May 31, 2010
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“Arbeit Macht Frei.” Those were the words that were inscribed over the gate of Auschwitz. These words that literally mean “work makes you free” were meant to instill a false hope in the thousands of people that would walk through the gates of the concentration camp. They would hope that working hard would liberate them, but the only form of freedom they could receive would be through death.
I have walked through these gates and trodden over the same land that these people walked over. I have seen the gas chambers and crematoriums, which in their prime days, instilled fear and a sense of hopelessness in all the people who wondered if they would be placed in them next. I have spent a day in a place that was meant to show no mercy and made its prisoners believe that hell existed on earth. It has been years since the camp was liberated and the countless numbers of dead bodies removed. Yet if you listen closely, you can feel the whispers of those who were here, longing to tell their story.
June 23rd, 2008. It was a hot summer day and I was on a bus with my mom. I had my headphones plugged into my ears and rock music was blasting through them. I looked over at the lowered window and wondered how there could possibly be no wind coming in through it. After all, we were in a bus that was going fairly fast, shouldn’t that cause a slight breeze to roll in? Groaning, I looked over at my mom, who seemed to be coping with the high temperature just fine. Looking up from her book, she noticed me staring at her.
“We’re almost there.” Her face lit up with a smile. She noticed my discomfort, but she chose not to say anything. Within seconds her eyes were glued back to her book and scanning fervently over the page.
I was kind of glad she didn’t mention the heat. You know how there are moments when it’s 90 degrees out and even though you’re hot and sweaty, you’re doing fairly well? That is, until someone mentions the heat, and then that makes it ten times worse? Yeah, it was one of those days. Looking back out the window I wondered how I would survive walking around for hours in this weather. But then again, it wasn’t my place to complain; it had been my idea to come here. It had taken some persuasion on my part to convince my mom to find a day in the tightly packed schedule she had set for herself for the month we were in Poland, but I had triumphed.
“We’re almost at Auschwitz. If you want to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau, there’s a bus that leaves every half hour and drives over there.” The driver’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker.
I shot up in my seat and pressed my face against the glass to see where we were heading. From what my mom had told me, Auschwitz was the “friendlier” part of the two camps. This camp had been set up so that the tourist could view the many artifacts and documents from the time when the camps were running. Auschwitz-Birkenau had been left untouched; there was less to see there but you could get more of the sense of what a concentration camp looked like.
The bus rolled along to a stop and people began filing out. Grabbing the duffel bag that was next to my seat, I pulled my camera out and then swung it and its contents over my shoulder. Stepping into the aisle, I began walking forward, with my mom close behind me. A light breeze hit my face the moment I stepped out of the bus and the feeling of suffocation that I had felt inside was gone. I looked around me and saw the gates of the camp looming ahead.
“I put two water bottles in your bag in case you’re thirsty.”
My eyes wandered over to my mom, who had just spoken to me. As I saw her take a sip from her bottle and watched a single droplet escape her lips and roll down her neck, my lips instantly grew moist. The urge to reach into my bag and produce my own water bottle was strong, but seeing as it was only 10:30 in the morning, I knew that wouldn’t be a good idea; I was sure to be thirstier later.
“No, I’m fine. We gonna go?” Standing here motionless by the bus stop was making me anxious. I’m a very impatient person, and if you ask me to wait I get annoyed. I’m sure my mom is aware of the fact, yet sometimes I wonder if she doesn’t play with my emotions and make me more frustrated on purpose. Many times when we go somewhere, before we actually start doing anything, she claims that she needs to use the bathroom or make a call and god knows what else. Now she was standing under the shade of a tree, looking down at the map she held in her hands. I grimaced. I hate maps, with a passion. Okay, I do agree that when you’re in some city you’ve never been in and want to see a map of the bus or train transportation, that’s understandable. But when you go to an amusement park or a museum or something of that sort, how difficult is it to walk around and look at stuff? Do you really need a map to tell you that three feet ahead of you there will be a skeletal display of a dinosaur?

“Alright, let’s go,” my mom bade, the map now folded and put away into a pocket of her backpack. Gladly obeying, I stepped out from the shade of the tree into the sun. Instantly I felt my eyes narrowing as the sun’s bright beams hit my face.

A couple stood by the gate, taking a picture of it. I followed their example and snapped a shot of the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. I was finally here, about to visit one of the most well-known death camps from the Holocaust. A mix of wonder, excitement, and fear gripped at me. Taking a few steps forward, I entered a place that was entirely different from the world I inhabited.
Aside from the many pictures and tablets of stone, with information about the camp on them, one of the first things I noticed was the silence. There were many people walking around, but none of them seemed to be talking, and if they did, their words were no louder than a whisper. Something about the place made words seem out of place. Thinking back to a book I had read about the Holocaust, I recalled the author’s description of his arrival at the camp. He had described a dark night that was filled with smoke, fire, and people screaming. Many times he would hear people screaming as they were being gassed alive. Now, there was nothing but silence.

Barbed wire surrounded the sides of the camp. While touching it now would do no more than slightly scratch your finger, back then, touching the wire was deadly. Then, people who could no longer bear life in the camps would throw themselves on the wire to ensure their death. Cringing, I looked away.

