We arrived in the small town of Oscwiecim (pop: 40,000) in the early morning, having made the hour-long drive from Krakow. Our two Polish friends awaited our arrival at the Auschwitz Jewish Center, located just off of the main square. (More on Oscwiecim later.)
Our arrival at Auschwitz occurred much more suddenly than I had anticipated. In the midst of conversation I glanced out the window of our bus, and in an instant my heart stopped. Aging concrete pillars leaned away from the road, stringing together thick strands of barbed wire. Just beyond this fence loomed massive red-brick barracks, the presence of which silenced ourentire group.
From the moment we stepped into the parking lot until we boarded the bus four hours later, our entire group was silent. Our intensive study in the States coupled with our exploration of Jewish life in Warsaw and Krakow had made this camp into something larger than life, and the reality of it was shocking. I hope that the following descriptions can do the experience justice.
The buildings themselves had been a Polish Army Camp before the war, resulting in a normal, if not familiar, layout and appearance. Each building or “block” had its number affixed to a plaque beside the entrance, as well as a single tree in front. (These trees were originally planted by prisoners, and recently replanted by the museum.) Stones and dust formed the roads between buildings, most all of which were two stories with windows. On occassion, windows were boarded and sealed – the purpose of this differed from building to building, depending on what was occuring within or outside.
Led by our local guide – a Polish man with a fabulous accent and cardigan – we walked through many of the exhibits located in various buildings. The most well known of these is the exhibit containing the prisoner’s shoes – 80,000, to be exact. In addition to these were bales of hair, a room full of mostly-brown locks sheared off of arrivals to the camp. Two tons of hair, packaged and ready-to-ship, was found by the Soviet liberators of the camp. Suitcases with carefully written names and birth dates filled a different room, while thousands of pairs of glasses filled another. In each exhibit, one could watch my peers stop in their tracks at the sight of something small; braided hair still affixed with a bow, a suitcase with a name drawn in elegant script, a pair of children’s shoes or high heels spilling out from the pile. Small reminders of humanity cut through the incomprehensible mass of objects, and those were the most difficult thoughts to swallow.
The buildings themselves held various cruel purposes that I will not detail. In the courtyard between two of the worst blocks was the “murder wall” – where a mix of concrete and straw was plastered over the brick for absorbtion. It is estimated that 10,000 lives were taken, one at a time, along that thirty foot stretch alone. This was the kind of place that warranted boarded windows on the two surrounding buildings.
One exhibit, created by Yad Vashem, contained carefully recreated children’s drawings penciled onto the walls. Powerful in their depictions, the view out the window of barbed wire and red brick made them even more meaningful. The final room held thousands of pages containing names of known victims.
The last part of our tour led us to the gas chamber – the only one to operate at Auschwitz I. Stepping inside the concrete bunker was surreal, as were the marks on the walls and floor. In the very next room was the crematorium, were Jewish prisoners were forced to work. Outside, a single smoke stack rose above the grassy mound.
In a testimony I watched in New York, one man tearfully described his most painful memory of the Holocaust; being forcefully evacuated from his childhood home by Nazis, only to find his neighbors and “friends” gathered on the steps outside, waiting to loot his family’s belongings. This man survived Auschwitz – yet this memory was more hurtful, even after seventy years of reflection. The individual emotion connected to each life within the Holocaust is what I personally never learned im school, and I believe that holds true for many. Auschwitz may be the symbol of this genocide, but the mental and physical torture of its victims began so much earlier. In the words of our leader at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., it is better to think of the Jewish loss in the Holocaust not as six million murders, but as one murder, six million times.