Miles and Smiles Away: A Somber Visit to the Factory of Death, Auschwitz-Birkenau

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An S.S lookout station situated outside the barbed wire at Auschwitz II, Birkeneau. These posts loomed over the flat camps, calculating, all-seeing. Photo taken May 2018 by Riley Smith.

This week Chelsea and I made it to Krakow, Poland….. barely. I made the rookie travel mistake of booking our sleeper car reservations for the wrong day, so we got seats for the overnight train by the skin of our teeth. I didn’t sleep a wink. After spending the next couple of days sleepily and leisurely exploring Krakow, we made the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

This was the most anticipated part of our Euro-trip.

I don’t have roots leading back to anyone directly impacted by the Holocaust, but as someone who has passionately, fervently, actively studied history for the last 9 years, it was hard for me to believe I was actually seeing Auschwitz, the ‘factory of death,’ in reality.

What really brings it full circle for me is the fact that I saw it with Chelsea. Chelsea and I took grade 10 History together, which would have been the first time either of us were really exposed to the atrocities that happened to the Jewish population post-WWI. We did countless projects together, and that was when my interest in history as a post-high school option really came to life.

Since then, Chelsea and I have spent endless hours the last nine years reading, watching, and discussing books and movies reflective of that time.

As an empathetic person, I’ve also tried for years to wrap my head around the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust, the most calculated inhuman madness in modern history. I’ve read Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler from start to finish, watched documentaries like ‘Hitler’s Circle of Evil,’ and read every fiction and non-fiction book relating to the Holocaust that I could get my hands on (Rob can attest to that – our book shelves at home are absolutely jammed with WWII and Holocaust books).

But visiting the epitome of the Holocaust, where over one million Jews, Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, Soviet POWs, and political prisoners were murdered, will teach you one certain fact – As soon as you try to find the logic and reasoning behind such a tragedy, you are humanizing the actions of Nazi leaders, and there is absolutely not a single thing about the Auschwitz headquarters that is even remotely humane.

No amount of schooling or knowledge could possibly prepare you to understand what Auschwitz really is. That being said, let me try to share my experience.

Chels and I boarded our tour bus from Krakow to the village of Oswiecim, where the concentration camps are located (Oswiecim is the Polish word for Auschwitz, which was the German name given to the region upon Nazi occupation and Germanization of Poland). We were both feeling anxious and unsure of what to fully expect.

Our tour started with Auschwitz I, the first/main camp built as headquarters for the S.S, utilized also to hold, experiment on, and murder prisoners. It is now a museum preserving original artefacts and equipment.

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The entrance to Auschwitz I, the first thing prisoners would see. The sign reads ‘arbeit macht frei,’ which translates to ‘work sets you free.’ Work sets you free because you work until you die of exhaustion. Photo taken May 2018 by Riley Smith.

Here is what stood out to me and shaped my experience. Please keep in mind that what defined my visit is not at all-seeing or all-reflective of the entire tour or experience of others by any means.

  • 15,000 pounds worth of human hair which were to be used for industrial felt and yarn, socks, stockings, and carpets.
  • Perhaps less shocking but equally as heartbreaking – tattered shoes, suitcases, glasses, hairbrushes, tea pots and kitchenware, piled high to the ceiling.
  • Thousands of photos lining the walls- of prisoners, outlining their name, date of deportation, date of death, and what they did prior to the war. The faces of teachers, journalists, bricklayers, farm owners, merchants, waiters, innkeepers, accountants, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, and so many more stared at passersby with empty faces.
  • A photo of the camp orchestra, prisoners who had been musicians in their happier days, who were forced to perform twice a day at roll-call to keep the prisoners moving quicker on beat and easing the headcount process for Nazi officials.
  • A photo of the first arrivals to Auschwitz-Birkenau, who were immediately sentenced to ‘the showers,’ where they would be gassed. What will be forever burned into my memory is the image of Hungarian Jews – women and children, three little boys, probably brothers, holding hands – who were unknowingly walking to their deaths.
  • Block 11, otherwise known as ‘the death wall,’ the prison within the prison. Prisoners feared it, and would avoid walking by it at all costs. Prisoners would be shot in the courtyard. The biggest shooting was in  1942, where 288 people were shot in one day.
  • Standing cells in the barracks, where prisoners had to stand overnight for twenty nights and still work 11 hour days everyday. Most died of exhaustion very quickly.
  • There is a house in Auschwitz, once lived in by Rudolph Hoess, Auschiwtz commandent, and his family, that people actually live in today.
Blocks within the walls of Auschwitz I, surrounded by barbed wire. Photo taken May 2018 by Riley Smith.

But there were also concepts that our guide, Barbara, who explained the tragedy with grace and eloquence, shared with us. The most astounding to me were as follows;

  • Nazis enacted the policy of collective responsibility. If a prisoner from a bunker broke rules or tried to escape, the entire bunker would be punished the same way.
  • Prisoners threw themselves on the electric fence to end their suffering.
  • Dr. Josef Mengele, known as ‘The Angel of Death,’ did twisted and horrific clinical and psychiatric experiments on twins, disabled people, and dwarves. The results were tragic.
  • Polish people saw Canada as vast and wealthy, and so they called the luggage warehouses ‘Canada.’ Prisoners who had jobs there were considered lucky, and were most likely to survive because they could find extra food or clothes before all the goods were sent to the Third Reich.
  • 900 people tried to escape, and 200 were successful. Poles had the best shot at surviving after escaping because they at least knew the language and the region.
  • Prisoners considered the hospital to be entry to the crematorium. “You weren’t going there to get medicine or help,” Barbara told us, “if you were there, you were deemed useless to the Nazis.

Our guide reminded us constantly that we are here because “we have to remember, we have to talk about it.”

I suppose that is part of the reason that I’ve spent the last few days sifting through my thoughts, to share with those of you who have been following along on my journey.

The second portion of the tour explored the second camp, Birkenau, a separate beast in itself. Stay tuned for that piece, within the next couple days, as I couldn’t possibly have crammed it all into one article.

For the intro story to my travels, click here.

For previous stories on Czech concentration camp, Terezin, click here.

For a lighter topic – delicious Czech cuisine – click here.