Monday, April 24, 2023

Auschwitz-Birkenau: A life changing experience (Part 2)

 *This is Part 2 of the story of my experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest Nazi concentration camp in Germany-occupied Poland. Part 1 can be found HERE*

As I mentioned in Part 1, our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was incredibly life-changing. It is worth mentioning that only the girls and I visited the memorial since it isn't recommended for people under 14 years of age so to allow us the opportunity to visit the camp, Iggy stayed with Oliver in Krakow while we took the day trip to Oświęcim. I wanted to get that out of the way since many people asked if I had taken my little one on the tour.

The following are some others of the areas/things that stood out to me the most (this list is probably harsher than the one on my first post, so please be warned):

- The Barracks

Barracks were primitive wooden structures with large wooden shelves for bunk beds; the camp originally belonged to the Polish military before the country was occupied in the early 1940s and the place was converted into a concentration camp (as a matter of fact, most initial prisoners were not Jews but rather Poles, Catholics, and Gypsies). The original wooden structures were then adapted into brick buildings and some of the single-story ones, were transformed into two stories in order to house the most prisoners. There were 36 bunks per barrack; 5 to 6 prisoners were packed on a shelf to fit over 500 prisoners per barracks; the living conditions were totally inhumane in those infamous buildings.  In the brick blocks, prisoners slept on straw-strewn mats, and paper mattresses stuffed with so-called “wood wool” were placed on the beds or bunks in the wooden barracks. The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex is a somber sight; the thought of all those victims being tortured day in and day out is very haunting and even though I know a lot about Holocaust history (I'm an avid WWII reader), seeing it in person brought all those things I have read through the years to a different dimension. When touring the barracks, visitors are able to see the shelves used as bunk beds as well as the type of mattresses that people laid on and some other aspects of the living conditions at the camp. Touring the premises and hearing the harrowing stories made all my problems seem so small, it's a sorrowful feeling too complex to put into words. I will never complain about cold showers, bad weather or being slightly hungry, or not getting a full night's sleep. 

- The Train Wagons and Railroad Tracks:

Most of the prisoners in the camps were brought there under false premises; as I mentioned before, they were often told they would be "relocated" to Eastern Europe without any details. The prisoners were generally not told their specific destination and many even thought their lives would improve, even buying their own train tickets to get to their new location. There is a train wagon on display at Birkenau right next to the infamous tracks where the "selection" happened.  During the tour, visitors walk towards where the gas chambers were located to mimic the walk prisoners made on the way to their death. Walking never felt so heavy and I had never experienced so many emotions at the same time. The thought of all those victims' fates being in the hands of heartless degenerates made me absolutely sick.  Our guide did an incredible job at describing the "selection" process in an empathic and easy-to-understand manner and I can honestly say that I had never experienced so much sadness over hearing about something I already heard about a million times before. 

- The Faces of Auschwitz:

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial holds a collection of 38,916 registration photographs taken between February 1941 and January 1945. The preserved photos, 31,969 of men and 6,947 of women constitute only a fraction of a vast Nazi photo archive destroyed during the camp evacuation in January 1945. These photos can be seen in one of the rooms and each one is very haunting. They show the faces of sad people who were clearly suffering at the hands of pure evil.  Each photo has a name, prisoner number, and two dates: the date of "deportation" to the camp and the date of death.  Most of the dates aren't even a month apart, which means that some of these people did not survive long at the camp. The way the faces are captured is riveting and this was one of the few exhibits that I did not want to leave.  I somehow felt these people were talking to me; I experienced a strange connection to some of the faces and names, and for a moment I could feel their pain by just staring at their photographs.  What a sad, sad, sad thing to see. 

-The Wired Fences:

Barbed wire fences were one of the means of controlling prisoners at Auschwitz and the whole camp is surrounded by the remnants of those fences. During our tour, our guide told us about the many prisoners that would jump to their death by electrocuting themselves on the fences. The desperation was such that they would willingly run into the double fences and meet their ultimate fate. Most fenced areas also have lookout towers where the Nazis would monitor all the prisoners at all times and especially during "roll call", which often took over 20 hours in whatever inclement weather. 

