Auschwitz. Just the sound of it, sounds like pain. But being this close to the camp, I couldn’t not go. Despite the Pope’s visit to Poland which disrupted a lot of my original plans, I rebooked and rebooked tickets to ensure that I could go see this infamous death camp and learn even more about our recent past.
I got up at 6am to get my car and headed for the journey westward to Oświęcim. Thankful for Google Maps, I turned on navigation and got decent directions out of the city. However, she would be late in telling me to turn, and I missed about 3 of the turns out which elongated my time getting onto the highway. Nonetheless, I got onto the highway and sailed smoothly (and quickly—not much traffic, and high speeds of the interstate + drivers who respect the left lane made for ease of driving), and arrived into the town of Oświęcim (known by the German name Auschwitz.
It was odd to see how residential this area was, with such a horrible past. Signs for the museum of Auschwitz were everywhere, and since I hadn’t had breakfast, I found McD’s amazingly just a few km away from the gate. This is one of those times that McD’s is so convenient—it’s everywhere, and I can get a simple egg sandwich and be completely sustained until the next meal.
I quickly parked the car and brought my egg mcmuffin into the line that already started. I confirmed with others in line that this was where you go without tickets. It had worked! I got there early, in line with about 20-30 others, and felt good about getting tickets. I couldn’t believe it. This was the last day until after I left that Auschwitz would be open, so the fact that the car rental, driving an hour, getting there ahead of all crowds, and getting into the right line went so smoothly, it was great luck.
I met a guy in line who was a Polish tour guide, and we spoke for the whole time until the window opened to sell tickets. He was really nice and interesting, and it made the time go by quickly. I got to the window, and just 3 tickets were left for the English tour at 9:30 (one of the first groups), and I was able to get into that one since the group ahead of me were 4. Score!
Once together in our group, I met a girl who was here for the Catholic programs (World Youth Day) and was coming on the tour to learn how the process worked so she could be a guide to bring others. We buddied up and were able to have small discussions throughout the tour.
Granted I’ve been to Dachau before, and I’ll say it again. The eeriness of walking through the gates of Arbeit Macht Frei is something that is so chilling and surreal, that seeing it here again was just as horrifying. Our tour guide was ok to understand, but spoke really fast. We also were lined up going through the barracks seeing all the artifacts from the thousands of Jews that made their way to this camp only to be exterminated. The sheer numbers of people are unfathomable. Seeing the shoes, the personal affects, luggage, piles of women’s hair that was cut off and even kept braided, and even more chilling, the profile pictures of all souls lost in this camp that lined the halls of the barrack. It’s absolutely incredible to think Hitler was able to render support of this idea, and so many people followed along with it. It is frightening to think what weapons can do.
Barrack after barrack we explored with our guide explaining the harsh and cruel living conditions that they were forced in. Bunks would literally have 15 people per row, and the higher you go up, the less people. The weakest ended up on the floor. The toilets lined up for their twice a day break, where hundreds would be forced to relieve themselves only during these times or risk being shot and punished. The rail platform that is so recognizable where loads of Jews would be carted in and let off, only to be sorted by women and men, and then to life of labor and cruelty, or quick and wretched deceitful death.
After our visit to Auschwitz I, we took a break and then a bus to Auschwitz II, Berkenau. This place was huge, with barrack after barrack. Here we see again horrible conditions, gas chambers, and incinerators. The blown up gas chambers built to exterminate up to 2000 people a day completely blown up and destroyed to hide the traces of this inhumane destruction. The barbed wire fences of the cage these people saw day in and day out. Walking upon the same dirt, passing through halls so many lost their lives, and seeing the torture wall where people were beaten, punished, shot, hanged. It’s all so overwhelmingly disturbing. And to know how so many fled to South America, never to pay the price of murder. It’s absolutely inconceivable. And timely is that I’m seeing this now during our election period, where a man incites such racial and stereotypical hatred towards the unfamiliar, the outside, the ‘unAmerican’. It’s rightfully scary to see what happens to the US come November.
It was a full day that went by fast. By 2:30 I was heading home without having eaten, with a headache, with relief, and with a full mind of what I’d seen, felt, and thought during my visit. It’s definitely one of those things that opens your eyes to how amazingly wonderful and free my life has been, and for that, I am so thankful to have had the incredible luck, to be born where I was—by no will of my own.=