After I went to Auschwitz, I had a hard time trying to tell my family about it. Instead, I told them I would create a blog post on the trip. It was too much to talk about, too much to explain, and difficult to put into words. However, here is my attempt. First off, working at the UN ICTY/MICT, I work with genocide every day. It is a topic I have come to know well, from its origin in the Nuremberg trials to its lasting effects in international law. I've seen evidence of these crimes from both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, have written on the topic for my job, but nothing will ever come close to what I saw at Auschwitz. It felt unreal, and I am still processing it. Note: I did not take any pictures. It did not feel appropriate, and it made me uncomfortable seeing other tourists gawking over the atrocities with their iPhones in tow. Furthermore, I did not want to memorialize the things I saw while there.
Two friends and I found reasonably-priced tickets to Krakow, so we decided that while we were this close to the city geographically (and because our job involves genocide), we should go this summer before it became too expensive to take a separate trip from the US. We got to Krakow at night, with the next morning being our excursion to Auschwitz. I definitely did not mentally prepare for this, as I did not know how and did not know what to expect. I knew I would feel something, but there was no way to predict how one reacts to such a situation. We joined our bus tour in Krakow that took us first to Birkenau and then to Auschwitz.
Birkenau was regarded as Auschwitz II, as it was overflow from Auschwitz I. We arrived and walked along the main railway, where cars full of people (Jews, Poles, and many other groups the Nazis targeted) would arrive, ready to be "sorted." Before the train tracks went directly into Birkenau, the victims would have to walk a short distance to get to Birkenau. The train tracks directly through the gates were added simply to kill people more quickly. Birkenau was used primarily as an extermination camp, in order to "kill people more efficiently." The buildings on site (each one held around 1,000 people, which was incomprehensible to me) were built of bricks that were taken from destroying houses of Polish people. The crematoriums were largely destroyed in 1945 when the Nazis felt the pressure of the ending war. Instead of going into these or the gas chambers (which were underground), we got to see the half-destroyed brick crematoriums that were roped off. It was evidence that the Nazis knew what they were doing was wrong, trying to destroy the evidence of the crimes they committed. Note: Our tour guide kept referring to Nazis only as "the Germans," but I feel a distinction must be made, as not all Germans were Nazis.
Most people in the camp did not know about the gas chamber because it was underground. Other inmates would serve as workers at the chambers and crematoriums. Doing so would get them better treatment in separate housing, only to realize that this was short-lived. They were often killed and replaced after only a couple of weeks, to ensure that they could not get any information back to the inmates living separately in the large part of the camp. We went through one of the buildings that was used to house people. Walking in, I could not understand how around 1,000 people were kept in each. Each little section had three tiers, all made of wood. Around 6-8 people slept on each tier, and people would fight to be on the top bunk. We learned that this was because when people would get sick, the vomit would go through the crack of the wood onto the people below. People were allowed to use the restroom twice per day, so long as the guard was in a good mood. The "toilet" looked more like a hole in the ground, and where the water ran from looked like a pig's trough. We learned that we were in the kids' barracks, which had two "supervisors" to make sure they did not try to run away. It was awful to see that their treatment was no better than anyone else's. Another thing that struck me was that each building had two chimneys, in order to comply with international law. However, they were never given any coal, so it was simply for the optics of the operation. So many of the buildings had collapsed or were torn down by Poles after the war. Some people, we were told, returned to the site and took bricks in order to symbolize taking back what was originally taken from them. After seeing Birkenau and hearing more excruciating details from our tour guide, we left for Auschwitz I.
Upon arrival to Auschwitz, people were told to write their names on their suitcases, in order to keep them calm - with the idea that they would have their belongings returned. As soon as they left their things, the Nazis sorted their items to ship them back to Germany. This was used to help fund the war. We saw many of these items, including an entire room behind glass full of colorful pots and pans. People were told to bring their most important items, ensuring that the Nazis would have more to sell and use to fund the war. There was another room of hair, that was used for textiles. There were bundles of hair stacked up, with plenty of it loose. You could see piles of women's braids, and as I walked through the exhibit with my own French braid, I felt nauseous. What got to me the most, however, was the shoes. I'm not sure why this affected me more than the hair, but the sheer amount of shoes they found, all stacked up, seemed so personal. They were used, covered in dirt, and among them, I saw a bright red high heel sticking out. I wondered who it belonged to, knowing that that person had a story like everyone else - but I would never know. We continued to the barracks, where people slept on the floor. We saw hallways lined with pictures of people in striped clothing, the "inmates." Some had their date of birth, the exact day they died, and their profession. I saw around 4-5 pictures with "Doctor of Law" beneath their name, and one woman's terrified face stood out to me. I looked closer to see that she died on November 4, the day I was born. We continued to the "hospital," which they were again required to have under international law. However, this was only used to experiment on people. People were poisoned and starved, sterilized in different ways, given typhus and other diseases, and given different medicines to see how they reacted.
Next, we made it to the jail, where people were often sentenced to starvation. The cells were stone and empty, with only a toilet in the corner. One cell stood out with flowers and other items, and we learned that a priest sacrificed himself, taking the place of someone who had been sentenced to death by starvation. The person whose place he took ended up surviving and being freed during liberation. Today, people still remember this act of selflessness and sacrifice. Our last building was the gas chamber, that was under a mound of earth. We walked into this large chamber with two vents in the ceiling. I noticed on the wall some markings, and at first I thought it was graffiti (as there was plenty on the walls of the buildings at Birkenau). I realized that they were fingernail scratches of the people who were being gassed by Zyklon-B. The fact that there were visible scratches in stone showed just how torturous this method of dying was. Right next to the chamber was a place to burn the bodies. Our guide told us that they could kill around 10,000 people a day, but they could not dispose of the bodies quick enough. Other inmates were required to burn the bodies, with the contraption still in place in the room as it was used until the camp was abandoned. There were places for public hangings, backdrops where people were shot, and wooden poles where people were hung backwards by their arms/shoulders.
Seeing all of this, witnessing the depravity that humans are capable of, stuck in my mind for the rest of the day. While I did not take any pictures, I will never forget what I saw or the stories I heard. The systematic nature of it all, the steps that the Nazis took to try to humiliate and eliminate entire groups of people, is overwhelming even as I write about it now. One quote I saw at the start of an exhibit stuck out to me. "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana