Day 2 in Krakow. Today was a heavy day, as we visited two concentration camps and met a holocaust survivor in the afternoon. The morning trip was filled with discomfort as I walked through the gut-wrenching objects and photographs, especially when I saw the living conditions of prisoners in Auschwitz and the personal belongings. I experienced a personal connection with the Holocaust that goes beyond pity and sadness of seeing numbers and statistics of the people that suffered and died here. For the first time, everything elevated to something that is more than just cold numbers, stories, and documentaries.
I think that everyone should come visit Auschwitz I and II at some point in their lives. We should constantly be reminded of the wrongs done by us to others like us. We need to be reminded that we need to prevent the happening of such situations. We had an early start at 6 am, going to Auschwitz from Krakow. Although we learned about Auschwitz and World War 2 from a very young age, having seen the statistics of the deaths caused by the Nazis, and even reading novels and autobiographies about the events in Auschwitz, seeing it in person raised our feeling about it to another new level.
The site of Auschwitz and Birkenau was rebuilt into a museum, and guides offered a two-part tour of the two concentration camps. We wore headsets connected to our guide’s mic, making the tour quiet and personal – we were almost silent when we walked through the buildings. The first building is a photographic history with photos taken in secret of the travelers to the concentration camp. We learned that the prisoners were transported from countries all over Europe, people were told many different stories about where they were going, including changing a workplace or going east for a better life.
Families entered the trains with hope. Some even paid for their tickets for the train to Auschwitz. We saw photos of women and children going to the gas chambers willingly when they were told that they were just going to take a shower and get disinfected – they were considered to be unfit to work, so they were killed right away before the first round of selection.
Many of the rooms contained personal property of the prisoners, and they are stacked together, showing great quantities – really astonishing to the eye. There were millions of personal property items, including glasses, shoes, brushes, and others. These were originally stored in the storage rooms Canada 1 and Canada 2, but when the Nazis had to evacuate from the camps after losing the war, they burned the storage rooms down and that is what is left of it.
Another interesting thing mentioned to us by our guide was that the prisoners that worked in Canada had one of the best living conditions because they could always smuggle some food out of the storage rooms as they lived in single rooms inside. Valuable belongings, such as gold teeth and jewelry of the prisoners, were sent to Germany for the SS.
Something that struck me the most was the torture cells and standing cells in Block 11, the block used for executions and torture. Prisoners were locked in a dark chamber for several days or be forced to stand in one of the four standing cells for a long time. Also, it was at Block 11 where the first attempts to kill people using Zyklon B were implemented. Typically prisoners would work 11 hours a day, they would then return to the standing cells for the night.
There is a wall of death between Block 10 and Block 11, known as the “death wall”. The SS would line up prisoners that were tried for whatever reason, naked against the wall and shoot them in the back of their head with a short air pistol. Prisoners that were trying to escape but failed would also affect others from the same block. The SS would select 10 prisoners from the escapee’s block to shut in Block 18 without food and left to die, and they usually died in 10-20 days.
Birkenau is a five-minute car ride. This is Auschwitz II. Different from Auschwitz I, this was an extermination camp. Birkenau was much bigger than Auschwitz I, and we had to walk a long way in the cold. All of us were freezing, even with sweaters and coats on, and just finishing a sandwich as a snack before visiting Birkenau, so it is hard to imagine how harsh winters were for the women and children that were overworked, underfed and underdressed.
Ms. Hackett had to remind us to stay quiet for a few times, because the way of walking inside without the tour guide talking was a long way, and people were freezing so they wanted to talk to each other. I later thought that is was unwise doing that because everyone could have spent that time thinking and reflecting on our experience in Auschwitz whilst it is still a fresh memory.
Something that I remember most strongly from Birkenau is our final destination, where children slept. The barrack was huge, and the ceilings were tall. However, the little “beds” for children to sleep in were tiny. The beds were as wide as me and half my length lying down, but it was used to house 6-8 children at night. It is already unethical and unbelievable for one grown up, at most 2 children, to sleep on that bed. Not only were the beds shocking, there were signatures of tourists everywhere on the beds too.
I honestly do not understand how some tourists treat Birkenau as a traditional tourist site that brings you happiness, where you take selfies and leave your signature on site. This is tolerable in some places, and I do not feel mad to see it even in historical sites because people do it all the time, but it is NOT funny to do this sort of thing in a concentration camp where 1.1 million people suffered and died half a century ago. The reason that we are visiting the camp is not because it is somewhere that everyone would go in Krakow or that it looks good when posted on Instagram, because there are many more beautiful sites and restaurants in Krakow to do this. People should not waste their time visiting a concentration camp if it was for this purpose. Otherwise, no matter what purpose one came to this camp for, one should be respectful after hearing the painful story of such inhuman torturing and respect the people that lost their lives through this, while recognizing how lucky we are to be born in an era and a place of peacefulness.
In the afternoon, we listened to a talk by a living holocaust survivor in Galacia Jewish Museum. The museum is located in the Jewish district of Krákow, and we previously had lunch in the Jewish district. There was a lot of street art around the Jewish district, showing that the Jewsish people like to express themselves too. Learning that the Holocaust survivor was much younger than all of us when she entered Auschwitz 2 – Birkenau, all of us were in shock. What made the experience more real is when she showed us the numbers tattooed on her arm. It was breathtaking. It was different hearing the story of Auschwitz in third person and meeting a Holocaust survivor in the first person.
Learning that she was separated from her parents at a young age, and brought to Auschwitz to do all kinds of brutal experiments, such as changing eye color, made us more aware of the inhumanness of the experiments. Something that stuck to me was the fact that she had PTSD after escaping the camp, treated as a weirdo by her friends in the playground as she got them to play games involving roll-call: a classic procedure done by the SS during the holocaust.
I could not believe that these types of brutal things had happened just a few years ago, and the fact that similar incidents are prevalent even after World War 2 – the genocide in an African country and the genocide in Cambodia were just some modern examples of similar treatments to innocent people.
People may believe that such things only happened in the past, and are ignorant still ignorant about incidents in the world today. I believe that as global citizens we should be more mindful of what is happening around us, and use our power to promote peace and prevent these from happening. We have to always remind ourselves that we need to reflect on the faults of humanity in the past and use our power to spread the awareness of human rights.
Later, I bought “The Tattooist” – a real love story of two people in Auschwitz II recommended to me by my teacher, and decided to re-read “A Man’s Search for Meaning” when I get back to China, to understand and engage more, and follow up with the Auschwitz experience through first person accounts of ones that have been through the brutal insanity of the camp.