I went to Aushwitz because part of my family has been in a concentration camp. My grandma herself went to Aushwitz, and was a survivor, due to her late arrival there. It’s extremely confronting to imagine growing up in such a world. What happened there, in smaller scales, happened in a lot of other places. It’s a dark topic. Dark theme. But it has a sort of importance that only needs to be addressed a few times to leave a lasting impression. It has a magnitude and gravity which is so encompassing and hard to believe.
I was in Krakow (the big city near to the small town of Aushwitz) and had a sort of emotionless readiness to going to the concentration camp. It’s so strange putting your clothes on that day, getting breakfast, it’s all so frivolous and innocent in the shadow of what you are about to see.
A few times I wondered if I should go. It’ll be too heavy, to unlike the no frills backpacker life I’ve been embarking on. I did go; I would have felt too conflicted to miss it. It was just that hard to go as an observer, imagine being forced to go, during the time many years ago.
Just the historical impact on my family during the war made me feel obliged. So I took the train, to this small town an hour outside of Krakow. The historical site was packed, and you had to have a guide to go in. It took a few hours to get a guide, so in the meantime I walked to the other part of the camp, Birkenau. Aushwitz is a two location camp. One was a work camp, the other an extermination camp /housing place. Aushwitz began as the small work camp, and expanded to the other camp called Birkeanau (It was in this camp where the majority of deaths occurred).While waiting the few hours for my guide I wandered around Birkenau alone for a bit. What a weird, gloomy, toxic place to find myself. The grass grows; the buildings are sparse and ghost like. Hard to believe the lives lived (if you could call it that) and lifelessness created in such a place. What an odd backdrop for an awful history of humanity. Wandering for a few hours, I returned back to Aushwitz to begin the tour. Walking through the office buildings, the housing areas. They had these displays of human hair, since everyone who arrived got their heads shaved. How many peoples human hair you could fit in this massive part of a room. Enough to fill a small apartment. A symbol of the magnitude of people.
When I was in Berlin before this, I remember seeing a photo of some Nazi’s at Aushwitz smoking cigarettes and having some beers. The caption said “Taking a break from mass murder”. Really struck me that moment, they looked indistinguishable from regular people, enjoying regular life. Laughing and having a relaxing moment. How brainwashed the times must have been back then. Really hard to understand.
I captioned abit of this in my journal at the time. It read:
If you imagine a regular prison to be housed with murderers, now imagine a prison full of innocent people, now run by murderers. Aushwitz was a very dark place. At its peak it could execute 4000 people a day. A small town a day, 365 days of the year, for a few years. A total 1.1 million are said to of died.
It was very surreal to be on one plot of land, at one point on the earth, the span of a house, where perhaps 100s of thousands of people have died.
The Nazis were propagandist. Misleading and downplaying every step of the way. “It’s just a shower, bring all your belongings.” It was a reality no one challenged, they had no belief it could be as it truly was. No one said prove those are showers, or prove you won’t kill us. Everyone marched into a room because of the story they were told, the humanity they thought people had to have. If they were told it was a gas chamber, they would riot, so lies were the easiest form of control.
I couldn’t understand why other countries didn’t bomb the railways, bomb the fences of the camps, and disrupt the flow. It took years to walk onto the soil with the intent of helping. For years, governments felt their hands were tied, or simply didn’t know. I wondered about that.
They had a room, the size of a small closet, where they made people just stand. Where there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit. Imagine 40 people in a tiny closet. For a few days.
They had German war criminals run these camps. The imagination of an individual like this, able to beat, yell, and practically kill at will, a license to act out his darkest fantasies. What tragedy that humanity let such people indulge like that. In the biggest housing of the camp they would have 5 people to a bunk. The bottom people had sometimes been eaten by rats during the night. People’s feces from higher bunks would fall on these people. It was a mud, blood, feces bath on the bottom bunks.
