“Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
—Viktor Frankl. “Man’s Search for Meaning.’
Note to reader: This is my personal experience at the German Concentration Camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau located in Oświęcim, Poland. An hour and a half’s drive from Krakow. (the country’s third largest city). My visit there is solely based on personal understanding and reflections. All opinions are grounded in my own experience at the death-camp. This post is not up for discussion nor disagreement. It is a very sensitive matter for me, as well as many others affected by this tragedy. If you are of another opinion, than my experience I only ask you respectably take it elsewhere, where such matters are more appropriate.
I woke up Tuesday morning. The weather had dropped from 68°F (20°C) the day before, to just above 50°F (10°C) over night. It was raining and grey outside. It wasn’t the sunshine and lovely temperatures that had met me upon my arrival, just days before. However, this was appropriate weather for visiting the concentration camps. I felt as if sadness and mourning literally hung in the air.
What happened in Oświęcim, Poland was one of the greatest tragedies in human history. This is undoubtable. This is what you should expect encountering if you decide to tour the Auschwitz death camps. Nothing less. This isn’t a museum, it’s a place where many suffered and were murdered. To this day, people nationwide still mourn this location and occurrence.
My visit to the memorial grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau didn’t hit me till later. When I was there I felt prepared and well-informed by Victor Frankl’s memoir, experience and suffering. In the days up to my departure for Krakow, I read his memoir ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. Victor was a Jewish holocaust survivor. He was held prisoner for three years in the German concentration camps, Auschwitz I and Birkenau II, included. So, I knew what I was getting myself into, before I even got on an airplane to Poland. I wasn’t chasing after this place, as a historic interest, I think that would be very disrespectful. For good reasons. The despair rooted in the place, is suffocating and unbearable at best.
It is seventy-four years since Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, at the end of WWII. The polish government decided in the years following, to keep the two concentration camps intact as museum, memorial and as reminder of the past. It stands today, as it did seventy-four years ago. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the one of most well-preserved pieces of history, we have left from the war.
6 of these cans of gas was used to kill 2.000 victims at once.
Some of the camp were destroyed immediately after liberation. Four out of five gas-chambers were destroyed. Most war-pictures were burned or buried by the German government. Most is still left in good conditions and the remains of the death-camp is plenty horrifying to bring ever visiting soul to tears.
There were rooms filled with shoes. Millions of pairs of shoes. Suitcases and belongings taken from war-victims, before they were sent directly to the gas-chambers and killed. Mothers and children, the weaker and unsuitable. 90% of all who entered the camp, was sent directly to be gassed upon arrival. The only Jewish children whom survived the gas chambers where the twins. They were subject of interest. The Germans preformed ’medical experiments’ on them, before they also were sent to be executed.
There were a rooms full of human hair. Tons and TONS of human hair. Some of it were carefully braided. Then it was cut off and collected, to make fabric for war uniforms for the Germans. This happened to every single arrival at the Nazi Camp. It was a very horrible sight, to say the least.
One of the destroyed gas-chambers at Birkenau II.
The most excruciating part of the experience, is knowing that well-over a million people were murdered in that exact location. Birkenau II is the latter portion of the camp build. It’s over twenty times bigger than the original Auschwitz I. They build it because Auschwitz I, just wasn’t big enough to hold and kill the war slaves. They needed bigger gas-chambers. The new gas-chambers they build in Birkenau II, could kill an estimated two-thousand people at once. They build four. These chambers were hardly ever empty. The ashes of the people killed where spread on the camp grounds, where they died. When you walk the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, you walk directly on graves of over a million innocent victims of the Second World War. After liberation the whole place was basically human ashes.
The sorrow and memorial goes on to this day.
The feeling of despair and sorrow lived on the camp-grounds. This was also the feeling that stayed with me hours and days, after our tour was over. I felt cool and collected on the tour, but the aftermath of the shock lingered. These are things, that you can expect from a visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. The polish still deeply mourns these grounds. I even encountered some, whom had never visited. The pain and the memory of the past had already made a permanent mark on their souls. They didn’t want to go. They didn’t need to.
If you are looking for a video footage of a visit to the campgrounds, I can highly recommend this one by Heidi Somers.
I went to the camp with questions. Lots of questions. Questions of suffering. Questions about meaning. I came out of the experience broken, tearful and safe to say; with more questions than before I went in. I was not a pleasant experience, but I do believe that it was an extremely essential one. One that will help shape and form my perception on human life, mercy and love from now on. Yes, I came out of the experience with more questions than ever before. But these are new questions: Questions every human needs to ask themselves at one point or another. I also came out of the experience with a deeper appreciation for life. I came out of the experience with a deeper love for myself. The camps proved one thing to me: Every human being deserves love. We mourn over a million, whom were unrightfully murdered in cold blood. Yet most of us don’t know a single one of their souls, or have any personal connection to the history of the place. This is what binds us together as a human race. The love we have for one another. This gives me reason to forgive. Forgive those around me. Forgive myself. Ultimately learn to love. Because if thousands can love the unknown, I can love what is known. When I start to love myself, I can start to genuinely love you.
13th of April 2017.