The feeling of walking through the main gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau is indescribable. You’ve seen it a hundred times, in photos and documentaries; in Schindler’s List and so many other films. “Arbeit Macht Frei”— Work makes you free, that notorious German expression that was placed over a number of concentration camps by the Nazis to try and trick the prisoners into thinking they were entering a work camp— and not a death camp.
The overwhelming sensation of “becoming frozen” is a feeling I’ve never had. You want to cry but nothing comes out. You have a sense of anguish knowing that you’re walking on the very space where hundreds of thousands of people were herded off trains and “selected” for either immediate death by gassing in incineration buildings, or for work duty in the camps.
You just stand there. Wondering. How this happened.
I spent the day today– over 8 hours, touring the grounds of the massive camp network across several square miles, known as Auschwitz and Birkenau. It wasn’t a single place– but a meticulously thought out network of train tracks, administration buildings, infirmaries and barracks, that were designed to house tens of thousands of people at any given time. And there were the death factories, places of mass death known as the gas chambers and crematoria where the bodies were burned.
This was meticulous and systematic German planning and efficiency at its best. Everything down to the last nut and bolt used in the pre-fabricated structures, so that when they were finished, they could be taken apart and relocated elsewhere and used somewhere else in the war effort. These camps were even built strategically next to idyllic streams and rivers so the ashes of the victims could be dumped— used as fish food and easily transported to area farms for fertilizer.
What I thought at the time would be the most difficult part of the visit— rooms filled with human hair— almost 8 tons of HUMAN HAIR, shaved from the heads of hundreds of thousands of incoming prisoners. It’s hard to fathom the magnitude of what 8 tons of human hair means. Hair doesn’t weigh that much. And certainly much of the hair they cut early in the war effort had already been sent away for use in some kind of sick industrial operation. This was almost 16,000 pounds of human hair that was found when the camp was liberated in January 27, 1945. Incidentally, they asked us not to take photos of the hair– out of respect to the victims. I struggled with their admonition and decided on a compromise– I’ll shoot the picture in black and white, out of respect to the people, so no color is present. I will de-personalize the picture a bit. But for the sake of understanding how terrible this place really is, the hair was a must see experience for all of those who might not make it here– and for all of those who refute or deny that the Holocaust happened.
There were also rooms filled with shoes— thousands of pairs of shoes. Brand name shoes, shoes with the soles cut out (the Nazi vultures even searched there for valuables the incoming prisoners may have placed there), and baby shoes. A red pair of shoes caught my attention and focus for quite some time. I thought of the girl in the red dress from Schindler’s List.
And suitcases— endless piles of suitcases marked with the name of the owner and his/her city of departure: Hamburg, Paris, Amsterdam… Preveza, Athens, Volos, Thessaloniki, Corfu.
I also saw bunches and bunches of empty gas canisters— Zyklon B gas that was used to asphyxiate the unsuspecting victims in the massive room below. Someone actually held those canisters, I thought to myself, and dropped each one into a specially fitted air hole above the cavernous gas chamber. Each canister had enough deadly gas to kill 700, 800, 1000 people, depending upon the size of the particular room. And it was all over in 20 minutes. That’s all this gas took to murder 1000 people at a time. More props to German efficiency, I thought.
Another room was filled with medical supplies brought by the thousands of disabled prisoners– crutches, walkers, artificial limbs. These were the first to go– useless in the eyes of the Nazis seeking to build their master Aryan race.
Then things got really bad. Walking into the gas chamber in Auschwitz I you feel an immobilizing sense of panic. Your knees buckle and your lips start quivering. I was standing in a gas chamber where 70 years ago, someone’s mother, someone’s grandmother— was gassed to death. And from an abstract sense of nothingness, you walk to the next adjacent building and see ovens— ovens that look like pizza ovens. Instead, these were made to fit a single human body.
At this point you are emotionless. Completely desensitized. Unable to feel.
The hospital where heinous tests were conducted on innocent women by twisted Nazi doctors and the “wall of death” where thousands faced execution at the whims of Nazis that I saw were child’s play, compared to the experience of walking through a gas chamber and seeing ovens that human bodies were burned in. I mean child’s play.
Today was indeed a strange day. It’s hard to describe the feeling but the best word I can think of when describing my feelings– desensitized. You just can’t feel. You walk around like a zombie, seeing one thing worse than the next, saying to yourself, nothing can be worse than this. But every time, something worse than what you’ve seen only moments before.
And to think, I had only experienced Auschwitz (#1)… After four hours here, the next stop was Auschwitz II-Birkenau, just a kilometer away but still part of this dreaded camp network– the ugliest place on earth.