November 2nd, 2012

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our visit to Auschwitz.

I have something to admit, readers. For the last week I’ve been avoiding writing this blog, because I wasn’t sure if I could process it. Even as I type I’m still not sure exactly what I’m going to say, so I’m just going to start talking and see what comes out.

Let me start off by saying that the reason I decided to go on the Poland trip was because we would be seeing Auschwitz. The topic of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular, has always been an “interesting” topic to me (I hesitate to use the word interesting but I can’t come up with a better one). Especially in the last few years I’ve found myself reading, watching, and learning more about the horrors that took place in the camp. So when I learned that the Poland trip would be going to see it I knew that I had to be a part of it.

The topic of Auschwitz, however, became a huge part of the trip even before we left Warsaw. After we were already in Poland we were told that an incredible opportunity had come up. One of the alumni leading our trip, Jim, had set up a meeting with an Auschwitz survivor for us for the following afternoon. We would get to hear his story, ask him questions, and hear about his life now. This, we could already tell, was going to be an incredible and eye-opening experience.

The next day we met up in a conference room of the Westin Hotel. We all eagerly awaited his arrival, not sure exactly what to expect. The first thing we noticed when George came in was how incredibly happy he looked. He couldn’t stop smiling as he took his seat in the front of the room while we all leaned forward ready to hear his story.

George went through his entire life, from before the war, to life in Auschwitz, to the foundation he set up after the war. He was speaking about such hardships, and yet you could hear the passion and love for life he had with every word. It was so inspiring to see that he, who had been through so much and so many unimaginable events, was able to still have a spark and love for everything he did. Speaking with him was one of those experiences that I know I’ll never forget.

The group with George

I think that hearing George’s story made walking through the gates of Auschwitz the following Wednesday that much more real. The town of Oświęcim is a quiet town that at first glance you would never know housed one of the largest and more infamous death camps of WWII. But when you walk up and see the sign “Auschwitz” the feeling of quiet and calmness turns into a stomach quenching feeling. It’s hard to describe what emotions I felt walking into Auschwitz. I’ve read so much about it, see so many documentaries, but nothing prepared me for actually being there.

The first thing you see when walking into the camp is the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Makes You Free” sign. It was then when I became overwhelmed with emotions. How many people have walked under this sign that didn’t live to see the end of the war? How many Jews, Catholics, Poles, POWs were walked under this sign and forced to labor till their deaths? The feeling of standing where they all stood was….indescribable. It’s been over a week now and I’m still unable to put into words how that felt.

Our guide took us through the different parts of the camp, showing us part that had been preserved along with massive displays set up that showed some of the items that people brought with them in their luggage before all their possessions were ripped away. We saw rooms full of shoes, pots, and suitcases, most of which still had the name of the person written in big white letters on it. The most disturbing display, however, was the room full of hair, cut off of women when they entered the camp. It was one of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen. Knowing that they were stripped with nothing, not even their hair, made the place so much more haunting than I had imagined it would be.

That feeling only grew, however, as our guide told us that he was taking us to see a gas chamber. I was shocked that one was still in existence, as I was under the impression that they had all been destroyed before the camp was liberated, but our guide told us that this was one of the original ones, and that not only would we be seeing it but we would also be walking through it. I felt terrified as we entered, knowing how many innocent people had been murdered in the spot we were standing. I remember clutching my rosary in my purse, trying to calm myself down from how overwhelming it was to be in there. Even now thinking about it I feel sick to my stomach.

From Auschwitz we took a shuttle to Birkenau, the larger camp that you see when talking about Auschwitz (technically both places are together under the name Auschwitz-Birkenau). Most of this camp was destroyed by the Nazis before it was liberated, but you can still see the chimneys of the buildings, some of the structures, and the railroad tracks that the trains would come into the camp on. This was without a doubt the most moving part of our visit. Our guide told us to come forward and stand behind a line on the ground, next to the tracks. He told us that this was where people were judged, within seconds, if they should live or immediately be sent off to the gas chambers. Around the spot were real pictures, taken by the Nazis, that showed people standing where we were and having their fate decided. Chilling doesn’t even describe it.

One of the train cars that would bring people to the camp

Auschwitz, for all its horrors, I think is a place that everyone needs to see in their lifetime. It’s a place that moves us, teaches us, and shows us why we must never forget what humans are capable of but, more importantly, what humans are capable of overcoming.

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