As I packed up the last of my belongings, my two roommates asked me what my plans were for my day. Once I told them that I was headed to Auschwitz, they began to describe their tour through the camp the day before and, the more they told me, the more excited I became about going. Soon, they let me leave, and I headed downstairs to check out. I was fortunate, and the receptionist let me leave my large backpack in a storage room, rather than taking it though the camp.
I headed to the bus stop that our tour group was supposed to meet at, taking a leisurely route that I hoped would let me pass by a souvenir shop. Sadly there were none, making me wait until later to collect a shot glass from Poland.
The bus arrived, and we climbed in. Along the way, a documentary of the camp played on the bus’ small monitors, and a part of me wondered if this would be a living history tour, something where we’d arrive expecting a basic tour only to be led into a chamber that would fill with a harmless smoke, essentially having everyone experience some of the horrors first hand.
Reaching the camp, we exited the bus and were introduced to our guide, a shorter woman who spoke in surprisingly good English, despite the local accent. We walked into the camp, designated as Auschwitz 1, passing through the iconic gates, over which the words “Work Makes You Free” read in German. And with that, we were inside.
Auschwitz 1 was formerly a Polish barracks before Nazi occupation, and was therefore built to a higher standard than the rest of the camp. Were it not for the dark history of the place, I thought it looked nice, and imagined how it might have looked in the springtime, with the big leafy trees lining the streets and alleys. Then, as if to contrast my thoughts, we were led past one of the execution walls, memorialized with flowers and bullet holes, cementing that this was not a place of pretty buildings, but a place of death.
We were led into one of the barracks, transformed into a museum of “artifacts.” In one room, there was a glassed-in box of human hair. Not a small box, but an entire wall containing easily 1500 cubic feet of hair. Another wall had cloths and even Nazi uniforms made from hair, showing just how thin Germany’s resources were stretched during the war. We were led into another room filled with eyeglasses. Another with pots and pans. Another of brushes and combs. Another filled with suitcases, still marked for identification by their owners. And then there were the shoes. A hallway, nearly 50′ long, was filled on both sides with over 8,000 shoes. Clogs, heels, loafers, sandals, and more that, just like the previous rooms, only represented only a small fraction of the people who suffered there.
We left Auschwitz 1 for Birkenau, the main death camp. With the Allies on the offense, Germany was beginning to realize it had little hope for winning the war and, as Russia drove westward, the Nazis began to hide all traces of the camps. Most of Birkenau was destroyed, leaving mostly a flat field and a few reconstructed barrack/sheds that the inmates would’ve used. I had expected a more somber experience, knowing the history involved, but knowing and seeing are two different things, and there was very little to see.