Prisons would get cold coffee (I think more like black water), soup made of rotten vegetables, and a piece of bread all day. It sounds like I’m over dramatizing it, but I believe that’s actually what it said during tours and books I’ve seen. My breakfast was more than these people who worked sometimes 11 hour days, with the equivalent of thin Pajamas (not onesies) during cold Poland snowy winters. Since more people were arriving every day, the moment you couldn’t keep up, you were killed. Public killings, hangings, were all common. If you escaped, they would hang 10 of your cell mates and leave them outside for everyone to see. An unbelievable, and really, unthinkable world. They had a shooting wall at Auschwitz. You would be taken to this wall and shot in the head. It’s strange to see this wall. It’s just a wall. Without the story behind it then it’s just concrete. With the details, it’s human, deeply troubling, and a new understanding.
They also had an infirmary where they did medical experiments. How long could a baby go without mother’s milk before it died, what happens if you inject gasoline to the heart. Giving doctors an operating table, endless amount of test subject (aka moms, kids, etc.), money to experiment, tools to use, and permission to go as dark as you wanted. This place really was the bad side of imagination.
Before going to Auschwitz, I imagined it as a psychology museum. An outward manifestation of the inward feeling of hatred, immense pain, un-regulation, dark indulgences. How much pain inside would it take to do this to people. I imagine in Nazi’s that it was a resentment and anger that was getting unaddressed, building more and more until places like concentration camps began to be their only ways to express that hate. There were no solutions in time for nonviolent ways. The mentality was so vicious.
They say we are a social species and that by nature we don’t kill other humans. How we justify killing humans is by convincing ourselves that they aren’t humans, and dehumanizing another. Once someone isn’t considered human, we don’t have to act with morals of equality. Calling someone a pest, scum, a virus, filth, transforms an equal being to something like a dangerous bug or parasite. How we bend and transform reality with these images and words in our minds. What we see, how we feel about something, is completely dependent on the words we view it with. The propaganda during these times was outrageous. “A loyal worker is a happy worker”. “Tell on your neighbour for reading certain writing, get rewarded”. “Work is freedom”- that was the message as you enter the gates of Aushwitz. Yet people worked to death. How trapped people were. Yet, protesting landed even Germans in Aushwitz. The penalty was so severe; families of political prisoners would be murdered if you escaped. For most, silence was a form of saving themselves and others. How they could march town to town and bring people to these camps shows how high the penalty for resistance was. Maybe they really had that much wealth and power. Guns and a willingness to use them. Companies benefited off of the war. Germany gave tax incentives if you moved to Aushwitz and started business. You could have Aushwitz slaves as your workers. All the gold, the art, and money of these prisoners were sent to the Nazis. They literally kept getting stronger the more they invaded.
Everyday problems become so small in a world of Aushwitz
In a place of so much death and destruction
Of everyday people loaded up like cattle to die
What a strange imagination history had
I feel I do so little justice to the true reality and information this place has
How to help…
Return to today time:
Aushwitz was a different form of travel. Everything else up to this point was glossy and relaxing. Reflecting back, this was heavy, and a stark counter balance to all I had done before. I was curious, and that was the common theme throughout the whole trip. Aushwitz taught me a lot about the real potential of wrongs that can be done, and have been done. I learned how complex the world is, how strange and unfathomable some events in history are. And worst of all, most unsettling of all, it happened around 80 years ago. There are still survivors alive today. Are we a whole new world? 800 years ago maybe, but 80, I don’t know. The capacity to change from that extreme that quickly, that’s not long ago, we can’t forget that. That to me says a lot. It’s a very intense place. The lessons are still fresh. There are still humans alive today with scars from the times. My grandma passed away a few years ago, and I can only imagine what it was like to start your childhood in such a world, where your family is destroyed before your even a little girl or boy. The topic is relevant even if it’s historical. Hidden from our day to day psyche even if it’s true and important. Thank you Aushwitz for the reality check and the lasting lessons. May we value our lives today. People back then would give anything to be in a café, having tea, enjoying the life and freedom and safety we have today. That’s part two of this post. The confronting that we are so lucky in many ways. That our worst are so small compared to such extreme events and times. It’s a re-evaluation of our daily life. Remembering these hardships of the past is rethinking our hardships of the presents. For me at least it’s an exercise of my imagination, how lucky and blessed someone at the camps in those days would have felt to just wake up one day in my life. I feel more responsible to see that, to value it, to honour it. It’s unfair at times that to value my life more is to compare myself to someone who had it worse. Seeing the light of the world today by exposing myself to the darks of yesterdays.