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Touring Birkenau MAG
I never used to finish the food on my plate, and I always wanted new clothes. But one visit, one place, and one tour changed that. Now every time I think about that trip, I finish my food gratefully. I rarely ask for new clothes, and most importantly, I appreciate everything I have. Visiting the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland changed everything.
The sun hit my face as I walked out of the building where tickets were sold for the tour. I shielded my eyes from the bright afternoon sunlight and turned to find my cousin, mom, and grandfather.
The tour guide smiled at us and adjusted the microphone clipped to her baby blue blouse.
“All right, everyone!” She clapped her hands once to stop the quiet rumble of chit-chat. “Please put on your headphones so we can begin.” She had a heavy Polish accent, but her English was good.
I glanced at my mom and saw that she was rocking on her heels nervously. She had almost canceled the trip because she feared the subject was too harsh. I remember feeling that this was irrational. Now I, too, felt nervous about what was coming.
Up ahead was a sign that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes Freedom). The tour guide explained that the Nazis thought this would motivate prisoners to work harder in order to gain the freedom they would never get.
Further down, I saw rows and rows of plain brown brick buildings. As the guide spoke, I felt like I had gone back in time. I imagined we were prisoners in blue and white striped, tattered uniforms trudging back from work in the Nazi factories, the hot sun following us to our sleeping quarters. I imagined those of us too weak to work being sent to the gas chambers.
As we walked, I noticed how eerie and quiet everything was. There were no birds chirping or other signs of life. I could only hear the soft hush of the wind and the quiet rustle of the trees. It almost sounded like the trees were whispering secrets – secrets of the prisoners, secrets of the guards, secrets of children, secrets of the Holocaust.
“We have now reached the living quarters,” the tour guide said in a soft, solemn voice. She seemed to have noticed the quiet too.
The tour guide motioned for us to follow her and we climbed up the worn steps of Block 26. The first thing I noticed was how cramped it was. There was a hallway and open doorways all leading to one room. The room was now filled with maps and pictures. We were in one of the two largest concentration camps, which connected to the largest – Auschwitz.
The next block was all about struggle. I was horrified to learn that children who could not work were either gassed or experimented on by doctors and scientists. In one room there was a big black and white photograph of a girl who looked 13. Her head was bald and her eyes were large and scared. She looked like a skeleton with only a thin layer of skin and dark bags under her glassy eyes. It was horrifying. I felt this terrible feeling inside me that made me wonder why I’d ever left vegetables on my plate when this girl only had a stale piece of bread every day. It was traumatizing.
“Now, please turn off your cell phones and cameras. We are about to see actual items belonging to the deceased. Please respect them,” our guide said as we approached Block 28.
When we walked in, I was stunned. There was a room full of glass cases. One was filled with a 10-foot pile of wire eyeglasses. Another was stacked with prisoners’ shoes. The next contained combs. I could see every group member’s face turn from curiosity to shock. Their eyebrows raised and mouths formed O’s.
The tour guide motioned for us to go upstairs. This time there were just three glass containers. I approached the first. Here’s the thing … it was filled with hair of all different colors – brown, blond, some gray – some still in braids. I felt like I had a rock in my stomach. This was prisoners’ hair. It had been cut and collected to be made into fabric for people in Germany. It was a cheap, easy way to make fabric – using people’s hair.
The next container held pots and pans. Some were red, some blue, and one looked like it was made as a present from a child to his mother.
The third case was the worst. It was filled with children’s belongings. There were dolls, toy cars, horses, toy animals, a doll house. Many children had brought toys, thinking they were moving to a new home. Most of the toys were taken from them and sold in Germany.
That’s when a girl of 15 started to sob. Tears streaked down her cheeks, and I knew exactly how she felt. Yet I was beyond crying. I was speechless.
“When you are done, please meet me outside,” the guide whispered. I looked at a rag doll slouched in a corner. As silly as it sounds, she seemed lonely and sad. Her stitched smile drooped. Her black button eyes were dull. She looked like she was missing her owner, the one who used to hold her each night. I tasted salt on my upper lip and felt the tickle of a tear sliding down my cheek. Quietly crying, I bid the lonely doll a silent farewell. Outside all we could hear was the whoosh of the wind and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet.
My tour of the concentration camp taught me so much. Mainly that I should be extremely grateful for what I have. I don’t think I could have lasted a week at Birkenau. But the people who survived, or tried their best, had something that I probably will never fully understand. Hope.