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...

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