Spring break, 2009—It is a grey, cloudy sky at Auschwitz. With a group of friends and teachers, the air, cold and wet, is inhospitable to our arrival. We approach an open courtyard outside the gates, the meeting point of the tour, and are greeted by a young Polish woman in a white, puffy overcoat. She allows us a minute to read this sign in the center of the courtyard:
To conceal what was happening in Auschwitz and to reserve further lands for future industrial and agricultural activity, in 1940 the SS declared an area of 40 square kilometers around Auschwitz and Birkenau an Interessengebiet, or special interest zone. Most of the Poles living in the area were expelled in 1940 and 1941. Some of the houses from which the Poles were evicted were assigned to SS personnel and their families…From 1940-1944 the camp authorities set up various farms, factories and workshops in this area, using prisoners as slave labour.
Then, our tour begins. With the guide striding in front, we walk toward the gates of Auschwitz. We can see every building and piece of land is encased with thick, barbed wire. The guide points out the row of buildings with tall chimneys. “The gas chambers,” she says. We quickly move to the entrance and stop at a monstrous iron gate. The guide points to the top; embedded is a quote written in German—Work makes you free. In other words, if a prisoner works diligently without rebellion, they are liberated. This, as we know, is a lie.
We enter the grounds. On both sides, mini-houses, or blocks, line a single, narrow road. Many of these blocks were used as offices, or prison cells. Between each block is a yard—a convenient spot to shoot prisoners one by one. But out of all the landmarks or blocks I see, it is Block 5 that moves me to tears.
With solemn respect, I walk inside the first exhibition room. In a glass case, shoes are piled mountain high across a twenty-foot wall. I walk into other rooms displaying pots, pans, clothing, leather brief cases, glasses, prayer shawls, and prosthetic legs. The build up of my emotion reaches the brink at the sight of seven tons of human hair. Here, the prisoners were forced to shave their heads, and these remains used in the weaving of German uniforms. Everything the Germans could not sell, they recycled. My throat clenches and my saliva turns bitter. I am disgusted. I know World War II happened; I learned about it in school. But at this moment all the pieces click; I am staring history in the face.
At the end, we meet in a hallway lined with thousands of mug shots. Each shot shows a name, a date of arrival, and a date of death. The distance between arrival and death is a few months. The tour guide emphasizes that this display is not a mass of people, but human beings with stories and names. I have to admit the mug shots of men, women, and children are overwhelming, and all I see is a mass of people.
By the end of the tour, everyone is crying. I am angry at God and Man. I finally understand why so many people lose faith in God and mankind. I feel sick and unsafe. I ask my friends; they feel the same. I believe because Auschwitz is a place of evil and unforgivable sin, the grounds will forever represent death. But from this experience, the memory of visiting Auschwitz—what I leave with—will always remain alive.
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