By Dan (Guest Blogger)
Jed, Caitlin, Jamie and Dan decided to visit Auschwitz (Brad guiltily declined, as having toured Dachau on a previous trip was enough for a lifetime). What is referred to as if it were one camp actually was comprised of numerous camps spread across this general area of Poland and combining to serve as the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. (Concentration camps are where victims were forced into extreme labor with unspeakably horrible conditions that ultimately led to many of their deaths, often in just a month or two. Death camps are where victims were intentionally murdered en masse in gas chambers.) 1.3 million victims were sent to Auschwitz over the course of the war. Of those, 1.1 million were Jews (most of whom, particularly in the later years of the war, were sent straight from the train to the gas chamber). Overall, more than 1.1 million victims died at Auschwitz.
Our visit began at Auschwitz I, the initial camp created by the Nazis, which was largely destroyed by the fleeing Nazis when Russian invasion became imminent. We were led on a guided tour through buildings showcasing many indescribable horrors: unimaginable living conditions in the quarters, remnants of starvation and standing prison cells, and, perhaps most powerful, various displays of what was left behind: 2,000 pounds of human hair removed from Jewish victims (more than three times that amount was found after the liberation), rooms piled high with thousands upon thousands of victims’ sunglasses, shoes, suitcases and other such belongings – even children’s clothes, toys, and dolls.
Later, we took a bus to Auschwitz II (also known as Birkenau), a much more expansive area built later in the war to accommodate the ever increasing number of victims being sent to the camp. Auschwitz II was kept entirely in its initial state. It was overwhelming to look at the train tracks in the middle of the camp and imagine thousands upon thousands of victims – those who even survived the week-long train ride packed without enough food and barely enough oxygen – leaving the train and lining up before a Nazi “physician” who, one by one, would send them to the left (the concentration camp, where they would be worked, most likely, to death) or the right (the death camp, where they would be forced into a massive gas chamber and ruthlessly murdered).
The Nazis destroyed what they could before abandoning the prison toward the end of the war, but remnants of some of the four huge gas chambers and crematoriums remained. On the other side of the camp were dozens and dozens of shacks with tiny wooden “beds” (shared by up to 6 persons), as well as a room that had served as a huge, incredibly unsanitary latrine where prisoners could use the bathroom only for brief moments of the day. Cleaning the waste from this latrine was actually considered one of the best jobs a prisoner could receive; it was indoors, away from the often harsh weather, and it provided separation from the Nazi supervisors who were afraid to set foot inside it due to its disgusting conditions.
Both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II were indescribably impactful. Auschwitz I’s individual exhibits, particularly the unthinkable amounts of hair and belongings from the million plus who were murdered there, made the incomprehensible acts of the Nazi regime sink in. But Auschwitz II was perhaps even more powerful; walking around the massively expansive camp (which cannot be described or adequately shown with pictures), seeing much of the camp which hadn't been destroyed in its original condition, looking across from the many wooden lodging cabins to the train tracks and the gas chambers on the other side, provided a feeling words cannot express.