketing system at Auschwitz is a little weird since it’s free before a certain time, and after a certain time. And obviously, it’s a very popular spot to visit so the lines are naturally long. You can read more on their website here. I went with a tour group so I could also see Wieliczka Salt Mine in the same day. The costs I got online for tickets and public transit rides were only a few dollars less than I paid for the tour, so I don’t regret it. Whichever works for you.

Have you ever been to Auschwitz? What is your view on “dark tourism”?

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