“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under the silent sky.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.
I first read these words as an eighth grader after watching an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show. Back in (2006), Oprah offered an essay contest for the high school students of America to read Elie Wiesel’s Night and respond to its content. Two winners from each state were selected to sit in the audience when Oprah interviewed Wiesel. As a stubborn teenager, I thought the age requirement did not apply to me and I decided to partake in the contest. I credit this opportunity as the spark of my interest in the study of the Holocaust.
I was nervous about visiting the camp today. Unspeakable things happened on the grounds I was about to walk on, and more nerving, I didn’t know how I would react to seeing the different sites and icons of the camp. I tried to prepare myself as much as possible, with reading articles about people’s takeaways of the camp, displays that we would encounter, and rereading personal accounts like Night.
A little bit of background might also help understand the significance of this camp, though I am sure most of you know the impact. Auschwitz was divided into 3 different camps: Auschwitz I (a labor camp for mostly prisoners), Auschwitz II (Birkenau- the death camp), and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). Today, Auschwitz III is completely destroyed, so we only saw Auschwitz I and II on our tour. About 1.1 million people were sent to the camps between 1940- 1945. Over 960,000 people were killed before the camps’ liberations.
To be honest, my first impression of Auschwitz I, our first stop on our tour, was not what I expected them to be. Sachsenhausen, Majdanek, and Treblinka were all vast areas with few buildings covering the area. This camp was more town-like to me. Most of the original barracks and administration buildings were intact, so we all got a sense of what it might have been like to walk the grounds during its usage. The barracks today are used as the camp’s museum and house many collections of victim’s items. We saw displays of shoes, pots and pans, brushes, clothes, glasses, prosthetic limbs, prayer shawls, and suitcases. The display that was personally emotional for me was the hair. The Nazis were determined to use every resource they could to “further war efforts” and to make more profit. Each Holocaust victim was shaved so their hair could be sold to companies to make clothes, socks, and even mattresses. Sickening. The hair display was as large as my basement at home, and that wasn’t even all of it. As I tried to make sense of all of this dehumanization, I spotted a small lock of beautiful blonde braids. I could sense immediately that it most likely came from a little girl and I lost it. I cannot begin to imagine what it was like.
After we saw the displays, we went to Block 11- The Death Block. This is where the SS and German soldiers kept the “bad prisoners” in torture chambers and holding cells. They had cells specifically designed for suffocation, starvation, standing, and solitary confinement. Right next to Block 11 is also home to the execution wall (“The Black Wall” or “The Wall of Death”) a symbolic site for the camp. Over 5,000 people were executed by a gunshot to the back of the head in that courtyard.
Although Auschwitz I was not a death camp, it still had a gas chamber and crematorium. This gas chamber was the only one that survived after the war ended, giving us a better sense of how they were designed in Auschwitz. Standing in that chamber, haunted by history past, was one of the darkest experiences of my life.
After a five minute bus ride, we entered the infamous gates of Birkenau, the death camp. This camp was overwhelming in size and emotion. This particular camp stretches over 250 acres, much vaster in reality than perceived on paper. We walked up the side of the railroad tracks, stopped at the place where the SS guards made their prisoner selections (left meaning work and right meaning death). A single rail car was also parked alongside the selection platform, giving us a better sense of how people were treated like cattle when shipped to this hellish place.
We followed the path up to the ruins of the crematorium which symbolically lies parallel to the end of rail line. The one part of our tour that truly angered me occurred at the ruins. There was a small group of people gathered next to the site, obnoxiously laughing hysterically. I don’t know if it was just their personal ways of coping with the emotions, or if they were completely oblivious to where they were standing, but this observation sparked quite a bit of personal anger. It made me think about why people need to continue to learn about the events of the Holocaust, and more importantly, how we need to properly observe them. Expressive hilarity is not appropriate.
We concluded the tour with visits to the different sleeping barracks, sanitation facilities, and finally a view from the guard’s watch tower. I learned so much on this visit; however it is safe to say that I don’t want to ever go back.
“Sometimes I am asked if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know that a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is a response in responsibility. When we speak of this era in evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, “responsibility” is a key word.”