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.
Just outside of Krakow, one of the darkest pieces of our history remains standing, as a reminder of the past.
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.
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.
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.
I understand that the Nazis did everything they could to dehumanize their victims.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: