Visiting different places greatly contributes to our understanding of history, and an understanding and knowledge of history greatly increases our appreciation and enjoyment of the things we experience when traveling. However, surprises are always around the corner. Even when you have clear expectations about what you might see, even when you already have a mental image based on all the things you’ve read about a place, it always turns out to be quite different. Being there and seeing the real place for yourself is moving in more than one way. Recently, as I boarded the bus in Kraków, Poland, to visit the Auschwitz–Birkenau concentration camps, I had no idea what I was about to witness. I was guessing what I might see and had prepared myself for it, but it left a greater impression on my friends and me than we ever could have imagined.
We entered through the main gate, passing under the sign reading “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning “Labor sets you free.” I wondered how many of those who read this as they were brought in took it literally and thought the hard work awaiting them here would ultimately lead to their freedom. I thought about those who might have believed this and toiled diligently in the hope that one day they could leave alive. Our first stop was a building displaying what the inhabitants went through from their arrival to their death. What struck me as particularly cruel was the labeling of the prisoners as “can work” and “cannot work.” Naturally, many of those who were physically unfit to work were in that situation as a result of matters beyond their control, starvation and disease being the most important reasons. And there was no reason to keep those who could not work alive. It must be terrifying to wait for such a decision to be made about you. As much as I tried to understand what those in this position must have felt, I was equally curious about what must have gone through the minds of the personnel making these decisions.
Afterwards, my friends and I visited a display of the possessions of countless victims. The kitchenware was the least disturbing. Most horrifying were the hair, shoes and luggage. Each of these items was loaded with symbolic meaning. All of those shoes were worn and lived in; they had carried their owners through the joys and sorrows of life. They carried unknowing children to an unexpected and untimely death. Every bag and suitcase represented the dreams of another family, and their hopes of returning home. Now, after all the years that have come between, they’re piled up in a museum display, gathering dust. All of them have a name on them, but more significantly, a number as well. The Nazi officers had reduced people to that: a number. Numbers made it easier to manage them systematically, and to kill them systematically. This highly systematic structure was one of the most striking qualities of the camp, and I couldn’t help but connect this to the cold-blooded crimes that were committed. The streets were laid out in a pattern of equally spaced vertical and horizontal lines. From virtually every point, it was possible to see the fences surrounding or partitioning the camp, and this was a constant reminder of how helpless the prisoners were. It was no surprise that very few people could escape.
I had a vivid image of the death of over a million people when I saw the crematoriums and gas chambers. I couldn’t help but imagine the pain and agony they felt, and how they finally collapsed and died. Ultimately, what was left behind from every individual was a handful of ash. Those not yet killed had to suffer and wait in very cramped, dark cells, where they had only enough space to stand.
The nearby camp of Birkenau was much larger than Auschwitz, but equally systematic and orderly. Looking into the distance, I couldn’t even see where the camp ended. The signs said that 400 prisoners were crammed into a stable designed for 50 horses, and had to try to survive the cold, filth and hunger. The toilets were in another stable and in very bad condition. It was quite disturbing to learn that use of them was limited to five seconds.
I had prepared myself for the worst, but my imagination had failed to depict the level of inhumanity we witnessed at Auschwitz–Birkenau. From the belongings, to those who died, to the dark cells: everything reminded us of death and despair.