The morning after our tour of Auschwitz, we made our way to the second camp. Our same Polish guide led us straight off of the bus and up the stairs of the iconic watchtower, a tunnel left in its base for the railway cars full of arriving prisoners.
The vast landscape of the camp is broken up by remnants of its three hundred structures, most all of which were deconstructed after the war in an effort to send supplies to the demolished city of Warsaw. Of the twenty or so remaining buildings, few are open to visitors. To the left of the watchtower, brick barracks were constructed by the Nazis using materials from existing Polish farm houses. To the right of the tower, barracks were made entirely of wood – constructed using the same layout as the German Army’s stables. Designed for 51 horses, each building held a minimum of 400 prisoners.
The first two barracks we entered were mind-numbing in their cruelty, having been used in various ways to house and isolate women and children. The mood inside both buildings was borderline sickening.
The women’s and men’s camps were split down the center by the railroad tracks, which stretch into the woods at the end opposite the watch tower. Amongst the perfectly-aligned trees sits the sanatorium, where arriving prisoners were undressed, showered and processed into the camp.
Finally, we found ourselves standing alongside the rubble of the gas chambers, demolished just prior to the liberation of the camp. Beside the ruins was a pond, one of many rectangles carved out of the back half of the camp. In these ponds, ashes from the crematorium were dumped – even now, the banks are starkly grey in contrast with the green grass and the growing algae. Four black stone monuments memorialize the scene in Polish, English, Hebrew and Yiddish.
Not until we were leaving, walking the perimeter starting from the woods, did I notice the beautiful mountain range dominating the horizon on one whole side of the camp. Four hours of staring at bricks and stables and ash, but I had never looked up.
While the day was not as emotional as Auschwitz I, the amount of time spent reflecting was extraordinary. Thankfully, our program did not end there.