By the time November comes around in school, the band room is buzzing with rumors of what the next band trip will be. Last year, countries like China, Italy, and Spain were coming out of the mouths of every other student holding an instrument. So when the tiny country of Poland was announced to be our next greatest adventure, everyone wanted to know what we would be doing there that was worth paying the $1500 to go. It only took one word to make up my mind: Auschwitz. I had heard that touring Auschwitz, the famous Nazi concentration and extermination camp, was an experience of a lifetime, and I was looking forward to visiting a place that held so much history inside of its gates.
We spent two fun-filled days in Krakow before we visited Auschwitz. The morning of our third day in Poland we had a tour guide accompany us through one of the old Jewish settlements in Krakow. She tried to prepare us for what we might experience in the concentration camp, but I, like everyone else, was eager to finally see Auschwitz. “You do not have a very fun day ahead of you,” I remember her saying, “it will be depressing, but it is something that everyone should experience.” Those words were ringing in my ears the entire bus ride.
Immediately when we arrived, we were separated into groups and sent into the camp to begin our tour. I had only taken a few steps past the gate when a tidal wave of emotion overtook me. Seeing the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work sets you free”) sign was when it finally hit me that I was actually in Auschwitz.
The deserted alleys and crumbling barracks showed signs of the overwhelming sadness the camp carried. The further we got into Auschwitz, the more I appreciated every little bit of freedom I have. Witnessing the conditions that the prisoners were living in was horrifying; I couldn’t believe that someone could treat another human being this way.
They gradually worked us up from sad to angry to horrified. I could see the heavy weight of emotion on all of my friends’ faces. We were being hit with the reality that this really did happen, that people really can be this inhuman. When they brought us into the room that held all of the victims’ shoes, people went two different ways; either they would lean on their friends for emotional support or, like me, they would clamp their mouths shut and try to let all of the complex feelings sink in. The shoes weren’t the worst part for me though, that was the suitcases. There was a mountain of suitcases that Jews had brought into the camp thinking this would be their new home, Jews that have long since died.
Of course one of the worst parts of going through Auschwitz is the gas chambers. You hear stories of the crematoriums and the deadly gas but you really don’t appreciate how horrible it was until you’ve seen it. I’m glad that they saved the gas chamber for last because by the time I escaped the crematorium and exited back into the daylight I had reached my limit of what I could handle. The bus brought us over to Birkenau, a neighboring concentration camp, for a better look at some of the barracks, but by then everyone was checked out of reality and in their own little world. Birkenau was mostly destroyed by the Nazi’s when they had tried to hide the concentration camps so the little of it we saw was outside.
Walking in the crisp, fresh air helped to clear my mind and slowly my classmates and I began to talk out our feelings. There were hugs and tears, but there was also a sense of closure. We all shared a silent understanding that Auschwitz would forever be in our memories, but that it was in the past and the only thing we could do was remember and respect those who had died there.
As horrible as Auschwitz sounds, I recommend the trip to everyone. The Holocaust should never be forgotten and visiting the concentration camp not only brings you closer to those you go with, but it brings you closer to the camp’s history. A trip like this is invaluable and no matter how overwhelming it was, I haven’t regretted going there and I know I never will.
Taylor Hamilton, Victoria, Minnesota won Honorable Mention for this essay.
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