Day 7 - Auschwitz & Birkenau
Our last full day in Poland was to be the highly anticipated tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Two places synonymous with the Holocaust. A place we heard about often was much more like a museum than a site that was synonymous with death. We were all ready to make our final stop before the long awaited journey to Israel.
After a 5:45am wake up and a hour and a half bus ride, we pulled up to what is one of the most notorious remaining Holocaust sites, Birkenau (Auschwitz ll). Birkenau was established in October 1941 and is situated three kilometres from Auschwitz 1. Nearly everybody that walked through Birkenau was immediately sent to their tragic death. Only a small percentage of the camp's population was selected for labour.
The bus silenced as everyone saw the infamous sight for the first time. The photo we had seen for years in Jewish History classes had come to life. The large brick structure was a standing testament to the memories that can no longer be told. The entirety of the camp was completely overwhelming. When standing in the middle of the camp you are unable to see the other end. We walked through the structure and onto the train tracks where we paused at the area where the selection process would have occurred. This is where we saw primary evidence of the events that would have happened during the selection. The place in which families were split up and forced to say their last goodbyes, something that at the time they never knew.
We then continued to follow in the footsteps of those who would have walked to their untimely death, stopping at the cattle car that was generously donated by the Lowy family in honour of their grandfather Hugo Lowy. We continued on to the pile of rubble that has served as site the largest gas chamber made within the whole Auschwitz facility. Knowing that 1 100 000 people perished in that very place that we were standing in was an incredibly emotional and intense experience. The remains of the gas chamber and crematorium sat before us; remains that were meant to be destroyed in an attempt by the Nazis to remove any evidence of the atrocities that they had committed.
At that moment the heavens opened and the rain poured down.
The temperature dropped to a freezing 5 degrees and although I was lucky enough to be wearing 6 layers the effect of the inclement weather reduced me to a liturgy of complaint as the rain fell on my hair, the wind beat against my face and my vision became impaired by the stain of rain on my glasses. As I was about to launch into another round of complaint I was rendered speechless by thought that the prisoners in this camp during this weather would have been wearing the barest of rags, whilst suffering from severe hunger and exhaustion. All at once my problems were put into perspective and gratitude for the life that I live became extremely apparent and my good fortune lay before me in stark contrast to what Jews before me standing now in this very site had as the reality of their lives. The weather however did play testament to the atmosphere around the camp. We all felt as though the rain falling from the heavens was representative of the tears that were shedding.
After walking around the camp and observing many more disturbing sites we walked into a building called 'Canada', a place in which those who had not been sent to the gas chambers immediately gathered. Inside this building was where the Jewish people had their hair shaved, their names removed and replaced with numbers, and their bodies and clothes washed and disinfected. We continued to walk through the building until we reached a darker room filled with pictures. The pictures were of all the victims of the Holocaust. They showed snapshots of life, happiness, family and love. They gave context to the numbers, and stories to the names. The thought that all these lives were torn apart due to the cruel actions of the Nazis is still something that is unfathomable to me.
In this room we heard the story of Jaimi Knep's great grandmother. Hearing about a friends personal connection to the Holocaust and to Birkenau made it all the more real. Jaimi's great grandmother, Wira, was born in 1923 and was sent to Birkenau in 1943. She was a slave labourer in the camp up until the time she was transported on countless, seperate occasions to different concentration camps. Her story showed extreme courage and determination as she never sought revenge for the wrong-doings the Nazis inflicted upon her.
After completing the tour of Birkenau we ran to the warmth of our bus, after witnessing all that we had we wolfed lunch down sustaining ourselves before arriving at Auschwitz l which was our next stop. The contrast of Auschwitz l to Birkenau was shocking. Auschwitz l has been completely commercialised. A place we had heard about often was much more like a museum than a site was synonymous with death and destruction. The museum was clean with well structured buildings and clean cut grass. We got off the bus and walked into a line, somewhat like airport security. We walked through a metal detector before receiving our head sets and meeting our polish tour guide.
We started the tour by walking underneath the sign 'Arbeit Macht Frei' - work will set you free. This expression was to become an epitome of irony and cynicism to the victims of Auschwitz I. The main difference between Auschwitz l and Auschwitz ll were the bunkers in which the prisoners resided. Instead of barracks, there were brick buildings, almost apartment like, that were used for the living spaces. These blocks however, had been transformed into museums, each containing different exhibitions. We entered the different blocks where we saw piles of shoes, hair, glasses, suitcases and cooking appliances. The amount of personal belongs on display was unfathomable, the thought that each belonging had a story was overwhelming.
Hair lined the walls from one side of the room to the other. Over 1 kg of hair was displayed. Blonde hair, brown hair and black hair all become one. The sight of this was sickening. We continued to walk into a room that is not normally spoken about when thinking about Auschwitz, yet this room carried just as important a message as all the other rooms. The artist Jan Komski had transformed the white walls into drawings. Around the room it felt as though a Jewish child was portraying his/her experience during World War II. The small lead pencil drawings screamed innocence, whilst exposing the maturity that many had been forced to develop during war.
We walked out of the buildings and towards one of the few standing gas chambers. As we walked through the chamber, we saw the Zyklon B stains and the fingernail scratch marks across the walls. The thought that so many were unaware of their future was
excruciating. I could not even imagine how they must have been feeling as they realised their lives were soon to end. The mere thought sent shivers through my spine.
Having a non-Jewish tour guide was refreshing. Although they were not able to express the same type of emotion we had felt in the Children's Forest or Majdanek, it was important to realise that Polish people have deep emotions towards the Holocaust. I understand that this maybe for different reasons but, the feeling shown throughout her tour made it very interesting and moving. It struck me how at this moment incredibly important it is to remember and forever pass down the reality that was the Holocaust, so that the 6 million Jews who perished are never forgotten.
Upon leaving the camp I felt overwhelmed with both the knowledge that our Poland trip was coming to a close and the undeniable fact that I had just witnessed the atrocities that are Auschwitz and Birkenau. We all felt proud that the Jewish people, such a minority group has triumphed over the Nazis. We felt proud to know that we were a testament to that fact. After a week exploring the darkest period in Jewish history, tomorrow we will make the journey to the light - the holy land, Israel.
- Amy Diamond