My mother stepped through the doorway of one of the barracks, and I followed her. Inside, the flow of life regained its natural course. Voices of tour guides and people talking to one another hit my eardrums, and I saw people sneaking a picture though signs everywhere clearly forbade such a notion. I myself wanted to take some pictures, and taking out my camera, I switched the settings to “no flash,” feeling that would be a fair compromise.

My Mom and I went through many barracks that day. Some of them held old documents of SS men and long lists of prisoners from the camp while others displayed pictures and paintings of what the people at the camps had gone through. Others allowed one to see the standing cells prisoners would be placed into hours at a time as a means of punishment, along with the wall to which runaways would be led to and shot. One barrack in particular stood out. It contained remnants of the prisoner’s belongings: piles of suitcases, pots and pans, hair, and shoes lay heaped upon one another, protected behind a thick pane of glass. Each wall must have contained thousands of such items, and yet they were only a minute portion of what the Nazis had stocked away.

One of the last things I visited at Auschwitz was an old crematorium. As I walked inside, the walls instantly caught my attention. They were a murky gray, with sections either a dirty white color or a greasy black. Bringing my hand to the wall closest to me, I touched it. An oily feeling met my fingers, along with what felt like layers of soot. Looking over at the tar-covered ovens that lay in the middle of the room, I pictured smoke coming out from them and hitting the walls. Maybe that’s what my hands felt they were touching, layers of smoke encrusted into the cement.

It was nearly after 4:00 when we took a bus over to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Even from far away, the camp looked far more menacing than the one I had just left. Train tracks extended a good ten feet from the camps entrance. The tracks were now overgrown with grass and weeds, but once they had been tracks that lead people to their death. As I walked on them through the gates of the camp, I realized that most people doing what I did would never come back out.

A giant field extended on both sides of the camp, filled with small, brick ovens. As I saw the countless number of them, set in neat rows and columns, my eyes bulged. These ovens were always burning with bodies, weren’t they? So if the hundred (if not more) that were here were always burning with corpses, then the amount of people here that died each day… I discontinued my reflection, as I realized that my mind was incapable of finishing that thought.

My mom had told me that the barracks here were quite different than at Auschwitz; she was right. In Auschwitz small wooden houses had contained them; here the buildings were old, rugged barns. As I stepped inside one of them, I froze in shock. Looking around, I saw the cement floor with pieces of stone jutting out, easily capable of cutting open someone’s bare foot. A wooden ladder was leaning against each set of barracks, allowing those who slept in one on the top or middle an easier way of reaching it. While the thick shelf of wood that the prisoners in these two levels had to sleep on looked quite uncomfortable, it must have been a luxury compared to the bottom level: bits of gravel and dust lay on the stone floor. Kneeling down and pressing my hand to the ground, I could feel goosebumps forming on my arm. I could not even imagine what sleeping on it during the cold months of winter would have been like. A foul stench lined the inside of the barn, and I sniffed the air, trying to recognize it. As my nose did its job, the thought of all the people who must have died in this barrack hit me and I stopped sniffing. It was highly unlikely that the stench was of dead bodies, as it had been years since there were any prisoners in here, but the mere thought of their corpses lying in here, rotting away, made me cover my nose with my hand and walk out of the building in disgust.

The walk through the concentration camp offered no shade, but the hot sun did not bother me as much as I thought it would. While sweat was coating my face, I did not bother to wipe it off. There was just so much to see, and everything I did see sent chills down my spine and made me wonder how the world could be filled with people who did such horrible things to others. I hardly said a word during the hours I was there. It was only after reading a carving in the stone beneath a huge monument that I let a sound escape my lips. The carving read: “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.” After reading those words, I cried. I cried for all the people who died unfairly in those camps and had their bodies reduced to ashes. I cried for the many others who had survived the camps but had to live with the haunting memories of the experience for the rest of their lifetime. I cried for the countless people of this world who do not believe that the Holocaust really happened. And I cried for myself- for the many times I had complained about not having enough money, or not having a car when all my friends did. I just sat there and cried.

The bus ride home had an entirely different atmosphere about it. The rock music and heat that had accompanied me on the way to Auschwitz were gone and replaced by silence. I sat with my head pressed against the window and blankly stared through it. Everything I passed--the beautiful open pastures and small cities with cute brick houses--registered in my mind, but nothing captured my attention. All I was able to think about was all that I had seen that day. I knew now what people meant when they said that hearing wasn’t the same as seeing. All the lectures I had heard in school about the Holocaust did not come close to the emotions that had been running within me when I was walking through the fields of the concentration camp.

I looked down at my camera and started skimming through the pictures I had taken. With each image another anguish of despair hit me. The people in the camps truly had nothing, yet many of them still had hope for a better future. The fact that they were able to hope, while I complained over silly things and made a big deal out of them, showed just how unappreciative I was.
That day, on that bus, I vowed to change. Paying attention to the little details in my life that I may have overlooked before can lead me to becoming a happier person. Smiling is contagious, and just one smile may lead to an epidemic.
The sun began to set and the earth became basked in a golden light that drew dimmer with each second. As I closed my eyes and let the sun’s warm glow hit my skin, I felt a smile stretch across my face. I don’t know what I was happy about, but smiling then just felt right.

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