- Gas Chambers & Crematoriums:

This part of the tour was extremely crude and raw; it was probably the second hardest for me (I haven't mentioned the worst) and for other people as well.  As part of the guided visit, we walked inside one of the crematoriums (which people often call "ovens") where they murdered thousands of people. There was such an eerie feeling invading the moment and everyone in our group was visibly uncomfortable and very moved. 
After the crematoriums, we walked into one of the gas chambers just outside of the camp. As many pictures and movies I have seen of what the gas chambers looked like, walking through one where thousands of people perished was an experience I will never forget.  Walking through it, I was able to see how big they actually are and where the holes in the roof were to drop the Zyklon B. It's hard to put into words the overwhelming grief and heartache I experienced during the time I stood inside that crematorium and next to the remains of the gas chambers. 
We were told the biggest gas chambers were bombed by the retreating Nazis towards the end of the war in an effort to eliminate evidence of the mass murders that occurred at the camp. When I asked why these remains were untouched, our guide replied "Because they are a grave", referring to the fact that the piles of "ruble" contain many of the victims' remains which are considered sacred. She said this camp is the biggest "open grave" because even the ground visitors walk on is made up of human remains. 

- The Room of Hair:

This room was, WITHOUT a doubt, the HARDEST part for me; the most emotional and disgusting at the same time. The room was originally used as a storage space for the camp’s belongings, but after the war, it was discovered that the Nazis had been collecting the hair of prisoners as part of their grotesque experimentation and dehumanization efforts.
The prisoners of Auschwitz had their entire body cut and shaved when entering the camp, often told that it was done for hygienic purposes; for other victims, their heads were shaved after they were killed in the gas chamber. It turns out that some of the hair was found to have been used to create textiles, such as blankets and carpets, for the Nazi army and at times even to make the uniforms that the very same prisoners wore. 
The room of hair houses large heaps equaling a total of 7 tons of human hair, that were found in bags after the camps were liberated. Walking through the darkly lit room, and seeing the piles of hair was something that simply took my breath away. Even decades after the Holocaust, these piles of hair remain there as a reminder of the atrocities that once plagued humanity and a memory of the millions of lives lost during one of the biggest tragedies in history.  
For obvious reasons, I did not take any photos in this room; I was incredibly grief-stricken and the pain was too much to bear. 

The last part of our tour took us around a memorial that features plaques in all the languages spoken by the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau (19 total) with an inscription calling for reflection and mourning and most importantly a warning for humanity to never forget this happened. 

It is extremely difficult to fully describe the profound impact this visit had on me. It's amazing to see how much a person can change by approaching these horrific stories with empathy and how much we can learn and grow even from the darkest things. There are many more stories and many more things to tell about this concentration camp but there will never be enough words to convey how much this experience touched my heart.  Would I do it again? Probably not!  But I am glad I did and it is a memory that I will cherish forever. 

Thank you for reading! Now let's keep on changing the world by thanking God for each blessing at a time and sharing the goodness with others!

Happy Blogging!

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Auschwitz-Birkenau: A life changing experience (Part 1)

 I am pretty confident that when someone is planning a European vacation (or any kind of vacation), visiting a former Holocaust concentration camp is not at the top of the list. One may think that it can be very somber and even morbid to visit such places and my own husband stated at one point that he wasn't "too sure" about monetizing a place of tragedy. All those things can be valid reasons to stay away from this type of "tourism" but I am here to tell you that putting those reasons aside is something to consider. 

Our visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was an absolutely life-changing experience, one that I will treasure forever and will intentionally use to become a better person, to ensure that a tragedy of such proportions and its consequences are never forgotten, and most importantly to be ever aware of the number of blessings that I receive on a daily basis, even the smallest things like a cup of water or a chair to sit on, that often go unnoticed.

