Witness

by farrah on May 30, 2017 · 8 comments

This is not going to be a post how ‘Everyone should go to Auschwitz’. If you’re looking for something like that I imagine you can Google it and find tacky articles waxing poetic on this place and how it’s so moving and blah blah blah. Because not everyone SHOULD go there. I happened to see some people who clearly did not realize that.

You shouldn’t go there if you can’t behave properly, dress appropriately, follow the rules or refrain from taking smiling selfies in front of ghastly buildings standing starkly as a reminder. If you cannot understand why or fail to see that decorum is important do  not go here.

You just SHOULD NOT.

That all said, I did go. I tried to prepare myself as best I could for what I was going to see. I felt compelled to visit the site of horror and terror and all of the awful things one can possibly imagine- because that’s what it is, and worse. I kept trying to put into words why I felt it was necessary to go- and my friend Amy said it best on the one and only photo I shared on the Internet. On my IG post she said “…I think remembering, seeing, and even grieving is our gift to the souls lost there.” and that’s EXACTLY it. It’s all I could give, and I felt I gave it my best.

The way there

I woke up early on the morning of my tour with a pit in my stomach, telling myself that what I was doing was important for those who were robbed of life. As a human being I HAD to go and walk the grounds, think and reflect, and feel pain for what they all had stolen from them.

I sat in the front passenger seat of our tour car as there were already four ladies in the van. We said polite hellos, asked where everyone was from and that was about it. I was in a good group of people who took what we were about to do very seriously.

The two-hour drive from Krakow was silent for the most part, our driver had a very odd mix of music playing the soundtrack: everything from ‘Born In The USA’ to ‘Fool’s Garden’ (the lemon tree song) and Sting. We drove and drove, passing small towns and villages reflecting how we really were going to the middle of nowhere. It quickly dawned on me that that was the whole point. The whole idea of being so isolated and lost was purposely to keep the world from knowing what the Nazis were doing. Sick. I started to feel sick.

Auschwitz I

  • Electrified fence
  • Crematorium
  • Location where the commandant of Auschwitz I was hanged
  • "The Post"
  • Death Wall
  • Room where women undressed before facing the Death Wall
  • Layout of Block 11 (basement is first rectangle showing cells)
  • Notice intake date and death date.
  • Shoes exhibit
  • Piece of luggage in luggage room. Street name is same as one I live on now.
  • Zyklon B pesticide used for gassing
  • The three boys- last hours of life. Heading straight to the chamber.
  • Urn of remains found near crematorium.
  • Vught is to the left, that is the camp near me.
  • SS officers admin area

Upon arriving I was struck by the hordes of people milling around in groups either finishing their tour or waiting for one to begin. I’m talking hundreds and hundreds of people. I couldn’t see how so many people could quietly go and visit such a place- but they did. It wasn’t until we got to Birkenau where I saw people behaving badly.

Anyhow. I stood around with the rest of our large group and put on my headset like everyone else. The tour guide had a mic so that she could speak quietly and we could hear her. We were informed of the rules: absolutely no eating, smoking or drinking on the grounds. Because it was rather hot- we were told we could have a bottle of water but you know, use common sense. We were to behave appropriately for the solemnity of our location. 

First we saw buildings on the outskirts of the gate where SS officers had their offices. Dark, reddish-brown brick buildings- a dirt and rocky path that led you straight to the entrance. The infamous gate that says (in English) ‘Work will set you free.’ But the double entendre there- ‘free’ meaning death, or ‘free’ as to trick the prisoners into thinking eventual release? What did they think???

Once inside the gate we looked around and learned how Auschwitz was once a Polish garrison that the Nazis took over and expanded to suit their purposes. There are no flowers, the entire area is devoid of color except for patches of green grass and small trees that I assumed were planted afterward. There are enlarged black and white photographs showing the exact locations where we were standing- what was once here or there. The first space is where the orchestra was forced to play marching music for the prisoners in mornings on their way to labor. The next was the large open dirt square where the Nazis performed torturous roll calls (sometimes lasting hours) where some people too tired to stand would die from fatigue, starvation or abuse. As was the purpose.

