Chilling – Auschwitz, Poland


Auschwitz, Poland

Big fluffly flakes fell from above. The kind I loved as a kid, because it meant the possibility of school closings and delayed openings. Several us were sitting in the lounge area, some eating breakfast, some, like myself, staring out the window at the snow. All the room needed was a crackling fireplace, and I would’ve been staking my spot on the couch that night.

Barbed Wire
Barbed Wire
A driver showed up to take us from the hostel to Oswiecim, the Polish name for the infamous Nazi Auschwitz. Snow accumulation outside the city blanketed the countryside, though it was plenty warm inside the vehicle. The ride took a little over an hour. In the parking lot, gloves and hats were put back on and a similarly bundled woman appeared and introduced us as our guide. She led us to the entrance, and our tour through the site where some of the most heinous crimes in the history of humanity were committed began.

Auschwitz began in 1940 as a concentration camp for Poles. Over time, deportees from other countries joined them, and barracks were divided by nationality. Barbed wire and guard towers still surrounded the complex, reminding present day visitors that many unfortunate souls only passed through the gates once. Every few meters, our group paused for commentary.

“Every day, prisoners had to stand here for roll call. At its peak, thousands of people were held here, and roll call often lasted several hours, during which they had to stand at attention the whole time. Often shoes weren’t provided. As you can see, winter here comes early and can be very cold.”

Neatly arranged rows of brick buildings lined the camp streets. They didn’t look so menacing, until you considered what they were associated with. Displayed in one of the barracks were prisoner rosters and black and white pictures depicting camp life; Many SS guards were given cameras so they could take souvenir pictures, resulting in a shockingly well documented genocide. Another block held exhibits of what were found in the Kanada buildings. After World War I, many Polish immigrated to Canada in search of a better life, and the name became synonymous with hope and everything people wanted. New detainees were relived of all earthly possessions upon arrival, which were then thrown in two warehouses known as Kanada I and II. Sobering collections of spectacles, prayers shawls, shoes, combs piled up behind glass displays, and they only held a small fraction of what Allies found when Auschwitz was liberated.

End of the day
End of the day
Books dedicated to the subject can better chronicle the history of Auschwitz. The stuff that happened here can’t be fit into a 500 word travel story, nor understood in a one day field trip. To come here is to see the punishment cells of the Death Block, to stand in front of the Killing Wall and be relieved that no one else will ever be shot here. To be glad that the bunker converted gas chamber was no longer filled with deadly fumes and safe to walk in. To be thankful for the boots and socks and warm clothing we wore, understanding that these were things that people here were cruelly deprived of.

By 1942, Auschwitz had evolved into the terrible extermination center that defined the Holocaust. Additional camps were established in the surrounding area, the largest being the 75 hectare Birkenau. Our van shuttled us across town to the tower that some may recognize from Spielburg’s epic, Schindler’s List. Sweeping views were had from atop – its immensity was mindblowing. Largely razed by retreating Nazis, a few of the wooden stables have been rebuilt to help visitors picture the suffering. As many as 1000 people were crammed into a space designed to hold 50 horses. Sanitation, obviously, was a problem. Toilets were in short supply and it often cost a day’s rations (300g of bread) to get in.

“You can’t imagine what it’s truly like to be hungry…”

As we walked along the tracks to the gas chamber and crematorium rubble, our guide relayed heart wrenching anecdotes.

“One survivor came back to visit, and she told me, ‘The sight of tourists walking down the platform like that. It looks just like how the Jews were marched to their deaths. Later, when we saw the smoke coming from the crematoriums, we said it was their souls floating up to heaven.'”

At the end of the tracks – the end of the line for many – a memorial was erected. A plaque read:

Forever 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.

I shivered, and not because it was cold.