Auschwitz I (written by A.G.)
Everyone has heard of the horrors that happened in Auschwitz , but being there makes it much more real. On the way to the Camp memorial, we drove through the subcamp area once known as Auschwitz III-Monowitz (sometimes called “Buna”). Thousands of slave laborers died here constructing massive industrial facilities, especially the “Buna” synthetic rubber plant for I.G. Farben, which was never completed. It is now an eerie landscape with only occasional remnants of the former camp.
After arriving at the main memorial of Auschwitz I, we first walked through the infamous gates which read, “Arbeit Macht Frei” : work makes you free. tens of thousands people were through these gates, most of whom would not survive. I could feel an eeriness in the camp, and I imagined all the horrors the people inside were forced to endure.
Once inside the gates, the camp consists of row after row of long red brick buildings, which from the outside seem identical. These were the former inmate “blocks” as well as administrative buildings, a “hospital” block, etc. Before the war, these had been a Polish army base. The Nazis took it over in 1939, and converted it into a concentration and P.O.W. camp in 1941. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, it assumed new functions, and was massively expanded with the addition of Auschwitz II-Birkenau a few kilomenters away.
There were multiple exhibits we saw while inside the Auschwitz I camp, and each one made the things we learned about prior become reality and not just images in our mind. The exhibits have been installed in the former inmate blocks. It was extremely difficult to keep composed at some points, like seeing the hair of the women who were murdered in the gas chamber. There was also a room dedicated to the children killed but, by seeing the baby clothes and the toys from the toddlers, I could not help but question my faith in humanity. These children may have changed the world, but their life was ended too quickly due to the belief that they were radically inferior. They may have become doctors, educators, or people who may have prevented further genocides from occurring, but we will never know.
The first gas chamber at Auschwitz was located in Auschwitz I. Although most of the victims whom the Nazis murdered by gassing were killed in Birkenau, where four much larger gas chambers were constructed, the chamber in Auschwitz I remains intact, while the Nazis destroyed those in Birkenau before the Red Army arrived in January 1945. Walking into the gas chamber was the most difficult part of the day. Knowing that I had the privilege to enter and exit made me feel extremely guilty, for most were not that luck. It was also difficult to know I was standing in a room where thousands of people took their last breaths. I cannot explain the emotions running through my mind, but it was a humbling experience for me. My stress and problem seemed to vanish. Nothing in my life could ever compare to the pain and torture experienced by these victims. They struggled to survive every single day, were malnourished to the point of starvation, and forced to work every last ounce of life out of them. Any problem that has risen in my life will never compare to the problems of the people in Auschwitz. Today truly made me appreciate my life, my family, and everything else. Being at Auschwitz made my passion towards teaching others about genocide much stronger, and it makes me hope that I can motivate others to stop such atrocious acts from occurring in the future.
Auschwitz II Birkenau (written by K. S.)
Today our group went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the beginning of our tour, we walked through the infamous front gate in which millions of Jewish deportees met to begin the selection process. This specific spot meant that you would either live or die.
As our tour continued, we were able to see what life was like for a prisoner in this camp. We went to an all men’s barrack in which the building was made of wood and the barracks themselves were meant to hold four to five people. We then made our way to the latrines, where there were only 200 toilets to accommodate thousands of prisoners. It was terrible because of these terrible conditions that many prisoners contracted Typhus and many other diseases.
As we left the all men’s section, we made our way to the women’s section. These buildings were exactly the same except they were made from bricks. We also saw the ruins of the two crematoria that were destroyed by uprisings. We also visited the monuments that are to commemorate those who have perished at the camp. At the remains of Crematorium Complex III, we we lit candles in memory of those men, women, and children who were murdered and whose cremated ashes were dumped in a pond nearby.
Lastly, we visited the section called “Kanada.” This is where the items of those who came into the camp placed their belongings. We also were taken inside the building to see where the prisoners had to shower and have their clothes deloused and also where they received their tattoos.
This day was very educational for all of us because it is one thing to read about these concentration camps, but to actually be standing where these innocent Jewish people stood waiting to learn their fate was astonishing to all of us. This day was very important to us because not only do we need to learn about the Holocaust, but we also need to spread awareness about the other genocides that have happened and are still happening.
Reaction to having Ernest Paul on the trip to Auschwitz (written by A.H.)
It was an honor to have Ernest Paul, a Holocaust survivor, accompany us to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ernest’s mother and two younger brothers died in Auschwitz, while his sister survived. His late wife survived the camp, but lost much of her family here. This was the first time that Ernest has visited Poland, and the first time seeing Auschwitz. He has told us that he wants to show Holocaust deniers that this was a real and tragic event. We were all very moved having Ernest with us, and we understand how difficult this was for him. While at Auschwitz, Ernest was quoted saying, “Usually for a picture I smile. Here there is no reason for me to smile.”
Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau was a real life changing experience for me. Walking throughout the camp was a real eye opener. At one point I personally became very emotional, broke down, and cried. This was a very hard to experience, but being there with such a brave Holocaust survivor made it special.
Reflection on Auschwitz (written by I. B. M.)
Today’s trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau was a fitting piece for a much longer journey for me. In 1987 my journey to Liberia left me with a question of how and why evil exits. In 1987, I was young and did not know much about the world or how evil is perpetrated on the young and old, rich and poor, and most of all children.
I was anxious about our trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau today because of an event that occurred when I travelled to Liberia. On the day before I left Liberia to return to the States, a local woman, who had allowed her daughter Massa to be my guide during my visit, approached me. Massa’s mother wanted me to take Massa back to the States with me. Naturally I said no, but I promised to remember Massa and to send gifts or other greetings whenever I could. True to my word I always asked friends who were travelling to Liberia to check on Massa. From time to time I sent gifts for Massa and her family.
When the war in Liberia/Sierra Leone broke out, Massa’s family was moved to a refugee camp. At the height of the war the camp was bombed and Massa was killed. Her mother and four of Massa’s siblings survived. The news of Massa’s death still leaves my heart with deep anguish. There are so many what ifs, but there is no answer for them. Massa’s life and her death have been my inspiration and have motivated me for the past 25 years. I vowed to be the voice for the voiceless, and make myself aware of the suffering of others.
Auschwitz is an example of what happens when humans fail to be kind, empathetic, and good stewards of society. Although genocides and other human rights atrocities continue to be a part of our global community, we have learned that it is never right to stand silent. The Holocaust is a lesson we should not have had to learn, but in the historical shadow of Auschwitz I think that many of us have learned to do what is right and, at the very least, stand up against genocide.