The infamous "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work Makes (you) Free") sign at the entrance to Auschwitz I.

Of all the historical events, eras, and sagas taught in grade school history classes, none is more rigorously discussed that the Second World War and, more specifically, the atrocities of the Holocaust. While I learned a great deal about topic during my formal education, sadly the vast majority of my knowledge developed solely out of a need to pass an exam. I remember hearing unbelievably emotional stories from friends who visited concentration camps such as Auschwitz and vowed to visit at least one of these camps during my lifetime. More than a simple social obligation, I felt the need to see Auschwitz with my own two eyes to gain a better understanding of the events that transpired in this region of the world. Since the poster child for atrocities committed during WWII - Auschwitz II Birkenau - is located just outside of Krakow, I could not leave Poland without a visit.

The walkways through Auschwitz I.

Auschwitz is actually a network of 48 various concentration and extermination camps primarily focused around Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II - Birkenau, and Auschwitz III - Monowitz. Unless you arrive incredibly early in the morning, entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is only permitted with a guided tour. I’m not particular fond of forced tours as they are usually expensive and quite disappointing, but much to my surprise, the obligatory tour of Auschwitz is definitely worth the money. The tour itself lasts several hours, takes visitors through Auschwitz I and II, and includes transportation between the two memorials.

The first stop on the tour was a walk through Auschwitz I as the guide described the camp’s transformation from Polish military garrison to the infamous concentration camp. We explored the various buildings, holding cells, execution locations, and plazas where prisoners were subjected to stand for hours on end during roll calls, while the guide regaled us of the horrendous stories that occurred in the camp. The somber feeling I experienced on the tour left an indelible impression on me that no grade school lecture ever could - especially since I stood on the very ground where the events of each story transpired. It was a feeling that cannot be fully communicated through words, or even a museum for that matter, but is an experience I feel everyone should have at least once in their lifetime.

I am repeatedly surprised and saddened by the stories showcasing the degree of indifference officers at Auschwitz placed on human life. It is mesmerizing to hear the myriad of reasons a person could be executed, and how often times no reason was needed at all. The most despairing stories for me were prisoners who passed up opportunities to escape the camp, because they knew the guards would execute an innocent person – possibly one of their friends or family –  at random the next day when they were discovered missing at roll call.

Of everything I saw during my tour of Auschwitz, this hallway was the most painful.

As we wandered through the various garrisons that once housed the countless hordes of prisoners, we passed through various exhibits showcasing piles of clothing, possessions, and even hair that was stolen from the multitude of people imprisoned here. The term shocking would be an understatement, but I’d seen these displays before. What really hit home for me was a long corridor completely covered in mug shots of people who were registered at the camp upon arrival along with their name, occupation, and dates of imprisonment. The pictures on display are only a fraction of the people brought into the camp since many were never document or photographed during the latter years of the war, but the wall was covered in seemingly endless rows of photographs. Looking at the dates of imprisonment, the vast majority of people lasted on average two months in the camp while the older prisoners survived at best for a few days - maybe a week if they were lucky - before perishing.

There are numerous horrors that took place in this camp, but to see the faces of the unfortunate souls who were subjected to these crimes engenders a deep sense of remorse. Even though the photos account for only a small fraction of the people who were imprisoned in the camp, seeing their faces forces you to accept that these people were no different than you; they had families of their own, they had stories, they had a life that was taken from them, and there you see the last documented proof of their existence. This was their last picture in this world before being subjected to the terrible working conditions and inventible demise which was almost always just a few weeks later.

The iconic entrance to Auschwitz II - Birkenau.

As upsetting as the original camp was, Auschwitz II - Birkenau was far more disheartening. Walking through the main gate I knew this camp was built with the sole intention of mass extermination. Much of the sprawling complex now lies in ruins, but it is eerie to think that every brick laid here was for the sole purpose of repression, confinement, and eventual execution. Moreover, Auschwitz II seems to stretch for miles in every direction - just for me to walk around the perimeter took the better part of an hour!

The most conflicting aspect of the entire complex was how inconsistent the present-day environment was as compared to the pictures I grew up seeing. Before I visited, I recalled the many horrid things that happened on this very plot of land and the disgusting conditions people here were subjected to, but as I walked through the remains of the camp I was surround by thick green grass and bright blue sky with a light breeze in the air. The scenery appeared completely contradictory to everything I saw of the camp when it was still in operation. Much like my trip to the Dachau concentration camp back in Germany, it felt as if Mother Nature herself was attempting to forget what happened here at Auschwitz II - Birkenau. Since most of the camp was destroyed when the Nazis abandoned the facility, the entire complex is now just a giant field full of old barbed wire and demolished buildings with a vibrant green forest in the background. This was definitely not the Auschwitz that so many people experienced during the war.

Present day Auschwitz is a far cry from the disparaging pictures I remember seeing in textbooks.

As we walked among the ruins the guide told us of stories about what happened in the camp and the extent to which the Nazis took to fabricate, miscommunicate, hide, and flat out lie to the outside world about what they were doing in the camp. One such story that surprised me was where families were forced to write letters to journalists that included specific phrases indicating how well they were being treated at Auschwitz. Once the letters were collected for distribution to journalists, these poor people were taken to the gas chambers for execution. While there is only so much I can contain in one blog post, my tour was full of such stories - one after another, after another, after another. 

Entrance to one of the gas chambers. To think this was many peoples' last view of the natural world sent a cold chill down my spine.

Unsurprisingly, the notorious gas chambers were hidden behind the camp in the woods to ensure people didn’t know what was going on until it was too late. It’s obvious the camp’s overseers knew what they were doing was reprehensible and they took great pains to demolish every building on site to prevent the world from knowing what happened at Auschwitz. The ruined gas chambers can still be viewed in their original demolished state and I could clearly see the outline of the facility, undressing room, and gas chamber below the rubble. 

On the far end of the demolished building I noticed an old staircase leading underground into the first room where people were instructed to disrobe so they could "shower.” Standing at the top of this staircase sent a chill down my spine that I’ll never forget – in that instant everything I read about and learned over the years became very real to me. While much of the landscape has changed over the years, this was the last view of daylight hundreds of thousands of people, just like me, saw before being murdered in the chamber below. Standing there on the precipice of the first step and there was momentary flash of horror as I imagined myself being sent down these very stairs, completely unaware of what fate awaited me.

My trip to Auschwitz was by no means a delightful stroll though part of Poland, as evidenced by my the rather melancholy post. However, I felt the trip was absolutely necessary and looking back it was completely worthwhile. While none of my family members were ever sent to camps like Auschwitz, it was a remarkably emotional experience that I will ever forget. The atrocities committed here are not only reprehensible, but the sheer size of the operation is just staggering; more importantly, WWII is not something that happened thousands of years ago, the events that transpired here occurred less than 75 years ago! I left the camp that afternoon feeling a deep sense of remorse and disappointment that society could permit such egregious acts to occur... and that similar horrors are currently being played out in parts of the world right now. 

How is such a thing even possible?