Let's start by talking about how to get to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The camp is located about 45 miles from Krakow, one of the largest cities in Poland. It is easy to reach by car or train and the trip there is about an hour long.  We took a train at the Krakow Central Station and paid 30 PLN per person (about $7) for the round trip (Krakow-Oświęcim-Krakow); the train is very comfortable and the traveling experience was very smooth.

 Once there, we walked for 20 minutes to the concentration camp. There isn't really much to see in this town or on that walk so you can always opt for a quick taxi/Uber ride to the memorial instead, which takes about 4 minutes and costs less than $8.

Tickets must be reserved ahead of time and they cost 90 PLN per person (about $21). The place can only be visited with a guide and the tour is offered in several languages (Polish, Italian, Spanish, Russian, English, German, and French). Visitors are allowed to enter up to 30 minutes before the scheduled reservation, which allows time to go through security checks, claim your set of headphones, and watch an introductory movie about the story of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our guide (Beata) was very punctual, friendly, and incredibly knowledgeable; she also stated during our visit that some of her family members had survived the concentration camp so her narration was very relatable and heartfelt. 

The following are some of the areas/things that stood out to me the most:

- The Main Gate

Arbeit macht frei is a German phrase meaning "Work sets you free" or "Work makes one free". This phrase could be found at the entrance of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.  It seemed to suggest that there was a way out, when in reality, entering the concentration camp was a death sentence for most. 

Walking through that gate moved me in ways that are hard to describe. As soon as I saw the iconic gate, I choked up and couldn't hold back the tears; the thought of millions of innocent people of all ages having walked through that very same gate with their fate unbeknownst to them is probably one of the saddest things that has crossed my mind. And this was only the beginnig of the tour...

- The "Shoe Room"

Among the many exhibitions found at the memorial, there is a special room called the Shoe Room, where visitors can see a huge pile of the victims' shoes behind a glass pane. It is estimated that over 100K pairs of shoes of all sizes are kept in that room. This room had a profound impact on the three of us and it was incredible to see how even normal everyday items like shoes can trigger such deep emotions of grief and even anger.  Seeing the details on some of those shoes brought the tragey of the Holocaust to another level for me. 

- The Suitcases:

Before they were taken to the concentration camps to die, many of the victims were told they would resettle in Eastern Europe and were advised to pack their most precious possesions into suitcases. The unsuspecting victims wrote their names on said suitcases which contained treasured items, believing that at some point they would be returned to them. Most of the contents of those suitcases were stolen by Nazi soldiers and sent back to Germany to be divided as war spoils; the victims never saw their treasures again. Now those ownerless suitcases are packed in piles in a room behind a glass pane and they serve as a reminder of lives lost. Another very moving exhibit that opened my eyes to the unsurmountable evil that humanity is capable of. 

- Glasses and Prosthetics:

Heaps of eye glasses and prosthetics taken from Auschwitz victims can be found in another one of the main exhibits at the memorial. These harrowing imagery evokes the tragey which saw more than 1.2 million people perish at that site and it is such a sad thing to see.  I took the time to observe some of these items and take in  some details that gave life to my thoughts. I experienced a deep sense of sorrow and (strangely) a sense of guilt for so many innocent victims. 

- The Death Wall:

Between Block 10 and Block 11 stands the old "Death Wall" (reconstructed after the war) where thousands of prisoners were lined up for execution by firing squad. Prisoners were killed by SS men with a shot to the base of the skull from a small‑bore weapon. After the execution, the corpses were taken to the crematorium. The wall is made of a soft material to avoid richochet from the fired bullets. It is estimated that thousands of prisoners were executed in cold blood agains that wall.  It is now a memorial of incredibly somber proportions and it is one of the spots where I broke down during our visit. This is a place of prayer, mourning and deep self-reflection. 

It has been 10 days since our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and the truth is that I am still processing everything I saw and everything I lived while on the grounds.  The visit changed me in ways that I'm still trying to figure out. 
In the interest of not making this blog post unbearably long, I will divide the story in two parts (more if necessary). I hope sharing this experience can incite some reflection amongst my readers and friends so that we can all collectively change our way of thinking, our way of thanking and eventually become better people overall. 

To be continued...