There is nothing that puts your troubles into perspective like Auschwitz.
In school, I had learned of Auschwitz, but hadn’t realized there is an Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau). There was even a main sub-camp called Auschwitz III (Monowitz). I had only learned of the concept of sub-camps a couple years ago while visiting Natzweiler-Struthof, the only concentration camp in France. I was astounded to learn how many satellite camps clustered around a main concentration camp. Even so, the Auschwitz complex seemed like a totally unique monster.
Having scoured the official website and many of the TripAdvisor reviews before the trip, Emese and I decided we wanted to tour Auschwitz I freely as individuals instead of going with a guided group. Tours don’t visit all parts of the camp nor do they go into the buildings with exhibitions, whether thematic or country-based. Therefore, we arrived before 10:00 am so we could be on our own.
My initial reaction, other than an instantaneous twisting of my stomach and heart, was surprise. There was a sense of permanence. The buildings were made of brick. This was not the case at the other camps I had visited.
Inside the buildings, were rows of wooden beds and pictures of the prisoners staring at you from their hallway perch. There were also standing cells.
Then we arrived at the rooms filled with items from the people sent to the camps, including shoes, eye glasses, suitcases, and prosthetics.
The most disturbing was the hair. Hair that was shaved from all victims’ heads. Hair that was at times used to weave into fabrics. No pictures were allowed in that room, which is probably best. It makes me sick just thinking about it.
Regardless of how prepared I was, I still became emotional. There was a powerful exhibit dedicated to the Roma and Sinti people who were killed. Included were pictures of pre-Auschwitz smiling robust children’s faces juxtaposed with later emaciated hollow stares. There were eyes that tore into your heart and soul. Eyes that wanted help. Eyes that wanted answers. Eyes that saw things that no child should ever see. I get choked up just thinking about it.
Then there’s Block 27. In the midst of such an overwhelming experience is an unexpected and uplifting exhibition. And, believe me, I never thought I would feel uplifted there. Block 27 was opened in June 2013 by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. Among other things, it features pre-war Jewish life, the extermination of the Jews, a memorial to the murdered children using their own drawings, and the Book of Names. This book is a permanent memorial to the Jewish women, men, and children murdered during the Holocaust. It has 4.2 million names so far, and they’re still searching.
There are also pictures of survivors and their families. Pictures of smiling, happy people who somehow survived hell. People who had unimaginable courage and strength. It was a simple and overwhelming testament to human resiliency.
And then we went to Birkenau.