Day 21: Darkness

Our world has seen a lot of darkness. In Poland, we’re reminded of a particularly horrific time in history: World War 2 and The Holocaust.

Although Warsaw is an old city, the buildings are all relatively new. That’s because the majority of the city was destroyed during the second world war

Just outside of Krakow, one of the darkest pieces of our history remains standing, as a reminder of the past.

The entrance to Auschwitz. The sign means “Work Sets You Free”

As much as I dreaded my visit to Auschwitz, I knew I had to go. One of my main goals of traveling is to better understand the world, and you cannot understand Poland, or even Europe, without understanding what happened here from 1939-1945.

Canisters of Zyclon B; used to exterminate millions of innocent people

Today was hard. We saw things that will probably haunt my dreams for some time. We saw children’s shoes, human hair, gas chambers and crematoriums. We saw the faces of so many people that were murdered by racists who hated them simply because they were the wrong religion.

Dave standing in front of a display of children’s shoes. The children who wore these shoes were gassed and burned. This is only a fraction of the shoes that walked into Auschwitz.

But still…. It was important that I go. I can’t say that I now understand the Nazi’s quest to exterminate all Jews from Europe. I also can’t say I can even begin to grasp just how many people died in concentration camps. But there is one thing that I do better understand after visiting Auschwitz.

The Wall where countless people were shot to death in the early days of the camp. This was done before they had found more effective means of killing prisoners.

I understand that the Nazis did everything they could to dehumanize their victims.

They fenced their prisoners in…like cattle.

They took away their prisoners’ identities. They shaved their heads. They took away all their belongings. They separated families and isolated people. Then, they removed every trace of their prisoners’ existence when they were no longer useful to the Nazi plan.

The crematorium in Auschwitz Camp 1. This one could cremate about 350 bodies a day. In Auschwitz Birkenau (Camp2), they had 4 crematoriums to deal with more than 1 million murders that happened there.

Everything in Auschwitz was industrialized. The way prisoners were fed, killed, cleaned, murdered and burned was all done in such a way that there was no humanity in it. The prisoners who were strong enough to work wasted away with starvation so that they were hardly even recognizable as people.

There was no such thing as privacy in the camps. This is where prisoners used the toilet.

In some ways, Auschwitz was easier for me to handle than The Killing Fields of Cambodia. In Cambodia, you had to be careful not to step on the bones of victims. The Nazis aim was to erase all traces of their crimes through cremation.

If they hadn’t been such diligent with their paperwork, there would be no record of these people’s deaths at all. There are rows and rows of these inmate intake pictures from the early days of the camp. Each has a name, a country of origin, a birth date and a death date. Some also include occupation.

Now, Auschwitz has gone from a death camp to a museum, where people go to learn from the past. Of course, a big part of that is done by giving the victims back their identities. All throughout our 4 hours at the camps, we were reminded again and again of the very thing that the Nazis worked hard to make people forget: These prisoners were human beings. Not vermin to be eliminated with pesticides. Not criminals with no right to life. PEOPLE, with families, plans and dreams.

This display shows hundreds of photos of victims before the war began. They are seen with their friends and family, celebrating holidays and enjoying life. They all had hopes and plans for their future.

Auschwitz serves as a reminder of the danger there is in dehumanizing people based on their race, religion or culture. Nazis weren’t a generation of people who were simply born “bad”. They simply lived in a time where they were manipulated into believing that Jews were not equally human and therefore did not have an equal right to life.

Although many Nazis fled and never saw justice for their crimes, the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss was hanged right in Auschwitz, in 1947. The platform where his sentence was carried out is still there now.

As the Holocaust becomes a more distant part of our past, the importance of Auschwitz increases. At the entrance of the camp, we are reminded:

You are reminded why you are there within your first few minutes at Camp 1

A few more pictures from today:

A demolished crematorium in Camp 2. The Nazis destroyed it shortly before the liberation of Auschwitz, to try and hide their crimes
3 photos taken secretly while the camp was still operational. The first was of women being chased into the gas chambers. The second and third were of Nazi’s burning bodies near a fence. You can see that same fence behind the pictures. It was an eerie display
Guard towers are found all around the camp
A sanitizer for when lice became too big of a problem. Prisoners were forced to wait, naked and freezing, while their uniforms were cleaned. They also had to take disinfecting showers.
The room where prisoners waited for their sanitized clothes to be returned to them. They often waited hours
One of the gas chambers. I couldn’t bring myself to stay in there any longer than I had to. My photo is slightly blurry because I didn’t stop to take it. I just kept walking into the next room, which brought new horrors…
Another shot of the crematorium in Camp 1
Prosthetic limbs left behind by people who were gassed upon arrival. People with handicaps were not able to work, and therefore were not worthy of life
This is a tangled mass of glasses left behind by victims who no longer needed them
Ashes of victims
One of the many blocks in Camp 1

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