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A Tour of Auschwitz

“Arbeit Macht Frei” is the message above the gate at the entrance to the camp. Work frees you. We are told how the Jews imprisoned here read that message and felt its bitter irony. They knew they were not going to be freed. Work was just another method of extermination. They worked until they died of exhaustion.
We trudge through the gate, ice crunching beneath our feet, the snow drifting down and speckling the ground, enhancing the desolate atmosphere. Stretching endlessly in front of us are rows of low, brown, narrow buildings. They are stables each originally built to shelter fifty horses, but during World War II, each housed hundreds of Jews. Our guide, a serious young woman speaking in slow, careful English, leads us inside one of the buildings. In temperature, it is scarcely an improvement from the raw, wet chill of the open air. Three-level bunk beds are packed together, from wall to wall. Each “bed” is in reality just a thin wooden board. We are informed that five or six people could sleep on each board, sharing one or two blankets. We shiver as we imagine people huddled in these beds, clinging to warmth as the wind wails and rain and snow get in through a crack in the wall.
We are led to larger, more solid brick buildings. They were military barracks before they became the barracks of prisoners. In one of these buildings, pictures of faces cover the walls, photographs taken by the Nazis of the Jews who arrived at Auschwitz. No matter what the age or sex, each face appears to be that of an old man with a shorn head and lines running deep into his skin, marking his suffering. Beneath every photograph are two dates: the date of the victim’s entering the camp and the date of death. For some, these dates are only a couple of weeks apart.
Those aren’t the only pictures. Displayed are images of children, naked, arms and legs as thin as twigs, ribs sticking out above bloated bellies, eyes bulging unnaturally. Worst of all is the image of a trench in which mangled bodies are heaped like garbage. Crushed bones meld with the dirt, and skin rots in the sun.
Exhibited in another building are piles upon piles of things dusty and forgotten. There is one pile of shoes, one of brushes and combs, one of clothes, one of children’s shoes, one of children’s clothes. There is a corpse of a doll, her porcelain face shattered.
In these mounds are things that Jewish people valued enough to want to carry with them to the end of the world. These, the last remnants of their past lives, were dumped out onto worktables, rummaged through, and appraised. What is exhibited now is what wasn’t taken away and sold by the time the war ended: loot belatedly collected, or things ordinary people didn’t want to buy. We also see several piles of gray wool. Without the guide telling us, we know that it is human hair. The Germans, not wanting to waste a thing, had it woven into fabric for Nazis’ uniforms.
At last, our guide takes us back outside, where it is still snowing, and leads us underground, through narrow stone passages, past tiny, empty rooms, each with only a tiny window casting a beam of gray light. These are the starvation rooms where people were crammed together and forced to stand naked, with no room to move or breathe, until they starved to death.
And finally, we see the gas chambers. There is more stone, more gray, cold emptiness. Just outside the chambers there are hooks where the victims, who thought they were entering a shower, were told to hang their clothes. They were even told to remember the numbers of their hooks, so they could find their own clothes again when they returned.
The solemnity of the gas chambers is disturbed by tourists snapping pictures, while five feet away, a sign shows a camera with a red slash through it. Our guide expresses her anger to us: They have no respect. They don’t understand what this place really is, how many people died here. And she’s right. They don’t understand. No one who lives in a warm, comfortable home and has never been starving, has never been captive to one who beats him and despises him, has never witnessed someone be killed, could possibly understand.
I realize with sadness that I don’t understand, either. When I try to get a sense of the victims’ spirits lingering here, I feel nothing but silence. This tragedy is too distant. Too much time has passed, and the souls of the prisoners have run away, escaped at last. The gas chambers are just dank rooms now.





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goldicecubes said...
Jul. 22, 2010 at 12:14 pm
I love learning about World War II. I read all the stories and nonfictions about the holocaust, it was such a horrible period. Thank you for writing this, I hope to visit the camp one day.
 
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