I feel as if I’m about to trivialize what I’ve seen.
But I think somehow, if I don’t write this, then I cannot make the case for why I think it is such a valuable experience, and a worthwhile day trip for anyone to make, if they can.
So here it is:
The bus drives through Oświęcim, Poland about mid-morning, taking us not into the town itself, but to the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. On a day like today, one might expect the weather to be gloomy and cloudy, to match the occasion of our visit. It is, instead, sunny and quite warm.
We start in the main building of the museum on the grounds of the former Auschwitz camp, where we meet our guide and get our headsets so we can hear her talk throughout the tour.
As she takes us from room to room and exhibit to exhibit – housed in several different buildings – the guide explains how these poor people were taken from their homes and rounded up for the often-cramped trips to these camps … and how so many believed that they would be going to these places to work.
The enlarged pictures of the various camps up on the walls and the scenes of people arriving, as well as the glass cases with some of the administrative documents recovered, certainly help to paint a visual picture.
But it is the displays showing the mountains of belongings – pots and pans, eyeglasses, hairbrushes, suitcases with names clearly marked on them – that resonate with me.
Perhaps the one display that is still partially etched in my mind is the one with all the hair.
I mean, it was literally an enormous glass display taking up an entire wall, with nothing but a big hill of hair behind it, discoloured by time.
Among the mounds, I can still see braids of women and girls, whose heads were shaved by SS officers in preparation for their final, horrific destination.
Kitty-corner to this, by the entrance into the room in a smaller display, is the end product of some of that hair: a huge bolt of cloth. A couple of hairnets.
If one group of people hates another group of people so much that they make it their mission to completely wipe them off the face of the earth – and succeed in doing so with a segment of that despised population – why on EARTH would they want to keep around their remains?
And, from what the guide says, chances are many of the Germans who use this industrial cloth probably had no idea what it was made of.
This completely strikes me dumb.
Another thing that boggles my mind – and annoys me – is another tour group we encounter when we move upstairs to another floor within the building. They’re a group of Jewish people, possibly from Israel – the head of the group is speaking to them in Hebrew.
Some of them are snapping photos of the exhibits, despite the request from the museum that no photography is allowed, as a matter of respect.
The guide actually warns our group before we head upstairs that we would run into them. Even then, I can’t believe the amount of disrespect they show. The guide says they likely know about the rule, but choose not to pay attention to it.
Why? If any one of the million visitors making the trip to this site are expected to respect the rules, why don’t they? Do they feel they are exempt because of their religion? Do they maybe not feel affected by what they see, because perhaps they are not relatives or descendants of the poor people who suffered?
This irks me, because these are not extinct animals we’re talking about here – they’re human beings who we come to remember. But we move onward.
We see the pictures of various concentration camp prisoners which hang on the walls. To say the men and women look gaunt from their treatment is a huge understatement. The guide tells us to look at the pictures and women and see how they don’t even look like women in some of the photos – and it’s true.
We go into another room where there are enlarged photos of young women and children who suffered at the hands of Dr. Josef Mengele in disgusting “experiments”.
We move into other buildings where we see old prison cells and remains of standing cells where some people were kept – as many as four people in a tiny space.
We step outside and move towards the reconstruction of a wall where prisoners were executed. It is now a memorial, where flowers and votive candles are laid.
The guide recalls a story in which a family – husband, wife, two small children and an infant – stood stoicly as they were shot to death one by one.
As we leave the area, a number of us pick up stones for later on.
Just before we leave this site, we visit the only gas chamber and crematorium at the Auschwitz site. It’s also one of the smaller ones. It’s an almost-silent two-minute walk through.
Next, we’re taken to Birkenau, site of the prisoner barracks – and those infamous train tracks. We’re shown the sleeping barracks, and crude latrines, and told about the conditions. We see remnants of some of the brick barracks that were taken apart after Liberation. And we see the remains of the huge gas chambers and crematoriums, now a collapsed mass of brick and cement.
How anyone can deny the events that took place here, is truly beyond my comprehension. The proof is here, at this place. To fabricate something this horrific could not even be possible. To suggest that this could be, is completely pathetic on the part of the thinker.
Our tour ends in the blazing hot sun, by the monument to the prisoners who died. A number of us place our stones there, along with other already laid by earlier visitors.
As we walk back along the gravel towards the entrance, some of us wonder aloud. About why the Nazis, if they wanted to eliminate the Jews so badly, didn’t just do it right away, instead of prolonging the suffering. About how genocides are sadly still going on in parts of the world today, over and over again. About why we continue to let it happen. About how powerless some of us feel, knowing these things are still happening.
I am sure that millions of questions similar to ours float in the minds of visitors as they arrive and depart each day.
But perhaps one thing is certain: nothing really prepares you for the visit. And once you leave, you don’t forget.
Somewhere in my luggage, I hope, is a second small stone I collected from Auschwitz that day. It’s to remind me, when I feel like complaining that things in my life are not going the way they should, how fortunate I am to be where I am today. And also to never forget those who suffered.