Block 4: Extermination

The first room has a giant map showing where the prisoners originated. I saw our own nearby Vught and Den Bosch, all heading straight to Auschwitz. On the left in the room is a giant urn containing ash and bone remains that were found outside the crematorium by the liberation.

Room 3 has more photographs of the people who arrived at the camp, where they came from, and how the families were separated. It was here that I saw the first photo that made my knees weak- a photo of three boys, probably brothers, holding hands and walking straight to the crematorium without the slightest clue as to what was going on. Three boys. They looked no older than mine.

Room 4 has objects found after the camp was liberated: hundreds and hundreds of empty canisters of Zyklon B- the pesticide used to kill people in the showers.

I was not prepared for Room 5. Immediately to our right was a giant roll of what appeared to be a large rug. Look closely, our guide said. The entire roll was made out of human hair and you can see the individual hairs sticking out on the ends. The Nazis made ‘haircloth’ out of their hair. We then walked down a very long glassed in exhibit where no photos are allowed of TWO TONS of women’s hair. Hair that time has grayed. Braids that are no longer blonde or brunette- but brittle and aged with the years. It sickened my heart. All this hair, it belonged to people. People that took it and kept it as a sort of trophy.

Block 5: Evidence of Crimes

On the ground floor we saw exhibits filled with glasses, thousands of pairs of eyeglasses thrown into a heap. Additionally there are Jewish prayer shawls and an exhibit made of the hundreds and hundreds of prosthetics taken from prisoners. Room 3 has an exhibit made up exclusively of colorful cups, bowls and pitchers that belonged to the prisoners. Room 4 is filled with suitcases- clearly marked with the owners’ names, hometowns and street addresses with the false promise of being returned. Upstairs, Room 5 is an entire floor containing thousands of shoes. Behind glass windows we saw shoes of every size and color, worn down over time and use, taken and kept by the SS. We were told that often times items or belongings in good condition were given to or sold to German people. I cannot express to you just how many shoes I saw. Children’s shoes. Baby shoes. All of them.

Room 6 has an exhibit made up entirely of brushes- shaving brushes, hair brushes and shoe brushes. Additionally there is a small case with many tins of shoe polish. What hope these people had when packing their bags! Shoe polish. As if such a luxury would be allowed. They had no idea.

Block 6: The Life of the Prisoner

This block was set up to show how deportees were introduced to the camp. While terrorized, they were informed of the rules, hair was cut and their belongings were taken. The corridor on the main floor is lined with hundreds of photographs of inmates upon registration. They look like mug shots- showing their name, origin, date of birth and date of death. All of these people died in the camp- and looking at the dates of intake and death I was shocked to see how some dates were mere weeks or months apart. Maybe they were the lucky ones.

Block 7: Housing and Sanitary Conditions

Here we saw how the prisoners slept- the poor excuse for bedding, how many people were cramped into such small spaces. We saw the washroom- where the prisoners were harassed as they tried to relieve themselves or clean themselves as best they could. The mocking murals on the wall I could not figure out- children bathing? Two men on horses in a stream? Kittens cleaning themselves? All to mock, demoralize and break down. I remember thinking – how did these people manage this? Constant wonder of What did I do to deserve this?

Block 11: Courtyard and The Camp Jail

All places here are terrible, however Block 11 is the worst place I can imagine being sent. People accused of leading the resistance, having outside contact with the world, and planning or assisting with escapes all landed you here. The courtyard holds the ‘Death Wall’ where people were executed and ‘The Post’ where prisoners were hung with their hands behind their backs so their feet could not touch the ground. The windows to the next door block were (and still are) covered so that the inhabitants could not see what was happening in the courtyard.

