Auschwitz: Seeing the Worst of Humanity
In our travels across Europe, we have seen the very best of humanity. The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, La Sagrada Familia. In Poland, we saw the very worst of humanity. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a factory of death. The gas chambers and crematoria were designed to kill people as efficiently as possible, including my family.
FACES OF THE INNOCENT
My grandmother left Poland for Israel in the years before World War 2. She told her family to follow, but they never did. They believed the situation for Jews in Poland wouldn’t get worse. Couldn’t get worse. In return for their optimism, they were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, part of the 1.1 million Jews that died at the notorious concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis. I searched for their family name – Leizerovitcz – among the faces of the innocent that cover the walls, but I couldn’t find them. Maybe they came here after the Nazis stopped taking pictures of everyone at Auschwitz. I don’t know, and I probably never will know.
Walking around the buildings at Auschwitz, I wondered if my family had been inside the walls, if their shoes were among the 80,000 shoes on display, or if their suitcases were in the heap of discarded luggage. I can only hope they didn’t suffer too much when they died. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, I mourned in every way I could think of.
THE CONCENTRATION CAMP OF AUSCHWITZ
Auschwitz is the general term used to refer to both Auschwitz and Birkenau, but the camps are separate both in location and in purpose. Auschwitz was, for the most part, a concentration camp. People brought here, from Polish POWs at the camp’s inception to Jews later on, were put to work in grueling 12-hour shifts. That’s where the famous sign comes from at the entrance to Auschwitz. “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Work will set you free.
THE DEATH CAMP OF BIRKENAU
About 2 miles away, Birkenau was set up almost exclusively as a death camp. The train arrived at the main gate and immediately went to the gas chambers. There are no brick buildings where Nazis housed Jews and others. There were only wooden huts that served as crowded waiting rooms for death. Scattered around Birkenau, there are small memorials to the genocide that happened here. They are only the beginning of remembrance.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is a testament to the hatred of one man that became the policy of a nation. The Holocaust was Hitler’s idea. It is now the Third Reich’s horrific legacy. Everyone needs to see visit this place. It’s not fun, and it’s certainly not uplifting. But it is necessary. You begin to understand what humans are capable of in the worst possible way. You see evil in Auschwitz on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.
We took an organized trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau from our Krakow hostel. It was essentially just a bus that brought you to the camp, then set you up with a guide from the camp. Any hotel or hostel in Krakow will have the information you need. This is absolutely the easiest way to see Auschwitz. Unfortunately, I felt the guided tour moved a little fast, and Cassie agreed. Maybe it’s ok for someone who has no personal connection to Auschwitz, but it moved too quickly for me to really mourn in any meaningful way. The tour was still very powerful, but I wanted more time to absorb the information and the surroundings. Click here for more information on visiting Auschwitz.
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Check out our Auschwitz-Birkenau gallery.