An account of one staff member’s experience while visiting the infamous concentration camp.
There is a snack bar at Auschwitz. Yes, you heard me correctly: There is a snack bar… at Auschwitz.
Mothers pushed screaming toddlers in strollers, baiting them with candy from the aforementioned snack bar. Tour buses crammed into the parking and groups of school children complained about the length of the drive to the camp.
Upon arriving to the camp that still stands today about an hour outside of Krakow, Poland, I expected to be overcome with emotion at visiting a place that has hosted the some of the most horrific things humanity has ever seen, but what I had really come upon felt like a typical tourist trap. Needless to say, I was disappointed. Despite these initial feelings of disgruntlement toward other visitors, though, my time at Auschwitz sparked a new level of revulsion for the atrocities committed by Nazi officers there and brought me new appreciation for the workers that preserve this part of history and remember the victims of the Holocaust. Experiencing Auschwitz reawakened feelings I experienced when first learning about what happened during World War II. The realization that something so terrible occured in recent memory honestly scares me.
But before I could pay my respects, I had to make it through the line.
It seemed as though few people in line to enter the camp felt the gravity and historical significance of the site that lay before us. Here, people grumbled about how long the wait in line is, and I wanted to tell them to shut the hell up, because unlike the near 1.5 million people that perished here, they have the privilege to leave.
I wanted to say this isn’t like waiting in line for Magic Mountain but knew I wouldn’t get anywhere.
As I approached the security area, I noticed graffiti scrawled on the entrance building. John and Kat’s Eurotrip 2013. Auschwitz crew 2011. Those are just some of the things I could understand among the varying languages senselessly scratched into the wall. My disappointment gave way to disgust, and soon it was my turn to walk through the metal detector.
On the other side of the security gates, Auschwitz was a different world. I wasn’t standing on some random gravel road in rural Poland. I was nowhere, and there is nowhere to go but through the paths lined with barbed wire and between brick buildings that all look the same.
I had hardly begun my journey inside and I was trapped in a vast complex of sterile surroundings, with only block numbers on the buildings to guide me. I was in a place I had only seen in textbooks and documentaries. Everything I knew of Auschwitz was black and white, and here I was seeing it in color. I passed under the threshold of the main gate and looked above, “Arbeit macht frei”: Work will set you free. It was there that my stomach began to ache.
I did not expect how I would react physically to being in a place with such palpable negative energy. My heart sank into my stomach and my feet dragged along as my family and I went from barrack to barrack to view the various exhibitions of items and rooms that have been preserved to serve as a reminder of what happened there. I had only been in the camp for less than an hour, and I was physically and emotionally drained.
The showcases in the barracks displayed everyday objects, from shoes to glasses to suitcases the Nazis took from victims upon arrival. This is where visitors realize the enormous number of people who came through the camp. The barracks are small, and it is easy to forget just how many victims were packed into a single room.
After roaming the rooms, I started to feel numb to the idea of what transpired at Auschwitz. I walked past the photos of victims and the old uniforms of theirs that hung on the walls. My brain was oversaturated with images of innocent people starved to skin and bones. It didn’t feel real. I think my mind was just trying to find a way to cope, and I held it together — until I entered the room of human hair.
When victims were loaded off trains into the camp, their belongings were taken, their bodies stripped of their clothing, and they were completely shaved. This was intended to prevent lice in the close quarters of the camp, but the hair was also sold to a company in Bavaria for the manufacture of whatever one can make with the follicles.
After seeing all of the belongings stolen from the people forced to come there, I felt sicker. All the hair, all two tons of it, the same color due to being “sanitized” by the gas Zyklon-B, impacted me because that reduced the victims from people to nameless numbers on a spreadsheet. They were stripped of what made them human in so many ways; seeing their hair, an actual piece of them, shook me to the core.
What came next was something that I had been dreading all day–the gas chambers. Despite Nazi efforts to cover their tracks and collapse the chambers when the Soviets were advancing on the camp, one smoke stack still stands today.
In a single file line, my family and I entered the chamber and immediately I felt violently ill. The smell was rank and the moist air caught in my throat. The dull ache in my stomach escalated to a pinching pain and I thought I was going to lose my lunch.
It was a feeling I will never forget, and I anticipate that I won’t ever experience it again. I don’t want to. To stand in a place of such significance and complete suffering is indescribable.
It brought a lot of things into perspective for me that I won’t explain here, but I can say that the experience of being in Auschwitz changed my life and I could see it changing other visitors around me.
I am not Jewish. I am not Romani. I am not gay. I am not a part of any other group the Nazis persecuted, and I will never begin to understand the pain associated with seeing the suffering of their people, their ancestors, in such a raw way.
But I am human, and going to Auschwitz made me seriously contemplate the amount of hate and ignorance in this world. I mourn the loss of these souls that fell victim to blind hate.
I think the most terrifying thing about the place, though, is that the outside of the camp did not inspire fear in me. In Auschwitz the grass is green, birds chirp in the trees, the grounds are orderly and on the outside, the buildings look just as they would on other military bases. Auschwitz as a place is not inherently evil. Without electricity running through the fence and smoke billowing out of the gas chambers, it is nothing but the military base it was before WWII. But it is now forever plagued by the memory of monstrous destruction of humanity.
That’s what is truly horrifying about Auschwitz. It makes you comes to terms with that fact that the place is not evil, but people can be, and there is the capacity for it in all of us.