How and where to begin? I visited Auschwitz today, the infamous concentration camp located about an hour’s drive from Krakow. After years of studying the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, since I was a curious ten year old trying to understand a horror beyond my comprehension, I am frankly at a loss. Today the Holocaust became truly real to me, yet still unfathomable. It became solid objects at a fixed point; mortar and brick. I am still trying to process my experience.
I started at the first, original camp – Auschwitz I. The grounds outside the camp are rather dissonant with what awaits the visitor. A graceful, sunny park with benches and weeping willows. I could almost see myself having a picnic there. Then you walk a few meters inside the grounds and see the barbed wire and guard towers. Truly a bizarre transition. Walked under the main gate, with the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means loosely “Works makes you free.” A chilling moment. I was walking under the very sign that twice a day taunted the prisoners as they marched to and from work, knowing full well the only way out was death.
Auschwitz I surprised me by how pleasant and residential it feels, unlike the images I’ve seen in photos and films. Our guide explained that this camp was originally a soldiers’ barracks, which is why everything is so well built. However, the horror was just as real here. The electric fence encircles the entire camp, and signs original to the camp still stand silently screaming “Halt! Stoj!” along the perimeter. We toured the exhibits inside the buildings: the piles of human hair taken from the prisoners and used to make cloth for army uniforms, piles of eyeglasses, clothes, shoes, all found by the Soviets when they liberated the camp. The wall against which prisoners were executed by firing squads.
Most significant were two buildings: the basement in which the Nazis first experimented with Zyklon B gas on Soviet POWs and the only crematorium still intact. The guides showed us actual crystals of the Zyklon B under a glass display and then we walked through the room in which people were gassed. Candles were burning in memorium and I began to get teary. Then we saw the ovens. Nothing prepares you for seeing this – no amount of study, reading, or films will ever prepare you for this moment when you become a witness to the evidence. I am forever changed.
Auschwitz II-Birkeneau is the camp most people recognize. I cannot even begin to describe its scale. Enormous, vast, stretches as far as the eye can see. That looming, menacing tower with the gate through which every train entered. The tracks splitting the camp down the middle. The platform where doctors decided who would work and who would go straight to the gas chambers. All the images we know. I stood in the middle of the tracks and I cried. Gazed out at all the little chimneys, standing a silent sentinel over the ghosts of this place. All that remain besides foundations for most of the barracks that imprisoned those millions of souls.
Immediately upon returning to Krakow, I made a beeline for Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter. I needed to see a living, breathing Jewish community. I stepped into the quiet sanctuary of a Jewish synagogue rebuilt after the war and took a deep breath. I sat there for a long time. Then I strolled the streets, watching people hurry on their way home from work. This neighborhood, though small, is still thriving, with at least five different synagogues. Silently I cursed the Nazis and smiled – despite their best efforts, this community is still here. Still standing, working, playing , loving. Still here.