The ground floor of Block 11 held the ‘court’ room where the prisoners would learn their fate. There is a lavatory where women were to undress before being taken out to the Death Wall and shot. It wasn’t until we got to the basement though (where no photos are allowed) that the full-scale of how tortured these people were hit me. First we saw the standing room cells- where prisoners were starved to death, forced to stand in the space the size of an old-fashioned telephone booth with up to 4 other prisoners for 3 to 10 nights. In the day they had to go to work. Most died simply of exhaustion. Additionally we saw jail cells on the right- these had small windows. The ones to the left had no window or ventilation. People were simply left down here to die.

The Grounds

We saw the collective gallows where numerous prisoners could be hung at one time. Ammunition wasn’t easily ‘wasted’ on people- and there were times several people were lined up so that one bullet could kill them all in a row. We then revisited the roll call square. Regardless of the weather people stood for hours during this process after a day of back breaking work while being ridiculed and tormented. Many being picked out of line if they were sick or injured and exterminated on the spot. Here the dead were recorded (those who died during the labor of the day) after being carried back by their fellow prisoners.

The Gas Chamber and Crematorium I

We walked to the back of the camp and saw the housing for the SS officers where they lived with their families. To the left is the old ammunitions bunker that the Nazis turned into the gas chamber and crematorium. People undressed in the courtyard and entered the large room where many people were gathered together and gassed. From this place outside along a brick wall I took a small stone.

At this point, we were guided out of the camp. I remember thinking how the very simple process of LEAVING THE CAMP made me one of the most fortunate people in history. No one just ‘left the camp’ like we were doing- to head to our fancy coaches and shuttle busses to be taken away. No one who went to Auschwitz back then as a prisoner left like we did.

Part II: Birkenau

  • Barracks and latrine
  • Latrine area where 9,000 people used
  • Barracks made of wood. There were 300, 100 are left.
  • Crematorium (destroyed by SS to hide crimes)
  • Walk to the crematorium (showers)
  • You entered down the stairs, told to disrobe and prepare to shower.
  • Original gate where people arrived to 'shower'.
  • Entering the gate from the road.
  • Second destroyed crematorium. Another is in the woods as well as pits where bodies were simply open air burned.
  • Track ending..
  • Platform people arrived upon, told to go right or left. Left was to the crematorium. Photo where 3 boys was taken.
  • Pictured area, making selections.
  • Memorial train car (original).
  • Entry to Birkenau

About a five-minute drive later we arrived at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II. As much as the purpose of the place is the same, it is also that much different. It’s very large, and the barracks are made of wood. About 100 original barracks remain since the Nazis destroyed about 200 trying to cover up their crimes. All that remain of those barracks are the silent brick chimneys that used to give off little heat for its inhabitants.

The first thing you notice through the imposing entrance gate are the train tracks. Here is where people arrived straightaway- clutching their children and their belongings only to find themselves taken to the platform and ‘selected’. I walked the road where women and children went directly to the undressing area- told to make note of their hook numbers so as to collect their things ‘after their shower’ and then the giant gas chamber outfitted with fake shower heads to be gassed to death.

Walking that long and dusty road from the platform to the chamber- I could only think of being forced to do that with my own children. Holding their hands after a confusing and terrifying train car ride for possibly days- to calm them and say ‘it’s ok, we’re going to take a shower and feel better’ just to stop them from whining about the long walk. I CANNOT FATHOM THIS. How did these women do this? Was not knowing better? How could you stop asking ‘why is this happening’? How could you convince your kids that it was all going to be ok, just so as not to scare them any more?

I just don’t know. I can’t imagine any of this and kept thinking of my own children the entire time. Hours after we began this trip- our tour was over and we were headed back to our hotels in Krakow. For two hours we six women just sat there numb in the car. No one wanting to talk- just looked out our windows thankful for being born where and when we were. We listened again to the same odd soundtrack being played by our driver and I searched in vain to find understanding to what I had witnessed that day. I couldn’t find any. In the end, as Amy had said- I gave the only gift I could and that was to grieve for all the souls lost in that terrible place.

Note: The following facts are taken directly from The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Guidebook that I purchased on site in Auschwitz and from the placards outside of the respective blocks. I have photographs of where I took this information. 

Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1, 300,000 people to Auschwitz:

  • 1, 100,000 Jews
  • 140,000-150,000 Poles
  • 23,000 Roma (Gypsies)
  • 15,000 Soviet POWs
  • 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups

1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz, approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.

Other facts to note: 

*A total of over 130,000 women were registered at the Auschwitz complex. They were mostly Jews, Poles and Roma. There were also Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Germans, Frenchwomen, and Czechs.

*Several hundred thousand Jewish women (mothers with small children, elderly, pregnant, sick) were gassed immediately upon arrival as deemed unfit for labor.

*Several hundred women prisoners, mainly Jewish were held in two upstairs rooms of Block 10 and used as human guinea pigs for sterilization experiments conducted by Dr. Clauberg, a German gynecologist from April 1943-May 1944. Some of them died due to the treatment they received, others were murdered so that autopsies could be performed upon them. Those who survived were left with permanent injuries.

*For over a year in 1942 the children born in the camp were murdered usually by phenol injection or drowning in a pail of water. From mid-1943 children born to non-Jewish mothers were left alive. At least 700 children were born in Auschwitz. More than 60 of them lived to see liberation.

The following plaque is found in the memorial area in all of the languages that were affected in this war:

“FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE’

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 

1940-1945

 

This place indeed a is a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. I can only hope it will be heeded.

 

 

 

 

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Paul May 30, 2017 at 12:11 pm

Yep. ‘Sobering’ would be the word I used when last I visited. Eh, not really, for me that was ontnuchterend, which is the Dutch translation. Maybe now you understand why the US election results felt like a slap in the face.

And yes, I know the poplar vote went Mrs Clinton, but realising that ‘most votes’ doesn’t do s**t in an election. Look at the UK, US, Greece and various other countries around the world.

Most of us know what we DON’T want. No war, no terrorism, no global warming, no hunger and the like. It seems to me that experiment of those who now are in power has failed, and failed miserably. Let the youth have a go; we’ve fucked up big time…

Reply

2 farrah May 30, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Well, I have to say I felt punched in the gut during the election and afterwards. Neither candidate was a viable option in my eyes- I was never with him OR with her. Pretty much alone.

A friend of mine did tell me once that although he loved his mother dearly, her entire generation needed to go for any progress to be made. I was horrified at the idea at the time, but I’m starting to see he may be correct.

Reply

3 Paul May 30, 2017 at 3:34 pm

Farrah,

If you read maybe take a book by Whitley Stieber and James Kunetka. Sure about the spelling though. Title is ‘Natur’s End’.

I think it isn’t in print anymore but second hand is probably possible. If all else fails I can lend you my copy, just, most of my books are in storage it will take a little time to find it.

Paul

Reply

4 Paul May 30, 2017 at 3:39 pm

Farrah,

Berny gave it a go though

If you read maybe take a book by Whitley Stieber and James Kunetka. Sure about the spelling though. Title is ‘Natur’s End’.

I think it isn’t in print anymore but second hand is probably possible. If all else fails I can lend you my copy, just, most of my books are in storage it will take a little time to find it.

Paul

Reply

5 Vanessa May 31, 2017 at 7:49 am

I don’t know how you wrote this piece, Farrah. But, I am grateful to you for doing so. May we never, ever forget nor dismiss the possibility that this could happen again. Thank you for sharing your experiences. And, big hugs to you and your family. x

Reply

6 Kristin June 5, 2017 at 1:19 pm

Thank you, Farrah. I sobbed through most of this, and I honestly don’t know if I could make it through without being an inappropriately undignified mess halfway through. The memorial and museum in Berlin did me in as it is. Thank you for this detail. And thank you for bearing witness.

Reply

7 Melur Pinilih October 5, 2017 at 7:49 pm

Thanks for sharing your point of views about this renowned place. Can’t help remembering the movie “Life Is Beautiful” when I read this post…You’ve watched it, haven’t you?

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: